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

Richard Lyman 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 scholar or historical figure, with the essay prompt asking something along the lines of (a) what do you think this means, and (b) do you agree or disagree, why or why not?

In these tests, (a) always came with (b) because (b) is utterly unintelligible without (a). Before a person can agree or disagree, and understand why they do or do not agree, they have to make sense of what is being said. And not everyone is going to make sense of it the same way. For a teacher grading (b), it is hard to tell just what the student is actually agreeing or disagreeing with without first getting (a) from the student. It involves contextualizing, and contextualizing is an act of creation that we all engage in as we read, whether we know it or not.

Some contextualize differently than others. Some contextualize well while others do not. Generally, those who are unconscious of how they are interpreting (think the meaning is “obvious”) are not contextualizing well, and are likely importing context from their own background, assumptions, and understanding without even knowing it. But even among those who are good at creating contexts within which to interpret statements, there are disagreements.

For me, in trying to make sense of Bushmen’s recent comments, I am looking for other things he has said that might help me understand what he means by the “dominant narrative” and it being “not true” and needing to be “reconstructed” and “absorb” new information.

I look at his remarks about seer stones less than a year ago, where he compared them to an iPhone, and clearly articulated his belief that seer stones really worked and Joseph Smith really used them to receive real messages from God and translate real ancient records. I remember John Dehlin specifically being shocked to find out that Bushman was not really on the same page as he was. Remembering that leads me to suspect that others now are misreading him here, just as many had misunderstood where he really stood before his seer stone/iPhone comments last year.

I also look at his essay on Joseph Smith and money digging in the recently published A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, edited by Laura Hales. There Bushman talks about how, back in the 1970s money digging seemed so momentous and damaging to the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith, but now with all the context from the 19th century folk practices, it seems pretty harmless. It is easily woven into the narrative about Joseph Smith and we can all move on.

I also think of his Foreword in the book From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Mike MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, published just last year. Bushman gives the book high praise. The book tells the familiar story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, but includes many new and unfamiliar details for most Latter-day Saints, such as Joseph Smith’s money-digging, seer stones, and so on. But the story still involves angels and plates and translation.

These are relatively recent publications, so are likely close to Bushman’s current views. When used to contextualize Bushman’s recent comments, they suggest to me that Bushman does not have in mind wholesale abandonment of the core LDS narrative, including the First Vision, translation of the Book of Mormon, etc. Rather, that these narratives as told by the Church stand in need of correction. As they stand, they are not true and cannot be sustained. They need to absorb the new information and reconstruct the narrative (as is done in the MacKay and Dirkmaat volume), but they do not need to fundamentally change.


Understood that way, I wholeheartedly agree with Bushman (though I probably would not have said the way he did), I see progress in this regard already being made, and look forward to seeing more.

Comments

  1. I think I agree with your read of the context. If I were him a better way of putting it would've been "The dominant narrative simplifies out many details, but none of those are anything to be ashamed of. Sure the truth is more complex, but if anything it drives home that the Lord works with real people, in a way that is understandable to them in the cultural context they're coming from. But there's nothing wrong with that, and it doesn't change the truth of the core claims of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ."

    ~Jon

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  2. Good article Neal. I think Jon Goff's re-rephrasing expresses it well

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  3. There are serious questions that arise when we agree that the "narratives as told by the Church" are not correct. Where did those narratives come from? And why have they persisted for so long in the face of new historical understanding?

    As far I understand things, and I may be wrong, the "dominant narrative" was constructed, approved, and preserved by the Church. This narrative has found its way into Church published materials, General Conference talks, and even the scriptures themselves (JSH). If this narrative is false, why is the church perpetuating it? In light of new discovery and understanding, why did the Church cling to this narrative for so long?

    Most importantly, if the Church (via the Q15) is responsible for a false narrative, how can we trust them? How can we trust any organization that suppresses and knowingly alters its own history?

    As I have studied Church history, for the most part, it hasn't been the humanity I find shocking - it's the lying.

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  4. I don't understand the confusion. It seems Brother Bushman is saying the dominant narrative is that of our romanticized church history. The pictures of Joseph Smith translating with the gold plates next to him on a table (no seer stone in sight) or the singular first vision story, are not an accurate portrayal. I even grew up with the romanticized love story of Joseph and Emma, never hearing about 14 year old brides. I, like many others, was taught that alternatives to these were anti-Mormon lies.

    Now we fast forward into an new era of information access. If the church is to be viable for the next generation, it will have to incorporate the real life details into the Mormon narrative. Brother Bushman's remark about how it will be harder for older members is the clue to understand that the dominant narrative he's talking about, is the cleaned up version of the Mormon story and as he says ''it can’t be sustained'' as it ''is not true''. The controversy is in his admission that what we have been told in the past is not true. It should not be a controversial statement when (as one example of many) you have a seer stone in possession of the church that has been kept hidden all this time, juxtaposed to a painting of Joseph running his finger along the gold plates as he translated. One of those can't be true and he would be lying if he denied it.

    If Brother Bushman's confession about the lies church leaders have propagated, raises your eyebrows, then you might be one of those old people he mentioned.

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  5. To me, the gospel/Church has remained strong since its inception nearly 200 years ago. The saving and perfecting powers of Christ are no less profound today as they always were. What has weakened over that time is the faith of various members, in part because they misapply the Church's narrative. They put themselves, and not the Church, on "shaky ground" by looking to historiography rather than to God for progression and as a test of gospel truths. That having been said, I don't so much fault the answer as I do the question since it presupposes things that are clueless about the real intent and purpose and workings of the restored gospel/Church.

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  6. Members are often forced to look to history because we have been taught stories that are not true. For example, when I joined the church as a teenager, I was taught that Joseph Smith TRANSLATED an ancient language directly from gold plates. This teaching was accompanied by pictures of JS running his finger over the engraved characters. The pictures show him studying the plates.

    However, in reality, JS did not use the plates to translate anything. JS produced the Book of Mormon by looking at a rock (seer stone) in a hat. EVERY account substantiates that version of history. Where did the other version come from?

    Translating an ancient language from gold plates is VERY DIFFERENT from the rock-in-hat method used by Smith. The former method is not a translation at all (unless we redefine the word). This isn't a narrative that is missing details, it is an entirely different story.

    Is it any wonder that my faith was wounded when I discovered the true source of the Book of Mormon? Now, it may still be possible that God was involved and that the BoM is divine, but the problem I face now is trusting the institution that gave me the first (untrue) story.

    I think this is a common experience shared by members who are struggling.

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    1. Matt,

      The problem with the picture you describe is with your understanding of the situation, and not with what happened. There actually was a short period of time when Joseph Smith tried to go it alone without a scribe, before he had Emma help and before Martin Harris came to be a scribe. It is the time when he copied off some of the characters onto a piece of paper and translated them, never mind what text the artist painted on the canvas. During that time he actually used the plates in his presence. Joseph himself mentions that period of time in his historical accounts.

      It was not until repeated scrapes where people kept trying to get at the plates that he started hiding them as far away as possible from the house, in the woods, and then using both the interpreters (what we later called Urim and Thummim) and his seer stone, both to see the Book of Mormon plates and to translate them, simultaneously. It was the same way in which he saw the parchment of John and also read pages from a book that was placed behind his back when people around Josiah Stoal doubted that the seer stone worked and accused Joseph of fraud (which behind-the-back-book-reading also formed the basis of the testimony of Josiah Stoal in 1826 and 1830 that could not be impeached in court, and which in turn resulted in Joseph's acquittal in 1830).

      That way, if anyone ever attacked while he was translating, the attacker would not be able to get at the Book of Mormon plates at a time when he was most vulnerable and unready for an attack (because he had his face buried in a hat to exclude the light from the outside while he was seeing the plates and translating).

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  7. Members are often forced to look to history because we have been taught stories that are not true. For example, when I joined the church as a teenager, I was taught that Joseph Smith TRANSLATED an ancient language directly from gold plates. This teaching was accompanied by pictures of JS running his finger over the engraved characters. The pictures show him studying the plates.

    However, in reality, JS did not use the plates to translate anything. JS produced the Book of Mormon by looking at a rock (seer stone) in a hat. EVERY account substantiates that version of history. Where did the other version come from?

    Translating an ancient language from gold plates is VERY DIFFERENT from the rock-in-hat method used by Smith. The former method is not a translation at all (unless we redefine the word). This isn't a narrative that is missing details, it is an entirely different story.

    Is it any wonder that my faith was wounded when I discovered the true source of the Book of Mormon? Now, it may still be possible that God was involved and that the BoM is divine, but the problem I face now is trusting the institution that gave me the first (untrue) story.

    I think this is a common experience shared by members who are struggling.

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    Replies
    1. Excellent point. When does withholding the truth move from sin of omission to sin of comission?

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    2. I would also add that the church has demanded complete honesty and integrity from me for my entire life. That has been drilled into my soul! Is it too much to expect the same in return? No half-truths, no spin. Just the truth.

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    3. I would also add that the church has demanded complete honesty and integrity from me for my entire life. That has been drilled into my soul! Is it too much to expect the same in return? No half-truths, no spin. Just the truth.

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    4. Matt,

      The problem with the picture you describe is with your understanding of the situation, and not with what happened. There actually was a short period of time when Joseph Smith tried to go it alone without a scribe, before he had Emma help and before Martin Harris came to be a scribe. It is the time when he copied off some of the characters onto a piece of paper and translated them, never mind what text the artist painted on the canvas. During that time he actually used the plates in his presence. Joseph himself mentions that period of time in his historical accounts.

      It was not until repeated scrapes where people kept trying to get at the plates that he started hiding them as far away as possible from the house, in the woods, and then using both the interpreters (what we later called Urim and Thummim) and his seer stone, both to see the Book of Mormon plates and to translate them, simultaneously. It was the same way in which he saw the parchment of John and also read pages from a book that was placed behind his back when people around Josiah Stoal doubted that the seer stone worked and accused Joseph of fraud (which behind-the-back-book-reading also formed the basis of the testimony of Josiah Stoal in 1826 and 1830 that could not be impeached in court, and which in turn resulted in Joseph's acquittal in 1830).

      That way, if anyone ever attacked while he was translating, the attacker would not be able to get at the Book of Mormon plates at a time when he was most vulnerable and unprepared for an attack (because he had his face buried in a hat to exclude the light from the outside while he was seeing the plates and translating).

      Delete
  8. The definition of the word translate according to Google is to "express the sense of (words or text) in another language." By that metric, how can one call what Joseph Smith did with the Book of Mormon as anything else? Isn't that precisely what he did? It was written in reformed Egyption and he rendered the meaning in English. That sounds like translation to me. Just because the story is more nuanced than the narrative that I got in Primary does not imply that anyone was lying to me or deliberately misleading me. I also think it is fantastic that the Church is clarifying these things publicly on their website; and after the initial surprise I was delighted to learn the detail that he translated by looking at a stone in his hat. I know that the Book of Mormon is true and I study it every day and that is the basis I use when evaluating new information about the provenance of the book.

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    1. I would suggest that reading words directly from the stone would be dictating and not translating. The witness accounts all agree that Joseph did NOT use the plates during dictation. Thus, if there are no plates, there are no words to "translate."

      This may not be important to some, but to me Joseph's DICTATION (based on english words directly from God) is so full of errors, it becomes difficult to accept. The errors in the BoM would be much easier to reconcile if JS had actually been translating a foreign text. But from what we know, this isn't the case.

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    3. Like you, Steve Murphy, I believe the Book of Mormon to be true and I study it every day, a practice that has brought me closer to God and made me happier. That belief, based on a willingness to believe, is a gift of the spirit. That humbles me when I encounter those who don't believe. In other words, I am aware that my knowledge of the Book of Mormon's truth is based on spiritual experience rather than merely on a correct or superior evaluation of existing evidence.

      Even still, there are the facts that Matt mentions. Yes, the story of the Book of Mormon's translation is a messy and contradictory one. Frankly, the story of any translation is messy and difficult. Just google the name "Constance Garnett" and thus enter the violent and vehement world of strong opinions re the English translations of Russian literary classics. Worse still that the Book of Mormon's translator was an uneducated farm boy whose lexical errors are myriad and manifest. And not just lexical errors, right? How, for instance, do we explain that some errors in Nephi's Isaiah citations, dated 550-ish BCE, can be shown to come directly from the KJV Bible, dated 1700-ish CE? And so on and so forth.

      But there are also facts that speak in favor of the Book of Mormon's divine origin. Matt cites lexical errors; let me present literary facts. The Book of Mormon's literary structure is as complex and intricate as, say, Infinite Jest's or Pale Fire's structures. That may not mean much to non-writers, but it's a really big deal. You can make up stories; you can't make up the intricate weaving together of story to form coherent and consistent meta-narrative meaning. The Book of Mormon has a fractal literary structure -- a structural synecdoche, if you will, that supports the Book's myriad stories concerning redemption, sin, and further redemption. A structural synecdoche of a son doing his father's will. It's there in every chapter and story of the book. The presence of this structure means that the Book of Mormon's narrative bones, not its surface language, are its real beauty. The truth of literary translation is that you can change the words but you can't change the core narrative structure. (You can learn more about this in Grant Hardy's fine book "Understanding the Book of Mormon.) Joseph Smith of course wouldn't have known any of this when he set about to translate or make up (depending on your view) the Book of Mormon. Yet Mormon, the book's main narrator, definitely would have known about it, given that he'd just complied nearly 1000 years of record keeping, a time period that would have necessitated much translation, given how quickly language changes in even only 100 or 200 years. Mormon would have seen first-hand how to use structural synecdoche to "overcome" the challenge of writing a book for an unknown audience (though he was shown us in vision) at an unknown time.

      You really will find the evidence you're looking for. But Bushman did have it right: the church's present narrative does need to change. And it will, and it is. (Matt Evans)

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    4. Matt,

      Or, he was dictating the translation, the way he did with the parchment of John that he saw using the stone and then translated what he saw. I can see that happening based on all the evidence I have seen.

      Josiah Stoal recollected a time when some people around them were calling into question Joseph's abilities to see with his stone, during his money-digging time. At that time, Joseph was asked to read a book behind his back as proof of his abilities. According to Stoal in court testimony, Joseph did just that.

      If Joseph could read a book behind his back (as Stoal maintained), and could see a parchment that he then would translate, a parchment he most certainly did not have in his possession and which would have been halfway across the world from him, buried, he certainly could have seen the plates he kept hidden in various places in the woods while he was translating.

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    5. "And not just lexical errors, right? How, for instance, do we explain that some errors in Nephi's Isaiah citations, dated 550-ish BCE, can be shown to come directly from the KJV Bible, dated 1700-ish CE? And so on and so forth."

      I once looked into those alleged errors of the KJV that were cobbled into the Book of Mormon. In just about every case I found that it was more differences of opinion than outright errors. And, I also came across a Targum of Isaiah that actually says "Red Sea" in the exact same verse that Joseph put "Red Sea" (although the rest of the text of the Targum disagreed with the rest of the translation of the verse.

      The biggest problem for anyone claiming that Joseph simply quoted out of a KJV Bible while translating is the collection of eyewitness testimonies we have. All are unanimous that Joseph had no books or manuscripts on the table with him when translating, and we know Joseph had his face buried in a hat.

      Additionally, the evidence that can be drawn from some of the accounts of some of the eyewitnesses shows that Joseph did not even own a Bible during the time he was translating. When he moved out of his parents' home he did not take the family Bible with him.

      This is supported by comments that when questions arose someone had to go out and obtain a Bible during pauses in the translation. But, then, he would go right back to where he left off, again, without a Bible anywhere near him. If he had tried to use a Bible during the translation, somebody would have noticed. None ever did.

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    6. I forgot to mention that those sections of the Book of Mormon containing the large portions of Isaiah were being translated during the time he was staying with the Whitmer family. Joseph had picked up where he left off in the Book of Mosiah, and then translated from 1 Nephi to Words of Mormon, lastly, which would have been during the last part of the translation period, ending on about July 1, 1829. That puts the translation of that portion during the time of his stay with the Whitmers, for he had moved into the Whitmer home to finish the translation, which also would have provided more eyewitnesses who would have seen his use of a Bible, had he actually tried to use one during translation.

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    7. One last post. I mentioned a Targum of Isaiah above, but I realized that I needed to provide clarification so as not to result in potential confusion or misunderstanding. I posted elsewhere the following (with clarifications added here):

      I was digging around through Targum Jonathan for Isaiah, and noticed that the way the original author paraphrased Isaiah 8:23 (English reference: Isaiah 9:1) to refer to the miracle of the sea (or, power of the sea, etc.) I wondered whether there were an English translation of the text of that Targum for later reference for the use of others who do not read Aramaic. I found one and it was of interest what I found. The translator inserted the word Red into the reference, so that his translation reads: “because they did not remember the power of the Red Sea” therein. (See C.W.H. Pauli, translator, The Chaldee paraphrase on the Prophet Isaiah [London: London Society’s House, 1871], 30; italics in original)

      Found also at URL: https://archive.org/stream/chaldeeparaphra00uzzigoog#page/n46/mode/2up

      Kind of lends weight to the idea that a translator might want to insert a clarification as to which location or geological feature is intended. There are plenty of examples in the ancient translations of translators of the Hebrew of the Bible doing just that sort of thing in various places, so my point is supportable on just that ground alone, but it is of interest that a later scholar, decades after the time of Joseph Smith, would do as Joseph did, decades before, and translate “Red Sea” in the Targum for the same Isaiah verse found in the Book of Mormon where Joseph also had put "Red Sea."

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  9. For those who might be interested, see "Richard Bushman Reaffirms His Testimony of 'angels, plates, translations, revelations'" at MormonStories.org: http://www.mormonstories.org/richard-bushman-reaffirms-his-testimony-of-angels-plates-translations-revelations/. (This was posted a few days after the most recent comment string above.)

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  10. Neal: I think Bushman should have been clearer in his statement. Hard to forgive for someone who’s field is the conveyance of knowledge. Making a punchy statement like the one mentioned pines for clarification, and he should have known it. I am beginning to feel disenchanted with some of our venerable best and brightest. This is something that troubles me. We should be watchful, I think, to avoid scholar-worship. I have appreciated Richard Bushman's words about the Book of Mormon, but I also have the image in mind of when he was directly involved in the showcasing and promoting of apostate Quinn at a recent MHA awards event. For me, scholars have shown too often how limited they sometimes are in their understanding. I no longer see them as oracles, or care as much about their bio's and academic medals. I think also about the surprisingly ignorant views of Leonard Arrington as quoted in his recent biography. For what it’s worth, then.

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  11. Further, If I were in attendance at that little fireside, my question to Bushman would be something like:
    "You say 'The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained.' Please tell us IN SPECIFICS what has been our narrative that is not true. As a new convert in college as a history major in the 1970's, I was hearing about seer stones, Joseph's many wives, and other fun things at our LDS institute. True, the Ensign magazine was not bannering these issues, but so what? You are saying that the new, needed, 'reconstructed' narrative would destroy the faith of our little ignorant 'grandmothers.' How so? Can you elaborate? Please tell me--not in generalities or principles--but in specifics, what is it that makes our narrative 'not true'?"

    Bushman's fawning fellow-Mormon Liberals in the room were maybe too fixed in their awe and scholar-worship to ask him that. I, for one, am not impressed to hear him later make concessions in saying he still believes in the golden plates and angelic visits to Joseph. What concerns me is that he downplays the role of prayer and the Spirit of God, and is 'teaching' us that testimonies can come from other means. (Such a what -- Patrick Mason's doctrine of doubt as a belief system?)

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