Against Christensen

Modern Mormonism insists on reading the Book of Mormon as a literal history as much as scripture, betting the religion on the actual existence of each of the characters inside the book. Kevin Christensen writes in favor of this view in “Hindsight on a Book of Mormon Historicity Critique,”1 saying that Book of Mormon historicity should be important to Latter-day Saints, “given the implications one way or the other.” This seems to be a common view of both members and leaders of the Church. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “The historicity—historical authenticity—of the Book of Mormon is an issue so fundamental that it rests first upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and even went so far as to compare Mormons who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon to “those who even deny the existence or the knowability of God.”2 President Ezra Taft Benson wrote, “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”3

This point of view rejects the intrinsic value of the book, and lays out a trap for so-called “weaker” Latter-day Saints, who, having been indoctrinated with the primacy of Book of Mormon historicity, leave their faith upon exposure to contradictory evidence. The intrinsic value of the book and its teachings should rather take first place, leaving historical literalism to the side as an interesting intellectual exercise at best. Though fewer members and leaders have taken this approach, it finds support in some, like President Spencer W. Kimball, who indicated that the historical aspects were secondary to “its principal message… that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world.”4 Using this point of view, the religion can still “stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon,” but falling is less likely for either the individual member or the Church when attacks come from academia.

Despite assertions to the contrary, focusing on the book’s message rather than its historicity does not weaken the Mormons’ position. The historicity of Jesus’ parables are not thought of as relevant to their message, and neither do the Hindus concern themselves with whether Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna actually engaged in a literal conversation on the battlefield. The message is rather strengthened and taken more seriously when its students are not distracted by pointless insistence on literal historicity. Instead of being forced to exercise a superhuman faith in secondary principles, they are allowed to focus their attention on and recognize the fundamental teachings of the works.

Christensen, however, follows the “literalism first” school of thought, which ultimately binds intellectual honesty into subjection to faith. It is odd that despite his insistence on our defense of the historicity of the Book of Mormon he quotes favorably from Hugh Nibley, saying, “it is sad to think how many of those telling points that turned some of our best students away from the gospel have turned out to be dead wrong!” Such a sad event wouldn’t have occurred in the first place if so much emphasis were not put on historical literalism rather than the philosophical, moral, and religious teachings of the book. Also odd is in contrast to his initial insistence on “the implications one way or another” of Book of Mormon historicity, he concludes in an “I’m bearing my testimony!” manner, saying quite the opposite: that the historicity of the Book of Mormon wasn’t integral to his faith, at least before 1982.

Christensen asserts that enough academic integrity to admit “bad news” creates a risk of falling into “spiritual masochism.” This assertion is presumably either a character attack against William D. Russell, whose paper is the subject of Christensen’s paper, or a warning to would-be Latter-day Saint scholars against publishing uncomfortable conclusions, or it could be both. It makes an interesting ad hominem, conveniently allowing us to ignore academic papers based simply on the author’s inadequate spirituality.

“I presume Russell would agree that honest scholars should welcome new information that might require revision of their own earlier findings, including those offered in his 1982 paper,” writes Christensen. “New” and “old” in his world apparently have little relevance to time, but rather refer to how favorable the thesis is to Mormonism, as he follows up that statement by liberally citing research published before 1982. A partial list of citations from Russell’s article provide great insight into Christensen’s approach to scholarship. These papers are presumed to be unreliable because they were written by members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some of them particularly so because a traditional Latter-day Saint scholar wrote a paper with contrary conclusions.

Particularly baffling is Christensen’s apparent assertion that Joseph Smith based his understanding of the Book of Mormon on all the latest twentieth and twenty-first century research, including satellite imagery. He states, “Notice that Coe has a consciously fraudulent Joseph Smith composing his text with a hemispheric setting in mind, and not even imagining a limited setting until the Nauvoo period, when he encounters the Stephens and Catherwood volume. Here we can test the claim.” How is the claim tested? By citing Lawrence Paulson, who has the particular distinction of having written a website in which he describes that after studying about the river Sidon in the Book of Mormon, he “performed a computer search of a 3-D satellite map of the entire Western Hemisphere to find candidates that matched the description.” Whether or not Christensen really intended to claim that Joseph Smith based his opinion on satellite imagery, it is exceedingly bizarre that he uses it as evidence that Russell is wrong in his statements about Joseph Smith’s opinion.

According to Christensen, archaeologists whose conclusions support the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon are better trained and more disciplined than those who are not. He tells us, “Tellingly, Coe makes much of the disappointments of Thomas Ferguson relative to the Book of Mormon, but he does not seem to have grasped the implications of the very different approach taken by better trained, more disciplined Latter-day Saint archaeologists.” He may very well be correct that whichever archaeologists he has in mind are better than Coe, but he neglects to tell us why we should believe it.

Christensen tells us that we should massage definitions to fit with the most favorable interpretation to Mormonism. The words “church” and “synagogue” should not be taken as an anachronism, but be understood in their most abstract definitions of “gathering” and “meeting place.” Presumably we’ll take the liberty of re-accepting the stricter definitions as proof of Book of Mormon authenticity if the scholarship ever leads toward the strict definitions being plausible. In fact, he mentions that an “essay by William Adams Jr. highlights recent research indicating that synagogues existed in Jerusalem before the exile.” Apparently we can have it both ways. Likewise, statements about skin color that are uncomfortable to members of modern society are to be taken as metaphorical. Massaging definition and taking statements metaphorically can easily be done in the context of a religious text, but when we’re engaging in academic inquiry as to the historicity of a text it becomes problematic.

We are also told that changes in an organization’s name are relevant to scholarship taken pla
ce before that name change. “From the perspective of this writing, nearly three decades after Russell’s article, what lessons can we take from the subsequent events affecting the RLDS and LDS communities? Much has changed. The most drastic social changes have come in the transformation of RLDS community life to the point of changing the organization’s name to the Community of Christ,” says Christensen.

All scholars ought to be apologists, according to Christensen. The problem is, however, that an apologist is not a scholar in the true sense of the word. The apologist does not seek for truth, but insists that he already has it, and so sacrifices academic integrity and intellectual honesty in order to defend his faith by any means possible. By ignoring evidence contrary to Mormon interests and seeking out favorable evidence regardless of date or credibility, Christensen seeks to turn us into persuasive writers rather than scholars. Rhetoric is the preferred weapon to be wielded in defense of the faith. It is amazing that despite its self-contradictions and anti-intellectual stance, Christensen’s article got past whatever editorial review is placed on articles printed in FARMS Review. The existence of Christensen’s paper is a striking example of the problem with insisting on Book of Mormon historicity as a fundamental principle of faith.

We do not need to reject the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon, but by putting it in its proper place as secondary to the message we enjoy the dual benefit of the proper priority of putting the message of Jesus Christ first, as well as being strengthened against any attack that may come along which, if possible, “shall deceive the very elect.” We further enjoy the additional benefit of retaining our integrity and honesty in academic settings, perhaps allowing Mormons to finally be recognized as legitimate scholars by someone other than themselves.

1. Christensen, Kevin, “Hindsight on a Book of Mormon Historicity Critique”. FARMS Review: Volume 22, Issue 2, Pages: 155-194. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2010. <http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=2&id=810>.

2. Oaks, Dallin H., “Historicity of the Book of Mormon”. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies Annual Dinner Provo, Utah, October 29, 1993. <http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=30>.

3. Benson, Ezra Taft, “The Keystone of Our Religion”. Ensign, January 1992. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992.

4. Kimball, Spencer W., “How Rare a Possession—the Scriptures!”. Ensign, September 1976. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1976.
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One Comment to “Against Christensen”

  1. E.T. Benson: "Romney/Huntsman Won’t Save Constitution!"

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