Saturday, July 25, 2015

A response to Richard Bushman

It is dangerous ever to disagree with Richard Bushman about just about anything. But some recent remarks by him, if accurately reported, leave me deeply dissatisfied. (The remarks are found here: -- and they include lots of remarkably good advice. But still I quibble with some of what he says.) Here’s why.

His counsel to focus our faith on Christ rather than Mormonism could be taken by some as an attenuation rather than a refocusing of belief. I’m entirely in agreement that Christ is worthy of our faith and worship while systems of thought and even institutions are not, especially as either of these involves human beings. But I find problematic the idea that we can follow Christ while suspending or minimizing our acceptance of his human witnesses and representatives. Jesus himself said that whoever received his servants received him (Matthew 10:40; John 13:20). Believing in Christ without believing in “Mormonism” leaves hundreds of questions that have to be resolved, of which the Trinity and the nature of Christ’s saving work are only the beginning. In fact, if we try to believe in Christ without accepting his apostles, that leaves us without the witnesses of Peter, John, James, and Paul and calls into question the resurrection of Christ, his teachings, and even his very existence. I’m concerned that if we focus too much on the fact that the vessels are “earthen,” we may miss the treasures that they carry (2 Corinthians 4:7).

My conclusion is that Latter-day Saints must of course make Christ the center of their faith and seek to be his disciples. But to be in any sense Latter-day Saint followers of Christ, it makes sense for us also to believe in the reality of prophetic calling and inspiration and in priesthood authority and the importance of ordinances and to “receive”—listen to and accept counsel from—the Church’s leaders. It also makes sense for us to accept the Book of Mormon as a witness of Christ and the Doctrine and Covenants as containing the voice of Christ. Since I believe—not with blind faith but after careful consideration and with what I believe is strong spiritual confirmation—that the things I’ve listed are true and real, I believe that truly following Christ also means accepting them. If others don’t believe these things but want to follow Christ, I certainly think that is better than not seeking to follow Christ at all—and I hope they find a way to support that effort that makes Christ a living reality for them and not just a subjective ideal.

I’m sure Richard Bushman has respect for the leaders of the Church. He knows many of them well. But the comments some have made in response to the post in which he is quoted make it clear that some people—particularly of an intellectual bent or with an interest in Church history—have a negative attitude toward Church leaders and find in some of what Bushman has said a rationale for their attitude. I’ve had enough interaction with Church leaders to be quite aware of their flaws, but I also know of their sincerity, devotion, and inspiration. One of them once told me, “You know, the Lord doesn’t hand us things on a silver platter.” Yet I know of and have witnessed moments of remarkable revelatory power. It saddens me that some are hyper-aware of the imperfections of Church leaders but seem to have no sense (or a minimal sense) of the inspiration and heavenly power that at times is made available through them.

One question (made in the comments) was that, if Church leaders don’t know the truth of Mormon history, how can we trust them in anything. My answer would be that, first of all, knowing the history is not their job—at least not their main job. My second answer would be that I think the post exaggerates the difference between the “standard narrative” and “true history” as it has been uncovered by professional historians. Besides the fact that history is always a reconstruction, it’s possible to know the factual details of events without understanding their meaning. Ultimately, I believe it takes spiritual insight to understand history, as much as to understand anything. There are major gaps and inaccuracies in some versions of the “standard narrative,” and these should be corrected. But I don’t think the standard narrative should be replaced, especially for purposes of religious discipleship, by a washed out version of the facts that focuses so much on historiographical procedures and unresolvable questions that it misses the human and spiritual essence. Furthermore, in matters of religious belief, I believe choosing to trust the witness of those one considers worthy of trust must work in tandem with, and ultimately take priority over, strict adherence to the rules currently accepted by professional historians.

I’m married to someone who is among a handful of genuine experts on one difficult episode of Mormon history, namely, the experiences of black Latter-day Saints and their exclusion for a significant period of time from the full privileges and blessings of the Church. Because of who my wife is and the work she has done, I have become intimately acquainted with the history of this issue and even more have gained some sense of what black members of the Church have felt and experienced. Though I’ve had to revise some of my thinking, overall what I’ve learned has strengthened rather than diminished my faith. I have a much richer sense of how the Lord works with and through imperfect human beings. Though I wish the history could have unfolded differently in many ways, learning of the struggles of Church leaders to understand the will of the Lord has been instructive. It seems clear to me that these leaders acted with authority and inspiration in doing the Lord’s work, while at the same time not being as fully informed about some historical details as we are now—not because they were uninspired or unintelligent in general, but because they lacked access to information or made assumptions that led to misunderstanding some of the historical record. (And honestly, they were very busy doing other important and often extraordinarily hard things.) The circumstances and culture of their time certainly had an impact. But along with all of this, I have become more clearly aware of the process by which revelation can come and of the powerful ways it has on occasion come. There are many unnoted people who are among the most Christlike who have lived on the earth. But the leaders of the Church, who have the blessing and burden of being better known, have generally been devoted, sincere followers of Christ and, in their office and calling, have done many good things and have generally done them remarkably well. I believe they are worthy of our respect and gratitude. As President Eyring has said, if we love them, we are more likely to hear and accept the inspiration that comes through them. (And I love the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that Tom Griffith likes to quote—21:5—that indicates we need patience and faith to bear with the human weakness of our leaders and hear the Lord’s word through them: “For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.”)

On the topic of the Book of Mormon: Richard Bushman knows the Book of Mormon well and has written some illuminating things about it. But the remarks quoted in this post leave the impression mainly of some tentativeness about the book’s ancient origin. I have a number of problems with the way that impression is created as well as some thoughts about what seems to me a better approach.

(1) Though pointing to one interesting problem (the presence of nineteenth-century religious language in the Book of Mormon), there’s no mention of the many departures from standard nineteenth-century language and thought (more on this below).

(2) This leaves in some the impression that Bushman views the Book of Mormon primarily as a nineteenth-century document, and those having this impression easily go a step further to imagine that it was entirely made up by Joseph Smith—despite Bushman’s statements to the contrary (or at least his statement that the book is so complex that it must be the product either of inspiration or [credibility defying] genius). (I added “credibility defying,” because he’s talking not just about genius on the order of a Shakespeare, but on an order for which it is difficult to find a credible parallel.)

(3) I am dissatisfied with Bushman’s suggestion that the nineteenth-century language may be the result of “amplification.” I first heard that theory many years ago and have thought about it as I’ve read the Book of Mormon another dozen or so times, and it doesn’t make sense to me. Except for possible amplification at a very local level (in terms of phrasing—where amplification can arguable be necessary even in quite a close translation), I see no evidence of it. No one to my knowledge has identified the passages that are original to the plates and those that were added in the course of translation. Any extensive additions would seem to play havoc with the narrative or with the sense we have of particular authors speaking. Furthermore, some of the rhetorical and narrative structures seem so deliberate and solid that there doesn’t appear to be much room for additions. I think there are better explanations for the nineteenth-century language (see below).

(4) Bushman (as quoted here) doesn’t seem to be aware of the detailed work that has been done by linguists suggesting that the language of the Book of Mormon is not primarily nineteenth century—in fact, that much of it displays constructions not found in the nineteenth century or more usual in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (These are not, by the way, necessarily constructions reminiscent of the King James Bible. They often find parallels elsewhere in material from those centuries, especially in the sixteenth.)

(5) I know Bushman is aware of the studies indicating there are Hebraisms and other ancient stylistic features. He may not have kept up on the latest in such studies, and he likely chose not to mention even those he knows of in this interview. But mentioning them would have nicely balanced the impression the interview gives. I suppose it’s possible Bushman doesn’t give as much weight to such features as I do. But this is a case where I trust my own judgment. As a student of language and literature, I feel quite confident that many (if not all) of the Hebraic and other ancient features scholars have identified provide genuine evidence for the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon. Chiasmus, for instance—a feature that has been much argued over—is clearly present. In some cases, it is so elaborate and elegant, so expressive and functional, that its presence is undeniably deliberate. (Either that, or we have to start imagining that the sonnets embedded in some of Shakespeare’s plays appeared by chance.) I believe the evidence is very strong that (a) Joseph Smith and his associates knew nothing—certainly nothing very specific or conscious—about chiasmus; (b) they were not aware that chiasmus appears in the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, for me it stretches credibility beyond the breaking point to think that the more elaborate examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon came about as the result of unconscious influence from the King James Bible (for one thing, these examples are clearer, more elaborate, and usually more functional than the biblical examples as they appear in the King James Version). There’s also the peculiar fact that the chiastic features are mainly in the first half of the Book of Mormon, including in the first portion of the Large Plates and in the Small Plates, which were translated last, after the rest of the book. Nothing, of course, that our rational minds discern is absolutely certain, but this is a phenomenon that seems to me more solidly supported by the evidence than some phenomena that science claims to demonstrate. If it were to be shown that the Book of Mormon is in fact wholly the product of a nineteenth-century mind, the presence of some of the examples of chiasmus—and certain other remarkable features of the book—would strike me as a mind-boggling mystery that I would love to have someone satisfactorily solve.

(6) Despite the many years the Book of Mormon has been studied, scholars have barely scratched the surface of what would need to be known to understand the relation of the English translation to the original text. Presumably, the original was in some form of Hebrew. Furthermore, the written script (“reformed Egyptian”) may have been at least partly ideographic, which means that a translation could be close but still open to wide variation in precise wording. Much of the book was heavily edited by Mormon, but it apparently includes large chunks taken directly from his sources. Even with the little we know, I can think of some factors that could contribute to a much better theory than the “amplification” one and certainly than the theory that it is entirely a nineteenth-century fiction. An adequate theory would need to account for all the evidence, including phrases and longer passages paralleling the New Testament, some language suggestive of nineteenth-century religious expressions, some language peculiar to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a good deal of language suggesting an ancient original. It would also have to account for the very strong evidence that there were plates and for the evidence that Joseph Smith, in translating, recited words that he saw before him, so that the translation proceeded quickly and continuously—meaning that, in whatever way his mind and his language may have been involved, he did not deliberately ponder or puzzle over how he should phrase the translation. The content seems to have unfolded to his mind as he read the words, not as something he was previously aware of.
            Among the factors that have a bearing on the nineteenth-century language are these:
   (a) Nineteenth-century religious language was soaked in biblical language and thought. Nineteenth-century readers of course had their own understanding of the Bible, but their language and thought, especially when it came to religion, had been shaped by centuries of religious tradition heavily informed by the Bible, with special intensity during the Reformation and the religious fervor of early America.
   (b) New Testament language differs in some ways from the language of the Old Testament, but at the same time the language of the New Testament is heavily indebted to that of the Old—even more so than appears to modern readers. Much New Testament language comes from the Old Testament via the Septuagint translation, which differs in some respects from the Hebrew text. Many phrases in Paul’s epistles are quotations from the Old Testament, quotations that are not always apparent to most readers. Another example is “full of grace and truth” from the Gospel of John: it’s a quotation from Exodus 34:6 (“abounding in kindness and faithfulness” in the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation; “abundant in goodness and truth” in the King James Version).
   (c) Though it’s possible to quibble with some of the details of Margaret Barker’s work, I think she makes a persuasive case that the New Testament understanding of Christ is much more continuous with older Jewish traditions than the Bible as we have it makes obvious. This is largely because those who shaped later Jewish thinking rejected some of those older traditions and edited the Hebrew scriptures in such a way as to eliminate or obscure those traditions. Yet these views (including the idea that Israel’s God—Yahweh—was the Son of the Most High God) continued as an important part of Jewish culture and are evident in much extra-biblical literature and have left traces in textual variants in the biblical text. (Oxford UP’s Jewish Study Bible notes one example of this last phenomenon: Deuteronomy 32:8 almost certainly first read “according to the number of the sons of God,” a reading still found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other versions, but was later revised to read “in relation to Israel’s numbers” “to avoid a polytheistic wording” [2069].) In identifying Jesus as “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Messiah,” and “Savior,” early Christians were therefore not creating new concepts out of whole cloth. Jesus was the fulfillment of many centuries of expectation in far more specific ways than those who know the Bible only in its current form would be aware of. It’s probable that Lehi and his family were adherents of the older traditions at about the time that these traditions were being viewed with disfavor by those who ended up shaping the biblical text as we have it.
   (d) The Christocentric language and thought of the Book of Mormon appears much less strange once you’ve read some of the material Margaret Barker draws on. Still, it’s true that the Book of Mormon is much more explicit in naming names: Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist, for example. The only way to account for these, I think, is to take seriously the New Testament reports that the names “Jesus” and “John” were provided by angelic messengers (I don’t know what to do with “Mary”) and thus that there really are angels, as well as a personal God who uses angels as messengers. Obviously, those who reject the reality of angels have undercut any possibility of taking the Book of Mormon literally, or the New Testament too, for that matter.
   (e) The Book of Mormon itself gives a reason it is more explicit than the Bible about some aspects of the plan of salvation. Alma tells the people in Ammonihah that, as the coming of Christ approaches, “Now is the time to repent. . . . Yea, and the voice of the Lord, by the mouth of angels, doth declare it unto all nations; . . . wherefore they [glad tidings of what is to come] have come unto us. And they are made known unto us in plain terms, that we may understand, that we cannot err; and this because of our being wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 13:21-23). As I understand it, he is saying that angels are sharing this news broadly but that it is being shared more explicitly with the Nephites because they have been cut off from contact with other nations, including the nation they came from. They won’t see the Savior till after his resurrection, and their witness of him won’t be made known to the rest of the world for hundreds of years. For whatever reason, it will be a more explicit witness, naming names and giving details that will corroborate the biblical record and be transmitted under more immediate divine direction. I think this all suggests that the clarity and specificity of Book of Mormon prophecies were divinely mandated.  
   (f) It’s possible that some of the language reminiscent of the New Testament was an accommodation to the language available to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries. It’s also possible that some was supplied by Mormon in his editing and abridging. If Jesus really did appear to the Nephites and taught them much more than is recorded in the Book of Mormon—and if Jesus also taught much more in Palestine than is recorded in the New Testament, including instruction during his 40-day post-resurrection ministry—then it could be that many of the ideas and expressions found in both the New Testament and Book of Mormon have Jesus himself as their source.
   (g) Finally, there’s the question of how close the English translation of the Book of Mormon is to the original text. Assuming the ancient text was in some form of Hebrew, then renderings in English will necessarily have a different feel than the Hebrew, even if the translation is quite close. (The use of “reformed Egyptian” writing would also have an impact.) Someone who knows more than I do—maybe a whole group of people—need to look carefully at evidence of what a Hebrew text of some kind might have looked like. From the little I know, I think it’s very possible that some phrases used as part of nineteenth-century religious discourse (for example, “song of redeeming love”) could effectively translate the original text—especially because such phrases, even though they may not appear exactly in the Bible, have themselves been shaped by biblical ideas and language. (See note 1 for an example of what I’m getting at.)

NOTE 1: Here’s a little example based on my very feeble grasp of Hebrew and of issues involved in translation. Three passages in Alma use the phrase “redeeming love” and associate it with “song” or “singing.” “Redeeming love” could mean “love that redeems (purchases, preserves)” or possibly “love by reason of redemption” or “redemption by means of love.” There are Hebrew equivalents to all of these that would sound quite normal (as far as I can tell). “Redemption” or “deliverance” is associated with “songs” or “singing” in several passages in Isaiah, the Psalms, and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. In those cases, the word for “sing” or “song” is ron (song, ringing cry, shout of deliverance) or rinnah (ringing cries of joy , praise, or supplication), rather than shiyr or shiyrah (ode, religious song, song of Levitical choirs). So Psalm 32:7 has the phrase räNëy faLë† (“songs of deliverance” in the KJV), which a newer translation might render “joyous shouts of deliverance.” And Isaiah 35:10 has “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs [rinnah] and everlasting joy upon their heads.” The last part—B'riNäh w'sim'chat ôläm al-roshäm säsôn—could be rendered “with ringing cries (of joy, praise, supplication) and joy everlasting on their heads.” I’ll skip over other relevant verses. With some of what I know or suspect in mind, I would render the verses in Alma something like this:
  Alma 5:9: And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which circled around [compassed: ’atar=encircle (for attack or protection)] them, were they loosed? I say to you, Yes, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did shout (cries of) redemption by love (or love by reason of redemption). And I say to you that they are saved/delivered.
  Alma 5:26: And now look, I say to you, my brothers, if you have undergone a change of heart, and if you have felt to shout the ringing/joyous cry of redemption by love (or: the ringing/joyous cry of love by reason of redemption), I would ask, can you feel the same now?
  Alma 26:13: Look, he has loosed thousands of our brothers from the pains of hell; and they are brought to shout (cries of) redemption by his love (or: shout (cries of) love by reason of redemption).
  The phrase translated as “redeeming love” in the Book of Mormon might have been something like “ringing/joyous cries (shouts) of deliverance [räNëy faLë†]” or “ringing/joyous cries [riNäh] of redemption [G'uLät or f'dût] by thy love [B'ahávätô]” or “ringing/joyous cries of love (lovingkindness [chešed] or love [ahávat]) by reason of [min] redemption [G'uLät or f'dût]). (For chešed and ahávat, see Jeremiah 2:2, among other verses.)
            The point of this experiment is to ask this: Suppose that the original phrase was something like “shout ringing/joyous cries of redemption by means of love,” which could have been a fully meaningful Hebrew phrase, and that it needed to be rendered into English? “Shout” might have been translated as “sing” (as it usually is in the King James Version), “ringing/joyous cries” could have been translated “song” (again, as in the King James Version), and “redemption by means of love” (or “love by reason of redemption”) could have been rendered “redeeming love.” The fact that “songs of redeeming love” appears in nineteenth-century religious literature is a result in part of biblical ideas and the language of the King James Version (where God's redemption and love are as pervasive in the Old Testament as in the New), as well as ways those ideas and that language were modified over time. As a phrase possibly familiar to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, it would have been an appealing and effective translation.