On Clarity and Misrepresentation

On Clarity and Misrepresentation December 15, 2014

Without clarity there can be no understanding.  Human language is inherently ambiguous.  We’ve all experienced being misunderstood as well as misunderstanding.  Generally misunderstanding is sincere.  Sometimes, however, it is intentional.   Throughout the internet I have been repeatedly vilified for supposedly intentionally misrepresenting Ben Park’s position.  That is not true.  I may have misunderstood him, but it was a sincere misunderstanding.

I accept Ben Park at his word that he believes in the historicity and antiquity of the Book of Mormon.  However, that really does solve my problem his review essay.

I believe that any non-Mormon (or Mormon, for that matter) who read his review essay, and who did note know Ben or his religious beliefs, could only conclude that Ben believes the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth century book written by Joseph Smith, and it should be studied that way.  I don’t see how they could conclude otherwise.

Several of Ben’s supporters have tried to explain how they believe I have misunderstood his real intent.  This has thus become an exercise in circular claimed readings and misreadings.  Unless Ben himself clarifies the issues, this debate is rather pointless.

Let me give an example.  Ben said the following:

For a book that claims an epic scope and cosmological depth, the Book of Mormon has mostly received a rather parochial academic framework. What does the text tell us about Mormon conceptions of scripture? What does it reveal concerning Joseph Smith’s religious genius? How did Mormons use the book during the church’s first few decades? These are certainly important questions, and they have received—and will receive—the responses they deserve. But what if scholars took a page from Mormon and Moroni’s own approach and placed the narrative’s importance on a much broader scale—demographically, geographically, and chronologically?

So, the question is: “What does [the Book of Mormon] reveal concerning Joseph Smith’s religious genius?”  My answer is, if Joseph was not the author of the Book of Mormon, it reveals precisely nothing about his religious genius.  Compare the following statements to try to see my point:

What does Michelangelo’s Pieta reveal about Bernini’s artistic genius?

What does Shakespeare’s Hamlet reveal about Milton’s literary genius?

What does Mozart’s Magic Flute reveal about Beethoven’s musical genius?

These questions are clearly nonsensical.  Why should they suddenly make sense when we are talking about Joseph Smith?

Here is Grant Hardy’s explanation, from the essay I just posted (Smallaxe makes essentially the same two arguments):

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.

Now, maybe Park means what Grant thinks he means.  But these is not the obvious, straightforward reading of Park’s statement.  There is a third possible interpretation, one that I believe all non-Mormons reading Park’s words would immediately assume Park was trying to say: The Book of Mormon reveals Joseph’s religious genius because Joseph is its author.  Just like Hamlet reveals Shakespeare’s genius, not Milton’s.

I am also unconvinced by repeated arguments that Park doesn’t believe what he says in his essay.  He is merely regurgitating what Holland and Shalev believe.  Yes, Park summarizes the ideas in the two books he reviews, but he consistently does so in a positive way, and emphasizes that these approaches to the Book of Mormon is how it should be done.  He agrees with the authors.




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