Last year, FairMormon had a big win for their organization when LDS General Authority Kevin Pearson came to speak at their conference and endorsed them. I consider myself an LDS Apologist. I was moved by Elder Pearson’s words at that conference as he encouraged all LDS with the ability to act on their own to publicly defend the Church. I felt a spiritual prompting to do more than I have been in my efforts to provide intellectual answers and paradigms for those in faith crisis.
In his talk, he identified three organizations that the Church in some degree officially endorses. He thanked those organizations and encouraged others to support them and to direct questioners to those resources. FairMormon, the journal Mormon Interpeter, and BOM Central.
My position is well known (like beating a dead horse some would say). I don’t believe the BOM is historical. I don’t believe the LDS Church is God’s one, exclusively true church. I believe most scripture should be taken metaphorically and not literally. But I have a testimony of the restored gospel, I love the church, I’m an active, faithful LDS with a temple recommend. I love the Book of Mormon. I love the teachings of Jesus Christ. I love the unique teachings and practices we have in the church, coming through Joseph Smith and modern prophets that lead us today.
I want to be more aligned with the traditional Apologists like those three organizations. I feel like I’m more like them than different. We all attend church together. Serve together. Try to figure out how to keep others in the church together. Together, we are trying to figure out how to overcome all the opposition the church is facing on truth claim issues.
Much of what FairMormon, Mormon Interpreter, and BOM Central put out, I can support. Some of it I like a lot. Some of it, I may not feel it is compelling. But rarely do I find the material bad.
With Elder Pearson’s endorsement comes a level of responsibility. We can’t provide ridiculously bad arguments that critics slice up and mock us for it. We can’t go for the cheap, easy wins that might appeal to a mass, uneducated audience when the people that are actually in faith crisis seeking to know the right answers read both sides and have to admit the critics are right. We can’t come across so bad that we seem dishonest and break trust with honest seekers.
With that long introduction, I wanted to put some context into what I’m going to do next, which is criticize these three organizations for some recent bad Book of Mormon apologetics.
The Mormon Interpreter published an article recently by father and son team Bruce and Brian Dale titled Joseph Smith: The World’s Greatest Guesser (A Bayesian Statistical Analysis of Positive and Negative Correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya)
The gist of the article is that the Dales took 131 positive correspondences and 18 negative correspondences between the Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerica, using non-LDS and Book of Mormon critic Michael Coe’s book on Mesoamerica. They assigned probabilities to each of these and calculated what they call the probability that Joseph Smith could have guessed these correctly.
A lay reader might get confused by the math and the discussion of statistical principles in the article and the critiques of the article, but it’s not that complicated. If a basketball player shoots 80% from the free throw line, the probability he makes both when he shoots two is 0.8 * 0.8 = 0.64, 64% chance. The probability he misses three in a row is .2 * .2 * .2 = .008 = .8%. That’s all the math you really need to know. The Dales strung together a bunch of probabilities like this to develop a probability the Joseph Smith could have “nailed this” so accurately.
The result of the calculation according to the Dales:
We find that the likelihood that the Book of Mormon is fictional is about 1.03 x 10–111, less than one in a thousand, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion.
The article has taken an onslaught of criticism from both non-LDS and believing LDS in the comments section at the Interpreter site and other forums, for example Mormon dialogue, Mormon discussions, reddit, my facebook page, lds philosopher blog post.
The criticisms are in many different categories. 1) the arbitrary allocation of probabilities most of which seem way too favorable for the author’s desired outcome 2) capping the max probability negative correlations at 50 3) the arbitrary inclusion of 131 positive vs only 18 negative correspondences—obviously going to manipulate the outcome especially given the previous 4) the failure to identify combined probabilities, and treating all 131 as completely independent.
I like to look for simple test cases in this kind of analysis. For example, consider this little hypothetical account discovered with unknown origins.
Sam rode on his horse on the road from his home to the big city where he planned to sell the grains he collected from his corn, wheat, and barley fields in the marketplace. He took a detour to visit the partially destroyed monument to his famous great-great-grandfather, got lost, was attacked by a group of bandits shouting at him in a foreign language, they threw rocks at him, afraid to get too close when they saw him draw his steel sword, but he was stung by a poisonous snake and died.
This little story contains 10 positive convergences (bullseyes) from the Dales’ list of 131 totaling 1 in 6.25 trillion probability to guess right and four negative convergences (anachronisms) offsetting this by 10,000. Doing the math, this says the author of this little story nailed ancient Mesoamerica to the tune of 1 in 625 billion. You might say, no, that story has a bunch of generic sort of details that might be the case for any story setting. And several anachronisms that would pretty much rule ancient Mesoamerica out. I think you’d be right. But this model was published in the Mormon Interpreter and claimed to be peer reviewed.
Being as generous as possible, this article is the most laughable, embarrassing article I think I’ve ever seen pushed by a group of serious scholars that I usually respect. Instead of taking the article down after the reviews started rolling down, the article is getting pushed more aggressively. FairMormon and Book of Mormon Central shared the article. Daniel Peterson summarized the article in LDS Living, which at last count was shared 536 times. Others in various forums have called Daniel Peterson dishonest for this. That’s very cynical. I don’t see it that harshly, but this episode was every difficult for me.
Book of Mormon Central
Matt Roper and Paul Fields did a study on Book of Mormon Wordprint patterns, ie computer statistical analysis of word pattern to determine authorship and other attributes of the book. Book of Mormon Central have done various blog posts and videos that promoted what they saw as very impressive results of this study.
They claim their study shows that each Book of Mormon “voice” (Mormon, Alma, Nephi, Pahoron, Zeniff, etc) has word patterns that are statistically different and that the combined voice diversity is greater than 8 total novels from four 19th century writers (Cooper, Dickens, Austen, Twain). Huck Finn has a unique voice compared to Tom Sawyer. And Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy have unique voices. And when you take all the voices of 8 sample novels, they have many unique voices, similar to the chart below, but the combined diversity of all 8 is even less than the Book of Mormon. Here’s the chart from the Youtube video they showed.
Impressive! At least until I noticed the chart looks very similar to charts I’ve produced, playing with the same data in my own way. Here’s my chart.
The methodology for my chart is as follows:
This gets a little complicated, but I will try to explain this easiest as possible for a lay reader to follow along. When I studied word patterns in the Book of Mormon, I found two distinct patterns. These patterns are charted X and Y. (Bubble Size is the number of total words for each voice)
X axis on the chart. Narrative vs Sermon. The Book of Mormon consists of large blocks of narrative, written largely by Mormon but also Moroni, Nephi, and a few others. I call this Narrative Voice in my studies that you can read more about here. And also inserted sermons, discourses, or letters from Alma, Amulek, King Benjamin, Samuel the Lamanite, etc. The narrators Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, etc, sometimes go back and forth between narrative and sermon. Narrative is generally written in third person past tense with Sermon written in first person present tense. Words heavy in the Narrative portion are: the, and, to, it, did. Words heavy in the Sermon portion for example are: if, for, ye, unto, shall, which. The degree to which a bubble on the chart is left or right is simply the degree to which they use this simple set of words. Which also correlate strongly to whether they are pure narrative vs pure sermon or some combination.
Y axis on the chart. A pattern that changes from the beginning to the end (Mosiah Priority), which could be attributed to authorship contribution or could be considered in a single author/translator model to be normal voice creep or drift where vocabulary patterns change naturally and linearly as one writes. I have referred to this as Original (O) Voice and Late (L) Voice in my writings on this. Words weighted towards the beginning: now, on, or, might, therefore, thus, took, caused. Words weighted towards the end: my, did, unto, behold, wherefore, because. The degree to which a bubble on the chart is up or down correlates to the usage of these words, which strongly correlates to where the words appear in the Book of Mormon chronologically (Mosiah Priority).
Publishing the BOM Central bubble chart and making the claim that it represents complex, unique voices is weak. The trends I identify are quite simple and should come out in this kind of data analysis. But similar to the Interpreter article, what I am very disappointed by is that when the model’s weakness is shown, instead of quietly taking the work down and stopping the promotion, the decision is to ignore the correction and continue to promote the work.
Note of clarification: I do not mean by this that the BOM is not complex or that the nuances between the Narrative and Sermon voice are not complex. But the Fields-Roper claims, ignoring this more obvious explanation for the data distribution, are seriously flawed.
Tad Callister’s new book A Case for the Book of Mormon is making a splash. Brother Callister is General Authority Emeritus. I don’t want to pick on Brother Callister. He’s not a scholar. He’s writing to a popular audience. He shouldn’t be evaluated the same way as scholars who are at the forefront of these discussions. He’s the grandson of Legrand Richards, author of Marvelous Work and a Wonder. That book, was for my generation something very comparable to Brother Callister’s book on the apostasy and this one on the Book of Mormon for this day. They are works that are quasi-intellectual, inspiring for LDS, good for introducing one generally to some issues that you can follow up through other sources to get more up-to-date scholarship. But they are not aware of current scholarship both pro-LDS and critical, full of prooftexting scripture out of context, using parellelomania concepts, and generally just not good Apologetics.
I wrote on this previously. Another review from a more critical perspective which I don’t agree with completely but shows many of the flaws is here. A quick example is that Br. Callister points out various doctrines of the Book of Mormon that he says are unique and says “how could Joseph ever known this?” When an advanced google book search query shows hits on each one.
… and to a post mortal spirit world in Alma 40. Where did Joseph Smith get these profound doctrinal truths that were in fact contrary to the prevailing doctrinal teachings of his time?
Here’s a little graphic I did comparing one of the hits from an advanced google book search query to Alma 40.
Brother Callister seems not aware of Brant Gardner’s work on translation and retaining Hebraisms. He’s not aware of the work of BYU professors Nick Frederick and Thomas Wayment that have identified numerous allusions to the KJV New Testament. He’s unaware of Richard Bushman’s concessions to modern Protestant material in the Book of Mormon. He gives no regard for traditional Biblical scholarship in the way he’s prooftexting Bible verses that he claims reference the Book of Mormon. Most LDS scholars, even those on the conservative side, won’t stand with him on that. He’s not aware of Blake Ostler’s Expansion Model. He’s not aware of Skousen-Carmack’s work acknowledging modern elements that must have come through a loose translation. He’s using Smoot’s imperative for a historical BOM, but wielding it in an extremely dangerous and hopelessly naive way, claiming none of the book came through the mind of Joseph.
If a regular guy without credentials wrote this book, FairMormon and Book of Mormon Central would ignore it, mock it, or even blast it for being weak on scholarship, similar to how Book of Mormon Central recently blasted the FIRM Foundation Heartlander Group for the same kinds of problems.
But for some reason, FairMormon has latched onto this book. Promoting it on their website, doing podcasts and blog interviews, sharing it on Facebook, and also invited Brother Callister to speak at the FairMormon Conference. Last year Elder Pearson spoke at FairMormon and this year Craig Christensen appears to be on the schedule in the role as General Authority speaker. I think that’s great. They’re not scholars, but they come in official capacity from the Church, and it’s great to hear the church’s perspective on the Apologetics landscape. But Callister is not appearing in that context. He is presenting actual apologetic material.
Good Book of Mormon Apologetics
Before I get accused of being a hater of these three good organizations, I want to reiterate my stance. I’m an LDS Apologist. I’m a Latter-day Saint. I’m not a critic. I share much more in common with the good people that work for and volunteer for these three organizations than the Exmormon critics who they spend much of their time addressing. I love a lot of what they produce. I wish they’d let me in and collaborate with them.
There are bad Book of Mormon Apologetics. That is what I focused on here. These cause us to lose credibility. They win points with the uninformed, but they hurt us more in the long run. Many people accuse LDS Apologists of “lying for the Lord”. LDS Apologists have a pretty bad reputation among non-LDS, and it’s not just a good vs evil thing. It’s because there are times we sometimes use bad arguments and bad manners (I empathize with the LDS Apologists on this and have written on this elsewhere, but it’s outside the scope of this post) . I don’t think that’s necessary, and I hope we can improve this reputation.
Then there are Book of Mormon Apologetics that I don’t personally find super compelling but I wouldn’t call them dishonest or bad, and I acknowledge they are compelling to many others. I don’t criticize these. I even sometimes point some people in faith crisis to these arguments. LGT to explain DNA and other evidences, loose translation to explain anachronisms, chiasmus and other Hebraisms, Nahom and other old world stuff, emphasis on the witnesses.
Then there are what I would call good Book of Mormon Apologetics. When the Interpreter, FairMormon, or Book of Mormon Central focuses on these things, I’m always a big fan.
Good Book of Mormon Apologetics
–complexity of the text in terms of characters, geographical setting, time span, intertextuality within itself
–inspiring, spiritual, transformative nature of the text
–showing character of Joseph and those close to him as being pure and believing. I think it’s dangerous to focus on character, because Joseph clearly did things that showed questionable character. But I think he believed in what he was doing and so did those closest to him that knew him the best.
–doctrinal profundity. 2 Ne 2, 2 Ne 9, King Benjamin’s address, Abindadi’s preaching to King Noah’s court, Alma’s discourse on faith in Alma 32, Alma 34, Moroni 7, the visit of the Savior in 3 Ne. These are some of the greatest religious texts that exist in the world, in my opinion.
–Bible intertextuality—this is what I think might be most impressive, how the Bible is alluded to and expounded on seemingly very complex and intentional
–general concept that the sum total of this complexity and impressive output is outside the natural ability of Joseph and must be inspired somehow
When I defend the Book of Mormon, these are the arguments I use. I’m not opposed to the Apologists who argue for BOM historicity. I know that’s where the mainstream of the church is and likely will be for a couple generations at least. What I do feel compelled to speak up against bad arguments that cause us to lose trust with the honest seekers. This article summarizing some research from Jana Riess backs up what I’ve seen time and time again in the faith crisis world. Difficult historical issues are hard to deal with in a faith crisis. But the trust and feeling lied to or misled is more dangerous and more likely to cause someone to leave the church. Let’s not create that.