I notice my friend Dan Peterson has a new article in the Deseret News:
I should say I have no interest in bashing Dr. Peterson, and I hope people here can talk about substantive issues rather than personalities. For the record, I like Dan Peterson and have for a long time. I understand why he rubs people the wrong way, and I’ll admit sometimes he rubs me the wrong way. But then I rub a lot of people the wrong way (just ask some of my stalkers–err, regular commenters). And I don’t expect a response from Dan, who has said he doesn’t “care for” the environment of my blog, by which I suspect he means my liberal (read: almost nonexistent) comment moderation policies.
Just a few things from his article caught my attention. First, he says, “I’m often confronted with the demand that I prove the Book of Mormon true.” Maybe he does get such demands, but most people I know, myself included, aren’t looking for proof, just reasonable, solid evidence. When someone claims they can create jet fuel by mixing Kool-Aid and Pop-Rocks, that demands proof. When someone says that there is a book that is a record of ancient Hebrews who migrated to the Americas, that demands evidence, not proof. Those who would demand proof of the Book of Mormon are never going to find it, just as believers will never find proof that it is not an ancient record. What we will find is evidence, for or against its authenticity. Around the middle of the 20th century, a number of Mormons made a concerted effort to find the Book of Mormon in the archaeological record. Needless to say, they failed, with at least one of them seeing his faith collapse in the aftermath.
Dr. Peterson continues:
We don’t expect coercive proof of the kind found in mathematics (and virtually only in mathematics). We’re not counting on decisive, secular, public evidence to demonstrate Mormonism true “beyond reasonable doubt.” Probably by divine design, such evidence isn’t available to us. Instead, we’re here for testing in what specialists call “decision making under uncertainty.” Confident conviction, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach, comes through a personal, individual witness from the Spirit, not by sifting through academic arguments.
But this isn’t to say that no public case can be made, or that no secular evidence exists. And it’s certainly not to say that believers must forsake reason in order to have faith.
Dr. Peterson and others have referred on occasion to an “evidentiary stalemate,” meaning that there is sufficient evidence to support the Book of Mormon’s claims to antiquity, and equal evidence to the contrary. Thus, as he says, readers must engage in “decision making under uncertainty,” which is an ideal place from which to exercise faith and seek answers from God.
The apologetic effort, then, isn’t to provide “a handy cluster of arguments exists, let alone a single all-powerful world-conquering proof, that would compel unbelieving scholars to convert if only they paid sufficient attention.”
Rather, what we’ve sought to do over decades (with, in my admittedly biased opinion, considerable success) is to advocate and defend the claims of the Restoration by means of the patient, painstaking accumulation of often fairly small and specific arguments.
I could argue with his claims of “considerable success,” but then that’s in the eye of the beholder. But the point is that, when it became clear that–to steal a phrase–the Book of Mormon wasn’t to be found in Mesoamerica, the focus changed to finding Mesoamerica within the pages of the Book of Mormon. In other words, Mormon apologists (for want of a better word) began looking for ways that the content of the Book of Mormon fits in with what we know of ancient Mesoamerica. A lot of people have done some interesting work, from Jack Welch’s work with chiasmus to my friend Brant Brant Gardner’s six-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon to John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.
Where the debate lies, in my opinion, is what all that effort has produced. Again from Dr. Peterson:
Taken individually, many such arguments and observations may seem insignificant. It’s only when they’re seen to be meaningful parts of a larger picture that, we hope, they’ll be recognized as important indicators and clues.
A comparison might help: Consider a painting. Just about any painting will serve the purpose here, but 19th-century French “pointillism” provides perhaps the most obvious illustrations, and Georges Seurat’s 1886-1888 “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” offers an exceptionally good example. If you examine it up close, you’ll see only meaningless daubs of colored paint. Only when you step back and see the pattern formed by hundreds and hundreds of such applications of color can you begin to understand what the overall painting is about.
This is as good an explanation of current apologetic approaches as I’ve heard, but there’s a fundamental problem. The work focuses on the tiny points and “daubs” of possible correlation. Once you “step back and see the pattern,” you see that the big picture doesn’t match at all. To extend Dan’s analogy a little, when you look very closely at a photo or painting reproduced in a newspaper, you see that it is actually made of up tiny dots of varying shades and intensities. Seen up close, it’s difficult to distinguish between Seurat’s “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” and, say, a panel from Calvin and Hobbes. A careful study of the two would reveal common colors, placement of dots, and so on, but the big picture doesn’t match. But you would never know it as long as you focused only on the small “points of convergence,” as John Clark has called them.
That’s the problem with Mormon apologetics. Much as I appreciate and admire the work Brant Gardner has done to compile all the “Mesoamericanisms” he finds in the Book of Mormon, it still doesn’t add up to a civilization of transplanted Hebrews in the Americas; indeed, the civilizations that existed before and after the time the Nephites were supposed to lived show no appreciable change in culture or technology resulting from any interaction with proto-Christian Israelites. As anthropologist Michael Coe put it:
To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.
So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it — to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this — but there’s no actors. That’s the problem.
I’ve written before that a close examination of the small points and details does add up to a clear big picture: the Book of Mormon is pretty much what you would expect from an early 19th-century American myth about the origins of the Native Americans, the mound builders, in particular. Very few scholars have spent a lot of time explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon in mound-builder mythology, but that’s because most historians familiar with the early 1800s find the connections so clear as to be obvious. Mormon history scholar Dan Vogel has spelled it out pretty clearly in his book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, which is fortunately available at no cost on the Internet.
Dan lists what he considers to be “impressive” cumulative evidence of the Book of Mormon, but for me, none of it is remotely as compelling as the evidence of its nineteenth-century origins.