As a historical source on the ancient Americas, the Book of Mormon is worthless. That observation, though, has not the slightest impact on the existence or growth of the LDS church, nor should it. Just why that is the case tells us much about the relationship between the claims of any faith and the reasons why people stay loyal to it. And however paradoxical this may sound, it might even point to the real merits and value of the Book of Mormon.
Reading the responses to my recent columns on the Book of Mormon, I have been bemused by the absolute nature of some of the views expressed, both by Mormons and ex-Mormons. The attitude goes like this: “Either every syllable of the Scripture is true, or else the whole religion is a vicious lie. Well, maybe we can allow an errant syllable or two due to mistranslation, but otherwise, it’s a hundred percent true or a hundred percent false.” That is, in other words, the attitude of nineteenth and twentieth century fundamentalism at its crudest and most simplistic. Obviously, I don’t accept it in the context of any faith-tradition. That doesn’t just mean I think it’s a bad idea, it’s a deluded and naive way to approach history.
Of all the reasons why Mormons leave the faith, archaeological or historical qualms surely account for an insignificant minority of defectors. Am I wrong about that? At the other end of the process, I find it difficult to imagine many people becoming Mormon because of the church’s ability to explain the settlement of the New World. Newcomers join for excellent personal reasons, in search of community, of values, or new and better models of family. They are not going to abandon those powerful and enticing structures, those networks of community and family, just because a supposedly inspired text is wrong about ancient archaeology.
A religion – any religion – is vastly more than a single scripture. It is composed of the traditions and history accumulated by believers over the centuries, their experiences and memories, their shared daily realities. It is a matter of culture, and when I say that, do not take it as meaning something trivial or dismissive. Isn’t culture a vehicle for progressive revelation? As I say, I am speaking of any and all religions, Christian and otherwise.
For Mormons, as for other believers of most shades, historical or archaeological claims rank low in the structures of belief. Once within the faith, any nagging concerns about historical issues are easily set aside. People are often very good at juggling competing statements and belief systems in their minds, and when conflicts arise, they are assigned to separate mental compartments.
On a personal note, I have done my share of Mormon tourism: Independence, Kirtland, Palmyra, the hill Cumorah, and lots of places in Utah (I haven’t made it to Nauvoo yet). Once, at Palmyra, I visited the Sacred Grove, where Joseph Smith reportedly received his first Vision. I met a woman there who was overcome with emotion contemplating the great events associated with the place, which had, she surely thought, led to the faith that formed her life. Not for a second do I demean or make fun of her experience, although I cannot possibly share it. Her experience of faith had made the grove sacred, and made it a holy place for her. And that theme of subjective life-experience is critical, whether or not an actual angel ever visited the spot, or whatever Smith may or may not have done there. No amount of reading in mainstream archaeology is ever going to shake such faith.
As I have argued, mainstream Christian faith is far, far, better rooted in authentic history than is Mormonism (as in, night and day), but the vast majority of ordinary mainstream believers would be hard pressed to explain or describe just why or how that is. Like Mormons, they take the history at face value without probing too deeply.
Nor of course is the Bible immune to historical challenges. If we took a survey of contemporary historical scholarship, we would find many scholars who give no credibility to statements in that book referring to times before the Exodus, and quite a number would discount the existence of Moses. The fact of the Exodus itself has been an academic battleground for decades. The reality of Solomon, David and their immediate successors is fiercely debated, as Minimalists deny the historical value of pretty much everything in the Bible before the sixth century BC.I am quite conservative on those matters, to the point of defending the existence of Moses, as well as David’s dynasty. I believe in Moses partly because nobody would have invented such a convincingly foreign Egyptian name for the great Jewish national hero. I also think that, on occasion, the Minimalists are so determined to avoid evidence that runs against them that they themselves act like blinkered fundamentalists, but that is a debate for a later column.
We are not dealing with a Book of Mormon situation, where scholars deny that the societies and ethnic groups existed at that time, and the baby-and-bathwater critics do not represent the academic consensus. (Or should that be, throwing the baby out with the bulrushes?) Even so, much of the Biblical narrative is under severe attack, and in critical areas. Just what would happen to the Judeo-Christian narrative without the Exodus? Yet none of those assaults make the slightest impact on ordinary believers, few of whom have the slightest idea of the gulf between sacred scripture and secular criticism. If they know, they don’t care.
Nor, perhaps, should they. Religious narrative is simply different in kind from sober mainstream history, and teaches truth in ways that go far beyond painful literalism. If, for example, we were to reject the existence of Abraham as a historical individual, we still find immense value in the stories surrounding him.
That distinction is even more accurate when we deal with religious narratives that scarcely bother to claim historical roots. Even for many who reject the Bible’s religious claims, the Book of Job is an immensely valuable exploration of human dilemmas, not to mention the work’s stunning literary qualities. In that sense, then, it is absolutely true, even if Job himself never existed – as he presumably did not. As a sober historical treatment of tenth century Scotland, Macbeth fails miserably, but it is a miraculous source of truth about human behavior and political ambition. Would any critic be silly enough to reject the play’s value because of its historical deficiencies?
To take another example, both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien created fictional worlds that have had a vast cultural and religious influence worldwide. Both, too, created elaborately-described landscapes that can be mapped in some detail. Scholars have been able to track the influences that shaped the authors in the process of creation, so that Tolkien probably used the English Black Country for Mordor, and Lydney for the Shire. But nobody imagines that the events of the novels actually took place in those real-world settings. Similarly, nobody thinks that Narnia is a real place, although many millions have had their lives fundamentally changed by the stories set there.
Perhaps the ancient American worlds depicted in the Book of Mormon were Joseph Smith’s Narnia.
The more I look at Smith, the more in some ways I admire him. He showed all the talents of a creative thinker, and a maker of imaginative stories, much like Tolkien or Lewis. He was in love with the American landscape. Wherever he looked around him, in every hill and river, he saw a story. When he found a place or an object, he could immediately tell you a tale associated with it, and always with a romantic name. Yes, he invented those stories, but does that mean they should not be retold?
Smith also saw holiness everywhere, and following the ways of thought of his time, he reported that in Biblical and Hebrew forms. On occasion, other people came to the places, and saw the holiness he had read into the landscape. That’s why I regret the Mormon trend to relocating the sacred landscape down in Meso-America as opposed to in the US proper, in Ohio or Illinois or Missouri, where perhaps more modern Mormons could share Smith’s experiences.
The Book of Mormon does not contain literal historical truth. I say nothing about spiritual or religious truths that faithful believers can find in it.