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Elder Holland’s “Safety for the Soul

October 12, 2009
Elder Holland

Elder Holland

The last talk (perhaps) that I’d like to discuss from the October 2009 LDS General Conference is Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s Sunday Afternoon “Safety for the Soul.” This is the big one (and so my post will be big…at least twice as long as I’m usually comfortable with writing). This is the topic that many people, if they took only one talk home with them, took. And so, in light of the many bloggers who have addressed this topic in detail or in short, I wonder if I can do so adequately. I wonder if I can provide anything new, or if I can find something of value within it.

It’s about the Book of Mormon (surprise surprise!) But more importantly, how the Book of Mormon is true and no one will be able to get around that without taking drastic measures.

Members in the church must be careful, because:

The Savior warned that in the last days even those of the covenant, the very elect, could be deceived by the enemy of truth.1 If we think of this as a form of spiritual destruction, it may cast light on another latter-day prophecy. Think of the heart as the figurative center of our faith, the poetic location of our loyalties and our values; then consider Jesus’s declaration that in the last days “men’s hearts [shall fail] them.”2

Is there any way against this? Elder Holland would tell us there is.

In light of that, it has always been significant to me that the Book of Mormon, one of the Lord’s powerful keystones3 in this counteroffensive against latter-day ills, begins with a great parable of life, an extended allegory of hope versus fear, of light versus darkness, of salvation versus destruction…

So this is why the Book of Mormon is important. If we want hope over fear, light over darkness, salvation over destruction, we must uphold the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness…or so Elder Holland believes.

Elder Holland writes that no other explanation can hold.

For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather, who said simply enough, “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.”10

Many commenters on Elder Holland’s talk (from the nonbelieving side, of course), have been nonplussed over this message. So, Holland will just say all alternative theories of the Book of Mormon’s origin have failed? The only answer suitable is the one Joseph gave? What a remarkably bold comments, even as apologists still struggle with yet other issues! As they even must acknowledge other issues and perpetually adjust their expectations and basic positions. As even general authorities distinguish true from useful.

But I haven’t found myself feeling much discontent over Elder Holland’s message. I actually see Holland’s message here as an unwarranted turnaround of the burden of proof. Holland assumes that the default position is to believe that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be — and so alternate positions must overcome this default. But his faith position requires a subjective confirmation for it to work — he takes the default position that the Book of Mormon is true because something about it makes him feel that way.

Quite simply, it isn’t up to detractors to show that it is false. Rather, it is up for the book to manifest that it is true. It is up to its defenders to show convincingly that it is true. But this can’t just be done for Elder Holland (although it probably has). It must be done for every individual on a subjective, personal level.

I’m not saying that defenders have to show that the history or anthropology is in favor of the Book of Mormon. Elder Holland wisely (and refreshingly — I actually don’t want to hear a talk that’s all historical apologetics) avoids most of the historical issues and issues of fact regarding the Book of Mormon.

Instead, what defenders and Elder Holland have to show is that the Book of Mormon is personally, subjectively persuasive. That its fruits are good. And indeed, this is what the church, the book, and Holland attempt to do. The book does challenge us to read it and pray if its words are true. We are challenged to plant the word as a seed and see if that seed is good. So, I actually see the church as beginning with a general message that is reasonable: test things to know they are true. Where I disagree is that the church, the Book of Mormon, and Elder Holland already have what they feel is the answer for everyone. His specific conclusion is that the Book of Mormon is and must be true because it provides the wherewithal for hope, salvation, and light against a prophesied era that is quickly approaching where “men’s hearts [shall fail] them.”

But what if we are unconvinced? What if the Book of Mormon does not pierce us with hope, salvation, and light? What if instead, the Book of Mormon and the church are misery, enslavement, and blindness?

Elder Holland boldly states (bold emphasis added):

I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our timesuntil he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: “a stone of stumbling, . . . a rock of offence,”11 a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work.

To the bolded, I simply ask…what if one clearly and demonstrably does not experience peace and comfort from the Book of Mormon or the church? If this is the case, then I believe that no matter what the origins of 531 pages of that text are (and no matter how complex or simple it truly is), and no matter what others may experience regarding “profound spiritual impact,” it cannot be the centerpiece of that individual. After all…in every other religion, we have 531 (or more!) pages of heretofore unknown texts teeming with complexity…in every other religion, we have millions who have had profound spiritual witnesses and experiences, and yet, for every other religion, we do not attempt to account for the origin of their pages and more importantly, we don’t even have to…because these texts do not speak to us!

I am actually unconcerned with Elder Holland’s final line I have just quoted. Will the Book of Mormon be a stone of stumbling, a rock of offence, a barrier? Yes. But is it that way because one wishes not to believe in it? No. It can be a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense, a barrier, regardless of desire. Because ex-mormons and non-believers are not those who “wish not to believe.” It’s not that we secretly intuit that the church is true, but want to avoid responsibility for this inconvenient truth. No, we are people who desperately wanted the church to be true…who desperately wanted it to bring peace and joy in our lives…but came to realize that for us, it could not sustain.

The Book of Mormon was and is a stone of stumbling. The church was and is a stone of stumbling. That is why many are angry. We are dealing with a sort of post-traumatic stress from this stone of stumbling that made us miserable. Only recently have many of us realized that we could try to walk away from it. We could try to elevate ourselves above it. We could try to seek peace and joy, rather than forcing ourselves to fit into the Mormon framework. Yet even today, we must grasp with our residual and cultural Mormonism — which lingers as a stone of stumbling. We may never live it down.

In the end, I don’t feel any ill feeling toward Elder Holland or his talk. His talk doesn’t seem to be about me. His talk seems to imply that the Book of Mormon will obviously seem true to any who read it, and anyone will get a testimony of its truthfulness. Anyone who diligently partakes of the Gospel will experience peace and joy from adherence to the teachings of the church. So how can people like these leave, just because of historical or scientific issues? If one has been changed for the better by the Book of Mormon, how can one toss that?  One must recognize that there is something within the book…even if they do not accept it as historically true or accurate…and this something within the book is worth striving for communion with.

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48 Comments
  1. In the end, I don’t feel any ill feeling toward Elder Holland or his talk. His talk doesn’t seem to be about me.

    This was my conclusion too. He does not address those of us who sought after a confirmation and desperately wanted to believe and received no witness. I don’t think the GAs can acknowledge that we exist because they have no explanation for us. It’s supposed to work! And I would have stuck around in spite of scientific, historical, and political issues if the church did bring me peace and joy. Unfortunately, it most definitely did not.

    “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.”

    Every claim he makes about the BoM would apply better to the Qu’ran and the profound spiritual impact it has had on over a billion people. How can he deny that Muhammad was what he claimed to be — a prophet of God?

  2. symphonyofdissent permalink

    To address your burden of proof analysis, I think that you are true for the outside world that is the target of missionary activity. The burden of proof is there for us to show them that the Book of Mormon is truly an inspired work that can improve their lives. However, Elder Holland’s talk was I’d say first and foremost directed to the ‘elect’ or those that already are a part of the church and for us, I’d say the burden is flipped to some degree at least. In some ways at least, I’d suggest that for people raised in the church belief should be to a degree the default position. This is not to say that people should not challenge their faith–heaven knows that I have argued often enough that everyone should overcome a spiritual challenge to the faith of their birth–but I don’t think that skepticism should begin as the default position. Especially, if one has felt the benefits of the strong communities and families that the church has helped create, I think that one has already to some degree seen some of its good fruits and has been raised in spiritual light. This is of course true for those of any faith. I think that people need strong affirmative evidence that their faith is misguided before they abandon it and this is probably a reasonable and realistic standard and burden.

  3. re philomytha:

    That is pretty much my interpretation, on both accounts. Either he does not recognize that people like us exist, or he does not honestly believe that people like us exist as we say we do. (And then the tables turn… “If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject millions of disaffected members teeming with complexity without attempting to account for the origin of these people — especially without accounting for the powerful and intense suffering these individuals have faced as a result of the church community and church doctrines — then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived.” And “None of these frankly pathetic answers for the pervasive disaffection of many members has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one ex-members have given.)

    I think Holland’s message is something like what you would have wished. His message is that the BoM should and does bring you peace and joy, so it is true. Because it is true, you should stick with it. That’s what Joseph and Hyrum did. But as you point out…it all hinges on if it *does* bring you peace and joy.

    And I exactly agree with your analogy to the Quran. It wouldn’t even FAZE us if a Muslim leader said such bold things about the Quran, Islam, and Muhammad. (If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough…) We wouldn’t even bat an eye. So why do we let Elder Holland affect us anymore…just because he is a more familiar voice?

  4. re symphonyofdissent:

    Here’s the line I disagree with:

    In some ways at least, I’d suggest that for people raised in the church belief should be to a degree the default position.

    See, symphony, this suggests that people raised in the church have some kind of advantage with faith…but truly, we do not. The church firmly does not believe in living off borrowed testimonies…so it doesn’t matter if our parents or ancestors had the church. This makes no difference. People raised in the church still need to have a spiritual experience that testifies to them. The question is if this experience indeed is accessible.

    Really, I think the burden of proof only changes for people who have had the church and Book of Mormon consistently and persistently touch their lives for the better. These people would have good fruits and some kind of testimony of the church’s goodness to account for. But note that this is not the case for all members who were raised in the church.

    Let’s take for example this line:

    Especially, if one has felt the benefits of the strong communities and families that the church has helped create, I think that one has already to some degree seen some of its good fruits and has been raised in spiritual light.

    This could satisfy my above criteria. But 1) you don’t get this just as a result of growing up in the church and 2) it is not exclusive to growing up in the church.

    So in fact, you could grow up in the church and feel devoid of a strong community or a strong family all your life. Alternatively, regardless of your having a strong community and strong family, you could note that, contrary to what the church leaders often like to say, your neighbors and friends, despite living in some kind of sin, also have strong communities and families. In fact, there may be something with *their* communities that you wish your LDS community had, but it doesn’t.

    In this case, I think the individual *does* have to account. But the problem is…their accounting does not accrue the revenues to Mormonism. Rather, what they realize is that these tried and true principles can exist in any wholesome philosophy. So, Mormonism is valuable as far as it is helpful, but it doesn’t have a monopoly or even a controlling majority on truth or goodness. Its teachings may be helpful…but that doesn’t give one a testimony of the need for ordinances, for priesthood, for all the things Mormonism adds on “top” that makes it a religion. Does that make any sense? Elder Holland is assuming that growing up in the church brings one these good fruits that cannot be found elsewhere (because of the *divinity* and not mere *practicality* of the church’s teachings and institutions)…and I believe that if that is the case for someone, then they SERIOUSLY do need to examine how the church can have such good fruits, as Holland notes.

    But I simply think that the church puffs up the claims of its truth and goodness, and puffs up its attribution as the source or cause of these goodness and truth. And so the “strong affirmative evidence that their faith is misguided” is still a misdirection…a red herring…Really, the faith still needs to provide strong affirmative evidence that it is guided *correctly* when being a Mormon doesn’t necessarily make you more “with it” spiritually or temporally, and in actuality, it can make you worse off if you fit any of a number of personalities and categories.

  5. Mormons don’t typically deny that Muhammad was POSSIBLY truly inspired of God when he wrote the Koran. So pointing to that book as a counter-example doesn’t work.

    We aren’t Christian fundies.

  6. The problem is…Mormons don’t attempt to account for the linguistic and cultural complexity of the Quran. That Mormons don’t deny that Muhammad was POSSIBLY truly inspired of God doesn’t mean that they believe that he definitely was inspired and that it’s worth picking up a Quran and devoting one’s life to it immediately.

    For example…it’s not that Muhammad was POSSIBLY truly inspired of God when he wrote the Koran. No, he didn’t write the Koran, Seth. That would be like saying, “I don’t deny that Joseph was possibly truly inspired of God when he wrote the Book of Mormon.” It already would change the game. An angel revealed it to him and he transmitted it orally, because he was uneducated to write (at least in the Muhammad case), and his companions dutifully wrote it down.

    And even if Muhammad POSSIBLY truly was visited by an angel, this is significantly different from believing that he was visited by an angel.

  7. Andrew, philomytha was talking like the testimony of a devout Muslim and the testimony of a devout Mormon are mutually exclusive.

    I think I demonstrated that they are not. I’ll have to get to the rest of the argument later.

  8. They are only not mutually exclusive if a devout Mormon indeed *does* believe in the Quran and believes it is inspired.

    since most do not, it doesn’t matter if they *possibly* could believe such. They effectively do not.

  9. Well, it’s not exactly a new sentiment.

    “There had been men, doubtless many men in the various ages of the world, who had light and who had a degree of the Spirit of God. I believe myself that Mahomed, whom the Christians deride and call a false prophet and stigmatize with a great many epithets—I believe that he was a man raised up by the Almighty, and inspired to a certain extent by Him to effect the reforms which he did in his land, and in the nations surrounding.” George Q. Cannon, 1883, Journal of Discourses, Volume 24 Page 371

    “The great religious leaders of the world such as Muhammad, Confucius, and the Reformers . . . received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. . . . Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father.” In an original letter From the First Presidency, Reference: Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, C. Wilfred Griggs (editor), February 15, 1978, Page 29

    “Latter-day Saints accept all truth, wherever it may be found, as part of our religion—whether in the Quran or in other good books.” David Stewart, 2003, Message of Friendship: Muslims and Latter-day Saints, Page 1

    I have no idea who David Stewart is. I yanked these quotes off a website of right-wing Evangelicals looking for another way to smear Mormons (they’re in league with Osama bin Laden!). So I can’t vouch too far for the quotes, but they seem about right with what I’ve encountered in the LDS Church. I’ve had several of my fellow LDS speak highly of Islam, and I’m not the only one to speculate whether Muhammad was a true prophet or not (my wife thinks he might have been, for one). The last quote could be read off verbatim at any of the ward Sacrament Meetings I’ve attended, and no one would so much as bat an eye.

    I don’t think this is all that radical a position from an LDS perspective Andrew.

  10. Seth,

    Do you read the Quran? Do you practice Islam?

    Regardless of quotations saying we accept all truth, wherever it may be found (because trust me; I understand that there are quotations like that from many LDS speakers and there are more than the few you have presented), Mormons are not expected to follow and believe the Quran. And most particularly, in each of these quotations, the idea is that the outside sources are secondary in light…these other religious leaders “received a portion of God’s light” or these other books are simply “other good books” or they had “a degree of the Spirit of God.”

    So you’re really not addressing what I’m saying. Regardless of the possibility that he could be, Mormons do not act and live as if Muhammad was a prophet and the Quran is prophecy. So while theoretically, there is no mutual exclusivity, on a practical level, there certainly is. There is a double standard — we don’t account for the Quran in the same way Holland demands we account for the Book of Mormon. It is something *over there* that may be good for people *over there* (but we still know that we have the completeness and they, in some way, are misguided.)

    Let’s contrast with Elder Holland’s sentiments…he isn’t asking that members consider the *possibility* that the Book of Mormon is divine. No, he is saying that the Book of Mormon actually is divine and inspired. He isn’t saying that it *could be* true. He is saying that it *is* true, and that you, or anyone else, cannot find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these times without embracing the divinity of this book and of Jesus Christ. And furthermore, he says that anyone is foolish enough to reject it, he has been deceived.

    But no Mormon says that about the Quran or Islam, even if they accept the possibility, or accept that Islam may have a “degree” or “portion” of the spirit. No general authority institutionally places the Quran alongside the New Testament, Old Testament, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine & Covenants. Yes, they concede that there may be some good from this book, but this is not the book that they say is THE ONE.

  11. Joseph Smith and Muhammad aren’t the only two uneducated bumpkins to unexpectedly produce a “great literary work” like the Book of Mormon / Qur’an. There’s also Mrs. Pearl Curran / Patience Worth. Arguably her literary works were more curious and unlikely for her background than either the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon were for Muhammad and JS.

    Andrew ~ I have mixed feelings about Holland’s talk. As General Conference talks go, I think it was outstanding. It was lively and passionate, it called out some critical theories about the BoM by name—something I’ve personally never heard from Conference before—and it made good use of a prop (although there was a bit of a mix-up regarding the provenance of the BoM copy Holland used). To anyone unfamiliar with all the issues surrounding the points Holland tried to make, it probably sounded damned good. It’d be nice if more GC talks could be so energetic.

    To those of us who are familiar with the issues surrounding the points Holland tried to make, Holland’s reasoning was beyond fallacious. I’m not going to bother breaking apart all the reasons unless someone asks; sounds like plenty of critics have done that already. I’ll just point to the biggest fallacy of them all: belief in a divine inspiration for Book of Mormon and/or the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith ≠ the LDS church is true. Apparently the LDS church is never going to let that go.

    In that sense I think Holland’s talk was a lot like a Mark Driscoll sermon on Calvinism. It sounds really good and exciting and convincing at first, until you back up and turn it over in your head again and realize what he just tried to sell you. Then you’re glad you weren’t buying.

    My real concern with Holland’s talk has nothing to do with its numerous fallacies though. A religious speaker committing logical fallacies to score emotional points, big whoop. I’ve heard plenty of evangelical speakers whose sermons didn’t sound so great upon being deconstructed by a skeptic. I’m more than willing to grant some leeway and not stick all religious sermons under the same microscope with which I evaluate arguments on discussion forums.

    What did bother me about the talk was (1) his attitude toward doubting Mormons and ex-Mormons, and (2) his either/or dichotomy on the origins of the Book of Mormon. To paraphrase one skeptic, us unbelievers find the apologetics surrounding the Book of Abraham papyri “frankly pathetic,” yet we don’t accuse believers of “crawling over or under or around” the BoA papyri in order to stay in the church. It’s an ugly metaphor which insults those who have chosen differently when it comes to faith and evidence and dismisses the legitimate issues surrounding what the Book of Mormon claims to be.

    But it’s (2) that really worries me. Up until now, my policy with my LDS friends and relatives has been to live and let live when it comes to the Book of Mormon. I try to avoid dragging out complaints about anachronisms, horses, DNA, the complete lack of evidence for things like reformed Egyptian, missing Nephite/Lamanite civilizations, etc. The Book of Mormon is obviously very sacred to my LDS friends and family and I feel like tremendous good will is lost when evangelicals focus heavily on criticizing it.

    My fear is, the people who take Holland’s words to heart are not going to be happy with such a “live and let live” arrangement; they’re going to militantly use the Book of Mormon as a proof in their proselyting efforts. At least as far as I’m concerned, they aren’t going to like what they get.

  12. Jack:

    Interesting stuff about the Pearl Curran/Patience Worth phenomenon…will have to read more into that…

    I agree with your comments regarding Elder Holland’s talk. Particularly when you bring up fallacies that sound good when they are first stated with fire and thunder, and may masquerade as valid for a while, but then begin to expose holes than can easily be picked at.

    I kinda think that points (1) and (2) are par for the course, though…he really DOES need to be a strong figure for the Book of Mormon and so he needs to establish that kind of strict dichotomy between doubters and believers. Does it appeal to anyone? No. Does it help anyone? No. But does someone need to do it to energize the base? Perhaps. (Wouldn’t it be better if the base could be energized without such a method? I think so…)

    I agree with you on point two. This will change the tenuous equilibrium that may have once existed, and if missionaries and Mormon members take a stronger approach with Book of Mormon advocacy, I think disinterested parties are going to similarly hit back, and there will be a lot of collateral damage to relationships all around.

  13. “us unbelievers find the apologetics surrounding the Book of Abraham papyri “frankly pathetic,” yet we don’t accuse believers of “crawling over or under or around” the BoA papyri in order to stay in the church.”

    Depends which unbelievers you’re reading. I get this attitude all the time from certain ex-Mormons.

  14. Andrew ~ Do look into Patience Worth. It’s a fascinating case on its own without being called in as an argument for JS authorship of the BoM.

    But does someone need to do it to energize the base? Perhaps.

    I suppose so, Andrew. And I should probably also count my blessings. I’d much rather have Mormons rallying around the Book of Mormon with it’s delightful nigh-Protestant theology than rallying around the legitimacy of plural marriage or the Book of Abraham—sorry, Seth.

    On point two, all I can really say is that I’m glad I’m not living anywhere near my LDS relatives right now, and that the Mormon population in Illinois is practically non-existent. The only Mormon I’ve had any interaction with IRL since Conference is my husband, and he knows better than to push Holland’s dichotomy at me. I’m not visiting his ward again until October 25. Hopefully by then the Holland BoM frenzy will have died down.

    Seth ~ Depends which unbelievers you’re reading. I get this attitude all the time from certain ex-Mormons.

    Is that what you really want, Seth? Apostles whose attitudes mirror those of “certain ex-Mormons”?

    Just sayin’.

  15. FireTag permalink

    The Patience stuff is fascinating! Minds are more complex than our vanilla understanding allows

  16. I’m confidant that Holland was talking to the base of the church, along with possibly some have members who have put some BofM and other historical issues on their “shelves”. In the case of the “book shelf” members, I think that he was probably successful in encouraging them to keep their doubts on their shelf, for the following reasons:

    1. Most members don’t like examining difficult church doctrine and issues, so Holland’s rousing (if not some what fallacious) speech, gives them one more reason to avoid going places where they encounter cognitive dissonance (who wants to put them selves in a position to be deceived, especially when you’re the elect). The story of the Emperor’s New Cloths comes to mind.

    2. Even if inclined to do some research, how many average members have the time to research the origins of the BofM or BoA? Most don’t but Holland, who I think is regarded among members as a smart academic, has already done the research. So who is a member to trust… Holland, or the anti-mormon website that they stumbled across? His firmness of testimony, citing external proofs, is probably enough inoculate members who don’t dig too deep for information outside of approved church materials.

    Thank-you Andrew for starting a very interesting discussion.

  17. Hard to blame em Rich. Especially considering that once you research the Book of Abraham issues – the only conclusion you reach is that the whole thing is pretty-much unresolved with neither one side nor the other being persuasive.

    It’s kind of like – “glad I wasted all that time to wind up right back where I started.”

  18. Seth ~ Especially considering that once you research the Book of Abraham issues – the only conclusion you reach is that the whole thing is pretty-much unresolved with neither one side nor the other being persuasive.

    I guess the weight of the evidence depends on your perspective. From my current perspective, the probability of the Church’s description of the origins of the BoA being accurate seems unlikely. It should be noted that I have been wrong about other issues in the past, and could be on this one as well. If new more convincing comes to light, I would be willing to change my position.

  19. I am curious has there been a single non LDS scholar that has looked at the illustrations in the PofG and has in anyway shape or form validated JS interpretation? My mind is just blown away that any intellegent reasonable person willing to truly look at the evidence objectively could come to a “The verdict is still out” conclusion.

  20. coventryrm, isn’t what you’re saying the exact same tenor as Elder Holland’s comments, just in the opposite direction?

    Except Elder Holland would say that your “objectivity” is not objectivity, but as other speakers noted, being neutral about the gospel is giving in to sin. How could someone who earnestly seeks for god look at the evidence and come to a “The verdict is still out” conclusion? Except Elder Holland would say that nonbelieving positions are “quite frankly pathetic” (in the same way you say your mind is “blown away that any intelligent reasonable person…” could come with such a conclusion).

    I don’t know. I think the idea is that Elder Holland’s tenor is off-putting, so we ought not be adopting it for the opposite conclusion.

  21. coventryrm ~ I am curious has there been a single non LDS scholar that has looked at the illustrations in the PofG and has in anyway shape or form validated JS interpretation?

    No. Not a single non-LDS Egyptologist or any other non-LDS scholar who might actually know something about Egyptology has concurred with JS’s interpretations of the Facsimiles or the papyri.

    To my knowledge there are three LDS Egyptologists in the world: John Gee, Michael Rhodes, and Edward H. Ashment. Rhodes and Gee have defended JS’s interpretations or defended the possibility that the JS papyri wasn’t the source of the BoA. Ashment disagrees with his colleagues and does not defend JS’s interpretations of the papyri. Even Robert Ritner, who was John Gee’s professor of Egyptology, has critiqued his former student.

    The non-LDS scholars and Egyptologists all say the same thing: JS’s interpretations were a joke and they’re tired of saying it.

    I recommend the summary of the Book of Abraham at MormonThink here. It thoroughly interacts with the main arguments from Gee and Rhodes. Some of the things they’ve tried to argue are pretty shocking. Do a word search for “ithuphallic” where the real fun begins.

  22. Andrew

    I can see your point, but what I am saying is more to this point. Do not use the “physical evidence is non conclusive” argument, because it is in many cases, if you have to mix in magical thinking/faith/superstitious/personal revelation/speculation to make it non conclusive fine, but don’t confuse that with what the “Physical Evidence” clearly indicates. I do think there is an appropriate time to take strong positions; I would take the same tone when talking to young earth creationists.

    To say that to mix or to not mix magical thinking/faith/superstitious/personal revelation/speculation is logical or illogical would be off putting but that is not what I am saying, I am saying the evidence is conclusive on its own. If it makes more logical sense to someone to also add those additional elements to come to their own conclusion fine, but then don’t claim the conclusion came from tangible and physical evidence.

  23. All the non-LDS scholars are posed the question in a loaded and artificial context to begin with.

    They are asked what the images mean to an ancient Egyptian.

    Both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars agree on this point. To an ancient Egyptian, they don’t mean what Joseph said they did.

    We all agree with this.

    But that’s NOT the issue folks. The issue is how an Israelite or Canaanite redactor would have INCORPORATED these images into his own narrative. Most LDS scholars on this topic agree that the Book of Abraham was written – in Egyptian – by a LATER Jewish or Israelite scribe who used Egyptian images in retelling the story of Abraham.

    So anti-Mormons load the question with a bunch of artificial assumptions up front, and poison the well before they ever take such images to Egyptologists. With the question rigged, there’s only one possible answer you can get from an Egyptologist.

    But use of Egyptian images for completely different storytelling purposes by others was not unheard of in ancient documents. In fact, it was rather common. The idea that an ancient Canaanite in Egypt would have used Egyptian language, and Egyptian imagery to tell a CANAANITE story and a Canaanite depiction of theology is not a controversial idea. It’s quite common in the study of ancient documents.

    And if any of the anti-Mormons here actually had the guts to present THIS argument to unbiased Egyptologists, they’d get a different answer than they’ve gotten.

    But, my experience is that a lot of anti-Mormons are more interested in attacking the “stupid” version of Mormonism, rather than tackling Mormonism on its best arguments.

  24. Damn….

    I said “anti-Mormons here.”

    “Here” is simply a mistyping. The people here are not the people I had in mind in that statement.

    I had in mind more people along the lines of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism Research Ministries, and other such brain-drain factories.

  25. I’m not arguing against your argument. I’m arguing against the tone.

    You think there is an appropriate time to take strong positions (and you would take the same tone when talking with YECists). But what I am saying is…don’t you realize that when you take such a tone, you are only alienating people? What is your goal? Is it to try to convince and persuade? Or is it just to bash and divide?

    If you want to persuade someone to believe what you believe to be correct, you cannot hope to do so with an antagonistic tone. In the same way that Elder Holland turned so many people off with his tone, you could be doing the same. Regardless of if you feel your position is *obviously* correct and the evidence is conclusive on its own.

  26. re Seth:

    So, is it the commonly accepted belief for Mormons that the Book of Abraham is not written by Abraham in his own hand, but instead is pseudopigraphal and written about Abraham much later?

  27. If you want something accessible on the subject to watch, Kerry Shirts has a series of YouTube videos called “The Backyard Professor” and he regularly tackles the Book of Abraham.

    If you want an example, here’s a link to Part 1 of a 8 or 9 part series on the Joseph Smith papyri:

    Kerry is a bit of a character, and that may cause some to dismiss him as an eccentric. But he does a good job of summarizing the issues. And the fact that he’s a character just makes him more watchable in my humble opinion.

    In the link above, he wades into a recent article from Kevin Barney on the subject, which I have read, and recommend to anyone interested in the subject. Here’s the link to Kevin’s paper:

    http://mi.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=40&chapid=168

  28. I had two links in that last comment. It appears to be stuck in moderation.

  29. yeah, I have saved it from moderation.

  30. Andrew, there really isn’t a commonly accepted view among Mormons on the topic of mechanics of authorship simply because few people at church have really bothered to think about it much.

    If you asked random people at church if they’d be OK with the Book of Abraham being an accurate account of Abrahams life written hundreds of years after he died by someone else – I imagine you’d get a variety of responses, but mostly people who are OK with the idea.

    I’ve found lay Mormons can be remarkably easy-going about these kind of things, as long as you don’t get in their face about it.

  31. And let’s be clear – there is certainly no official Church view on where the Book of Abraham came from – other than the account being true in a religious sense.

  32. Will have to get to the video later…but in response to your latest comments…it’s not really about if they’d be OK with the BoA being written hundreds of years after he died…it’s about what they would say about the BoA without being probed prior.

    I think random people in the church, if they hadn’t done any research, would simply look at the header of the BoA:

    The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.

    and say: “Well, if that’s what it says, then I believe that is and should be the case.”

    I mean, from reading that, isn’t that what you’d expect? I don’t think it would be taking it to a stretch or attacking a “stupid” version of Mormonism to interpret this header in such a way…I don’t think it is an “anti-Mormon” tactic to avoid addressing the LDS church’s best arguments. I think the anti-Mormons simply recognize that alternative explanations seem increasingly more ad hoc and unrealistic.

  33. Seth ~ I said “anti-Mormons here.”

    “Here” is simply a mistyping. The people here are not the people I had in mind in that statement.

    I was about to say, “Oh no he DIDN’T.” Picture a black woman saying it. I’m not black but that’s how I would have said it.

    I’m not going to derail this thread into a BoA topic though, Seth. You have a happy Wednesday.

  34. Andrew
    “If you want to persuade someone to believe what you believe to be correct, you cannot hope to do so with an antagonistic tone.”

    Agreed. :)

    However I don’t believe I would be able to persuade Seth to view things as I do regardless of what tone I use. :) Seth and MCQ are just my favorite two LDS bloggers and I feel obligated to challenge them from time to time. :)

  35. coventryrm:

    I believe you would be able to persuade Seth if you had personally convincing evidence. But you don’t. No matter how you think the evidence is “conclusive on its own,” as Seth points out, it really just leaves people (ex: Seth himself) where he started…where the evidence could go either way.

    To continue to assume that there’s a slamdunk, when really, it’s just a slamdunk for *you* and others who are persuaded by such a conclusion is disingenuous to Seth, MCQ, and the rest of our fellow LDS bloggers.

  36. Yes, Andrew. That is the point people make about the header.

    But stop and think about it for a moment.

    Here you are, sitting in your living room (or wherever) and you’ve got this standard triple-combo of LDS scripture sitting in your lap with it’s synthetic leather binding, and that super-thin paper they use. You’ve got it open on your lap to the first chapter of Abraham and you’re reading the words “written in his own hand, on papyrus.”

    But you don’t have papyrus sitting in your lap. You have a modernly printed book. And we’re pretty certain the book you’re holding wasn’t written by Abraham’s “own hand” (otherwise you’d make a buck or two on eBay). But there it is – in the header, if you want to get all literal on me. Taken at face-value, the words themselves say that the book in your lap was written by Abraham’s own hand on papyrus. So the book in your hand must be the original, right?

    Well, we all know that sort of literalism is just silly. Let’s have a little perspective here. It’s not saying the triple-combo in your hand is all that. It’s just saying the book came from something else that was in Abraham’s own hand on papyrus.

    That’s an obvious example of why text should not favor a literal read divorced from all context. But we do the same thing when taking the header language on Joseph’s papyri hyper-literally at the expense of context.

    Who says that the Joseph Smith papyri language wasn’t simply an ancient equivalent of what your modern triple-combo is doing? Who’s to say it wasn’t a copy of a much more ancient document – lost to us now – that Abraham really did put down in his own hand? For all we know, Abraham might not have written the original document in Egyptian at all, but maybe Ugaritic. For all we know, he didn’t even know how to write Egyptian.

    The papyri Joseph gained possession of (reportedly over 20 feet long and in excellent condition) have only a few very small fragments remaining to us. These have been dated and are from a period long after Abraham would have been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years. There is little question that the hand that put ink to those papyri was not Abraham’s. It had to be an intermediary.

    But that doesn’t make the header language any less valid.

  37. Seth, I truly lament that you have written a comment like this. But I will try to address it without suffering.

    Let’s take a full look at the header…since your comment includes a lengthy scenario that quite frankly would not happen if a member read the header.

    The header says:

    A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt.—The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus. See History of the Church, vol. 2, pp. 235, 236, 348—351.

    We know that the triple combination in front of us isn’t the papyrus in front of us. This argument that you have proposed wouldn’t even happen — it is insulting to everyone’s intelligence to suggest this strawman would ever occur or that this is the kind of arguments that nonbelievers are making. So, no one — not even someone distinctly unreasonable and ignorant — would dare think that this English text we have in front of us is the papyrus itself. In fact, all we need do is look at the first sentence of the header. A translation.

    And what does the title and subtitle say:

    THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
    TRANSLATED FROM THE PAPYRUS, BY JOSEPH SMITH

    So, from a basic — and not “silly literalist” — reading, it is not silly to assume that this English version we have, written on thin paper, is a translation by Joseph Smith of ancient records…and the records on which this translation comes was written by the hand of Abraham. Please, this isn’t silly literalism. This is what the reasonable person would reasonably assume from the words on text.

    This is the perspective, so don’t patronize and ask people to have some perspective.

    Not only that, but we have these things…facsimiles! Facsimiles that are from papyri that we *do* have and that the church has said are appropriate (which is why these facsimiles are included with every Book of Abraham). Now, apologists have since then come on to the scene and redacted it all, but we are looking at what the reasonable, yet uninformed average member would believe. They are reasonable enough to put 2 and 2 together about the facsimiles, but they don’t know anything about ad hoc explanations from apologists about the facsimiles and the papyri not being complete or whatever. They don’t know apologist arguments that these papyri weren’t fully the ones that Joseph used (never minding that he and his scribes have detailed notes about what parts of this papyri and facsimile made from the papyri correlate to what parts of his translation). So, we have a papyri and we CAN test if it was written by Abraham by his own hands.

    Who’s to say it wasn’t a copy of a much more ancient document – lost to us now – that Abraham really did put down in his own hand? For all we know, Abraham might not have written the original document in Egyptian at all, but maybe Ugaritic. For all we know, he didn’t even know how to write Egyptian.

    We are TRUSTING that the BoA *is* a translation of a papyrus. And the header notes that this papyrus was written by the hand of Abraham. Hey, if the papyrus we have wasn’t written by the hand of Abraham, but just a copy of a copy of a document written by the hand of Abraham, then no big deal. The church has been incorrect in the header, but it’s not a material misstatement.

    But the bigger issue is…how is the average member supposed to know that the papyrus wasn’t written by the hand of Abraham when there isn’t even a footnote that suggests that. The average member would NOT suspect that the papyrus, which we claim to be written by the hand of Abraham, is just a copy. And the average member most CERTAINLY would NOT suspect that the papyrus never came from Abraham, but, as you say, was written by some redactor hundreds of years later and merely about Abraham. These are material misstatements.

    The papyri Joseph gained possession of (reportedly over 20 feet long and in excellent condition) have only a few very small fragments remaining to us. These have been dated and are from a period long after Abraham would have been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years. There is little question that the hand that put ink to those papyri was not Abraham’s. It had to be an intermediary.

    And yet, from the notes saying specifically what parts of THE FACSIMILES WE HAVE correspond to what parts of the BoA, we still find that it’s way off. And now, you, the learned, and the apologists, the learned, know that these most definitely weren’t put to ink by Abraham.

    But the church will not come out and change the header. They will not give the official explanation. After all, all the things even you have suggested are just possibilities. You note they are possibilities…you preface them with: “Who’s to say?” and “Who says?” “For all we know…”

    Quite simply, there *is* a distinct difference between what the average reasonable (yet uninformed and unversed in apologetics) reader would conclude and what the average reasonable apologist would conclude. This is problematic. It *does* say things about what the church (via the header and *official* pronouncements) say about the nature of the BoA.

    But I really like Jack’s comments. This topic really SHOULDN’T derail into a BoA discussion…

  38. I don’t see that this changes anything Andrew.

    My point was you don’t need to have the original autograph for words like “by the hand of Abraham” to be valid anyway. This is just how historical documents work. Ancient scribes used to write stuff like this all the time – even when they were writing the text in a completely different language than the original autograph would have been.

    I’m just not seeing anything in the text that requires us to conclude the papyri Joseph had was the original autograph.

  39. The question is:

    is the papyri a copy of a copy of a copy of something actually written by Abraham (or a scribe of Abraham’s)?

    *or*

    pseudopigrapha that never came from Abraham but was written about him from someone else?

    The first is ok. But then we still have to account for why the facsimiles have little to do with our translation.

    Even for the latter…Indeed, pseudopigraphal works *are* popular with old scribes. But when we find out that they weren’t actually ever associated with the person they claim to be from, we note that accordingly.

    I’m just not seeing anything in the text that requires us to conclude the papyri Joseph had was the original autograph.

    Other than that would be the reasonable conclusion for someone to make. Remember: studying ancient history is not what your average member would do. So either pseudopigraphal explanations or copy of copy explanations are out of the norm.

  40. Well, I’m willing to leave this line of thought there if you are. I’ve already linked to some other material already if people want to read more on it.

  41. Were you still going to send me an email regarding the patheos article you emailed me?

  42. I’m terrible at follow-up. But yeah, I intend to.

  43. So long as this thread has gone down this road, I do have one question. What evidence is there, from the papyri or facsimiles themselves, that a Jewish or Canaanite redactor ever had anything to do with the BoA papyri?

  44. I’d suggest reading Barney’s article. It’ll explain the theory better than I could.

  45. Jack, I can’t believe you haven’t discussed these issues with Kevin before now! Shame on you. ;-P

  46. BTW, thanks for the compliment, Coventry! I’m honored to be one of your favorites.

  47. Well MCQ, Kevin’s coming to my church on the 8th to check out my rockin’ female pastor, so perhaps I’ll get my chance.

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