The Book of Mormon as Inspired Fiction

Not long ago I did a reprint of a Mormon Matters post where I asked people if they would regularly study inspired fiction. The overwhelming answer was “no.” But in the choir of voices, there was one particularly interesting response that I think is worthy of sharing.

Now this commenter did not believe the Book of Mormon is in any way historical. In fact, when he took my question to the group, he rewrote it like this:

Did coming to believe realize The Book of Mormon was only inspired fiction not a literal history cause you to reduce your efforts to study it in any way?

His response was then:

I’ve known this since my teenage years, so a before/after comparison is impossible. All of my adult study of the Book of Mormon has been informed by my understanding that it is not a literal history.

His biggest concern with my original post was that:

I think the terms “fiction” and “fictional” are loaded words that break the spiritual mood. To keep a religious feeling, it’s probably better to say “parable” or “inspired stories” or simply “scripture,” with the understanding that scripture is not history and vice versa.

My concern with his rewording was that just saying “parable” failed to get to the heart of my real question, which was how do you explain the plates. Joseph Smith carted them around and many many people touched them under a cloth.

Then an amazing thing happened, he actually gave an tentative answer to this question. Outside of this one time, I never seen nor heard of any person in favor of an “inspired fiction” view of the Book of Mormon actually make an attempt to explain how such a thing is possible! (See also Mike Parker’s article on this subject.)

I should note that contextually I have no reason to believe this response was his own personal beliefs. Actually, I was under the impression that he was not speaking of his own personal beliefs, but instead only suggesting how an LDS person could choose to look at it. Further, this commenter had a history of suggesting “LDS people can look at things this way if they wish.” (Take a look at the whole context of the conversation and judge for yourself.)

Regardless, this is the first and only time I’ve seen someone try to make a rational case for an inspired but non-historical Book of Mormon. Even if it was only ‘you could look at it this way’ it’s still worthy of respect for having made the attempt. (And if it was his personal beliefs, then it is worthy of our tolerance anyhow.)

So I want to put his comment up here and I want to encourage honest and open dialog on this. Keep in mind that any time someone puts their neck out with an explanation it is worthy of the utmost respect.

Also keep in mind that the ultimate form of respect is rational criticism, because it means you are taking the explanation seriously. Politely ignoring it is not a show of respect, because it means you are treating it like it doesn’t even deserve your time.

Probably the best way to assess this theory is to answer it like this: Could this approach work for you personally? Why or why not?

But I will delete any comments to the effect of “that’s lame” or something like that. That’s disrespectful and this deserves our deepest respects for having made an attempt at a rational explanation.

Let’s consider the box [that people hefted with the plates in them].

[Bruce asked:] “How does believing The Book of Mormon is…a parable or inspired writing of modern origin but still sent by God yet that the revelator that received it claimed was an ancient record either fraudulently or out of ignorance (including hefting around a bunch of heavy plates in a box) affect how you feel about, study, or treat The Book of Mormon (if at all)?”

Does God authorize his prophets to part ways with the truth in order to accomplish an important result?

In order to survive a famine, Abraham and his wife Sarai were forced to travel to Egypt. On the way the Lord said to Abraham:

“Behold, Sarai, thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live.” (Abraham 2:22-24)

This is a direct commandment from the Lord to his prophet to depart from the truth in order to accomplish an important purpose: that Abraham and Sarai could live and produce children in the covenant.

When God commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go, he was instructed to pretend that they were only going to make a temporary journey three days into the wilderness (Exodus 3:18). Of course, God had already confided that his true purpose was to “bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:11). But the Lord commanded his prophet Moses to stray from the truth in order to accomplish the important goal of freeing the people.

When God commanded Joseph Smith Jr. to restore plural marriage in order to establish and build up the Kingdom, Joseph faced the same concern as Abraham and Moses among the Egyptians. If the Gentiles knew with certainty what he was doing, Joseph would certainly be killed — as eventually he was. And so Joseph publically and repeatedly throughout his life strayed from the truth by denouncing the practice of polygamy and denying his participation in it.

As the Lord’s prophet he spoke “on this wise” (in the Lord’s words), engaging (like Abraham and Moses) in what you are calling “fraud.” And he did so as a means to accomplish the crucial end result of establishing and building up the Kingdom of God on earth.

How much more critical is restoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth? And yet you want to label the box, which was the means of accomplishing that great end, a “fraud”?

I am hesitant to give my own rational evaluation at this point, though I certainly have a point of view. Most of you can probably guess what my point of view is. Perhaps I’ll explain my own view in the comments or in a future post if there is interest.

One thing I will say for this explanation is that I suspect it is as rationally solid as was possible for this particular issue. That is to say, I doubt this argument could be much improved upon. But I’d be interested in alternative theories from those that actually believe in a inspired but non-historical Book of Mormon. Perhaps there is an even better argument lurking out there that has yet to be openly argued for and so I’m just not aware of it.

But for now, assess the pros and cons of this approach to the Book of Mormon for yourselves.

211 thoughts on “The Book of Mormon as Inspired Fiction

  1. I don’t agree at all with the proposition that a religious faith is inevitably irrational. I tend to believe that there is nothing worse that can happen to a religion than to accept irrationality as a matter of principle.

    I am reading a book on Islam that makes the case that the failure of Islamic civilization relative to the West over the past millennium was due to the irrationalists winning out over the rationalists in some ninth through eleventh century Muslim theological debates, so conclusively that theological rationalism has been nearly foreign to Islam ever since, an estrangement with enormous consequences.

    There are parallels in Christian theological history as well, albeit not to the same degree. Calvinism tends to be hospitable to the irrationalist point of view. Worst case, where ethics reduces to the divine command theory, where science reduces to occasionalism, and where natural law reduces to coincidence. If occasionalism came to dominate the Western world, we might still be in the tenth century too.

    So it worries me when I see theological questions in the church inevitably reduced to a question of authority rather than rationality. That is a fatal mistake. Mark Noll wrote an excellent book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind a few years back that documents the same problem in the Protestant world.

    We bear close enough relation to Protestant ways of thinking that many of the really silly ways of approaching certain theological questions are commonplace among Mormons as well. One might call it theology free theology, or survival by surrender.

  2. “I don’t agree at all with the proposition that a religious faith is inevitably irrational. I tend to believe that there is nothing worse that can happen to a religion than to accept irrationality as a matter of principle.”

    Hurray!!! We totally agree!

    Again, I often feel like I agree with every word and sentence you say, but somehow still feel like we are arguing.

    I wonder if it’s because I’m a Popperian not a Baconian. Bacon was the one that thought we should try to clear the prejudice from our mind, blah blah blah.

    Popper says we are at our best when we all pick our sides and do our most rigorous arguments for them. It’s across the community that truth is most found that way, not necessarily within the individual. I see this as a pretty strong case for the LDS Church (and all religions everywhere) to be as apologetic as possible with complete confidence that they will get fully criticized by their rivals.

    Kuhn added that even in science we primarily resort to apologetics. Thereby suggesting apologetics is a hugely important part of the conjecture and refutation process, which happens across time and across communities more so than in one individual. (I suppose it could happen in one individual too, but that isn’t the ‘norm’)

  3. Forgive me for posting without reading all the comments, but I think I can take a stab at positing that the Book of Mormon is inspired fiction but also explaining the golden plates and Angel Moroni.

    We can look at other scripture that Joseph produced and see the method quite clearly. The Book of Abraham seems most likely to be the result not of translation of Egyptian papyri, but inspired reflection on the KJV creation narratives informed by Joseph’s study of Hebrew in 1834-35 (there are quite a few clearly Hebrew words, most significantly “gnolam” in Abr. 3:18, which is “olam” meaning eternal pronounced as Joshua Seixas, Joseph’s Hebrew teacher, would have pronounced it). The book of Moses is sublime in some of its theology, as is Abraham, but we need not go further than inspired reflection on the KJV, once again.

    Now moving to the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith clearly used the KJV in parallels such as the Isaiah and Sermon on the Mount chapters. I think it is safe to say that even if there were gold plates, they do not represent what we have as the Book of Mormon. I am open to there being a historical framework that was translated over not only to Joseph’s language, but also his worldview, expectations, understanding of the Bible, etc. I think this makes sense. So even if there were gold plates or some sort of artifact, it could have been anything, even a recipe for pea soup, and like the Book of Abraham, Joseph could have used the artifact as a catalyst for revelation (think Kinderhook plates for example).

    Granted, the story of the Book of Mormon is much more complex than an alteration of the creation narratives. But I accept that the Book of Mormon is inspired whatever its origin. I enjoy reading it and appreciate its theology. My emotional connection to its characters make me hope that they have some historical basis. But once again to repeat, if the Book of Mormon is inspired, it makes sense that Joseph would use the gold plates as an artifact to catalyze translation, just as he did with the Book of Abraham.

    But we also have the fact that Joseph didn’t use the plates for most of translation, but rather a seer stone and hat. So the only problem of not having plates would be Joseph’s deception in saying there were plates. I think we have examples of Joseph using these “noble lies”. I think Joseph was inspired. Joseph even likely had dramatic spiritual experiences. However, I think there is reason to doubt some of them. Even the first vision; we are familiar with the problems there. So here is how it could work for me:

    Joseph received revelations about the proper way to understand and interact with scripture, God, religion, etc. He wanted people to accept his message. Sometimes they did just on the basis of his charisma and message, but others doubted. So he used other strategies to convince them. The Book of Abraham functions this way, however Joseph meant it. His rhetorical use of Hebrew and German functioned to move his claims of authority beyond the reach of his audience (when he says that the Hebrew Bible confirms Mormon theology better than the English Bible does, or that “Jacob has the keys, not James”, what can a monolingual audience do to counter those claims?). The Golden Plates could have worked similarly. Even if they did not exist, Joseph could have come up with a way to legitimize what I believe to be genuine revelation. I think Joseph himself believed some very unlikely things, so I am open to Joseph having spiritual experiences that confirmed his expectations, which limits the degree of deception.

    So that leaves only Moroni, one of the better recorded spiritual experiences. It is troubling to imagine God taking the initiative to lie.. the Book of Abraham and other revelations are Joseph working off his limited understanding of issues and God speaking to him “according to his language” and I would add expectations and world view. But if Moroni really did say what he is recorded as saying in Joseph Smith History, it is hard, once again, to imagine God deceiving so clearly, and especially taking the initiative to do so. But even here, Joseph’s magical worldview of angelic messengers and secreted treasure would provide a language that God could work within in order to produce a book that theologically if not historically, brings people closer to Christ than any other book.

  4. “The Golden Plates could have worked similarly. Even if they did not exist, Joseph could have come up with a way to legitimize what I believe to be genuine revelation.”

    Enoch, thanks for your unique contribution to this discussion.

    A couple of points:

    1. Your explanation leaves a pretty broad range of possibilities. It could even be possible to call it a ‘historic’ explanation in the genre of the modern expansionist theories already discussed.

    2. You really haven’t addressed the problem of the plates head on.

    What I mean is that you indicate (for example in the quote above) that maybe the plates did not exist.

    But actually, that is not in question from the historical record from any reputatable scholar that I know of. There were plates. Plain and simple. Emma and several others that never got to see them did feel them and touch them under cloth and pick them up, etc.

    This is the real ‘problem of the plates.’ If we could simply say that JS dreamed them up and thought he had plates the inspired fiction theory becomes much more tenable (though probably still problematic).

    You do hint that maybe he had plates and he didn’t realize the ‘translation’ was not the same as what was on the plates. Okay, fair enough. But this theory must now explain where he got them. This is not an easy argument. You can’t just say ‘it doesn’t matter.’ Because for each hypothesis there are considerable problems that rise up, though entirely different ones for each hypothesis.

  5. Thanks for your response Bruce.

    1. I think this is a strength of my comment, not a weakness. Good historians do leave open a range of possibilities, and then weigh in on which of the possibilities seems most likely. In my approach I am suggesting how the Book of Mormon could have come about from several angles, depending on what you accept or find persuasive.

    2. If there were plates, where did they go? Why didn’t Joseph use them more often? Joseph could have constructed plates himself, if necessary, or perhaps he found plates of some sort in the hill Cumorah; I am open to that. I think that there are alternative explanations to the existence of Golden Plates as commonly understood. Do you not consider Grant Palmer to be a reputable scholar?

    I admire your responsible approach to the question, that respects other views and tries to explain all the evidence we have. Well done.

  6. “In my approach I am suggesting how the Book of Mormon could have come about from several angles, depending on what you accept or find persuasive.”

    Fair enough.

    “If there were plates, where did they go?”

    Any theory must answer this. You know the ‘standard model’s answer already.

    “Joseph could have constructed plates himself, if necessary, or perhaps he found plates of some sort in the hill Cumorah; I am open to that”

    This thread is sort of stale now. May I respond to this as part of future posts, etc? I was already going to do one in a month or two for John C. I will for Carla too if she responds to my last set of questions. I can work a response to what you say here into that if you wish.

    Grant Palmer denies that ‘plates’ existed!?!? I was not aware of that! Or are you confusing ‘gold plates’ and ‘plates’? The existence of ‘gold plates’ is in question, obviously. It could be a fraud. But the existence of ‘plates’ (at a minimum under a cloth, but still metalic) has been well established through mulitple sources.

    I suppose we *could* argue that there are no plates. But that would, in and of itself, be a massive mismatch from the historical record that would require substantial explanation.

    “I admire your responsible approach to the question, that respects other views and tries to explain all the evidence we have. Well done.”

    Enoch, thank you for saying that. (That sounded somehow weird. :) )

    Actually, my goal is not to undermine people’s faith in the inspiredness of the BoM if they can’t buy history. As you noted, it’s really to do a theory to theory comparision.

    I think, we’ll find, that all theories (save perhaps the non-inspired theory) require equal amounts of faith.

    And I question that any of the alternatives really matches the historical record or survives rational assault as well as the plain old historicity theory.

    Obviously, in my opinion, the real comptetitor to historicity is non-inspiredness. Or in other words, outright Lovecraftian style atheism. (Hopeless atheism.) But your mileage will vary.

  7. I just got a note from the moderator that Enoch left another comment that didn’t show up for some reason. I’ll look into what happene.

    Here it was:

    Sounds good; we can put this post to bed. :)

    I am glad you clarified; I do agree that there were SOME sort of plates, if not golden plates as we commonly imagine, and even if they do not correspond with the BoM.

  8. bruce,

    it seems that we are making little headway. so i will leave this scattered overlong comment and be done.

    about believing in god vs. religion, you said:

    “…I’d be off looking for a religion that actually believes in itself.”

    i took what you said and ran with it. a question: would that religion need to be 100% true/divine? or might it also be false/human in places?

    you said that i am:

    “…a man at odds with yourself.”

    absolutely. it’s called trying to balance faith and scholarship, or maybe scholarship and faith. the order depends on the mood. there are lots of differents ways to do. this is the approach i am taking for now.

    you said:

    “There is a direct corollary between ‘the problem of the plates’ and ‘the problem of the resurrection.’ If either of those is false, the whole of the religion is over and gone.”

    plus later:

    “You do hint that maybe he had plates and he didn’t realize the ‘translation’ was not the same as what was on the plates. Okay, fair enough. But this theory must now explain where he got them. This is not an easy argument.”

    and we’re back to the plates, again. nothing. else. matters. what’s so hard about him finding them while treasure hunting? if egyptian mummies and papyri can make their way into his hands from half way around the world, anything can happen. no?

    by the way, about your take on the resurrection, i think you would really enjoy reading this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Flight-Peter-Fromm-Martin-Gardner/dp/0879759119

    you said:

    “Believe it or not I can understand why NOM/DAMUs who can’t find a replacement religion (i.e. set of truth claims that creates hope) spend their life online tearing down other people’s hope under the guise of ‘advancing the truth’ and ‘freeing the captives’ but never expose their own beliefs to ensure that they can never again be challenged.”

    followed by:

    “And I can understand why the dark hole must be filled, and will be filled in this way. I am glad that these people can find something to replace the hope they have lost and I do not begrudge them that. I just wish they would see the moral problems of what they are doing. Even if they are right, they are wrong.”

    interesting. even if they are right, they are wrong. both at the same time. i like it.

    but seriously, i think you have me confused with someone else, if this refers to me, among others. there’s a difference between actively tearing down other people’s hope and leaving comments on a blog post that raises the topic of book of mormon historicity, insists on taking things to their logical conclusions, and wants to compare theories to see which one is more coherent, or whatever. you brought this up bruce. not me. you cannot guilt me into feeling bad for this.

    i get it that you would rather not have to think about the possibility that significant portions and maybe even the entire text of the book of mormon are not ancient (minus all the ot and nt material, which is obviously ancient). i’d rather not have to think about it either, to be honest. so don’t bring it up then. and don’t try to bolster your position as the lesser of two evils by knocking down another, splitting hairs over the highly improbably vs. the nearly impossible, all under the guise of respect and rational criticism. let people believe what they want to believe, and don’t hang the plates over their heads if they want to believe in inspired fiction to some extent. for the last time, the plates don’t do that much for us.

  9. Bruce,
    I don’t think you get what I’m trying to say, which probably means I’m doing a poor job of saying it. I don’t have the time or energy to discuss it right now tho, so I’ll save it for the upcoming thread.

  10. GW,

    I wasn’t trying to refer to you. Sorry if I made you feel that way. I honestly didn’t have you in mind. (I was intentionally trying to be general and I had already moved on from our previous conversation and wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote this.)

  11. I really should close this thread. It’s long gone stale and 211 comments is too many.

    However, I’m going to leave it open in case Carla decides to post since I might be prematurely cutting her off unfairly. But I think everyone has had their say now.

    I would hope most of us feel this was a worthwhile discussion. It certainly was for me.

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