Monthly Archives: January 2012

Nephi’s Ark

Although it takes longer to get to this point in the Book of Mormon, the story of the Nephite oceanic crossing in 1 Nephi 17-18 is in reality Joseph Smith’s analog to the flood of Noah.  An elementary comparison of them both by the casual reader would make them appear of similar quality, yet further scrutiny reveals one is clearly of superior literary quality.  While the Biblical account of Noah in Genesis 6-9 is concise, multi-layered, and complex, the Nephite story is simple, long-winded exposition.

Typical for the entire Book of Mormon, nearly every sentence in this passage begins with “and” (most often Joseph Smith’s favorite phrase, “and it came to pass”), or sometimes the occasional “but”, “wherefore”, or “yea” that were characteristic of his making up the story as he went along.  In Genesis, the narrative is laid out in episodic pericopes, the typical style of the Pentateuch, which is arranged more like building blocks than a linear story.  Noah has no lines of dialogue whatsoever (something Smith would remedy in his “inspired translation” of the Bible), but the bulk of Joseph Smith’s story is another run-on speech in 17:23-51 (and if that weren’t enough, Nephi tells us after the speech that he said even more things that weren’t even written in the book!).

Joseph Smith evidently favored the first 9 chapters of Genesis over the rest of the Pentateuch; it is, after all, nearly the only extract of the Joseph Smith translation widely used in a Mormon holy book (the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price), and he revisited the creation passage again in the Book of Abraham (also in the Pearl of Great Price).  Particularly, he must have drawn on the antediluvian section because, on the surface at least, the civilizations and customs described therein are less specific than in later parts of the Bible, just as throughout the Book of Mormon.  Although Nephi talks at length about keeping the commandments in this story, Joseph Smith appears virtually ignorant of the Mosaic Law; there is no reference nor even a hint of awareness of the Hebrew purity code, sacrifice rituals, or the festivals in the Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith was a storyteller, so his interest in the Bible was limited to its narratives, but his undoing was in never realizing the law and the lore were irrevocably intertwined.  Although Moses and Sinai are a great distance away, Genesis still demonstrates an awareness of near-eastern customs and traces of Mosaic law appear from the Lord’s creation sabbath onward.

One of the most astounding feats in the Flood story is that across the span of days and months, every event respects the sabbath starting from the seven days from which God sends the rains for forty days and nights (Gen. 7:4), to 150 days of standing floodwater (7:24), and beyond.  On top of that, each month of the flood corresponds to a day of Creation, starting in the second month (Gen. 7:11) when the heavenly floodgates are opened, in contrast to the firmament created on the second day (Gen. 1:6).  The 150 days, or 5 months, then signify the undoing of the 5 creation days of all life on Earth.  Finally, in the seventh month the ark rests, and after another month-day cycle, Noah and his family depart the ark on the next sabbath-month.  It’s incredible how much nuance and significance is crammed into this brief passage.

On the other hand, Joseph Smith’s imitation is uninterestingly devoid of subtlety or deeper meaning.  His intent here, as in his previously written flood narrative in the Book of Ether, seems to be to apologetically fill in the logistic cracks missing in Noah’s ark.  Here he explains in tedious detail the rather unimportant details of God directing him first where to find the ore so he can craft tools to build his enormous ship, how he made a bellows to blow fire, and even how he made the fire (17:11).  This is clearly a 19th century response to skeptics who questioned the logistics of Noah’s ark building.  Despite being a liar and a fraud, Joseph Smith was a pious fraud in the long line of pseudepigrapha authors from antiquity, and many of his fabrications were designed to offer solutions like this to his contemporary critics of Biblical literalism.

While on the voyage, Nephi’s rebellious brothers tie him up for the space of three days (18:11-14), obviously an anticipatory allusion to the burial of Christ, but with nowhere near the double-complexity in the Deluge.  With nothing else to mention in the undisclosed “many days” that followed, Nephi’s ark lands in the American promised land abruptly and instantly establishes a new civilization.  Here, all of Joseph Smith’s apologetic explanations are undone in one fell swoop, as the very next thing the Nephites do (18:25) is find cows, horses, and goats–none of which were indigenous to this hemisphere (Of course, he had already outdone himself in the Jaredite crossing by curiously mentioning elephants).  While most critics point out such flora and fauna anachronisms, it rarely is mentioned how immediately upon landing in the New World that it occurs.

even the church's artistic renditions of Nephi's ship capitalize on familiar images of Noah's ark

even the church's artistic renditions of Nephi's ship capitalize on familiar images of Noah's ark

Like a bad Hollywood sequel made long after the last installment, it’s undeniable to anybody, except the willfully blind, that Joseph Smith’s imitation is substandard compared to the original.  It certainly doesn’t read as methodically as one would think an ancient Hebrew would write, especially if they were chiseling words on metal plates.  It reads more like the first draft of a novel, or more specifically, like the transcription of a story as it was made up in dictation, which of course it was.

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Evolve

Last year’s Family Guy episode titled “Big Bang Theory” (no relation to the show of the same name) left me scratching my head.  In the story, Brian and Stewie end up outside the space-time continuum after some mishaps with Stewie’s time machine.  After successfully getting back to reality, Stewie determines that the energy he created to free them must have been the cause of the Big Bang, concluding that he must have been put there by the universe to create it.  While this plot could just be attributed to a difference in writers, it still seems unusual coming from series creator and outspoken atheist Seth McFarlane’s creations.  Assuming an intelligence creating the universe is closely theistic, and since no sympathetic depiction of theism ever slips through on Family Guy, this leads me to believe it’s merely the result of a recent trend in atheism.

Stewie and Brian outside the time-space continuum

Stewie and Brian outside the time-space continuum

As much as the New Atheists are opposed to creationism or intelligent design, it’s fascinating how much they seem to believe in an intelligence behind the universe while rejecting an intelligent designer.  Atheist leaders like Sam Harris argue that religion is a vestigial product of evolution that is no longer beneficial to society, which is a value-judgment ironically counter to evolutionary theory.  His followers persistently tell theists to “evolve”, and their definition of evolution is a one-track ascent of man which conveniently leads to their ideology as the ultimate end.  For starters, the entire concept of telling someone to “evolve” out of their own volition is completely unscientific, the equivalent of telling a leopard to change its spots.  Every individual organism would already be at the height of its evolution, after all, and nothing it does can change that.  Next, evolutionarily speaking, one organism is not “more” or “less” evolved than another; concepts of regression or progression are value judgments that only have meaning to man.  The term “de-evolution” is a misnomer, nature is indifferent to which organisms or ideologies ought to reproduce, survival of the fittest is merely the result of the thinning of the herd.

While completely in line with evolutionary theory, these facts are difficult for the New Atheist to swallow.  Just as Sam Harris is seemingly incapable of understanding that science can only tell us how the world is, not how it ought to be, so his followers generally perceive expressing these facts as moralizing.  For instance, atheists generally respond by being insulted when I factually explain to them that the birth-rate of liberals is insufficient to replace the current generation, and that conservatives will marginalize them by virtue of reproducing more frequently.  Mathematically, the side that discourages abortion and promotes heterosexual marriage for procreation has a natural advantage over the side that has non-procreative sex and abortions; this is indisputable scientific fact.  Ironically, the ones destined to prevail generally don’t even believe in evolution, whereas the ideology that does will find themselves the lesser suited for survival.  The scientific solution is for liberals to simply start having more children, yet almost reluctantly they always seem to argue that the conservatives ought to change their beliefs or have fewer offspring.  In other words, they respond to morally neutral facts with moral judgments.  However, they don’t see their recommendations for what they really are–social engineering or selective breeding–they see their ideology as the destined course of human development, presupposing intelligence behind evolution, as if godless nature favors the atheist.  It is an audacious value judgment to assume one’s own ideology is more “evolved” than another, especially when it really has no evolutionary adantages over competing ideas.

Evolutionarily, Islam is the memeplex most suited to dominate the world.  Allowing up to four sexually submissive wives per husband with no legal abortions and starting to conceive very early in life, its birth rate is automatically enabled to be quadruple that of the most sexually active fertile couple.  Its hostile suppression of homosexuality ensures no attrition lost to same-sex intercourse, and the few gays executed under sharia law are more than offset by the millions pressured to marry and produce more anti-gay progeny for fear of their life.  Furthermore, Islam punishes dissenters and apostates with the death penalty and forbids other religions from proselytizing, ultimately ensuring 100% homogenization.  This is just statistical and scientific fact, I am not celebrating the memetic superiority of Islam.  The New Atheists, however, usually cannot understand my describing how the world is in comparison to how it ought to be.  Stating such facts is not bragging about Islam, nor is it suggesting that one should convert to the religion best positioned for world domination.

As a Christian, I can acknowledge the Islamic practices that give that religion an unfair advantage and also denounce them.  The scientific solution, after all, would be for non-Muslims to start taking more than four wives and likewise punishing gays and dissenters severely, but that would not be the moral solution.  Christianity may not be at a reproductive advantage over Islam, but I can still believe it is a morally superior ideology that should not be compromised, and must nonetheless succeed against overwhelming odds.  It is not how the world is by nature, but it is, in my belief, how the world ought to be, and that gives me the moral ground to spread and promote faith in Christ.  The atheists usually agree with me that Islam taking over the world would be a bad thing, although they’re at a loss to explain why.  The New Atheist, after all, has no authority, moral or otherwise, to defend why their reproductively inferior ideology should persevere over Islam or Christianity.  They may think of themselves as more intellectual, ethical, social, etc. than theists, but no law says nature must favor these qualities.  Sometimes stronger organisms survive over smarter ones, but if whatever survives is the product of evolution then who are we to say that gorillas ought to triumph over leopards?  Why should nature favor atheists?  Or why should humans survive, for that matter?  The very people who believe in evolution could, ironically, die out completely and whoever remained would still be the product of evolution.  The atheists who presumptuously think of themselves as the peak of evolutionary development cannot justify their own survival unless they assume some underlying intelligence behind evolution.

The simple value judgments that atheists make about the world, themselves, and others indicates that they don’t genuinely subscribe to their soulless ideology as strictly as they might claim.  Their belief that the world ought to be improving as a natural process is an assumption of intelligent design.  If atheists were to truly divorce their enlightenment fundamentalism from its theistic roots, their idea of how the world ought to be would be drastically different, but it would not be a tenable worldview.  Any worldview must rely on value judgments, after all, which are entirely outside of the domain of science.  Atheistic materialism is a failed philosophy, because philosophy is immaterial.  As much as they may want to keep Intelligent Design out of science classes, the atheist would be unable to relate to the world without an assumed intelligent order behind it all, whether they acknowledge that as God or not.

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Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

If you engage LDS apologists long enough, eventually you’re bound to come across the topic of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.  In the simplest, broadest sense, a chiasmus is a literary device that uses inverted parallelism, which can be labelled as A B B A.  For instance:

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

A – first

B – last

B – last

A – first

There’s really no limit to how many elements can comprise a chiasmus, with additional C, D, E, F, G, etc. elements in between.

When the going get tough, the tough get going.

A  – going

B – gets

C – tough

C – tough

B – get

A – going

All for one and one for all.

A – all

B – for

C – one

D – and

C – one

B – for

A – all

You’ll notice aside from the first biblical example, the rest I’ve cited are common, everyday English idioms.  While ancient texts are rich in chiasmus, there usage is not by any means exclusively or primarily limited to ancient or classical literature, it is a device that has never been in disuse and continues to live on today.  While admittedly there are some simple chiasmus evident in the Book of Mormon, this is not, as the apologists would lead people to believe, an indication that the text is any older than the 19th century.  English literature, from Shakespeare and his contemporaries into the modern age, have produced perhaps more examples of chiasmus than can be found in antiquity.  Joseph Smith’s own personal writing style in Doctrines & Covenants and the Book of Abraham demonstrates use of this technique, so there’s really no reason to look for any other source than him as the author.  The Mormon focus on chiasmus as supposed proof of ancient origin was hilariously parodied in an article titled “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus, and Other internal evidence for ancient authorship in Green Eggs and Ham, demonstrating that ancient authorship could be unreasonably suggested for nearly any work of literature.

While the legitimate chiasmus found in the Book of Mormon are characteristic of the 1800’s, it is regrettable that Mormons fail to appreciate the literary merit of them beyond the apologetic value that they erroneously believe they hold.  Chiasmus is, after all, an undeniable quality of good writing, but sadly Mormons do not appreciate Joseph Smith’s work for its literary achievements because they only see value in the Book of Mormon as revealed scripture.

On top of that, Mormons go one step further from simple chiasmus to suggesting long-form chiasmus in entire chapters (such as Alma 36), and even entire books, like 1 Nephi.  It’s a completely human error to want to find order and design where there is none, and all the elaborate and divergent chiastic diagrams created by Mormons reflect this error.  It’s interesting that while many may try to argue this case of 1 Nephi, no two Mormon scholars seem to be able to independently produce the same structural diagram, and the ones they produce are usually odd-shaped and atypical of historical examples.  Mormons seem to unanimously agree that 1 Nephi is a chiasmus, even though none of them can agree on what precisely that chiasmus is.

The easiest solution to these discrepancies is that there really is no organized structure to be found.  The Book of Mormon is a highly repetitive book that runs on, with few identifiable pericopes.  Basically, it’s exactly the writing style one would expect to find in a book that was dictated orally.  Most of the repetition, I believe, can be attributed to Joseph Smith not being able to remember if he had mentioned an important detail already or not.  As many of the purported chiasmi occur in the Small Plates of Nephi, which were Joseph Smith’s retelling of the lost pages, it suggests he had considerable confusion remembering if he had included certain details the second time around.

One point of repetition which I think demonstrates this can be found as Nephi’s family journeys through the desert before crossing the ocean:

And so great were the blessings blesof the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.  1 Nephi 17:2

No explanation about their eating raw meat is given until paragraphs later:

For the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness; for he said: I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not.  1 Nephi 17:12

Since this was a rather inventive concept, it most likely appeared in the lost pages (transcribed by Martin Harris) and Joseph Smith liked it so much he wanted to carry it over into the new version.  However, it appears he introduced the idea forgetting he hadn’t already explained it in this version.  Perhaps his new scribe at the time (presumably Oliver Cowdery) questioned this detail, which prompted him to repeat it with the explanation; the extent of collaboration between Joseph and his scribes can’t really be known but can’t be dismissed either.  Whatever the case, it seems clear that Joseph Smith realized his error shortly after and immediately corrected it.  Other times, it seems he would repeat details just in case, to be better safe than sorry.  While the repetition may be deliberate and purposeful, there’s no evidence to suggest the author was trying to craft a chiasmus.

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