Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: "Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist"

(Click to enlarge)
As an article of faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms, "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (Article of Faith 9). Among the many "great and important things" that are yet to be fully revealed are the details of the Creation. "Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things," says an 1833 revelation to Joseph Smith. "Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof" (D&C 101:32–33). In the meantime, the Lord has commanded Latter-day Saints to "seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom" (D&C 88:118). Undoubtedly this includes the best books on the natural sciences. Accordingly, there have been many influential Latter-day Saint scientists, including James E. Talmage (geology), John A. Widtsoe (biochemistry), Henry Eyring (chemistry), Philo T. Farnsworth (electrophysics), Harvey Fletcher (physics), and Richard G. Scott (nuclear physics), to name only a few. In addition to their noteworthy scientific work, these Latter-day Saints also delved, to varying degrees, into Mormon theology and grappled with how to harmonize the truths of God with the truths of science.

With his new book Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist (published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship as a new volume in the institute's "Living Faith" series), the Latter-day Saint evolutionary biologist and ecologist Steven L. Peck, an associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University, has secured his position as one of the great contemporary Latter-day Saint scientific-theological expounders. His anthology of writings (which first appeared in previous venues) addresses such topics as evolution, environmentalism, ecology, consciousness, and creation from a faithful Latter-day Saint perspective. Peck shares scientific, theological, and personal insights into these and similar topics in, ultimately, an attempt to get Latter-day Saints to "embrace good science and the truths of the gospel without compromising either one" (p. 7). As Peck insists, "Both science and faith are important and valid lenses through which we come to understand the world and our place in it" (p. 7).

Evolving Faith begins, wisely, with a discussion of the scientific method compared to a revelatory-based epistemology. "I have found that both science and religion can make vital contributions to the ways we understand the universe in its fullness" (p. 11). The key, Peck argues, is to properly understand each category, including their limitations, and thus avoid confusion or dogmatism. "Those who use science to attack religious perspectives are engaging in a blatant misuse of science," Peck writes. However, "Religion is sometimes used inappropriately to dismiss science as a legitimate way of knowing" (p. 11). To avoid this trap, Peck explains the scientific method and urges Latter-day Saints to shun such things as scriptural "literalism," or "the risk of robbing the scriptures of their intended effect" by insisting they only be read in a hyper-literal or fundamentalist paradigm (p. 17). "The purpose of scripture is to connect us to deeper, more important realities," Peck reminds us, "about which science can offer no insight" (p. 17). By adopting a more nuanced paradigm concerning the relationship between reason and faith, science and scripture, Latter-day Saints can largely (though, admittedly, not always entirely) avoid stumbling blocks that may damage faith or testimony. Likewise, by eschewing literalism and fundamentalism, Peck reassures his reader that faith can be strengthened.
The scriptures facilitate contemplation of the more profound aspects of the universe, enabling us to experience the influence of the Spirit of God and opening grander and more prescient truths about the meaning of existence and our place in the universe. These truths have little to do with the mechanical workings of the universe–––they relate only to the spiritual realities that open us to a relationship with God and his other children on a higher level than the surface realities obtained by objectively inclined science. (pp. 17–18)
After laying this groundwork, Peck moves swiftly onto such topics as the philosophical underpinnings of subjectivity as an epistemology (pp. 23–44), evolution (pp. 45–78), and consciousness (pp. 79–106). Peck's exploration into each of these subjects, while each interesting in its own right, left me variously satisfied. His thoughts on subjectivity and how Latter-day Saints might view consciousness from a doctrinal perspective (particularly in light of D&C 131:7–8) were deeply interesting, but I confess I was a tad disappointed in his argument for the compatibility of evolution and Latter-day Saint theology. Peck covers the science behind evolution well enough, and his enthusiasm for science and evolution is admirable, but I wasn't enthralled by his conclusions on how it relates to Mormon theology. Not that I necessarily disagreed with him, but rather I was left wanting more. "Our doctrines," Peck concludes, "informed by evolution, answer questions about why such a cruel and wasteful process was chosen for creation and resituate the problem of evil" (p. 73). This may very well be, as others have also argued. But I felt that in his treatment Peck offered little beyond a series of questions with only "speculative" (a word peppered throughout the chapter) answers. To be fair, Peck himself does not pretend to have the final word on the matter, and he wisely avoids the sort of dogmatism he had just barely decried. Nevertheless, I was left wanting more. Maybe it is unrealistic of me to expect it, given our limited revealed knowledge on the topic, but I was hoping Peck would give a more substantive theological harmonization with evolution than he did.

The final part of Evolving Faith is a collection of Peck's musings on such topics as environmentalism (pp. 139–156), theodicy (pp. 165–172), and sacred space (pp. 191–202). Concerning the first, Peck makes a convincing case for Mormon environmentalism. Even if Mormon environmentalism may not always align with modern political environmentalism, Peck insists that "LDS theology [nevertheless] provides a strong environmental ethic. Reasons for caring for creation are clear and justified from scripture, prophetic utterances, and the teachings of LDS leaders and scholars" (p. 148). Some of these "leaders and scholars" include Elder Marcus B. Nash and Hugh Nibley. In this regard, Peck is in good company. I thus welcome Peck's call to environmental care and consciousness among Latter-day Saints, who owe it to themselves and everyone else on the earth to protect and conserve the resources God has granted us on our terrestrial home.

In the end, I would judge Evolving Faith an admirable step in the right direction. Latter-day Saints need not fear science, even when it appears to contradict their doctrine. "Is there any conflict between science and religion?" Henry Eyring once rhetorically asked. "There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men." This is only natural, as while on this mortal sojourn, filled as it is with its limitations, ambiguities, contradictions, and nuances, "we see through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). But rather than retreating away from this conflict, Peck encourages Latter-day Saints to charge forward and think critically and robustly about science, scripture, nature, and God. Readers may not agree with all of his answers, and in some cases may be left wanting more (as I was in one instance), but Peck is nevertheless to be lauded for his enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. His meditations on not just science but also such issues as suffering, holiness, and awe for creation reflect a maturity that should be welcomed in contemporary Latter-day Saint discourse.

I would therefore recommend Evolving Faith as a wholesome exploration into how science can inform our understanding of God's awe-inspiring Plan of Salvation.

Monday, October 26, 2015

How to Be a Successful Millennial Ex-Mormon (A Guide for Beginners)

In our modern, busy world there's always a need for a guide to this or that. Hence we see guides for coin collecting, guides for fitness, guides for video games, guides for travel, and guides for sports. Since, by some accounts, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is teetering on the brink of oblivion (even though, you know, it isn't), and its (especially younger) members are leaving "in droves" (even though, you know, they aren't), it seemed only appropriate that I craft a quick and easy guide for how to be a successful millennial ex-Mormon in the 21st century. 

This guide isn't necessarily for denizens of the ex-Mormon subreddit (although said denizens may still find my guide useful) or other equally lovely Internet cesspools. Rather, it is for beginners. It is for those who, after an intense week of "careful research" (read: browsing Wikipedia, the CES Letter, and Zelph on the Shelf), are ready to abandon their covenants and the faith of their fathers for the trendy, hipster pop-atheism that's all the rage these days. (By the way, did you hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson has a new stand-up routine called Religion? LOL! alongside Seth MacFarlane? You should totally check it out on Netflix.)

So, dear neophyte, follow along as I take you through the first five steps towards becoming a successful millennial ex-Mormon.

1. Remember, all of your ideological opponents are acting in bad faith

Rule number one of any ideological warfare is the delegitimization of your opponent. For your new purposes, that means delegitimizing faithful Mormons (or, as you're hereby required to pejoratively call them, "TBM"s or "true believing Mormons") as insincere, conniving, avarice-soaked, unscrupulous, brainwashed, emotionally-stunted idiots who only continue to believe in the face of the CES Letter because of social or monetary reward. 

Case in point: the apologist. As you'll quickly discover, those filthy apologists at such dens of irrationality as FairMormon and the Interpreter Foundation are the embodiment of everything that's wrong and loathsome about TBMs. They know full well that the Church is false and that their preposterous nonsense is rubbish. (If you have any doubt that the peer reviewed academic work of such PhDs as Hugh Nibley, John Gee, Stephen Ricks, Royal Skousen, Steven Harper, and John Welch is nothing but pseudo-scholarship, be sure you read the non-peer reviewed, self-published work of the non-PhD Jeremy Runnells.) But Midway, Utah villas don't pay for themselves, and so they collect weekly cheques from TSCC (another helpful acronym you're going to need to learn: "the so-called Church"). As such, the apologists are more than happy to feign faithfulness for the sake of piling up those fat stacks. Ergo, they are acting in bad faith. They don't really believe this stuff. And if they do, well, it's because they're deluded morons. 

"But Stephen," you may interject, "what about people like Richard Bushman or Terryl Givens? They aren't apologists with FairMormon. They're university professors. And smart ones, to boot. They've published in highly respectable academic venues. And they're totally faithful. What do we do about them?" A very good point. You're catching on quickly. In cases like this, you have to remember all of the emotional and social benefit these (supposedly intelligent and thoughtful, as if it were possible) TBM scholars receive by remaining members. Sure, they may not get money from TSCC (so far as we know; see #4 below), but they're so emotionally attached to their subject that, bless their hearts, they just can't help themselves.

(An important caveat: only TBMs derive social or monetary benefit from their activity. I mean, sure. John Dehlin makes his money counseling people out of their Mormon faith, and Jeremy Runnells has set up a way for you to donate to his campaign so he can work full-time on the CES Letter, and both of these men enjoy considerable social clout in various ex-Mormon circles, and both of them are highly emotional and partisan about championing their work, but it's definitely not at all the same thing. Don't let any TBM trick you into thinking otherwise.)

Likewise, as an ex-Mormon, you're now uniquely qualified to evaluate the psyche of your ideological opponents. It doesn't matter if you've never met your opponent in real life, or if you don't know a thing about them. They are TBM apologists, so have at it! Make sure you liberally throw out such phrases as "confirmation bias" and "cognitive dissonance," even if you don't actually know what they mean, in your online encounters with anyone who defends the LDS Church. 

You got that? Basically, all apologists are either paid liars or intellectually dishonest hypocrites.

Because remember, they're all acting in bad faith.    

2. Don't think too hard about this stuff. After all, homework is for squares

One trick the TBM apologist typically tries to pull is to encourage you to do some reading and research beyond the CES Letter and Mormon Stories podcasts. The ruse typically goes something like this: 

"You know, the factors surrounding Joseph Smith's practice of plural marriage are complex, and the historical evidence is often ambiguous and contradictory. I would recommend reading the work of such scholars as Todd Compton and Brian Hales to get some different perspectives on this highly nuanced, intricate issue."

Or it may go something like this:

"I can understand why someone would be bothered by a lack of DNA evidence for Semitic people in ancient America. But have you considered that the way you read the Book of Mormon may in large part determine how you evaluate the DNA evidence? In other words, there are issues of paradigm and interpretation that must be accounted for in order to come to a solid conclusion. Have you looked at the work of John Sorenson and Ugo Perego that discusses this?"

Dear reader, don't be misled by such deception! As is invariably the case, the simplest, quickest, easiest explanation is always the right one. (I mean, that's just science. Ockham's razor, amiright?) You might suppose that the TBM apologist is trying to get you to "think critically" or "carefully reconsider your views" about the issue, but this is not the case. No, this is a diversionary tactic. I mean, really. Who in their right mind is going to read John Sorenson's 800-paged, heavily-footnoted opus Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book? That stuff is boring, hard to read, uses lots of scholarly jargon, and will ultimately just draw you away from precious Reddit time.

If you think about it, it's understandable why the TBM apologist would have you waste time reading stuff. After all, the Mormon God (whose glory is "intelligence" [D&C 93:36]) requires his disciples to "seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom," and to "seek learning" (D&C 88:118). Therefore, if an apologist asks you to look at stuff beyond what's being featured on Reddit's front page, you can safely conclude that he or she is trying to confuse you or bog you down with stupid things like "nuance," "thoughtfulness," "critical thinking," and "evidence."

Furthermore, if anything an apologists says or argues confuses you, or otherwise challenges your beliefs, simply deflect the unwanted new information by deeming whatever he or she said "mental gymnastics," dismissing the published work as "unofficial," and moving along. You don't want your confidence in the CES Letter shaken, do you? Best not to think too hard about these things. 

But fear not, dear reader. Thanks to the Internet (that infallible spring of truth), there's a way you can appear both sophisticated and trendy at the same time!

3. Memes are your friends

Say what you want about Richard Dawkins. He may be a cranky racist on Twitter, but he gave us the Internet meme. (Well, not really, but you know what I mean.) 

Memes are an absolute pleasure and allow you to look hip, cool, well-informed, intelligent, deep-thinking, and Internet-savvy all at the same time.

Here's an illustration. Joseph Smith, as TSCC was forced to admit by the Internet back in the 1980s and 90s, gave different accounts of his First Vision. Normally, a trained historian would look at these documents and provide careful commentary that takes into account such things as composition, transmission, chronological context, the purpose of the account, how the accounts compare to each other, how memory works, etc. Screw that noise! As an impatient millennial you've earned the right to get instant, simple answers to everything. Enter the meme:

Voilà! Now you have a nice little image for your Facebook page (just watch the "likes" stack up) without having had to do any of the heavy lifting.

If an apologist counters by pointing out that a meme is highly misleading, factually inaccurate, or downright deceptive, or if he or she counters by encouraging you to "read some books" on the subject written by "actual historians," just refer to #2 above. What matters isn't whether the meme is "true" or not. What matters is the emotional response it'll evoke in the people who see it, and that it gives you, dear reader, the sense of sophistication and erudition that you so desperately need in the presence of a phalanx of history PhDs at the Joseph Smith Papers and the BYU Church History Department. 

Of course, though, being factually correct and totally unbiased all the time and in all things (which is totally what you are) isn't enough. No, you have a moral duty to rid the earth of TSCC filth. As such, you now have a very important job.

4. Root out conspiracy (even where it doesn't exist)

We live in a dangerous world where dangerous forces are lurking in every corner. No institution, however, is more dangerous than TSCC. You must, therefore, quickly learn to implicitly trust those authorities who, out of their sense of moral duty to the good of humanity, have infiltrated the nefarious cabal of TSCC and have returned to Reddit to (anonymously, of course) report their findings. No time to waste seeing if the person's claimed identity as President Monson's personal assistant's cousin is legit. You have those poor wretches in the pews to save from the clutches of The Brethren.

Therefore, no matter how outlandish or (almost criminally) absurd a conspiracy may seem, your duty is to support those intrepid whistleblowers at all costs. If the TBM apologists are crooks, you can only imagine what their white, cisgendered, patriarchal, bigoted, homophobic, heteronormative, geriatric (those are the only adjectives you're allowed to use in describing them) overlords are like. They have no decency, morality, or sincerity whatsoever, and so you're perfectly free to openly postulate grand schemes, "factions," "power vacuums," and the like amidst their ranks on even the most tenuous evidence. If it helps, make sure you bring up any possible private mental health problems that some of the Brethren may be suffering to bolster your case (even if you're a mental health practitioner). If anyone asks you for evidence, just remind them that they have the burden of proof to prove you wrong. (Because that's how it works. Always is the burden of proof on the defender. Again, that's just science.) 

Speaking of, as with any good conspiracy, always keep in mind that the less evidence there is for a conspiracy, the deeper the conspiracy undoubtedly runs. So when volunteers with FairMormon provide firsthand testimony assuring everyone that they're not being paid by TSCC, obviously that's just a lie; they are being paid by TSCC (see #1 above). The same absolutely goes for actual Church officials (duh). So when Michael R. Otterson gets up and says, "There are no factions among the Twelve. I have been in those meetings enough to see the diversity of opinions and different perspectives aired and thoroughly talked through. My experience is that unless the Brethren are united on something, the issue just doesn’t move forward. They always go for unity, complete unity, which is what you’d expect in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," that's just a lie. Likewise, when Elder Cook insists, "Some have asserted that more members are leaving the Church today and that there is more doubt and unbelief than in the past. This is simply not true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger. The number of members removing their names from the records of the Church has always been very small and is significantly less in recent years than in the past," you can absolutely bet that's a lie. (What would he know about Church membership retention and numbers anyway, right?)

Basically, if it in some way undermines the conspiracy, it's a lie. Plain and simple.  

As an added bonus, if you want to be really edgy as an anti-capitalist, atheist whistleblower who's saving the world from religious fanaticism and capitalism, make sure you set as your profile pic a mask mass-produced in China of a 16th century homicidal religious fanatic.

Oh, and whatever you do, make sure you compare TSCC to Orwell (you know, that guy you once kinda read in high school). Because the Internet totally hasn't made comparing something you don't like with Orwell into a meaningless cliché.

But it's okay if you use clichés or anything else as a newly minted ex-Mormon, because . . . 

5. The ends always justify the means

Don't forget: you are right, they are wrong. You have the truth, they have lies. You're an unbiased, rational thinker, they are deluded, brainwashed sheeple. You have a moral imperative to save those people from their superstition and bigotry, they have the moral imperative to simply accept whatever you say and whatever methods you employ. That means you're free to vandalize, cyberbully, lie, provoke, obfuscate, mislead, deceive, spin, or do anything else you need to do to get the job done.

This is especially true in your efforts to obediently proselytize for Jeremy Runnells. So go right on ahead and make deceptive pass along cards, vandalize Church property, leave the CES Letter behind for people to "unsuspectingly" encounter, or, if you're especially enterprising, exploit a mistake and spread the word with a spam email.

But be careful. You need careful branding, otherwise the TBMs will see right through you. This guy on r/exmormon, talking about the idea of a CES Letter app, gets it.

Filming people in the privacy of the temple without their consent and posting it online? Lying through your teeth in order to placate bishops and family (only to then turn around and mock them behind their backs for not catching the lie)? Leaking private or sensitive information and documents? Targeting youth through deceptive hashtags on social media? It's all good. So long as your intentions are pure, don't worry about whether what you're doing is the most ethical thing or not. It's all for the greater good.


I hope, dear reader, that you'll find these suggestions helpful as you begin your exciting new life in the world of ex-Mormonism. Now that you're free from being blindly obedient to a cult that asked for your time, money, and unfailing ideological loyalty, I hope you find joy and goodness in being blindly supportive of an online cause (but definitely not a cult) that asks for your time, money, and unfailing ideological loyalty.

Wherever your road may take you as you venture away from Mormonism and into the brave new world of (probably) atheistic nihilism, just remember: if anything bad ever happens to you, or if your feelings are ever hurt in any way, it's probably somehow Dan Peterson's fault.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Follow-Up Note on the Necessity of the Gold Plates

By the Gift and Power of God (2014) by Anthony Sweat

Not long ago I posted a note from Michael McKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat on why the gold plates were necessary despite Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by revelatory means. Here is a follow-up by McKay and Dirkmaat published just this month.
With Joseph looking into the hat at the seer stones, what need was there for Joseph to even have the plates in his possession? While most of the Book of Mormon translation accounts say little in this regard, the plates may well have served several purposes. Their mere existence may have instilled in Joseph with confidence that the words that appeared on the stones were from an ancient record. In the face of persistent pestering, carrying and possessing the plates would have sustained his confidence that the translation process was authentic. His mission was to "translate the engravings which are on the plates" (D&C 10:41), and he spent some time scrutinizing and transcribing some of the characters on them. Yet the translation usually occurred while the plates lay covered on the table (although some accounts suggest that the plates were sometimes kept in a nearby box under the bed or even hidden in the Whitmers' barn during translation). In addition, the plates encouraged belief in the minds of needed supporters, such as Emma, the Whitmer family, and the Three and the Eight Witnesses, each of whom spoke of having various experiences touching, hefting, feeling, and seeing the plates. The text of the Book of Mormon is abnormally self-aware of the plates; it focuses again and again on the provenance of and the sources by which Mormon and Moroni compiled the gold plates. It essentially tracks the gold plates and their source material from person to person until the plates end up in the hands of Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon even prophecies of Joseph's possession and translation of the record. Therefore, the physical plates fulfill thousands of years of preparation, and the witnesses provide authentication of the historicity of the plates. The plates were therefore indispensable for validating the ancient nature of the Book of Mormon.
(Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, "Firsthand Witness Accounts of the Translation Process," in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey et al. [Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015], 71–72, internal citations removed.)

So I ask again: what's the big deal? Seems pretty straightforward to me.

While we're at it, here's a nice thought from Steven C. Harper:
When it comes to the Book of Mormon witnesses, the question is which historical documents is one willing to trust? Those whose faith has been deeply shaken sometimes find it easier to trust lesser evidence rather than the best sources or the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence. But that choice is not a foregone conclusion. It is neither inevitable nor irreversible. . . . Why not opt to believe in the direct statements of the witnesses and their demonstrably lifelong commitments to the Book of Mormon? This choice asks us to have faith in the marvelous, the possibility of angels, spiritual eyes, miraculous translation, and gold plates, but it does not require us to discount the historical record or create hypothetical ways to reconcile the compelling Book of Mormon witnesses with our own skepticism.
(Steven C. Harper, "The Eleven Witnesses," in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon, 128–129.)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Brian Hales the Amateur–––Revisited

He doesn't have a cult of anonymous redditors following him, you say? How good of a scholar could he even be?

Readers of my blog will recall that some time ago Jeremy Runnells amusingly accused Brian C. Hales (undoubtedly one of the finest living authorities on the topic of the history of Mormon plural marriage) of being a "Mormon amateur apologist." At the time I responded by mentioning the number of respected academic peer reviewed venues Brian's work had appeared in, including Mormon Historical Studies, Journal of Mormon History, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. This of course was in addition to his three-volume work Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History and Theology published by the respectable Greg Kofford Books.

This morning I received my copy of the brand new volume The Persistence of Polygamy: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster and published by John Whitmer Books. This rounds out the "Persistence of Polygamy" series that covers the three stages of Mormon polygamy: Joseph Smith's plural marriage, plural marriage from 1852–1890, and post-manifesto polygamy and Mormon fundamentalism. Brian has an article on the topic of "John Taylor's 1886 Revelation" in this new volume. It's not surprising to see this, after all, since Brian has published an award-winning book on the topic of Mormon fundamentalism.

Keep in mind that Brian has articles on plural marriage in the first two anthologies of the "Persistence of Polygamy" series as well .

Oh, and also a number of articles in the peer reviewed Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.

Oh, and also a new piece on John C. Bennett's status as an alleged Nauvoo polygamy insider in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Mormon History.

Oh, and also he's now the president of the John Whitmer Historical Association.

So . . . remind me again which peer reviewed, academic venues Jeremy's work on the history of plural marriage has appeared in, and which historical associations he is affiliated with.

That's what I thought.

Not to worry, though. I'm sure that if Jeremy ever decides to take a sabbatical from teaching at the prestigious University of Reddit (I hear UoR is almost as high as the University of Phoenix in Princeton's ranking) and venture forth into academia he can be invited by Brian to present his work at next year's JWHA conference.

The saga is complete.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Why Were the Plates Necessary?

By the way, there's really no reason to think Joseph Smith didn't actually have these in his possession.

A question I've encountered from time to time is why, if Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon through revelatory means, were the golden plates necessary. Jeremy Runnells, for instance, wonders how this doesn't make useless "the gold plates that ancient prophets went through all the time and effort of making, engraving, compiling, abridging, preserving, hiding, and transporting." In his rambling bluster he demands to know why Moroni traversed a "5,000 mile journey lugging the gold plates from Mesoamerica (if you believe the unofficial apologists) all the way to New York to bury the plates, come back as a resurrected angel, and instruct Joseph for 4 years only for Joseph to translate instead using just a…rock in a hat?"

The misguided indignations of Jeremy Runnells notwithstanding, the answer is simple, really, as explained by Michael McKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat.
So, what was the purpose of having the plates if Joseph left them covered during the translation? Though Emma [and other witnesses] explained that Joseph did not use the plates, as a traditional translator would have, they were still deeply important to the translation. They represented where the words originated–––demonstrating their historicity, and forming a sense of reality about the individuals described in the Book of Mormon. The plates were in essence the body for the spiritual words that fell from Joseph Smith's lips as he translated. They created confidence in the minds of Joseph and his family and friends. They offered believers something physical and tangible to understand how and where the text of the Book of Mormon originated.  
They were also invaluable for demonstrating that Joseph Smith was a chosen seer. The relationship between the plates, Joseph, and God was indelible for communicating the nature and purpose of the Book of Mormon. Without the plates, the translation was empty, and without Joseph's gift, it was not from God.
(Michael Hubbard McKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon [Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015], 87–88.)

This isn't anything new. Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens and others have made this same point a number of times. (Then again, staying current with historical scholarship isn't really Jeremy's strong suit, so I guess I can't be too hard on him.)

So remind me again what the problem is, because I just don't see one.