Richard Bushman did an interesting interview with Gina Colvin on the Thoughtful Faith podcast on the topic of Book of Mormon translation, as he’s getting ready to present on the subject at the Faith Matters conference on Book of Mormon translation Thursday March 16 at Utah State University.
Anytime you get to listen to Richard Bushman talk on LDS historical issues, it’s worth a listen, but there are a few especially good quotes here I wanted to document for discussion.
Joseph Smith is not doing translation like anyone else does translation. He’s not learned. He doesn’t know the language. He’s not turning one sentence in one language into a sentence in another. He’s doing something entirely different. The perplexing thing is why he insists on the word translation. Which he does! He says he translated the book of Mormon, he translated the Book of Moses, he translated the Bible. He translated the book of Abraham. He uses the same word that is used to describe the King James version. This word is not just a handy title for what he is doing. Further he elevates translation into a holy calling it’s the one of the highest gifts of God. So it becomes a religious office. And so rather than letting go if it, he makes so much of it, which only intensifies the problem of what is going on.
Gina: Is the use of the word translation problematic?
Yes. Why does he use a word that means one thing ordinarily to us and actually he’s doing something quite different from the ordinary meaning? I think the intent of the papers at the conference will be to elaborate other possibilities. Because translation does have other meanings. It’s not just passage from one line to another. It’s translation into another sphere or into another world.
On the issue of historical vs inspired but non-historical?
There are people like myself who are committed to the idea of inspiration, that this is a work of God. But I think that little by little those who want to preserve that key element will be able to talk to people who are just trying to figure out what the whole thing means. I frankly think that the effort to prove or disprove historical authenticity is not going anywhere. It’s a moot question. You can make a case that there’s so much of the 19th century in this book he must’ve just been absorbed in his culture and writing it down. At the same time you can say that’s as miraculous as having it come from God. The book is so complex, so difficult, filled with so many themes, how does Joseph Smith possibly gather all that stuff together and write it up? So you can go either way on the question. And I don’t think that that’s really the interesting debate any longer.
A belief in the Book of Mormon as non-historical but inspired is just as powerful as a belief in the Book of Mormon as historical. I love Bushman’s take on this, how he gives some more context to the non-historical but faithful view. The book is complex. It is filled with so many themes. It has transformative power for millions. It so masterfully embeds the answers to all the great 19th century Christian debates, all interwoven into a narrative. It need not be historical to be miraculous and be deemed to have come from God.
On the subject of people finding out about church historical issues and getting troubled and leaving the church.
I think of that as a generational problem. It’s because the church is going through this transition from a protective history to a transparent history where we really are making effort now to face up to the problems that are happening. Officially, in the Joseph Smith Papers and practically, in the Gospel Topics Essays and in the way kids are being taught in seminary and institute. So that the shock and disillusionment that so many people of the most recent generation felt when they discovered things that never known before and the anger they feel they were deceived all their lives, I think that will dissipate… I think that will seem outdated and a little naive in another 10 or 15 years.
On how important is to teach this reconstructed faith narrative that feels so difficult to many of us:
Gina: (discussing impact of Rough Stone Rolling) How do you deal with those twin issues of “Yay! Someone is actually speaking this thing with integrity” and others who are like “I’ve been deceived.” As the author of that? How do you deal with that?
RB: Well I do hear people who read the book and it really shook their testimony and they leave the church and I hear other stories of people who could not believe the church and then read the book and join. So it cuts both ways. For a long time, we felt we had to protect the naive and innocent. That we just could not give them the whole story and really make their lives miserable. But I think we’ve learned we can’t do that because hiding the truth we pay a terrible price down the line as young people come along and discover things and are hurt. Even though I am sympathetic to those who are disturbed, but I’d say that’s just the price to be paid to protect the rising generation.
I’m a father of five. I love my kids, and I love this church. This statement by Bushman inspires me to do what I can do to protect the rising generation.
What is so hard about this transition? The unsanitized version of church history and scripture brings with it questions about certainty and exclusivity. Faith becomes actual faith instead of the affirmation of a listed set of creeds and claims. But the core value of it remains: a place to worship God, a community of worshipers where we serve and are served, and a work to do as one of God’s called and chosen people. The Latter-day Saint Body of Christ.
Recently in my stake, a local leader said the following in a meeting:
Think of our Solar System. Everything rotates around the sun. Compare that to your testimony. What is the center of it? What is the core of it, that everything rotates around? What do we teach our kids and how do they look at that? If we asked them, what is that core to you? Would they answer something like “it’s that I know the church is true”? That phrase is not meaningful to me. Do we even know what that means when we say it? Whatever it means, it seems it falls apart pretty quickly in the face of some of the information they find out about the church online. Things like: Brigham Young said some incredibly racist things. Or that: Joseph Smith sent a man on a mission and then married his wife while he was gone. Our children are going online and reading all of this and more. If that core is “I know the church is true”, that’s going to crumble quickly and we’ll lose them. But what if we teach them to put in the middle of that testimony, as our sun, as the core that we put at the center, that everything else rotates. What if we put Jesus Christ there. I want to pattern my life after Him. And this church is a place that helps me do that. That’s not something that will crumble so easy.
I posted that, and most of the comments turned in the direction that this means religions is not necessary. I disagree completely. The Mormon church is precisely the key factor in my life and the lives of my children helping us understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and supporting us in how to live it on a daily-weekly basis.
Richard Bushman sees this as a 10-15 year struggle. It will be a tough road, and some will fall out of the church due to the shock of it, but in order to protect the rising generation, it’s work we must do.