Monday, November 24, 2014

Earl Wunderli's Imperfect Book

Ten years ago, I wouldn't have bothered to read Earl Wunderli's Imperfect Book, if only because I would have taken for granted his argument that the Book of Mormon is not what it purports to be (a book of ancient American scripture), but rather the nineteenth-century product of a single author (Joseph Smith).

In reading the book it has become clear to me that this is not so much Wunderli's argument as his premise. Occasionally he manages to cover his biases in the language of objectivity. His critique of the Book of Mormon will certainly be pleasing to rationalist materialists who -- denying the  objective existence of God, angels or miracles -- insist that of course the Book of Mormon can be nothing else than what Wunderli says it is, and who are annoyed that so many people stubbornly continue to believe in it and turn to it as a source of personal inspiration and as a vehicle for communion with the divine.

Ten years ago, as I said, I would have numbered myself among them. But nine years ago I started to "doubt my doubt," as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf so pithily put it in an October 2013 General Conference address. Being well aware of the various archaeological, anthropological, historical, and even biological (DNA-based) critiques of the Book of Mormon, I nevertheless read the Book of Mormon to see what, if anything, it had to say to me as a gay man. And I did so primarily because I felt prompted by the Spirit to do so. I put the Book of Mormon to the test, reading it, as Earl Wunderli himself purports to, on its own merits. I was surprised by what I discovered. The experience was powerful, life changing. I discovered I still had a testimony of the Book of Mormon after all, a welter of intellectual doubts notwithstanding.

Like others who have read Wunderli's book, I've found it entertaining and engaging. As someone who loves the Book of Mormon (I've read it cover to cover three times in the last nine years, and am currently reading it a fourth time as part of Affirmation's Book of Mormon Challenge), I appreciate Wunderli's careful textual, word for word analysis of the Book. Wunderli's critique can best be appreciated, I think, by someone who is extremely familiar with the text cover-to-cover, by someone who has, for instance, bothered to read the Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon side-by-side with Isaiah as found in the King James Bible, and who has bothered to read other, more modern (and more linguistically sophisticated) translations of Isaiah.

There was a certain mythology of the Book of Mormon I was raised with that was naive and, for lack of a better word, fundamentalist. There's a kind of Mormon romantic mythology about Joseph Smith and how he functioned as a prophet that not only doesn't square with the facts of history but that amounts to a kind of denial of core principles of the Restored Gospel such as our belief in the primacy of agency in God's plan and the fact that "all have fallen short of the glory of God." The sooner we dispense with those mythologies, the better off we are. So Wunderli does a service to Mormonism by showing how some of those mythologies are simply untenable.

Wunderli acknowledges at the outset of his textual analysis that, for those who believe in the Book of Mormon, there are two theories of how the Book of Mormon was translated. One theory -- bolstered by certain eye-witness accounts of the translation process -- is that Joseph literally received every single word by divine revelation directly from God through the "Urim and Thummim." The other theory -- bolstered by D&C section 9 -- is that Joseph got a certain sense of the meaning of a text, and then had to do the hard work of converting that meaning into his native idiom (early nineteenth-century frontier U.S. English). According to the latter theory, there would have been a cultural filtration process by which Joseph Smith adapted ancient meanings to a modern context, and would have borrowed heavily from the language and ideas of the King James Bible and of American religious culture of his time and place to express parallel ideas from the Book of Mormon text.

Wunderli's textual analysis makes the case for a literal, word-for-word translation process virtually impossible to sustain. Wunderli persuasively argues that the language of the Book of Mormon is the work of a single author with -- for that matter -- a fairly limited English vocabulary that is heavily dependent upon the King James Bible. That would be fairly descriptive of Joseph Smith's English. Wunderli, of course, is inclined to see this as proof that Joseph Smith is the sole creator and author of the Book of Mormon, not its translator. Though, his textual analysis is still consistent with the second believing theory of the Book of Mormon that would see the mind of Joseph Smith as a filter through which the original Book of Mormon text was "translated" into modern idioms.

Wunderli makes a lot of the supposedly "anachronistic" borrowings from texts that could not possibly have been known to Book of Mormon authors. A few years ago, my husband bought a book by Marcus Borg and Jack Kornfield called Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. The book places side by side teachings of Jesus and teachings of Buddha that are often so similar, they beg the question of whether Jesus was familiar with Buddist literature and/or teachings, since Buddha preceded Jesus by about five centuries. In my own wide readings of the sacred corpuses of different world religions -- ancient Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, Mesoamerican, Gnostic, Muslim -- I am struck by the fact that in comparing any given sacred text to almost any other, it is possible to find striking similarities. Is this because one is copying off another, or is it because there are in fact, as James Frazer argues in The Golden Bough, universal elements in all religion? If Jesus at times sounds like he's quoting Gautama Buddha, why wouldn't it be possible for ancient American authors to express ideas that on occasion sound so similar to Middle Eastern Christian writers that Joseph Smith could borrow turns of phrase from the New Testament in order to translate them?

What I (and other believers in the Book of Mormon) find so compelling about the Book of Mormon, however, is not the borrowings, not the parallels, but those aspects of the Book of Mormon that are unique, that shed new light on ancient theologies from a perspective that is often quite surprising and liberating. I'm familiar with the religious culture of nineteenth century America. I am a scholar and a teacher of it. And yet, I find the Book of Mormon to contain ideas that are unique and powerful, that set it apart from its time and place, that have caused it to transcend everything else that was written either contemporaneously or since then. I believe in the Book of Mormon largely because, when all is said and done, after all the textual and historical analysis has been waded through, I am still left with the book's undeniable power; because it has opened doors in my soul that couldn't have been opened by any other book.

In light of that, I can't help but smile a bit at the overreaching in a number of Wunderli's arguments. For example, in a section where Wunderli discusses Book of Mormon prophecies that have supposedly demonstrably failed, he cites 2 Nephi 3:14, a prophecy ostensibly about Joseph Smith that states "They that seek to destroy him shall be confounded." Since Joseph Smith's enemies did in fact "destroy" him when he died at the hands of assassins at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844, says Wunderli, this prophecy has demonstrably failed. To bolster his point, he cites a David Whitmer statement that the prophecy could not have been about Joseph Smith since "those who sought to destroy Brother Joseph were not confounded, but they destroyed him." He also cites Parley P. Pratt's argument (prior to Joseph Smith's martyrdom) that all efforts to destroy Joseph Smith legally had come to naught, thus falsely confirming the prophecy (since ultimately Joseph was killed/"destroyed").

Of course, the goal of Joseph Smith's assassins was not merely to "destroy" Joseph Smith, but to snuff out Mormonism itself. They believed that once Joseph was dead, his disillusioned followers would abandon the religion he had founded. In that goal, they were in fact notoriously "confounded." From a believer's perspective, Joseph Smith could not possibly be "destroyed" with an assassin's bullet. As Jesus taught, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Matthew 10:28). Joseph's assassins neither destroyed Joseph nor put an end to Mormonism. Rather, like the blood of the martyrs of early Christianity, the blood of Joseph and Hyrum became "the seed of the [Latter-day] Church." Still, Wunderli is satisfied to put that in the column of "failed" prophecies.

Still, a worthwhile read, perhaps  more for believers than for skeptics (who don't need to be convinced that the Book of Mormon is a fraud). Believers will appreciate the opportunity Wunderli presents to reflect deeply on the text, and what it means (and doesn't mean). Being gay and excommunicated, I should probably be an easy sell on the notion that the Book of Mormon isn't what it purports to be. But here I am, having doubted my doubts, still a stronger believer than ever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why I Follow the Word of Wisdom (and other wacky Mormon stuff)

Frequently asked questions

"Why do you think coffee, tea and alcohol are sinful?" 

I don't. 

I'm pretty sure Jesus drank wine. His critics actually called him "a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!" (Matt. 11:18/Luke 7:34). 

As I understand it, going around judging people for what they eat or drink (or smoke) is the sin, not eating or drinking or smoking. 

True, some substances can be addictive, and addictive behavior is harmful. But I don't even consider addiction a sin. It's a misfortune. And condemning someone with an addiction as "sinful" is not likely to help them with their addiction.

"Isn't everything OK in moderation?"

Pretty much, yes. Moderation (or the Catholic cardinal virtue of "temperance") is a good motto to live by.

When I did drink alcohol, I for the most part was a responsible drinker. But on occasion I drank too much and behaved badly. I'm glad that by choosing not to drink, I've decreased the likelihood in my life of behaving badly (though it's still quite possible for me to behave badly stone cold sober!).

Occasionally I dine with a group of friends who drink wine or beer with their meal. And sometimes there is an individual in the group who is a recovering alcoholic, or who, for whatever other reason, is uncomfortable drinking alcohol. I feel good about keeping them company, so they don't have to be the only "weird" one at the table. Though, I don't mind being the only weird one at the table! I don't mind being the perpetual "designated driver." 

I don't see this as making me better than anyone else. It's just my choice. It's how I feel most comfortable living. As long as others are comfortable with the choices they're making and how they're living, that's all that really matters to me.

I like the fact that by choosing not to take certain substances I can bear witness that we each get to choose what kind of life we want to live -- even if our choices make us a little eccentric.

"What about the health benefits from drinking wine?"

As I understand it, there is clinical evidence that drinking red wine (and only red wine!) daily does help reduce unhealthy cholesterol, which reduces the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. But I understand you have to drink a glass of red wine every day in order to get this benefit. And you lose the benefit as soon as you stop drinking every day. When I did drink wine, I never drank it that often. I'd have to become a pretty devoted wine-drinker in order to get this health benefit.

One reason I never drank wine daily is because even drinking just a single glass of wine in the evening would make me feel a bit sluggish the next day. That made me decide to save wine-drinking only for the weekend. I actually found that once I gave up alcohol completely I was sleeping more soundly at night, and I had more energy overall. My doctor told me that even minimal wine-drinking has a negative impact on overall energy levels and on muscle strength, and when he learned that I had given alcohol up completely, he congratulated me on making a wise choice.

I'm very concerned about health. I practice yoga daily. I don't own a car, so I do a lot of walking and biking. I eat a balanced diet with lots of grains, vegetables and fruit, and my cholesterol is extremely low... Actually slightly lower than what is recommended to minimize heart attack risk. So... I'll take my chances without the health benefits of daily red wine drinking.

"I understand avoiding drinking and smoking, but coffee, tea, and pop? What are you allowed to drink? And what about chocolate? That has caffeine in it..."

The Mormon "Word of Wisdom" does not specifically name "caffeine" as a substance to be avoided, but "hot drinks," which has been interpreted to mean coffee and tea. So technically, a Mormon can drink all the Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew (or eat all the chocolate) he or she wants, and be considered in compliance with the Word of Wisdom. Only coffee and tea are on the no-no list.

First, a word about caffeine... I used to be a serious caffeine junky. When I started working at the law firm where I currently work, there was always free coffee in the lunch room, and it was the good stuff. Really good coffee. So I got into the habit of drinking sometimes as much as five cups a day! Also, the firm had subsidized pop machines in the lunch room, and you could buy a can of pop for 25¢. So when I got tired of coffee, I'd go for a Dr. Pepper or a Mountain Dew. That was a lot of caffeine. And I found I was actually feeling kinda tired and jittery, and wasn't sleeping well.

At some point, I decided to go off it cold turkey. No more caffeine. I suffered from caffeine deprivation headaches for a few days, but eventually found that once my body had made the adjustment to a caffeine-free diet, my energy levels at work were actually higher. An OJ in the  morning, and cold water the rest of the day (and a good night's sleep the night before) actually made me a much more productive worker than all the caffeine I could drink. I still drink caffeinated soda once in a while (maybe once a month). If I'm on a long road trip and I'm feeling drowsy at the wheel, I won't hesitate to buy a bottle of Mountain Dew at a gas station on the way. But I have no desire to let this become a daily thing again.

I love chocolate. Chocoholism runs in the family. My dad's a chocoholic. My mom used to have her own private stash of Fazer chocolates that she had to keep hidden so we kids wouldn't dig into it. My sister's a chocoholic. And so am I. I have found two negative effects from eating too much chocolate. First, a nice piece of dark chocolate in the evening can keep me up till 2 a.m. Also, all chocolate (light or dark) is loaded with calories. When I eat too much chocolate every day, I start putting on more pounds than I'd like. It doesn't matter how healthy the rest of my diet is or how much exercise I get, eating a bag of Cadbury mini eggs every day will do that. Once I actually looked at the caloric content of chocolate and compared it to other foods, I decided that I could still eat chocolate every day, but only in small quantity. As a little treat! Not as a main course! And never near bed time. That keeps me a happy camper.

I should make it clear that my decisions about caffeinated soda and chocolate reflect a desire to be healthy, which follows the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Since the letter of the Word of Wisdom does not prohibit caffeinated soda or chocolate, my decisions about that stuff would have to reflect my own decisions.

"Then  why won't you drink coffee or tea?"

Because the Word of Wisdom (as currently interpreted by Church leaders) prohibits coffee and tea. This brings us back to the meaning of the Word of Wisdom for me.

Even if there were no caffeine in coffee or tea, and even if there were no known negative effects on health caused by drinking it, I would still not drink it so long as it were prohibited.

For me, there is a symbolic value of following the Word of Wisdom that transcends any possible health benefits. By following the Word of Wisdom, I in essence say that I'm willing to make this small sacrifice (it is, after all, a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things) as a sign of my love for God.

"Can't you have even just one teeny weeny little glass of wine to celebrate some special occasion?"


For the reason I've just given... Because my obedience to the Word of Wisdom has symbolic significance, even drinking an infinitesimally small amount of alcohol (a "symbolic amount"!) on purpose would be breaking it.

I love celebrating special occasions, but please don't feel insulted if I do so with a nice, tasty, non-alcoholic "sparkling" beverage, instead of with wine or champagne. This is important to me.

"But you're excommunicated, so you're not technically bound by Church rules."

That's right. This is my choice. It's one of the ways I can demonstrate my loyalty to God and to the principles of the Church, even if I am excommunicated.


I suspect that the Word of Wisdom as currently practiced in the Church is something for this time and place, and not an eternal requirement. Jesus did, after all, say he would "[drink of the fruit of the vine] with you in my Father’s kingdom" (Matthew 26:29). I look forward to that very special feast.