A “Heartland” Book of Mormon Exploration

Those who believe that The Book of Mormon events took place in North America often quote:

In the almost complete absence of written records, one must be permitted to guess, because there is nothing else to do; and when guessing is the only method of determination, one man’s skill is almost as good as another’s. An informed guess is a contradiction of terms, so our initial shock of nondiscovery was tempered by a warm glow of complacency, on finding that the rankest amateur in our party was able to pontificate on the identity and nature of most objects as well as anybody else.

. . . Counterparts to the great ritual complexes of Central America once dotted the entire eastern United States, the most notable being the Hopewell culture centering in Ohio and spreading out for hundreds of miles along the entire length of the Mississippi River. These are now believed to be definitely related to corresponding centers in Mesoamerica.

— Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, “Ancient Temples: What do they Signify?”

Unlike what “Heartland” supporters imply, he wasn’t in agreement with them. The use of the quotation is not problematic, but the interpretation assigned is far from the mark. The late and legendary Hugh Nibley was fascinated by the Hopewell tradition, but he didn’t believe they were part of the Nephite civilization. To him they represented the transfer of Nephite cultural ideas to others before getting wiped out in wars. An argument could be made that he was wrong and the “Heartland” theory represents the main Nephite culture before spreading south. There is not a way at this point to know. One thing that Mesoamerican and “Heartland” supporters can agree on is that a competent New World historical picture is generally out of reach. A lot has been discovered, but what has not been written cannot be read. What has been translated is of a later date with most of the past having been lost or destroyed.

At the time of the publication of The Book of Mormon it was immediately presented as a religious history. Both internal and external documentationleft little room for classifying it as literary invention. That meant that history and geography was of huge importance. The first place proposed was starting at the New York area where Joseph Smith said he found (more accurately was shown) the location of the plates. From there North and South America were assumed to be Book of Mormon lands, with Central America the narrow neck of land. With all the traveling in the narrative such short distances, there was no way such a large area could be the background. Locations were shifted to the immediate New York area while leaving all other places alone. That made comments and discoveries by Joseph Smith in other areas of the country hard to understand except as anomalies. Then the Central American theory become popular and many textual and historical things started making sense to the point there really was no other realistic candidate. All anomalies of extra-narrative had been relegated to curiosities. That is until now. A new approach to the old geography seems rather hopeful. There is some promise to the re-examination, even if some old problems remain. Continue reading

History at the Time of The Book of Mormon

Critics of The Book of Mormon have always complained that what is found in its pages doesn’t conform to actual history. They point to all kinds of what are considered anachronisms that many later turned out correct with more research. Some historical answers are found in paying attention to the text and not assumptions about the text. Yet, there are still mysteries left as to why details are included that don’t match up to what is known. No matter what side a person might be on the historicity of this religious masterpiece, the past isn’t a neatly cataloged set of facts or evidence. It is always open to new possible discoveries or interpretations. Few times and places are as shadow covered as the Pre-Columbian Americas with its deep jungles and hidden ruins.

Trying to create an outlined history of the Americas before European arrival is not an easy task. What will be produced is a list of known ruins and cultures covered in mystery and vagueness. How many cultures and ruins are always in doubt. There are a handful of classified cultures with many smaller ones contested if they are a part of them or separate. Even the recognized cultures have been downgraded from Empires to regional social powers. They can’t even be considered united by political authority, usually appearing feudal with Greek like city-states. The chaotic boundaries and ever changing allegiances make The Book of Mormon much more believable than ever before.

This is, of course, coming from preliminary research and not expert historical studies. It just seemed appropriate to look into exactly what was happening during The Book of Mormon times. Perhaps understanding what was known to have happened outside the pages of the text, the book could gain a new context. This isn’t a compare and contrast study to provide evidence of authenticity (although that comes up), but a look at the cultural, religious, and political climate of the time periods. These would play a large role in shaping the experiences of the people portrayed, assuming they did indeed exist. Continue reading

A New Creation from the Old

A debate about the relationship between the Genesis Creation story and Science has been going for more than a century. It isn’t often a polite debate, with both sides accusing the other of ignorance and blasphemy. The end result is the two sides rejecting the methodology and presumptions of the other (usually the scientists wholehearted and the religious perfunctory). When the religious do take the side of the scientist it is often by mythologizing the Creation and by extension neutering its textual power. The scriptural narrative becomes a shadow of its formerly perceived importance.

To be fair, the original writers didn’t have the scientific understanding of the modern era. That is the approach of a new set of religious exegesis Genesis researchers. They postulate the theory that in order to truly understand the Creation account, and end the debates, it is necessary to study what the pre-science writers intended. And what they were doing in Genesis, according to the new paradigm that is considered the old, was “naming” and “ordering” the already existent material to form functional stability from chaos. This sounds perfectly Mormon, but there is a catch. Functional in this case means making what already has existed and formed of the material and making making it consecrated. still a very Mormon concept to be sure, but it throws out the whole of the material creation as a God involved process. A religious person must before the Genesis account assume God already created the material, was not involved with the material creation, or that what He did create was evil. The Genesis Creation account becomes a post-Creation account.

This leaves a big gap for the scientific modern understanding. Although there are strengths to the chaotic-order Creation paradigm, many of them Mormon supportable like the already existent matter, it still puts into question the “Truth” and “Historicity” of the Creation. For a modern people who associate mythologizing and allegory as lies for at best a better truth, the profound spiritual viewpoints are not enough. The material world is far more real and important than it ever was in the ancient past. There still must be some “concordance” (matching historical knowledge with scriptural events) to make it valuable beyond the original writer’s intent.

The key to having a modern interpretation of an ancient viewpoint is Nephi’s use of Isaiah. After having quoted Isaiah, he says in 2 Nephi 25:1, “For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” As a Jew from Jerusalem he states in 2 Nephi 25:5, “for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews” Knowing the way people think and their history helps in understanding what they write. For those who want to interpret Genesis according to the ancients, this is a powerful endorsement. Yet, it is only half the equation of Scriptural usage. Despite or even because of all that Nephi knew about the Jews, he says in 1 Nephi 19:23, ” I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” He related the past writings to his contemporary situation. Not only did he expound on the difficult words of Isaiah, but he made them relatable and significant to the readers. He saw a material manifestation of the spiritual teachings in his life. Continue reading

The Flat Earth Phenomenon

The Earth is round. All the evidence going back thousands of years is undeniable. Despite the myth that it wasn’t until Columbus sailed the ocean blue when it was proven, scientists and philosophers had known this fact since ancient times. In fact, Columbus’ belief in the size of the Earth and not its shape was found to be incorrect when he discovered the New World. It turned out to be much bigger than he had anticipated. And yet in modern times there is a small, but growing, number of people who believe that the Earth is flat. The reasons behind this are much more than simple ignorance or mental disorder.

How much they actually believe their own theories is up for debate. It is hard for the majority of “civilized” people to get their head around why someone would ignore all evidence to the contrary. These are the very questions that drive the movement. They represent more than an uneducated few, but a new vision of the future returning to the simplicity of the past. One that never actually existed, but still a past that was mythologized by the educated that now mock them. They are almost a metaphor for how the world has progressed in science and technology, but regressed in social cohesion to fractured tribalism.

Flat Earth believers are characterized as the stereotypical Christian Evangelical Young Earth Creationist Fundamentalist. A starting point for the belief in a “pancake planet” is the Biblical description of the Earth with a domed sky. However, quick Internet research of those who are part of the group quickly dispels such a narrow categorization. They may use the Bible as evidence, but not always for the same reasons. It can be anywhere from religious devotion to a recognition that it is one of many ancient sources untouched by a modernity that has lost its way. It doesn’t matter if the individual’s politics is left or right. What they all seem to have in common is conspiracy theories about population manipulation by government elites. The flat Earth theory is secondary. Continue reading

Looking Beyond Apologetics Toward Faith

Much has been said about the possibility that a large number of people are leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That might be true, although it hasn’t been proven with certainty. A lot of what is happening now occurred in the 90s with high profile excommunications. The membership survived and actually for a time thrived. Even if the numbers are falling, there are areas of the world where it is growing. Culture and politics are as influential in determining the destinies of communities as truth claims and criticisms. Much of the apologetic work is not helping the situation, reacting rather than getting at the root of the problems.

There are two apologetic approaches that represent a majority of the attempts at recovering those who are losing faith. One of them is a more literal (for the most part) group that tries to explain history and doctrine with evidence that traditional narratives are generally true. Many orthodox members, if they know of them at all, appreciates these efforts with some reservations. Another group tries to embrace the skepticism of those who have left, coming up with reasons for them to stay despite questions and doubts. It would come as no surprise that orthodox members are mostly not impressed. Of course, there are degrees of apologetics that fall anywhere between the two. To put it bluntly, they are minimal effective tools used to help keep people from losing faith. Continue reading