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The Book of Mormon, Historicity, and Implications

Over at Rational Faiths, Paul Barker has recently posted a blog post ruminating on what he considers to be the moral implications of a historical Book of Mormon. “What if The Book of Mormon was true?,” he asks. “And by true I’m talking about what if the events described in the book actually happened from conception to translation.” This is certainly an interesting question, that has been asked by many, and explored from different angels. Barker specifically wants to ask about moral matters. “If the events of The Book of Mormon actually took place what are the moral implications? Let’s say it was historically true that there was an actual group called the Nephites and Lamanites—what do the contents of the book say about God and his relationship with his children?”

While there is much to be said about Barker’s thoughts on this, I am not going to go very far into it. But given the topic of the blog post, I was struck by this oddly self-defeating declaration toward the beginning:
Historicity, geography, and methods of authorship continue to be hotly debated among Mormons and Ex-Mormons as a way to prove that the book is true or false. … This essay is about how proving the Book of Mormon is true or false by historical landmarks or by authorship is a huge waste of time. Historical or not, its value lies in its message.

After setting out the question as specifically being about the implications of a historical Book of Mormon, Barker then states that this post is actually about how historicity is irrelevant, “its value lies in its message,” he says. Does anyone else see the inherent tension here?

Barker wants us to believe that it’s not the book’s status as a historical document, but rather the book’s message that is important. He apparently thinks he can demonstrate that by exploring what he thinks are the “moral implications” of the book as history. But if there are implications to reading the book as actual history (as opposed to fiction)—and I certainly agree that there are—then the message of the book is different depending on whether it’s history or not.

Barker seems to make this very point when he talks about Slumdog Millionaire. He was bothered by the fact that every pedophile in the book was a homosexual. But since it’s just fiction, “I can say the author has some serious homophobic issues and continue to read the book. … I can take the good parts—the serve others, be kind, be thoughtful and throw out the bad parts, just like I can with any other book.” Knowing the book is fiction gives the book completely different implications than if it was based on real events.

Implications are exactly what makes something matter. So it completely baffles me that he can, in one moment, say he wants to explore the implications of a historical Book of Mormon, yet tell us that doing so proves that the historicity of the Book of Mormon is irrelevant to its message.

Both in personal conversations and in my reading, I have often noticed that when those who don’t believe in a historical Book of Mormon start talking about the message of the Book of Mormon—what it “really” says, they often explain—it is completely different than what I understand the message to be. It is also, unsurprisingly, quite transparently based on some recent ideological trend. Meanwhile, though I grant that no two people read the text exactly the same, I find that others who read the text historically get, more or less, the same message I do from the text.

This is no accident. A historical Book of Mormon has different implications—moral or otherwise—than a fictional Book of Mormon does. As such, the message we get from the Book of differs depending on whether you are read it sincerely believing that it records real, historical events, or if you read it as a fictional narrative. Even if you read it as inspired fiction, or revealed fiction, the book’s message has different implications than if read as history.

That is why I find it ironic that Barker would tell us that debates over the history of the Book of Mormon are a waste of time because it is about the message, whilst telling us about the implications of a historical Book of Mormon. The book’s message is, ultimately, what matters most. But it’s status as history has implications for what that message is. And the message of that book is at the heart of what Mormonism is.


So there is, in fact, a lot at stake in these discussions about historicity. And no matter how much the “inspired fiction” crowd tries to convince us that there’s not, we can see from Barker’s post that when it really comes down to it, they know very well that there are serious implications on the line here. 

Comments

  1. One thing that strikes me about Barker's comment is that it assumes the BoM can only be significant along one dimension: either what matters is the message conveyed by the text, or what matters is its historicity. Neal, you've ably pointed out why the validity and even the propositional content of the book's teachings are inextricably related to the historicity question, and I'd like to suggest another reason its historicity matters: if the book is a real record of actual people and events that happened, then it conveys another message that is not actually contained in its text but that becomes undeniable if it's a real historical record. That message is that God exists, angels are real, both God and angels are capable of ministering and willing to minister to man on earth, and Joseph Smith was the recipient of such ministration as well as the beneficiary of supernatural assistance in translating a real historical record. This message is separate from the message conveyed by the text of the book itself, but it's an unavoidable message that the book carries with it if (and only if) it's an actual historical text.

    I think this is the real reason that so many ex-Mormons and cultural Mormons insist on the proposition that what matters is not the BoM's historicity, but rather the value and validity of its internal message. If you insist on the importance of the book's historicity, you're insisting on the importance of the reality of God and of Joseph Smith's actual prophetic calling--and that's a question that will make you exceptionally uncomfortable if you value both your connection with Mormonism and keeping in the good graces of the world.

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