Category Archives: Understanding the Book of Mormon

“Understanding the Book of Mormon” reviewed by FARMS

I’ve been wondering how long it would take for my book to be noticed by the professional LDS apologists, and what they would say about it. I just found the review by FARMS today. Here’s the link to FARMS Review of books. Scroll to the bottom of the page.

The reviewer seems to completely miss the point of the book. He seems to expect that the only reasonable way for an evangelical audience to treat the Book of Mormon is to parrot without critical evaluation all the standard LDS apologetics in favor of it. I guess if you disagree with the LDS party line, you are engaged in “indoctrination.” To the reviewer, I’m guilty of apostasy, and of trying to “lure Latter-day Saints from their faith.” I find especially distasteful the implication that anyone who disagrees with the LDS story is attacking the faith of Latter-day Saints.

He castigates me for an “elementary and superficial” book that offers no new scholarship. But the point of the book is merely to summarize and present an overview to a non-scholarly evangelical audience. He says I failed to even mention the literature that answers the critics. He must not have read my footnotes, where I point out to the reader where he or she can read the perspective of LDS authors on various subjects.

Anyway, read the review yourself, and tell me what you think. In what ways is the anonymous reviewer correct, and in what ways does he miss the mark?

The Book of Mormon and the Latter-day Saint Witness

In my latest series of posts, I’ve been discussing how the Book of Mormon is used in Mormon life and culture – an expansion of chapter eight of my book Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Previously I described the Book of Mormon’s evidential function: how the Book of Mormon catalyzes a self-validating spiritual experience that convinces Latter-day Saints of the divine authority of Joseph Smith and his mission. The invitation to seek a spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon’s truth is directed externally as well, to potential converts investigating Mormonism.

In keeping with this evidential function, the Book of Mormon is the LDS Church’s most important missionary tool. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports (p. 142) that “all LDS missionaries encourage those they contact to read and pray about the book as a means of receiving their own testimony from God about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”

In a speech reprinted in 2005(Ensign, Oct 2005, 60-62), former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson said:

“I challenge those who are in business and other professions to see that there are copies on the Book of Mormon in their reception rooms…. I challenge all of us to prayerfully consider steps that we can personally take to bring this new witness for Christ more fully into our own lives and into a world that so desperately needs it.”

But the Book of Mormon goes beyond inviting its readers to accept its truthfulness. It also models a particular way of responding to a religious message. In so doing, it affirms the evidentiary function. But beyond that, the Book of Mormon exerts a formative influence that has shaped the contours of Mormon culture.

One example of this culture-forming power is seen in a paper given by Don Bradley at the Sunstone Symposium in 2007, called “Making Witnesses: The Book of Mormon’s Secular Strength”. Bradley argues that the Book of Mormon employs a variety of means to create the reader’s expectation of a certain type of religious experience. By doing so, it creates a culture of witness or testimony. That is, the Book of Mormon teaches and models the pattern of how to obtain a witness from God, and thus of how to act as a witness oneself. This repeated pattern affects the way in which the reader experiences and receives the book.

For example, the Book of Mormon’s narrative passages provide a paradigm for those who desire to obtain a witness. Typically, genuine conversion to Christ is accompanied by the reception of spiritual knowledge and certainty, which then leads to a desire to bear one’s testimony to others. The reader is thus encouraged to receive the Book of Mormon in just the same way that they read of its characters receiving Christ.

Moroni 7:30-32 offers a doctrine of witness. It sets forth the idea that the role of angels (presumably including the angel Moroni) is to declare God’s word to certain chosen vessels to bear testimony of him. But it is only by the testimony of the few that the rest of humanity can exercise faith. A few receive the witness of angels so that all may receive their witness, and through it, the witness of the Holy Ghost.

Two witness statements have been published in every edition of the Book of Mormon since 1830. The Testimony of Three Witnesses andThe Testimony of Eight Witnesses both report how groups of people saw the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was purportedly translated. We might conclude that the testimony of the Eight has greater evidentiary value, because the Eight claimed to have actually touched and hefted the plates. They report a physical event. But the testimony of the Three has been much more prominent in LDS use. I believe this is because their witness functions as a model for the contemporary reader of the Book of Mormon. Like the Three, but unlike the Eight, the experience of gaining a witness of the Book of Mormon today is not a physical or audible event, but occurs within the heart and mind.

These various Book of Mormon features work together to model how the reader is to receive the text, and how he or she is to become a witness in return. This takes shape in LDS culture, for instance, in the monthly testimony meeting, as well as in proselytizing methods, where bearing one’s testimony of the Book of Mormon is probably the central component.

The example of testimony formation illustrates the culture-shaping power of the Book of Mormon. The book acculturates its readers to new norms, and initiates them into a community of witnesses spanning from the text to the local congregation. I plan to explore the Book of Mormon’s culture-forming influence in my next post.

How Latter-day Saints Use the Book of Mormon

My book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, provides an overview of the content of the Book of Mormon and explores the claims Latter-day Saints make about the book as an ancient record and divine scripture. But chapter eight breaks new ground by evaluating how the Book of Mormon is used in LDS life. This is the subject of my most recent posts.

Previously I mentioned a paper by Mark D. Thomas, wherein the author sought to discern what active Latter-day Saints value about reading the Book of Mormon. Based on my interpretation of Thomas’ remarks, and the response offered by John-Charles Duffy, I have summarized five basic ways the Book of Mormon functions in Latter-day Saint religious experience. In the last post, I explained the therapeutic, aesthetic, and moral functions of the Book of Mormon in LDS life.

The fourth use of the Book of Mormon reported in Thomas’ survey is as a conduit of revelation. When people stated what they like about the Book of Mormon, they reported how the book becomes a vehicle for experiential revelation from God. This is different from saying that the text is or contains the word of God. Rather, the Book of Mormon acts as a door to the spiritual world. Latter-day Saints believe they actually hear personally from God as they read, receiving promptings of the Holy Spirit to give them insight about life. These spiritual messages are not necessarily tied directly to the content on the pages before them. Instead the book becomes the medium rather than merely the source of such revelation.

By what it teaches and models, the Book of Mormon creates the expectation that such individual revelation is the norm. Terryl Givens labels the experience of this two-way communication with God as “dialogic revelation.” He says, “The [Book of Mormon] scripture hammers home the insistent message that revelation is the province of everyman.” (“The Book of Mormon and Religious Epistemology,” Dialog 34, p. 40). He refers to 1 Nephi 10-11, where Nephi expresses a desire to see for himself the things his father had seen in a vision, and notes that “Nephi is commended, not reproved, for seeking access to the mysteries of heaven for personal rather than public edification”, while his brothers are harshly condemned for rejecting such a prerogative for themselves. Thus the Book of Mormon defines personal revelation as the norm of LDS spiritual life, and also becomes the vehicle through which Latter-day Saints expect to receive it.

The fifth way the Book of Mormon functions for Latter-day Saints is evidential. People in Thomas’ study said they valued the Book of Mormon because it fortified their confidence in Joseph Smith and the LDS Church. The book provides them with an inner way of knowing the truth, by the power of the Holy Spirit. So its function is not merely to teach, model, and provide guidance, but to convince.

The Book of Mormon itself expects its readers to seek a spiritual experience that will verify the truth of its message. Moroni 10:4 says:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Thus the book boldly invites a response: not to evaluate its doctrines or historicity, but to ask God to make its truthfulness known by supernatural means.

This invitation is directed first to those who grow up within Mormonism. Young people are urged to “gain a testimony” for themselves by reading and praying about the Book of Mormon. This spiritual witness is a crucial formative experience by which those who are raised in the faith are individually converted to it. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports (p. 143) that “for millions of Latter-day Saints, their most important experience with the Book of Mormon has been the spiritual knowledge that they have received of its truth.”

This experience of gaining a testimony is decisive. If the Book of Mormon is accepted as divine scripture, then it is possible, even necessary, to accept Joseph Smith’s spiritual authority and thus everything he represents. Doubts or criticisms toward the Book of Mormon are not resolved primarily by pointing to external evidences, but by an appeal to the decisive confirmation received through this inner experience.

In my next post, I will explore how the evidential function of the Book of Mormon is also directed externally, toward potential converts investigating Mormonism, making the Book of Mormon the predominant tool Latter-day Saints use to proselytize others.

How the Book of Mormon Functions in LDS Experience

This month I am reposting a series of reflections I wrote that appeared last summer on the Koinonia blog, which explore the multi-faceted relationship Latter-day Saints have with the Book of Mormon.

In 2006, Mark D. Thomas presented at paper at the Sunstone Symposium, entitled “Marketing Research and the Book of Mormon.” Thomas surveyed 57 respondents, all active members of the LDS Church, about their experience with the Book of Mormon. He asked them the kind of questions asked in marketing research: first, what they liked about the Book of Mormon, and second, why they valued that attribute. While the study is not large enough to be quantitatively reliable, it is qualitatively helpful to discern what drives Latter-day Saints when they read the book.

Based on my interpretation of Thomas’ remarks, and the response offered by John-Charles Duffy, I have summarized people’s answers into five basic ways the Book of Mormon functions in Latter-day Saint religious experience.

The first function is what Duffy calls therapeutic, meaning that the act of reading the Book of Mormon gives people certain positive feelings that they value. Respondents said that, as they read, they felt something positive. They felt close to God. They felt what they interpreted as the presence of the Spirit. They experienced good feelings like hope, peace, comfort, encouragement, and uplift.

One of the leaders of the LDS Church, Richard G. Hinckley, expressed this in an article in the Ensign magazine (June 2008, 68-69):

“When I read the Book of Mormon, something inevitably happens to me. My burdens feel lighter. Faith and hope replace my worries, concerns, and doubts. Life appears brighter.”

The second function Thomas’ study identified can be called aesthetic. Simply put, respondents like the story itself, which makes it accessible and thus a tool people will use. In particular, people said they liked reading their own historical circumstances – their own life, and the life of the nation – within the Book of Mormon drama.

This aesthetic response to the Book of Mormon leads directly to its third function, which I call the moral use. People said that they like how the Book of Mormon provides guidance for how to live their lives. It provides moral certainty and religious authority against the evils of the world. It shows its readers how to live a fulfilled life. People like the ideals that reading the book points them to, such as peace, virtue, values, and eternal life.

Latter-day Saints experience the moral guidance of the Book of Mormon through a process they call “likening the Scriptures.” This unique LDS phrase comes from 1 Nephi 19:23, where Nephi wrote that, as he taught his people, he “did liken the scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” The phrase describes how the reader places himself within the text, to see his own individual life situations and issues in the pages of the book. She compares the scriptures to her own life, asking questions like, “What principles are taught in the scriptures I just read?” and “How do those principles relate to my life?”

Latter-day Saints have great confidence that the Book of Mormon will provide wisdom for their lives. They believe that its teachings are applicable today because its ancient writers prophetically selected material that would speak to the modern world.

The moral use of the Book of Mormon is repeatedly urged upon Latter-day Saints by their leaders. For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley challenged the LDS to finish reading the Book of Mormon by the end of the year (Ensign, August 2005, 6):

“Without reservation I promise you that if each of you will observe this simple program, regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God.”

Usually the Book of Mormon is studied individually or as a family. Some Latter-day Saints mark the pages with colored pencils, or make notes in the margins. Many use study supplements, dozens of which are available from LDS booksellers. Unlike traditional Christian Bible studies, groups that meet informally to discuss the Book of Mormon are rare. But the Book of Mormon is a regular subject of Sunday school classes. LDS leaders do not preach expositionally from the Book of Mormon. Yet its principles inform many of their talks, and they often retell the book’s familiar stories to underscore religious principles and reinforce moral behavior.

Next Post: two more functions of the Book of Mormon in LDS religious experience.

How Latter-day Saints Experience the Book of Mormon

Last summer I wrote a series of blog posts for Koinonia, a blog featuring biblical and theological conversations for the Christian community. I posted the links, but in case you did not take the time to go over to the Koinonia site, I am re-posting those articles here.

Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the keystone of the Mormon religion. It is certainly not the keystone of Mormon theology, beyond its basic portrayal of Jesus and a few other points. Most of the significant doctrines that define contemporary Mormonism are not found in the Book of Mormon – the plurality of gods, the deification of worthy men and women, the eternity of matter, the pre-existence of human souls, and so forth. But this does not render the Book of Mormon irrelevant. The book’s enduring relevance is found primarily in the place the book holds in Latter-day Saint experience. My premise is that evangelical Christians most wisely address the Book of Mormon when they understand not only how to respond to its claim to be an ancient scripture, but also when they grasp the multi-faceted relationship Latter-day Saints have to the Book of Mormon.

I approach Mormonism from two defining perspectives. The first is my experience growing up in an active Latter-day Saint home, which gives me both first-hand knowledge and empathy. The second is my training in missiology. (Long ago in seminary I studied to be a cross-cultural missionary. I see my ministry in Utah in that light.) This perspective encourages me to pay attention to two key components. One is the biblical message itself, which transcends culture and never changes. The other is the audience to which that message is addressed. We must get the gospel right and do biblical theology well. We must also understand the Mormon people well, in the context of their culture.

Thus, in our communication of the good news to Latter-day Saints (as to anyone), we must ask basic questions like: In this culture, how do these people communicate? How do they make spiritual decisions? What do you value? How do they view themselves and others? What is their epistemology? What forces shape their religious identity? And how are the answers to those questions different in LDS culture compared to my own cultural norms, and compared to biblical norms?

Latter-day Saints, like any people, hold to their beliefs and commitments for a wide variety of reasons. Many of these reasons have nothing to do with considerations of truth and falsehood, and thus do not respond merely to cognitive arguments. People follow their beliefs in response to formative cultural forces and events, and in reaction to emotional experiences. Thus effectively sharing the good news of God’s grace to Latter-day Saints involves an appeal to the emotions and to the will as well as to the mind, all in the context of their cultural understanding and response.

I affirm that evaluating LDS beliefs in light of biblical truth is vitally important. But I do not believe apologetics or comparative doctrine approaches are sufficient. Like the apostle Paul, in addressing the diverse audiences of Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, and Athens, our witness must also take into account the world view and life experience of the Mormon people. To that end, my purpose in writing about the Book of Mormon is not offer another refutation of its claims. I do provide an overview of those arguments in my book, Understanding the Book of Mormon. But what I hope to contribute is some insight into how Latter-day Saints experience the Book of Mormon in their daily lives, and its formative role in shaping their understanding of the world and of themselves.

For example, in his landmark book, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scriptures that Launched a New World Religion, Terryl L. Givens identifies four ways the Book of Mormon is typically read by its various audiences (pp. 6-7):
1. As evidence of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.

“As a sacred sign, or divine testament to the last days and Joseph’s authorized role as modern day prophet and revelator.”

2. As an actual history.

“As ancient history, or a factual account of the pre-Columbian peopling of the Western hemisphere.”

3. As a 19th century writing.

“As a cultural production, the imaginative ravings of a rustic religion- maker more inspired by the winds of culture than the breath of God.”

4. As a new Scripture.

“As a new American Bible or Fifth Gospel, displacing, supporting, or perverting the canonical word of God, according to the disposition of the reader.”

Traditional Christians will typically read the Book of Mormon as a 19th century text. Some Latter-day Saints accept a 19th century provenance for the book, and thus read as a sacred sign and as scripture, but not as an ancient history. Yet most faithful Latter-day Saints read it in all three ways.

In my next post, I will address the first of five functions of the Book of Mormon in LDS religious experience.