Skip to main content

Ward FHE Presentation: “Put Away Childish Things”—Changing How the World Sees the Book of Mormon

This last Monday, I gave a presentation at my YSA Family Home Evening on evidence for the Book of Mormon. Though I have spoken to my friends in the ward several times about my work with Book of Mormon Central, I took the opportunity to introduce Book of Mormon Central to them as resource, and specifically explained what KnoWhys are, since I was going to be drawing extensively from the KnoWhys for my presentation.

As you can tell by my title, I focused on using research to change the way we see and read the Book of Mormon. I used the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:11 as a paradigm:
When I was child, I spake as child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
My reason for using this passage was because in my experience, many who experience a faith crisis over archaeology and the Book of Mormon never developed mature ways of reading the text. While they don’t do this consciously, they tend to read the book like a fairytale or fantasy novel. Now there is nothing wrong with fairytales and fantasy novels, except when they shape your perceptions of history and expectations of archaeology. When you believe the Book of Mormon is history but read it like fantasy, you set yourself up for a faith crisis.

Now, to be clear, I am not trying to “blame the victim,” nor do I see this as the Church’s fault, as some would have it. The simple fact of the matter, is that this is no one’s fault. Despite the eagerness to blame some sort of cause for a problem, the fact is a number of factors contribute to our poor ability to grasp mature historical thought. This includes, according to Sam Wineburg (an expert on how we think, understand, and teach history), our public education system and how it has traditionally taught history, and also the simple fact that historical thinking does not come naturally to us. Wineburg explained it this way:
Historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. Its achievement … actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think. (Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, p. 7)
There is a lot in Wineburg’s discussion of these issues that could be highlighted, but the sake of brevity I will simply focus on Wineburg’s point that “context” for historical data or documents, is not something which is self-evident, nor even self-existent. To contextualize is “to engage in an active process of connecting things a pattern” (Wineburg, Historical Thinking, 21). The historian, or anyone engaging with the material, creates the context.

Our natural habit with the Book of Mormon and other historical documents is to import context from our own world into what we are reading. Hence, the Book of Mormon becomes more of a fanstasy novel as we visualize it like Lord of the Rings or other epic Hollywood depictions, even those of the actual past (which, for the record, are rarely accurate). This usually subconscious way of interpreting the text then affects what we expect for “archaeological evidence” and such.

It is time to put away such childish things. We need to change the way we think, understand, and talk about the Book of Mormon. Instead, we need to practice what Wineburg calls “mature historical cognition.” We need to read the Book of Mormon like a historian reads any other historical document, using other source material from the proper time and place to create a context for the book.

After providing this framework, I then used 10 KnoWhys from Book of Mormon Central to illustrate how doing this can:
  1. Build Faith
  2. Accommodate Questions
  3.  Deepen Understanding

I should maybe stress that in no case do I claim it is “impossible” for Joseph Smith to have come up with detail x, or idea y. I can never prove that something is impossible for Joseph Smith to think up based on his own cultural background or even out of thin air. Frankly, all bets are off once we start talking about human imagination—it is an incredibly powerful thing. All I can do is compare the text against material from ancient Israel, Arabia, and Mesoamerica, treating it seriously like I would any historical document from those settings, and see what happens. When I do this, I find that it builds faith, accommodates questions, and deepens understanding.

The following is a list of the KnoWhys I used for each of these sections.

Builds Faith

This was the most straightforward “evidences” section of my presentation. Simply put, these KnoWhys contextualize certain Book of Mormon practices and statements with archaeological materials from Israel, Arabia, and Mesoamerica. Illustrating that the Book of Mormon fits within these settings in specific ways gives us reasons to trust that the Book of Mormon is in fact an ancient record. You’ll notice that one of these comes out this coming Thursday. Yep, I gave my YSA ward a little preview.

Accommodate Questions

Of course, there are still some questions and puzzles. But that is OK, because real historical documents are not free from confusing details. There are a number of ways to approach questions when we treat the Book of Mormon like a real historical document. I used only one KnoWhy as an illustrative example of this. The same paradigm can be applied to most other archaeology related questions.

Deepen Understanding

The bulk of my presentation focused on how reading the Book of Mormon like a real historical record, using material from the right time and place to contextualize and interpret it, helps us better understand its message. These are KnoWhys that use material from Israel, Arabia, and Mesoamerica to deepen understanding of specific events in the Book of Mormon.


I closed the presentation with prophetic statements about flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon and using the social media to do so. My purpose in doing so, of course, is because it is simply not enough to a few Saints to change the way they think about the Book of Mormon. To transition from fairytale to history in their reading and interpretation of the text. The Book of Mormon has the power to change the world, if we can get the world to change the dismissive assumptions it has been making about the book. The world needs to take this book seriously. But that can only happen if we as Latter-day Saints start taking it seriously. Before we change the world, we must change ourselves. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

“The Dominant Narrative is Not True”: Some Thoughts on Recent Remarks by Richard Bushman

The following is making its rounds on Facebook (from this video): Questioner: In your view do you see room in Mormonism for several narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?
Richard Bushman: I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that's what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change. As I have seen this quote flash across my Facebook news feed and thought about how to make sense of it, I have been reminded of the short essay response questions I would often have on tests or assignments in college or even high school. It would not be uncommon for these questions to be built around a quote from an important schola…

Unpublished Book by John L. Sorenson Now Available Online

Whether critics of the LDS faith know it or not, John L. Sorenson’s work on transoceanic voyaging in pre-Columbian times has garnered considerable respect among at least some non-LDS scholars. His publications on the subject span across six decades, and appear in a variety of peer-reviewed and academic publications, such as El México Antigo, New England Antiquities Research Association Newsletter, Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts (published by the University of Texas Press), Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World (published by the University of Hawai’i), and Sino-Platonic Papers (published by the University of Pennsylvania).
He has co-published a 2-volume annotated bibliography of the literature on pre-Columbian contacts, which received some positive reviews. He also co-wrote (with a non-Mormon scholar) World Trade and Biological Exchange before 1492, detailing all the biological evidence for transoceanic contact before Columbus. In a letter thanking Sorenso…