Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Joseph Smith's Hick Language in the Original Book of Mormon Manuscript: Another One of God's Little Jokes?

Executive Summary

Skousen's study of the first Book of Mormon manuscripts found evidence that the awkward grammar often displayed Semitic influence or, in some cases, came from Early Modern English, predating the English of the KJV. This theory is developed much more fully in a recent Mormon Interpreter article, "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar" by Stanford Carmack. Carmack argues that a close look at the initial language of the translated Book of Mormon reveals that much of the seemingly nonstandard grammar is actually acceptable Early Modern English that is frequently independent of and earlier than the King James Bible, seriously challenging the notion that the Book of Mormon is based on plagiarism from and imitation of the Bible.

However, I felt a weakness in Carmack's paper was neglect of a nonstandard form that to me was particularly annoying: the use of "a" before many verbs, as in Alma 10:8 in the Original Manuscript: "...as I was a going thither...." Isn't that just "hick language"? After posting my question at Mormon Interpreter, I did more digging and found, to my surprise, that this is an important and standard form of the English progressive in Early Modern English, again consistent with Carmack's thesis. Brother Carmack later responded to my query, confirming what I had found and also noting that there are some instances of the "a" + verb form in the KJV, though so far I only know of two and never consciously noticed them in my reading.

But what does this all mean and why would pre-KJV language be used? A hypothesis I offer below is that this is an example of one of God's little jokes, but a meaningful and helpful one. 

God's Little Joke? Thoughts on the Bad Grammar in the Original Book of Mormon

One of the first anti-Mormon challenges I encountered as a teenager shortly after my own serious study of the Book of Mormon was the claim that 3,913 changes had been made in the Book of Mormon. (That's actually a very poor estimate--way too low!) Looking at the changes and understanding the reasons for them gave a little appreciation for how different the original Book of Mormon was from the way I would put a book together. The lack of punctuation, verses, etc., naturally necessitated a great many changes to prepare the text for a readable edition.

There were other problems, including many typos or other errors due to both the dictated nature of the text and the errors that arose in copying from the original manuscript to the printer's manuscript and then preparing the printed text. Those are understandable. But then comes the problem that makes it easy for critics to poke fun of the book and its miraculous origins: the original text, as dictated by a prophet of God to his scribes, is loaded with bad grammar. Numerous changes would be needed to fix awkward, non-standard phrases that just sounded bad. Why couldn't the Spirit help Joseph dictate proper English?

We've had a plausible answer: the inspired meaning still came out of Joseph's lips in his language, and his own bad, farmboy grammar with a strong dose of "hick language" had to be cleaned up into more proper standard English, but in King James Style. Fair enough. Being a prophet doesn't make one a grammarian.

Some scholars discovered that some of the corrections made over the years in the text were fixing odd patterns that were actually perfectly good constructions in Hebrew. That passage with Moroni impossibly waving the rent of his garment--later scandalously changed to the rent part of his garment to cover up that gaping hole in the grammatical fabric of the book--turns out to make perfect sense in Hebrew. Many other structures that are good Hebrew but bad English have been identified that were in the original text but typically later cleaned up. (Say, if all those Hebraisms were some clever attempt to add credibility to the Book of Mormon, why quietly clean them up and never point them out in Joseph's day? It was only in recent decades that scholars began to observe the abundance of Hebraic forms in the Book of Mormon.)

Then came Royal Skousen, the scholar who has done so much to help us appreciate the granular details of the original and printers manuscripts. In 2005, he published a short article for the Maxwell Institute's Insight publication with a shocking statement. In summarizing his findings through studying the early Book of Mormon manuscripts, he begins by listing the following:
1. The original manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text was given to Joseph Smith word for word and that he could see the spelling of at least the Book of Mormon names (in support of what witnesses of the translation process claimed about Joseph's translation).
2. The original text is much more consistent and systematic in expression than has ever been realized.
3. The original text includes unique kinds of expression that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in any time and place; some of these expressions are Hebraistic in nature.
So far so good. Then comes what I would call a shocker:
Over the past two years, I have discovered evidence for a fourth significant conclusion about the original text:
4. The original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon appears to derive from the 1500s and 1600s, not from the 1800s.
This last finding is quite remarkable. Lexical evidence suggests that the original text contained a number of expressions and words with meanings that were lost from the English language by 1700. On the other hand, I have not been able thus far to find word meanings and expressions in the text that are known to have entered the English language after the early 1700s.  [emphasis added]
He then lists some plausible examples. So strange. So unexpected.

That theme is taken up in force in a recent article at the Mormon Interpreter, Stanford Carmack's "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar." Carmack contends that so much of what were dismissing as Joseph's bad grammar actually turns out to be acceptable grammar from Early Modern English, featuring many elements that were from decades before the English of the King James Bible, almost as if the translation given to Joseph by inspiration had been deliberately translated into that slightly earlier English. So strange. What is going on?

As interesting as it was, I immediately thought I saw a flaw in the analysis and posted this comment to Carmack's article:
One of the criticisms the Tanners make of the grammar of the original Book of Mormon when they discuss “the 3,913 changes” of the Book of Mormon is the use of “a” before many verbs, such as “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred …” [Alma 10:7], “And as I was a going thither …” [Alma 10:8], “… the foundation of the destruction of this people is a beginning to be laid …” [Alma 10:27], “… he met with the sons of Mosiah, a journeying towards the land …” [Alma 17:1], and “… the Lamanites a marching towards them …” [Mormon 6:7].
I’ve heard this described as “Pittsburgh dialect” I think, with a suggestion that it might have been Oliver’s language. But I also read someone say or guess that this construction can be found in Chaucer. Haven’t had time to check. What are your thoughts?
What I didn't say was that this "a going" and "a marching" pattern really annoyed me, for it sounded like "hick language" to my ears. Why no mention of that in the article? I suspected it must be because it didn't fit the Early Modern English hypothesis. After all, Carmack is not claiming that every case of awkward grammar is squarely from standard Early Modern English. But this form isn't Hebraic either, as far as I know--it's just bad, even embarrassing grammar.

Turn out I was wrong.  After posting my comment, I poked around for more information about this verb form. It's very hard to search for since the key term "a" is ignored or obscured in many of the search strings one might try. But I did stumble upon some articles that led me to look up the history of the English progressive form, and that's where I found interesting material.

The best source I found was  The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. III, ed. by Roger Lass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 217:
Some earlier scholars (e.g. Jesperson MEG IV: 168-9) espouse the theory that be + -ing goes back to the combination of the preposition on > a + the verbal noun ending in -ing (I am a-reading > I am reading). The available evidence makes it more likely, however, that the verbal type without a preposition and the nominal type with one represent two separate constructions which lived side by side from Old English on. In the course of the Modern English period, the verbal type superseded the nominal one. In the seventeenth century the nominal type can be found even in formal and educated writing, but it becomes non-standard in the course of the eighteenth (Nehls 1974: 169-70). There are only half a dozen Helsinki Corpus instances of the nominal type dating from 1640-1710, all of them in fiction, private correspondence or comedies. Lowth (1775 [1979]: 65) gives the following comment on the principles preceded by a: 'The phrases with a… are out of use in the solemn style; but still prevail in familiar discourse . . . there seems to be no reason, why they should be utterly rejected.'

The full form of the preposition on is much less common than the weakened a in Early Modern English. Also other prepositions are possible; instances with upon can be found as late as the eighteenth century (159)….
So yes, that annoying verb form is also good Early Modern English. Carmack's thesis still works on that issue as well. I'm surprised, though pleasantly.

By the way, for an interesting theory of the development of the "on" construction in Middle English and Early Modern English, see Casper de Groot, "The king is on huntunge: on the relation between progressive and absentive in Old and Early Modern English" in M. Hannay and G. Steen eds., The English Clause: Usage and Structure, 175-190, Amsterdam: Benjamins 2007).

Carmack would later respond to my comment by confirming that it is an Early Modern English form, and one that can even be found in the Bible. He mentioned Luke 8:42 and 9:42. Sure enough, there's "a dying" and "a coming." Never noticed that, and haven't found other examples of this in the Bible yet. Do you know of any? Seems like a rare occurrence to me. 

So yes, much of the awkward grammar of the original Book of Mormon appears to reflect language that is not typical of the KJV, being earlier than the KJV era and earlier than Joseph's dialect, though remnants persisted in his day and in ours as nonstandard forms in modern grammar. Carmack sees this as evidence against a modern, fraudulent origin and evidence for divine translation--but why would a divine process result in English forms predating the KJV? Was some sort of Celestial Translator Device set the wrong century by a clumsy angel? However the divine translation process worked, however the language was selected or "seasoned" for delivery to Joseph's mind, what came out can no longer be explained as mere imitation of the KJV or as a modern fabrication that Joseph and his friends or family were capable of.

Here's one hypothesis: The translation into language actually predating the KJV is an example of one of God's little jokes. A helpful little joke, that is, a humorous gem to bless and strengthen those willing to pay attention, offering surprising evidence that there is far more to this text than meets the eye. Yes, it is quiet and easy-to-overlook evidence that the Book of Mormon is not a modern translation, is not merely drawn from the KJV or any other modern source. It's a little joke, but the real joke is on those who cry plagiarism. Now the difficulty of explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon text is far greater than we ever imagined.




Friday, August 22, 2014

Daniel Peterson Quotes a Questionable LDS Apologist, But the Rest of His Presentation Was Good

At the recent FAIR Conference, among the very interesting presentations was Daniel Peterson's excellent reminder about the gaps and fallacies in the commonly mentioned CES Letter. His talk, "Some Reflections On That Letter To a CES Director," was generally thoughtful and intelligent, though it begins with a rather embarrassing gap in which he quotes from a highly questionable amateur LDS apologist, whose frequent gaffes and missteps have been regularly called out right here on this blog (so I am often told). Apart from that little blunder, his presentation was pretty solid and worthy of consideration and debate (the kind where actual logic and factual analysis are used, not just sarcasm).

If you had only 45 minutes to respond to the Big List of anti-Mormon attacks, what points would you want to make? Did Daniel's selection of topics and responses make sense to you? I liked it and appreciate the way he calls attention to some of the big picture issues as well as touching upon some salient details. Of course, there are many, many ways in which a short time can be used to address what could really take weeks or months to be thorough. I am curious to know how any of you fellow LDS defenders would have handled it?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

No Evidence at All?

One critic posting on my comments pages recently explained why he didn't believe in Jesus. The argument he offered looked logically constructed and was presented with a "slam dunk" air. It was just one argument, though I'm sure he must have many more, but he presented it as if this was a sufficient reason to reject Christianity. The argument is based on the New Testament statement from Christ when He is discussing the events of the last days, and says, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34, also see Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32). Here is the argument, as presented:
I'm a pretty good reader, and I think I know exactly what Jesus meant when he said (for example) that the judgement would arrive before his listeners' generation passed away. He meant that it would happen when he said it would happen, and since it didn't happen then, he was wrong, and because he was wrong he was not (and is not) God.
Boom. One verse that is an apparent mistake, and now he can handily conclude that Jesus is not divine. When I read this, I was disappointed. The author obviously has an education and prides himself on logic and intelligence, but the argument, as presented, shows no apparent effort to understand and interact with Christian responses to the problems in this verse. It shows no desire to consider the reasons why Jesus might still be the Son of God in spite of confusion about one verse. Five seconds on Google would present him with reasonable Christian defenses of this problem. One quick Google search brought up one common response which explains that the generation of "this generation" was the generation that would be around when the prophecies of Matthew 24 begin to occur. Possible. But there are other approaches to consider, including discussions of what is meant by "generation" and the possibility of human error in recording and transmitting the statement. In any case, I was both saddened and frustrated by his easy argument for rejecting Jesus. I'm sure he has more than that, but it's frustrating to see seemingly lazy arguments with apparent lack of serious research presented as if they represented a serious and decisive victory, as if no plausible response had ever been offered by the other side.

In claiming to "know exactly what Jesus meant" and in claiming that Jesus must be wrong since his literal reading does not appear to perfectly conform to his expectations, the author reveals a  simplistic and rather "fundamentalist" attitude about the scriptures. It's an outlook infused with numerous hidden assumptions that can result in unrealistic expectations that are easily burst, resulting in quick loss of faith for unprepared believers who finally encounter, say, geologic evidence for the earth's age, evidence of abundant human influence and error in the scriptures,  or the many other complexities of faith. It's a danger that many ill-prepared Latter-day Saints face as well.

Now imagine that somebody, let's say a former Christian priest and religious instructor, took that argument and published it in a Big List with dozens of other arguments, all claiming to be carefully researched slam-dunk arguments against Christianity but all showing a lack of familiarity with actual Christian scholarship and the vigorous defenses that have been offered to the arguments. That Big List would be offered as his shocking reasons for departing Christianity. Each argument might have excellent refutations, but readers of the Big List would have no idea, and ill-prepared Christians might be swayed. That would be tragic.

That's pretty much how I feel about the CES Letter by a former LDS member who offers a Big List of reasons why he left the Church. It's filled with dozens of assertions and seemingly slam-dunk arguments, but, as Daniel Peterson observed in his recent FAIR Conference presentation on the CES Letter, shows no familiarity with the abundant research and scholarship in many of the areas he touches upon. It occasionally reveals a simplistic, fundamentalist outlook, in which human error, uncertainty, and complexity are not tolerated. The many evidences for things like the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are treated as nonexistent. Not merely inadequate or not convincing, but as though there was nothing there at all, as Daniel Peterson properly observes.  The evidence is ignored, huge bodies of scholarship are rendered invisible, and answers that a few moments on Google could offer appear to have not entered into the vast research said to be behind the list of arguments. It's tragic, painful, puzzling, and quite unnecessary.

Feel free to disagree and choose your reasons for believing or not, but don't pretend that it's all a slam-dunk without any arguments or evidence on the other side. There is evidence, there are interesting and sometimes very convincing arguments on the other side, and people exposed to the Big List at least should know that such things exist.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 Fair Conference: Ty Mansfield on Sexual Identity and Same-Sex Attraction from an LDS Perspective

The recent 2014 Fair Conference, held Aug. 7-8, 2014 in Provo, offers a great selection of faith-strengthening perspectives from a broad mix of speakers. Topics include same-sex attraction, the Book of Abraham, the CES Letter, the role of women in the Church, the authorship of the Book of Mormon, etc. 

In this post I'll call attention to Ty Mansfield's excellent presentation on same-sex attraction and the LDS experience. His talk, "'Mormons can be gay, they just can’t do gay'? Deconstructing Sexuality and Identity from an LDS Perspective," discusses the complexity of sexual attraction and reminds us to be careful about thinking we know things that still puzzle the experts:

So much of the controversy happens around unexamined premises and conclusions drawn, often simply accepted without any real critical thought at all. Once we can understand how these have harmed our understanding, we can then move to a better place to articulate a reasonable response to those who question or criticize the Church’s teachings….
The popular cultural myths that either people are “born gay” or that they chose to be homosexual or that their homosexuality is caused by parental nurturing (or lack thereof) are all reductionistic and cannot explain much, if anything, about the development of sexuality and sexual desire.

It’s interesting to me that our popular and media culture seems to be so sure about something that science and the academy are not. The American Psychological Association’s official pamphlet addressing sexual orientation concedes this point, noting that ultimately, “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” Some researchers have postured that there is no such thing as “homosexuality,” but rather “homosexualities”—that there are multiple sub-populations with different etiologies making for qualitatively different experiences of sexuality that all lay within a broad and diverse umbrella we call “homosexuality” or “same-sex attraction.”

He also addresses issues of identity and the shackles (my term) that we can impose on ourselves or others with terminology that pigeonholes people into an "identity" based on the attractions they feel.

In an LDS context, people often express concern about words that are used—whether they be “same-sex attraction,” which some feel denies the realities of the gay experience, or “gay,” “lesbian,” or “LGBT,” which some feels speaks more to specific lifestyle choices. What’s important to understand, however, is that identity isn’t just about the words we use but the paradigms and worldviews and perceptions of or beliefs about the “self” and “self-hood” through which we interpret and integrate our various experiences into a sense of personal identity, sexual or otherwise. And identity is highly fluid and subject to modification with change in personal values or socio-cultural context. The terms “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” aren’t uniformly understood or experienced in the same way by everyone who may use or adopt those terms, so it’s the way those terms or labels are incorporated into self-hood that accounts for identity. One person might identify as “gay” simply as shorthand for the mouthful “son or daughter of God who happens to experience romantic, sexual or other desire for persons of the same sex for causes unknown and for the short duration of mortality,” while another person experiences themselves as “gay” as a sort of eternal identity and state of being….

As a final note here, however one chooses to self-identify here in a fallen, temporal world limited by human culture and human language, I firmly believe that, like Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which all social and political constructs were swallowed up in the gospel stone that rolled forth to consume the nations, so will the spiritual ideals and identities of the kingdom of God and the Celestial nature swallow up all of our social identity constructs that blur eternal identity (see Daniel 2:31-45).

While I identified as gay for a time, at one point I had a very strong spiritual prompting that if I continued to identify as gay, it would limit my progression. I believe that the more deeply we understand and feel spiritually connected to eternal realities and our eternal identity, the less meaningful any proximate, mortal identities feel to us. If others refer to me as gay, I typically tolerate it for practical purposes, but it’s not how I see myself, and occasionally it can feel particularly oppressive when others seem to insist on projecting and LGBT identity construct on me even after I’ve specified that that is not how I see myself. It’s not a construct that adequately captures who I am, what I believe, or how I feel.

He then explores the issues of chastity and consecration, and the speculation of others that Church will change regarding its stance on same-sex issues. See the transcript at FairMormon.org.

What American's Open Borders Mean in a World with Ebola: An Easy But Hopefully Wrong Prophecy

Have you read Laurie Garrett's piece for ForeignPolicy.com, "You Are Not Nearly Scared Enough About Ebola"? It deserves more attention and perhaps a bit more healthy fear.

Join me in wishing for my complete failure as I make what looks like an easy prophecy regarding health care: Ebola is coming to America. May I be ridiculously wrong. Hopefully Ebola will be swiftly contained and not hurt any more in Africa or anywhere else. But the chances of it spreading eventually could be high, and when it does, it could spread swiftly. Yes, airport security is increasing and many steps will be taken to reduce the risk of Ebola coming through airports. Technology exists to check every passenger coming through our official ports of entry for fever (this is already in place in some Asian airports, for example, to help reduce the risk of spreading bird flu). That's great, but it won't affect some of the most important routes for the spread of infection into the US.

Between terrorists who want to hurt us and virus-infected people who might not intend any harm, our porous borders are a dangerous health care menace. Both of America's political parties seem thoroughly committed to not properly sealing our borders lest they lose votes or be called racists (perhaps am I overly harsh here in explaining their obvious gross negligence), so there is little chance of any serious, life-saving border-security steps being taken (not without your voice, anyway). We face extensive risks of serious disease walking across our borders undetected.

Ebola or other disastrous microbes could be brought as humans walk across the border and bring unintended infection. It's also possible for terrorists to bring it across on purpose, possibly deliberating infecting a truckload of undocumented victims right before they cross the border. (This can be done without killing the culprits behind the operation. I won't explain the many paths they can take, but it's not impossible.) Days later, the virus erupts in multiple US cities. It can happen that easily.

An epidemic can happen even if the border is sealed, but to leave it open makes it too easy for intentional and unintentional entry of the virus. This is a time for diligence and strict protection of borders, and careful health screening of anyone coming from a high-risk area. Those without documentation cannot be given a pass and allowed in without consideration of health risks. Those  walking across aren't just from Mexico. They come from many parts of the world, including parts with potentially dangerous viruses.

If Ebola strikes in the US, are you ready? Do you have supplies to clean and disinfect? Do you have plenty of paper goods, wipes, detergents, rubber gloves, face masks, and other tools to help you care for your sick loved ones? Your food storage may be essential if an epidemic is happening, for leaving home to get food could expose you to other infected people. Drinking water may be especially important. Ugh, it's awful even thinking about what can happen when a deadly epidemic breaks out, but it's been a grim reality for millions of our brothers and sisters across the centuries, and while we've been lucky and blessed for many decades, will that luck continue?

Perhaps, but not if we don't take even basic steps to reduce the risks of deadly outbreaks strolling across our borders. Be scared, but more importantly, be prepared.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Standing Ovation for Sharon Eubank and "This Is a Woman's Church"

At the FAIR Conference a few days ago, a rare standing ovation was given for Sharon Eubank, Director of LDS Charities, who gave a bold talk on women in the Church. The title itself is bold, but appropriate to her message and personal experience:  "This Is a Woman's Church." The transcript of the talk is available, and you might be able to watch the video also, though the server seems to too slow for us out here in China, where access to foreign websites is often unbelievably slow or blocked altogether. 

Find out what Sharon had to say that brought the audience to its feet. She brings several important thoughts together and reminds us of some of the basic elements of the LDS experience. This is a valuable presentation for both women and men.
Kudos to FAIR for a great 2014 conference. Wish I could have been there!

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Factory Price, Or, The Price of Friendship

A scene from the markets at Dong Tai Road.

Shortly after coming to China, we made friends with some of the merchants in a classic old market street called Dongtai Road, where the Dongtai Antiques Market is a fun attraction for many tourists and a place we liked to shop for gifts. One of our friends was Miss L., a sweet girl who spoke good English and was married to an artist, Mr. T., who created the paintings she sold in her painting shop. We marveled at the diversity of styles he had. While his works were obvious imitations of other popular works, to imitate so many styles so well was quite impressive. All but one of the paintings we own came from her home. We brought friends to their shop also to buy paintings. Great prices. We visited from time to time and also hired her to help with some groups events we had that needed an English tour guide.

We also enjoyed the love story of this couple. They were two artists from north China. She recognized his great talent and decided to start a business selling his art. As they worked together as starving artists, they fell in love, married, and began raising a family.

After knowing them for over 2 years, they told us they had to close their shop because their side of Dong Tai road was being torn down to make a new hotel. They, like others we knew, faced the challenge of much higher rent to open shops elsewhere in town. They would not be able to get the same amount of business in the new hard-to-find location they had to take, and wondered if we could help them by doing an open house. Sure, we'd be happy to help. But first we bought some additional paintings. One we especially loved: it was his original composition of Dong Tai Road itself, a large and pretty painting of the view approximately right in front of his shop. Wow, we were delighted to buy it. It cost 1800 RMB, about $300, frame included. This was a lot more than other paintings we had purchased, but being an original composition and all, it was definitely worth it. The asking price had been 3000 RMB, but, as usual, we got the special "friend discount." But they couldn't discount it too much, of course, because it had taken so much work to create.

We opened our home to them and their friends for a full day on a Saturday in early December. A large crew came with a truck full of paintings, many freshly painted. Mr. T. had been busy! We had told many of our friends and colleagues at work about this young couple, their love story, and Tony's amazing and diverse talent as an artist. Lots of people came and they had some pretty decent sales of paintings during the day. I was disappointed, however, to see that the prices had been jacked up to about double what they normally charged in their original shop. I felt like they were taking advantage of us with that price spike, but didn't say anything, except to quietly suggest to some people that they could negotiate and bring the price down.

One of our Chinese friends from northern China pulled me over in the kitchen for a private talk. "Jeff," she said, "have you ever seen that artist paint anything?"

"Well, sure, I mean, well, I've smelled fresh paint in his shop, but maybe haven't seen him actually painting the paintings at the moment, I suppose, but I'm sure that...."

"I don't trust him. He's from my part of China and I know his type. I don't think he's a real artist. I asked him some direct questions and he seemed evasive. I think he's a scammer."

I was shocked at her assessment and thought she was being way too paranoid and distrustful of one of her fellow Chinese. I smiled and thanked her and said we had known them for a long time and was pretty sure he was for real.

About a week later, another Chinese friend came over to our home for dinner with her son. Her son was amazed at how big our tiny apartment was and felt so happy to be able to bounce on our chairs and run around. It was like he was in heaven. He has to be very quiet in their little old place with a thin floor so he won't bother the quick-to-complain people below them. While visiting with us, his mother, another merchant, looked at our new painting of Dong Tai Road on the wall and asked how much we paid for it. Then she got angry. "1800 RMB? That's way more than the factory price. She should have given you a friend price. They took advantage of you."

"Factory price? Factory? What factory? You mean Mr. T. didn't paint this himself?"

Our friend laughed at our gullibility and explained to us how the budget painting shops in Shanghai work. There is a large factory, perhaps a sweatshop, where artists crank out slight variations of the same paintings over and over and over. Pretty much the same paintings, all imitations of imitations, are sold all over town. Our Mr. T. wasn't doing the imitation--he was just imitating an imitator, pretending to be an artist. His "original composition" was just a factory production that we've now noticed on sale in many other shops.

Sigh. We had been used. Several times. Lied to. Several times. I felt terrible about inviting others to come and meet the amazing artist and buy his works. On the other hand, they probably didn't pay more than they would have on their own, unless they were good negotiators and knew the "factory price," and they were able to choose some fairly attractive works from China's art factories. But I'm embarrassed that were were all being taken for a ride.

My embarrassment was probably not as bad as what many tourists experience in Shanghai when they are completely scammed by friendly, smiling, English speakers who introduce them to the ever popular Chinese tea ceremony scam or the potentially more dangerous karaoke scam. In both cases, people pretending to be friendly are out to rob gullible tourists. After a few sips of worthless tea or a few rounds of karaoke, the victims are presented with huge bills--hundreds or even thousands of dollars--and tough bouncers are there to enforce payment. People go home shaken up, outraged, feeling betrayed and seriously injured financially. One betrayal like that can ruin a visit to China and sour people on this marvelous and usually kind nation. The scammer so a disservice to millions of fellow Chinese citizens who are honest and treat others with great decency.

Be careful whom you trust.

After Joseph Smith had the terrible failure of losing the first 116 pages translated from the Book of Mormon, the Lord told him he should not have entrusted the pages to someone else's care, and said that he had been deceived. Even though he was a prophet, the Lord told him, "you cannot always judge the righteous, or ... you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous" (Doctrine & Covenants 10:37). This is sound advice for all of less prophetic folks as well. We cannot know that someone is trustworthy just because they smile, seem nice, and have been friendly to us for a while. Being disappointed by those we trusted is going to be a part of our lives. Being exposed to abuse of trust by friends and even loved ones is part of the price of friendship. But sometimes we can minimize the damage with a little caution and common sense.

Be careful out there. Keep your guard up. Ask tough questions and recognize the possibility of risk.

Bonus advise: Don't lend money to friends, if you value the friendship. Money loaned has broken many a friendship. It can turn you from a friend into an evil creditor, a problem to avoided, a source of endless guilt and worry for the person unable or unwilling to pay you back. Why do that to a friendship? If you want to help a friend, feel free to give money as a gift, money that you insist is not to be paid back (OK, pay to charity some day if they insist, but not you), but don't make a loan. Also recognize that money is rarely the answer to the problems others have and sometimes can make things worse, but when the need is real and money really can help, be generous and give. God bless you for caring and trying to help. But don't give more than you actually can. Remember, you are giving, not loaning.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hurray for Mary Higby Schweitzer: Working Mom, Christian, and Dangerous Scientist

The Book of Mormon warns against some of the many fallacies made by the elite and educated ranks who find many reasons to mock religion and deny Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Nephi 9:28-29). One of the great ironies in science is the ease with which scientists and educated thinkers stop thinking once they think they have something figured out. Don't be shocked: they are human too. In spite of all that education, they can readily fall into the trap of clinging to old paradigms, proudly thinking they now know something for themselves, when real science should take the humble attitude of recognizing that it is tentative and that numerous untested assumptions sometimes go into the mental models we create when we interpret data. This vulnerability is especially great when we make judgments about things that are not simply straightforward matters like how much something weighs. When science is applied to resolve moral issues or matters of faith, for example, look out. It is an inadequate tool for some purposes.

One interesting illustration of the problems in blindly relying on "established" scientific knowledge involves the recent discovery that soft matter--cartilage, skin, muscle tissue, etc.--may have been preserved in some actual dinosaur finds. Sounds crazy, right? Dinosaurs are millions of years old, and obviously soft tissue could not possibly last that long so it's just not possible. Dinosaurs are fossils. Rocks. After millions of years, nothing else but fossilized rock can remain. Science has spoken, and as we all should know, when science has spoken, the debate and the thinking are done. At least that's how some scientists apparently responded when Mary Higby Schweitzer, a woman and a known evangelical Christian, of all things, dared to claim that she had solid evidence for soft tissue from ancient dinosaurs. The woman is Mary Higby Schweitzer and her story is ably told by Barry Yeoman in "Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery," Discover Magazine, April 2006.
Schweitzer gazed through a microscope in her laboratory at North Carolina State University and saw lifelike tissue that had no business inhabiting a fossilized dinosaur skeleton: fibrous matrix, stretchy like a wet scab on human skin; what appeared to be supple bone cells, their three-dimensional shapes intact; and translucent blood vessels that looked as if they could have come straight from an ostrich at the zoo.

By all the rules of paleontology, such traces of life should have long since drained from the bones. It's a matter of faith among scientists that soft tissue can survive at most for a few tens of thousands of years, not the 65 million since T. rex walked what's now the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. But Schweitzer tends to ignore such dogma. She just looks and wonders, pokes and prods, following her scientific curiosity. That has allowed her to see things other paleontologists have missed—and potentially to shatter fundamental assumptions about how much we can learn from the past. If biological tissue can last through the fossilization process, it could open a window through time, showing not just how extinct animals evolved but how they lived each day.
This is a huge advance. What breathtaking finds are waiting to be revealed in the soft tissue and perhaps even the DNA of these ancient kings and queens of the planet? Hurray for Mary Higby Schweitzer and for her unusual background and her faith that helped her see things other scientists have probably been missing (and accidentally destroying) for decades.

Mary is an evangelical Christian, but also accepts that the earth may be billions of years old (that fits my understanding of the evidence as well). There are other things about her I really like:
In 1989, while dividing her time between substitute teaching and her three children, Schweitzer steered back toward her childhood fascination with dinosaurs. She approached Jack Horner, a renowned dinosaur scientist, and asked if she could audit his vertebrate paleontology course at Montana State University. He appreciated her refreshingly nontraditional mind. "She really wasn't much of a scientist—which is good," says Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. "Scientists all get to thinking alike, and it's good to bring people in from different disciplines. They ask questions very differently."

Schweitzer's first forays into paleontology were "a total hook," she says. Not only was she fascinated by the science, but to her, digging into ancient strata seemed like reading the history of God's handiwork. Schweitzer worships at two churches—an evangelical church in Montana and a nondenominational one when she is back home in North Carolina—and when she talks about her faith, her bristly demeanor falls away. "God is so multidimensional," she says. "I see a sense of humor. I see His compassion in the world around me. It makes me curious, because the creator is revealed in the creation." Unlike many creationists, she finds the notion of a world evolving over billions of years theologically exhilarating: "That makes God a lot bigger than thinking of Him as a magician that pulled everything out in one fell swoop."

Schweitzer's career began just as paleontologists started framing their own questions in more multidimensional ways. Until the 1980s, researchers were more likely to be trained in earth science than in biology. They often treated fossils as geologic specimens—mineral structures whose main value lay in showing the skeletal shapes of prehistoric animals. A younger generation of paleontologists, in contrast, has focused on reconstructing intimate details like growth rates and behaviors using modern techniques normally associated with the study of living organisms....

This shifting perspective clicked with Schweitzer's intuitions that dinosaur remains were more than chunks of stone. Once, when she was working with a T. rex skeleton harvested from Hell Creek, she noticed that the fossil exuded a distinctly organic odor. "It smelled just like one of the cadavers we had in the lab who had been treated with chemotherapy before he died," she says. Given the conventional wisdom that such fossils were made up entirely of minerals, Schweitzer was anxious when mentioning this to Horner. "But he said, 'Oh, yeah, all Hell Creek bones smell,'" she says. To most old-line paleontologists, the smell of death didn't even register. To Schweitzer, it meant that traces of life might still cling to those bones. 
Wow, right under their noses! Dinosaur finds at that site were well known to smell like cadavers. Dozens of soft tissue treasures had probably been destroyed over the years, with a treasure of information right under the offended noses of scientists. It took someone with a different perspective to dig into what was really there and reveal something tantalizing. Thank you, Mary Higby Schweitzer!

I also love her approach to science as something that teaches us more about the handiwork and, yes, humor of God. It is exhilarating. 

Mary was lucky to have a supportive and open-minded mentor. Meanwhile, another evangelical Christian was allegedly fired from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) for publishing a peer-reviewed article in Acta Histochemia about his discovery of soft tissue on another dinosaur find, also at Hell Creek. Here is part of the story, as told by CBS Los Angeles:
While at the Hell Creek Formation excavation site in Montana, researcher Mark Armitage discovered what he believed to be the largest triceratops horn ever unearthed at the site, according to attorney Brad Dacus of Pacific Justice Institute.
Upon examination of the horn under a high-powered microscope back at CSUN, Dacus says Armitage was “fascinated” to find soft tissue on the sample – a discovery Bacus said stunned members of the school’s biology department and even some students “because it indicates that dinosaurs roamed the earth only thousands of years in the past rather than going extinct 60 million years ago.”
“Since some creationists, like [Armitage], believe that the triceratops bones are only 4,000 years old at most, [Armitage's] work vindicated his view that these dinosaurs roamed the planet relatively recently,”according to the complaint (PDF) filed July 22 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The lawsuit against the CSUN board of trustees cites discrimination for perceived religious views.
Armitage’s findings were eventually published in July 2013 in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
According to court documents, shortly after the original soft tissue discovery, a CSUN official told Armitage, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!”
Armitage, a published scientist of over 30 years, was subsequently let go after CSUN abruptly claimed his appointment at the university of 38 months had been temporary, and claimed a lack of funding for his position, according to attorneys.
Perhaps the problem may have been that he wasn't quiet about how this discovery supposedly supported his personal young-earth views. If his claims are correct, it was unfortunate and not a very scientific thing for the university to do. Not surprisingly, scientists and university leaders are humans like everyone else and bring plenty of biases with them in their quest for truth and funding. Sadly, some university systems have become remarkably intolerant of diverging views and enforce uniformity of thought much more than they let on in their P.R. Some pretty extreme abuses happen from time to time. I'm glad Mary Schweitzer's work was able to move forward and shake things up for the good of all of us.

By the way, other scientists think they have an answer for how soft tissue could be preserved so long. Turns out iron nanoparticles might be doing the trick. They seem to have done well in preserving soft tissue during a two-year period already. Just another 50 million years or so before we'll be sure.

Related stories: GodfatherPolitics.com discusses some of the initially negative reactions Mary received for her work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Border Crisis, Unaccompanied Minors, and the Downside of Compassion

With thousands of unaccompanied minors streaming across the increasingly porous borders of the United States, there is an obvious need for compassion for these children. But compassion comes in many forms and some of them can be destructive. Take, for example, the compassionate US law that motivates families and governments from afar to send children here without their parents and loving relatives to care for them. As the Bush Administration came to a close, there was a compassionate bipartisan effort to sign the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 which had a provision to protect children victims of sex trafficking by making it harder to send them back to their home countries if they were from somewhere besides Mexico and Canada. Local parents and governments in Central American nations seemed to understand this law better than our lawmakers did and have exploited it mightily, sending thousands here knowing that they would be granted asylum and receive the many benefits of being a US resident. Our compassion, unfortunately, is motivating parents to abandon their children. Perhaps it's time for the tougher compassionate that stops the incentives to abandon kids?

Obviously, we must be compassionate when we encounter a child in need. But what happens when that one child at your door becomes 10 children, then 100, then 100,000? The standard compassionate approach in this country is to say that all should be taken in and welcomed--by someone else, with someone else's money. I don't have an easy answer for how to deal with the immediate crisis, except to say that we must also address and repair some of the root issues behind the problem.

There are other downsides to our unbounded border compassion to worry about. While parents abandoning children is deplorable, I can sympathize with local governments that may wish to abandon gang members. Sadly, young gang members are among those who are being welcomed to the U.S., allegedly with no obvious effort to separate out the gangsters. Meanwhile, I worry that the non-gangsters coming here without roots and without parents will be more vulnerable to the lure of violent gangs.

There are still other issues. You might not have noticed, but there are a lot of people in this world that hate America. And not all of them are in Hollywood. Some are in foreign countries that would love to have a chance to come here and create a little havoc. In a world of violence and terrorism, there are good reasons to have tightly controlled borders. An open border where anyone can get in by just walking across the border, or even coming in a scheduled bus, is a security risk with severe potential consequences. Regardless of which party the new immigrants are going to support in future elections, our elected officials need to put our local security as a top priority. Instead of spending billions or trillions to police the world and invade other nations, how about if we get back to protecting our own? It can be done. Bring our troops home. Put some of them on the border. Border security is possible.

The vast majority of the unaccompanied minors coming here are being granted asylum with no serious effort to get them back to their families and communities. They will probably spend their lives here. May they be productive, peaceful lives. Some, we are told, may become the next Steve Jobs and spend their time making and marketing overpriced products that will strengthen the economy and make the world better. Great--but out of fairness to the many other potential Steve Jobs from places like Norway, China, and India who have been waiting for years to get through our ridiculously difficult legal immigration process, perhaps we need to expand our compassion enough to treat everyone a little more equally and ask folks to get in line (while speeding up the legal line). Meanwhile, casually allowing entry to those who wish to bring violence to our streets will make life a lot more difficult for everyone seeking to build, to create, or to just raise families in peace. Let's bless the world with generous legal immigration opportunities for those who wish to love and build up our nation, and protect our borders for the security of all of us.

Yes, show compassion to the children who come here, but make reuniting them with their parents and communities a top priority. There should be no incentives for child abandonment. The law that does that should be swiftly fixed.

At the risk of questionable speculation, I think that the growing threat of gang violence in our cities, amplified by a surge in illegal immigration and loopholes of American compassion, might add plausibility to a puzzling prophecy in the Book of Mormon in 3 Nephi 20:
[15] And I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent after the blessing which they shall receive, after they have scattered my people --
[16] Then shall ye, who are a remnant of the house of Jacob, go forth among them; and ye shall be in the midst of them who shall be many; and ye shall be among them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, and as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.
Also see 3 Nephi 21:
[12] And my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.
[13] Their hand shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off.
[14] Yea, wo be unto the Gentiles except they repent; for it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Father, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots;
[15] And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds....
My reading of the statements of Christ in 3 Nephi 20 and 21 is that the descendants of some of the original peoples in the Americas (who, yes, are descended from Jacob, even if the percentage of Hebraic ancestry is very small due to an abundance of Asiatic DNA also present) will be a source of great trouble for some American cities, though many of them will also be converted and help build up the kingdom of God and be part of the New Jerusalem to come. I'm really not sure what to make of the prophecies and there are many ways they could be fulfilled, but it's interesting to see that what once sounded like a remote and improbable event could be realistically fulfilled in light of ongoing events. There is a genuine threat looming from the weapons being accumulated by gangs and from their swelling ranks. Drug-related violence from gangs is destroying too many communities south of the border (or rather, south of the line formerly known as "the border"), and I don't think US cities have even begun to see how devastating that can become.

Of course, the ultimate answer to most problems is not in law and armies, but in the Gospel. Whatever policies our nation adopts, let us love those who are in our midst, documented or not, and give those who wish the opportunity to receive the blessings of the Gospel. In so doing, may families be strengthened and may children be kept with their parents wherever possible. Meanwhile, may our Gentile cities take a cue from 3 Nephi 20 and 21 and recognize the real lesson there: repent and follow Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

LDS.org Offers "Gospel Topics" Section on the Historicity and Translation of the Book of Abraham

Among the growing body of helpful and carefully researched topics discussed in the "Gospel Topics" section of the LDS.org website, the Church has recently provided a statement that addresses some common concerns regarding the Book of Abraham and its translation. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" shares information drawn from some leading LDS scholars about how we obtained the Book of Abraham and how it relates to the small set of fragments from the larger collection of original scrolls that Joseph had (most of which were apparently destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871). The relatively brief statement with 46 footnotes makes several important points. It reminds us that we do not know how the translation was done. The article mentions several possibilities that have been proposed, such as direct translation from one of the scrolls or transmission of the document directly by revelation wherein the physical manuscripts Joseph had may have served as something of a catalyst, perhaps for revelation giving a related but more ancient source.

Here is a section of the statement addressing the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the text on the recovered fragments, including the non-Abraham-related text around Facsimile 1, which is often cited as proof that the Book of Abraham is a fraud (references omitted):
Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.

Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.

Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith explained the process of translation of the book of Abraham, but some insight can be gained from the Lord’s instructions to Joseph regarding translation. In April 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Oliver Cowdery that taught that both intellectual work and revelation were essential to translating sacred records. It was necessary to “study it out in your mind” and then seek spiritual confirmation. Records indicate that Joseph and others studied the papyri and that close observers also believed that the translation came by revelation. As John Whitmer observed, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.”

It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri.

Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.
I personally don't like the catalysis theory and don't think it is necessary to deal with some of the issues in the Book of Abraham, but it is one of several commonly discussed possibilities.

The article also discusses evidence for the authenticity of the text, mentioning a few of the interesting finds where the text as well as Joseph's comments on the facsimiles have been shown to have surprising and interesting support. The "hits" mentioned are far from exhaustive but should be sufficient to give pause to those who have been told that the Book of Abraham is a complete fabrication without a shred of evidence to support it.

Related resources: LDSFAQ page on the Book of Abraham, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3: Evidences for the Book of Abraham.

Update, July 16, 2014: A related article is "New Gospel Topics Essay: 'Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.'" In addition to some useful points about the evidence for the Book of Abraham and other aspects of the Gospel Topics article, there is an intriguing observation about some of the sources relied on in the Church's statement:
As an aside, I also find it significant that this essay cited material from both “classic FARMS” publications, such as Hugh Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, as well as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. This would seem to indicate, I believe, that the claim, made by some, that the Church is trying to distance itself from these materials should be accepted with a bit of skepticism.
If you're not a fan of The Mormon Interpreter, head over there and start digging in. Useful and intelligent material for LDS readers and investigators.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Kate Kelly, Ordain Women, and Foxconn: The Importance of Asking Questions

Kate Kelly's story as presented in the media is a compelling one, stirring and resonating with the emotions of many. A lone woman stands up to a big male-dominated organization, daring to prod and just ask questions, for which she is cruelly punished by being excommunicated from the Church she loves. Indeed, this brave woman is apparently treated so poorly as she is tossed out that the only words she can use to describe the actions of her bishop and others is "abuse" and "cruelty." How dare they excommunicate her for "apostasy" when she has not been teaching any doctrine, just asking questions?

Her Ordain Women movement, at least in its earlier incarnation, can be said to raise issues worthy of discussion. But for a story about a woman just asking questions, I fear that many people are forgetting to ask some questions of their own.

This lack of questioning and the ready acceptance of a stance that plays well with the media and with our emotions, reminds me of another seemingly brave lone individual, Mike Daisey, who dared to stand up against another so-called bully, Foxconn, the gargantuan Asian company that makes most of Apple's products in massive factories in China. (My purpose in pointing to Daisey's story is to highlight the tendency of the media to not ask too many questions when they like the story and dislike the big entity being criticized. I am not suggesting that Kate is another Mike Daisey.)

Daisey became famous for telling and retelling a gripping story of his personal encounters with Foxconn in China in 2010 where he allegedly saw evidence of child labor and abuse of employees. His story was told dramatically in a theatrical performance he did for many audiences, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." This was a hit with the media. In 2012, he was interviewed in a lengthy program for NPR's popular This American Life, where he again told his story and levied many charges of abuse against Foxconn. That broadcast would become the most downloaded podcast in the rich history of This American Life so far. It resonated with audiences, pulled at their heartstrings, and confirmed many concerns they had about China and big companies.

The story was vetted by NPR's team before going on the air, but there was a little glitch in the process. The journalists there, like just about every Western journalist that repeated Daisey's story, failed to ask some basic questions. Questions like, "What, there are armed guards at Foxconn in China? I thought guns are completely banned in China except for the police and the army. How can there be armed guards?" Or perhaps, "Really? The poor local workers at Foxconn have their union meetings at Starbucks? That's an elite, expensive place in China. Are you sure?"

As far as I know, the first journalist who stood up to ask some tough questions of his own was an American in Shanghai, Robert Schmitz, an outstanding journalist that I met in 2012 after a lecture here in Shanghai where I live. He recognized that many parts of Daisey's story didn't fit reality, so he tracked down the translator Daisey had used and asked her what they saw and experienced. Turns out that much of what Daisey reported was made up. Schmitz did the work of a real journalist and let Ira Glass of NPR know. Embarrassed, Glass brought Daisey back on the show, and then introduced him to Schmitz, to asked tough questions live on the air. It was a devastating moment. Daisey's story did not fairly reflect reality, but was driven by an agenda and was shaped as the fruit of his craft. Even the true parts of it were crafted and spun to play upon our emotions and manipulate audiences into disliking Foxconn.

Craft. That's a word we don't consider very often when we are hearing stories we like in the media. But it's fair to recognize that some people have an agenda and a craft to pursue, and that craft and craftiness can be used to manipulate us, our emotions, and our reasoning. It is especially hard to ask these questions when what we are hearing confirms our own biases (and yes, this cuts both ways!). It is also hard when we are convinced that the source of a highly biased story is completely sincere, as Kate probably is. But craft can be a dangerous thing, even in the hands of sincere people. (The craft need not be hers or hers alone. It can also be particularly powerful in the hands of activists in the media or other parts of society who have an agenda to pursue and find Kate useful.)

The craft of lawyers, for example, can turn mere questions into a powerful tool to attack and destroy. A few minutes of cross-examination with suitable craft can discredit and shame some witnesses, even truthful ones, scoring far more points than a lengthy speech haranguing them.

The power of "mere questions" is illustrated in the scriptures. Questions were a tool of choice of the lawyerly Pharisees that opposed Christ. They were the tool of choice of the actual lawyers in Ammonihah that sought to discredit Alma and Amulek. "Will ye answer me a few questions which I shall ask you?" (Alma 11:21) was the opening query from a lawyer in a group of lawyers in Ammonihah that would be part of an unmistakable attack on the Nephite faith, hell-bent on destruction.

Alma and Amulek would eventually be freed from prison, but scores of believers would perish in the flames ignited by those once just posing questions (see Alma 14). For any lawyer to suggest there is no agenda, no attack, no malice involved because they are "just asking questions" is disingenuous. The questions don't have to be of the overt, "Are you still abusing children or not?" kind to be pointed attacks nonetheless. Kate may sincerely fail to see that what she is doing constitutes an attack on the Church and its leadership, but I feel it's a genuine attack nonetheless.

Lawyers can do a lot of good for the world, but at times, lawyers can spin coherent tales via questions, websites, rallies, and other teachings--yes, teachings--to achieve their objectives, sometimes at the cost of fairness. Lawyer Kate Kelly's story will be told and retold by sympathetic journalists without doing the digging and questioning that used to characterize journalism. While Kate can publicly criticize her bishop for not meeting with her, for not seeking to understand her, and for being cruel and abusive in how he handled her Church court, the bishop's side of the story is not going to be told. Bishops tend to keep those things confidential. We are only left with Kelly's words (see, for example, the video interview associated with an article at the Salt Lake Tribune). But her words raise some important questions.

Here are some questions that you may wish to ask:
  1. Kate, if you have tried to be supportive of the Church and Church leaders rather than opposing them, what do you mean when you ask your supporters still in the Church to "raise hell" in the Church?
  2. Kate, if you are pained that your actions would be viewed as apostasy because you aren't teaching any kind of doctrine or making statement contrary to Church policies, what do you think about Ordain Women's mission statement, which insists that "women must be ordained." That seems like more than just a question, but a bold statement directly contradicting Church teachings. Or does that somehow not qualify as a teaching, doctrine, or policy?
  3. Could you be overlooking some efforts of your Church leaders to meet with you or reach out to you in the past? Are you sure that it's fair to call them cruel and abusive?
I was hopeful that Kate Kelly would take a more respectful and moderate approach in her influential efforts. I am more than merely pained to see her urging her followers inside the Church to "raise hell" from within. I am worried that a lot of people are letting their emotions get the better of them and not asking a few questions of their own now about Kate's agenda and the spinning of her arguments about the Church.

Kate has said that almost no one in the Church is in the middle. She's either viewed as a hero or as the "devil incarnate." I think that fails to recognize how many people are open to discussion. There are many who might have been in the middle, at least initially, and interested in the dialog, though not with the current demands and accusations. Latter-day Saints generally recognize that we don't have all truth and that much remains to be revealed. We recognize that some things can change and change dramatically. We recognize that the LDS temple, which I believe to be inspired of God, makes reference to the future role of men and women in heaven as "priests and priestesses," with intriguing implications about Priesthood. But many of us also recognize that it is not for us to dictate what changes happen when, or what will be revealed and how. We are uncomfortable with the tactics of confrontation and accusation, even if initially dressed as merely asking questions. Some of us worry that behind the emotionally appealing media messages, there might be a bit too much craft.

Could this be another case of lawyers versus faith? That's one of the tough questions that we should at least be willing to consider as we look at the evidence and digest what's happening.

Kate, if you have been misunderstood, if you do have sincere intent to strengthen the Church and not fight against it or weaken the faith of others, and if your excommunication was in error, then I hope you will succeed in having your membership restored and being an active and supportive part of the Church in the future.

Yes, errors can happen in excommunication. I once took up the case of a woman I felt was excommunicated in error and guided her and testified in her behalf during her appeal, and we prevailed. It was a difficult case, a controversial one unfortunately, but I have often felt that standing up for her was one of the more important moments in my life. Church leaders can recognize error and listen, and if that is the case here, may the Lord bless all of you in resolving this matter. But at the risk of possibly sounding like her bishop, I'll add this: It would help allay my fears if Kate would retract or soften the in-your-face statements, tone down the accusations of abuse and cruelty against her bishop and the Church, and encourage her followers to build up the Kingdom of God rather than raise hell. There's just something about raising hell that I find inconsistent with what we're trying to do in the Church.

Before people reject the Church and its leaders because of the apparent injustice to Kate Kelly, I suggest asking whether there might be other ways of looking at this matter. A touch of additional faith and patience might help you keep that which is precious and find better ways to cope with that which may be painful.

Monday, June 23, 2014

No, the Strangite Witnesses Are Not Strong Parallels to the Book of Mormon Witnesses

In my last post, Lawyers, Inc. vs. Faith, some folks suggested that the import of the Book of Mormon witnesses is lessened by the imitative adventure of James Strang and his witnesses who observed the non-miraculous existence of some much less valuable non-precious metal plates. Ironically, it's a fitting comparison to make since Strang himself was a lawyer and his exploits illustrate some of the things that skilled lawyers or other highly educated people can do when they seek to affect (as in misdirect) the faith of others.

Strang claimed that Joseph Smith had appointed him to be his successor, and showed some people a letter that he claimed was a letter of appointment from Joseph. There's no evidence I know of that Joseph ever said or advocated this, apart from Strang's letter. If the letter was a forgery, as seems highly probable, the tiny low-value plates lack evidence of being anything more than that. But wait, he had witnesses! Just like the witnesses to the gold plates, right? No, not like those witnesses.

Strang's witnesses first saw tiny plates that had been buried and dug out of the ground by the witnesses at a spot where Strang prophesied they would be found. But no one doubts that some metal plates existed, for they were not clearly miraculous and not beyond the abilities of that educated man to fabricate or hire out. Gold plates in the hands of Joseph Smith are quite a different matter, and it was gold that the witnesses saw, not the same common metal used in teaware and other items of his day. What the Eight Witnesses experienced already trumps Strang's imitative work, but nothing in his portfolio can even begin to compare with the sheer miraculous power of what the Three Witnesses experienced and affirmed throughout their lives: gold plates and other sacred relics, shown by a majestic angel, his feet not touching the ground, and then the voice of God adding to the witness of divinity. The witnesses of the gold plates testify to the physical tangible reality of the plates under ordinary light and also under miraculous circumstances. Both settings are important. 

For Strang, seeking to obtain the same credentials as Joseph, imitating the discovery of plates was a "smart move" for this lawyer, but for Joseph, announcing the discovery of ancient writings on metal plates was ridiculous. Remember, Joseph showed his witnesses the gold plates many decades before the Darius plates and other ancient records on gold and other metal plates would be found. This was decades before the Mesoamerican practice of using stone boxes to preserve sacred items would be known. This was over a decade before the reality of ancient civilization in Mesoamerica would become widely known to the public (Humboldt and a few others notwithstanding). Strang was the imitator, Joseph was the groundbreaker, and importantly, what the witnesses testified to was quite different and has remarkably different meaning.

Strang's witnesses can be taken at face value, at least regarding the existence of the plates, though unlike Joseph's witnesses, not all would remain convinced that the story of the find was something grander than a man-made fraud. Yes, they saw something. Yes, it was made out of metal--apparently a common metal. Yes, there were some writings on the plates. Tiny plates, much smaller than the gold plates. But taking their witnesses at face value does not imply a divine origin for the plates or a divine call for Strang.

Strang, the educated lawyer, having impressed his witnesses with the buried plates, proceeded to "translate" them. The translation took roughly a decade--not bad, but that's a pace that pales with Joseph's rapid work of dictating the translation, unaided by other resources according to his scribes and others.

Strang, a lawyer seeking to provide evidence that he should be revered as a leader like Joseph, would translate his plates and strive to gain followers. But the story dwindles after that, while the evidences for the reality and plausibility of the Book of Mormon continue to grow in many ways. Those evidences include many witnesses who experienced both miraculous manifestations and mundane evidence for the tangible reality and divine origins of the sacred record, an ancient, Semitic record engraved on gold plates (or, more likely, a gold alloy such as the gold-copper alloy known as tumbaga that was widely used in ancient Mesoamerica, much lighter than gold itself, and which would give a stack of thin plates with Book of Mormon dimensions weighing about 60 pounds, as one of the witnesses recorded regarding their weight).

Daniel Peterson summarizes the case of the Strang witnesses in his 2006 FAIR Conference presentation on the tangible nature of the Restoration (an important essay - please read it):
The first set, the three "Voree" or "Rajah Manchou" plates, were dug up by four "witnesses" whom Strang had brought to the appropriate site. Inscribed on both sides with illustrations and "writing," the Rajah Manchou plates were roughly 1.5 by 2.75 inches in size--small enough to fit in the palm of a hand or to carry in a pocket. Among the many who saw them was Stephen Post, who reported that they were brass and, indeed, that they resembled the French brass used in familiar kitchen kettles. "With all the faith & confidence that I could exercise," he wrote, "all that I could realize was that Strang made the plates himself, or at least that it was possible that he made them." One not altogether reliable source reports that most of the four witnesses to the Rajah Manchou plates ultimately repudiated their testimonies. The eighteen "Plates of Laban," likewise of brass and each about 7 3/8 by 9 inches, were first mentioned in 1849 and, in 1851, were seen by seven witnesses. Their testimony appeared at the front of The Book of the Law of the Lord, which Strang said he translated from the "Plates of Laban." (Work on the translation seems to have begun at least as early as April 1849. An 84-page version appeared in 1851; by 1856, it had reached 350 pages .) The statement of Strang's witnesses speaks of seeing the plates, but mentions nothing of any miraculous character. Nor did Strang supply any second set of corroborating testimony comparable to that of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. One of the witnesses to the "Plates of Laban," Samuel P. Bacon, eventually denied the inspiration of Strang's movement and denounced it as mere "human invention." Another, Samuel Graham, later claimed that he had assisted Strang in the fabrication of the "Plates of Laban." The well-read Strang had been an editor and lawyer before his brief affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his subsequent career as a schismatic leader. Thus, Strang's plates were much less numerous than those associated with Joseph Smith, his witnesses saw nothing supernatural, his translation required the better part of a decade rather than a little more than two months, and, unlike the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Strang's witnesses did not remain faithful to their testimonies. [footnotes omitted]
Whatever you think of James Strang and his plates, he and his witnesses do not lessen the evidence provided by the Three Witnesses nor that from the Eight Witnesses and others for the reality of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.

Unfortunately, the critics can't see a difference. As one put it in the comments section on my last post,
Oh, the Strangite one is my favorite. Has nearly the exact same arguments for its validity as Mormonism, but we can dismiss Strangite testimonies because, well, for all the reasons we can dismiss Mormon testimonies.

I'm sure Jeff is 100% aware of it, too. It just doesn't click. The brain doesn't work on logic when there are huge emotional barriers.
This is not a difficult issue, IMHO. The reasons for not accepting James Strang's work as divine based on the weak evidence from the Strangite witnesses have little bearing on the Book of Mormon. The two cases do not involve "the exact same arguments." The Strangite witnesses are not parallels to the miraculous evidence from Book of Mormon witnesses. They do not provide the consistent, passionate, and lifelong credibility we have with the gold plates from men who often had much to lose and nothing to gain by standing as witnesses, even after falling away from the institutional Church. The Strangite witnesses are much more easily understood as men who actually saw real, fabricated plates, having been duped for a while by a skilled and well-read lawyer with a scheme to imitate Joseph. This does nothing to explain the origins of what Strang sought to imitate. Emotional barriers are not the issue here.

It's one thing to show some people a little set of plates carefully buried in the ground. It's quite another thing to have a majestic angel present them, and then, to remove all doubts from religious hysteria and frenzied minds, to have men under ordinary light see and handle actual gold plates that Joseph could not plausibly have fabricated. Joseph the uneducated farmboy wins this round against the skilled lawyer, and so do his witnesses.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lawyers, Inc. vs. Faith

My sophomore English class at Brighton High School was a disaster. The school was using a failed but trendy new system where hundreds of kids were in a big open space and split up into rotating groups, moving every few weeks from one teacher to another for different pathetic units that supposedly taught us English while we watched lame movies or engaged in other dull "labs" or whatever. Felt like chaos. Like block scheduling and other ill-informed experiments that sometimes advance administrators more than students, whatever we were doing there couldn't possibly make us better at reading, writing, or grammar (a dreaded g-word that is almost as despised in American schools as that other G-word).

The demographics of the school were pretty good. Lots of suburban kids from generally healthy families in the southern extremes of Salt Lake City. In theory should have been a pretty tame group of kids, though there were some rough elements (I have a scar as a reminder of that from one of my most traumatic stories in 7th grade). Demographics notwithstanding, big, unwieldy groups without much structure can be a recipe for trouble. One day as the mass of classes in the open "pod" were dismissing, a student got into a loud argument with a teacher. Kids gathered around to watch. There were dozens of observers with quite a few nearby eye-witnesses who watched the shouting escalate into physical violence as the student grabbed the teacher near the neck. The teacher, possibly applying some improperly understood scene from a kung-fu movie, attempted to break the student's hold by thrusting his hands upward, but with his thumbs sticking out so he caught the student's arms with his thumbs. This broke the hold and both thumbs. Ouch.

The student was prosecuted for physical assault. Dozens saw it happen. I think it was just grabbing and shaking the teacher, not actual choking, though I don't remember that clearly now--it's recorded somewhere in my journals if I want to review the story. But it was definitely a physical attack of some kind and the student was clearly the perpetrator. He was convicted. However, he came close to escaping legal punishment. I was apparently the only witness during the trial that was able to withstand the questioning of the defense attorney.

My father sat in on the trial and told me what happened to the multiple other witnesses who came in. One by one, a skillful lawyer was able to pick at little details in their story and find gaps, uncertainties, and apparent contradictions and use them to create mountains of doubt. Things like, "You said there were 5 people in front of you, and now you are saying you had an unobstructed view? You first said the teacher was wearing plaid, and now you say it was a white shirt. If you are so wrong about all these basics, are you sure you saw anything at all? Earlier you said this lasted five minutes, but now you are saying it happened so quickly and was only a few seconds. Were you even paying attention at all?" In the end, according to my father, the room full of witnesses was essentially reduced to one. Had it been a better lawyer or a more complex event, I'm sure he could have tripped me up as well.

Lawyers can be great at what they do, but in a court setting, their objective is not to discover the truth, but to represent a client, sometimes at all costs. I see the mind and tactics of lawyers in some of the recent anti-Mormon attempts to attack and dismiss the vast body of scholarship and evidence from the many witnesses of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. Taking mistakes in quotations, uncertainties in documentation, easily resolved apparent contradictions or errors, and turning them into mountain of doubt where there should be none. It is amazing what skilled lawyers can do to a body of witnesses, but that doesn't remove the reality of what they saw and in many cases handled. Richard L. Anderson's vast body of scholarship on their lives and integrity is dismissed out of hand as just a big book from a true-believer, without addressing the arguments and evidence. Nitpicking at minor issues is the name of the game, but it's a lawyer's game, not that of a seeker for truth. The consistent witnesses of the Book of Mormon deserve a lot more study and respect. They were far better and witnesses than what we had at Brighton High.

Update, June 18, 2014:

In my experience, many lawyers are men and women of integrity and some passionately seek for truth. I just noticed an intriguing example of this wherein one nineteenth century lawyer grilled one of the Three Witnesses to determine if their account might have been fabricated, delusional, imaginary, or otherwise less than real. It was a young lawyer's first cross-examination, sincere and intense. Daniel Peterson shares he account in his important essay, "Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced" (presentation at the 2006 FAIR Conference):
The young James Henry Moyle, who had just received his law degree from the University of Michigan and was returning home to Utah, took a detour to Richmond, Missouri, for the sole purpose of interviewing David Whitmer. When he saw the Witness, he implored him to tell the truth. He told Whitmer of the sacrifices that his family had made for the gospel's sake, driven from state to state and finally pulling a handcart all the way to the arid desert of the Great Basin.
I said to him: "I was born and reared in the Church and I do pray of you to let me know if there is any possibility of your having been deceived. I am just commencing life as you are preparing to lay it down, and I beg of you to tell me if there is anything connected with the testimony which you have borne to the world that could possibly have been deceptive or misunderstood." I further said, in an earnest youthful appeal, that I didn't want to go through life believing in a falsehood, that it was in his power to make known the truth to me. His answer was unequivocal. There was no question about its truthfulness. The angel had stood in a little clear place in the woods with nothing between them but a fallen log—the angel on one side and the witnesses on the other. It had all occurred in broad, clear daylight. He saw the plates and heard the angel with unmistakable clearness.
"He was the first witness I ever attempted to cross examine," Moyle wrote many years later, "and I did so with all the intensity of my impelling desire to know the truth. The interview lasted two and one-half hours." The young lawyer, who subsequently served as assistant secretary of the treasury in two federal administrations, came away utterly convinced of David Whitmer's sincerity.
The witnesses to the plates insisted that what they had seen, heard, and in many cases touched and handled were real. Some critics, often relying on highly questionable hostile sources and neglecting the weight of scholarship on the topic, have attempted to suggest that the witnesses sort of imagined things and didn't actually see with their physical eyes or touch anything tangible. This revision of history utterly fails to explain the impressive historical record and the reality and sincerity of multiple lives standing as witnesses of what was and is real. Peterson's article helps summarize a few of the key points that have to be neglected by the critics in reaching that unwarranted conclusion.

Related resource: LDSFAQ Page on the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.