Despair December 28, 2014

I have come to despair of ever having a coherent discussion with liberal Mormons.  Conservatives and Liberals each accuse the other of misrepresentation, while constantly talking past one another.  (Note, I consider myself an LDS moderate, since I believe in evolution, billions of years of the Earth’s existence, etc.  So even at the beginning there is confusion when liberal Mormons call me a conservative.)

The latest example come from David Bokovoy here.

Among many other things, David misrepresents my position on biblical and Book of Mormon studies.  (The point of the article was actually about how we as Mormons should read other peoples scripture–something Bokovoy seems to have misunderstood.)  He claims I have:

openly criticized academic courses that teach the Bible or the Book of Mormon from either a literary or historical perspective.

Let me clarify.  I said no such thing.  I said the scriptures of all religions–Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc–should be taught as scripture.  This is because the Qur’an, for example, changed the world not because Muhammad was a good story teller, or a master of Arabic semi-poetic language, or used striking literary imagery.  The Qur’an is an important text because a billion Muslims believe it is scripture.  To understand its significance you need to understand why Muslims believe it is scripture, and what it means to Muslims as scripture.

My objection is to reductionistic studies or classes that approach the Qur’an or the Bible only as literature.  Such approaches obscure the difference between the Qur’an and Shakespeare.  If there were a Book of Mormon studies program which offered a wide array of classes on the Book of Mormon, then a course on the Book of Mormon as literature would be an important part of such a program.  However, if a university offers only one course on the Bible, or the Book of Mormon, or the Qur’an, then it should be a course on the significance of these books as scripture to the people who believe in them.  That is the most important thing ordinary students need to understand about the scriptures of other peoples.  I have actually taught a course on the Qur’an, and that is precisely how I taught it.

Of course this does not mean–indeed it does not even imply–that literary features or historical context should be ignored.  Quite the contrary, you cannot understand the Qur’an as scripture without understanding the Arabic language, or Arabic poetic literature, etc.  Historical context is likewise crucial to proper understanding, as are geography, philology, archaeology, art, ritual, etc.

A last concern.  There is a potential equivocation going on here.  As I noted in the article, teaching the Bible as literature is sometimes academic code language for teaching the Bible as fiction.  (Whether the Bible or the Book of Mormon is fiction or not has been debated for centuries.)  A course on the Book of Mormon as literature likewise could possibly mask academic code language for a course on the Book of Mormon as nineteenth century fiction–inspired or not.  People interested in this discussion should understand this possible equivocal use of language.





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