Monthly Archives: October 2011

Mormonism: The Other Brand X

In 1981, the Book of Mormon was printed in the edition currently in circulation today.  Under the radar of most non-Mormons, even its title was revised, to the now familiar “Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  This edition was to usher in a new public relations-driven mission which would effectively change the Latter-day Saint image and double the church’s size outside the U.S. in the next few decades.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been fond of the LDS church’s version of the Book of Mormon.  Although it has a plethora of useful cross-references and footnotes (usually, but I could write another entry on some of the references that are deliberately and suspiciously left uncited), its double-column format and tiny margins don’t leave enough space for my hands-on method of analysis.  That’s not surprising, really, most other religions I’ve encountered aren’t as accommodating with their sacred texts as I’m accustomed to with the Bible.  I just may have outgrown my wide margin NIV, but it looks like Zondervan discontinued that model anyway, in favor of an edition with a full blank page for note taking.  On the other end of the spectrum, Muslims discourage writing anything in the Qur’an, which I believe is a major impediment to Islamic scholarship.  Baha’i publications are serviceable but limited to a single edition of each, many times just a cherry-picked anthology.  The ISKCON edition of the Bhavagad Gita is useful in that it has Hindi, English, and Swami Prabhupada’s commentary for each verse, but it doesn’t leave much room  for anything but his concentrated focus.  The Bible has been subject to much more extensive critical analysis than any other sacred text on earth, yet even when other religions seem to promote study, their publications have confined parameters outside of which the faithful do not venture.

On a recent visit to the local temple’s visitor’s center to ask some questions, I brought my own copy of the Book of Mormon that I use for research.  I had found a reader-friendly edition online which is exactly the same text, just in single-column paragraph form; it still doesn’t meet my needs, but the version that would doesn’t exist in print (I hope to change that someday).  Despite my having been flipping through this edition to read passages, and even using its fore edge to demonstrate my Biblical analog theory, after we’d been discussing for a half hour the sister interrupted me to inquire what book I was using.  She was noticeably surprised when I told her it was the Book of Mormon.

At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how foreign this was to them, and how much of an outsider it made me.  Go to most churches and (aside from pew Bibles) you’ll see people carrying diverse translations of the Bible in a wide range of editions from various publishers; it’s unusual for two people to have the exact same Bible by coincidence.  You couldn’t tell people in your church to turn to 1 Chronicles 1 and expect any of them to be on the same page number.  At the temple, however, one is surrounded by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, yet they still

the Book of Mormon's trademark look is instantly recognizable in any language

look uniform.  The text is different for each language, but the fonts and formats are all the same.  In fact, the primary differences in the versions carried by the missionaries and visiting Mormons seem to be symbols of status.  Only prospective converts ever use the cheap, free copies.  Initiated members have at the very least the hardcover edition, but more likely a “triple” combination (Book of Mormon+Doctrines & Coventants+Pearl of Great Price), and others a “quad” (the triple with the Bible).  The most well-to-do, of course, have the deluxe leather bound quad with their name engraved.  Even though the shape and size may vary, their configurations are homogenous, with identical typeset and printing common to all of them.  Every page is alike in every one of them, so that Ether chapter 8 is always on page 500.  Every English Book of Mormon was the same, except mine of course.

When the title was changed in the 80’s, the LDS church began a campaign to re-brand themselves and their sacred texts, so that Mormons now have a cultic loyalty to their brand that borders on fetishism.   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a corporate logo with worldwide recognition, displayed prominently on employee elder name tags, publications, and buildings.  The Book of Mormon is no longer a book in the traditional sense: words transmitted through a physical medium, that could exist hypothetically in print, in speech, or even in memory.  Instead, the Book of Mormon is a household name product, and its loyal customers refuse any generic facsimile, no matter that all the contents inside are the same.

Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who do this, of course.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are as fanatically loyal to their Awake! and Watchtower magazines, not to mention their own branded translation of the Bible.  Hare Krishnas visibly recoil if I mention the Gandhi or Vivekananda translations of the Bhagavad Gita.  Baha’i scriptures are published with a uniform trade dress in ersatz King James English, and even though none of the Bab’s major works have been translated or printed in full in any language (not even the original Arabic or Farsi), Baha’is I’ve encountered are hesitant if not reluctant to read unofficial, provisional or modernized translations available online because they are lacking the Universal House of Justice “stamp” of approval.  And while translations of the Qur’an are abundant in English, every self-respecting Muslim knows that the only real version is the standardized Arabic text.

They all seem to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity from their preferred brand, the same way I can flip through a bargain box of comic books and stop every time I see the DC comics logo while paying little attention to Marvel or other companies.  DC knew the power of their brand recognition, which is why they retained the DC “bullet” logo for nearly 30 years, only changing it for a major event; and why they’ve almost never altered the Superman logo, except for minor tweaks.  As a comic collector, I can completely understand the psychological propensity to want to accumulate a line of books of uniform design, which is essentially a cult, or religious following.  But preferring a religion isn’t like buying DC over Marvel or Coke over Pepsi; loyalty of this extent not only prevents the consumer from examining any alternatives, it also prevents them from any serious inquiry into their own faith.  Like a faithful customer who eats a certain food brand because that company tells them it’s good for them, but never independently researches a consumer report or outside nutritional information, these fetishists don’t approach their sacred books with the same critical questions that have long been standard to Biblical scholarship.

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Why Do I Hate Mormons?

With all the controversy between Republican candidates about Mormonism, some people have wondered why I haven’t weighed in.  While I want to maintain this as a blog on textual analysis and not politics, I do think it’s important as a critic of Mormonism to establish my position.  Admittedly, this blog exists in part because of the coming attention to Mormonism expected from the presidential race, but should not be confused with campaigning for or against any particular candidate.

First of all, the frequent question that arises from my criticism of Mormonism is, “Why do you hate Mormons so much?”  A point that I’ve made multiple time so far is that criticism of a religion does not in itself equate to hatred towards that group.  While there may be people with an irrational fear or disdain for Mormons, my arguments have all been logically articulated, and targeted at any faiths that share these same illogical beliefs, not just Mormons.  In fact, I’ve been equally outspoken about Christians who essentially hold Mormon beliefs about revelation and scripture.  Since most of my criticisms are applicable to some of the evangelical candidates as well, I see this issue as politically neutral.

Despite my own harsh criticism, however, I would agree that certain candidates and pundits have gone too far.  At the risk of feeding the Mormon persecution complex, I can relate to their perception of being treated unfairly in this climate.  For instance, after Prop 8 passed, overturning gay marriages in California, a huge protest congregated outside the Mormon temple in Los Angeles.  What may have started out as civil turned ugly, with signs and chants about polygamy and incest.  Now, I don’t think it’s victim blaming to suggest that by disproportionately contributing 70% of the funding to the Yes on 8 campaign the LDS church probably created this backlash themselves.  What I do think is unfair, however, is that a little over a year later a rally outside a mosque in Orange County protesting two terror-implicated keynote speakers basically recycled the same incest and polygamy slogans and jeers, but the latter rally was largely condemned by the media.  In my opinion, both protests were over the line, the only apparent difference to public opinion seems to be that the Prop 8 opponents were mostly gay and Mormons are mostly white, whereas Muslims are mostly non-white.

Prop 8 protesters

gay marriage supporters protesting outside the Mormon temple

On the campaign front, the outspoken evangelical candidates all seem to hold American views of Christianity which are closer to Mormonism than to the truth.  Their claims that “God told [them] to run for president” are eerily reminiscent of Joseph Smith’s own announcement for presidential candidacy in 1844.  However, while I don’t think a Mormon president could do any more harm than some of the past presidents with equally fallacious beliefs, I am uncomfortable with the idea of a Mormon president not out of prejudice, but because of the statement it would make.  Up until now, Mormonism has just been another subversive religion that, aside from the settling of Utah before its statehood, hasn’t been a respectable force in the world.  There have obviously been Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and even Baha’i world leaders, but never a Mormon.  An LDS president would elevate the LDS church out of the domain of the crazy religions like Scientology and Urantia, and give it unwarranted legitimacy in the world arena.  Of course, even if a Mormon candidate does win, I suppose it would be a natural development of American folk religion that was bound to happen eventually.  The odds of a logical, orthodox candidate winning an election don’t seem to be a likely prospect.

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First Nephi Part 2

Mormons often think a blogger like me does nothing but read anti-Mormon websites for their research.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I actually love to read Mormon apologetics.  An apologist generally operates from the standpoint that their opponent probably knows every bit of damaging information already, so they’re much more likely to volunteer information that the missionaries might hold back (if they even know about it).

So it was when I was reading about the influence of the apocryphal book of Judith in 1 Nephi.  Judith tells the story of a Jewish widow who seduces an enemy general, and once she has him passed out drunk in his tent, she decapitates him.  This story is strikingly similar to the tale of Nephi finding his uncle Laban drunk outside his house and beheading him so he can recover the brass plates that he came to retrieve (Nephi 4).

Now the influence of the apocrypha in the Book of Mormon is too much of a stretch even for the Mormon concept of revelation.  It’s one thing to suggest that God inspired two separate authors to compose the exact same text of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, but it’s another to have to accept that God inspired an author to borrow material from another book which wouldn’t have been available to him and, according to Joseph Smith himself, isn’t even inspired.  The presence of apocryphal sources is a double-edged sword because it proves Nephi couldn’t have been the author, and also that Joseph Smith could have been.  While reading on the Mormon apologetic website, FAIR, I came across this interesting defense:

It has even been pointed out by LDS scholars that if one were to look for potential parallels with the story of Nephi and Laban, that the story of David and Goliath would be a much better fit than the story of Judith

In retrospect the beheading of Goliath is so obvious, but I have to thank FAIR for pointing out the connection.  What’s interesting about the Mormon defense, however, is how they think that a second influence apparently negates the first, as if it were impossible for Joseph Smith to have drawn upon both texts for material.  It’s certainly not unreasonable to see the similarities, and knowing that the name Nephi is found in the Apocrypha also (sorry to burst FAIR’s grasping at straws to speculate an Egyptian name), it is reasonable to conclude this is just another similarity.  I would actually go one step further and point out that this episode has at least a third influence in the book of Genesis.

As I’ve theorized, Joseph Smith had already read the entire Bible and Apocrypha by the time he backtracked over the lost pages.  His design for the overall book always seemed to be analogous to the Bible, so 1 Nephi lifts much of its narrative from Genesis.  In this story, I believe Nephi’s deception through disguise and even the name Laban were drawn from the marriage of Jacob and Leah in Genesis 29.

It seems rather obvious that Joseph Smith was capable of mining multiple sources that were available to him at the time, and the improved complexity of his writing in 1 Nephi supports this hypothesis.  The only reason for not assuming both were influential sources would be if one had predetermined to believe Joseph Smith, which defeats the point of any rational apologetic argument at all.  Omissions in logic like this may be satisfactory to Mormons who aren’t looking for a logical validation to their faith anyway, but they don’t actually communicate to non-Mormons approaching the text from a logical perspective.

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Inspiration vs. Revelation

I always cringe when I hear Fredric March, playing a William Jennings Bryant-inspired character in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, defending the Bible as “the revealed word of God.”  You probably wouldn’t know it from American Christianity (you might even be questioning why I would dare criticize it), but this phrase reflects a distinctly American view of scripture as revelation that’s not really supported by the Bible itself.  Despite the absence of this wording in the Bible itself, this is one of the prevailing beliefs about scripture in America today.  However, things weren’t always like this.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630’s, a Puritan woman named Anne Hutchinson came to the attention of church leaders for hosting a weekly Bible study that had outgrown her home and was being held in the church.  Her interpretations of the preacher’s sermons had started to deviate dramatically, and when question by authorities, the reason she gave was “an immediate revelation” from the Holy Spirit.  Eventually, she was banished from the colony.  To modern Christians, this judgment seems particularly harsh, even for the Puritans.  Many of them might even profess the doctrine of  sola scriptura and still not see the doctrinal conflict with Anne Hutchinson’s claims.

It was only a few decades later the climate in the colonies would start to dramatically change.  The Quakers arrived in the 1650’s to spread their message of continuing revelation, coincidentally in the same Massachusetts Bay Colony which had expelled Anne Hutchinson.  A clash was inevitable.  But over time, both traditions would come to define religion in America, producing the schizophrenic climate in the 19th century that would be the perfect storm for a wide range of new movements to form: Mormonism,  Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and later, Pentecostalism.

The fundamental flaw with the view of scripture as revelation is that it makes any apparent revelation scripture.  However, Judeo-Christian scriptures as exemplified in the Torah and the Gospels, were not in themselves a revelation, but rather a record of it.  In this paradigm, the revelation is not a transmission of information or data, but the revealing of God Himself.  Scriptures were not information dictated word-for-word from the mouth of God into a mouthpiece, as was claimed of the Qur’an.  The Gospels are witnesses of things seen and heard, not information revealed to a person with no natural knowledge of the actual events, like Muhammad.  Perhaps the single most damaging incorrect belief held by Christians today is to view the Bible the same as the Qur’an, or any other “revealed” text.

This certainly worked in the favor of Joseph Smith, although the Book of Mormon was hardly unique for its time.  By this point, many people held the erroneous view that revelations from God had ceased, and this was the reason no more scriptures were being written.  Naturally, this false belief opened the door for a mountain of new sacred texts to be published by prophets trying to revive the Age of Miracles.  Mormonism alone produced several splinter cults following the succession crisis of its founder’s death.  Ex-Mormon James Colin Brewster published his own purported translations of lost manuscripts, including an abridgment of a “Ninth Book of Esdras” as a warning to the Latter Day Saints.  Self-proclaimed Mormon prophet James Strang claimed to have translated additional Nephite plates, today called the Book of the Law of the Lord by the 300-or-so remaining Strangite Mormons.  During the Era of Manifestations, a Shaker (portmanteau of “shaking quaker”) similarly received revelations from an angel in 1842, published as A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book, and held as equal to the Bible by the Shakers before they dwindled into obscurity (as of this writing, there are only 3 left in the whole world).  It seems the only remarkable quality of Mormonism was that it was the only such American movement to survive past the Great Disappointment of 1844.

Perhaps more important than believing the Bible is believing the Bible for what it is.  If faith in a book were sufficient, as in the message of Mormonism, then there’s seemingly no way to discern between any of these other so-called companions to the Bible.  This concept of revelation also has implications beyond scripture, which corrupt theology and philosophy in general.  Post-Christian atheism takes this heresy to its logical conclusion as a reason for rejecting religion.  After all, if revelation is merely text, data, and information, then why is an omnipotent God’s revelation so limited?  In this view, the Bible should logically give instructions for making the first wheel or nuclear power plant; revelation should have graduated to more modern forms of communication, like silent movies and comic books.  For that matter, it shouldn’t be confined to Arabic, King James English, or Reformed Egyptian, the revelation may as well be a language in itself.

The Book of Mormon is not just a heresy, the entire Mormon concept of scripture is heretical.  The problem is, this same understanding is also shared by millions of Christians who should (in theory, at least) know better.  The rise of “revealed” religions in America like Mormonism and Islam are signs of the decline of the principle of sola scriptura.  It’s evident as more Americans consider themselves “spiritual” than “religious”, that there has been far too much emphasis on feelings, intuition, and subjectivity in our culture.  It seems many Christians, in an effort to appear less rigid or dogmatic, have abandoned the rational branch of our religious heritage because it was descended from the puritans, and have fallen into apostasy instead.

James Strang, an apostate of Mormonism

James Strang, an apostate of Mormonism

For further reading on other obscure, early American scriptures, I recommend American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings

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