Behind the Mask, Behind the Curtain: Uncovering the Illusion
A Review of The Bible vs. the Book of Mormon
|This review is also available on the FARMS Web site. It will be available in the upcoming FARMS Review, as well.|
Magicians are illusionists who entertain with wonderful things that appear real. Of course their craft is not real magic any more than the Wizard of Oz was more than a man behind a curtain. It is masterful illusion, the art of misdirection, a play upon our credulity. A magician lures us into believing we have seen something that is not really there.
Living Hope Ministries has produced a film entitled The Bible vs. the Book of Mormon that performs magic tricks with ideas. It slickly demonstrates its points with the classic techniques of misdirection, unexamined assumptions, and hidden information. In technique and effect, the film is the analog of a magic show. One can watch it and actually believe that one has seen something, although that is not in reality what happened.
Not that long ago a few television specials took a different tack on magic shows. Rather than celebrate the illusion, they showed the reality behind the curtains. It seems appropriate to use that model as I examine The Bible vs. the Book of Mormon. When we see how the magician performed the trick, it does not seem nearly so impressive. In this case, the illusion is that the film is based on scholarship. Unmasked, the film is far from scholarly–it is empty propaganda.
The film is separated into several segments. To help those who might like to follow along, I will divide this review into the film’s segments and discuss them in order. For each segment I will present Living Hope’s illusion, and then I will unmask it.
The Illusion: The main question of the introduction echoes throughout the film: “Is the Book of Mormon comparable to the Bible?” The film carefully creates a contrast between a believable Bible and an unbelievable Book of Mormon.
The Unmasking: The film clearly intends to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon and the Bible are not comparable by taking a very critical view of the Book of Mormon while presenting the Bible as though it generated no controversy at all. This approach is a fundamental misrepresentation of the scholarly climate for both the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
William G. Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, believes that the Bible is historical. Nevertheless, he notes:
The “archaeological revolution” in biblical studies confidently predicted by [George E.] Wright and his teacher, the legendary William Foxwell Albright, had come about by the 1980s, but not entirely in the positive way that they had expected. Many of the “central events” as narrated in the Hebrew Bible turn out not to be historically verifiable (i.e., not “true”) at all.1
Despite the above quotation, the “truth” of the Bible is obtained by faith and revelation, whether it is historically verifiable or not. By ignoring the questions that are currently asked of the Bible, the film creates the illusion that the Bible is unassaulted and unassailable but that the Book of Mormon suffers from questions on every front. The reality is that the Bible must also stand before modern scholarship and answer serious questions. In that respect, the Bible and the Book of Mormon are quite comparable. Hard questions may be asked of each, and in the end, the answers, not the questions, are important. In this film, the viewer never even sees the questions directed at the Bible. For the Book of Mormon, they never see the answers.
The Story of the Bible; The Story of the Book of Mormon
The Illusion: The film provides an outline of the stories found in the Bible and declares these stories to be historical. The Book of Mormon is presented as a work that merely claims to be history.
The Unmasking: The illusion of these two segments is subtle. While ostensibly simply setting the stage, the film portrays a Bible that can be easily confirmed as historical and a Book of Mormon for which no authentication can be found.
For the Book of Mormon, the misdirection comes in the way the story is presented. Viewers are told that the Bible is a historical account of the Old World and that the Book of Mormon is a historical account of the Americas. This subtle illusion depends upon viewer predispositions. Viewers who are familiar with the Bible know it took place in a specific location in the Old World. Hearing that the book is a historical account of the Old World, they immediately think of a small area between the ancient cultures of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon and do not conclude that the Bible is a history of the entire Old World.
This contrasts with the illusion created when the Book of Mormon is mentioned. The film portrays it as a “historical account of the Americas.” Lacking any similar limiting preknowledge of the Book of Mormon, a viewer may easily suppose that this means the entire Western Hemisphere. Indeed, many (probably most) Latter-day Saints may have supposed that for a number of years. The film plays upon existing assumptions without calling attention to what the producers do not want the viewer to see, creating a powerful illusion. In this case, the illusionists do not want to deal with the best Latter-day Saint scholarship on the Book of Mormon.
That body of scholarship, which has been growing in volume and sophistication of method and detail for at least the last forty years (and presaged for perhaps one hundred years before that),2 is completely ignored in the film. In exactly those places in which a scholarly presentation would discuss the best contrary evidence, this film opts for the propaganda technique of ignoring anything that does not support its thesis.
There are only two possible explanations for interpreting this remarkable lack of scholarly honesty. Either every person appearing in the film is unaware of that body of scholarship, or withholding that information is intentional. While the first could well be true for some of the experts in the film (particularly the archaeologists in Israel), it is extremely doubtful for others. Thomas W. Murphy (who has a PhD in anthropology), for example, appears as one of the primary experts in the film. He recently published an article in which he addresses some of the issues he so carefully ignores in this film.3 Murphy is obviously aware of Latter-day Saint scholarship that presents a different side to the issues he discusses, yet he gives no indication of that awareness at any point in this film. The film’s producers and editors should have had access to relevant information from Murphy that should have been presented. One must conclude that this magician knows more than he wants the audience to see.
The Illusion: The film shows a number of modern signs bearing the names of ancient locations. In addition to the names, the narration tells us that various mountains and rivers correspond to descriptions in the Bible. At this point, the film cuts to an expert witness. William E. Wilson,4 an erstwhile archaeologist who is described inaccurately as a Latter-day Saint,5 says: “There is no map showing Book of Mormon lands because they can’t place it on earth. They don’t know where it is.” Following this comment, the film cuts to pictures of maps of Book of Mormon lands, clearly none of which is a real-world map.
The Unmasking: The most favorable reading of this section has the makers of the film concentrating on the lack of an official declaration of the location of Book of Mormon lands. While the church clearly has no official position, that does not mean that “they don’t know where it is.” John E. Clark, who is both a Latter-day Saint and a frequently cited Mesoamerican archaeologist, notes in his article on geography for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: “Many scholars currently see northern Central America and southern Mexico (Mesoamerica) as the most likely location of the Book of Mormon lands. However, such views are private and do not represent an official position of the Church.”6 A statement of location that appears in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism may not be an official position (as Clark notes), but it certainly indicates at least a favorable consideration of the position. The statement is strong enough that the film should have addressed it explicitly.
Wilson and others imply that Latter-day Saint scholars “don’t know where it is.” Unless Wilson is oblivious of LDS scholarship (which would make him a poor “expert”), it is an intentional misstatement. Wilson’s statement is even more interesting because he performs a mind-reading trick, announcing a reason for the church’s lack of an official statement (when no explanation has been given). Since direct evidence contradicts Wilson’s assertion about the identification of a probable location for Book of Mormon events, we simply cannot believe his mind-reading trick either.
Nevertheless, in spite of the lack of explicit interaction with Latter-day Saint scholarship, the film’s editors appear to be aware of at least its general outlines, for they spend a good deal of time filming in Mesoamerica. The only reason for selecting that area of the world, the very area that Clark identified as the place where many Latter-day Saint scholars locate the Book of Mormon, would be to respond to the scholarship they pretend does not exist. The illusionists attempt to combat a position that they do not admit actually exists. The illusion is stronger because they make it appear that there is no contradictory in