Does Book of Mormon Historicity Matter to Menu Mormons?

I once went to lunch with a self proclaimed “Menu Mormon” friend of mine. For those that don’t know that term, a “Menu Mormon” is the Mormon equivalent to a “Caferteria Christian.” It is someone that claims to only believe the parts of the religion that work for them. They pick what they want ‘off the menu.’ My experience is that this almost always means they are equivalent to practicing-but-not-believing. 

Anyhow, this friend told me that it would not matter to him if The Book of Mormon got proven or disproven. He suggested that if we suddenly found an authentic letter between Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon working out the details of The Book of Mormon together he’d just keep on believing just as he currently does. Likewise, if they suddenly unearthed a giant sign post that, when translated, said “Welcome to Zarahelma – Lamanite Parking Not Available” that it wouldn’t affect his beliefs one bit.

I agree with the first half of his assessment. I seriously doubt the second half and find it hard to believe it could be true for anyone. I suspect that this statement he made was consistent with the Menu Mormon narrative, but not consistent with reality. In fact, I doubt this friend has given any serious thought to the second possibility ever happening, so I doubt he even knows what his reaction would be nor how it would might drastically affect his life.

Frankly, I suspect finding Zarahemla would be as life shaking an experience for Menu Mormons (and Non-Mormons obviously) as finding an authentic letter exposing the Book of Mormon as a fraud would be for Believing Mormons. In short, necessary self-narratives aside, I suspect both sides are closer in this regard than they first appear. We both had ‘something to lose’ so to speak.

Thoughts?

30 thoughts on “Does Book of Mormon Historicity Matter to Menu Mormons?

  1. To be fair to menu Mormons, I don’t think there is any scholarly evidence that would cause me to abandon my current belief system. The Spirit is stronger than such evidence. As we find with many discussions, people base their belief systems on many, many things, and a few changed data points here and there (no matter how convincing to others) are unlikely to affect most people. A letter exposing fraud? Meh, as far as I am concerned, although it would certainly make for interesting discussion. It could not overcome the feelings of the Spirit, the feelings I often get at Church, the feelings at the temple, the feelings that I have when thinking about being sealed to my wife and family.

  2. “They pick what they want off the menu.”

    My problem with calling people “Menu Mormons” is that it’s a label that can be applied to almost all Mormons. Of course most Menu Mormons are not self proclaimed, but they pick and choose anyway.

  3. I think your testimony of The Book of Mormon has to come thru the Holy Ghost. For me a discovery like this would be intersesting, but it’s not what my testimony has been based on. We know from reading in The Book of Mormon, people like Laman and Lemuel were given many great witnesses, but that still did not change their hearts. I think a testimony needs to be rooted in the Holy Ghost and personal confirmation not big “wow factor” things like this.

  4. The counterpart to Cafeteria Catholic should be Smorgasboard Mormon. It works phonetically and also culturally, 19th Century Swedish convert immigrants (Thomas Monson’s people) instead of French Papists.

  5. I’ve heard that said before, that most Mormons are Menu Mormons. But I still don’t understand the premise.

    There is a huge difference between feeling out what directions you should be going, acting on the Spirit to apply the gospel, working out the meaning and application of the gospel in your own life and consciously picking and choosing what you subscribe to and what you don’t.

  6. I think Geoff B.’s response is quite revealing. There may be those who will be affected as the OP claims; but I think many so called Menu and Believing Mormons are similar in that they will not be affected by the discovery of some historical artifact.

  7. @Tim
    Exactly. Even with something fundamental like the word of wisdom we ignore the parts we don’t like (meat sparingly?) Everyone is a “menu Mormon” since no-one can actually understand all of it.

  8. So then what is the difference between a Jack Mormon & a Menu Mormon? I think I’ve become a menu Mormon over the years because of my inability to participate in church activities due to my job. (i work Sunday mornings & the church does little to provide during the week). I have a decent amount of faith but I’ve always (I’m a 15 year convert) taken things like the D&C & Pearl of Great Price with a grain of salt. The actual BoM though has never really given me issues. I think a letter such as the one described in the OP would cause me to seriously contemplate tossing those two books. Not sure how I would feel about the BoM though.

  9. The only thing a Zarahemla discovery would do for me is I would probably handle missionary opportunities differently (and perhaps worse?) since you’d be pointing directly to the evidence rather than to the prophet and allowing the spirit to confirm.

    If a sealed envelope in the church archives turned up with a “do not open for 200 years” proclaimed in Joseph’s hand that he made it all up, then I really don’t know what I’d do. Certain lifestyle things would of course stay the same, no interest in coffee/tobacco/alcohol, and I’d still have the same philosophies on persuasion & agency and a strong believe in personal service toward each other. I’d be thoroughly confused and likely to believe a Joseph who wrote in 1830 that he was duping us, didn’t even realize that he was being inspired as he was duping us. That would be based on the fact that I have received very personal and real revelations that can’t just be explained away by a letter or piece of evidence revealed by someone else.

    To me it would have to be more likely that the evidence someone else reveals is more fraudulent than my own experience. Why should I put more “faith” in the historical revelations of someone else than my own personal experience on the matter? Several years ago, after a lifetime of activity in the church, I could not have answered this question the same way, but some experiences of putting the gospel to the test, so to speak, really changed the foundations of personal revelation of and with the Lord that I stand on.

  10. I think the Smorgas-Menu Mormon issue is that some Mormons, due to not having a strong testimony of some key LDS claims, pick and choose what they will follow.

    My testimony of the Book of Mormon is such that if it were proved to not be historical, I would still use it as an inspired book. That said, I currently see many evidences that strongly suggest a historicity to it.

    I think the issue depends upon whether we are Mormon because we have gained a very strong testimony of its key principles, or whether we have a soft testimony/only attend for social reasons, etc. For those with strong testimonies, who strive to follow the principles, there are few areas of the Menu they do not accept (although may not always follow).

    Meanwhile, real Menu Mormons question whether they have to eat their spinach, when they’d rather spend all their time socializing around the dessert table.

  11. Ram, I like your categorization of types of testimony, but I’d add another.

    Testimony of principles of the restored gospel
    Testimony of sociality of the restored gospel
    Testimony of the living reality of God, his Son, and revelation via the Holy Ghost.

    Maybe you could add more…

  12. My addition I suppose really fits into the first one (principles) but I’m differentiating between principles like agency and WoW, charity, etc.

  13. I’m sure we could, but they all fall into line with whether one has a testimony of core principles, or as a social gospel. I know members who have a testimony of the gospel, but do not desire eternal marriage. Others with a testimony of the Book of Mormon, but not of Joseph Smith as prophet! And many others with a testimony of Joseph Smith as prophet, but not of the Book of Mormon’s historicity.

    Fortunately, most Mormons I know do have a testimony of the divinity of Christ and God. Still, I also know many who have a testimony of the socializing gospel, and no testimony of the spiritual things of the gospel.

  14. Can one really have a testimony of a social benefit? A testimony is more than just liking something, or thinking it works for you. In fact, some things I have a strong testimony of have not worked for me or really benefitted me.

    I think “Menu Mormons” are active, do not have a testimony, but still believe the Church can benefit them and others.

  15. Rameumptom says: “others have a testimony of Joseph Smith as prophet, but not of the Book of Mormon’s historicity.”

    I think this phrase reveals a fundamental problem we have in this discussion: the assumption that you CAN have a testimony about something like historicity.

    When a Mormon asks the prayer: “Is the Book of Mormon true?” he feels a spiritual confirmation, a reassurance from the Holy Ghost that this is something he should believe in or follow.

    But when we get this confirmation, can we necessarily infer from it that the Book of Mormon is 100% historically accurate? No. All we know from our personal witness is that God says it is from Him, and we should follow and believe in it.

    But we make all kinds of inferences from our “witness.” We assume that God would not inspire fiction. Why wouldn’t he? We assume that God would not lead us to believe something that was a myth. How can we make this assumption? God himself admitted to Joseph Smith in the D&C that the concept of eternal fire and brimstone was mythical, so that it would be “more express upon the minds of the people.”

    We believe in a God who told people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, but never bothered to clarify that this was not literal. We believe in a God who said he would tear down the temple and build it in three days, but never bothered to clarify that it was not literal.

    How can we assume that if God tells us to follow the Book of Mormon, that it is historically literal? We can’t. All we can know is that we have heard the voice of God telling us to follow this path, to believe the Book of Mormon, and to join with the Saints.

    So when evidence comes out for or against the Book of Mormon, of which there is plenty on both sides, it shouldn’t matter to anyone who has received a witness, because they know that God wants them to believe the Book of Mormon is His book, and make their home with the Saints.

    This is all we can “know” when we say “I know the Book of Mormon is true.”

  16. Well said, Nate in comment #16. You said it better than I do. My bottom line is: I have a testimony that the Church is true, and that I should be in the Church, I should be paying my tithing and my fast offerings, I should be reading the scriptures every day, handing out Books of Mormon, going to the temple, trying to be a good husband and father, doing my home teaching, helping the less fortunate, etc. This testimony comes through the Church, and the Book of Mormon is part of the church (and the primary physical manisfestation that something special went on with Joseph Smith). Any evidence “proving” fraud would be a very small part of the entire superstructure that I personally have come to rely on to know that I am on the right course in my life. So, frankly, I would probably ignore it (but I would probably follow the debate for intellectual reasons).

  17. “Exactly. Even with something fundamental like the word of wisdom we ignore the parts we don’t like (meat sparingly?) Everyone is a “menu Mormon” since no-one can actually understand all of it.”

    I can’t agree with this statement.

    The issue here is that words often have multiple meanings. In Mormon culture, we call two overlapping concepts “The Word of Wisdom.” One is section 89. The other is a distillation of section 89 that is now part of the temple recommend.

    The first one is still “not by commandment.” The second one is now understood doctrinally to be by commandment. Therefore I can’t accept this view of ‘picking and choosing’ as apt. There is no doubt that the modern leaders / prophets in the Church have allowed for this sort of seperation and that the ‘meat sparingly’ is still understood as not by commandment while alcohol is understood as a commandment (for Mormon people anyhow.)

    By the way, to clarify: this person I am mentioning in the OP did not believe in any of the defining (i.e. unique) truth claims of the LDS Church. And I mean none. This is pretty typical of someone that openly claims to be a Menu Mormon.

    However, he did seem to accept the possiblity of a literally Divine Jesus. I didn’t ask him about a literal resurrection, but I suspect he’d say he is ‘open to it.’

  18. Nate,

    I’m going to differ with you on your comment #17.

    For example, you say “How can we assume that if God tells us to follow the Book of Mormon, that it is historically literal?”

    I’m not sure what you mean here since there are many and multiple reasons why we would assume that a testimony (i.e. revelation) of the truth of the Book of Mormon implies it is historically literal. For example, Joseph was visited by the people that wrote it. Any explanation of a non-historical BoM has to explain all the data points, which would imply all sorts of things about either Joseph Smith or God that are not likely to fit any explanation except fraud or historicity.

    This is the problem with the line of thought that historicity isn’t relevant. Absent a really good explanation as to why God went out of His way to explicitly claim historicity, it would not be “just an assumption” that its historical. In fact, rationally speaking, its fair to say that its epistemologically required by the data. The Church leaders point of view that it’s either from God or a fraud is basically correct logical. (If you are assuming a literal God that is. If you are assuming no God, then obviously its easy to see how it can be ‘from God’ in a non-literal sense and also a fraud.)

    If there were a good alternative explanation for the above mentioned data points, then that would be different. This is the case of D&C 19 and Eternal @#!*% , so that is why that example doesn’t translate to the case of BoM historicity. But we aren’t only without such an explanation (in the case of BoM), but it seems unlikely that one could, even in principle, exist.

  19. Just for the record, is the second option in the OP even possible? Can someone explain to me what historical evidence for the BoM would look like (besides internal evidence)? We have no original language off which to base it, we have no definitive geography. The first option is clearly possible plausible, on the other hand.

    Bruce, I don’t think you have fully answered Nate’s point that what Church leaders and even JS take to originally be literal and historical later turn out to be something different. The Book of Abraham is the most obvious example–what was once considered a translation has to be considered more along the lines of a revelation, even if it’s a revelation inspired by the allure of translation. I don’t think you have to create an elaborate explanation for why God works in mysterious ways (that’s why they’re mysterious ways)–you just have to look over the examples we have and realize that revelation rarely fits into the convenient boxes we prepare. The emphasis on “all or nothing” by Church leaders certainly has extra rhetorical punch, but it’s not too hard to imagine other reasonable possibilities (i.e., Ostler’s expansion theory).

  20. “I suspect both sides are closer in this regard than they first appear. We both had ‘something to lose’ so to speak.”

    Sorry, I have to disagree with you there. I’d have nothing to lose. I am a freethinking skeptic who goes where the evidence leads me. Because my main belief system is to follow the evidence, finding a Zarahemla sign would only lead me further along the path of evidence based reasoning.

  21. Don’t we already have an example of this in that the Book of Abraham has been shown to be based not on anything in the papyrus, but rather on whatever Joseph thought it meant?

  22. Nate, I don’t think it is necessarily an issue of not being able to have a testimony of the BoM’s historicity, but of “how” historical it is.

    It is one thing to believe that Nephi or Moroni actually existed as historical beings. But perhaps some of the “history” in the Book of Mormon may be wrong or incomplete, simply because it was written by humans who were seeing things from only one perspective. Second, ancient people did not write history as we do today, but wrote history as a means to explain the world around them. So it was nothing to believe that God (Yahweh, Zeus, etc) was doing great miracles or great destructions for a reason involving the people.

    And there are incomplete understandings involved in writing history. Jacob and Enos believed the Lamanites to be a crude and savage people. Yet, when Ammon goes to preach the gospel, they have cities and structure to their lifestyle. So the history may not be perfect, nor even accurate.

    So, while I believe the BoM is historical and that Moroni actually existed (Joseph Smith, after all, spoke with Moroni and Joseph F Smith stated he saw many of the Nephite prophets in the Spirit World DC 138). So, at least that part has to be historical, otherwise there is a major deception going on by God or man.

  23. Joel, good question.

    I think that Joseph Smith’s “translations” were not translations in the modern concept. Instead, the document at hand (gold plates, papyri, Bible, or even a document hidden under a rock by the apostle John) was the catalyst for revealing an ancient writing.

    There are some who think we do not have the papyri Joseph had for the Book of Abraham, nor for the Book of Joseph (which was not translated). But there are some interesting connections between the extant papyri and the Book of Abraham. I suggest you check out the Backyard Professor Kerry Shirts’ site on what he’s come across.

    I believe the Book of Abraham to be historical, even though it may not have actually been on the sen-sen papyri we now have. The papyri merely was a catalyst to have a revelation on what Abraham did write many millennia ago.

  24. Rame, you have a good point that issues of historicity and literal reality are not lightly dismissed with regards to the Book of Mormon. The church history narrative very explicitly sets the Book of Mormon within the nuts and bolts real world of corporeal angels, hefty golden plates, the sword of Laban, witnesses, etc.

    So I do think that God wants us to struggle with the historically embarrassing details of it’s origin. God does throw down the gauntlet with this story, and demand that we either accept it or reject it. I believe He purposely designed the story to present a stumbling block to the learned. In this way, it is consistent with all the crazy stories in the Bible.

    So what can the “learned man” do when faced with such a story? On the one hand he sees historical evidence of the honesty of Joseph Smith and the testimonies of the witnesses, and on the other hand, the unexplainable anachronisms and seeming 19th Century influences within the book. Then he may have his own spiritual witness that it comes from God.

    Yet for the learned man, he still struggles to accept a narrative so incongruous with what he perceives as the natural order of the universe. Yes, he believes in a God of miracles, for he has healed the sick through the priesthood, and he accepts the testimonies of those who see angels in our day. But when it comes to scriptural anachronisms, he does not see consistency between his experience of the divine, and the scriptural account of the divine. Therefore he accepts that perhaps he believes in a God who inspires and uses myth, both as a stumbling block and an inspiration to the faithful.

  25. Why would scriptural anachronism be an issue? Of course there are going to be 19th century influences on an revelatory translation of scripture, when the translator is a 19th century man.

    I don’t see the logical step, Nate, could you explain it?

  26. Athena says: “Sorry, I have to disagree with you there. I’d have nothing to lose. I am a freethinking skeptic who goes where the evidence leads me. Because my main belief system is to follow the evidence, finding a Zarahemla sign would only lead me further along the path of evidence based reasoning.”

    The main thing you have to lose is to come to the true realization that you are none of this and that none of us are.

  27. DLewis,

    I accept that things won’t fit any box. But that isn’t a sufficient argument by itself to accept that “for all we know the Book of Mormon is both true and fictional.”

    There is a considerable distance bewteen the examples you use and the BoM example. It not hard to imagine Joseph Smith not understanding that his revelation was inspired by the papyri rather than a literal translation. And the example of Ostler’s theory goes against the case you are making because he actually bothered to come up with an explanation for people to rationally consider where as you are not doing so with the example of a fictional Book of Mormon.

    Merely saying “well, it doesn’t fit my prepared box” could be said about a lot of things. Quantum physics comes to mind. But no matter how out of the box it goes, you can only know if you are on the right track using your reason. And you certainly can only form a long term religious group if you have a way to fit the important points together through reason. So dismissing reason like this does not work.

    At issue here is that if we accepted the epistemological approach of “well it doesn’t fit my prepared box” with no assumption of a required explanation to fit it together, then there is frankly no basis for any thoughts at all.

    Even gaining a revelatory experience means nothing now because, well, maybe God sends people who pray and gain a testimony to hell because that’s what he does or because he enjoys it. Arguing “God wouldn’t do that” is a meaningless argument now (given this approach) since we aren’t allow to use our rationality to make such a statement. For all intents and purposes, it scrubs God off the slate (as C.S. Lewis would say.)

    The only rational course here is to accept that — until someone can come up with a decent explanation of how its possible — we can ignore the possiblity of a fictional/fraudulent but also True Book of Mormon.

    If you wish to suggest to me how such a thing is possible (and are wililng to explain all the facts, not just the convenient ones) I’d be happy to criticize the theory and help you make it stronger. I’ve gone down this road a few times and I know the end result is no one has been able to make a decent explanation they are comfortable with yet except for non-literal theists. (Who have no problem with a “True” but fraudulent Book of Mormon because “Truth” doesn’t necessarily mean “factual” to them, as per my Karen Armstrong posts.)

  28. “It is one thing to believe that Nephi or Moroni actually existed as historical beings. But perhaps some of the “history” in the Book of Mormon may be wrong or incomplete, simply because it was written by humans ”

    Ram, I see no epistemological barriers to this line of thought. And I agree.

  29. “Yet for the learned man, he still struggles to accept a narrative so incongruous with what he perceives as the natural order of the universe. Yes, he believes in a God of miracles, for he has healed the sick through the priesthood, and he accepts the testimonies of those who see angels in our day. But when it comes to scriptural anachronisms, he does not see consistency between his experience of the divine, and the scriptural account of the divine. Therefore he accepts that perhaps he believes in a God who inspires and uses myth, both as a stumbling block and an inspiration to the faithful.”

    Nate,

    I like what you say here. I feel much the same way. (Not that I am “a learned man” but I can still feel the same way.)

    One thing I would add: let’s, for the sake of argument, say that the Book of Mormon is both fictional (even fraudulent) but also true scripture for a literal and personal God.

    The bottom line is that God wants us to literally believe as historical a work of fiction. Given that set of assumptions: good enough for me — I believe.

    I suppose part of my concern here with the fictional but true BoM scenario is that there is a considerable group on the Bloggernacle that push this theory but don’t feel the need to pony up with an explanation of how its possible. But if you pay attention, you eventually realize that they are being deceptive. They often are using words to mean something different from what it first appears they mean.

    For example, I’ve caught a few that are actually non-literal theists. As stated above, I agree that given the assumption that God doesn’t exist and that Truth doesn’t mean “Factually true” that I see no issue with the BoM being both a fraud and also true.

    I also have no doubts that such a person that means this but doesn’t explain it is a bald face liar. But be that as it may, they are correct given the correct understanding of their terms.

    I did have one friend that suggested that perhaps Joseph Smith set out to be fraudulent, but he was a bit off his nut, so he was also quite sincere and so God ended up blessing him to write a book that was partially historically true and even truly inspired by God. (Well, for the places he agreed with.)

    This is, at least, a sincere attempt at an explanation. But its easy to criticize and is considerably weaker than the standard explanations (i.e. either actually true or actually fraud.)

    On the other hand, I could see some individual, feeling trapped between conflicting evidence, personally adhering to the idea of a fictional but true Book of Mormon by simply choosing to not worry about an explanation for it. In fact, I’ve toyed with such ideas personally in my past. But the problem I always bumped into rationally was that it was a lot easier rationally to just skip the convoluted non-explanation. I seemed a lot more rational to just believe it despite any contrary evidence or disbelieve it despite any contrary evidence. I couldn’t see why the need to make it more complicated than that.

    That being said, every person is different so I think we need to make room for individual thoughts on this subject. But I would hope that a person that sincerely believed in a fictional but true BoM would at least see the value in not trying to advance that hypothesis or, if they did, were at least ready for the necessary criticism that would rightly follow.

    Then again, human beings are not rational. And rationality is over rated anyhow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>