Not a Model, But a Map…and then a Territory:
The Book of Mormon, Pragmatically Read as a Creative Agent
NOTE: The following longish essay presupposes the theory of translation discussed in the Appendix to The Abridging Works, and discusses the “translation text,” not the “translated text,” when speaking of the Book of Mormon or the “BoM”
Part Two (Read Part One Here)
In the “Last Exhortation of Moroni” (Book of Moroni, chapter 10 in the LDS 1981 edition), the man writes at last with a free hand, “somewhat as seemeth me good,” to “my brethren, the Lamanites.” It contains perhaps the most pointed-to passage of the BoM, for here seems to be prescribed a way to know the truth of his writings. It is assumed, obviously, that the plates won’t be available for checking the translation thereof. (But even if we had the plates, and translated the characters, one might ask, would we have anything other than an account, written by someone? Would it have any greater authority than other translations of ancient records so easily rendered dubious by terms like apocrypha and pseudepigrapha?) Thus the reader faces a problem: yes, but is it true?
We could not, I suppose, check the histories told against other records, nor use any of the ordinary methods so useful for deciding a true from a false report. We’d face the problem the bible poses, in short, and risk a turn to Fundamentalism. The BoM, however, is a singular text, and that makes the BoM, as it currently stands, something from which analogies cannot be drawn, except with greatest care: it is not a model for other books. That is, no other extant book can ask you to ask God whether it is true, without also attempting to do what the BoM proposes. So, the prescribed method of this singular text alone relies on the humblest of epistemologies: Ask God.
Again, Not a Model: This method of asking apparently applies only to this translation text, and should not be used for other texts. Not even the Bible. The BoM differs, for reasons I shall explain in this essay. A history, say, of Mormonism, or of the French Revolution, or a biography of George W. Bush, or a Ensign essay, should be discernable as true or false using tried-and-true methods of analysis, critical reading, and cross-checking. But the BoM as it currently stands is a singular thing (though, this is a temporary situation, as I argue later), and so proposes we ask God. On with the essay, then?
An easy thing, seemingly, for investigators to read over, and put into action. Just ask.
Yet, the prescription is a difficult one for English readers to parse, given its train of presupposition: “Behold, I would exhort you [current reader] that when ye shall read these things,” that is, “these records,” or, what is before the translator (see NOTE above). And, “if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them [“these things”], that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the Children of Men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.”
Now, what is that “it” standing for? “How merciful the Lord hath been,” and not “these things,” which are but a partial account of that “it”. Which is to say, two things: first, Moroni again assumes we have an account of the Creation on down to the time of the tower, as he does in Ether. This passage gives us some clue as to the content of the Book of Lehi, but only in the most general terms. It may be that Genesis isn’t the correct version, after all. And, secondly, the reader is now part of the “it”: part of “these things” which manifest how merciful the Lord hath been, now, to you. The reader is written into the text via pronouns, even as Joseph the son of Joseph would be. Written in as a word that means what it means (i.e., addressee) only in relation to the “I” of the author-speaker, and his “these things” which tell of “it”. All clear?
Let’s continue with Moroni’s method of creating a reader in a textual imaginary populated with gods, Egypto-Jewish-Indians, you, it, I, ye, and Liahona: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” Clearly, “these things” refers to “these records” which represent a few of the merciful works of God. The same god will then answer the question, “Are these things not true?” evidencing again his great mercy. Now, what does this essay suggest that differs from other readings?
It is important that the translation text gives us to ask “not true,” for we are to seemingly risk encountering the bitter, before knowing the good. Not true? No. Um…True? Yes. If only it was that simple.
Yet the reader through dialogue with the translation text ventures into dialogue with God (as Givens discusses, though his (ab)use of Bakhtin’s “dialogicality” should not escape criticism in Mormon Studies). The beings are mediated by the page, literally. The text creates persons: the reader (pronominal place-holder “you”), Moroni, God, and so on; and threads them together via the Word, formed into interrogatives and declaratives.
That is, the approach to the BoM I advocate, through this and other essays, is to study how the text creates things, persons, and other texts; rather than study what is presupposed as already existing, by way of nouns found in the text (cities, artifacts, mountains, persons, horses). Because it creates, and promises to create even more things, it cannot be read in a way one reads other scriptures, books, histories, and so on. Why study the creative work? Let’s look at alternatives, first.
The “presupposition” path leads investigators into inventing “quasi-texts,” interpretations which are bound up with other texts like archaeology journals, commentaries, stele, and the like. One goes about looking among dead things for a fit to the presupposed thing (Lo, there be a horse!), and trots it out before non-critical audiences of non-specialized Mormon readers (under the guise of defending the faith). These quasi-texts, as I’ve argued, fill out a translated text mentioned by the translation text, and by so confusing the Order of Things, quasi-texts open the BoM to criticism from specialists it need not endure. Our attempts to prove the BoM in this manner reveal a taint of arrogating to ourselves the role of the Holy Ghost.
Similarly, classifying the text as a kind of thing similar to other texts in scholarly genres (e.g., apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, fiction) doesn’t give us any insight into the text’s creative work; but rather, such classifying places the BoM inside a scholarly tradition which says to the non-initiates, “hands off! That’s a foreign name!” This approach may provide a respectable base of operations for Mormon Studies, but cannot seriously do other than guess at genres; genres invented in order to provide scholars space to investigate (i.e., read inside a theory) a text without encroaching upon the turf of believers, and without suffering the suspicion of peers that they too might actually believe. These terms are agnosticizing, and that process has a function, surely. Just not in the BoM.
What I advocate, and attempt here, is to study how the BoM makes new things; that is, I offer what one might call a “pragmatico-poetic literary criticism,” a name ugly enough to be safe from decontextualization (to borrow from Peirce’s “kidnappers” duly scared away from pragmaticism); safe, if not free of the mockery of fools.
So, what the BoM translation text proposes is to open the reader to sources which tell not only about all things, but also the “truth of all things.” Those sources could be “revelation” or visions and the like, but could be something else; say, other texts. Moroni’s epistemology (the text’s pragmatic aim) grows from knowing the truth about “these things” into knowing “the truth of all things,” now by the “power of the Holy Ghost.” So far, so good. Thus we come to the Map’s edge.
Moroni doesn’t say what the effect of the Holy Ghost would be, doesn’t give directions for finding an example of the Holy Ghost manifesting the truth to some inquirer. Some might regard the witness of the Holy Ghost as this sort of thing, some may define it as that sort of thing. Moroni seems to leave the effect of the Holy Ghost undefined. Or does he?
Mormon culture has filled in the signs by which one might decide the truth of the book, namely, some sort of individual, non-public feeling or something. Descriptions from our quasi-texts are more or less driven by the economy of converts in the mission field; and thus, the simplest and most punctuated, individual, text-independent experience is what we’ve arrived at, in our drive for efficiency and measuring convert-to-missionary ratio. This literary figure called Moroni follows his declaration that the truth of the book can be known, however, with this (translated) passage:
“And whatsoever thing is good, is just and true. Wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is. And ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost! Wherefore, I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God! For he worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men, the same today and tomorrow, and forever.”
Given that the Holy Ghost probably won’t show up to one’s book club, Moroni gives us a simpler option: if the book acknowledges Christ, it must be good. If you deny not Christ, you must be not evil. Right? Before we get to truth, we can at least agree on Good. This is a matter of content, pure and simple; and probably could be agreed on, even by some atheists.
But Moroni doesn’t let us rest on Good-because-of-content. The text never rests, but seeks to cultivate a new world, just as the New Testament attempts, like all myth, a Creation by giving us a story of Jesus. Where the translation text begins it work, of course, is in a world of unbelief; where Gentiles scattered Lamanites, and none doeth good; and, worse, in burned over frontiers where “A bible! A bible!” is the refrain and lament of the proud, devout, and unbelieving alike. Here is the initial challenge.
The BoM practices a creative art, one that just happens to be in textual form. It must make believers of unbelievers, and do this translation of beings under the cover of Grace, rather than by relying on all the compelling proofs we’ve come to rely on for other texts. It begins with Good, and uses this term of ethics and of art to move the reader into viewing the terrain of the believer. So it is that Moroni recites the familiar (but often ignored) Gifts of the Spirit, which, “never will be done away! Even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the Children of Men.”
So, what is the text getting at? It provides commentary on itself, in a sense, on its own capacity to take a reader from unbelief to belief. Here the Map suggests a meta-map for becoming itself a territory. Why should we be enticed by the Land of Fae and Phantasm, a place which the BoM suggests we might inhabit? Men can shape the power and work of God in our world. They (we) can limit the Gifts, or we can open our world to those gifts, and to that power. It is by “faith” that such things are done, of course. So, what is “faith” referring to here?
Tests and Faith
I’ll not claim that the word “faith” means the same thing, every time it is written, in this or any other book. But in this passage, we can arrive at a pragmatic definition of faith as something like, “the means by which Men limit or expand the power of God, as far as the world given to Men is concerned, at least.” It is our right to act as gods, briefly, as upon a stage. This definition of faith works well with the discussion of “faith” conducted by Moroni in his abridged history of the Jaredites. It also works well with D&C 121, which makes it clear that Heaven does not exercise unrighteous dominion over Men, but rather moves us through persuasion, long-suffering, kindness, and so on. Thus, faith must be found among Men before certain gifts can be received; for Heaven to do otherwise would be an exercise in unrighteous dominion. It is unrighteous because this dominion was given to Men, as a place of testing; a sort of Potemkin kingdom where the image can be translated into the thing, for good and for evil.
This “faith” then, describes the pragmatic “engine” of the translation text’s creative work: the translation of Map to Territory. Faith can convert a notion into realities, where God may or may not bestow gifts. Or, as the New Testament reports, As a man thinketh, so shall he be.
By following this reading, we arrive at this: One might define the Holy Ghost’s manifestation as “whatever you’d like to define it as, but be clear, please.” So, feelings are fine, so long as the reader comes up with that definition, and not the person looking over the shoulder of the reader-investigator. Indeed, we will be taught according to our language, according to our understanding, which rule I assume means, “according to however we are apt to be taught, by whatever means necessary.” So, if a reader decides that the BoM can only be verified by a feeling given some name, then I suppose that is the “faith” which will limit and open the power of God. Limit, because such things as feelings are not really convincing to others; open, because feelings are often convincing to the feeler.
But such a definition does not come without effects. A charismatic authority figure can emerge wholly convinced and ready to convert by word or by sword. And this is no way to build a civilized community, except in so far as we can impose our reading of our feelings on others. But, then, do we use the same method when deciding laws, economies, curricula? The word for such a thing is cult, not culture and community. So far, thankfully, Mormonism remains but a religion, one whose adherents rely on non-Mormon political, economic, and cultural authorities and practices.
And yet, that is not Zion, either. Zion requires, at least initially, a public sphere; not powerful individuals, mystical feelings, secret ordinations and the like. How can the BoM create Zion, rather than personal feelings? The approach to the BoM I’m trying to outline here may sketch out the contours of that public sphere from which a community can emerge. A community which has no need for the scripting of correlation, and neither relies on the patronizing lifestyle-identity politics which briefly bind non-believers into “open communities” (actually, markets is the correct word).
So, we can define the witness of the Holy Ghost according to our understanding. A reader may thus decide that the only serious test of the BoM translation text, the only test that is satisfying, is that it says something about what will happen; and then, indeed, something like the predicted event does indeed seem to happen. Then we have the operation of “faith.” But let us stretch the text’s predictions. This sort of faith can create more elaborate trials for the Holy Ghost, if that deity is to confirm to Moroni’s promise. There is no need to tempt God, of course, by tossing ourselves from the highest steeple. But there is also no reason to bore God with simple games and easy tests. Any spirit can generate, if only briefly, a feeling in you, excepting, perhaps, what is meant by “love” or “peace”.
Indeed, let us imagine that there is no pure, single channel of communication, and you can see the virtue of a public proof. Even Joseph Smith was fooled into advising a group to sled into Canada and sell the copyright of the BoM, and another to wander over to Boston looking for bags of gold in old houses. No single channel is pure, but perhaps many witnesses, independent, public, legally and scientifically valid, spread across time, could provide a sure proof. Such a proof would ground a community in both the “secular” and “spiritual” worlds: Zion.
A test which confirms to secular reasoning (science, art and the like) would simultaneously undercut the hope of the next secretly ordained Prophet-Seer to lead his pure people into Zion; and also be a rather efficient conversion tool. What was once simply “religious” would thus become secular too, a grafting which seems necessary before any theodemocratic, communistic and wholly priestless (thank god!) New Jerusalem might emerge. This sort of test is closer to that sort familiar to scientists and the like: make a prediction about a thing, and set up a laboratory to see if that prediction is not true. If done according to certain norms, the guess/prediction becomes a hypothesis, a stop on its way to being a thesis. The test must falsify, and what isn’t falsified, can be regarded as provisionally true (hence, science has “theories” rather than eternal truths, but “theories” obviously differ from opinions, notions, beliefs, superstitions, and the like, which are not, in principle, falsifiable; but don’t ask a Creationist to explain the difference).
One would not expect the Mormons of 1830 to devise a test of the BoM that assumes our scientific method, for obvious reasons. A man’s word (or three men, or eight) was apparently good enough for readers back then (the word “probable” originally meant “on good authority”; viz., “probity”); add to that the genre and stylistic aping of the KJV, and the Holy Ghost seems to have convinced many thousands with only these few token “proofs.”
What about now? Visual evidence is too easily faked. Eye-witness testimony? Right. Lie-detectors? Ha, ha, ha.
Priestly authority? Not again. Because it works for me? Fine, but whatever. No, the BoM demands a proof, a real proof of the sort we demand of scientists, prosecutors, journalists, teachers, and the like.
That Mormons in 2011 have not come up with anything more sophisticated than Martin-Harris-Said-So, and I-believe-it-is-so is, let’s be honest, an appalling thing. Perhaps it is one reason why we remains accursed (according to D&C 84). To not “take lightly” the BoM is to subject it to the most rigorous of tests, I think Nibley once wrote, tests as we understand them. But Nibley didn’t give us any proofs, so much as boxes of things which might fit the translated text, which we don’t have. So we devised quasi-texts, and that was a foolish, circularly-reasoned, thing.
So, what sorts of tests could really prove the BoM is a translation of a true record? Literary figures and “Hebraisms” offer no proof, because (but not only because) there isn’t a contrastive literary figure or device which would be definitive proof that it isn’t “Hebrew,” but instead a purely modern American text. We have a translation text that comes after the KJV, and that fact cannot be altered.
What about archaeology and stuff, doesn’t that test the BoM, and hasn’t it come up short (or hasn’t it performed astonishingly well)? (Depends on the person asked.) No, those may provide tests of the translated text, which we don’t have. As well one might test the spectrum of light without using a prism, and find that white light doesn’t break into colors; but only because we use a wooden block for our prism. Moreover, because we are dealing with a translation text, we have no reason to assume that the name “Nephi” actually named anybody in 600 BC, anymore than calling someone “Jesus” in 20 AD would get you very much nearer the god now called by that name. So, discovering on a rock an arrangement of ancient characters into “L’H’” is no more proof than it is that one finds an arrow head, because the Lamanites surely used them. (The name is in the bible, and so, the translator could’ve simply stolen it from there.)
What would be proof? One would need to find a match to an absolutely unique thing in the translation text, one assuredly translated to an exceedingly high degree of fidelity, and yet also translatable by non-Mormons, unknowingly, in a way that definitively, after peer review, conformed to that unique thing. Such individual things are not what archaeology is designed to find, and proving the BoM is not what non-Mormon archaeologists are pleased to do. I can think of nothing from the translation text which would meet these criteria, and no artifact other than a road sign that says, “Zarahemla Next Left,” or perhaps a doormat that welcomes you to Moroni’s home.
As argued in other essays, Archaeology cannot by digging up anything, prove anything about an absent translation text; not yet. And it isn’t a matter solved by more digging. Such recourses to particular results of quasi-science don’t test the translation text, so much as test one’s quasi-text (e.g., Lamanites are Mayan), made to stand in for the absent translated text. A block in place of a prism. And so far, the results from tests of our quasi-texts should not encourage future makers of quasi-texts. Let us stick to what we have, blocks; and yet be not so pleased that we do not seek for prisms to test.
What do I propose?
The translation text makes claims about what will happen after it is published. It makes predictions about public events, claims which are testable. Now, we don’t have a deadline for when those predictions are to come about or finally to be discarded. So we operate on “faith” of the sort more familiar to Christians: believing in something not yet real, or not real enough to register in our dulled senses and technologies. We are scientists waiting on lab results, and our graduate students can’t give us a firm deadline on when they’ll get around to giving us these results. As Milton says, they serve also who only stand and wait.
Moroni is translated as rendering this kind of faith/belief with the word “Hope,” which also leads him to argue that there must be “charity,” of course. Why charity? You, dear reader, cannot be saved in the Kingdom of God unless there is charity. Charity from whom? From the King, of course, which may be shown you, if you have charity for others. As below, so above, to reverse an ancient rule of thumb.
So: Faith to make a story for the Holy Ghost to inhabit alongside us; hope that the story is good; and charity to fix the plot problems and errors in our hypotheses. Moroni operates in the same way as he advises his readers, if the translation text can be believed. Let’s see if it works.
Back to the Exhortation
After this seemingly simple discussion of ethics and epistemology, Moroni addresses “all the ends of the earth!” The message is more dire, now; for unbelief may cause the gifts and power of God to be “done away among you.” If that happens, God will show the truth of the writings of Moroni as you stand before the bar of God; when it is, perhaps, a bit late to capitalize upon. The text makes this promise, which, of course, can’t be tested by our current technologies; so, what else?
The Exhortation concludes with a plea to come unto Christ, be perfected in him, and love God. Oh, is that all? Well, if you love God with all your might, mind and strength, “then is his grace sufficient for you! That by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.”
So, why should we love God? That is, What is the text attempting? A sort of vicarious redemption, as once the Protestant bible long ago promised to do. Here is the transubstantiation from map to territory. The BoM is the literary equivalent of the Redeemer; it gives hope. It teaches of Christ (somewhat), but more importantly, acts in a literary way as Christ would act, and pragmatically achieves what he would, were our hearts not so far from his. Moroni explains this process in that discourse on faith, found in his “Abridged History of the Jaredites.” His concern that the Gentiles will mock at his words meets Christ’s reply that he gives men weaknesses so they can be made humble; and humbled at his feet, Gentiles and others are made strong. Finding himself humbled, Moroni continues to plead for the Gentiles, that the Lord “would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity.” “If they have not charity,” the Lord replies, “it mattereth not to thee.” So the book is like a condemned man bearing the cross timber, stumbling toward ignominy, easy to mock. But if a Gentile has charity (received as a grace freely given) for the text’s weakness, and for the men and women figured therein, and takes up the cross; then he or she may receive the same, from the god that stands behind the book, for we are all condemned men. It is our hope, though, which finds in the condemned man our Redeemer. That complex substitution is the translation, or literary transubstantiation, which the BoM achieves.
The translation text (more so, before the Book of Lehi was lost) gave us an account of the mercy of God for all Men, including You, from Creation until that book opened before your eyes. And by so rendering, one’s heart might just turn back to God, being rendered by this limited narrative of mercy and love. But we are readers, and the BoM a text. The book, however, attempts to translate readers into the sanctified, when the text steps back and reveals its Author. This is its pragmatic work of creation. But it, the book, is not Christ, anymore than the wafer or the bread is Our Lord; and it gives only the blurred image of Him.
Yet that is why it is first given to the Gentiles, for whom the image is the thing, the representation also the thing represented. In their confusion of translation text for translation text, actors for persons, the name “Christ” for the anointed one, the trademark of a church for The Church; in their peculiar weakness for confounding models with realities, maps with territories, a strange magic begins to swirl about the Gentile globe. An imagined thing becomes what is imagined, and the map is transmuted into the territory. When that concludes, the House of Israel at last awakens, and realizes it needs a new place to gather together. A few gentile squatters will be invited to come along, too.
Now, the old question: Is the story true? Maybe that question is not so different from the first question asked to Adam by the Devil: But is it art? The art of the tale makes it easier to believe, even when we lack all the other props for belief (e.g., archaeological evidence). We are free to believe, or not; for the Day of Grace remains, and the sun hasn’t yet set, nor the night come upon us. The Fullness of the Gentiles is not yet waxed full, indeed; for we have not yet subjected the translation text to our juries, to our methods of verification. It cannot be rejected until then. Ignored, but not rejected until submitted to our Pilates and Caiaphases. Somethings can be true before being True, however, for some things are made first in Grace, and for the time of testing and day of probation.
What to Look For
The BoM predicts certain things, and the most important of which, for both the increase of knowledge, and for the evidencing of the truth of the BoM, are those books mentioned in the translation text: the Sealed Record containing Moroni’s Reformed Egyptian translation of the Brother of Jared’s record; the Brass Plates written in Egyptian, said to contain the mysteries of God, records of Adam and of Eve, books of Moses, and so on (not to be confused with the representation of these things, as found in the Gentiles’ “Old Testament”); the Plates of Nephi with all the sayings of the Resurrected Lord, composed in either Egyptian or Reformed Egyptian. Maybe Mormon’s Abridging Plates, and even the lost 116 pages. And, let me be clear: I doubt by “Egyptian” the translation text means anything like the referent of our word “Egyptian,” but that guess remains to be falsified.
But these promised texts do not in themselves, even when found, prove anything. If the Brass Plates are supposed to come out, then, I suppose, something written on something like brass will come out. How will we know it as “The Brass Plates,” rather than as a set of plates of brass-like material, with characters from an unknown language, or from Egyptian (whatever that means)? If written in familiar Egyptian, then Egyptologists could translate. But then the argument about whether these are “The” brass plates, or something like them, is not resolved. Nothing is proved in the translation, except that another account of Creation exists. So?
No Egyptologist would give us the name “Lehi” in a translation, no matter what. What about the content? But what if the content is contrary to our received notions, taken from the Old Testament? You see how difficult it will be to prove even to Mormons that some plates are the same plates mentioned in the translation text? The content plus characters, like spirit and flesh, must work together, with the translation. That means, I suppose, that the “Egyptian” of The Brass Plates isn’t the Egyptian now studied in elite academies. What about the Sealed Portion? Written in Reformed Egyptian, we’d require a seer to translate, and that brings us back to square one, it seems.
Now, are we back to magic stones, and unverifiable translations? Perhaps, but not if we include the other records promised to come forth, which may do so in exactly, and in the only way, that would indisputably prove the truth of the translation text, and of the translated text (as an abridgment of the Plates of Nephi). I submit that when all are set out, the translations of scholars will agree with scientific evidence taken from forensic science, and that the content will be seen by all as confirming what Moroni says. Anything short of this leaves me under Grace, knowing only that the BoM is not not true.
It also seems likely, moreover, that a textual tradition outside that familiar to Mormons will be brought in, as a “control” which in concert with the texts predicted in the BoM, confirms to all capable of persuasion by scientific evidence, textual proof, history, and logic, that indeed Joseph Smith was no ordinary magician. More than Mormons must be saved, of course. But that day of proof will end the Day of Grace, and the Fullness of Gentiles will be indeed full. Night will descend, when no labor can be performed.
What would we need, for such a proof? Answers to such a question may go some way to relieving us of the charge of taking lightly the Book of Mormon. Such a proof is akin to the Sphinx’s riddle, but that is what we must devise as an act of creative, rather than merely referential, faith. It is a show of “faith” to come up with just such a story, and a pragmatico-poetic literary criticism may help us identify how this text, in particular, creates new things; for such a reading is akin to venturing into a literary world. When we set about attempting to create a world where the BoM is proven true, according to our language, and our understanding, the text can give flesh to our imaginings, just as it gives pronouns to readers for stepping into the tale.
Of course, the easiest, and least interesting, solution is that the Prophet will just come out with the next revelation-text, and we can all begin ignoring it just as soon as the new manuals are left home, or somewhere, by the second week of January.