Under Intellectual Condemnation

Let me begin by saying that I not only believe in the historicity of The Book of Mormon, I feel a deep and passionate commitment to our narrative. But this is a point on which I think Mormon historicitists, believers in a divine or human fiction, or any other type of good Mormon ought to be able to agree: The Book of Mormon is rich far beyond our nascent attempts to uncover. I think it very fitting that it came to us on golden plates. If this is so, why is it that for most of our history—and perhaps still today—we have remained “under condemnation” for treating it lightly?

There are obviously a lot of ways that we can treat it lightly. The one I want to focus on here is how we—as a people—have treated the Book lightly on an intellectual level.

One of the formative experiences of my mission, one that has motivated much of my educational experience, was the opportunity to spend a few evenings in discussion with Stanley Kimball who was then teaching at Southern Illinois University. A well-known historian of pioneer trails among other things, he had a deeper knowledge of church history than anyone I’d ever met – he was also wonderfully candid and witty. Before dinner one night, as I covetously reviewed his library, he confessed that it had always been important to him to give mind service to the Kingdom. I asked him to elaborate, and he told me that while the Lord had commanded us to serve him with all our heart, might, mind and strength, we usually left our minds out of it. Mind service was an area he had dedicated his life to.

I’m convinced that The Book of Mormon could use a lot more mind service. I see wonderful beginnings – from the gems of Hugh Nibley to the work of Terryl Givens and Grant Hardy to Jack Welch and Dan Peterson to Royal Skousen and Jim Faulconer (obviously we could list more). I think that we have promising scholars and promising projects. Nevertheless, while I’m no prophet, my own assessment is that we certainly wouldn’t clear ourselves of condemnation for our failure to take our Book seriously (speaking of the church collectively and not individually). As many have noted, we too are people of a Book, and are accountable, so our Book tells us, for what we do with it. I don’t mean this as a call to apologetics, but a call to rigorous exploration of our constitutive book on a serious, intellectual level.

I want to claim that our failure of mind service is largely a cultural phenomenon. But I’m very interested to know what others think. I’ll first list a number of reasons that I think have or currently do keep us from approaching the Book of Mormon with intellectual rigor, and then discuss reasons why I think we should, why I think we have an obligation to do so. These ideas obviously aren’t all mine, we hear them bandied about occasionally, but I hope it’s useful to try and consider them all together.

1.    The debate over historicity has distracted us, consuming a great deal of our intellectual efforts. Attempts to discredit the Book’s origins have been dogged. Defending the origins, bearing intellectual testimony of the origins to a world that has had a hard time taking even the documented, historical facts seriously on account of our fantastical claims, has been far more important to us as a people than trying to uncover the complexity of the content and make it accessible and relevant. What’s more, the outside world has been far more willing to engage in polemics over the historicity than it has to give more than a cursory glance at the content – “chloroform in print.” Thus, while we have a great deal of external motivation to focus on the historicity, we have little to no external motivation to focus on content.

This is complicated by our own intellectual fissioning into orthodox and heterodox believers concerning the Book’s origins. Internally, we’re coming to grips with whether we need to accept Joseph’s narrative literally and how to respond to those in our ranks who don’t. Different positions seem to proliferate, further distracting us from the content.

2.    Related to this is what Terryl Givens calls the “oracular” function that the Book has played in our history (as opposed to a “textual” one). Many historians note the symbolic and sacred importance of the Book itself. Its existence has served as a witness to God’s work and presence in the Latter Days, a talisman testifying to the veracity of Joseph’s claims and the truth of the Restoration. Even today our missionary message – just as often preached to members as non-members – is to read the Book, not primarily for content but to determine or reconfirm its veracity, which constitutes proof of Joseph Smith as a prophet, which constitutes proof of Thomas S. Monson as a prophet. And we’ve all heard the tales from our parents and grandparents (or ourselves) concerning how little the Book was read or studied even a short time ago. We’re all familiar with President Benson’s candid statements concerning our continued condemnation and the subsequent major push from church authorities to make reading the Book regularly a standard part of church culture. I think it fair to say that without regular reading and common familiarity with the text as a people, there’s little internal motivation or support for intellectual exploration.

3.    There seems to be a serious hazard to intellectual exploration of a sacred text – our sacred experience with the text too often seeps away as we approach it from a secular angle. I think it is analogous to one’s inability to type smoothly while thinking about the keys and the movement of one’s fingers.

We’re simply doing something different in academic religious studies than what we do in Sunday School, seminary, or personally “spiritual” scripture study—analyzing the text and how it’s taken up as opposed to seeking divine and personal meanings. Religious studies attempts to be a rigorous socio-cultural and literary examination, and as such it inevitably pulls up the weaknesses, frailties, abnormalities, and anomalies of the text—as well as the mortal nature of its authors. We’re much more open to hearing about the frailties, biases, and cultural-conceptual limitations of Josephus than Joseph, the misleading military lens of ancient Greek historians than that of Mormon and Moroni. We’re often uncomfortable with the way scholars hack the Bible apart and splice it back together again. This discomfort is exacerbated with the thought of scholars taking the same surgical approach to the Book of Mormon (again, this can be seen or perhaps anticipated in our internal debates over its historicity). We already apologize away the contrasting Christologies in The Book of Mormon, the incongruent doctrines espoused by different prophets, different ethical codes and cultural values in different times and amongst different groups. We’re uncomfortable with and often try to ignore the significant religious differences between dispensations; this is multiplied when scholars (sometimes irreverently) point out significant differences within a dispensation, which can be revealed by scriptures like The Book of Mormon. Examining the mortal nature of holy scripture can get in the way of its sacred and religious function in the same way that focusing on the humanity of our contemporary prophets sometimes gets in people’s way of taking them as prophets. While many of us think the opposite ought to be the case, we can’t deny the prevalence of such discomfort in our culture.

4.    All of this has helped contribute to a general mistrust of religious studies in the church. I strongly suspect that ideological opposition to religious studies (and intellectual approaches to Mormonism more broadly) flourish among no more than bare majority, perhaps even a minority. But I think it would be silly to deny that intellectual skepticism is alive and well in our ranks and plays a large normative roll in our discussions. This is particularly true when it comes to religious studies. Most Mormons I know aren’t at all familiar with the particulars of religious studies, but find themselves with a strong bias against it; a sneaking suspicion that it is practiced largely by those who want to discredit religion (support for this bias is occasionally drawn – illegitimately I think – from General Conference talks). Again, I think it would be silly to deny that there are those in religious studies who have just this sort of agenda (Bart Ehrman, former evangelical and well-known professor at UNC is rather open about the joy he derives in exploding the naïve assumptions of his evangelical students). Our default position, I think, is to mistrust and largely ignore the world of religious studies.

BYU’s religion department is a good place to see this discomfort and skepticism in action. The department has at times been a battlefield between those who take religious studies as a serious and legitimate discipline, some of whom have dedicated their lives to it, and those who find this approach to the scriptures wholly illegitimate. Those opposed to religious studies seem to consistently win the battles (BYU’s Department of Religion continues to look and act dramatically different than most university religion departments, more like a CES Institute). But they likewise consistently fail to eradicate academic approaches and classes within the department or the steady demand for such classes from the student body. Any of us who have taken classes in the JSB are familiar with the epithets of “intellectual” and “fluff” that get pinned on certain professors.

Now as to why I think we ought to engage in the broad spectrum of intellectual approaches to the Book of Mormon:

1.    First and foremost, I’m claiming that we need to get out from under the condemnation declared by prophets at the beginning of this dispensation and repeated in our time. One of our strong tendencies in Mormonism is to abolish pernicious binaries: faith vs. works, temporal vs. spiritual, transcendence vs. immanence, etc. We certainly need to abolish any idea that taking the Book of Mormon seriously means merely giving it a “spiritual” read, proof-texting it, treating it merely as a book of moral stories (or coming to know nothing more of it than its stories), or the like. Surely our condemnation is more holistic, and consequently so should be our approach. (Note that while my focus here is on our failure to take The Book of Mormon seriously on an intellectual level, the same could clearly be said of our approach to other scripture, particularly the Bible. It is perhaps an understatement to say that the Bible aids the church produced in the early 1980s were selected ala carte from the vast resources of Biblical scholarship available; and there has been no attempt to update, despite significant developments in Biblical scholarship in the last three decades.)

I do not think that we need every member an intellectual. What we need is a culture that is broadly conducive to, supportive of, even seeking after rigorous, unflinching, intellectual approaches. This requires a membership actively engaged with and supportive of the scholars in its ranks and their approaches to our Book, as well as scholars utterly lacking in repugnant, condescending attitudes or unwillingness to impart intellectual treasures to a broad audience, one fluent only in the language of faith.

2.    The richness of the text and its centrality to our religious experience demands it! Once again, whatever one’s feelings on the origins, we ought to recognize the depth and complexity of the text as a text. We do the Book a disservice and deny ourselves of further knowledge, competence, and edification by not mining its riches in the same way fundamentalists shoot themselves in the foot by trying to silence women. As I’ve heard attributed to Grant Hardy, there’s a reason God gave us a sacred 531-page book, and not merely a sacred pamphlet to proclaim the Restoration.

3.    Moroni pleads for us to take it seriously. And for those uncomfortable with the idea of mortal scripture (whether believers or non-believers), Moroni claims that far from injuring the validity of scripture or its sacred and divine origins, we have the ability to learn from their inevitable mortality. “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been (Mormon 9:31).” There are more than merely “spiritual” or doctrinal lessons to be learned; there are social, political, and existential lessons. We ought to rejoice in and learn from the mistakes of both prophets and peoples in the Book of Mormon – their destructive nationalism, class distinctions and racism, their cyclical and at times glorified militarism, excessively sharp rebukes, chauvinism and familial favoritism. The human nature of the text is such that we can and ought to take it seriously on an intellectual level, and learn from it.

4.    As mentioned, we reject the spiritual-temporal dichotomy as a false dichotomy. Perhaps Brigham Young put it best when he said “We cannot talk about spiritual things without connecting with them temporal things, neither can we talk about temporal things without connecting spiritual things with them. . . . We, as Latter-day Saints, really expect, look for and we will not be satisfied with anything short of being governed and controlled by the word of the Lord in all our acts, both spiritual and temporal.  If we do not live for this, we do not live to be one with Christ (JD 10:329).” The reality is, the more you know about the temporal, political, cultural situation and the literary styles in Isaiah, the easier to get and the fuller your understanding of Isaiah’s spiritual message. The same can be said of one’s experience doing work in the temple for one’s kindred dead: the more you know about the person for whom you work, their life and times, the richer and more meaningful your own experience. Surely this is just as true of the Book of Mormon – the more you know about the Jerusalem of 600 BC, the more you know of the sociology of founding societies, the more you know of Hebraic literary styles, of competing theological themes, the richer will be your experience of the Book of Mormon, and the richer your potential for spiritual experiences. I think the opposite can also be true, that one’s spiritual maturity and doctrinal understanding gleaned from scripture, fruitfully informs one’s socio-anthropological understanding of the people who wrote and the times in which they wrote. There’s absolutely no inherent reason for our “temporal” knowledge and study of the scripture to detract from rather than compliment and add to our “spiritual” – and vice versa. Whether “temporal” studies contribute to or distract from our “spiritual” understanding is a reflection of us and not the inevitable normative force of the content.

5.    Finally, we have a mission to take The Book of Mormon to all the world – and this certainly includes the academic world. How can the academic or intellectual world take our Book seriously when we don’t do so ourselves? And why should they have to be the ones to explore and reveal its richness? Surely waiting for them to digest and analyze our texts for us is a damning indictment of our laziness and deserved condemnation. On the other hand, we currently have the opportunity and the good beginnings of a potentially glorious mission.

The intellectual field is ripe, already to harvest. God bless us with more scholars, competent and committed enough to thrust in their sickles, and a people passionately committed to supporting them.

31 comments for “Under Intellectual Condemnation

  1. November 7, 2009 at 1:58 am

    I’d nearly stopped coming to this site. But I kept checking in, and this is the sort of thing I was hoping to find. Very useful to me, right now. I’ll re-read it a couple of times. I probably won’t have much to give back, but I’m quite grateful.

  2. November 7, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Great ideas, James. I’m not sure a lot of the people who matter will be onboard with “the broad specturm of intellectual approaches” in contrast to the standard devotional approach to the Book of Mormon, at least until they know where it is going to lead.

    Something like Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Signature, 2000) fits your prescription, but I doubt it strikes orthodox Mormon readers as a step in the right direction. But Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2009) also takes a religious studies (or at least literary studies) approach, yet provides an overall analysis that is likely much more welcome to Mormon leaders and teachers accustomed to a devotional reading of the Book of Mormon. Hopefully Givens and others will persuade by example that a close, critical reading of the Book of Mormon is a better reading.

    Then there’s the problem that the Book of Mormon itself seems to come down in favor of plainness in many passages, suggesting that texts are self-interpreting. People who are clever with words (not just a backhand reference to lawyers) and who might be in a position to bring out features of the text that require sustained careful reading are invariably condemned. I suspect LDS leaders are more supportive of efforts by LDS scholars than the Book of Mormon is of scholars in general, but one still gets the impression there are people in the Church who can’t tell the difference between Eugene England and Korihor. Just another hurdle to clear.

  3. Jim Wright
    November 7, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Interesting piece, James; thank you. I’m not a scholar, just a fan of the Book of Mormon who looks for new insights with each read. Your third point gives me a lot to think about.

  4. Kirk C.
    November 7, 2009 at 3:40 am

    Very nice post. I am a graduate student studying religion and agree with most you have said. I have known many people who have attended BYU religion classes and have always wondered how they have not come out of those classes with more “academic” knowledge of the BOM. I have never attended BYU myself, but find your comparison of BYU classes to CES courses pretty much in line with what I hear.

  5. Ben
    November 7, 2009 at 5:15 am


  6. Royal
    November 7, 2009 at 5:28 am

    Certainly you’re right that the historicity issue is a red herring. God made the BoM a test of faith, a skandal in the original Greek sense, i.e. a stumblling block, a trap. It is a test you will not pass if you play by the rules of human reason. Either you will decide that the BoM is bogus because it does not accord with the archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence available to human perusal, or one is forced to engage in intellectual trickery and moral gymnastics to come up with an argument acceptable in the eyes of man, cherry picking the odd datum that can be forced into service as ‘evidence’ according the terms created by the arm of flesh. God has clearly seen fit to make the BoM look like a fraud, to test those of use who refuse to play wholly by His rules. In this it is not so different from how He has manipulated the fossil record to tempt man into materialist explanations of Creation and Destiny. Of course the Apostle Paul bids us take it even one step furher, when he said, I believe BECAUSE it sounds crazy, not in spite of it sounding crazy. Only when we have figured out what that means and have made this principle our Liahona, only then will we have truly understood God’s dictum that we rely not on the arm of flesh but by every word which proceeds out of the mouth of God!

  7. Dan
    November 7, 2009 at 6:39 am

    oh i don’t know, that whole excommunication for apostasy tends to weigh heavily on the minds of those who wish to press the bounds of intellectual thought about the Book of Mormon. That’s my view.

  8. November 7, 2009 at 8:19 am

    I think that the reason we have a harder time developing intellectual methodologies for the Book of Mormon is that, as a text, there is no history attached to it once the story reaches the new world. So the kind of checks that are placed on Biblical exegesis (and even the exegesis of more modern revelation) simply isn’t available. So, while I agree that historicity as an intellectual pursuit is overrated, the lack of any historical anchor means that all other approaches have to be grounded in the book alone. We don’t even do that for novels. This is, I think, the biggest obstacle to the introduction of intellectual rigor to discussions of the Book of Mormon.

    I don’t think this is insurmountable, actually, but I haven’t figured out how to surmount it. Thoughts?

  9. queuno
    November 7, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Thanks for a great post. I think #6 misses the point by emphasizing those who use intellectualism to try to prove it wrong or push things that aren’t doctrinal, with those who start with the premise that the Book of Mormon is true and then try to expound on that.

  10. November 7, 2009 at 10:12 am

    “I don’t think this is insurmountable, actually, but I haven’t figured out how to surmount it. Thoughts?”

    The Book of Mormon answers that context on its own. Treat it as an extension of the Bible and whatever context you use for the Bible, transport it onto the Book of Mormon narrative. It is another Testament of Jesus Christ. I believe it is deliberately a-historical (not in the sense of “lying” like the fossil record theory) so there can be no pre-conceived meanings apart from past Scriptural records. The whole point of the book is as an independent witness of the gospel. This forces the reader, as the post hints at, to take it at face value or reject it wholesale. There is not much room for sophist explanations. You can’t, like the Bible, explain its teachings and stories away using historical, textual, or cultural studies.

  11. November 7, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Thanks for the great post. Like the first comment, I rarely come here but with posts like these I wouldn’t mind visiting more often. Like you, I have noticed a lack of contextual study of the Book of Mormon. There seem to be a great deal of research concerning its impact in the 19th century but far less study of Nephite society and those that they came from or impacted. I look forward to seeing greater intellectual engagement of The Book of Mormon among church membership.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  12. Mark A. Clifford
    November 7, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    This is a great post.
    Mormons have a great book that we have only just started to take seriously.
    I just finished Given’s “Very Short Introduction”. Fantastic. He sees things everywhere that I have never paid attention to. The hardest thing to do, it seems, is to see a work as rich as the Book of Mormon for “what it is”.
    I am always enthusiastic about readers who are willing to pay close attention to the Text’s possibilities, and who do not try so hard to control it. Prior assumptions may be impossible to avoid. But, what about trying the prior assumption that the Text is going to suprise us? That it has something new to say that we have not heard?
    It seems to me that the prior assumption that the Book is a History, or a Fiction, or a Source Book for Modern Mormon Doctrine, are all, at some point, going to run aground.
    How about letting this Book speak to us, instead of us speaking to it?

  13. Jonathan Green
    November 7, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    John C., you’re incorrect about literary analysis depending on historical context. Much of the 20th century was spent looking at texts or at readers without specific regard for the author. Whether this is a good idea or not is another matter, but there are several analytic tool sets for analyzing texts without getting stuck on their historical origin.

  14. Jonathan Green
    November 7, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    James, I like this post, especially your discussion of intellectual service, although I’d peg Mormon resistance to religious scholarship a couple notches lower than you do. Now that you’ve laid out what you think should be done, I hope that you’ll give us some posts that start doing it.

  15. November 8, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I don’t think that you understand the purpose of the historical study of the Bible or the method. Fundamentally, studying the Bible using the historical-critical method is an attempt to understand the original intent of the text (to whatever minimal degree that is possible) and then to use that in future discussions of it. Whether or not it supports a given theological take is irrelevant to the task and only determined by later analysis. Setting that aside, the reason we can speak with relative confidence regarding the meaning of a Biblical verse is because we have some notion of its meaning in the original language and the original context. We can’t have any of that for the bulk of the Book of Mormon at present.

    If James’s goal of intellectual precision is to occur, then there must be a standard for judgment. Some notion of the original context can provide that standard. The Spirit can also provide that standard, but, while I don’t think the Spirit is irrelevant in the pursuit of the intellectual, it is really, really hard to communicate and convince via spiritual confirmation, especially in an academic setting. As Jonathan notes, there are acontextual literary criticisms available, but, at best, they can reflect how well they measure up to their own standard, nothing more.

    Fair enough. I suspect, however, that James isn’t particularly interested in analyzing the Book of Mormon purely as fiction.

  16. November 8, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Very well said.

  17. Jack
    November 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    “This requires a membership actively engaged with and supportive of the scholars in its ranks and their approaches to our Book, as well as scholars utterly lacking in repugnant, condescending attitudes or unwillingness to impart intellectual treasures to a broad audience, one fluent only in the language of faith.”

    There’s the rub. How do we do this without becoming more loyal to the scribes than the prophets? Even when scholars are faithful there can still be a temptation to pit their personal beliefs against those of general authorities. But then again, we won’t get into the millennium without all things being shouted from the rooftops — and that means EVERYthing, IMO, whether historical, theological, scientific or what have you.

  18. Jack
    November 8, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    …there can still be a temptation [for us] to pit their personal beliefs against those of general authorities.

  19. November 9, 2009 at 11:04 am

    “I don’t think that you understand the purpose of the historical study of the Bible or the method. Fundamentally, studying the Bible using the historical-critical method is an attempt to understand the original intent of the text (to whatever minimal degree that is possible) and then to use that in future discussions of it.”

    I understand that perfectly well. However, I don’t believe that it for the most part ends up that way. Never have and never will trust any kind of “objectivity” in research of any kind. Assuming that the text needs historical-critical evaluation, how in the world are you going to use that with the Book of Mormon, especially if you are a believer? I admit completely it has no history or external textuality to study beyond Joseph Smith.

    “How about letting this Book speak to us, instead of us speaking to it?”

    That reaches into the territory of Biblical inerrancy that its own text rejects. I don’t think that is going to happen (no such thing as objectivity), but I do think it has enough information to be self-evaluated. Unless you insist it was only a 19th C production, much of the context is supplied by the text itself. Unless there is a huge leap in historical discoveries that is all that remains.

  20. November 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I agree with you that historical-critical is likely a non-starter with the Book of Mormon (that’s been my argument here). As applied to the Bible, I think there is sufficient information to make it useful, but not anywhere near infallible.

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    November 9, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    I’ve taught Gospel Doctrine classes off and on over the last 15 years, and when we cover the Book of Mormon I have used liberal amounts of information produced by Hugh Nibley and FARMS, more recently their videos summarizing some of the findings. The two reactions I uniformly get are “This is very interesting and faith promoting” and “I’ve never heard it before.” Even with me giving them the names of authors and books and web addresses, maybe five people have actually gone out and read the books themselves and told me about it (including my daughter, but not my two sons). I get no comments in classes about what someone else read in the FARMS Review or what Nibley observed about the scientific accuracy of the 3 Nephi 8 natural disasters. Despite my active campaigning and popularizing of it, there appears to be very little interest among almost all the people in my classes in going out and reading the books for themselves.

    I can’t figure this out. I don’t think it is in any way a rejection of faithful scholarship. It seems more like most members don’t feel the need to be intellectually fed about the Book of Mormon. They seem to be just as satisfied with a lesson that centers on their personal feelings about a narrative. They don’t feel an obligation to know things that could confirm the faith they have in the book. I don’t know how much they read the Book of Mormon, but my sense is that it is read more as devotional literature, to prompt reflection on one particular idea for the day, than as a long term effort to better understand the book or the doctrines it teaches, such as the Atonement and Grace.

    For this reason, while I am very interested in the ideas presented in this post, I have a sense that the vast majority of our fellow Saints are not involved in the issues we discuss, often with so much energy, here and in similar forums. I have no doubt that there are faithful Saints who will achieve exaltation without intellectual curiosity (perhaps deferring it to when they get their pre-mortal memories back), who live much more Christian lives of service and outreach than I do. I am just a little disappointed that the hunger I feel to understand, and the satisfaction I feel in achieving pieces of understanding, is not something that many of my brothers and sisters in the Church regularly experience, despite my best efforts to share my experience with them.

  22. James Olsen
    November 9, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Dave – Yes, our default position seems to be outright mistrust until we “see where it leads;” and even then, when it appears to be helpful rather than harmful, there’s an institutional temptation to control (e.g., FARMS). I may disagree with you, however, about “those who matter” being on board. Aside from my optimism about changing or the potential for change amongst our hierarchy, I think the people who matter is the church membership at large; and on this front I’m quite optimistic. Our membership continues to increase its general level of education, and I think we’ll see an increasing demand for scholarship on the content of the BofM, especially if we have scholars who are either willing to take a faithful position or bracket matters of faith as they analyze the text (specifically, I think we ought to bracket the issue of historicity in order to elucidate the content). I think the general membership will increasingly embrace such scholarship, if we work to bridge rather than foster the “intellectual” vs. “rank-and-file” divide. You’re right that Thomas – despite his effort to do exactly what I’m calling for – is likely to put-off many members; but I think we’re capable of getting over that, and seeing instead the merit of what he is doing. There’s no reason to either accept or reject him wholesale; there’s no reason not to take him as an insightful contribution rather than his ambitiously stated goal of becoming a “foundation for a new tradition in Book of Mormon studies.”

    Is there any reason to interpret the BofM editors’ preference for “plainness” as applying to anything other than doctrinal discourse?

    Kirk – you’ll note that both “intellectual” and “fluff” are used as epithets against BYU religion professors. We’ve certainly got more than one approach, even if there is a clearly dominant strain. And I should be clear that I’m not at all against devotional approaches to the scriptures, which have been invaluable in my own life. Furthermore, I think that one of the most important parts of cultivating a more intellectually hospitable culture will be our positive intellectual evaluation of devotional approaches. There’s a reason why devotional approaches to scripture have dominated in history and continue to dominate today, despite a brilliant culture of scriptural criticism. However, I likewise think critical approaches not only legitimate but enriching, and as stated, don’t think we’ll clear ourselves of intellectual condemnation until we take such approaches much more seriously.

    Royal – I confess I’m not sure how I ought to interpret you – sincere or cynically sarcastic?

    Queuno – agreed. There’s an intellectual fad that equates sophistication with demythologization and skepticism, and in my opinion generally manifests a lack of sophistication. As mentioned repeatedly, there’s no reason not to bracket issues of faith; and if one can simply have the integrity and forbearance to do so, I think one will find a receptive, mainstream Mormon audience, whatever one’s personally feelings. But the temptation to proselytize is no light one.

    John C. & Jettboy – it’s true that for much of the BofM we have no uncontroversial historical checks, no greater Mesopotamian cultural comparison available. But this certainly doesn’t keep us from exploring the complexity of the narrative and the various genres, literary tropes, or the theological, political, cultural, and existential variants manifest in the text itself. As Jonathan Greenwood states, a great deal of 20th century scholarship has been done on texts without reference to a concrete historical backdrop. And while clearly fallible, there’s no end to interesting comparisons to be made if one posits a given region in the Americas as a plausible location, and then uses the historical and cultural knowledge we have of that region as a backdrop (where we usually fail in this is when we use it as a means for apologetics).

    Jonathan – the post does call for follow-up, doesn’t it? I certainly appreciate your attempts to do just that here at Times and Seasons and look forward to your continued efforts.

    Jack – I’m really at a loss for why intellectual rigor in our exploration of the BofM would lead us to place our loyalty in scribes above prophets. As to pitting opinions, when they remain opinions, I’m at a loss as to why such pitting is significant? If I think that most of I Nephi constitutes a political treatise, justifying Nephi’s reign over that of his brothers, and GA Jack thinks that politics – intentionally or pragmatically – has nothing to do with the book, why would this disagreement be significant, even if I managed to convince a large number of Mormons? If a GA disagrees with Royal Skousen’s “sense lines” and would break the text up differently, why is this a significant issue? It appears that you’re building in an assumption that scholar will disagree with prophets on substantive theological issues and try to persuade others.

    Raymond – I think you’re getting at what I mean by the need for our scholars not to be arrogantly condescending, for us to elevate as opposed to denigrate the devotional, and also the fact that we don’t need every member an intellectual. However, I certainly don’t think anyone will be exalted without intellectual curiosity and even intellectual voraciousness. This doesn’t mean that our members here and now need to focus their intellectual appetites on critical studies, but certainly that we need a culture conducive to it. I can’t help but suspect that your experience of passively appreciative audiences in Sunday School has much more to do with the sort of Sunday School participants we cultivate than anything else. We all have our too-strong opinions on how we ought to change SS, though, and I’ll not go into that now.

  23. Carl
    November 9, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    I agree with Jonathan @13. I think the church generally is susceptible to typical conservative anti-intellectual biases, but as a religion scholar, I’ve always found members gushing with enthusiasm about religious scholarship, at least notionally. In fact, I think I’m more suspect of my own guild than the average member. But most members know nothing about religious studies, of course. I think it is generally ignored because it is unknown and irrelevant, not because it is actively mistrusted.

    And to be clear, BYU does not have a “Department of Religion” that serves anything like the function of a typical college religion department. It has a school of Religious Education whose mandate is to (from their website) build up “faith and commitment to the Lord and his kingdom” and foster a “knowledge of the gospel and an individual testimony.” In other words, its mandate is gospel education, not religious education as typically practiced. Purely academic courses fall outside their remit, but even so, and though severely understaffed, they support an entire academic degree program. Let’s give them some due credit.

    Also, the rancor that is often imagined to exist between religion faculty of different academic backgrounds and teaching styles is simply a myth. The most gifted academics there receive tremendous support, both departmentally and personally from their colleagues. Your characterization of RE as a “battlefield,” with the scholars losing, is simply wrong.

    But I think you make some very valid points about obstacles to the academic study of the BoM, and of course they could be multiplied out further. And I think there are very different sets of issues depending upon the community of readers, i.e., non-Mormon academic, Mormon academic, or lay Mormon. Historicity and origins, certainly, is problematic on all sides, but the concerns are highly asymmetrical. So virtually everything is written to one audience, to the general dissatisfaction or apathy of the others. As others note, there are literary approaches that can sideline the historicity issue, as Givens does, but virtually no one else has written work so capable of satisfying all readerships. And alas, you can’t bottle Givens’ success. It’s less a model than an example.

    But with enough successful examples, you eventually arrive at models, which can be emulated. Then scholarship really starts to flow, since most scholarship is principally mimetic. So again, with Jonathan, anyone who really wants to change things needs to show how it’s done. There is a dedicated journal for Book of Mormon studies. It’s always soliciting hard for submissions, because while everyone is talking about scholarship on the BoM, very few people are doing it.


  24. Jack
    November 9, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    “I’m really at a loss for why intellectual rigor in our exploration of the BofM would lead us to place our loyalty in scribes above prophets.”

    Well, I think the concern is that we (saints of all ages) have a tendency to fall into this pattern. But remember, at the end of my comment(#16) I suggeted that one of the conditions of the Millennium will be that all things will be spoken from the rooftops. I was being a little abstract there and perhaps wasn’t very clear. What I meant to convey was a subtext suggesting that we’ve got to figure this out–just how we’re going to bring these two worlds together without taking our eye off of the living oracles.

  25. Morgan
    November 11, 2009 at 1:00 am

    Motivating and faith promoting, James. Thank you. I’ll do my best to rectify the situation.

  26. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    November 13, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    The Book of Mormon under intellectual condemnation? Joseph Smith pointed that out, when he met with Dr Anton. Today in our age of communication, with Face Book, Twitter, the Internet and who knows what else. Denying God His own procedures of communicating for the return of His children will bring no tears to my eyes. If I did not have my own testimony of the Physical existence of a Father in heaven; I would find this condemnation very understandable. The prophets in this Book do, at least, make the claim that theirs is the Word of God before the return of His Son to bring to justice to the little gods, we worship in this world. The ability to understand this book is seeing with our eyes of faith rather than through the eyes of our mind.

    Christians claim that the Old Testament is the literal word of God, but I find the OT a very political book with its attention on the 10 Commandments and leading to the founding of the nation Israel as a political force. It is a struggle between God’s prophets, His priesthood and their kings leading to political failure, but through whose eyes do we see it, Isaiah and Malachi. They prophesied the failure of this effort to bring about the reality of our Messiah Jesus as a political person. As a matter of fact, Malachi was asked by Jehovah’s faithful, why does God not love us?

    In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth, the night of His arrest, said that, tonight I will offend all men. His disciple Peter disputed His Words and betrayed Him 3 times before the cock crowed in the morning. The Messiah Jesus, by telling us about the parable of the king announcing the wedding of his son, which no one of the VIP’s would attend. The king then ordered his servants to go on the street corners and invite everyone they encountered to the wedding. Today I see this as the fulfillment of that invitation to the multitude with the election of President Barack Obama.

    The Book of Mormon is unlike any of the Testaments of Old; it is the wedding invitation of Father in heaven to a new nation, which is to rule the world without a king. Reading it fulfills the spiritual void that is absent from the OT and NT. Keep your ears to the First Presidency and the Twelve they knows His Ways better than I do.

  27. M. D. Sessions
    November 13, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    While not directly related to the Book of Mormon, it is my understanding that the Church tried reaching out to various groups in the 1960s-70s. I’ve been told that President McKay asked Sterlng McMurrin to develop missionary discussions for intellectuals. It was published as The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Another subgroup was Jews, who had a separate missionary plan specially written for them.

  28. Paul B
    November 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    RE #25 “The Messiah Jesus, by telling us about the parable of the king announcing the wedding of his son, which no one of the VIP’s would attend. The king then ordered his servants to go on the street corners and invite everyone they encountered to the wedding. Today I see this as the fulfillment of that invitation to the multitude with the election of President Barack Obama.”


    I’m trying to figure out what you mean by this, and I don’t really like the implications of any of my guesses. What do you mean?

  29. November 15, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    I write intellectual articles on the Book of Mormon. (How intellectual, is up to the article…)

    So do some others.

    The posts by some here on the BoM (am I taking the book lightly if I use “BoM”?)–especially the Sunday School lessons–are really deep and interesting. Actually, fascinating.

    I loved (and still do) going to the FARMS site and reading about more discoveries in the BoM, even though lately, there has been a lot of trash talk by some that taints it all.

    Most BoM sites are about everything but the intellectual side of it. I believe they are valuable… also.

    Much better than my RM BoM class at BYU, from which I think I learned two or three things the entire semester, taught by a non-intellectual BoM teacher. Attending a UVSC institute class, I was surprised when a student asked a simple intellectual question and the many-years teacher didn’t have a clue. Still, that same thing happened in a Humanities Western Civilization class… So, sometimes there’s so much, you (or a religion professor) can’t know it all. And when there is only so much time, I agree that it’s more important to stress testimony, etc.


    Can’t really understand it without the intellectual. There are some incredible things in the BoM most of us will never find in this life. It’s a very “ontologically-deep” book (from a BYU English professor, though maybe not in reference to the BoM).

    I am often in the top 10 in Google search for basic phrases and keywords.

    Very few visitors.

    Very, very few.

    Sure, it could be…

    Or it could be, no one is searching, because no one really cares.

    I know there is hazard in “intellectual” things, be it apostasy or arguing. For example, my high priest previous-bishop believes in the Adam-God theory, teaches it to his family, and tried convincing my dad of it. Um, anti-scriptural…

    Which is interesting–sometimes the more intellectual “it” is tried to be made out as, the more problems there are.

    There are also levels to intellectualism that are difficult. The first level tells one thing, one level up teaches more of something, but the the level beyond that teaches something very different, that makes the previous level obsolete.

    Come on… Most people have a hard time with the second level, and now you want them to leave that behind and go to the third level??

    Intellectualism changes. “Truth” doesn’t. Therefore, t>i. Period. Right?

    A few of my articles have caused extreme emotional reactions in people who were past the first level, but unwilling to get past the second. Most of it goes back to psychology–“I’ve learned something, and now it’s all wrong? And all those comments I made in SS?? and in my posts?? and my favorite general authority?? and the prophet is wrong??!!”

    So, I think intellectual studies about the BoM are often not only seen as unnecessary or better yet, “getting in the way of” the real meaning and purpose of the BoM, they are often seen as divisive instead of uniting, and the command to “be one” is a higher command…

  30. November 15, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    BTW, I’m really excited about more and more websites and posts that share theory, experiences, and case studies about missionary work, growing a ward, YSA, etc.–basically, the intellectual side of growth of the kingdom.

    While many say, “Spirit>intellect, therefore, we don’t need intellect”, that flies in the face of what the Church teaches about self-reliance, studying, etc.

    I just found one of these websites (from here, timesandseasons.org!) for YSA that will be probably be helpful for our ward.

  31. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    November 19, 2009 at 2:05 am

    RE: #27 Read Matthew 22: 1-14, the parable of the marriage of the king’s son. This parable may be understood in two ways[1] the actual marriage of a prince and a princess or [2] the King in this parable is God, Father in heaven and the marriage is the binding of Jesus Christ to the multitude or the children of Father in heaven. Another parable that hints that this marriage will take place is the parable of the Ten Virgins.

    Nephi’s testimony about Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon refers to this coming event. Jesus has been anointed after His cruxifiction, when He and His apostles met in Galilea after His resurection. Nephi had a whole lot to say about these latter days.

    I don’t like the implication either of the rise of President Obama and his appeal to the multitude. The abominations of the Priesthood of the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem are similar to our corporate and political leaders, today. GREED and IMMORALITY. They have set aside our Constitution and given us a new doctrine to live by. In the Book of Mormon it is called the order of Nehor. That doctrine ultimately destroyed not only the Law of Mosiah, but the people. Obama and his multitude are not only proceding to further destroy our Constitution, but they are introducing totally new abominations as acceptable.

    I am uplifted by the testimony of Nephi, because he has not prophesied such a dire ending for us. However, it is a time of wars and rumors of wars and persecutions.

    With 130 temples and 5 more on the way, I believe that Jesus Christ has staked out His involvement in our suffering. It is now the time that we, as children of God must become His arm.

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