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The Book Of Mormon -- Artifact Or Artifice?

If you attempted to produce something like the Book of Mormon today, using the best science fiction writers, fully aware of all that we know about the culture of Meso-America, fully aware of everything that we know about how you create a fake document, it would still be obvious, if not immediately, then within 15 or 20 years. The cultural assumptions behind the book would reveal themselves, showing clearly exactly when the book was really written. But the Book of Mormon has been around a lot longer than that, and believe me, folks, I really do understand a lot about how science fiction is made and I can't find anywhere that it's done wrong. Search all you like through that book. I have, and I can't find a flaw. Yet we should expect to find a consistent pattern of getting it wrong. Not just one example, but thousands of examples within a book that long, but -- they are not there.

This essay inadvertantly illustrates how impossible it is to prove or disprove the authenticity of a document based on internal evidence. When I read the Book of Mormon, it seemed to be quite transparently the invention of a 19th century Christian. But to a devout Mormon like Orson Scott Card, it sounds too good to be faked.

Arguments like the ones Card makes boil down to second-guessing the autor, trying to guess how well he should have been able to pull off a hoax and what a real document would look like. To every point that Card says "Joseph Smith ought to have made a mistake here, but he didn't," a skeptic can reply "well, if you noticed that, why couldn't Smith have noticed it and properly faked it?" (Many of Card's points seem to me to assume that Smith was unjustifiably naive about the universality of 19th century cultural norms, and the source for many of these supposedly impossibly alien ideas can be found right in the Bible, which a hoaxing Smith would have been consciously imitating.) And to every assertion of a mistake, Card could claim that it crept in through translation.

Of course, in the case of the Book of Mormon, there is plenty that can be verified by outside sources. Not a single bit of Israelite metalwork, architecture, livestock, or crops has been found in a pre-Colombian archaeological context, despite the supposed centuries of great Nephite and Lamanite populations in the New World.

Now, that may seem an unnecessarily harsh indictment of someone else's religion, especially given the scientific and archaeological impossibilities in the first dozen or so chapters of Genesis. But Scott gets to the heart of the matter at the end of his essay:

The Book of Mormon only matters because it's a life-changing book.

The truth, the important truth of the Book of Mormon is only understood with the Spirit through faith. If you don't believe in the book, it's not going to change your life. And I mean believe in it in a way far different from believing it's a genuine artifact. You have to believe in it also as something meant for you as a guide to your life. So, I have very little interest in attempting to prove the book. I haven't proven it here. The only real proof is when you prove it with your life, living the gospel it teaches and participating in the Church that was established with that book as the mortar holding it all together.

Whether a tradition is true or not isn't the issue. It's whether it gives you the vocabulary to express something more important than where the ancestors of the Native Americans came from.


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