Sunday, January 08, 2006

FARMS Harm?

I wonder, might FARMS in some instances do more harm than good? I mention two potential areas of concern. (I’m even less familiar with FAIR than I am with FARMS, but perhaps much of this applies to them as well.)

One potential problem is that in addressing arguments against Mormonism, FARMS makes Church members aware of potential problems they never knew existed. A personal example of this can be found in this recent thread. During a discussion of a particular feature of the Book of Mormon narrative, I speculated whether this feature might be explainable in connection with the possible reflection in the text of some nineteenth century concerns. I was subsequently chastised for having “bought Vogel’s argument.”

What’s ironic about this charge is that I have never read any Vogel, or either of the volumes edited by Metcalfe, for that matter; what I know of their arguments I know from a couple of FARMS articles railing against them. But even without reading the original arguments, being only dimly aware of their ideas from reading FARMS critiques thereof, in subsequent readings of the Book of Mormon the passages that might be used as a basis for the anti-historicist ideas pop out with at least a superficial plausibility. Moreover, the relatively few less-than-sanitized books on Mormonism I have read are ones of which I was made aware through the FARMS Review.

A second potential problem with FARMS intellectual sword-crossing is that the confrontations with detractors and anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon raise the question of whether this is even an appropriate way to address critics. In these encounters, it does not seem they are ever beat at their own game; they are never convincingly defeated by argument. Time and again it is the prophets’ personal revelatory experiences that fortify them as individuals, and open demonstrations of divine power—to either the destruction or miraculous conversion of the detractors—that end up convincing the entire community.

The moral of these stories seems to be that one should trust in the power of God and in prophetic and personal revelation even when—as may always be the case—the naysayers’ arguments cannot be otherwise answered convincingly. Individual members could follow this lead, refusing to engage the critics on an intellectual basis at all, but relying only on personal revelation and attacks on critics’ worthiness as license (or indeed a moral imperative) to ignore them. (Come to think of it, perhaps some FARMS authors do some of this reasonably well!) And on a public basis, perhaps it is not FARMS that is needed against the likes of Vogel and Metcalfe, but President Hinckley striking them dumb. It’d be nice if our dispensation had its share of spectacular public showdowns.

Now don’t get me wrong; I personally am glad FARMS exists. To me, a failure to intellectually examine and evaluate available evidence and ideas would be both unthinkable and unconscionable—a betrayal of a legacy of independent pursuit of truth exemplified by, for example, John Taylor (not to mention Brigham Young and Joseph himself). I tend to think that only by knowing as much as possible about the scriptures and their background can it possible to appreciate them for what they truly are, whatever that may turn out to be.

But given the two concerns above, I can see how some might think otherwise, and why there may have been a trend towards leaving the sort of work FARMS does out of official Church discourse—magazines, lesson manuals, conference talks. I get the sense that voices like Nibley’s or B. H. Roberts’ used to be welcome in the first two of these official channels, and of course Roberts spoke in conference, but I don’t know the extent to which his intellectual bent penetrated his conference talks. But nowadays I can imagine the leaders saying, ‘Okay, let FARMS be out there as a safety net for those unfortunate souls infected with the intellectual bug, but let’s bring it under the ægis of BYU to ensure that in some future day it doesn’t end up taking strength unto itself. Moreover, let the intellectualism in the Church be quarantined there. In official channels let’s avoid engagement with an intellectual mode of discourse, but instead stick with material that brings the Spirit, helps for practical gospel living, and affirms our unique identity as Saints; and let any doctrinal material be largely restricted to past authoritative statements (let’s start the Gospel Classics series!) and summary articles written by reliable authors willing to steer clear of controversy.’

37 Comments:

Well, Christian, I think it's more good than harm. I don't think the purpose of apologetics is to answer the critics, but to provide answers to believers who may have concerns. I'd rather hear about the argument from a defender of the faith than from someone trying to destroy belief. Even knowing that there are intelligent saints who have examined some of the arguments of naysayers bolsters my faith even if they don't have answers. Dr. Keller (sp?) at BYU agrees with you somewhat, however. He's a former Protestant minister, current BYU religion professor who is anti-apologetics, pro-testifying (he wrote about this on FAIR). Resist not evil but overcome evil with good. That's my approach on a personal level. Simply testify of truth and that replaces the misinformation for those open to it. 

Comment by LisaB | 1/08/2006 10:10:00 PM  

Christian, I agree that FARMS can have the belief-eroding effects that you outline. The FARMS Review of Books was a major cause of my final stepping away from orthodox belief regarding church origins and the Book of Mormon. The arguments in the FARMS Review sometimes seemed trivially weak to me, resolving disputes by definition, by simple appeal to authority, or by pure ad hominem attack. Furthermore, the doctrinal positions invoked by the FARMS Review included a willingness to unconditionally reject all uncanonized statements by church leaders if advantageous for the sake of argument.

The seeming weakness of the arguments by the FARMS Review were what first motivated me to read "New Approaches to the Book of Mormon." Some of that book's essays were adequately neutralized by the FARMS essayists, but many were not. Finding this out created a crisis in my understanding of God, a crisis that wasn't resolved until I found that my faith was flexible enough to survive even if Joseph Smith is the inspired author of the Book of Mormon.

The willingness of FARMS authors to throw out uncanonized authoritative pronouncements at will resonates with my personal experience, an experience which supports the hypothesis that our church leaders not only can makes mistakes, they do so all the time. Like Book of Mormon historicity issues, accepting the possibility that church leadership is fully fallible doesn't put me outside the church. It just distances me from, and concomitantly disrupts, my original understanding of the Mormon faith.

However, in the context of increasing communication and proliferating speech in which we live, due in large part to the internet, I think that exposure to these kinds of ideas is becoming inevitable. Hence, any pain that might result from FARMS is pain that is probably inevitable in any case. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 1/08/2006 10:33:00 PM  

I think RT does have a point. Some FARMS stuff does seem to go for the cheap debate win rather than really attempting to address the concerns behind it. The problem is that this is apologetics more aimed at merely placating those with belief to feel vindicated. It doesn't really address some of the real concerns.

Having said that though, I think FARMS has provided some great responses to many things. About the only thing I'd wish for is perhaps some caveats on older publications they offer. The Complete Works of Hugh Nibley is definitely a mixed bag - mainly because a lot of the stuff is decades old. Arguments have moved on. Further a lot of it was never intended for publication.

I find it unfortunate when people judge contemporary apologetics by the arguments of Nibley from 45 years ago. I'm glad Nibley's stuff is available. Much like what is done for a lot of major thinkers. It opens things up for people. But one has to be careful.

Back to Christian's original point. I do think people might get exposed to testimony shaking facts. I think one could say the same about Bushman. Having said that, I think I'm very glad the "inoculation" mindset has one out over the "hide" mindset. Eventually people learn these things. Further I feel quite strongly that one should never fear truth.

One last point. RT brought up discomfort at FARMS' willingness to jettison any non-authoritative GA statement. Realistically you don't have to read many GA writings before you realize that is a necessity. It is, unfortunately, a shock for some. The idea that when a GA speaks they are often giving their informed opinion and not dictating a revelation. But I think this is something to commend FARMS for and not criticize them. I recognize RT likes this view of fallibilism. But I also think it wise to acknowledge it at a quasi-authoritative level as FARMS has done.

 

Comment by clark | 1/08/2006 11:12:00 PM  

Just to add to the above, it does trouble me somewhat when what appear to me to be a clear minority of writings (those doing the cheap debate points, the ad homens, etc.) are held up as typical of FARMS.

I think there is far more diversity at FARMs than many wish to acknowledge. Further, I think some recall a paper or two that rankled them and forget the rest. There have been papers that really bugged me. But I recognize that at best, they make up 10% of my experience. | 1/08/2006 11:14:00 PM  

I'm familiar with the argument, but I don't think most of the people who float it actually buy it. Besides, while LDS leaders may be fallible, one thing they're pretty good at is distinguishing things which are good for the Church from things which are bad (i.e., things that cause problems for active, tithe-paying Mormons). If FARMS really caused harm, they wouldn't be funding it.

There are a few blessedly ignorant members who would actually be offended by something they pick up reading the FARMS Review. But these people would end up "surprised" if they bothered to read any LDS material closely, including the Book of Mormon. However, they don't generally tend to be big readers. 

Comment by Dave | 1/09/2006 12:12:00 AM  

Christian: Since I'm the one who accused you of buying an argument given by Vogel that I don't think will hold water upon scrutiny, perhaps I should address the issue. (BTW, you mangled Nate Oman's paper on secret cominations in your summary of it, but that is another story). I've written for FARMS, but I don't remember ever taking a cheap shot or giving an ad hominem. I'm careful to avoid them -- but those critical of LDS easily fall into such ad hominem attacks it seems to me and their nasty conduct is rather ignored, sin't it? It isn't a level playing field because FARMS writers are held to one standard and naysayers only have to cause doubt without principal.

When I wrote my paper on the expansion theory, I addressed several arguments in their strongest form against BofM history so that I could respond from what I thought was the most plausible way to assess the evidence regarding the issue. However, many of the faithful thought I was raising and creating these arguments and so they took it as an attack on the faith. How can one responsibly address an argument without stating it in its strongest form and giving it its due? I disagree with Roasted Tomatoes in that I believe there is an adequate theoretrical stance that allows us to deal with the arguments given by the Signature books crowd -- and it is a stance that is inherent in the very nature of translation and language (and argued convincingly by Quine and others). The stance of RT seems to me to be a very hard sale simply because if JS was either deluded or fraudulent it's really hard to buy into the spiritual value of the BofM. It isn't a position that I find either spiritually appealing or intellectually coherent or satisfying -- but I have no doubt that RT finds real value in the BofM. Further, a good deal of the book's message is historical in nature -- a warning if you will from a people that could not avoid genocide to a civilization on the brink of self-annihilation. RT's stance is not one that could work for me. But thankfully it doesn't have to because to date I have never even seen a plausible attempt to explain the solid evidence of Isrealite call, covenant renewal and legal forms that are pretty clearly present in the Book of Mormon. Critics don't so much claim that the evidcence for these forms isn't fairly clear and compelling, they just ignore it, kind of the way most people ignore the real issues with the Book of Abraham on the other side. I suppose that what bugs me a bit is that folks who don't have the tools or background to assess the question of historicity abandon it based on less than stable arguments that they really cannot assess. It also bugs me when people simply ignore the contrary evidence that I find so compelling with a waive of the hand and a comment: "well, that is just how a person like JS with a bible at his elbow would write a book." Balderdash!

As for FARMS, I agree with Clark that it is a bit of a mixed bag but by far and away it's pretty well done. I think that FARMS has done some really good things and some really stupid things. But look at the bind from your own post. You want prophetic authority to answer the question, but when that is relied on people like Roasted Tomatoes turn their noses up. No one approach will reach everyone -- so give a shot to what works for some and maybe something else will work for others. However, I wish that BYU hadn't taken control of FARMS. I think it is much better off as an independent scholarly endeavor. However, I must confess that I really like Dan Peterson's pithy prose and humor and he is one bright guy with strong arguments.

However, I agree with RT that Church leaders are quite fallible. Just how did we get started with the view that they had some unique access to truth and authority?  

Comment by Blake | 1/09/2006 12:34:00 AM  

FARMS ... causes harm. I have said for years, the Church would be much better off taking the hardline -- base your testimony on Spirit-revealed truth, not on any theories of evidence. It may be that God removed any evidence of the Book of Mormon from the earth, in order to force us to seek faith. In any event, FARMS may make people think too hard about scientific evidence, a mistake.

D. Fletcher

 

Comment by D. Fletcher | 1/09/2006 12:56:00 PM  

Thanks for the comments, everyone... I only have brief and intermitten internet access today but may be able to respond later tonight. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/09/2006 03:59:00 PM  

Blake, I think you might be confusing me with someone else... I didn't state that there are no answers to the Signature Books people -- just that many of the FARMS Review articles on Signature Books approaches to the Book of Mormon seem not to provide them.

I think "deluded" and "fraudulent" make up a somewhat cramped and cynical list of ahistorical possibilities. Surely we don't think most of the many Bible scholars who consider many of the sacred texts in that canon pseudepigraphic would accept either of your two adjectives. So I'm not sure why a believer in an ahistorical Book of Mormon should be required to do so, either.

I don't remotely turn my nose up at prophetic authority. And who are "people like me," anyway? Faithful, active sixth-generation members of the church?

Finally, any claims that critics are allowed to misbehave as they see fit with no negative sanctions are selective. I think that weak arguments, name calling, and redefinition of terms are abominable no matter who does them. And a lot of critics do those things a lot of the time. But that's no excuse for anyone involved.

Okay, Blake, the truth is that I'm nowhere near as offended as the tone of these remarks would indicate. But I want to make it as clear as possible that I resist being categorized with the choir of critics of the church. I'm not one; I am a faithful Latter-day Saint, full stop.

That said, my concerns about Book of Mormon historicity don't really rely on Old Testament information or knowledge of Israelite culture because I don't have such information. What I do have is a good general background in Mesoamerican anthropology and relatively substantial knowledge of American religious history. And the portions of the Book of Mormon that spawn the strongest arguments in favor of Book of Mormon historicity almost always have quite compelling 19th-century explanations. Many things described as Israelite are almost perfect matches for 19th-century Methodism. This produces a lot of doubt for me -- although not resolution one way or the other. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 1/09/2006 07:01:00 PM  

RT: Perhaps I do have you confused since I don't know you from Adam (or Eve). But let me explain a bit. With respect to critics, I have in mind some pretty nasty folks on the internet. E.g., I have in mind things like this hateful bigotry here: http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2005/12/on-paradigm-shifts-and-negative.html
And this outright egomaniacal attack here by a self-procalimed, Harvard educated anthropologist: http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2005/12/infancy-of-mesoamerican-studies.html
I wasn't referring to the articles in the Approaches book -- tho I'm a lot less impressed by them than you are.

That said, to assess the BofM it seems to me that a person must have the tools to assess both the ancient and modern claims. I have a fair to passing background in 19th century religious thought and I've done a heck of a lot of looking at the specifics of Arminianism and Methodism. But of course, that is precisely what the expansion theory explains. The language and conceptual terms are 19th century, but there are readily identifiable forms from Israelite culture that must also be explained as well.

As I said, your stance is not one that I find to be either religiously or intellectually satisfying, but I didn't assert that no rational person could hold such a position in good faith. But let me explain my view a bit. What makes it difficult is that it seems to me that JS had to know whether he had plates or not. One doesn't take one's wife with a wagon and wood box to put plates in it, run down the hill with 60+ lbs. of gold and not know that it isn't real if they don't exist. One doesn't find numerous hiding places for plates and keep them carefully concealed without either being way out of touch with reality or an outright fraud or a prophet who has real ancient gold plates. The position that seems so popular with Jesus, he was a great teacher and a good guy but not realy God or in any way uniquely God's just doesn't seem to me to be available with respect to JS. He forces a choice on us in a way that other traditions and religious experiences do not -- at least it seems to me. Either he was: (a) a severly disturbed personality disorder of both dissociative disorder and sociopathic tendencies; or (b) he was a con-artist of heroic proportions; or (c) he was a prophet just as he claimed. After having read his journals (both those he sometimes wrote and had scribes write) and looking at virtually everything available from him in any context, I don't believe that either (a) or (b) have much to recommend them. His prayer life was real and sincere. His thought was quite coherent and I don't see any evidence of dissociation or personality disorders.

That said, I'm delighted that you are faithful by your lights and committed. BTW, I'd love to see your explanation for the prophetic call form in 1 Ne. 1, or the covenant renewal festivals in Mos. 2-5, 7 and 27 or for the various prophetic lawsuits in the BofM in terms of their Methodist counterparts. As you know, I took a good look at these issues and concluded that the 19th century Arminian culture really didn't begin to fully describe the text. If you don't have interest in such things that's fine, but then it seems that the more solid position on the BofM is to punt because we just don't know enough to assess it.
 

Comment by Blake | 1/09/2006 08:59:00 PM  

Everyone,  no question "inoculation" from friendly sources has its advantages. (Yes, as I have been occasionally known to do, I am one who has floated the argument while not believing it. Watching for subtle signs of sarcasm may be the best way to decode my thoughts...) It's hard to argue with the notion that ultimately it's better to have a deeper and more complete understanding---I certainly feel that way, strongly---but it seems it's not necessary for salvation. Perhaps for this reason the Church doesn't seem to be into "inoculation" or deeper understanding institutionally, except to kind of have it held in reserve as an emergency backstop. There certainly isn't any penetration of FARMS or BYU Studies into official discourse (and I don't think Rough Stone Rolling even appeared in the Deseret Book Christmas Catalog). Perhaps in crass numerical terms this is safer, but it does cause an unfortunate jarring disconnect for those who do venture outside.

I disagree with a couple of you that everyone will eventually be exposed to this stuff; don't project your own curiosity onto everyone else! Believe it or not, there are some, perhaps a majority, including some I know personally, who will only ever bother (or even purposefully choose) to study what is officially offered.

LisaB, I had world religions from Keller and thoroughly enjoyed it.

RoastedTomatoes, being even more turned off by bad arguments for the faith is a third danger I didn't mention! I haven't looked carefully at Blake's three favorite evidences that he keeps mentioning, but I share your skepticism that there's never another explanation. How many ways are there to call a prophet, or give a farewell, or level an accusation? Since there may be examples of each of these in the Bible, as well as similar human experiences in all ages that provide alternate readings (e.g. the Methodist camp meeting for Mosiah 2-5), it seems very hard to prove one has an ancient source. Of course the same argument can be leveled in reverse against alleged 19th century influences. I suspect the level of specificity needed to distinguish for all reasonable people is often simply not there, leaving people to largely give the benefit of the doubt to the side they find less incredible in light of the totality of their experience.

Blake, it wouldn't surprise me if I mangled Nate's argument, since he's a smart guy. The article probably got too long for my time or patience and I may have skimmed too quickly (and also may not remember accurately).

There wouldn't be a bind with regard to prophetic authority if their statements had been accurate, or if they had exercised publicly observable power over naysayers.

I too would like to hear RoastedTomatoes' take on the plates, but I'm not sure the choices between disturbed/dissociative/sociopathic, con-artist of historic proportions, and prophet just as he claimed are necessarily that stark. It is possible he sincerely believed in his mission but engaged in a limited number of expedient deceptions when he thought it necessary to keep things from crashing down---as he did with polygamy, for example. Who knows, maybe the plates were another example? I know this is a hard sell, but he may have felt completely confident of the plates' existence because of his self-perceived capacity as a seer, while feeling a need to fabricate a tangible prop for the apparently necessary benefit of the others who he realized didn't share his gift. I'm not sure well-intentioned and isolated cases like these would make him either a dissociative sociopath or a lifelong habitual con artist in all he did.

D. Fletcher, I think the Church is by and large taking your advice, by leaving FARMS etc. out of official discourse. I can sympathize with the idea that one ought not attempt to build an intellectual tower of Babel; I think it's a big mistake for anyone to think they're proving the gospel true. However, even if one is not trying to prove anything, there's something to be said for at least battling specific criticisms back to neutral ground in order to give space for faith to take root. Moreover, if background study increases understanding and appreciation for the scriptural message it would be hard to argue with that too. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/10/2006 12:39:00 AM  

" There certainly isn't any penetration of FARMS or BYU Studies into official discourse"

I don't think I'd agree with that. I think several FARMS notions, such as LGT, has had a profound influence. Of course getting CES to listen to even FARMS as opposed to a certain school of theology is like pulling teeth. But FARMS had a lot of simplified reworkings of papers published in the Ensign through the 90's.

I think the claim FARMS has had no impact on official discourse is a hard one to make. 

Comment by clark | 1/10/2006 01:36:00 AM  

Clark, it's a very easy claim to make.  I can just leave to you the burden of proof of showing specific counterexamples of FARMS work appearing in the Ensign, with a strengthening rather than declining trend! ;->

Look, I don't dispute there is some impact, but it is indirect and prophylactic. FARMS generates enough knowledge among the cognoscenti to keep some obviously wrong stuff out of the Ensign (e.g. you probably won't see references to the Hemispheric Model anymore). But I expect you won't see, say, affirmative arguments for the limited geography model, chiasmus, etc. put into the Ensign, much less rebuttals of critics. I acknowledge there has been some of this in the Ensign in the past but I think it's been declining.

An example is the way the movie The Testaments was handled. It was clearly mesoamerican-friendly, used a litter instead of a wheeled chariot, no metal swords, etc., all showing sensitivity towards avoiding gaffes---but they were unwilling to pull the trigger on affirmatively saying it took place in Mesoamerica, describing the setting instead as "somewhere in the Americas." 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/10/2006 09:02:00 AM  

And I was annoyed at how Mesoamerican Testaments was!

Everyone's comments are making me reconsider my position.  

Comment by LisaB | 1/10/2006 11:50:00 AM  

I've been disappointed with some FAIR-LDS arguments and articles, too, but hadn't considered the possible futility or even anachronism of apologetics in general in spite of having read about Keller's stance. Food for thought. 

Comment by LisaB | 1/10/2006 11:55:00 AM  

Christian: The impact of FARMS behind the scenes is far greater than you might like to think. I discussed some of these issue both with certain GAs and also with FARMS folks. The Church leaders have decided that addressing these issues is counterproductive because: (a) most Church members just don't care because their commitment and witness are quite sufficient; (b) with so many new members just getting them to understand the basic order of the Church is a huge challenge and trying to get them to grasp too much too fast just isn't practical; (c) they believe that these issues are really scholarly endeavors that addresses only a small fraction of Church membership and investigators and it is best left in that arena; and (d) the scholarly terrain changes so fast that they don't want to be committed to an outdated paradigm. At least that was my take on these discussions. The use of FARMS so far has been, as Clark suggested, to have a few very general articles by FARMS folks in the Ensign and Deseret Book publications and avoiding faux pas that demonstrate obvious errors in understanding.

As for the various possibilities you mention, I acknowledge that just about anything is possible. Mermaids are logically possible and it's possible that JS believed he was really the angel Michael/God incognito. The question is one of plausibility. It is possible that Joseph felt only a few small lies were OK, like making up plates, getting his wife to go to the hill pretending he was getting plates, fooling the 3 and the 8 witnesses with fake plates that he somehow created, creating 400+ pages of faux-ancient scripture, getting someone to dress up as John the Baptist, and later as Elijah, Elias and Moses and appear in glory in the Kirtland temple -- not to mention the Savior of the world. It is possible he did all of these things and thought he was serving God and really was a prophet despite the fact that he calculated the plot and knew that he made it all up. It just strains credulity beyond the breaking point for me.

Why chase after such implausible possibilities? I agree with Vogel on one point, either JS was the world class fraud that Vogel imagines in the pages of his "biography" of JS or JS was the struggling prophet that Bushman seeks to tell us about. The third possibility, that he was a well-meaning fraud who was so self-deceived he believed making up a confidence on the magnitude required scheme was OK just isn't really even remotely credible to me.

As for your other possibilities: There are elements of a camp meeting in Mosiah 2-5 (wrote about them in my article of the Expansion Theory), but such a setting hardly begins to explain the text. At camp meetings there were not royal summonses to attend around the temple, to attend a coronoation and participate in the witnessing of the heavenly king etc.. So the context of a camp meeting just doesn't plausibly begin to explain the setting in Mosiah 2-5 whereas a covenant renewal ceremony includes surprising features that one doesn't expect remotely in a 19th century text. I'm not aware of anyone in the 19th century remotely approaching an understanding of the prphetic call form in 1 Ne. 1 nor of formal Israelite legal process and customs in the BofM prophetic lawsuit forms. It's possible JS was just a genius -- but that doesn't explain anything so much as just give us a magic formula for "anything is possible."  

Comment by Blake | 1/10/2006 12:34:00 PM  

I'm affiliated with FARMS institutionally and am always interested in "outside" perspectives on it. It's interesting to me that it is regarded primarily as an apologetics organization, which is understandable, but really, "hard" apologetics is a fairly modest part of what FARMS now does. Such work is largely localized to the FARMS Review and, while Review contributions are subject to editorial direction, they are not institutional productions. In fact, I would not even consider work authored by FARMS employees to be institutional; i.e., employees are not assigned topics to write on, etc. As in any other academic dept., individual scholarship is a product of individual initiative. FARMS/ISPART employees are a pretty diverse bunch, and while some have a great interest in apologetics, others like myself have little interest in it. I certainly don't see any single FARMS agenda and the occasional mention of "FARMS theology" (Clark?) gives me the chills. I have no idea what that even means.

Per the comments here, I am sympathetic to Christian's point of view, and both of the problems he mentions have of course been discussed at FARMS, especially the former. There are always tradeoffs. But so far the collective wisdom at FARMS, correct or not, is that more good is being done by apologetics than harm. At the same time there is constant concern to raise the level of scholarship, more carefully police both quality and tone, and to learn from our mistakes.

FARMS receives no direction from the church on its activities, even if there has been occasional public thanks or praise from some of the Brethren. We have no reason to think that they disapprove of what we do (or we'd quit doing it), but they do not tell us what to do either. FARMS's initiative, believe it or not, is wholly independent. Even our relationship with Deseret Book is non-exclusive and pure business.

Unlike Blake, I have not seen any evidence of "behind the scenes" impact, even where I would expect it. For example, the church is very concerned with anti-Mormon propoganda on the Web, but have not opted to work with us to provide a formal counterpoint or republish our work in response (though they occasionally link to FARMS articles). FARMS may be personally appreciated by some church leaders, and I expect they generally like the idea that someone  is responding to criticisms, but doubt FARMS's work is much used or read by Church magazine or curriculum committees. 

Comment by Carl G | 1/10/2006 04:40:00 PM  

LisaB,  why did the mesoamerican flourishes bother you so much?  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/10/2006 10:53:00 PM  

Blake,  I don't think I disagree with anything in your first paragraph about reasons for FARMS not being more prominent; I think it's largely consistent with my comments here. But I am curious to know more about the behind-the-scenes impact.

I agree about the issue being plausibility and not logical possibility. For most people in the world some explanation for Joseph other than the traditional Mormon one is more plausible. They tend to think fraud, but it's not clear that the implausibly extreme degree of fraud you describe is the only option. It could be that Joseph truly believed he was translating an ancient document but that he felt he needed fake plates to maintain the support he needed from others. And he need not have gone so far as to have actors dressed up as John the Baptist and others; these could plausibly have been honest experiences similar to those of other visionaries outside the Mormon tradition (which I gather Bushman has shown were numerous in Joseph Smith's time), but perhaps not the objectively real sort of visitation we tend to think of nowadays.

I admit ignorance of many specifics of your favorite three evidences for ancientness. But does our understanding of, say, kingly succession practices come from somewhere other than the Bible? 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/10/2006 11:01:00 PM  

Carl G,  thanks very much for your inside perspective.

When I mentioned the Brethren bringing FARMS under BYU, and not using their stuff in official discourse, I didn't at all mean to imply there was any current disapproval. I was just thinking perhaps they were taking a very long strategic view: perhaps they see what independent intellectual traditions have done over decades and centuries in other denominations and don't want the same to ever happen here. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/10/2006 11:13:00 PM  

Christian: I was hired after the merger with BYU and do not know the precise reasons why FARMS was brought in (if anyone does). I believe the reasons were mostly practical and, for conspiracy theorists, disappointingly mundane. In any case, the university has not dictated any changes in academic direction that I know of. I doubt that the church sees it as a quarantine for intellectualism, though my colleagues would be flattered by the suggestion, or even an intellectual safety net. FARMS focuses on a fairly narrow range of issues and subjects. I think FARMS continues to exist because it's largely self-supporting and does more good than harm. And if that ever changes, as you point out, BYU can now easily pull the plug. 

Comment by Carl G | 1/11/2006 12:43:00 AM  

Christian says
"Since there may be examples of each of these in the Bible, as well as similar human experiences in all ages that provide alternate readings (e.g. the Methodist camp meeting for Mosiah 2-5), it seems very hard to prove one has an ancient source. Of course the same argument can be leveled in reverse against alleged 19th century influences.  "
I think this is a great point. For me, the issue must be approached in a more holistic way. When I read the OT, it seems like an ancient history; it's complicated and weird. When I read the BOM, it seems much less complicated, and weird in a very different way, and I notice lots of small seeming anachronisms. Of course the experience of others is different. I don't think it's possible to resolve this question by pointing to isolated examples.
 

Comment by kodos | 1/11/2006 10:33:00 AM  

I think Kodos, that is a bit in the eye of the beholder. To me the text of the Book of Mormon contains far more interesting complexities whereas the historical sections of the OT seem much, much more "revised." That is the Book of Mormon reads like it is more edited from contemporary accounts, with the obvious holes and so forth. The OT seems much more heavily edited. (Which of course it was, by most accounts during and after the exile from unknown sources)

So I agree there are differences. But I think that is partially because so much of the Book of Mormon is quotations and then glosses by one author writing most of the non-quoted sections. (Mormon)
 

None of this is to dispute the point you make, merely point out why that may be. i.e. when we talk ancient texts, what kind of texts are we speaking of? Are we talking of say the history of rome from some Roman historians? Are we talking the OT historical sections? Are we talking other nations? It seems that there are very distinct literary styles to each. | 1/11/2006 12:13:00 PM  

kodos,  along the lines of what Clark said, the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament are arguably quite different since the former is mostly the work of a single editor/abridger. Within the context of a single editor/abridger, however, I think it shows considerable and interesting complexity.

However, to agree with the sentiment of your comment, one way it seems very different is in its treatment of surrounding peoples. The Old Testament is very conscious of its surrounding and different peoples, while the Book of Mormon seems to come from a perspective in which all the inhabitants of the promised land are accounted for by migrations from the old world. It has been argued that certain puzzles and inconsistencies mean that the BoM refers to others implicitly. But because of the difference with the way the OT handles others, I find this argument unconvincing. That the puzzles in question are the result of mistakes on the part of the author seems at least as plausible, if not more so. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/11/2006 02:03:00 PM  

Blake, re Mosiah 2-5, discourse about the "heavenly King" was also prominent in evangelical American rhetoric. See, for example, this famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards , which in part employs a version of the same juxtaposition of the rights and honors due to earthly and heavenly kings as in Mosiah 2. Less thematically parallel, but more germane to Joseph Smith's setting, is this history of American Methodism, in which a Methodist circuit preacher and revivalist is described as dying while "shouting the praises of his heavenly King."

In other words, while I accept your claim that the "heavenly King" rhetoric in Mosiah 2:18-25 has parallels in Israelite practice, this same rhetoric has a lot of resonance in American evangelical Christianity. Since we both agree that other evangelical camp meeting themes seem to be present in the early Mosiah chapters, this isn't an isolated and therefore meaningless parallel. It thus seems to me that the "heavenly King" material can be counted as adequately explained by either source theory. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 1/11/2006 02:36:00 PM  

Christian, the treatment of surrounding peoples is one of the factors I had in mind. Others are the oddly one-dimensional characters, and the relative simplicity in descriptions of politics and warfare. I suppose some of that could be due to having a single author/editor.
 

Comment by kodos | 1/11/2006 04:38:00 PM  

kodos,  yes, I think so, because even an ancient editor/abridger whose purpose is to draw "and thus we see" sorts of lessons would necessarily be making great simplifications and distillations to make his point. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/11/2006 05:46:00 PM  

RT: The heavenly king rhetoric is found in Joanathan Edwards -- but in a very different setting (e.g., there is an actual transition of power and a new king being coronated in Mosiah). Further, the covenant renewal form for Israelite festivals is quite well settled and it isn't anything like a camp meeting. You might want to look at these sources if you haven't already: Thomasson, Gordon C. "Mosiah: The Complex Symbolism and the Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon." F.A.R.M.S. Paper. Provo, Utah, 1982; Tvedtnes, John A. "King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles." In By Study and Also by Faith, ed. J. Lundquist and S. Ricks, Vol. 2, pp. 197-237. Salt Lake City, 1990;Ricks, Stephen D. "The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address (Mosiah 1- 6)." BYU Studies 25 (Spring 1984):151-62. I slso treat it in my paper on the expansion theory. (And what is your explanation for he detailed prophetic call form in 1 Ne.1 and the Israelite legal procdures?)

Kodos and Christian: One of the real problems I have with your discussion is the oversimplification of the text. It is very complex both politically and in terms of warfare in my view. Further, I don't find the characters to be one-dimensional at all.

Christian: With respect to others, 2 Ne. 9 expressly states that there are others on isles of the sea like the followers of Nephi. What more do you need? Just how densley populated do you think the ancient Americas were? It isn't like the Middle East where other cities were encountered because they roamed around for 40 years or other nations were in close proximity. So I agree that it is different than the OT in this respect, I just think that your take on this issue is informed by the wrong comparison.

 

Comment by Blake | 1/11/2006 07:30:00 PM  

Blake, if we're going to have this conversation, you have to agree with me to treat one data point at a time. 1 Nephi 1 and Israelite legal procedures have to be separable from "heavenly King" rhetoric and comparisons between the dignity of mortal and eternal kings. If we argue for one piece of evidence on the basis of how strong the other evidence is, we risk never actually evaluating any particular piece of evidence in its own terms. The coronation point is directly relevant to the context of the "heavenly King" discourse in Mosiah, so it's reasonable to urge that we connect those two. But the other issues arise in quite different narrative spheres.

With respect to your suggested references, thanks for providing these. You obviously know more about this than I do, so these kinds of references and recommendations are especially valuable.

Can I ask you a few questions? It wasn't clear to me how Thomasson's piece was directly relevant to our discussion. What did you have in mind with that one? I may have missed your intended point.

The piece by Ricks suffers, I think, from some overreaching. For example, the first point in his sequence of parallels involves the text naming the individual who is about to give a speech. Wouldn't we expect this feature in most narrative contexts? The second point is actually a failed parallel: "The parallel biblical covenant passages retell God's mighty acts performed on behalf of his people, Israel," which doesn't happen in Mosiah -- no recounting of the Exodus, etc., takes place. The third, involving "individual stipulations," is in the text -- but it would also be expected in an evangelical meeting as an exhortation. In such a meeting, the exhortation might be followed by a covenant among those who were converted -- so the next point in the parallel fits both contexts, as well. The blessing and cursing section is a partial fit, as Ricks acknowledges in the text. In other words, some sections are ubiquitous in narratives of various genres, some are plausible in either a 19th-century evangelical setting or an Israelite setting (with this linkage being causal rather than coincidental; some aspects of 19th-century evangelical religion was patterned after intensive study of the Old Testament text), and some are ambiguous fits with the Israelite pattern.

The primary detail that fits with the ancient tradition but not the camp meeting tradition, as far as I can tell, is that there's a coronation associated with the Benjamin sermon. That's a valid parallel and it isn't covered by the 19th-century source hypothesis. However, given the extent to which most of the other evidence in favor of the ancient Israelite source hypothesis for the Benjamin sermon is either ambiguous or equally applicable to the 19th-century evangelical source hypothesis, the fact of coronation probably isn't decisive in itself. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 1/12/2006 12:03:00 AM  

Blake,  I did say that "Within the context of a single editor/abridger, however, I think it shows considerable and interesting complexity." This is particularly so with the various layers of underlying sources (and, at points, narrative strands) used by the editor. But I stand by what I said with regard to simplified characterizations: individuals, entire cities, and whole nations are painted in stark black and white terms that surely cannot correspond to the rich messiness of reality with all its shades of grey. I acknowledge that these distillations could be the result of an ancient editor/abridger aiming for clear moral and religious lessons.

With regard to others on the isles of the sea, these are other scattered remnants of Israel elsewhere around the globe, not "others" in their local neighborhood. I fail to see the relevance. What I would expect about pre-existing surrounding cultures are things like those said about Caananites, Moabites, Philistines, etc.: stay away from those people and their idolatrous gods etc, be ye separate from their abominable practices and so on. If they are conscious they are newly arrived insignificant drops in larger cultural and genetic seas it seems puzzling for those external seas to be labeled "Lamanite" instead of named as they are in the Bible, in a way more faithful to their pre-existing status.

It would also seem puzzling that these insignificant clans from the old world would be responsible for the rises and falls of their entire surrounding civilizations (Olmec and pre-classic Maya). As I recall Sorenson's original claim was that these larger cultures are explained  by the Jaredites and Nephites respectively. But with recent moves to lower the Nephites' genetic and cultural profile, their potential status as cultural drivers would seem to become more untenable. The loss of this correlation would be unfortunate, for this sort of retreat in the face of increased evidence (a continuing vector from the hemispheric model BTW), rather than confirmation, is not a theoretical trajectory that inspires confidence. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/12/2006 07:50:00 AM  

Blake, with respect to the population density of the pre-Colombian Americas, the best current research suggests that it was surprisingly high. In Mesoamerica, it may well have been higher than in the Middle East during the time frame for the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, the most widely accepted limited geographies plop the Nephites and Lamanites squarely in the middle of the most densely inhabited and developed piece of land in the Western Hemisphere and arguably in the entire world outside of China during that period of time. The modern analogy would be for a family to move to New York City and write a multigeneration family history that only possibly  mentions the fact that anyone outside the family's kinship network exists. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 1/12/2006 11:27:00 AM  

RT: You miss the point of the parallels/form critical analysis. The point of form critical analysis is not merely to point to parallels, but to point to a sitz im Leben where the context presents a formal presentation of acts in order -- so the possibility of such "parallels" occurring in the exact order in the proper situation becomes geometrically more improbable unless the form is in fact being adopted. Further, when you assert that the mighty acts of God are not emumerated because it doesn't speak of the exodus, the mighty acts of God include much more than the exodus since Lehi's voyage is presented in the exodus pattern and takes its place -- as one would expect given the tradition of Lehi's voyage among the Nephites. But I don't have time right now to fully respond, so I'll respond more fully this evening. BTW Thomasson's treatment is precisely about how Mosiah 2-5 fits into the heavenly king ideaology of corononation in the ancient Near East.  

Comment by Bl;ake | 1/12/2006 11:37:00 AM  

RT: What is the basis of your population density estimates? The archaeological maps show literally tens of thousands of miles between rather small population centers even in the area posited by Sorenson (BTW I don't buy the Sorenson model anyway). | 1/12/2006 11:40:00 AM  

Blake, the archaeological estimates of population density in the precolombian western hemisphere have been wildly revised (upward) over the past ten years as certain preconceptions about the general technological and social incompetence of indigenous people have been abandoned. A good general-reader-level discussion of this debate and the emerging consensus is in the nice book 1491  by journalist Charles Mann.

Also, I know what form criticism is. But a form-critical argument fails if the individual elements in the required sequence are missing or only approximate. Likewise, a form-critical argument becomes ambiguous and undefended if another form can be proposed that covers the text. In the Mosiah case, the camp meeting form covers most of the text, with the coronation left as the major anomaly. On the other hand, the covenant renewal form covers the coronation and some of the other aspects of the text, but it has anomalies as well.

One of those anomalies is the missing recital of God's miraculous works. Not only is there no recounting of the Exodus, there isn't even a recounting of the miraculous Lehite exodus in the text. This is, I think, an unresolvable anomaly for the view of this text as an Israelite covenant renewal form. Not a definitive one, but enough to cloud the picture.

The Thomasson paper was one that I really enjoyed; political theology I like almost as much as economic theology. But the only historically-oriented portion of the paper was about the three objects that Mosiah inherits before the Benjamin sermon. So it's really about a different portion of the text, I think; we're discussing the sermon itself, aren't we? Once again, these have to be separable issues -- if we can't examine the sermon in its own right, but rather are required to accept, unexamined, one interpretation of the sermon because of evidence from other portions of the text, then we have relinquished critical thought altogether.

One of the sad things about the structure of discussions of the Book of Mormon to date is that enmity focusing on institutional loyalty to or dislike for the LDS church has become an obstacle to genuine intellectual discourse about the text. People who disagree with a historical reading are viewed as (and in fact often are) enemies of faith. The terrible consequence of this is that much of the healthy warfare of intellectual life is avoided for the sake of fighting the "real enemy," with the consequence that ideas often aren't given adequate critique in their own right. (The same, of course, is true among critics of the church.) We need to have an intellectual space where people can point out flaws in arguments about the text of the Book of Mormon -- whereas, as it stands, people sometimes cite papers offering incompatible interpretations of a text like the Benjamin sermon without even noticing that they're incompatible... 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 1/12/2006 06:33:00 PM  

RT: First, it seems to me that much of what is presented in 1491 is speculation and not well-documented. I'll stick with the achaeological assessments where we can actually document existence of settlements and have some evidence of actual population size based on actual settlement sizes and trade route evidences. I've visited the Isthmus several times and it is clear that there is a vast jungle area that is sparsely populated (even today outside of tourist areas). I assume that you have also been to that area of the world and visited the ruins. It is a vast jungle with ancient ritual centers and small villages seperated by several hundreds of miles.

I think that you may have missed the rather clear statements of God's mighty acts and the Lehite exodus in the text. For example, consider this: "And also that they might give thanks to the Lord their God, who had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, and who had delivered them out of the hands of their enemies, and had appointed just men to be their teachers, and also a just man to be their king, who had established peace in the land of Zarahemla, and who had taught them to keep the commandments of God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men." Mosiah 2:4.

Not all covenantal elements need to appear in the text of Mosiah's speech; they can appear in the text as elements of the sitz im leben and in the OT most often are just textual statements. The covenant of pledging to God and God pleadging to protect is very clearly present. Mosiah 2:24. Frankly, it seems rather clear that the elements you say are questionable just ain't - at least, by my lights.

Further, the point of the form critical analysis is that the entire setting and the ritual acts, from the royal proclamation, the ordered assembly around the temple, the passing on the royal artifacts to the new king, the blessing of the king etc. to the formal covenant clearly entered by the people of Mosiah are all part of the case that we have a genuinely ancient form being adopted. So it cannot be limited to the speech alone.

Moreover, I have shown that they same ritual elements recur in the text in Mos. 7 and 27 as well. The elements of the covenant renewal are all present (and rather clearly so in my view). Of course there are covenant renewals in the OT -- but was JS really aware of the elements of the covenant form that didn't get detailed until Mendenhall did it in the 40s?

Further, I have compared the camp meeting with the ritual format in Mosiah 1-5. I admit that some elements such as the recognition of sin, the cry for forgiveness and confessing Christ are present. I argued that these elements are actualized by JS in the translation, but that accounts only for four verses out of more than 150. That isn't much of an explanation of the text in my view.

I agree with you about the need for intellectual space without seeing the person arguing for or against the BofM's historicity as an enemy.  

Comment by Blake | 1/12/2006 07:39:00 PM  

RT's comments about the current state of discourse on issues like the historicity of the Book of Mormon caught my eye. I am pleased that more than just a couple of people recognize that the apologist/critic paradigm is muddying the waters of what could be a much more fruitful discussion of the actual Book of Mormon text and its origins. Unfortunately, there are few places where such a discussion can take place. FAIR and ZLMB proved to be very poor venues for it, and FARMS publications do not work either. Could such a forum work?

One hurdle I see is that no less an authority than Elder Oaks made his position about the historicity issue very clear, and it gives very little comfort who take another position. Can a faithful LDS person openly pursue 19th century origins for the Book of Mormon when such is the case (an apostle speaks against it)? 

Comment by Hiram P | 2/27/2006 12:51:00 PM  

Hiram, in terms of fora, there's Sunstone and Dialogue, and of course you can have your own blog. I'm tending to think that neither apologetic/historicity nor 19th century origins discussions are typically appropriate for Gospel Doctrine class and probably most other official venues. The current lesson manuals seem to take this view, and the Church may seek by this means to make the historicity debate recede into the background and be a non-issue for most members. An exception I would allow for use of context is in discussions of interpreting and/or applying the text. For example without explicitly promoting 19th century origins, a teacher might still ask, "How might Joseph have related secret combinations to his own world? How might we?"

One could choose to regard Elder Oaks' talk as "unofficial," his own opinion, since to my knowledge it was not published by the Church. However, you probably noticed that in response to the LA Times article in the last week or two the Church insisted on historicity in a press release and linked a number of FARMS articles on the DNA controversy. RoastedTomatoes considers himself a faithful member while still being inclined to 19th century origins (though he's not anxious to attach his real name to such views). I personally don't think such a position is appealing and doubt its viability, but that's just me. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/27/2006 01:29:00 PM  

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