Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Textual Criticism of the Book of Mormon: Royal Skousen vs. Earl Erskine

Sure, but does he even have a podcast?

The Salt Lake Tribune recently released an article on the "mass resignation" of some 100 persons* from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This event was led by Kate Kelly, who has been busy dismantling the Patriarchy with op-eds for the Huffington Post. The group of soon-to-be ex-Mormons claimed in its ranks Earl Erskine, "host of the online video series 'Ex Mormon Files.'" Mr. Erskine, according to the Tribune, "said his withdrawal from the church began after he read an 1830 edition of the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, and noticed discrepancies with more recent printings." By "read an 1830 edition of the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, and noticed discrepancies with more recent printings" I'm betting that actually means "spent the better part of an afternoon reading Wikipedia and MormonThink and mindlessly regurgitating the standard anti-Mormon talking points," but that's just me. Regardless, Mr. Eskine is quoted as saying:
"I gave myself permission to think. … Mormons, bless their hearts, they're very intelligent, but they don't critically think very much."

(Pro tip: If you want to come across as smug and obnoxious as possible, use phrases like "bless their hearts" while giving your ideological opponent a thinly-veiled backhanded compliment.)

So there you have it. The proprietor of the illustrious and academically acclaimed "Ex Mormon Files" (don't be ashamed if you hadn't heard of it before; I had to Google it as well) allowed himself to think and, unlike us innocent and incorrigible Mormons, is a true critical thinker. This, of course, brought him to the inevitable conclusion that the LDS Church is false and corrupt. 

Frankly, I'm kind of upset that I wasn't given permission to think while attending BYU. I mean, it would've made things much easier if my bishop would've just signed my "Permission to Think" endorsement right alongside my ecclesiastical endorsement each year. Whatever. What's done is done. Maybe if I get 100% on my home teaching this month and pay 20% for my tithing my stake president will give me permission to think. 

Until then, I'm curious to hear Mr. Erskine's opinion of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana-trained linguist Royal Skousen. You know, the one guy who has spent nearly three decades working on the critical text of the Book of Mormon. The same guy who has published his work on the Book of Mormon with Yale University Press. That guy. Specifically, I'm curious if Mr. Erskine thinks Professor Skousen qualifies as a Mormon (bless his heart) who has been allowed to think critically for himself. I mean, Skousen's work on the critical text of the Book of Mormon is voluminous (literally) and his research has proven extraordinary important and influential on how modern historians, anthropologists, linguists, and literary critics approach the Book of Mormon. He is widely regarded as one of the premier scholars of the Book of Mormon of this generation, and he is undoubtedly the premier text critic of the Book of Mormon of any generation.  

Well, I think I already know why Mr. Erskine wouldn't qualify Professor Skousen as a Mormon who (through some incomprehensible feat of skill, luck, and shrewdness) has managed to secure permission to think for himself in the Church. You see, Professor Skousen is an absolutely firm believer in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. "The evidence basically argues that Joseph Smith was not the author of the Book of Mormon, nor was he actually the translator," Skousen has written. "Instead, he was the revelator: through him the Lord revealed the English-language text (by means of the interpreters, later called the Urim and Thummim, and the seer stone)." In addition to his academic work, which has led him to this conclusion, Skousen has testified:
“Yet my personal testimony of the Book of Mormon is independent of my work on the critical text project. The Book of Mormon stands on its own and is ultimately not dependent on how that text may vary in printed editions or in the manuscripts. Moroni promised that the Lord will give a testimony of the book to the prayerful reader — irrespective of any infelicities and errors in the text (which Moroni recognized could be there, as he himself noted in the last part of the title page of the Book of Mormon). I received my own personal witness of this book long before I ever began work on this project. I have never needed to prove to myself that the text is from the Lord. Nor have errors in the text ever prevented the Spirit from bearing witness that the book is the Lord’s.” 

For Skousen, the ultimate question of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is a religious one, to be sure. But his scholarship has without a doubt informed his testimony and strengthened it. He is confident (and this is easily discerned in his publications on the Book of Mormon found at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute and the Interpreter Foundation) that the textual evidence for the production of the Book of Mormon favors its divine authenticity, and he has unashamedly argued such for many years.

So here we have two choices. We can either listen to a man with a PhD in linguistics who has spent his academic career producing academically acclaimed work on the critical text of the Book of Mormon that has withstood all levels of scrutiny, or we can listen to a hack podcaster who has exactly zero academic training relevant to evaluating the critical text of the Book of Mormon, zero academic publications to his name on the critical text of the Book of Mormon, and zero credibility in the eyes of anyone who is remotely connected to any kind of academic study of the critical text of the Book of Mormon. 

I will let you decide for yourself, dear reader, whom you will choose as your guide for matters pertaining to the critical text of the Book of Mormon. As for me, I think it's pretty clear who the superior choice is, and whom I would recommend to you as a trustworthy source.

Then again, I've never actually been granted permission to think for myself, so I suppose you'll just have to take my recommendation with a grain of salt.

*Actually it was less, since the report indicates that many in attendance were already ex-Mormons.

Friday, July 17, 2015

That One Time When I Agreed with the Pope and Disagreed with the First Presidency

Pope Pius XII (1876–1958)
I recently celebrated my birthday. (Being single at 25, I believe I am now officially a "menace to society.") Per my usual habit whenever I get gift money, I bought myself some books off of my Amazon wish list. One of the books I purchased is Lawrence Boadt's Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Boadt, who was Catholic priest (C.S.P.) by vocation before his passing in 2010, approaches the Old Testament from an explicitly Catholic perspective. It was therefore not surprising when I encountered the approving citation of Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in the book's introduction.
What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time. For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. 
For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East. The investigation, carried out, on this point, during the past forty or fifty years with greater care and diligence than ever before, has more clearly shown what forms of expression were used in those far off times, whether in poetic description or in the formulation of laws and rules of life or in recording the facts and events of history. The same inquiry has also shown the special preeminence of the people of Israel among all the other ancient nations of the East in their mode of compiling history, both by reason of its antiquity and by reasons of the faithful record of the events; qualities which may well be attributed to the gift of divine inspiration and to the peculiar religious purpose of biblical history.  
(Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, paragraphs 35–36.)
As both an Ancient Near Eastern Studies graduate and as a Latter-day Saint who accepts the Bible as more than a mundane book but a book of scripture, I heartily endorse these remarks from Pius XII. In fact, I would say that my academic career at BYU was in large part oriented towards trying to strike the kind of position Pius XII advocates here. It's a position that I believe is wholly in harmony with what's taught in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 88:78–80, 118; 90:15; 93:53) and what was taught by Brigham Young.

Unfortunately for my inner-ANES nerd, this is not the position that was delineated by the First Presidency (at the time Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson) in a 1992 official statement (which was included with slight variation in the 2010 edition of the Church's handbook). "Many versions of the Bible are available today," the statement uncontroversially and straightforwardly reads. "Unfortunately, no original manuscripts of any portion of the Bible are available for comparison to determine the most accurate version. However, the Lord has revealed clearly the doctrines of the gospel in these latter-days. The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations" (emphasis added). As I read it, this statement from the First Presidency essentially dismisses the sort of critical studies Pius XII stressed were at times necessary to uncover the meaning of the Bible. Instead of engaging the Bible critically, the statement appears to say, in order to resolve ambiguities or problems in the biblical text you should just compare the Bible with modern LDS scripture and call it good.

What's more, the First Presidency goes on to say, "While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations." I confess that I find this statement truly baffling. What "doctrinal matters" does modern revelation preference in the KJV over other contemporary English translations of the Bible? Perhaps the First Presidency here is hearkening back to President J. Ruben Clark's objections towards the Revised Standard Version that appeared in his 1956 volume Why the King James Version. Among other things, President Clark objected to the language of the RSV that appeared to deemphasize the divinity of Jesus or gloss over doctrinal matters highly valued by Latter-day Saints (such as the ordination and role of the apostles in the New Testament church). Perhaps this is what the First Presidency meant in 1992 when it said that "latter-day revelation supports the King James Bible," since we Latter-day Saints draw from the religious vocabulary of the KJV in framing our own theological discourse on a whole bunch of topics.

Even so, I am truly conflicted over the 1992 statement because it appears to run contrary to the paradigm I have formed since even before my formal studies at BYU. There's no stuffing the exegetical and critical genie back into the bottle when it comes to how I now read the Bible. On one level it would be nice if I could go back to what Philip Barlow called the "hermeneutical Eden" that most Latter-day Saints dwell in, "innocent of a conscious philosophy of interpretation." It would be nice if I didn't have to worry about the Documentary Hypothesis, or the Synoptic Problem, or the historicity of the exodus, or the authorship of the pseudo-Pauline epistles. It would also be nice if the ancient authors and redactors of the biblical books were proto-Latter-day Saints in every detail, who believed and thought %100 like we do in the Church today when it comes to doctrinal and moral matters. But I really don't have a choice anymore. I can't read the Bible and not have these issues on my mind.

To be fair, I think I agree with what I think is the basic point being made by the First Presidency. It's true that readers of the Bible can become so bogged down in fretting over critical issues that they miss the forest for the trees. As a book of scripture, the Bible can and should be read primarily as a book of God's dealings with his children. And not just that, but also as a book of inspired teachings that are relevant and authoritative here and now, and not just in the Iron Age or classical Antiquity. I am nevertheless dismayed at both the framing of the issue in and the reasoning behind the 1992 statement. The reason I really dig Pius XII's encyclical is because I absolutely believe that Latter-day Saints (and other believing Christians and Jews, for that matter) can engage in a critical or academic study of the Bible while still remaining believers in the Bible as scripture. It's not an either/or situation. Those committed to belief in the Bible as scripture have no need to fear critical study of the biblical texts. This is, as I read it, basically what Pius XII is getting at. To be sure, this doesn't mean that it's always going to be easy reconciling these two (i.e. critical and devotional) approaches to scripture. Nor, on the flip side, does it mean that we're supposed to automatically surrender our theological positions or faith convictions to whatever trendy fad theory du jour is being bandied about in academia. Rather, what I think the Pope is basically saying is that if we're going to take the Bible seriously, we owe it to ourselves to engage the Bible not only theologically and from a position of faith but also critically and from a position of reason.

That's what I was taught to do while studying the Bible at BYU. That's what I believe is commanded in latter-day scripture. That's the pattern that has been set for me by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and many other committed and faithful Latter-day Saint disciple-scholars. And that's what will instill a deep love and appreciation for the Bible. I know it has for me, at least.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

It's Time!

From a report filed yesterday by Good4Utah.
Connor Harrison, Franchise Marketing Manager for Costa Vida, and Lindsay Hadley, Time Machine Co-Founder, joined Midday on Tuesday to talk about the "Its Time" Campaign.  
What if there was a way to make the time we spent on our devices more meaningful and collaborative?  
Time Machine was built as a place where brands, organizations and people can come together to rally other around causes or movements they’re passionate about.
"Its Time" is happening now, but it's not too late to get involved! You can participate up through July 28 on Time Machine. 
Costa Vida and a few other companies have teamed up with Time Machine to raise support for the Tyler Robinson Foundation (which supports kids with cancer and their families), the Progeria Research Foundation (works to find a cure for the rare, rapid-aging disease of Progeria), and Sophie's Place (which shares the healing power of music). 
To participate download the free app, do one of the service activities listed by Costa Vida and/or the other companies and share your posts about it on social media. You will then be entered to win all kinds of prizes, from free meals to free concert tickets. If you are doing a service activity that Costa Vida listed be sure to use the hashtag #Costacares. 
To learn more about the "Its Time" Campaign visit timemachine.do
I am proud to say that Lindsay Hadley, the co-founder of Time Machine mentioned in the article, is my sister. Since graduating from the Y, I have been squatting in her basement until I find a job or ship off to grad school, and so I have seen for myself how hard she's worked on this project. She, and the rest of the Time Machine team, is extremely dedicated to genuinely helping others and comforting those who stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:9). She's truly one of my heroes!

Time Machine is a worthy cause to get involved with. I hope you will take time to check out the website, download the app, and do some of the challenges. Besides helping others, which is always good in its own right, you'll have a chance to win sweet prizes, not the least being VIP access to an upcoming Imagine Dragons concert.

You can make a difference. Even if you're just one person, and you feel like the odds are stacked against you, don't be discouraged from helping in even a small way. "By small and simple things are great things brought to pass" (Alma 37:6).

It's time to make this world a better place for all of us!