Sunday, October 16, 2016

Put on your Korihor Caps: Why Reassessing the Book of Mormon (even its Villains), is Righteous!

The Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, recently published an article by Duance Boyce. His article called “Reclaiming Jacob” is a rebuttal to Adam Miller’s arguments about Jacob. In essence, Miller reassessed the verses to show how Jacob debated doctrine about Christ instead of being Christlike, and talked about love and not showing it. There is some suggestion that Jacob was hard to find, and did not minister to the fallen Sherem.  The latter is shown to care about the law and be similar to Laman and Lemuel in trying to protect received Jewish tradition against what might have seemed like corrupting visions from Jacob.  There is a great deal more to his original argument and the rebuttal. I’m writing a rebuttal to Boyce, but overall I highly recommend you read it.

I’m commenting because some of the Facebook chatter has been incredibly disconcerting. The first comment suggested that Miller was moving beyond reassessing to “manufacturing fault out of thin air.” The next comment was almost word for word what I expected people to say in response to my work. The person said that “Miller not only suggests we've all misread Jacob 7, but that is was mis-written in the first place. This is not even a remotely faithful perspective and it makes me wonder if Miller might see shades of himself in the Sherem of Jacob 7.”  

Declaring a line of inquiry unfaithful and calling him Sherem is incredibly dogmatic and insulting.  The tone then became one of derision and mockery, with the final critic also judging Miller’s spiritual state for making his arguments.[1] (He doesn't want to "ascribe any bad intentions," he just compares Miller to Jacob's learned targets who forgot God[2 Nephi 9:28].) Since I have a whole book that essentially uses the same methodology as Miller, I felt personally attacked by this thread and disturbed by the casual and jocular way they questioned somebody's faith and approach. Instead of spending my birthday receiving insults, I decided to let it rest, but then realized I should comment now if I'm to be of any value in the discussion. Luckily, I have a whole manuscript that uses and shows the value of this methodology.  In the introduction I make the case as to why this methodology is appropriate and why a nuanced reassessment of both heroes and villains in the text CAN help us understand the scriptures, place them in history, and bring new insight that can help us apply the scriptures and lead better lives. Here are the most relevant passages:

Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon:

Reading the text with modern and western eyes, and reading based upon the assumptions we’ve grown up with, will influence the way we understand the scriptures a great deal.  If the Book of Mormon is a historical account of real people, then their decisions should reveal the same bias, weaknesses, blind spots, and disputes as other historical events, and upon closer examination, we do see that. 

President of the American Historical Association James Grossman pointed out that “learning history means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic… critics are unhappy, perhaps, that a once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.”[2]

The Book of Mormon is an inspiring book of scripture that has converted millions.  Yet with a critical revisionist eye we might see behaviors of the Nephites that are more complex, unsettling, provocative, and ultimately compelling.  It helps us reassess and revaluate past ideas and event in the light of new interpretations or data. 

This kind of history can, and should, be used to illuminate Mormon history and the Book of Mormon as well. Dallin H Oaks said:

We’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything unfavorable, and we’re coming into a ‘warts and all’ kind of history.  Perhaps our writing of history is behind the times, but I believe that there is a purpose in all things- there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they are now. [3]

In addition to modern precedent, the ancient historians within the Book of Mormon criticized their people fairly often. Lehi’s preaching angered the people of Jerusalem to such an extent that they sought to kill him (1 Nephi 1:20). Nephi faced the same treatment from his brothers (1 Nephi 7:16).  Alma recorded how the pride of church members became a ”great stumbling block” to those that weren’t in the church (Alma 4:19).  The Nephites became so wicked that Samuel the Lamanite preached to them (Helaman 13-15), and the Book of Mormon recorded how the people set Nephi’s execution date (3 Nephi 1.)  My book simply attempts to tease out additional and often unstated details within the text to reveal an even greater understanding of it.    

Another useful way to view revisionist study is by considering the three levels of history introduced by Davis Bitton and others.[4] The first level is “A” level history. This is a fairly simplistic but useful category of history. All the major characters wear white hats as virtuous and noble members of the church (or founders of the Republic). Occasionally members might make mistakes but leaders seldom, if ever do.[5] Nothing is suppressed but the history has an appealing simplicity with no controversies to complicate matters. I sometimes call this Disneyland level history because of its pleasant nature and ability to be communicated in simple terms.   “B” level history is the exact opposite of the first level.  All of the good guys turn into bad guys, their motives are invariably sinister, and everything is meant to seem chaotic but ultimately the major players and events are just as simplistic as “A” level history.  This is the history most often produced by vociferous opponents of the church. The problem with level “B” is that there are many facts and ideas in this level which are true, but might trouble a member who has never heard them before or hears them out of context.  This is the level in which members are lost if they don’t move to level “C.” This last level is when members understand their leaders are most often sincere and good people working in sometimes tragic and mistaken fashion through a fallen world.  With a proper incorporation of their faults it doesn’t diminish leaders but brings an additional appreciation of them.  The “C” level brings an appreciation of the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord says that he gives commandments to his servants “in their weakness” and that “inasmuch as [my servants] err it might be made known” (D&C1:24-25). It brings additional understanding to the statement that the Lord is collectively pleased with His church but not with the individuals in it (D&C 1:30).  This level brings an appreciation of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young struggling through mortal life and leadership and helps us understand that history is complicated.  It also helps us appreciate the decisions they made, and like any history, gives us additional tools to assess and respond to problems that we currently face. Above all, it enriches the scriptures for us by providing a vastly deeper and meaningful context for the events beyond having super heroes on one side and comic book arch-villains on the other. 

This level brings an appreciation to the many complaints of Mormon (Title Page, Ether 12:25-26) and Nephi (1 Nephi 19:6) that complained of their weaknesses. Even though the verses mentioned above are well known in the church, few people have examined the “C” level history of the Book of Mormon.  Members of the church feel the text is faith promoting and spiritually transformative in their lives. I share that appreciation of the text.  Critics of the church rarely feel the need to analyze the history presented within the text itself, outside of stale criticisms of supposedly disqualifying anachronisms.  Many Mormon scholars themselves are increasingly moving away from viewing the text as historical, but wish to study the text’s 19th century milieu or use it to advance social justice or peace studies.[6] Those can be valuable, but a historical study that rethinks and reassesses our understanding of the historical events described in the Book of Mormon will help bring an additional understanding and appreciation for the complexity of the events and people described in the text.  And it is the aim of this book to provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of those leaders within Book of Mormon. Just as the mature faith of members are beginning to develop for the flawed, loved, complex, sometimes grossly mistaken, but still inspired 19th century leaders. 

As a result of moving to “C” level history I’ve had to challenge my assumptions about the text. The best example of this methodology comes from the FARMS volume, Rediscovering the Book of Mormon. Literature scholar Grant Hardy discussed Mormon’s role as editor and how that affected Mormon’s conduct as a historian.[7] Mormon as a historian wrote that the Lamanites attacked the city of Ammonihah in Alma 16. It reported that the Lamanites destroyed the city, kidnapped its inhabitants, and after many battles and kidnapping some people from the city of Noah the Nephites defeated them.  The readers never know what happened to the innocent bystanders kidnapped from the city of Noah.  As Hardy argued, using the “C” level history that accounts for the bias of writers, that Nephite history didn’t support the narrative that good people are saved and bad people suffer. As a result the information about the kidnapped residents of Noah wasn’t included in the story.  When Mormon discussed the region again most of the history was left out except for the spiritual cause of that region’s destruction (Alma 49:9.)

Readers can see Mormon’s spiritual purpose (which form a bias) in Hardy’s example; and ancient writers had more biases as well.   They wrote ethno centric accounts that often reported the prejudices of other people. In secular histories, Herodotus recorded that the Persians seemed weak and effeminate for example. Writer’s like Enos also displayed a tendency to denigrate others when he described the Lamanites as “wild, ferocious and blood thirsty” people full of “filthiness” (Enos 1:20.) Other writers showed different bias. Julius Caesar wrote military histories like the Gallic Wars for popular consumption and adulation. As a result he often praised individual Centurions for their bravery in battle, but side stepped his own poor strategic choices that necessitated battle in the first place.  Historians like Thuycides wrote to explore the role of justice, power, and virtue in political and military actions.  Chinese dynastic chroniclers wrote the history of the previous dynasty and particularly how the bad last emperor forfeited the right to rule.  Many Medieval European historians focused on ecclesiastical history and the role of God in directing man’s destiny and the rise of the church. While many Latter Day Saints would identify with that, the Venerable Bede and others often wrote from a Roman centered viewpoint and were hardly fair towards the indigenous tribes they encountered. (Though ironically, the paucity of written sources from these cultures means that the historians owe the bulk of their information about minority cultures to the ethno centric accounts of their imperialistic visitors.)

In any case, the role of the historian as dispassionate, rational, objective observer of history is a rather late phenomenon that doesn’t reflect how Mormon wrote his record.  If we read the account as though Mormon were objective, or a member of the modern church, we miss crucial details in the text.  The bias that an author has reflects in his writing like finger prints.  When we see these fingerprints, we might reasonably ask what bias is reflected, and how recognizing that bias would modify our understanding of the text. 

[My] book is the product of that searching.   It provides counter arguments that offer alternative explanations and even provide some defenses for typical villains like Amalickiah and Giddianhi, and I question the motives of many Nephite leaders such as Gideon, Moroni, and Lachoneus.  This is a radical reinterpretation of the text which might make it sometimes seem like I’m shooting Bambi’s mother.  But these arguments are designed to bring us to that “C” level of history, where the good guys do not ride in on white horses, the bad guys on black horses, and instead every person acts with the complexity, ambiguity, and self interest that we would expect from history, and which might get glossed over in pursuit of the text’s spiritual purpose, or Sunday school lessons and personal readings that fly by too quickly.  These leaders, like the 19th century church leaders, tried to arrive at the best solutions, but often failed, acted out of self-interest, or created unintended side effects. Their failures can in many cases help them become better people, even as they help us gain an appreciation for fully fleshed out and imperfect people.

[Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please consider making a donation using one of the pay pal buttons at the bottom of the page.] 

[1] Here are the comments in full:
Matthew Roper: What evidence is there in the text for Jacob's unrighteous behavior? And if Welch is correct, Sherem's accusations would have been a capital offense if proven. A healthy skepticism of sources noting possible bias is one thing. Manufacturing fault out of thin air is another.
Michael Davidson: This is an effective rebuttal. In very simple terms, Miller not only suggests we've all misread Jacob 7, but that is was mis-written in the first place. This is not even a remotely faithful perspective and it makes me wonder if Miller might see shades of himself in the Sherem of Jacob 7.
Gregory L Smith: Well, when you can create what should have been written out of thin air and starshine, of COURSE everyone else has "misread" it.
Tracy Hall Jr.: Would this be a good place to publicize my Kickstarter campaign to rehabilitate Korihor? :)
Andrew Sargent: I've yet to read Miller and not come away feeling that much "looking beyond the mark, and stumbling because of it" has taken place with him.
I won't ascribe to him bad intentions, only a reminder it seems that ironically another warning from Jacob is applicable, namely that we need to be careful as we become learned, to not think we are wise, and therefore can insert our thoughts and ideas and set aside what God has already given us.
[2] James R. Grossman, “The History Wars,” New York Times, September 1st, 2014. (Accessed September 2nd, 2014.)
[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from the PBS Documentary”, (July 20th, 2007) (Accessed August 31st, 2014.)
[4] Davis Bitton, “I don’t have a testimony of the history of the church” 2004 FAIR Conference  Sandy Utah.  Daniel Peterson, “Reflecting on Gospel Scholarship with Abu Al Walid and Abu Hamid, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Sripture 3 (2013) v-xxxii. 
[5] Peterson, Reflecting on Gospel Scholarship, xxvii-xxviii.
[6] Grant Hardy, “The Book of Mormon and Social Justice,” Meridian Magazine (March 21st, 2011) (Accessed August 31st, 2014.) Joshua Madsen, A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon (Greg Kofford Books, forthcoming.)
[7] Grant Hardy, “Mormon As Editor” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon John Sorenson, Melving Thorne eds. (Salt Lake City: FARMS, 1991)15-28.

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