This year I have set upon a journey to do an in-depth study of the Book of Mormon. I, like many others, have so many questions about this fascinating book and “keystone” of the religion I follow. One of the books that stood out in my search for material was Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon. Terryl Givens is one of the most recognized and beloved Mormon scholars today. If anyone could put together an overwhelming compilation of faith-promoting evidences of the Book of Mormon it has to be him … or so I thought.
Givens divides the book in such a way that is both readable and logical. Each chapter has a theme and subtopics of that theme are covered thoroughly. The first chapter for example is entitled “’A Seer Shall My God Raise Up’: The Prophet and the Plates”. The chapter covers the history of Joseph Smith and the the varying histories of how he obtained and translated the plates. A great foundation for the book as a whole.
By the Hand of Mormon is a phenomenal resource for those looking to understand the many roles of the Book of Mormon throughout history. The book covers it all; the theories of its origin, the changes over time, its use and disuse in the Church, literary analysis, the translation process, the critic’s views, the dogmatic followers’ views, the views of those in between, the culture during the translation process, archaeological connections and the lack thereof, etc. One would be hard pressed to find something about the Book of Mormon that it does not touch upon. Givens also does not skimp on references and notes, there are 63 pages of them concluding the book.
There were three main concepts that will stick with me: the Book of Mormon is inseparable from history, the Book of Mormon lacks unique Mormon theology, and dialogic revelation.
The Book of Mormon is inseparable from history. Givens is not one to easily draw conclusions for the reader, but the historical connection of the Book of Mormon is an exception. Joseph Smith’s claims of the Angel Moroni and the golden plates absolutely tie him to history. First and foremost Joseph explains the Book of Mormon as a history of the American continent. In this regard the Book of Mormon is different from the Bible.
…Helaman’s miraculous story of the Stripling Warriors, like the Book of Job to many Christians, could be considered fanciful but inspiring mythology to Mormons and the Book of Mormon still be scripture. But the story of the gold plates could not be fanciful mythology and the Book of Mormon still be scripture. And this relationship of Joseph Smith-and his story-to the Book of Mormon simply has no counterpart in the history of the Bible. And any attempt to find middle ground by analogizing the Book of Mormon and the Bible that does not take cognizance of this fundamental and irreducible difference between those two sacred texts may be an exercise in futility.
The Book of Mormon lacks unique Mormon theology. I have heard this before I read this book, but it was driven home by Givens. It was fascinating to me to read that the Book of Mormon was not a major tool for conversion due to its new theology, but its alignment with what is taught in the New Testament.
Those expecting an exposition of a peculiar Mormon doctrine will be disappointed: the Book of Mormon contains no explicit mention of exaltation (the eventual deification of man), the degrees of glory, tithing, the Word of Wisdom, baptism for the dead, premortal existence, or eternal marriage. In fact, the accounts of early converts to Mormonism confirm that it was the congruence of Book of Mormon teachings with the New Testament that dampened their objections to a new scripture and allowed it to affect their conversion for reasons other than doctrinal novelty or innovation.
The Book of Mormon gives a new perspective on revelation, dialogic revelation. The meaning of dialogic revelation is revelation that occurs through direct communication ie) ask a question, get an answer. I have to admit that I was absolutely oblivious to the fact that this doctrine was something unique to Mormonism. Another perspective, revelation as history, for example is that God does not communicate directly with us, but we obtain revelations by analyzing historical events that are taken as the “mighty acts” of God. Thus revelation is an indirect method of assessing why something occurred and how it shows some element of God’s nature. There are more views of how revelation functions, but the Book of Mormon is almost purely dialogic revelation. The question and answer pattern is found all over the place and indeed is taught to every man, in the text and those reading the text, to speak to his maker in this way.
Through chiastic form, thematic structure, numerous textual examples, and a final concluding instance of readerly invitation, the scripture hammers home the insistent message that revelation is the province of everyman. As a consequence, in the world of the Book of Mormon, concepts like revelation, prayer inspiration, mystery find powerful and substantive redefinition. That may well be the Book of Mormon’s most significant and revolutionary-as well as controversial-contribution to religious thinking. The particularity and specificity, the vividness, the concreteness, and the accessibility of revelatory experience-those realities both underlie and overshadow the narrated history and doctrines that constitute the record. The “knowability” of all truth, the openness of mystery, the reality of personal revelation find vivid illustration within the record and invite reenactment outside it.
As mentioned in the initial paragraph I was hoping for a vehicle of faith promotion. That is not what I got. While the book draws some conclusions that are emphasized repeatedly, do not expect a source of non-stop evidences proving the Book of Mormon is the absolute word of God. By the Hand of Mormon is objectiveness at its finest. The views of the various readerships-critical, faithful, and somewhere in between-are on full display with reasoning behind them. Is there an ever-so-slight bent towards a faithful view of the Book of Mormon? I would have to say yes. But that is one of the beauties of analytical works, the passions of the author are infused in the words.
So where am I now? Retrospectively I see how naive I was to expect a fact based proof of the Book of Mormon. Terryl Givens is a man of faith with a lot of knowledge. How was I supposed to gain certainty about the historicity of the Book of Mormon from a man that states in his author’s note “the disputability of the facts is too obvious to bear repeating on every page”? And so I am left with faith and choice once again. Where will I put my faith? The final thought comes from the author in a FAIR podcast.
If certainty becomes a quest then you spend your life chasing the loose threads of the Gospel. I think that what is lacking in Mormon culture is a greater appreciation for the value of faith itself. I don’t mean this as some type of glib cop out… I mean this in some very deep rooted existential way. The freedom to choose to believe is a kind of moral imperative. If we were to ever reach a point in our life where we felt the evidence for or against Christ’s divinity, or the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling were overwhelming then there would be a type of intellectual compulsion involved and our faith would not be a matter of choice. In my personal life, at least, I have developed I think an ability to value and even to cherish the opportunities that come to me frequently to define myself and to affirm my values by choosing to embrace one set of alternatives over another when the evidence creates a condition of relative equilibrium where there are good grounds to believe and good grounds to disbelieve. Then the question is what do you affirm by the choice you make.
Thank you for a great review. Loved the FAIR podcast quote. Can you give a link or the author?
Sorry if it was not clear. You can click on the link in the article. The link is related to the word “podcast” that is in bold type just above the quote.
The author is Terryl Givens himself.
Can you help me understand what this statement is really saying? “The freedom to choose to believe is a kind of moral imperative. If we were to ever reach a point in our life where we felt the evidence for or against Christ’s divinity, or the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling were overwhelming then there would be a type of intellectual compulsion involved and our faith would not be a matter of choice.”
Trust me, you are not the only one that has to read a Givens quote several times to digest it. He is a wordsmith that packs home meaning.
My take on the quote is that Givens is saying that there is deep meaning in the CHOICE to believe or not. The foundation of that choice being that the choice is not obvious or an easy conclusion to come to due to “intellectual compulsion”. These are issues of faith not knowledge. You don’t just live in this world and know that Jesus is the Savior or that the Book of Mormon is the word of God due to overwhelming evidence. You have to choose to believe or disbelieve, because there is evidence on both sides.
As he later says it is a way to “define myself and to affirm my values”, which he finds to be of high value.
Alison, he’s saying that proof kills faith. It can kill it in either direction – proof that it’s all a lie, vs. proof that it’s all true. One of the Givens’ major arguments is that belief is a choice we make. Spiritual/religious evidence is usually flawed or incomplete; we that can never really prove what “truth” is 100%. So we look at it, we weigh it, we pray, we think, and based on that we can decide to believe or not. BUT, if we somehow had real proof – it wouldn’t be belief anymore. It would just be knowledge. They go into some depth on this in The God Who Weeps.
Thanks for explaining that – I guess my follow up questions would be then:
If the evidence points to a certain conclusion and seems much more rational/logical to you and this conclusion doesn’t match the church’s teachings….. are you supposed to just choose to ignore it and believe? Does faith mean you have to suspend reason/rational if it truly doesn’t seem to match up?
Is he suggesting then that God’s plan inherently is designed in a way that allows (and perhaps causes)evidence to be limited/withheld? Does this mean part of the design is to have confusing evidence, etc in order to force us to have to decide because otherwise it would be too easy and we wouldn’t really have to practice faith? I’m trying to understand a father who loves his children restoring his church based on truths in the Book of Mormon which is taught to be a literal account of real people who lived (Nephites/Lamanites) on an actual continent somewhere and wrote down the fullness of his gospel… and building into that the KJV verses in the Bible (to confuse us), anachronisms, 19th century cultural things, etc…. all on purpose in order to make belief more complicated – all so we can learn more about what faith means. I have a really hard time imaging a God (my father) doing this.
MY quick answers:
are you supposed to just choose to ignore it and believe? NO
Does faith mean you have to suspend reason/rational if it truly doesn’t seem to match up? NO
Is he suggesting then that God’s plan inherently is designed in a way that allows (and perhaps causes)evidence to be limited/withheld? Yes…depends if you think it is God’s plan or just the way things are. Very complicated…I don’t know may be a better response.
Does this mean part of the design is to have confusing evidence, etc in order to force us to have to decide because otherwise it would be too easy and we wouldn’t really have to practice faith? Replace confusing with conflicting and I would say Yes.
Remember these are just my opinions and are subject to change. The reason that I wrote this book review or even read the book itself is that I have similar questions to yours. I am on a search for truth. One concept that I am coming to grips with is certainty is not a common part of this life. I truly thought it was, but it is not. There is a lot of relativity/gray out there.
A couple quotes that I love:
“The significant thing about a scientist is this: he simply expects the truth to prevail because it is the truth. He doesn’t work very much on the reactions of his heart. In science, the thing is, and its being so is something one cannot resent. If a thing is wrong, nothing can save it, and if it is right, it cannot help succeeding.
So it is with the gospel. I once had the privilege of attending a youth conference and responding to questions of the assembled young people. A young man asked “In high school we are taught such things as pre-Adamic men, bet we hear another thing in Church. What should I do about it?”
I think I gave the right answer. I said “In this Church, you only have to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is!””
-Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, p.2
This is from a Mormon Stories podcast. John Dehlin, the interviewer is asking some tough questions about the motives behind Joseph Smith’s actions to a Dr. Bailey.
“I would even go further, that these comments about trying to ascribe these motives. Think of it from a scientific point of view. These are questions that can’t really be answered through scientific or historical scholarship.When you are saying something like that you are out of the bounds of what we can really tie to history. There is no way that we can know what was going on inside his [Joseph’s] mind.” – Dr. Bailey
“It is a leap of faith to draw those drastic conclusions about Joseph then?” – John Dellin
“Either way. Other words, It is a leap of faith for those that see only the positive possibilities and it is a leap of faith for those that only see the negative. It is not something that we can determine by science for instance.” – Dr. Bailey
In essence, if you are not certain about something, you have to put your faith somewhere. You choose to believe or disbelieve.
Two books that I would suggest:
Reflections of a Scientist by Henry Eyring (Hery B. Eyrings dad) – Awesome book on seeking truth
The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon by Brant A. Gardner – Awesome book on what kind of translation the Book of Mormon is.