Grant Hardy and I have been corresponding concerning my interpretation of Ben Park’s essay. I offered to explain his concerns and explanation on my blog. Ben Park also has an open invitation to correct my misunderstandings if he’s like. Here is Grant’s response.
I appreciate Bill allowing me to respond to his concerns about a book review by Ben Park in the most recent Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Unlike many who have commented here and at Dan Peterson’s blog, I have read Ben’s entire piece, as well as the two books that he reviews.
David Holland’s Sacred Borders is about changing conceptions of revelation, scripture, and canon in early America. He mentions the Book of Mormon almost in passing (about 15 pages in a book of 300) as one example among many of texts appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries that claimed revelatory status. I think that the Book of Mormon is more exceptional than Holland portrays it in his work (it makes extraordinarily strong claims about its canonical status, for instance), but he provides a rich cultural background demonstrating how many people at the time felt the need for new scripture that could supplement the Bible.
Eran Shalev’s American Zion looks at the use of the Old Testament in early American culture and rhetoric. One of the five chapters focuses on the Book of Mormon, where he makes the provocative suggestion that the Book of Mormon enjoyed the success that it did because it appeared at the tail end of a minor literary genre of pseudobiblical texts, that is, documents— usually parodies or histories—written in the style of the King James Bible. Shalev is a non-Mormon historian who naturally does not believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but he is a capable scholar who wants to get the details right, and I think that it’s wonderful to expand our LDS conversations about scripture to engage with outsiders. Such scholarly dialogues can help us notice new things about our sacred texts, and see them from fresh perspectives.
As for Ben Park’s review, Hamblin seems to read it from a hermeneutic of suspicion, fearing that Ben and others associated with the Maxwell Institute no longer subscribe to the idea that the Book of Mormon is a revealed text with ancient origins. If true, this would be problematic in an official publication of BYU, a church institution that that rightfully privileges faith perspectives. Fortunately, it’s not true. Ben Park, myself, and everyone that I know at the Maxwell Institute holds rather orthodox views of the origins of the Book of Mormon that include historical Nephites and Lamanites, an actual visit of Christ to the Americas, gold plates, and a miraculous translation. Nevertheless, Hamblin pulls out seven quotes from Ben’s review that he feels are inconsistent with belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
By contrast, I take Park’s assertions of belief at face value (he is, after all, the expert on what he believes and I have found him to be a honest, generous scholar), so if there are things that might seem inconsistent, especially when taken out of context, I try to find a reading that will make sense within a framework of faith. To take Hamblin’s seven offending quotes in order, I read them as follows.
1. “What does [the Book of Mormon] reveal about Joseph Smith’s religious genius?” (p. 167)
There are at least two ways to interpret this statement. Many Latter-day Saints believe that God revealed spiritual impressions to Joseph through the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone, and then Joseph put them into his own words. That would be one possible expression of his “religious genius.” The second is that a closer study of the Book of Mormon will shed light on Joseph’s later ecclesiastical and theological contributions, many of which could be characterized as the result of religious genius.
2. “The future for Book of Mormon studies [lies] within the early Americanist field” (p. 168)
Here is the full quote: “Together these two books demonstrate the potential of examining Mormonism’s keystone document in light of larger historiographical concerns, as well as the future for Book of Mormon studies within the early Americanist field.” Note that Park does not say that there is no future for Book of Mormon studies outside the early Americanist field. He merely suggests that the two books he is reviewing offer one potential approach to the text in an academic field that includes both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars.
3. “[The Book of Mormon is] just another voice in a rancorous chorus that had been filling the American religious amphitheater since the nation’s founding” (p. 169)
Again, the full quote would have been helpful. Park is here paraphrasing Holland’s observation that there were many texts at the time that claimed revelatory status. He writes, “The Book of Mormon was not the only medium decrying America’s tendency to bemoan ‘A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible and there cannot be anymore Bible’ (2 Nephi 29:3) but rather just another voice in a rancorous chorus that had been filling the American religious amphitheater since the nation’s founding.” The basic argument here is Holland’s rather than Park’s. I concede that Park’s use of the word “just” was unfortunate, but on the other hand his paraphrase suggests that Nephi’s prophecy concerning religious attitudes at the time the record would come forth was literally fulfilled.
4. “approaching the Book of Mormon as a way to examine an American problem” (p. 171)
As with any interpretation, it’s important to take the context into consideration. Holland suggested that narrative of the Book of Mormon in some ways mirrored tensions in early American culture between progressive reform and authoritative originalism, and he went on to observe that early Latter-day Saints also felt these tensions. Park agrees, stating that “Mormons were not unique in their attempt to solve this cultural riddle. Indeed, approaching the Book of Mormon as an answer to an American problem, rather than merely a Mormon problem, makes the text much more relevant to students of American religious and intellectual history” (emphasis in the original). A fair reading of the quote shows that the topic here is the reception of the Book of Mormon in the 19th century; it says nothing about its origins.
5. “the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains [of pseudobiblical literature]” (p. 173)
Here Park has shifted his attention to Shalev’s book, and he has described several works from the late 18th and early 19th century written in an archaic King James style. He notes that neither he nor Shalev believe that these were sources for the Book of Mormon, and then states that “they [these pseudobiblical texts] reaffirm the important lesson that the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of the many examples of that embody the same cultural strains.” If the sentence stopped there, where Hamblin cuts it off, the word “best” might well raise questions. I took Park to mean that this might be a best practice within the context of American literary or cultural history—not the best way to approach the text, period. And indeed, if we keep reading, the sentence continues, “and that its importance for American intellectual historians is best seen as part of a tapestry of scriptural voices that speak to the culture’s anxieties, hopes, and fears.” And there it is—another “best” but this time within the clearly demarcated field of American intellectual history. Different approaches to the book, religious or otherwise, might have their own best practices.
6. Hamblin’s rendition is that Park says that “[we should] push to contextualize the Book of Mormon within America’s revelatory heritage” (p. 173)
What Park actually wrote was “To a certain extent [my emphasis] Holland’s and Shalev’s arguments are convincing, and their push to contextualize the Book of Mormon within America’s revelatory heritage is to be lauded.” Note that it is not Park who is pushing for reading the Book of Mormon in an American context; he is simply agreeing with Holland and Shalev. If Hamblin is offended by this approach, the proper object of his ire should be Holland and Shalev, not Park. But Park’s qualifier is important and he goes on to say, “But their conclusions concerning the scriptural text may not be definitive.” In the following pages, he outlines ways in which he disagrees with the authors he is reviewing, arguing that in many ways the Book of Mormon is exceptional, that it is not like the other texts that were analyzed by Holland and Shalev. I agree, and I suspect that Professors Hamblin and Peterson might agree as well.
7. “Scholars of the Book of Mormon should [not] return to the parochial and exceptionalist framework that has so plagued Mormon studies in the past” (p. 174, from the review’s concluding paragraph)
Hamblin’s blogpost began with this quotation, out of order, perhaps because it bothered him the most. He, along with Dan Peterson in the blogpost that started all this unfortunate fingerpointing, saw this as a not so subtle repudiation of their work with FARMS for many decades, even though no such reference was made. Still, an oblique attack might still be an attack, and Peterson asked pointed questions in his post implying that Park’s enthusiasm for these two new books was evidence that he and the Maxwell Institute had covertly abandoned any commitment to the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Using many of the same quotes cited by Hamblin, Peterson asks “Is [Park] saying that the true, relevant ‘intellectual context’ of its message was the culture of the early nineteenth-century United States? Does the Book of Mormon have no actual connection with the pre-Columbian Americas or the pre-exilic Near East, despite its own claims and contrary to what Latter-day Saints have historically believed?” And then Peterson answers his own questions: “Certainly, he seems to allow no clear room for an ancient Near Eastern cultural origin or an ancient American setting for the book” and “it seems pretty clear that he sees little value, if any, in the work done by the Maxwell Institute (aka the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS) prior to its sudden adoption of a dramatically different ‘new direction’ in June 2012.”
This seems to me a misreading of Park’s essay and mischaracterization of his beliefs. But what could Park have meant? Especially since the language he uses does seem rather strong: “Now that the shackles of Mormon historiography’s exclusive nature have been shed, the real work of contextualization and interpretation can begin.” Some of this I would attribute to rhetorical hyperbole, but in the context of the review as a whole, it appears that Park is welcoming new approaches that get beyond traditional Mormon historiography that looked at issues only through the lens of Mormonism itself, that instead place the religion and its sacred texts within broader cultural perspectives, and that invite outsiders like Professor Shalev into a mutually enriching conversation about religion, literature, and history. As he does this, he leaves plenty of room for the book to have ancient origins; that’s simply not his focus. I imagine that Park’s assessment of those guilty of “parochial and exceptionalist attitudes” might include Mormon historians, Mormon literary critics, Mormon theologians, and yes, to some degree, those who have written about Mormon scripture. But Hamblin and Peterson are wrong to take this sentence so personally. I certainly don’t.
I have been involved with FARMS since the 1980s as a volunteer and an author, publishing in the FARMS Review under Dan Peterson, in books edited by John Sorenson and Jack Welch, and in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (where I was an associate editor for several years). I was part of “classic FARMS” and I’m proud of the work that we did there. But we were writing mostly for other Latter-day Saints, and our work was too often narrowly focused on issues of historicity. This is an exceedingly important issue—one that I believe is a matter of salvation—yet there are other significant approaches and perspectives that could be explored. I am excited, along with Ben Park, to see the Book of Mormon read carefully by non-Mormons as well as Mormons, and I hope that it is taken more seriously by students of American history, American literature, religious studies, and comparative scripture. This is the direction that the Maxwell Institute is headed, and though it is an expansion of its traditional mission, I see a great deal of continuity with the past. If you are interested in the Book of Mormon, or curious about what is happening at the Maxwell Institute, I urge you to get a subscription to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and read Park’s review in full (this rather tedious line-by-line rebuttal has not addressed his main ideas, and certainly does not do justice to his astute insights). Indeed, read the entire issue, where you will find that most of the articles start from the assumption that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work, including essays on chiasmus, the socio-political history of the Nephites and Mulekites, and the book’s miraculous translation.
Ben Park has stated that his review was not a denunciation of long-time FARMS scholars or a renunciation of their religious commitments. I believe him. At the same time, Dan Peterson has said that he has no problems with looking at the Book of Mormon in its 19th century context (presumably as a translation) and that he does not regard 19th century approaches and ancient approaches to the book of Mormon as mutually exclusive. He also assures me that his blogpost in which he singled out Park’s essay was not a personal attack, and that his posting it under a photograph of the Community of Christ Temple was in no way meant to imply that Park might be more comfortable in that denomination than in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I believe him. At this point, it would be well to heed the advice that Park offered at the beginning of his review: “What if scholars took a page from Mormon and Moroni’s own approach?” (which would be an odd thing to say if he regarded them as fictional characters). Park had in mind their historiographical approach of placing sacred narrative within a broader demographic, geographical, and chronological context. I am thinking of their teachings on how we ought to treat each other: “Except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father” (Ether 12:34) and “Charity is the pure love of Christ . . . and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:47). Sometimes it seems that the Book of Mormon, as an ancient voice from the dust, was indeed written for our day.