Sunday, November 07, 2004

Scripture as Art: Reframing The Book Of Mormon

November 7, 2004

Since the "Galelio Event" of no Middle-Eastern genetic evidence in Native Americans, all those professing a belief in the Book of Mormon - and its claim that modern-day Native Amercans are descended from Lamantes - have had to come to terms with this evidence and find some way to explain the Book of Mormon's histocracy.

A recent issue of Sunstone was devoted to the exploration of the idea of "reframing" the Book of Mormon. Those with long-held beliefs in the literalness of the book are looking for ways to square the evidence with their belief.

To lay the issue out for examination, here are a couple of excerpts from that issue. First, from Brent Metcalfe, one of the co-editors of American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, in which the article by Thomas Murphy recently laid out the DNA case. (Mr. Murphy, a member of the LDS Church, was called in for LDS Church discipline as a result of the article but the church quickly backed off when publicity around the article and disciplinary actions began to look as punishment for being a scientist.)

"We are witnessing the reinvention of the Book of Mormon - not by skeptical critics, but by believing apologists. Most Mormons likely believe what the Book of Mormon introduction teaches - that "the Lamanites ... are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." They hold this belief oblivious to the fact that over the last few decades LDS scholars at Brigham Young University and elsewhere have substantially altered this traditional view.

Findings from multidisciplinary studies of the Book of Mormon have increasingly led LDS scholars to shrink and di­lute the book's American Israelite (or Amerisraelite) popula­tion. Apologetic scholars now recognizez that Book of Mormon events could not have spanned North, Central, and South America, and (2) that modern Amerindians are predom­inately of East Asian ancestry. Confirmation of both acknowl­edgments is found in analyses that establish an Asian, not Middle Eastern, genetic signature for the overwhelming ma­jority of Amerindians.BYU geneticist Michael Whiting stip­ulates, a hemispheric colonization model for the Book of Mormon "is indeed incorrect" and "appears falsified by current genetic evidence."

Many LDS apologists envision the Book of Mormon's founding Israelite colonists as a small group who interacted in varying degrees with the vast indigenous populations of Mesoamerica. In time, sustained widespread exogamy with these "others" effectively extinguished the Israelites' unique Middle Eastern genetic signature. Accordingly, Lamanites and Nephites are defined by something other than Israelite an­cestry. Such theories turn traditional understandings of Book of Mormon lands and peoples, including Joseph Smith's reve­lations, on their head. While perhaps affording revisionist Book of Mormon studies a veneer of scientific respectability, these apologetic ef­forts to reinvent Lamanite identity face some formidable chal­lenges..."

Trent Stephens, professor of anatomy and embryology at Idaho State University and co-author of Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding set up the situation this way:

"The Book of Mormon purports to present a history of three major groups of people who migrated to the Americas from the Middle East. The first group, the Jaredites, apparently annihilated itself. The second group split into the Nephites and Lamanites. The third group, the Mulekites, merged with the Nephites. Shortly after his mission in the Middle East, the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to descendants of those people. As a result of Christ's teachings, the people became united into one group. Eventually a division again occurred, and a group referred to as Lamanites (unbelievers) split from those referred to as Nephites (believers). Ultimately, the Lamanites destroyed the Nephites and remained as the only representatives of Middle Eastern colonization in the New World.

In contrast to this account, data from numerous molecular population genetic studies suggest that the ancestors of extant Native Americans came from Siberia. No genetic evidence specifically supports the hypothesis that Native Americans descended from Middle Eastern populations. Furthermore, there is little reason to assume that additional data will reverse the current conclusions. In light of these data and conclusions, which challenge the keystone of our faith, many Latter Saints and other interested people may ask, 'Now what? How do we deal with this new information?' Some have referred this quandary as a 'Galileo Event.'

The nature of a sound scientific hypothesis is that it can be easily tested by observation or experimentation and that tests can invalidate the hypothesis. A good scientific hypothesis relevant to the topic at hand might state that all living Native Americans descended from Middle Eastern populations. Such a hypothesis could be tested by comparing genetic markers in Native American populations to markers from Middle Eastern populations. Such a test has never actually been rigorously conducted because such a scientific hypothesis has never been advanced. Rather, an alternative hypothesis has been advanced. That hypothesis is that all living Native Americans descended from Asian populations. The test of that hypothesis, comparing genetic markers from extant Native American populations to those of extant Asian populations, has been repeated many times and supports the stated hypothesis. The most parsimonious conclusion resulting from the test of that hypothesis is that alternative, competing hypotheses, such as one proposing a Middle Eastern origin of Native Americans, are rejected by the data.

Now what? What is one to do with these results, which cast doubt on the authenticity of The Book of Mormon? The implications may be numerous. Most of them, not being based on the formulation of testable hypotheses, fall outside the realm of scientific investigation. In light of the Book of Mormon story, people might react to the data concerning Native American origins in four different ways:

• One - The data refute the historic authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Therefore, belief in the book is unfounded and should be abandoned.

• Two - The data may be ignored. In spite of the data, people may continue to believe that the Book of Mormon is true and that all pre-Columbian Native Americans were descended from people of Middle Eastern descent.

• Three - People may take a wait-and-see attitude. Future data may exonerate their belief that the Book of Mormon is true and that all pre-Columbian Native Americans were descended from Middle Eastern populations.

• Four - The Book of Mormon story is still true. However; the data refute the notion that all pre-Columbian Native Americans were descended from people of Middle Eastern descent. Middle Eastern colonization in the Americas may have been very small compared to the remainder of the population, and, as a result of two major bottleneck events, no genetic evidence of a Middle Eastern origin is present in the extant population, nor is such evidence likely to be forthcoming.

None of those four postures constitute a scientific hypothesis: none of them can be tested by experimentation or observation. Rather, because the implications are beyond the scope of physical science, they fall into the realm of metaphysics. Metaphysical debates are of the nature to continue, without satisfactory conclusion, for centuries or even millennia. The debate resulting from the apparent conflict between the Book of Mormon story and the genetic data is likely to be one such contest."

May I suggest a fifth option? One that Reform Mormons will find in line with their approach to scripture?

Five - The evidence is likely correct. The events in the Book of Mormon never occurred. Many of the claims the book makes about itself are incorrect. It is full of errors, fiction, and fantasy. It is a myth. It's a story designed to play a role in one's belief structure, not to be a history as those in the past have categorized it and some in the present continue to position it. If that role is one of literal truth, the Book of Mormon will likely fail you. If that role is the role of the power of myth, one can find - indeed, many have found - inspiration in the Book of Mormon.

Reform Mormons recognize that all scripture was written by human beings. It is therefore a man-made or woman-made object - a created thing. Does that object contain inspiration? Does any created object contain inspiration? You be the judge. We view writing that is inspired to be "scripture" - which means many other writings may "speak" more loudly to a Reform Mormon than the Book of Mormon, and play the role of "scripture" in their lives than does the Book of Mormon.

Whether or not the book is a literal history is a ridiculous discussion. Reform Mormons don't need to engage in it since we don't connect the idea of its "truthfullness" to the idea that we belong to "the one true church." These concepts mean little or nothing to us, because they're quite useless.

What does mean something? Learning to recognize inspiration in writing, and allowing it to mean something to you that is emotional, satisfying, and more than just the sum of the words. Learning to evaluate and incorporate new facts, not just find ways around them or dismiss them. Learning to create our own writing, explanation, and definitions of what currently has impact in our lives, rather than adopting someone elses's outside system of what should matter. Learning to be free agents.

This is how we learn to progress and grow. Scripture plays a role in this. It is not, to us, a "foundation." We are the foundation. Scripture merely allows us to see ourselves differently, to understand ourselves better, to observe areas of potential growth, and - at its best - to learn to connect to a deeper part of ourselves and confront the veil. This view of ourselves is clouded at best and completely inaccurate at worst if we adopt other people's insistence upon - or perspectives of - literalness.

Please share your thoughts on the Book of Mormon, and its role as a myth, on the Reform Mormon Discussion Group.

American Apocrapha and Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding can be purchased from Signature Books.

Sunstone offers, amongst other things, symposia and a magazine.