I planned to attend the Friday session of FairMormon Conference 2016, just as I had for Sunstone the week before and compare the two experiences. I wasn’t able to attend live, but I was able to follow most of the day’s presentations through the live streaming.
I watched one of Thursday’s presentations. Royal Skousen and Stan Carmack on their BOM text research. I’m a little bit obsessed with Royal Skousen and this theory. I’ve attended presentations in person a couple times on this topic and watched every youtube video I can find. The idea behind this research is that the “bad” grammar in the BOM, especially the original manuscript, is not bad grammar but actually Old English grammar that correlates very appropriately in usage and distribution to Old English in the early 1600’s.
They have hinted at the theory behind this. That a committee translated the BOM, most likely in the Spirit World, most likely involving William Tyndale, and that the translation was a very loose translation, incorporating phrases, ideas, and expansions from that time period. Then the text was “managed/massaged” from that time to the time Joseph received it, with words and phrases tweaked so that it would be well received in the 19th century. And then the translation was given word for word to Joseph through the seer stone. I have gone back and forth between being very impressed by the thoroughness of their research and quality of their presentations to sheer exasperation by the craziness of the theory. I find it much more plausible that someone in the 19th century was trying to mimic Old English than a native Old English speaker in the 1600’s authored or translated the book.
This presentation, they took a (much needed) turn by disavowing anything about a committee or Tyndale or any theory on HOW or WHY the translation was made mostly in Old English with pieces of 19th century English. Skousen said this in the Q/A portion which I strongly, strongly agree with, in regards to complexity in the BOM text related to quoting the KJV. This complexity is part of why BOM origins feels like one of the big mysteries of the world to me.
There’s another more interesting part that needs to be considered about the King James Bible, there’s all this phraseology in the Book of Mormon text which is sort of taken from different parts in a given passage, just woven together, it isn’t like somebody is taking something like looking at Hebrews and I’m going to make a little midrash on Hebrews and make a little comment and throw it in the text, it’s just phraseology that just happens to show up in Hebrews, and it is being used in a way that’s different than it’s being used in Hebrews, then there’s something from Exodus in that same passage, a little phrase, and it’s woven, and it’s like somebody that’s translating this knows that King James text so well and it can just use it. It isn’t like Joseph Smith spending all night whipping through his Bible looking at this and that and putting it together.
OK, on to Friday.
I missed Ben McGuire’s presentation and only caught the very end of Kathryn Shirts on “Finding Language to Talk about Women and Priesthood.” I really want to watch the presentation, because she was fabulous in the Q/A. She had a great answer to the question of how do we talk to local members and priesthood leaders who are not giving women the opportunities they should be getting. Someone asked that horrible, patronizing question “Do women not have the priesthood because they already have the characteristics they need, and since men don’t have natural nurturing characteristics, they need the priesthood to help them?” She shot that down saying on the flip side, there are traditionally male characteristics like assertiveness and speaking and leading in a powerful way, and those are characteristics females could gain through practice with the same opportunities. I hope the videos are put up online quickly, because that one, and the one the night before by Alie Isom, are two I want to watch. I did catch this very cool picture of Leah Dunford Widstoe, one of the early Mormon women leaders, doing chemical research at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, 1896.
Mark Wright got up briefly and gave a plea to end the Mopologist on Mopologist violence between the Mesoamerica gang and the Heartland gang.
Grant Hardy gave a presentation titled “More Effective Apologetics,” which was the highlight of the day and probably the year of Mormon Apologetics for me. Last year’s highlight for me was Richard Bushman’s podcast with Bill Reel and this talk had the same level of enlightenment and insight. I plan to do a deeper dive into this when it comes online.
He called on LDS Apologists to be more polite, more humble, less certain of our history and doctrine, to better utilize non-LDS Bible scholars. He praised the Maxwell Institute podcast series and work by the new wave of LDS scholars like Adam Miller. He gave this great quote: “If you yourself have never had doubts, or if you are perfectly content with the church as it is today, you are probably not well suited for apologetics.” For the Q/A portion, he skipped the cards and directed his comment at one question he said came in on the internet the night before. I knew he was addressing these threads which I posted on, here and here which led some exMormon scholars to theorize (improperly) that Grant accepts the “inspired fiction” theory of the BOM.
Hardy gave a few descriptions of the “inspired fiction” model (while stating directly that he does not agree—he believes the book is historical) and said:
The question can be: Can faith in the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction be a saving faith? And I think the answer is: Absolutely! At the judgement bar, if you were to say to God, “I couldn’t quite make sense of the Book of Mormon as an ancient American codex, given the available evidence, but I loved that book, I heard your voice in that book. I tried to live as best I could my whole life according to the precepts of that book,” I believe God will say well done thou good and faithful servant.
I got very emotional at this moment. This is very personal to me. This isn’t some intellectual idea outside of me to analyze and pick at like some game. This church means more to me than almost anything else in this life. When Grant said that, I felt like he was speaking for me and to me. I think those very likely could be words I would say at the judgement bar. The Exmormon atheists will tell me it was confirmation bias, but I’d like to believe it was the Holy Ghost confirming what he said was true. Thank you, Brother Hardy.
Patrick Mason on “The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age“. As high as Grant Hardy set the bar, Patrick Mason was right there with him. He talked about how so many are stumbling in their faith and how can help. One issue is that we as a church may have “loaded too much in the truth cart.” We say we do not believe in prophetic infallibility. But then we act and speak like we’re only giving lip service to this notion. “We should understand what it means to sustain a prophet that we know will be wrong on occasion.” We want certainty about religion, similar to how we want certainty in scientific and historical. But this is impossible. We should be more humble about our scriptures, doctrine, and history.
Addressing the CES Letter, he said in a way he agrees with it. The Mormonism that the CES Letter is responding to is unstainable. “But that’s not the only Mormonism, it’s not my Mormonism, and I don’t think it’s the Mormonism that will endure into future decades and centuries.” We can’t blame the doubters for not believing enough. We encourage members to have faith crisis when we teach too simplistic of a gospel and an idealized view of prophets, church history and scripture.
Ralph Hancock then spoke out against what he perceives as the dangers of modern secularism. I first met Ralph Hancock when our BYU football and basketball season tickets were close together. While I was jumping out of my seat cheering for BYU greats like Luke Staley and Jimmer Fredette, I would look over and see Ralph with his head down buried in a book. So, I was not surprised to see him grumpily attack some of my favorite Mormon voices like Blair Hodges, Craig Harline, and Adam Miller. I think Ralph made several very good theoretical points about secularism and the concept of absolute good and evil, but then I think he did a very poor job of pointing out real world examples of these.
Brian Stubbs then presented on his research correlating Uto-Aztecan and Semite languages. I love geeky research related to the BOM, so this was interesting. Brian has a humble background as a retired schoolteacher in Blanding, Utah. But he is making huge claims: that Native American languages have Israelite foundations—even that he can trace the difference between the Mulekites geographical influence and the Lehite influence. These extraordinary claims demand peer review, but there seems to be no one capable or interested in reviewing. Very interesting work, and I look forward to hearing more on this.
Dan Peterson ended the conference with a presentation where he used the logic-tree concept to illustrate his belief in Joseph Smith. He put up a graphic like this. A. Joseph had no plates >> A1 He knew he had them >> pious fraud or cynical fraud A2 He thought he had plates >> delirious. B. Joseph had plates >> B1. Joseph made them. B2. Someone else made them. B2a Oliver or someone else made them: conspiracy B2b Angel gave them to him.
He went through the various options and gave the evidence and his opinions on why each explanation seems to fail. Which leaves us to the most obvious and simple explanation: it happened exactly as he said it did. I feel it’s more complex than that kind of a black and white process. In the Q/A, he was asked about Ann Taves’ work on a nuanced view of Joseph, (I expanded on her theory here). I would have liked to hear a longer treatment of that kind of nuanced view.
Dan Peterson has grown on me over the years. When I first started going through faith crisis ten years ago, I would post on message forums on apologetic topics, and I thought Dan Peterson and a few like him were mean, nasty bullies. At the time, interactions with them seemed to turn me against the church and the apologetic defenses of it. But I’ve gained some humility since then. And I think Dr. Peterson has too. I now find him a bit charming.
In all, it was a great day following these talks. Compared to the Sunstone talks the week before, I felt a little more at home with the FairMormon Conference. In terms of exactly where I’m at with belief, there was a lot of crossover. Some of FairMormon was too literal for me. Some of Sunstone was too negative for me. But in terms of where my heart and commitment is, I’m more aligned with the FairMormon presenters.