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Bob Bennett's new BoM Story Reviewed


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Posted it on ye olde blog this morning. Feel free to comment there or here.

Review: Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon

leap_of_faith.jpg

Author: Bob Bennett

Publisher: Deseret Book

Genre: Religion/Apologetics

Year Published: 2009

Number of Pages: 318 plus preface

ISBN13: 9781606410530

Price: 29.99

I read about it in the Salt Lake Tribune: a senatorial campaign is upon Utahns and one of the candidates happens to release a book on the Book of Mormon.[1] I thought to myself: "A book about the Book of Mormon by Bob Bennett? He's not an expert on the subject. What can he possibly say that will either be new or helpful?" Actually, my thoughts weren't so well-formulated; that is a direct quote from Bennett's opening line of the book (see p. ix). By drawing upon personal experience and his own "competence...to understand and weigh the arguments" of different critics and believers, Bennett investigates the Book of Mormon to determine the likelihood that it is a forgery (p. ix, 19).

But wait, the author is a prominent fellow who has served as one of Utah's Senators since 1992 and rumor has it he faces a difficult upcoming election.[2] Isn't this a "fishy time" for Bennett to release the book?

Perhaps, but according to the Bennett campaign the publishing date was determined by Deseret Book, not Bennett. Moreover, the book itself makes it clear that Bennett has been working on it long before this upcoming election.[3]

Fair enough, but shouldn't we consider Bennett's political position in general? It doesn't matter that he didn't foresee the current tough election, he could desire to share a mix of politics and religion with his constituents any time, right?

Quite the contrary in this case. The book is nearly silent on political matters and in some cases is clearly not simply a butterbath for believers. For instance, he doesn't flinch in asserting that readers of the Book of Mormon should not find a "reflection of American democracy in any way" in the complex Nephite political systems (p. 143). Also, he's clearly friendly with the scholars he interacts with, be they Republican, Democrat, or none of the above. No electioneering here, no political point-scoring attempted.[4]

So what is this book trying to do? As noted, Bennett sought to analyze the Book of Mormon as a potential forgery. Citing his own experience with past forgeriesâ??directly with various Howard Hughes controversies and indirectly with other forgeries including the Hofmann "salamander letter" fiascoâ??Bennett holds the Book of Mormon to "the most rigorous tests for forgery" (p. 9).

Why would Bennett wish to do so? The Book of Mormon has played an important part in Bennett's spiritual life and he was bothered by many "shallow treatments" of the work, so by page eight I was almost cheering him on when he called both critics and believers to task for not paying enough responsible attention to the Book of Mormon:

Inside the Church, too many members treat the book as something of a theological version of Bartlett's Favorite Quotationsâ??a source for inspirational snippets that can be used to make various points in speeches and sermons but not a book to be read and pondered at length. Those Latter-day Saints who go no farther than that in their study of the book do not really understand it, and some make claims for it that go well beyond what the book itself maintains (p. 8) .

Critics who sneer at what they see as a silly romance full of anachronisms and other contemporary commentators who feel the book is something of an embarrassment that should not be prominently featured by the Church, are also invited to give stricter heed. Bennett wants these readers to take the book seriously because for him, the book came from someone, and our obligation to the book depends largely upon who that "someone" is.

Bennett quickly lays his own cards out on the table,[5] wanting the reader to know he is a believer in the claims Joseph Smith made for the book, namely: that an angel delivered a set of golden plates from which he translated an ancient record of scripture by the gift and power of God. His argument is that he can discover no definitive empirical evidence for that claim. At the same time, he feels that no smoking gun has been discovered showing the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Thus, a decision either way requires a "leap of faith," hence the title. Also, given current (and for Bennett, understandable) skepticism about angels and miraculous translations, Bennett seeks to explore various possibilities for authorship. The rest of the book reads like a thoroughly reasoned investigation, a careful weighing of evidence and counter-evidence, to clarify the relevant issues. After describing the situation surrounding the publication of the Book of Mormon Bennett identifies three main suspects: God (through revelation to prophets like Mormon and Joseph Smith), Joseph Smith himself, or "Third Party," which could include Solomon Spaulding, Sidney Rigdon, or other unknown candidates (p. 40-42).

Bennett employs three standard tests for forgery and a fourth test unique to the Book of Mormon. The first test evaluates "internal issues" regarding consistency in the narrative, length, internal details and so forth. The second test regarding "external issues" looks for anachronisms original readers might have missed, corroborative evidence, and other things outside of the text itself. (In both cases, Bennett says, readers must "be careful to separate what the Book of Mormon [itself] says from what it does not say [because t]he work cannot be held accountable for the errors of its more enthusiastic backers," see p. 10, emphasis in original.) The third test addresses "motive." Be it fame, money, thrill, inspiration, psychosis, or whatever else, this question is important when considering a possible forgery. The fourth test which Bennett says applies specifically to the Book of Mormon is that of "relevance." Because the book claims to be revelation from God, Bennett expects its contents to reflect what God might want to reveal to readers today. Or does it speak mostly to the past to contemporaries of Joseph Smith? (see pp. 9-11).

Using these four tests, Bennett proceeds to analyze the Book of Mormon, first by exploring story lines and then by looking at more specific sermons and doctrines. Bennett is familiar with different theories of authorship and interacts with theories from Fawn Brodie, Alexander Campbell, Hugh Nibley, Jack Welch and other prominent Book of Mormon analysts. It is an even report, not an apologetic whitewashing or covering up of sticky details; Bennett frankly admits some of the more difficult puzzles readers have discovered in the Book of Mormon. For instance, he calls Mormon's seeming quotation of Paul a "golden nugget of forgery evidence" (p. 189). He also draws attention to some of the strong evidence in favor of historical authenticity, calling on critics to take more seriously the impressive geographical parallels Nephi incorporates into the small plates (see pp. 88-99). His tone is even and he does not always grant his own perspective the rhetorical advantage of having the last word, which a few faithful readers may find uncomfortable. Occasionally he raises problems he has found no good solution for, but he also emphasizes evidences of which he has found no convincing refutation. When he uncovers a seeming "draw" he notes the need for critic and believer alike to make a "leap of faith."

In a few cases I believe Bennett actually grants a little too much to critics, perhaps overlooking some of the more relevant and recent scholarship on the Book of Mormon. While he responsibly qualifies wordprint studies said to prove different authorship for sections of the Book of Mormon (p. 83) he still lends them a little more weight than I would (p. 142).[6] In his discussion on archaeology (p. 146) he could use some advice on the trouble of toponyms in Mesoamerica and other considerations.[7] He makes a few other minor blunders, like describing the Nephite monetary system as using "coins,"[8] and claiming Mark Hofmann planted a bomb in his own trunk to throw off police when eyewitness testimony make it clear the explosion occurred in Hofmann's front seat (p. 30). While it is likely not Bennett's fault, the index is pretty weak (several important discussions on "Reformed Egyptian" don't find a reference point there for example) and the footnotes are much too sparse for my taste. I chalk these last two complaints up to publisher's decisions, however. The book is clearly written for general readership, but the picky reader should take that into consideration while reading.[9]

Despite these problems, the book is an enjoyable and easy read which provides a sensible introduction to many of the controversies surrounding the Book of Mormon. He includes large excerpts from the Book of Mormon interspersed with summaries and commentary in order to give the reader more experience with the Book of Mormon itself. He accurately describes the complex inner structure of the Book of Mormon, including the different authors and records claimed to be used as sources. After outlining and examining several Book of Mormon stories Bennett's final section discusses specific doctrines he believes God would want readers to consider today. He believes the doctrinal discussions on agency, sin, repentance, responsibility, theodicy, and the reality of Christ and His atonement all make the book truly relevant for our time; an indication of authenticity. He then shows how the stories and the doctrine intertwine to make the doctrines play out in actual experiences; the book preaches while it demonstrates.

This balanced treatment is a thoughtful study that provides a fruitful example of how one should weigh claims about the Book of Mormon, whether or not the reader agrees with the particular points Bennett makes. As the title suggests, Bennett believes that friend or foe, believer or critic, must ultimately make a "leap of faith" in their decision as to the authenticity of the book. He hopes sincere investigators will invite God to help them make the leap by reading it carefully and asking God if it is true, as the final Book of Mormon chapter urges. This, Bennett says, is what sustained his own leap of faith.

3 1/2 out of 5 plates

3andahalfPlates-1.gif

(Worth the read, great candor, unique analysis,

nothing entirely new data-wise. Excerpts of Bennett's

book can be read here at DeseretBook.com.)

FOOTNOTES

[1]

See Thomas Burr, "With tough election ahead, Bennett pens LDS book," The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 August 2009. The news article itself seems to tilt ever so slightly to the side of believing Bennett had ulterior motives about the timing of the release of the book, namely: that of gaining more street-cred with Mormons in Utah.

[2]

Burr, ibid.: "The three-term senator faces three GOP competitors in his 2010 re-election bid, all of them portraying themselves as more conservative alternatives to the incumbent."See also See Robert Gehrke, "Senate race already getting testy eight months out," The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 August 2009.

[3]

According to senator Bennett's campaign manager/son, Jim Bennett: "This book is in the works for something around seven years....This has been going through the editing process at Deseret Book for quite some time. No one anticipated one way or another what the political climate would be when this was released," see Burr, opt. cit. It seems the editor who created the headline for the article ("With tough election ahead, Bennett pens LDS book") missed this quote, disbelieves it, or believes Bennett can see the future. (Still, I have great sympathy for the reporter who is frustrated by an editor's unfortunate choice for a headline.) Bennett talks about his frustration with media treatment of the Book of Mormon which became a writing project which turned into a book since 2002 (see pp. ix-x). His research for the book indicates it is not a hashed-together attempt to curry political favor.

[4]

Bennett, a Republican, specifically goes to bat in behalf of Hugh Nibley, a prolific Mormon scholar, social critic and Democrat. Bennett acknowledges a few terse dismissals of some of Nibley's work by various critics and notes: "I took issue with [Nibley] myself, on his political beliefs--but on the items I cite here, I cannot find any articles or books that challenge" the particular evidence Bennett refers to (p. 94). Other references to current politics (and they are very few!) are incidental to the book. For example, he very briefly describes how bias at CBS News might have led some folks to accept fraudulent memos painting George W. Bush in a negative light during the 2004 presidential campaign. Bennett is silent in terms of Bush's presidency either way (see pp. 30, 32).

[5]

Since Bennett quickly lays his own cards out on table in regards to his belief in the Book of Mormon, I'll follow suit: I was initially completely skeptical of Bennett's book because I didn't know what to expect and I don't always agree with his political views. Now that I have read the book, I regret the timing of the release if only because it is an easy way for critics to dismiss or poke some fun at a book that deserves a responsible hearing.

[6]

See BHodges, "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 8 December 2008.

[7]

See, for instance, William J. Hamblin's "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 2:1, pp. 161-97.

[8]

The word "coins" is not original to the Book of Mormon text, but was decades later to a chapter heading discussing the Nephite monetary system. See John W. Welch, "Weighing & Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 8:2, pp. 36â??46.

[9]

In a few other cases I think Bennett could have cited more recent research much to his advantage, including information on the early Israelite pantheon, changing views of the Godhead, Isaiah inclusions in the Book of Mormon text, and a few other areas. (Bonus points for discussing the problem of Deutero-Isaiah nonetheless! For a clearer view see Kevin L. Barney, "Isaiah Interwoven," FARMS Review Vol.15:1, pp. 353-402.) I also believe he drastically undersells the statements of the witnesses who said they saw and handled the golden plates. See Richard Lloyd Anderson's Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Deseret Book, 1981) and "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 14:1, pp. 18â??31. Of course, critics of the Book of Mormon could likewise claim Bennett does not provide their best arguments (though I believe he does a fairly good job of representing a variety of critical views). Aside from this, readers can benefit from Bennett's approach and continue applying a similar method to the various evidences they feel Bennett overlooked.

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I take issue with one of Mr. Bennettâ??s primary assumptions. For the sake of argument, letâ??s grant for the moment that the evidence for or against the Book of Mormon is broadly inconclusive. If thatâ??s the case, is it really necessary for everybody to take a â??leap of faithâ? to arrive at either a positive or negative conclusion? Are the people who earnestly try to approach it with an appropriate level of skepticism really forced to take a â??leap of faithâ?, just as the person who approaches with a dominant desire to believe?

Iâ??d suggest that a more fair and intelligent approach is to assume a priori that the book is man-made and rightly categorized as fiction, and then maintain that assumption unless compelling evidence proves otherwise. This is the way all such things should be considered, whether the paradigm be hypothesis testing in statistics, presumption of innocence in jurisprudence, or the scientific method in science.

Accusing skeptics who find the evidence inconclusive and therefore reject the Book of Mormon of â??taking a leap of faithâ? is pretty sly equivocation; being skeptical and having faith arenâ??t the same thing.

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A well-written review. Readers might want to ponder the similarities between Moroni and Paul:

1 An epistle of my father Mormon, written to me, Moroni; and it was written unto me soon after my calling to the ministry. And on this wise did he write unto me, saying:

2 My beloved son, Moroni, I rejoice exceedingly that your Lord Jesus Christ hath been mindful of you, and hath called you to his ministry, and to his holy work.

3 I am mindful of you always in my prayers, continually praying unto God the Father in the name of his Holy Child, Jesus, that he, through his infinite goodness and grace, will keep you through the endurance of faith on his name to the end. (Moroni 8 )

42 Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope.

43 And again, behold I say unto you that he cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart.

44 If so, his faith and hope is vain, for none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity.

45 And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

46 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must failâ??

47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.

48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen. (Moroni 7)

Even with the argument that these are post-Pauline writings, the similarities are too glaring to ignore. The BoM expounds further, though, on how to attain charity - " pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ...".

Inside the Church, too many members treat the book as something of a theological version of Bartlett's Favorite Quotationsâ??a source for inspirational snippets that can be used to make various points in speeches and sermons but not a book to be read and pondered at length. Those Latter-day Saints who go no farther than that in their study of the book do not really understand it, and some make claims for it that go well beyond what the book itself maintains (p. 8 ) .

I wouldn't denigrate the experiences of "ordinary members", and I know there's a difference between "nibbling" and "feasting", but for some people an "entr

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I also thought the review was well written.

I do have a disagreement with Bennett's advice that either critic or believer must take a leap of faith. If the evidence was really 50/50 that is entirely inconclusive than both the believer and the critic are unjustified. If the evidence is truly ambiguous and no position is strongly supported one way or another the logical position is to take no strong position that is to be entirely agnostic with regards to BOM historicity. Any other position would not be supported by the evidence because the evidence is ambiguous. The correct action would not be a "leap of faith" towards skepticism or belief but take no strong position either way and both believers and critics are unjustified.

Furthermore if indeed the evidence is ambiguous this creates a number of serious philosophical problems. For example the scriptures in numerous places predicate blessings on belief and vigorously condemn unbelief. But if the evidence truly is ambiguous how is condemning unbelief or predicating blessings on belief justified? That is how can you condemn someone for failing to believe proposition X when the evidence for proposition X is ambiguous?

All the Best,

Uncertain

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Iâ??d suggest that a more fair and intelligent approach is to assume a priori that the book is man-made and rightly categorized as fiction, and then maintain that assumption unless compelling evidence proves otherwise. This is the way all such things should be considered, whether the paradigm be hypothesis testing in statistics, presumption of innocence in jurisprudence, or the scientific method in science.

I don't see that as a necessarily fair or intelligent approach for several reasons. For one, wouldn't a presumption of innocence indicate JS was telling the truth?

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I don't see that as a necessarily fair or intelligent approach for several reasons. For one, wouldn't a presumption of innocence indicate JS was telling the truth?

It depends upon the nature of the claim we're talking about. I believe it was Carl Sagan who coined the phrase, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Do you disagree with that?

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It depends upon the nature of the claim we're talking about. I believe it was Carl Sagan who coined the phrase, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Do you disagree with that?

Extraordinary evidence is promised in Moroni 10:3-5. It has delivered for me, I can't speak for you. That being said, Sagan stacks the deck. You invoked the "innocent until proven guilty" view, yet you go directly against it in the case of the BoM. I sense a strong positivist in our midst... :P

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Extraordinary evidence is promised in Moroni 10:3-5. It has delivered for me, I can't speak for you. That being said, Sagan stacks the deck. You invoked the "innocent until proven guilty" view, yet you go directly against it in the case of the BoM. I sense a strong positivist in our midst... :P

Your feelings count as extraordinary evidence? That is an extraordinarily low threshold.

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Extraordinary evidence is promised in Moroni 10:3-5. It has delivered for me, I can't speak for you. That being said, Sagan stacks the deck. You invoked the "innocent until proven guilty" view, yet you go directly against it in the case of the BoM. I sense a strong positivist in our midst... :P

It isn't a question of stacking the deck. It's a question of correctly understanding which claims have the burden of proof and how much evidence should be required before accepting any given proposition.

You are being tricky in the way you accuse me of going directly against "innocent until proven guilty" in the case of the Book of Mormon. Presumption of innocence simply means that the prosecution has the burden of proof in criminal court. If the conext of our discussion was Joseph Smith being criminally prosecuted for allegedly forgering the Book of Mormon, then the burden of proof would be on the prosecution in the context of that court case. But in the context of our discussion where we're deciding whether we should accept the Book of Mormon as an accurate translation of an authentic ancient Mesoamerican manuscript, then the burden belongs on the people who are making the radical claim that it is. If they don't meet the burden of proof, it isn't a "leap of faith" to "fail to reject" the null hypothesis.

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It isn't a question of stacking the deck. It's a question of correctly understanding which claims have the burden of proof and how much evidence should be required before accepting any given proposition.

I think this represents a fundamental world view difference between "true believers" and "skeptics." True believers can articulate the reasons for their beliefs and skeptics can articulate the reasons for their skepticism, but ultimately believers won't understand why skeptics demand such extraordinary proof and skeptics won't understand the credulity of believers.

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Typically I have seen "true believers" employed as a pejorative as per Eric Hoffer.

Anyway, I don't agree that your disconnect really applies in this situation, structurecop my brother, as I believe as a believer I can also be a skeptic. He introduced the court paradigm and then tried to twist it back to give him the rhetorical advantage. I think it was a faulty move. :P Further, who is taking more into consideration here? The guy who proclaims from the outset that something like a miracle from God is impossible, or a fellow who allows for the possibility? This isn't the first time Analytics's outdated positivism has reared its head in an exchange between us. It gets kinda old.

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Typically I have seen "true believers" employed as a pejorative as per Eric Hoffer.

That's why I put it in quotes. I'm not sure they're really the best terms.

Anyway, I don't agree that your disconnect really applies in this situation, structurecop my brother, as I believe as a believer I can also be a skeptic. He introduced the court paradigm and then tried to twist it back to give him the rhetorical advantage. I think it was a faulty move. :P

I agree that the court paradigm might not be a good comparison.

Further, who is taking more into consideration here? The guy who proclaims from the outset that something like a miracle from God is impossible, or a fellow who allows for the possibility? This isn't the first time Analytics's outdated positivism has reared its head in an exchange between us. It gets kinda old.

I think you're arguing against a straw man there. Unless I missed it, I don't think Analytics said that a miracle from God is impossible, just that this supposed miracle doesn't seem particularly likely. And if that's what he's arguing, I would tend to agree with him.

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Typically I have seen "true believers" employed as a pejorative as per Eric Hoffer.

Anyway, I don't agree that your disconnect really applies in this situation, structurecop my brother, as I believe as a believer I can also be a skeptic. He introduced the court paradigm and then tried to twist it back to give him the rhetorical advantage. I think it was a faulty move. :P Further, who is taking more into consideration here? The guy who proclaims from the outset that something like a miracle from God is impossible, or a fellow who allows for the possibility? This isn't the first time Analytics's outdated positivism has reared its head in an exchange between us. It gets kinda old.

Sigh. I didnâ??t somehow twist back the court paradigm for an alleged rhetorical advantage. All I did was clarified the point I was trying to make from the outset.

In no way am I arguing for anything that could rightly be construed as â??positivismâ?, much less â??proclaiming from the outset that something like a miracle from God is impossible.â? All Iâ??ve done is asserted that when the evidence for whether or not the Book of Mormon is a â??forgeryâ? is a tossup, â??making a leap of faithâ? that it is in fact an accurate translation of an authentic ancient manuscript is categorically different than â??making a leap of faithâ? that the book is of 19th century American origins. In doing this, Iâ??ve appealed to the philosophical underpinnings of statistical hypothesis testing which in no way can be construed as â??positivismâ?.

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I think this represents a fundamental world view difference between "true believers" and "skeptics." True believers can articulate the reasons for their beliefs and skeptics can articulate the reasons for their skepticism, but ultimately believers won't understand why skeptics demand such extraordinary proof and skeptics won't understand the credulity of believers.

That's a fair summary. Thank you for making me feel understood.

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I think you're arguing against a straw man there. Unless I missed it, I don't think Analytics said that a miracle from God is impossible, just that this supposed miracle doesn't seem particularly likely. And if that's what he's arguing, I would tend to agree with him.

Time and again Analytics has proclaimed his empirical demands for belief which essentially exclude God from the picture. So it's not a straw man, but a ghost I have been arguing with for quite some time in Analytics. (A rather mind-boggling choice for a screen name!)

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