Whenever I hear non-LDS people talking about Mormon stuff, my ears always prick up.
I was listening to a recent “Gist” podcast episode in which the host Mike Pesca was talking with Ben Smith, author of the book Traffic which is about the rise (and fall) of digital media sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed. Smith made the funny remark that if you look at religions like digital media companies, the Book of Mormon is like Buzzfeed. Both of them then briefly riffed on this idea. They compared the swift rise in “traffic” or perhaps popularity of the Book of Mormon to the endurance of the Torah. In terms of “traffic,” the Torah is going to look like a loser compared to the Book of Mormon, but (without saying this exactly), by contrast, the Book of Mormon looks cool, popular, (briefly) more relevant, but…kind of a flash in the pan. After all, Buzzfeed is no more. It was cool, but one day soon will be used as a way for people to demark their “digital” generation to friends.
What made Buzzfeed so special and so successful was that it tapped into the burgeoning power of social media in ways that more established platforms had a harder time changing to do. Buzzfeed also produced engaging, listicle-style articles, quizzes and videos that its audience enjoyed enough to share with friends and family. Their content was easy to consume and discuss, and unlike other platforms at the time it was geared toward communities with specific shared interests, including pop culture, humor, lifestyle, and entertainment.
So what led to the demise of these once-popular sites? According to Smith, Gawker steered too hard into controversial content which resulted in lawsuits it couldn’t afford and led to a loss of credibility among its readers. Buzzfeed suffered a slightly different downfall. Their reliance on social media plaforms for traffic and revenue fell off as algorithms changed, and they couldn’t keep up with the changes. Additionally, Buzzfeed got a little too big for their britches when they attempted to provide more hard news coverage, but lacked the credibility afforded to more established journalists.
This creates an interesting parallel to Mormonism. Both Pesca and Smith briefly referred to the Romney campaign as a sort of high point in interest in Mormonism. I would place that back a little farther to the “I’m a Mormon campaign,” although the popularity started by Hinckley’s brainchild continued somewhat through the Romney campaign. For a brief moment, the Church was showing that it could appeal to diverse people with diverse interests and backgrounds.
There were those in the Church who decried the diversity that was showcased in this campaign. I specifically recall backlash against “career women” who had put up profiles; some felt that the Church’s media focus was undermining the stay-at-home mother narrative that they bought into. The prodigal son’s brother is always a problem in any Church, but especially in one that has a long history of conservative leadership. Any deviation can be seen as a betrayal of the personal sacrifices of those who “followed the prophet” against their own interests. There were even a few upset that celebrity Mormons like Brandon Flowers were profiled when they didn’t always live the standards (and talked openly about it). Another successful tactic of this era was placing ads in the Book of Mormon Musical playbills encouraging theater patrons to read the book now that they’ve seen the show. This type of winking at critics can be enormously appealing to those who don’t know much about the Church. It seems like we have self-confidence and a sense of humor.\
Only in the retrenchment of the Nelson campaign (including the new anti-LGBT policies, BYU’s anti-academic stance, highly publicized sex abuse scandals, the publishing of the Church’s unfathomably large nest egg, the SEC violations which predate him, but came to light during his regime, the affiliation with extreme right wing politics, shows like Under the Banner of Heaven and Mormon No More that show some of the worst sides of the faith, and of course Nelson’s decision to drop the nickname “Mormon” to name a few) are we seeing a huge drop in reputation and interest. Mormons were never truly popular, but we had done some effective things to distance ourselves from the Scientology / Jehovah’s Witness comparison. The most recent polling is very bad in terms of public perception of Mormons. Additionally, our lack of growth is pretty well known, both inside and outside the Church. The Mormon moment has passed.
One of the things this conversation made me think of is something I read about maybe a year ago that described the attractiveness of playing against stereotypes. It’s a psychological phenomenon that many people are drawn to those we expect to behave or look one way, but instead they do the unexpected; they surprise us. While there are individuals who are inordinately attracted to the strongest version of stereotype you can imagine (e.g. men who only find 20 year olds with double D bra sizes attractive), the opposite can be quite alluring.
One of the reasons this is particularly salient in how the Church creates interest is that people who are attracted to the stereotype of what they expect Mormons to be like are already interested. Showcasing the unexpected is the only way to subvert the narrative for those who find that stereotype unappealing, thereby piquing the curiosity of those who don’t like the stereotypical Mormon persona. To non-LDS people, we can appeal to additional populations the less we look like what people expect us to look like. If we have a sense of humor about ourselves when they expect us to be easily offended, that’s attractive. When they think we will be uptight, boring tee-totalers, and instead we are the life of the party (albeit sober), that’s attractive. When they assume (as one of my bosses did) that “Mormon women aren’t allowed to work,” I turned her assumption on its head, changing her negative opinion of Mormons to an extent.
Why do people find stereotype-breaking attractive? Here are a few reasons:
Individuality & confidence. It shows that as an organization, we accept people as they are, allowing them the freedom of individuality. We appear more confident as an organization, showing that we have broader appeal.
Unconventionality. It surprises people when we behave differently than they expect and this draws their attention and interest in ways that uniformity do not.
Perception of Strength & Courage. The willingness to challenge social norms is seen as a personal strength. Swimming against the tide of expectations makes one appear stronger than the herd.
Intellectual & Emotional Depth. Going with the flow, adhering to group norms, implies a more superficial approach to social situations. It requires less intentionality and forethought than breaking the norms.
Obviously, being “different” just for the sake of it doesn’t really cut it. People can sniff out inauthenticity. But the more a group contains diverse people, the stronger that group is seen to be, and the more appealing to outsiders who may not fit (or even understand) the mold.
Back to the Buzzfeed analogy, the question Ben Smith posed in the interview was whether the Book of Mormon (not the religion in general) was like Buzzfeed vs. the Torah which was like more established journalistic sources, and I have to say, there are elements of that comparison that make a lot of sense. The Book of Mormon takes a fairly archane text (the Bible) and makes it a little more modern, recasting some familiar stories in a new context with clear themes. It’s more readable than the Old Testament, despite all the “And it came to pass”es that make it nearly impossible for me to get through personally. But if you stack it up against the Torah, well, here we start to see some shortcomings. For one thing, the Torah’s stood the test of time. The Book of Mormon has been around for less than 200 years. The Torah has been the foundational text for Judaism longer than Christianity has been around. The Jewish tradition involved rich debates of the text rather than relying on one authoritative interpretation, so rather than growing smaller over time, it expands theologically.
Most scholarly approaches to the Book of Mormon are focused on apologetics designed to prove it is based on actual history. The Torah is debated for its content, not whether Moses really parted the red sea; that’s the purview of literalist Evangelical religions. It’s hard to argue that the Torah isn’t seen as “cool” or having much social cachet right now; Judaism isn’t going gangbusters with new converts. But it does have a gravitas that the Book of Mormon has not yet earned, and doesn’t seem poised to earn anytime soon.
- Do you think the Book of Mormon has “Torah-like” potential if scholars gave up on the historicity and instead focused on the content, or do you feel the content is an intellectually limited rehash of Biblical concepts mixed with early frontier ideas?
- Do you agree that the Church would win more converts if it were more comfortable with diversity?
- Was the Church cool? If so, when do you think it had its top moment in popularity? If that time is past, what caused its rise and fall?
”Oh, I remember when Gawker ran a story on such-and-such” and the younger person they are talking to will say something like “Gawker? What’s Gawker??” and they will feel like they are from that cooler generation that read the now defunct Gawker.
“The Mormon moment has passed.” Yeah, it sure seems that way.
If the Church or its leaders or the members were more comfortable with diversity … no, I’m not sure at all that would translate into better missionary success, at least in the short run. It would result in a more inclusive and tolerant membership, which is the more important result.
hawkgrrrl, while the Mormon Moment was interesting to live through (I think the peak of that was when we got a whole episode of the Fox sitcom “New Girl” revolving around one of the characters pretending to be a Romney), looking back, I can’t help feeling that the marketing campaign that undergirded it was, if not disingenuous, then at least setting people up for disappointment when they show up and see that the marketing doesn’t necessarily match the reality that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. in the 21st century. The character traits of the people highlighted in those ads I would argue were extant in spite of the Church’s culture, not because of it (e.g., independence, creativity, spontaneity, individuality, fearlessness, etc.). As to when the Mormon Moment ended, I have to think the issuance of the policy on not baptizing the children of LGBT Saints is a pretty bright line. Given that that effort was almost certainly spearheaded by current members of the First Presidency, it was a stark taste of the changes to come a few years later under Nelson.
As for Book of Mormon historicity, I can imagine how this would not turn out well for some figures in the LDS Church even if historicity was confirmed. Latter-day Saints may realize that much of the content is quite liberal or at least challenges a politically conservative worldview. Certainly the teachings about the dangers of a classed society, the treatment of the poor, etc. may be found distasteful by elements on the political Right. Perhaps we’d hear the following from apologists: “Folks, the good news is that we have located the lost city of Zarahemla; the bad news is members are no longer distracted by silly historicity debates, have fully recognized the New Testament teachings in the Book of Mormon and now want to actually be Christians!”
Do I believe that the Church would have more success with new converts or even retaining long-term members if they were far more accepting of diversity? Heavens, yes.
The “I’m a Mormon” campaign was far more important for those INSIDE the church than as a proselyting tool. Since the pendulum swing away from that approach it seems like Mormons, uh… Latter-day Saints picture themselves and each other like cartoonist Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune draws Utah state legislators or church bureaucrats. The unflattering depiction and cookie-cutter approach is exactly what we have recently done to our own and each other’s humanity. I was looking at the stand at our last Stake Conference and realized that at least in my stake, we have come to reflect Bagley’s cartoon. I never would have imagined that I would be sitting here in 2023 missing the “liberal” LDS church of only two decades ago… not that life was a picnic inside the church even then.
The Mormon has passed because, among other reasons, the pro-family image that the Church presented is a double-edged sword. In the 1950s this messaging worked because everyone wanted to be white and hetro and Mormons do that really well. Now that there’s a diversity of voices the Church’s “family” message seems outdated and downright hateful to some people.
But it will take a while for the world to perceive that the Church is in decline given the immense wealth the Church holds. The Church will be able to throw its money around to make itself seem relevant….donating large sums of money and enjoying the publicity…accepting awards, etc. And the gross temple building all over the place will indeed make us look like a real force even if the buildings are Potemkin villages.
Hmm…I’m going to push back a bit on this one. We also have to frame the stagnation in Mormonism in the broader context of the sudden drop in religion worldwide and in the US in particular. Certainly, the current leadership’s stance on some current social issues is having an impact, but attributing all of the slowdown to it doesn’t give a full enough picture.
Let’s just look at the US, since the numbers are available. In 2022 the % of people in the US who said religion was “very important” in their life dropped to an all-time low of 46%; This is down from ~59-61% in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and ~53-58% in the 2010s.
Belief in God in the US has also dipped to an all-time low of 81% (last measured in 2022) – down from 87% just six years ago. By contrast, this number was over 90% from 1944-2011 and peaked at 98% in ’50s and ’60s. The drop in the US is particularly dramatic, but similar trends have been seen worldwide across all different religions for years.
Mormonism in general has proven very resilient in its short history. If we look at published LDS church membership statistics (since they’re also easy to find) compared to the overall trends, I’d say that Mormonism is looking pretty healthy. The RATE of growth has declined drastically (down to ~1% growth annually), but total membership in absolute terms has still increased every year. Interestingly there was a similar drop to ~1% growth in the LDS church in the 1930s following another widespread drop in religious activity during the late ’20s and early ’30s.
If you measure any religion from the Second Great Awakening against Judaism, it’s surely going to look like having a toddler and Shaq stand back to back to see who’s tallest. Even Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism still look sort of adolescent compared to Judaism and its roots.
To answer your questions:
Yes, I think the Book of Mormon will probably shift to Torah-like scholarship in the coming generations…it probably won’t be in our lifetimes.
Yes, the LDS Church would probably win more converts if it was more comfortable with diversity, but probably not as much as we think in the larger context of the worldwide slowdown of religion.
Mormonism is still kind of “cool” in the long view of history. The idea that the God of Abraham actually knew and cared about other people around the world is an appealing concept. Mormonism may not ever stack up with Catholicism, but I don’t think it’s going away any time soon either.
There may be an opportunity to see whether the Book of Mormon has any “Torah-like” potential in September, when my Annotated Book of Mormon is published by Oxford University Press. The formatting–including extensive annotations, individual book introductions, general essays, and a glossary–closely follows the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and I’m comfortable bringing mainstream biblical scholarship to bear on our own signature scripture. The volume will offer a detailed, critical analysis of the contents and message of the Book of Mormon, with an openness to various approaches and perspectives, while still treating the book as a sacred text. I have very consciously adopted what I hope is a more Jewish style of religious reading, along the lines of the Jewish Study Bible (also published by OUP).
As pirate writes, while there is a certain fascination with Mormonism – Mormons themselves are highly accomplished and generally have a good reputation and the church makes bold claims that relate directly to American history – no church in 21st century America is cool.
As a fundamental observation, Americans specifically and modern cultures generally are extremely individualistic. A mass market exists with certain products, but as it concerns how people choose to spend their “free” time there is no common ground. There are few shared cultural values. The world has splintered.
So assuming the LDS church is swayed by cultural preferences (of course they are but the leadership denies it) what shifts in church policy would be beneficial to the church? What initiatives would draw more adherents than would be lost?
I don’t think the church leadership knows and I certainly know those pushing progressive changes are not considering the big picture. My goodness, the changes of the past five years have made being an LDS member easier than ever. And yet that easing has not translated to a better, more attractive, more “cool” church.
The church dropped scouting and did all those who disfavored the church association with scouting return with fervor to church activity? No, they did not. The church reduced Sunday services to 2 hours and did that increase activity? No, it did not. The church removed the strict obligations of Home & Visiting Teaching and members responded by giving lip service to the replacement “Ministering” program. And so it would be with policy changes on LBGT, or Word of Wisdom or Tithing, etc. Giving people what they say they want will not translate into greater participation.
What invites people to a church is the idea it will help them have a better life. The great success of the LDS church is precisely because it was very successful in supporting the aspiration of a better life. The doctrine gave a sense of purpose. The program gave a reason for each family member to be reminded of that purpose.
My opinion is the church is weakening because it stopped investing in the program – it stopped providing activities relevant to all ages. People have learned to look elsewhere for entertainment and activity. And this has greatly reduced the role the LDS church has in people’s lives. And the more this role is reduced, the less reason members find to make the church a priority. And because the culture is so fractured, there is no program the church could add or modify now that would translate to a large increase in member retention.
I found it interesting that in this discussion the author has chosen to compare The Book of Mormon to The Torah,possibley for reasons of intellectual study alone. ( Or it sems that way, possible becasue he is using the comparrison made on a pod cast)
As Christians we should possibly think more of comparing it to the New Testament.
But I imagine that would we a whole different discussion.
As CHRISTians we are disciples of Christ and are to learn his teachings and how He lived His life and follow.
I like to learn things from the source, so to speak, from Christ Himself when He teaches and iteractrs with others.
If The Book of Mormon were a movie, Jesus Christ ( the hero and star of everything Christianity is all about ) would only have about two minutes of time on screen.
If the New Testament were a movie Christ would have about 40 minutes.
One movie, The Book of Mormonis full of the history of a civilization and those who lived there doing a lot of talking of Christ but He Himself does not show up much.
The New Testament on the other hand, is pretty full of His life.
From His birth until His death and it is jam packed with many of His own worlds, not just the words of John or Paul or Luke talking about His teachings.
The Torah is an amazing work of scripture also, but it is the Talmud that gives the most predictions about the “coming Savior” from the old Prophets.
The one problem many have had with the LDS church is it and its members do not seem to talk about Christ much.
I have seen this a lot myself and agree.
Chloe, I’ll be the first to admit my problems with the Book of Mormon (historicity being my biggest one), but your criticism about Jesus not “being on stage” much in the Book of Mormon seems misplaced. To state the obvious, no one claims that the Book of Mormon claims to be a Gospel that details the life of Jesus in the same vein as those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. You can (and you sort of did with your “40 minutes” estimate) level the same criticism at Paul for almost never talking about the life of Jesus in his epistles. As far as Paul was concerned the only necessary details of Jesus’s life were that He was born of a woman, was a descendant of David, had apostles, lived sinlessly, was crucified after a trial, then died and was raised three days later by God. To top it off, Paul only ever quotes Jesus once. Mormon (or Joseph Smith if you prefer) can easily top that performance when it comes to talking about Jesus on earth.
@Grant Hardy I’m very interested to see your book, it’ll be interesting to see it under that sort of microscope.
I’ve read past remarks of yours about academics being less concerned with debates about whether Mormonism is true or false in a binary sense, but more interested in understanding Mormonism as a social and religious movement. I think this is probably the only real way that Mormonism can continue to adapt and mature as a belief system (arguably the same path taken by much older religions centuries/millennia ago).
Attempting literal readings of virtually any sacred text will quickly run into the wall of objective reality vs (inspired) fiction. Mormonism isn’t exempt either.
The Book of Mormon has a lot of potential but some of its strongest stances are opposite of the cultural and political feelings of most U.S. members. Which is probably why in church we’re hearing more and more about the Come Follow Me manuals and general conference talks, and less and less about reading the actual text of the Book of Mormon.
Repentance has never been a popular doctrine. And so long as the church continues to preach the gospel of repentance — which it will (as it must) — there will never be another “mormon moment” indeed if there ever was one to begin with.
Jack, if “repentance” is so unpopular, why has every Christian religion been preaching it for 2000 years?
Tim: And the actual text of the New Testament, too. There’s been so much spin in the manuals, that teachers are told things mean the opposite of what they actually say.
Can you elaborate on “the new anti-LGBT policies,” please?
A Disciple is exactly right, changes in policy, programs, and doctrine won’t bring people running to the church, it would just slow the bleeding.
There are plenty of “woke” Christian churches out there that are LBTQ positive, have female leaders, and are less hierarchical, but no one is rushing into them.
And it’s not that religion itself is going away, rather, what religion looks like is changing.
Hundreds of years ago people make pilgrimages to holy sites, wore special clothing of religious significance, decorated their homes with religious icons, and used the language of religion as the area of debate about socioeconomic and political issues.
None of that had changed, instead visiting holy sites we visit theme parks of our favorite intellectual properties, instead of wearing habita, hijabs, frocks, and crosses we wear clothes that advertise our favorite brands, instead of rosaries, menorahs, and crosses in our homes we have funko pop figurines and flags, instead of arguing and obsessing about whether the bread of the eucharist actually becomes god’s flesh we argue and obsess about the twitter check marks or casting decisions in upcoming movies.
It’s all still religion but the format has changed. Religion =\= believing in a divine being and afterlife, religion is a set of material behaviors that we perform that are tied to ideologies and communities which are represented by a personified but intangible concept (a god, a brand, a culture).
The phase we’re moving into now is one in which our communities are atomized and we all act as individuals, interacting with our communities and rival communities through a digital medium.
Mormonism and Christianity and general is tied very much to the method of worship as in-person communities, but that has been systematically ripped apart by capital and consumer based economies for a few hundred years now, which necessitate that we view other human beings as aliens, it’s what the market demands.
Mormonism in particular, with its insistence on tradition and continuity, is really set on a particular mode of existence of the 19th century and it will probably die harder than other forms of Christianity that will try, but mostly likely ultimately fail to make to the transition to the new format.
Jack, I disagree about repentance being unpopular. If we define repentance as disengaging from bad behaviors and attitudes and turning towards healthier, more altruistic attitudes and behaviors, society in general is extremely into that right now.
I’m a millennial. My peers and our younger gen Z friends are all going to therapy to heal from trauma and live healthier, less destructive lives. They’re eating less meat to reduce animal cruelty. They’re using less fossil fuels to reduce the negative effects of climate change on vulnerable populations. They’re reading books about dismantling patriarchy and white-supremacy, about recognizing one’s unearned privilege, decolonizing our own minds, and disengaging from a system that exploits the marginalized. They’re actively being kinder to the marginalized among us—LGBTQ people, racial minorities, immigrants. The MeToo movement has always been about societal change and, for men at least, personal accountability and holding ourselves to a higher standard. Millennials and gen Z kids want to be better on an individual, communal, and societal level. If that’s not repentance I don’t know what is.
The problem is that the church’s version of repentance ignores all of those very real problems and gets hung up on sexual purity and coffee drinking. Church repentance accomplishes very little objective good and, arguably, makes people feel an unhealthy level of shame instead of proactively working on serving the downtrodden and improving the world. No wonder we’re not relevant.
I know this is a sidebar, but one of the things that has always interested me in examining the Old Testament through a “Restoration” lens is how different – and literal – LDS’s see the stories versus the original People of the Book. Rabbis and Jewish schools of thought for centuries have examined the Torah, and the entire Tanakh, from an allegorical and textual point of view, literally going carefully over each word. As you pointed out “the Torah is debated for its content, not whether Moses really parted the red sea” and “the Jewish tradition involved rich debates of the text rather than relying on one authoritative interpretation.”
Two things change when viewed through LDS history. First, Joseph Smith (and others) had “visits” from a number of Old Testament figures: Adam, Abraham, Seth, Enoch, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, Moses, Elijah, etc. Second, modern scripture, from the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses to 1st Nephi and Ether depict incidences that we first read about in the Old Testament. Because of this, and for other reasons, LDS’s typically take a very hardline literal view on the events in the Bible, despite having the wiggle-room that the “as far as it is translated correctly” gives us.
To me, stories like the great flood that covered the highest mountain tops the world over (with only a handful of people and animals surviving, although I suppose the fish were okay), as well as entire books like Job and Jonah, are wonderful parables that teach great truths and stand firmly along side Jesus’ tradition of teaching with parables. And I do believe, like many do, that some of the best recorded teaching stories may have some elements of historical reality. But I really can get myself in trouble, I suppose, if I refer to aspects of the Tower of Babel as a parable when the Book of Mormon has a record of actual people who sailed from there to the New World. So, there you go.
I don’t know from podcasts, or the decline of Gawker and Buzzfeed. In a (sorta) post-pandemic world, the way the internet used to be is kind of blurry in my memory. However I submit that one of the biggest factors that contributed to the proverbial Mormon moment wasn’t anything the church campaigned for, but the popularity of Mormon mommy blogs. With a great weight of melancholy, I’ve been trying to reconstruct my interaction with that vanished part of the interwebs, to assist my own memories for my own purposes.
There is no clearinghouse of information, but starting in roughly 2001-ish this organic, un-organized movement became a thing that magnified (Mormon) women’s voices to literally millions of daily followers.I think the sheer numbers of targeted impressions would surprise the marketing nerds among us commenters here. And if I’m having a hard time remembering all of those I followed, and when, and which ones were Mormon, I’m sure some of the dudes here have almost no memory of what I’m talking about But yeah, there was this rather underground delivery system of discrete positive impressions of Mormon lifestyle that reached big, big numbers during the early 2000s, that has declined since (about) 2014, but not completely disappeared.
But perhaps due to the organic nature of the way the culture was communicated, or the impossibility of measuring the marketing impact in any useful way, or perhaps because it was women’s voices talking about women’s concerns, it’s really hard to pin down what happened. Except it did happen, and it mattered. And it’s germane to the topics discussed here, and probably worthy of its own post.
I gave your comment a big thumbs up even before finishing it. This old curmudgeon just got so excited when you said that your Gen Z associates are reading books. There is hope! I did go back and finish reading your comment. Nice thoughts.
You would not get in trouble with me. You likely already know this, but I’ll go ahead and say it because I am in the mood to type. Even for those who argue for BoM historicity, they are making an assumption if they believe the “great tower” of the BoM is the Tower of Babel. That is a symptom of our larger problem. We don’t watch when we make assumptions. The more one learns about the Old Testament, the more we realize that what we have is historicized fiction/fictionalized history. The books contained in the OT are fa variety of genres. This collection predates the development of written history by centuries. Modern readers assume it is history. They assume that all of the characters are historical figures who said and did exactly what the Bible said they did. But the composers of the books of the Bible, if we could drag them from their graves, may not agree with that. They composed these pieces of literature for reasons which may confound us. How I wish that today’s readers of ancient scripture would approach these works with a little humility, A piece of literature does not have to be strictly “historical” to have value.
MDearest, fantastic point about the Mormon Mommy blogs. I’d be very interested to read a blog post about the subject.
Doing good has its reward–and I applaud all manifestations of kindness and virtue wherever they’re found. Even so, repentance ultimately involves coming to the Savior and binding ourselves to him by covenant–and then continuing to yield to the enticings of his spirit thereby putting off the natural man and woman and becoming a saint over time.
“Most scholarly approaches to the Book of Mormon are focused on apologetics designed to prove it is based on actual history.” Not true in the world of Mormon studies I inhabit.
I share Sunday School adult teaching duties in my ward with a woman born prior to 1950 – she bore her testimony last week about the only true and living church.
She is roughly the age of my late mother – I view the BOM as 19th century bible fan fiction so I hope to remain in my calling next year if only to act as a counterweight.
FYI this week’s Come Follow Me has the unfortunate topic (among others) of “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” I’m sure my teaching partner is ready to bring the fire and brimstone…and we wonder why the Church is becoming less popular….great comments above from Kirkstall.
1) The Book of Mormon will never be like the Torah. To succinctly point out a difference between the two when it comes to historicity questions: I can talk about how the story of Moses is an ancient story told by ancient Israelites passed down generations, with virtually no controversy. Whether or not Moses and the events that surrounded him were real is a different question. But the story is of ancient Israelite origins, and no one doubts that. Now contrast that with the Book of Mormon. To simply state that the story of Nephi is ancient is quite controversial. Equally as controversial as saying that Nephi really existed and thar the events involving him as told in the Book of Mormon actually took place.
It is difficult to tell the stories of the Book of Mormon completely detached from the historicity debate. Most people who tell them approvingly and inspirationally just assume that both the narratives and the content of the narratives are of ancient origin. You can tell the stories of the Torah and uncontroversially acknowledge the ancient origins of the stories.
2) If the church pushes the question of diversity too much, it risks rubbing the mostly anti-woke rank-and-file the wrong way. It has to approach diversity indirectly.
3) The church was never cool. It was always weird when talking about it with non-Mormons.
“FYI this week’s Come Follow Me has the unfortunate topic (among others) of “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” I’m sure my teaching partner is ready to bring the fire and brimstone…and we wonder why the Church is becoming less popular….great comments above from Kirkstall.”
Oh, the irony–that such a basic doctrine should make the church unpopular. And it’s sad that the apostles must spend their strength teaching us the rock bottom basics of family living rather than unfolding the mysteries of the Kingdom.
That said, I don’t think the doctrine of the family is so unpopular everywhere–as it is in certain quarters of the West. There are billions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and those of other religions and belief systems that would have no trouble with it at all–who perhaps comprise a majority of the world’s population. So we shouldn’t get the idea that the church has egg on it’s face because of its teachings on marriage and family–except in the most progressive neighborhoods of the West.
I think the Book of Mormon can have a divine provenance and still be historical.
Jack, um, OK. I’m not sure I quite see how that’s related to what I wrote.
My point was that the Torah and the Book of Mormon are quite different when it comes to historicity issues. Many Mormon apologists and believing and semi-believing Mormons argue that the historicity issues of the two books are quite similar in that there is no corroborative outside evidence for the events of the stories of neither the Torah nor the Book of Mormon. What I’m saying is that they are different in that no one disputes the ancient origins of the Torah’s stories (the described events of those stories being a different question and irrelevant to what I’m getting at). Similarly, no one disputes the ancient origins of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Vedas. No one claims that these stories were made up by someone in the 1800s. Everyone accepts that these stories are products of the cultural knowledge of ancient cultures. On the other hand, no one accepts that the Book of Mormon’s stories have any deeply ancient origins except for believing Mormons. There lies a huge difference between the Torah and BOM vis-a-vis historicity.
Yeah–I see that I’m getting ahead of myself, John. Sorry about that.
Let me put it this way: One can claim that the Book of Mormon found its way into the modern world by whatever means — angelic or archaeological or what-have-you — and still believe that it is an ancient text–whether it be history or myth or both. Of course, what it doesn’t have is the *continuous* historical provenance that the other stories have from the East. So–yes–that may place the BoM in a different category so far as the world is concerned–but not necessarily as far as believers are concerned.
“*continuous* historical provenance”
Unclear what you mean. I gather you mean a text that has long been acknowledged to be of ancient origins by communities across a long period of time as having ancient origins. Such as the Torah. There is not only evidence of its ancient origins, there is evidence that in all centuries since 400 BC that communities have used the Torah and have seen it as having ancient origins. But that isn’t the case for the Epic of Gilgamesh. That wasn’t unearthed until 1839, and yet no one disputes that the story originated in ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptian religion is similar. Most of its texts weren’t unearthed until the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s.
@John W – Mormonism obviously doesn’t have the ancient roots of Judaism, but does that make it any less relevant/important as an identity and tradition to be people who are part of it? I think this is part of the academic stance mentioned in other comments (academic heavyweights, please correct me if I’m mistaken).
I was born a Mormon – I was immersed in the traditions since birth; regardless of my current questions/doubts, it is a significant part of my history and identity. Is this not equivalent to someone born into a Jewish family who goes through all the respective Jewish rites of passage? The analogy could be made in other religious contexts as well (e.g. Catholic).
I’m just not sure that historicity really plays an important part here. We’re close enough in history to think of Joseph Smith et al. more like flawed flesh and blood than some wise old tradition, but I’m not sure that dilutes the impact/importance of the Mormon identity.
A big difference I notice in Judaism is how identity is decoupled from observance. You are still Jewish whether Orthodox, totally non-observant, or anything in between. Catholics have a similar sort of decoupling. In Mormonism the identity seems much more linked with observance. This makes it much harder to question things like historicity and social issues without feeling a rift in one’s identity and feeling ostracized socially from the community.
@Jack I’m not sure why there were a bunch of thumbs down on your comment about “historical provenance” (other than because anything you seem to say generally gets a thumbs down even when it’s a good comment). It’s an apt way of describing it.
We know know the exact historical provenance of the BoM:
Maybe it was given to him by and angel, maybe not. But that combination of person, place, time is known historical fact and requires little to no academic debate.
The much more ancient traditions and stories have been continuously passed down through thousands and thousands of years, as such they are categorically different in terms of provenance (i.e. knowing exactly where they came from). Unlike the BoM and JS, we can’t pin them down to the ONE person in a specific time & place.
E.g., there’s not ANY historical/archaeological evidence that there ever was a historic dude named Abraham…that’s not to say he wasn’t real, but the only provenance we have is a story that has been handed down for literally thousands of years. We have a snowball’s chance in hell of pinning it to a specific date/place/person like we can with JS.
Moses is similar – there are no known contemporary Egyptian sources that mention a guy named Moses or anyone like him…was he a real person? was he just a legend? was he a heroic leader who later became legendary? We have no idea and probably never will…but the historical and spiritual importance and impact of the tradition cannot be disputed. But in terms of provenance, we just have to rely on thousands of years of tradition and storytelling.
You know more about these things than I do. Even so, I think there’s at least a long standing historical cultural presence surrounding those artifacts. Not so with Book of Mormon cultures–at least not any that have been acknowledged by the world as of yet.
The Pirate Priest,
I only care about the upvotes. 😀
Re: Abraham: my understanding is that he’s been found in some recent Egyptian findings. Of course that doesn’t prove he was a real person. Though it might be received as evidence that an Abrahamic myth has been around for a very long time–and I agree that the stories themselves are important irrespective their provenance. Even so, I’m convinced by other, nonscientific means that both Abraham and Moses were (and are) real people. And I believe the reality of their existence intensifies the various happenings in their lives–especially those involving Deity–and most especially those involving the covenants that the Lord made with them that touch us today.
Mormonism is certainly an established tradition, no doubt. Although I’ll point out that it does not have an ethnic/biological element to it like Judaism. Atheist Jews are still considered Jews by the larger Jewish community, and still often identify as Jewish.
My point was partly in response to the OP’s question on whether or not the Book of Mormon has Torah-like potential. To which I said no. My point was also partly in response to this idea I hear echoing throughout Mormonism which is that the Book of Mormon is kind of like the Torah when it comes to historicity and evidence. This talking point was originated by apologists who have employed this point in an attempt to lend the Book of Mormon more validity to a wider audience by comparing it with the Torah (as well as the larger Old Testament). For in larger popular culture, it is acceptable to treat the Torah as kind of historical and as a valuable well from which to draw life lessons, even though little to nothing can be nailed down about its historicity. The idea is to promote the Book of Mormon in the way: OK to be viewed as sort of historical, even without great evidence, and as an inspirational source of spiritual knowledge. My take is that this comparison doesn’t fly simply because there is incontrovertible evidence that the Torah’s text has ancient origins. That fact there really sets it apart from the Book of Mormon. For there is no evidence neither of the ancientness of the text of the Book of Mormon nor of the historicity of the descriptions of persons and events in the text.
So bottom line is that inasmuch as one is seeking to build a narrative of cultural value of the Book of Mormon, and one can be built for sure, as well as of Mormonism and Mormon identity in a larger sense, it is not to be found through bad comparisons between historicity questions vis-à-vis the Book of Mormon and the Torah.
“Abraham: my understanding is that he’s been found in some recent Egyptian findings. Of course that doesn’t prove he was a real person. ”
Even if we just so happened to find a well of evidence of the historicity of Abraham, it wouldn’t refute my point. Your comment still exhibits a failure to distinguish between the text and the description of people, places, and events in the text. My preoccupation with the Torah and BOM is whether or not the texts can be dated back to times that we generally consider to be ancient. My preoccupation here is not whether or not the descriptions of the people, places, and events in either the Torah or the BOM can be corroborated as historical.
I get that–or at least I think I’m beginning to. My comment about Abraham was a response to Pirate Priest–about whether or not there may be some kind of evidence for Abraham outside of the stories that have been passed down. As I said in an earlier comment I recognize that the BoM would be placed in a different category because it lacks the ancient continuous provenance of other writings. Even so, from a *believer’s* stand point the Book of Mormon is an ancient text–though it lacks the continuous transmission from the present back to its beginnings.
@John W – I think the question here is less about bad comparisons to the Torah and more about how interpretations of the BoM may evolve in the future. Then using the Torah as an example of how the one religious text has endured the grind of history. It’s just an interesting example to contemplate…but there are lots of possible outcomes for what time will do to the BoM.
Judaism for sure has elements about how the identity is passed down through generations, but it’s present in other older traditions as well like Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and some others. I’ve had friends from each who spanned the full range of observance, but the non-observant individuals still resonated with calling themselves members of the religion.
An interesting case is weddings – you’ll have (often traditional) weddings officiated by the religion even if the couple isn’t observant because the observance and identity are decoupled in daily life, but still frame major milestones.
I don’t think we need to make bad comparisons between the Torah and the BoM…but the hazy lens of thousands of years of history sure makes the importance of historicity a lot harder to see. I’m in no way saying we shouldn’t talk about historical accuracy/relevance – we should. It’s just complicated.
When the Torah was a young text did it still offer value and identity to the people of the time? What about if Abraham and Moses were mostly fictional characters used to help teach important history and principles? It obviously had so much value that it has carried into to
One definite difference is that JS was not part of ancient American culture in any way, which for sure changes things and raises questions. Even so, we can imagine forward 3000+ years from now and imagine there’s still a significant Mormons culture AND mature scholarship about understanding its origins….how would those future people view the origins of the BoM? Would they be given the same leeway regarding historicity in the face of a few thousand years of tradition? (Obviously questions we can’t answer, but it’s interesting to think about.)
FYI a discussion of Church finances tonight on TV = 60 Minutes (CBS)
I’m pretty late to the party on this one, but I do think the BofM has “Torah-like” potential in a roundabout way, in that it could be viewed as a “Jews for Jesus” extended midrash (of sorts?) on the entire Hebrew bible. It’s a possible answer to the hypothetical question of “what if there were a group of Jews in a parallel universe – at least the “righteous” ones of that group – who “got it” – meaning they understood that the entire Law pointed to Jesus. (And they didn’t need the writers of the Gospels or Paul to read that Christian interpretation back into the OT text for them). In order for this to occur, they would need to have their own little exodus that brings them the a new promised land- say in the “New World.” One would assume that the author of said Midrash would bring his own cultural context and the concerns of his day into the text, as well appropriate some stereotypical features of peoples who once occupied the “New World” sans Europeans. A serious and study of this Midrash would require an honest and mature parsing out of all of this baggage, but I believe it has potential bring a lot people on a wide spectrum of belief/non-belief into conversation. Will this ever happen on an institutional level?…. Maybe in a parallel universe.