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REVIEWING THE REVIEW: VOL. 5 (1993)

Overview

This issue has some classic moments in it, but for the most part is not “must read” material. The rather long, but quite enjoyable, review essay at the beginning is Daniel C. Peterson at his best. He seems to rarely write this way anymore, which I think is unfortunate. Reviews by several others are worth taking a look at, as recommended below, but this, like other issues, has its share of what I’ve been calling “fluff.” About 7 (out of 19) reviews dealt substantively with critical arguments (~37%). It seems, then, that from Volumes 3–5, the Review hovered just under 1/3 of all reviews/essays being directed at the critics of the Church.

Of note is that two of the reviews recommended here are critical of pro-LDS work, including one that offers some criticisms of one of FARMS own publications. I point this out because it has been insinuated fairly recently that the old apologetics (“classic-FARMS” as it is often called) never allowed for scrutiny and revision of apologetic positions. Such has not been the case from the very beginning of the Review.

Recommended Reading

Daniel C. Peterson, “Chattanooga Cheapshot, or The Gall of Bitterness,” a review of John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Mormonism (Eugene, OR), pg. 1-86: This is classic DCP right here. Devastating arguments in a humorous, enjoyable-to-read style. Yes, some of that humor comes at the expense of the authors being reviewed (and no, that is not ad hominem), but I would seriously challenge anyone to read the actual book under review and then come back and tell me that Peterson is too harsh. Ankerburg and Weldon are dishonest and deceptive, condescending and nasty, and through all of that, their arguments are incredibly weak. Peterson’s review is just right, in my opinion. Peterson briefly explores the authors and their (alleged) credentials, simple errors of fact, their dishonest and lacking examination of LDS apologetics, deceptive arguments that LDS are demonic, surveys their condescending tone, and more. Peterson then discusses issues like archaeology and scripture, including a discussion of the differences between Mesoamerican and Palestinian archaeology, the limitations of archaeology in confirming even the Bible, etc. Then Peterson examines specific issues such as: the Smithsonian Statement, warfare, transoceanic contact, the translation process, Judeo-Egyptian (my term) writing, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, arguments for plagiarism, and accusations against the witnesses. Peterson then responds to arguments that depend on fundamentalist assumptions not shared by LDS, including a couple of issues with the Book of Mormon Isaiah’s dependence on KJV Isaiah. Peterson then responds to a lengthy list of straw man arguments. Among these are: changes in the Book of Mormon (and their supposed secrecy),  coins in the Book of Mormon, the Thomas Stuart Ferguson narrative, the “fullness of the gospel” arguments, Jacob’s condemnation of polygamy, the use of KJV idiom in the Book of Mormon, and “adieu” in the Book of Mormon. He then addresses “alleged absurdities” raised by Ankerburg and Weldon, like supposed contradictions between the Book of Mormon and Bible, most notably the Jesus being born in Jerusalem bit (and Peterson is quite thorough on this point). As you can see, this review covers many of the most common issues, and as such can be a good way to get some general background on Book of Mormon apologetics, and in an enjoyable (albeit long!) read.

Alan Goff, “Reduction and Enlargement: Harold Bloom’s Mormons,” a review of Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pg. 96-108: Goff focuses largely on the negative, but does point out that there are positive aspects of Bloom’s portrayal of Mormonism. The key thing that makes this review worth reading is, as a counterexample to Fawn Brodie’s (and by extension, Blooms) weak reading of the Book of Mormon, Goff provides a fascinating analysis of the Ammon narrative as a type of literary allusion called “narrative analogy.” Insightful and well worth the read. Afterwards, Goff makes an astute point: How is it that Joseph Smith, if he is the author of the Book of Mormon, consistently proves to be a better, stronger reader of the Bible than his own, well-educated critics? This conundrum has, so far as I am aware, yet to be solved.

Daniel C. Peterson, “Review of David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Lyndon W. Cook,” pg. 113-115: This is a brief, and essentially standard book review. Peterson very much recommends this valuable resource on one of the 3 witnesses. This is worth recommending due to the brief rejoinder Peterson provides to the notion that Whitmer’s leaving the Church and later opinions about the Joseph Smith and the Church has any negative bearing on the relevancy and power of his testimony of the Book of Mormon.

Louis Midgley, “Playing with Half a Decker: The Countercult Religious Tradition Confronts the Book of Mormon,” a review of Dean Maurice Helland, “Meeting the Book of Mormon Challenge in Chile,” doctoral dissertation, Oral Roberts University, 1990, pg. 116-171: As usual, Midgley provides loads of fascinating back story to the work in question, tracing the origins of thought and the author’s experiences that lead to the work under review. In the process, Midgley gets off on tangents about Loftus Tryk and Ed Decker, noting that Hellend only goes “halfway” with such luminaries (hence the title). Toward the end, Midgley offers some comments about the specific claims made about the Book of Mormon.

John Gee, “Review of The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow,” pg. 172-182: Not a major review of importance, but Gee makes all kinds of little corrections to the articles, and in the process makes a few worthwhile observations, such as the fact that most Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon are also Egyptianisms, a correction to the weights and measures article, and a narrowing of the timeframe in which Zenos may have lived. 

Michael F. Whiting, “Lamarck, Giraffes, and the Sermon onthe Mount,” a review of Clark A. Peterson, Using the Book of Mormon to Combat Falsehoods in Organic Evolution (Springville,UT: Cedar Fort, 1992), p. 209-222: Whiting is not at positive about this book. He points out many of the flaws in Peterson’s arguments, his sloppy scriptural interpretations, and shows him to be rather ignorant to actual science and evolutionary biology in particular. While I personally have no opinion on evolution (or, at least, no opinion that is likely very coherent to anyone who really knows much about science…there is a reason I’m a history major), I do believe that it is important that regardless of whether one accepts or rejects it, they ought to do so on the basis of sound scientific reasoning (especially if they are going to publish books on it, and therefore make some kind of living doing so). As such, I think this review is useful in that it explains some of the problems with poor scientific reasoning that most average folks might not pick-up on. Since it was also recently reasserted that the classic-FARMS approach did not subject apologetic or pro-Mormon arguments to rigorous criticism, this is but one of many reviews that stands as counter-evidence to such claims. Having read a fairly substantial amount of the back issues of the Review, along with the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, for that matter, I can say that such notions are completely bogus. (Those who have been following this series of reviews will know I have made it a point to recommend many articles critical of apologetic and pro-Mormon sources, and to point such out, as I have done here.)

Gary F. Novak, “Review of Faithful History, ed. George D. Smith,” pg. 231-249: Novak ultimately recommends the volume, though he is critical of the Smith’s Ed. Intro, and several of the essays within the volume. Novak is particularly critical of the contributions by D. Michael Quinn, Malcolm R. Thorp, and Edward H. Ashment. Running throughout is an ever present critique of the use of the “o-word” (objectivity) by such historians, among other things. Like the volume under review, this is an important contribution to the on-going discussion about how to navigate faith commitments and sound historical method, a discussion that flared-up again with the recent changes at the Maxwell Institute.

William J. Hamblin, “Review of Archaeology and the Book of Mormon, by Jerald and Sandra Tanner,”pg. 250-272: While it might seem unfair that Hamblin is reviewing a 20 year old (at the time, 40 years old now) publication and chiding the authors for not being “up-to-date,” Hamblin goes to pains to demonstrate that the same information was at the time (the early 1990s) still being regurgitated by both the Tanners and others, without any mention of more up-to-date LDS scholarship on the topic. In any event, Hamblin’s review provides an excellent discussion of the problems inherent in the ways anti-Mormon’s have long approached the issue of the Book of Mormon and archaeology. A few of the noteworthy points made by Hamblin are: that LDS scholars disagreeing and critiquing each other is not due the weakness of evidence for the Book of Mormon, but merely evidence that Latter-day Saints take the book seriously and as such will not simply accept any and all claims made for it without critical examination; the issue of written language in the Book of Mormon with several different questions which tend to get conflated, but Hamblin does a nice job untangling them and provides lots of useful information; Hamblin also offers short, but useful discussions of Quetzalcoatl and Izapa Stela 5 that are reserved and moderate. Included in this is an excellent statement on the complexity of interpreting iconography, which is not only applicable to the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica, but also to the Book of Abraham and the Facsimiles.

David Rolph Seely, “Review of Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch,” pg. 305-316: Seely’s review is largely positive, but he does provide some critical comments. Seely notes the murky way that linguistic arguments tend to be made, often depending on different understandings of the translation and the relationship between the English text and the original language. Seely is also critical of an attempt to show the Isaiah of the Book of Mormon agrees with ancient versions of Isaiah, and offers some particularly strong criticisms of the Mulek/Malkiyahu connection (although he remains cautiously optimistic about that possibility). The critical evaluation of the evidence, to determine its strength, is as important (if not more so) than the evidence itself, and so reviews like Seely’s are important. It has recently been insinuated that classic-style Mormon apologetics did not allow for alternative voices/criticisms of the work used to defend the faith. Reviews like Seely’s, and several others (including Whiting’s, recommended above) that have been pointed out on this blog in the past, effectively demonstrate that such is not the case. There has always been an element of critical evaluation within the Mormon apologetic tradition.

L. Ara Norwood, “Ignoratio Elenchi: The Dialogue That Never Was,” a review of James R. White, Letters to a Mormon Elder (Southbridge, MA: Crowne, 1990), pg. 317-354: After discussing the ideological/theological underpinnings that lie behind Whites arguments, Norwood critiques White on the matter of epistemology, namely Whites arguments that LDS “feelings” (spiritual witnesses) are unreliable, but his interpretation of the Bible is unimpeachable. Norwood eventually focuses on White’s arguments related to the Book of Mormon. He responds to arguments made by White that Book of Mormon is historically unreliable (due to lack of archaeological evidence), supposed lack of material culture as described in the Book of Mormon, horses, coins, and the alleged connection between the Book of Mormon and the View of the Hebrews. He also responds to several other rather typical arguments made against the Book of Mormon. An important section is the part on the change from “Benjamin” to “Mosiah.” He then adds a pretty good section on grace/works, in response to White, of course. Norwood uses some strong language as he critiques White, but ultimately shows some respect as he notes that White, who was just up and coming at the time, may prove to be a more formidable foe in future years as he develops further as a scholar. (Unfortunately, this hope never materialized.)

Final Thoughts

As I’ve already say, there is not a lot of “must reads” in this collection, but by all means if any of these sound interesting to you, then they are probably worth your time. DCP’s review of Ankerburg and Weldon is worth reading, even though the arguments are quite familiar at this point, simply because, as I have said, it is DCP at his best. Goff’s insights into Book of Mormon narratives are always worthwhile, in my opinion. Hamblin’s review on Book of Mormon archaeology is still useful, and would be good reading for anyone trying to background on those issues.

Perhaps the one exception to the lack of “must read” material is the review essay by Novak on Mormon historiography. This is a discussion that is not only on-going today, but has flared up as of late with the some of the changes that have gone on in the last year and a half or so. As such, I think being familiar with these old debates is very important, and Novak’s review is as important to that discussion as the book under review there. So, I would say it is arguably on the “must read” level for anyone wanting to become a Latter-day Saint historian.


Rating: 3/5.

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