I imagine that very few of the readers here are unfamiliar with Murphy’s Law: “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.” If you’re like me, alas, you know it intimately well, from direct personal experience. There are also a whole host of corollaries to Murphy’s Law, all of them somewhat dire and all of them absolutely true. Probably my favorite among them is this: “It’s impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.”
I think of that one often when I read what some of my fiercest critics have to say about me over on what I occasionally call the Peterson Obsession Board. Still, they puzzle me more than just a bit: I haven’t been able to decide whether they’re so hostile to me because they thoroughly misunderstand what I write, or whether they thoroughly misunderstand what I write because they’re so hostile to me.
For instance, in yesterday’s blog entry I chuckled a little bit skeptically over the boasting that I’ve observed for years now about all of the glorious things that certain former believers in the Restoration allegedly do every Sunday, now that they no longer attend church or keep the Sabbath. And now, par for the course, certain of the folks at the Peterson Obsession have taken that to mean that, in my judgment, everybody who leaves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leads an empty and pointless life. Which has led to not just one but two indignant threads denouncing me and, for what it’s worth, pointing out that I’m actually the one who leads a pointless and empty life — and, perhaps by now (I haven’t looked for a little while), that my late mother wore Army boots and that So Was My Old Man.
On a more substantive level, folks at the Obsession Board have noticed that I regard the speed at which the Book of Mormon was dictated, and the complexity of its content, as evidence for its divinity and authenticity. The trouble is that they seem to imagine me to regard that speed and that complexity as slam-dunk proof of its authenticity and its divinity. But I don’t. I never have. I see the speed of the Book of Mormon’s dictation and the complexity of the Book of Mormon’s text as evidence against the notion that Joseph Smith simply made it up, off the top of his head.
We now have pretty good evidence that the Book of Mormon as we have it in printed English editions was dictated at a rate of roughly 8.5 to 12 pages daily, day after day, week after week, until it was completed — first and final draft, really — within a little more than two months. That’s a torrid pace, frankly. I’m a pretty quick writer, and, fairly faithfully for years now, I’ve kept daily records of how many words I’ve written for publication. (I don’t count this blog, incidentally.) I have never, during those years, been able to maintain for more than a few days the speed of composition that Joseph Smith must have maintained for more than two months, if he was the author of the Book of Mormon. And even that torrent of productivity has only occurred two or three times, in short bursts. And I have a Ph.D. and a computer.
I’m impressed with the rapidity of the dictation of the Book of Mormon, and with the complexity of it. But that’s only part of an argument that Joseph Smith wasn’t the book’s author, which is only part of the overall cumulative argument for its authenticity and divinity. Which, in my view, is impressive but isn’t proof. I don’t believe that it was ever God’s intent, this side of the veil, to provide intellectually coercive proof for the Book of Mormon or for the Restoration more generally. And, since I don’t believe that “proof” is available anywhere, I’m scarcely going to insist that a single strand of what I term the overall cumulative case for the Book of Mormon — not even the testimony of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, impressive though I find them — constitutes “proof.”
Still, as I say, I find the complexity of the Book of Mormon and the rapidity of his dictation powerful indicators that Joseph Smith wasn’t simply making it up as he went along. And, to illustrate my position, I will now cite an anecdote about the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce that is related by the American horror and science fiction writer Stephen King.
I’m not exactly a major fan of Stephen King. I’ve never read any of his novels, for example, and, if I’ve ever watched a movie based on one of his stories, I couldn’t name it. (Alone among Americans, perhaps, I’ve never even watched The Shining.) But we were up in Maine last week, and Stephen King is a son of Maine — born and raised there, educated at the University of Maine, and still living in Bangor, Maine. I’m even told that most if not all of his stories are set in Maine. So, while it was a surprise to find a quite small but surprisingly good bookstore on the very pier in Bar Harbor, it was hardly unexpected to find in it several books by Stephen King. One, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner’s, 2000), caught my eye, and I bought it. (Incidentally, as luck would have it, when we returned to Manhattan a few days later, our hotel window looked down on the architecturally significant building constructed early in the twentieth century for Charles Scribner’s Sons.). On page 151, Stephen King tells a little tale about James Joyce:
According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair:
“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
“Seven? But James . . . that’s good, at least for you!”
“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is . . . but I don’t know what order they go in!”
There is, however, no evidence of which I’m aware for Joseph Smith suffering from “writer’s block” during the “composition” of the Book of Mormon. And no evidence that he experienced any difficulties in structuring it. No wadded up, abandoned, first drafts. No switching paragraphs around. No rewrites. Day in and day out.
That may not impress some people. But it certainly impresses me. It’s a small thing, perhaps. But it’s not nothing.
Posted from Miami, Florida