Thank you and thank all of you for being here. It’s OK if you finish your lunch or even if you start it, because one of the advantages of coming to a lecture like this after lunch is that it’s a little bit easier to excuse yourself for falling to sleep.
This is a “BPP” presentation which is before PowerPoint, but I’m going to show a short clip. The title of my remarks today is “An Intentional Blindness: Seeing and Not Seeing the Book of Mormon,” which is a review of Earl Wunderli’s book on The Book of Mormon called, “The Book of Mormon: An Imperfect Book.” Anyway, there’s not sound with this clip because somehow the technology at some future time it will be possible to do both. But I’m going to be the voice explaining this short clip, “A Color Changing Card Trick.” So just watch this and I will try, at appropriate points, perhaps say something.
He’s explaining they are going to do a card trick having to do with the color of a card, blue or red. He’s going to ask her to pick a card. So she selects one and doesn’t let him see what it is. He’s going to take the deck back, showing it to you. Now she still has the card, she’s showing it to us. He hasn’t seen it. He’s going to put it in the deck. He’s going to pick it out showing to you that it’s blue while the rest of them are red. That’s the card trick. (This is not about the card trick.) There were four changes. How many changes did you spot? And now for the bigger picture. He’s now explaining this is what he was doing before. (Showing four changes of clothing and background that is completely missed by the viewers because they were concentrating on the trick.) That is the card trick. (For more quirky mind stuff, follow @RichardWiseman or www.RichardWiseman.com)
They say that seeing is believing, but someone else said, yes, and believing is also seeing. So let me talk about the Earl Wunderli’s book, “An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself” published by Signature Books last year.
Emerson said, “Tell me your sect and I’ll tell you your argument.” Having had a number of casual conversations with Earl Wunderli over the years about the Book of Mormon, I could have predicted the kind of study he had produced. I don’t say that in a pejorative or demeaning way, but rather to clarify that the different ways the two of us have approached the Book of Mormon give clues as to how differently we see and read, at least in some ways. Had someone asked me to describe Wunderli’s study before I read it, I would have said something like the following, “Earl is a smart guy and he’s very serious about the kind of research and analysis he does. My guess is that he has examined the Book of Mormon over a period of years with a sincere attempt to understand it or at least make a sincere attempt to get at the bottom of a number of questions he and others have raised about it. I predict that his conclusion will be that the book is not an ancient document, but rather was written by someone or several someones living in nineteenth century America.” That’s not a condemnation since it matches the point of view held by a number of scholars and lay readers. Frankly, I’m impressed with Earl’s thoroughness and the nearly exhaustive, if somewhat narrow, scope of his research. He seems to have read the Book of Mormon seriously and extensively and read voluminously on Book of Mormon criticism and commentary with what I consider some serious exceptions which I’ll share below or share later.
I would also have predicted that Earl would approach the book as if he were cross examining it and its defenders in a court of law. Like any good lawyer defending his client or arguing a case, he calls witnesses from both sides and engages in a sort of interrogation. Even though I think he’s been selective in his choice of witnesses, none of whom, of course, is in the courtroom to affirm or defend his or her scholarly writings. Again, this is not surprising since Wunderli has years of training and professional experience in the law. Judging from his thoroughness, I suspect he was a very good lawyer. But as every lawyer knows, in defending a client or a point of view, it is not requisite to give a balanced presentation – perhaps only the impression that you are trying to give such a presentation. That is, Wunderli is defending his client, himself and naturalist critics, and his primary motive is in making a convincing case. Again, this is not unlike all critics of the Book of Mormon who make a case.
Wunderli raises or repeats a number of important questions about the Book of Mormon, most of which those of us who have studied the book and followed the debate about its claims over the years are familiar. They include such things as the use of the King James Bible, internal stylistic consistency, geography, Egyptian and Hebraic influences, anachronisms, character development, scientific understanding of ancient and modern peoples, mythology, etc. Like almost everyone who approaches the Book of Mormon from a scholarly point of view, Wunderli sees himself and those who agree with him as being on the side of reason, science, and truth. Whereas those who see the text differently may find evidence of an ancient text composed by a disparate group of writers who may rely on spiritual as well as rational and scientific means to “sound” or understand the book, he sees them as unreasonable, unscientific, and inclined to believe in myths and falsehoods. As he states in his introduction, “Critics prefer evidence and reason over faith and prayer as a method for finding truth or testing truth.”
What Wunderli doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that there are scholars who don’t accept such a Manichean, epistemological divide in the approach to discovery. That is, some scholars, to use Lowell Bennion’s metaphor, try to carry water on both shoulders, those shoulders being faith and reason having a dialogue with one another. Studying, weighing, pondering, considering alternate and opposing views, and yes, also being open to intuitive and spiritual ways of knowing. The last approach does not invalidate or outweigh the others; rather, both are considered, at least by some, as legitimate avenues of inquiry and exploration. The scriptures suggest that we use both approaches. As in Isaiah, the Lord invites us to reason together with him. And Amos reminds us that there is a spirit in man and the inspiration of the Almighty gives him understanding.
A Jewish friend of mine last week was saying, (she’s a recent convert to the Church) and is finding somewhat of a cultural shock between Judaism and Mormon Christianity. I asked her to kind of explain the difference between what she said. She said, “I can tell you through this story: God created three beautiful vessels and he gave one to Satan, one to a Christian, and one to a Jew. He told each of them to destroy this vessel. Satan said, “Well, if God made it, it must be destroyed.” He threw it to the ground and it broke. The Christian said, “Well, if God said to do it, I should do what he says,” and threw to the ground and broke it. The Jew said – “Can we talk about this? Do you really want me to destroy this? Can we have a dialogue?”
I think that’s what God means when he asks, invites us to reason together with him. Amos reminds us that there is a spirit in man, and woman, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.
Based on my own experience I believe that those who use both of these approaches see differently from those who use only one. Wunderli’s “critics” may tend to miss the intuitive, poetic, and deep structural complexities of the text, whereas those who rely solely on the spirit are indifferent to any evidence, internal or external, that challenges their absolute conviction. They may not see all of the changes in the card trick. In my experience in reading the Book of Mormon and reading Book of Mormon scholarship, over the course of my lifetime, I don’t think it’s fair or helpful to stereotype those in either group or in any group for that matter.
Let me say a word about tone—this is a word that we have been reading about. One of the things that bothers me about reading Book of Mormon criticism or the controversial literature relating to Mormonism, it seems to me that there is a tendency for people to become angry and bitter and vituperative, to accuse people who don’t agree with them as somehow being either apostates or true believers, finding some pejorative term to stereotype them. As I said the other day to a friend, as I was listening to a podcast about Joseph Smith in which the person being interviewed said “Joseph Smith” and the interviewer said, “was a pedophile.” I said, “You can reduce anyone in the world to one word. But all the words in the world cannot adequately describe any person, including critics of the Book of Mormon and believers in, defenders of the Book of Mormon.”
So, Wunderli sees himself and his fellow critics as objectively examining a set of fixed facts. He says, “The value of internal evidence is that it is assessable and verifiable by anyone. It does not change and is fairly understandable.” Such internal evidence is set off against, “historical, linguistic, archeological and other external evidence which is incomplete, hard to assess, and difficult to understand.” He adds, “I wanted, as much as possible, to deal with the simple facts and what they meant.” I applaud Wunderli for wanting to focus on the internal evidence of the book – which I think is ultimately the place we have to focus on “the simple facts.” But as a long time student and scholar of the book, I find the facts anything but simple and the internal evidence anything but obvious.
In his poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins writes of trying to get his students to look deep into a poem and to unravel its revelations, something I’ve had a lifetime of experience with as a professor of literature. He says, “I ask them to take the poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide. Or press an ear against its hive. I say, drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for the light switch.” “But,” he laments, “All they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.”
That’s the impression I had with much of Wunderli’s examination of the facts and internal evidence of the Book of Mormon. In fact, early on, in speaking about the wish “to catalogue and compare every word and phrase used by every author,” (those are his words) he confesses, “This is as far as my imagination carried me.”
My friends, I think the greatest unused gift of the Spirit is the imagination. And it is a gift of the Spirit. God did not do anything before he first imagined it. The fact is, rationalist critics themselves must operate within the context of myth whether they recognize it or not. As Jack Whelan observes, “Rationalists are wrong if they think that they have no need of myth. If they think so they are almost certainly unconscious of the mythic structure that undergirds their world view. They think they are being rational when in fact all they have done is substitute a new mythic or idio-mythic narrative for an older one.”
At times Wunderli’s approach to the Book of Mormon reminds me of Gradgrind , the teacher in Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times,” who asks a student, girl number twenty, to give a definition of a horse. When she is unable to do so Gradgrind says, girl number twenty possessed of no facts of one of the commonest of animals. He then calls on another student, Bitzer, to do so. When Bitzer responds, “A horse is quadruped, granivorous, forty teeth, twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth and twelve incisive, sheds coat in spring, in marshy country sheds hoofs too, hooves hard but requiring to be shod with iron, age known by marks in mouth.” Gradgrind say triumphantly, “Now, girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”
As my BYU Bible as Literature teacher, Robert K. Thomas observed, “Bitzer would have given a better answer, but nevertheless failed Gradgrind’s expectations, if he had instead quoted from the Book of Job the following, “Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust striking terror with his proud snorting? He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. He does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against his side along with a flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds. At the blast of the trumpet he starts ‘Ha Ha’ and catches the scent of battle from afar, the shouts of the commanders and the battle cry.”
Another way of putting this is that I feel Wunderli’s approach seldom gets beyond the book’s details. He tends to skim along the surface of the narrative or stay in the rhetorical shallows. And at least in my reading, the text invites a deeper seeing, a more profound probing, a greater attention to its density, patterns, and complexities. That doesn’t by any means, imply that one should ignore facts, only that one should try to see through, beneath, and beyond them. That involves not simply managing the text, as it seems to me Wunderli does, but rather submitting to it. By that I don’t mean being seduced by the text, but rather, imaginatively and intuitively, as well as thoughtfully, engaging it and therefore being open to what is not obvious, what cannot be easily catalogued or put into lists.
Speaking of lists, Wunderli has four appendices devoted to them, “Names of deity and their derivatives of the Book of Mormon,” “Nephite, Jaredite, and Biblical names,” “Nephite and Jaredite names found in the Bible,” and “Possible derivation of names.” The cumulative effect of these lists is to make one wonder how Wunderli could have seen so much and missed so much.
It reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter,” one of Poe’s stories of ratiocination, that is, analytical thinking, in which the police systematically, but unsuccessfully search the residence of the prime suspect for a letter which he apparently has stolen from the royal apartments. Even when the reward is doubled, and another month of searching in all of the places that a thief might be expected to hide stolen property, they are unsuccessful. Finally the master detective, C. Auguste Dupin, reveals to the prefect of the Paris police that the letter has been hiding in plain sight all along. Thus focusing on the trees of individual lists of words, phrases, names etc., seems to prevent Wunderli from seeing the interpretive forest that comprises much of the Book of Mormon.
An example of something that is not easily seen in the Book of Mormon is the use of irony. In a paper I published on this subject I tried to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon contains numerous examples of rhetorical and dramatic irony similar to that found in the Bible and in other texts, ancient and modern. One example of what I consider a conscious and complex ironic composition is that found in 1 Nephi chapters 16 and 17. These chapters contain a sophisticated play on the words “to know,” showing how Nephi cleverly uses repetition of these words to turn the epistemological tables on his older brothers. It’s a brilliant tour de force, one that is all the more successful because Laman and Lemuel unknowingly set themselves up for it. As I summarize in my article, “Nephi uses the work know eleven times in these chapters, each to deliberate effect. Like many in the Book of Mormon, it foreshadows a later episode or episodes such as with the epistemological conflicts between Gideon and Nehor, Amulek and Zeezreom, and Alma and Amlici, all found in the Book of Alma.
The kinds of irony one finds in the Book of Mormon are not accidental, nor are they the kind that any writer might see or pull out of a hat. Rather, they require highly sophisticated compositional skills, skills that seem significantly beyond the literary capacity of Joseph Smith at the time he supposedly wrote the Book of Mormon. Such irony cannot be made up on the spot nor composed beforehand and dictated at will. It rather requires time and care and deliberation to produce. Also, it is not a figment of the critic’s imagination, but rather, demands some understanding of the nature of irony and experience in analyzing ironic texts. As Mormon scholar and specialist in irony Wayne Booth states, “Every good reader must be sensitive in detecting and reconstructing ironic meanings.”
Most people miss irony. Most people are not sophisticated in reading ironic texts, will skip over irony, because it is often very subtle and very imbedded within the text. Thus I conclude, “What Wunderli misses in his thorough and exhaustive discussion of the ‘facts,’ many of which are undisputed, is the ability to see the often intricate, complex, and highly sophisticated elements in the Book of Mormon, what the novelist Henry James calls “the figure in the carpet.”
Nevertheless, one has to be impressed by the extent of Wunderli’s decades-long study of the Book of Mormon. It says something about his seriousness that he did much of this before modern computer-based analytical tools were available. And some of Wunderli’s lists are hopeful and helpful in allowing us to see how such an approach to textual analysis opens us to see images, patterns, and apparent anomalies. What is lost in such details and technicalities however, is the meaning produced when these words are put back into their context with other words. That is, it is the rhetorical patterns, the styles, tones, images, symbols and other elements that make up the whole of the text, or segment of text, that ultimately show what it is possible to see.
A weakness of Wunderli’s approach is that it can lead the critic to over emphasize errors in the text while ignoring the substantial corresponding consistencies. For example, he refers more than once to Alma 51:26’s miss-identification of Nephihah as a city captured by the Lamanites, and the miss-attribution of the city of Mulek as being “in the land of Nephi.” These are mistakes in the Book of Mormon. But having identified these two, he ungenerously fails to mention anywhere, one, that these two errors are the only inconsistencies in over four hundred geographical references in the book – an astonishing feat for a written text let alone one that is dictated; and two, that both of these errors occur in a section of the Book of Mormon apparently compiled from primary source documents rather than from a previously composed narrative, that is, the kind of error more likely made by an editor, Mormon, than by an author.
Another shortcoming of Wunderli’s selective reading is his tendency to focus on individual words rather than on the deliberate longer allusions as evidenced by some combination of their explicit attribution, length, context, or clustered borrowing. That is, he focuses very narrowly. An example is Alma 36:22, in which Alma 36:22 quotes 1 Nephi 1:8, or Helaman 5:9 quoting Mosiah 3:17, something dictated before quoting something which is really dictated later. Wunderli also makes repeated mention of the Mosiah first translation theory, but only to buttress his claims for Joseph Smith as the sole author. And he never mentions it as a potential counter to this theory, as when narrators allude to source texts not yet quoted, I just alluded to. For example, Moroni at Ether 12:41 alluding to a phrase from his father’s epistle which does not occur until Moroni 9:26. Or the “curtain call” in Moroni 10, alluding in turn to the farewell comments of each of the small plates’ authors in 2 Nephi to Omni that had not yet been dictated.
In a session of a 2013 Sunstone Symposium dedicated to proving that Joseph Smith was the author of the Book of Mormon, as an audience member I made the following statement, “If Joseph Smith composed and then dictated the Book of Mormon, as he and other eye witnesses attest, and under circumstances that seem fairly firmly established, which you (I was speaking to the people putting this forward) seem not to question, then please explain how he did it. To dictate such a narrative hour after hour, periodically, over a three month period with frequent interruptions, personal crises, and abundant stressful episodes, and with no discernible manuscript, notes, or other means of assisting the process of amanuensis seems not merely superhuman, but humanly impossible.” At the very least, Joseph Smith’s critics must be compelled to agree that in the long history of narrative composition no one has accomplished such a task, and that includes from the Iliad and the Odyssey to the latest romance novel.
One could add, that while ancient poets memorized catalogues of formulae, formulaic passages they use for improvisational telling of such as epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey and Beowulf, and though some authors have used a process called automatic writing to dictate a wide variety of texts, there is no evidence, either, that Joseph Smith had the gift of voluminous memorization, especially dictate seamlessly over a period of months with numerous interruptions, or that his book was a product of automatic writing, as I tried to demonstrate in an article on the subject published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies years ago.
It is important to point out that Wunderli’s approach to the Book of Mormon does not differ in kind from that of some scholars on the other side of the ideological interpretive divide. That is, like Wunderli, some such scholars tend to also produce lists of minutia and technical elements in proving their points and they seem unable or unwilling to grant the legitimate problems with the text, or to be truly open to any evidence that challenges their axioms. And I say to people who, as I kind of am involved with people on both sides of this ideological critical divide, so I say to people who believe that the book was written by Joseph Smith, or Joseph Smith and somebody else, “What would you do if archaeologists were to discover metal plates that were considered authentic that had the names, Nephi, Moroni, and Korihor? What would you do with that information?” And then I’m quick to add, “What would I do if someone found a fifteenth century manuscript in the British Museum that also had those names?” Well, what I feel I would have to do to be as an intellectually honest and hopefully a responsible scholar, is to challenge my own assumptions or “question my questions” as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has said that we should do.
It isn’t unusual even in scientific circles for people to look and select evidence that validates their own conclusions or their own premises. For example, neurologists resisted the idea of the plasticity of the brain for decades even with the evidence staring them in the face, that the brain was plastic. That is also true of geologists and paleontologists who refused for decades to believe the fossil texts that proved that evolution was a natural process or that some animals had become extinct. As the novelist Barbara Kingsolver observes, “We take in evidence only from sources we trust, whether that’s Rush Limbaugh or NPR or a church pastor or a prophet.” By the way, I try to understand Mormon culture; when I come to Utah I try to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Shawn Hannity. “We make these sorts of animal decisions,” Kingsolver says, “about who’s on our team and then we pretty much believe what they say.”
My own personal view is that the greatest hindrance to reliable Book of Mormon scholarship has been the Latter-day Saint tendency to proof texting. And another has been the unavailability of a clear, readable text. That is, until Grant Hardy’s very useful “Reader’s Book of Mormon” published in 2005. Hardy certainly helped me to see the text without all of its encumbrances, glosses, footnotes, arbitrary verse divisions, etc. Until Hardy’s text was available I preferred Eldon Ricks’ wide margin edition, which was published in 1987, because it gave me space both to read and to take notes. When I first read Hardy’s text I felt as if I were reading the Book of Mormon for the first time. The most significant contribution of Hardy’s text is that it has rescued the history of the Book of Mormon peoples from what might be called “format captivity.”
I wish Wunderli had used Hardy’s text when he was preparing to write his book. But most of all, I wish he had read Hardy’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon,” a study I personally consider the most important and insightful book ever written on the Book of Mormon. It is puzzling why Wunderli doesn’t refer to Hardy at all given his rather exhaustive reading of Book of Mormon scholarship. “Understanding the Book of Mormon” was published in 2010, three years prior to Wunderli’s, so it seems there is no excuse for his having neglected so important a work of scholarship. Had Wunderli read Hardy it is unlikely that he would have come to some of the conclusions he does. For example, Wunderli argues that, “Because there are upwards of 960 words and word combinations shared by two or more Book of Mormon writers, the stamp of a single writer seems all but certain.” Later he argues, “The four major authors of the Book of Mormon are nearly indistinguishable from each other.” Hardy’s much deeper, more careful, and more precise analysis makes a convincing argument that there are three major narrators of the text, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni, and that each has a distinctively different style, a different narrative voice.
As Hardy writes, “Nephi’s favorite themes and primary literary techniques are not those of Mormon or Moroni, and Joseph Smith’s own opinion on such matters are perhaps still more difficult to ascertain whether one regards him as a translator or as an author who deserves a degree of separation from the inferred author[s] and narrators of his book. But the narrators are explicit, self-disclosing presences in the text in a way that Joseph Smith never is.” And again, I think if you just look at the challenge of Joseph Smith, and you buy the idea that Joseph Smith, as some people say, memorized the text somehow and then came and dictated it, he is dictating texts in different styles, and not only one, finishing one and starting another, and starting another, but that the style is interwoven in various parts of the Book of Mormon.
For all of Wunderli’s criticism of the Book of Mormon as being “imperfect,” the title of his book, his own study contains a number of mistakes and careless errors. Here are a few examples: Assertion 1) It is unclear why the Book of Mormon includes the book of Ether and the story of a people called the Jaredites. But, Mormon promises such a text in Mosiah 28:19. Second assertion: Defenders have argued that its message is that those who possess the promised land shall serve God or be swept off, but this does not explain why the later unrighteous Lamanites were not so removed.
Response: Samuel the Lamanite does explain the reason in Helaman 15:10-13.
Well, there are other imperfections and errors in Wunderli’s study. For example, he says Micah is an 8th century BCE prophet, no, he says is a “late Old Testament author,” when in fact he is an 8th century BCE prophet. Also in 2 Nephi 11:3, is not, as Wunderli asserts, about latter day witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Nephi, here is speaking explicitly of himself, Jacob, and Isaiah as being witnesses of Christ.
I point these out not to be a nitpicker and not to be mean spirited at all because, as I used to tell, I used to give my graduate students at UCLA an assignment: “Take a book, a scholarly book, written by any member of the English faculty, randomly select ten foot notes in a row and check them out. If you can find ten foot notes in a row by a member of this faculty that doesn’t contain an error, I’ll take you to dinner.” And I never had to buy dinner.
At other times Wunderli seems deliberately unfair to Joseph Smith. For example, in referring to his list of “curiosities” as thoughtless mistakes in an un-edited manuscript, Wunderli seems to forget, as he has observed earlier, that the Book of Mormon is, in fact, a dictated, and therefore, an un-edited text. If Wunderli had had decades to study, prepare for, to write and edit his book, as he did, and undoubtedly sent it out to other people who could vet it, and yet unable to avoid thoughtless mistakes, it seems a bit petty for him to speak of such mistakes in a volume dictated sporadically over a three month period by someone with far less education and written/oral experiences and skills than he has. Wunderli’s extensive reading of the critical literature should have let him see that in many instances he rejects the evidence of those who read the Book of Mormon differently from the way that he does. As with many areas of human inquiry, what one scholar finds convincing and even compelling, another dismisses as untrue or irrelevant.
In a way, this is what nearly all critics of the Book of Mormon, believers and non-believers, do. There are exceptions, thankfully, among whom are Grant and Heather Hardy. Of all virtues of Grant and Heather’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon”, the one I admire and appreciate most is their willingness to present the evidence and leave the ultimate decision as to the Book of Mormon’s provenance and authenticity to the reader, which, ultimately, it should be left to every reader. Thus, they provide both argument and counter argument showing that neither side of the interpretive divide is completely settled. That is, there is a tendency for people to say, “How can those people who believe that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon be such idiots?” And people on the other hand say, “How can the people who believe it’s an ancient text be such idiots?” Well, I contend that neither side is idiotic. Both sides have, what I think, given the premise of their world view and their approach, a legitimate reason for making the arguments that they do and that it doesn’t serve anyone well to accuse the other of stupidity or inauthenticity or hypocrisy or whatever else. That is, I believe that Adam Miller says that, “Theology should be constructed and thought and taught with charity.” I think the same thing is true of literary and textual criticism. Of course, Paul tells us, and Moroni says that charity never faileth.
I noticed an unexpected, and therefore surprising, shift in Wunderli’s tone from the introduction to the conclusion. In the beginning he sounds somewhat like an academic although he has an agenda, as all academics seem to. He seems to be striving for a fair, balanced, and respectful perspective. By the end of his book, however, he is more like a lawyer making a closing argument, a bit shrill in places, layering on the legal rhetoric, leading the jury to what he thinks they should see as an inevitable conclusion. As he goes along, Wunderli’s tone becomes both less neutral and less charitable. For example, his defenders at the beginning of his book become the more pejorative literalists at the end.
In conclusion, I appreciate Earl Wunderli’s attempt to come to terms with the Book of Mormon. In our discussions over the years I’ve found him to be a person of integrity. While I disagree with his basic approach to The Book of Mormon, and his critical modus operandi, I understand how he can come to the conclusions he does; that is, the agnostic position, which is his position, is not a mindless way of viewing the world and legalistic, rationalistic criticism is defensible within the contexts and confines it defines for itself. Any work of scholarship that make me think and causes me to challenge my own imperfect way of understanding The Book of Mormon is one that I can appreciate, even if it is imperfect, as Earl Wunderli’s is, and as are all of the studies, including the ones that I have done that have been written, or will yet be written on this remarkable book. Thank You.
Questions to Gospel Answers
Q. Could you summarize Wunderli’s assessment of chiastic structures in The Book of Mormon and please comment on his assessment?
A. Wunderli, Vogel, and other critics of The Book of Mormon think that there are two arguments for chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, from their point of view. One is, the Bible is full of it and Joseph Smith was steeped in the Bible. The Bible was the most ubiquitous book on the frontier. Joseph Smith learned it at his parents’ knees and if you listen to enough Bible, which has a lot of chiastic structures, then you can incorporate that into writing. By the way, I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare for years and I haven’t been able to construct such a… The other argument that Wunderli makes is that you can find chiastic structures every place. Their argument is that Jack Welsh and others are simply imposing a chiastic structure on a text, and so they take other texts and they show how they are chiastic in their structure. You know, I think that’s a little bit disingenuous, myself as a literary critic, one who pays attention to such things as chiasmus, one who looks at patterns and looks at structure, to think that Joseph Smith, again, with his education and his experience… I have published an article called, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and the American Renaissance” in which I compare Joseph Smith to his illustrious contemporaries, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman, and I try to say – OK, let’s look at each of them in terms of their education, in terms of the culture, in terms of their family background, in terms of their writing experience and I have just written another kind of follow up to that, looking at each of these authors’ masterpieces. So I’m looking at Walden, I’m looking at Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Leaves of Grass, etc. and I’m saying – OK, when I look at when these books were published – by the way, those five books of those authors were all published within a five year period which is the American Renaissance, this great period right at the turn of the century – but as I look at each of those and then I look at The Book of Mormon and I see the years of preparation and years of writing and trying out that each of these writers had and their critical community that was able to give them feedback and the publishing they did – and then I look at Joseph Smith who had none of what they had prior to the dictation and publication of The Book of Mormon, then I think it’s not possible. So, is chiasmus like something you see or don’t see depending…? My own conviction is that it’s deeply imbedded in those scriptures, as it is in biblical texts, as it is in other ancient texts.
Q. What is Earl Wunderli’s background?
A. He’s an attorney. He is like many, or at least some of you, he’s an amateur student, has been for many years, an amateur student of the Book of Mormon. But I think he is a serious student of the Book of Mormon. He begins; however, part of my…Hugh Nibley said that if Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, that it was a greater miracle than if an angel delivered it to him. But I also hasten to point out that if you don’t believe in angels then you have to come to a conclusion that does not allow for that. It doesn’t mean that if you do believe in angels that you find the Book of Mormon a true text. It’s just saying that those are two different world views. But he’s an attorney. He’s retired now, and is still writing and speaking about Mormon subjects.
Q. As someone with extensive educational background, have you ever wondered why there are so few religious degrees offered here in Utah?
A. I teach at Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, and at the University of California, Berkley. I teach Mormonism at those institutions. I find it a wonderful experience to be in constant dialogue with Buddhists and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and an array of Christians. In my course at Berkley last fall I had Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, fundamentalist Christians, Catholics and we had a wonderful time exploring Mormonism. It’s a good question, whether or not there should be a place in Utah – in the meantime, and if you’re interested in studying religion you can come to Berkley. If you dare.