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.


Beck said...

Thank you for this testimony-strengthening post.

I have found myself caught up at times in the way the Book of Mormon's "translation" actually occurred, and have found myself shaken in the mythical beliefs of its origins.

Yet, despite those moments of being "caught up" in that process, I always come back to how its teachings affect my life - that is the ultimate test of veracity and validity.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Beck - One of the things I've come to appreciate over the years is that our sense of verisimilitude -- our sense of the kinds of things that we consider probable or possible -- is socially constructed. We live in a culture where angels and miracles are put in the same category as Santa Claus, Dracula and the Easter Bunny.

But I think the ultimate test of any religious experience or phenomenon is what it produces in us. What kind of people it makes us. That is actually the criterion that the Book of Mormon itself invites us to apply. And it still makes sense in the framework of a rationalist/materialist culture, so it's an easier entree for us into a "miraculous" text like the Book of Mormon. (Or any religious text, for that matter...)