Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Surprise! Attacks in the Book of Mormon

Cross Posted at Wheat and Tares.

This is the 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.  The nation still mourns and Roosevelt correctly called it a day that will live in infamy. Given the sadness and anger over that attack, the lingering resentment and fallout over the preemptive Iraq War, and the foreign policy challenges ranging from a nuclear North Korea, and aggressive Russia, it is worth looking at what scriptures have to say on the matter.

I’ve written about this topic before. The way that nuclear warfare changes the modern nature of warfare is one of the reasons I started my blog over 8 years ago. At the very least I’m familiar with what Colin Gray called the “demonic” opposition to even supporting the practice. I’ve also contributed a chapter on the subject to the Greg Kofford volume on War and Peace, have a chapter on it in my first book, and discuss the topic in Decisive Battles in Chinese history. (Despite the rhetoric from China as a hapless victim of Western imperialism, since 1949 they have fought offensive, preemptive wars with every one of their neighbors.)  I think the discussion can move forward a good deal, and make judicious comparisons to the Pearl Harbor attack.

Decisive Battles


The current debate revolves around a handful of scriptures. Opponents of the practice add two scriptures to their anger.[1]  The chief captain Gidgiddoni said “the Lord forbid” in response to offensive action (3 Nephi 3:21). And Mormon was supposedly so disgusted with the Nephites desire for offensive warfare that he resigned his command (Mormon 3:11).  Yet, Gidgiddoni’s command is likely a strategic observation more than command from the Lord. He likely witnessed disastrous Nephite attempts to root out the robbers before (Helaman 11:25-28), and he used offensive actions as part of an overall defensive posture to maneuver and “cut off” the robbers (3 Nephi 4: 24, 26). Mormon moreover, attacked the Nephites bloodlust, vengeance and false oaths and not their strategic decisions (Mormon 3:9-10, 14).  Viewing the Nephites outside of the lens of Mormon’s spiritual denunciations a person sees that the Nephite soldiers actually performed with great skill and élan.  A few verses after their disastrous offensive they actually ended up at the same place as they started (Mormon 4:1, 8)!  Faced with endemic warfare against a stronger enemy, absent the Nephite’s blood lust and false oaths, this was actually their most justified preemptive action! Of course, none of this excuses their rape and cannibalism, but it does suggest we can assess the effectiveness of their strategy apart from their apostasy. In both cases then, the texts don’t say exactly what their proponents believe that they say.


Yet proponents of the practice face the same problems. Defenders of preemptive war and national security practitioners most commonly cite Moroni’s preemptive attack in support of preemptive war.[2] Though there are strong elements in Moroni’s past that support such behavior and even stronger negative consequences of this policy that remain unexamined. Moroni past includes the Amlicite invasion in the first few chapters of Alma. The Nephites barely held off the attack, but because of its defensive nature they fought at the time and place of the Lamanites (and their Almicite allies) choosing. Alma had to fight his way across the river and was wounded doing so. On top of that, the Nephite crops were destroyed resulting in near famine. Moroni clearly learned from the Amlicite war that aggressive preemptive action prevented disaster.

Since Cumorah 001
Since Cumorah tactical map of Alma 43.

As he prepared an ambush for Lamanite forces, Moroni “thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem” (Alma 43:30).  Moreover, Moroni preemptively “cut off” Amalickiah, based on the assumption that preventing his escape through military action would prevent a future war. As with his ambush and Zeniff’s scouting, this action is presented without editorial dissent, and it is instead given as part of Moroni’s stellar resume. In the same chapter that describes a period in their history that was “never happier,”[3] Moroni “cut off” the Lamanites living in the east and west wildernesses (Alma 50:11). This occurs during a time of supposed peace, but it could also be described as a lull or “cold war” between the First and Second Amalickiahite War.[4] And Duance Boyce created an entire just war theory out of Moroni’s preparations in Alma 48.[5]

While the text says that Moroni was making plans to secure the Nephites, a careful look at his behavior suggests that Moroni’s aggressive tactics contributed significantly to the start of the last phase of the war and even difficulties in the Book of Helaman. The arguments from the people speaking in towers for example (Alma 48:1), would have been much more effective as only slightly more sinister variations of what actually happened or was about to happen. This includes items such as the possible militarization of the vote (Alma 46:21), and the seizure of lands during what was nominally a time of peace, though it might be termed a lull in one long war (Alma 50:7).  Amalickiah would have presented the proposed action to the Lamanite king in the starkest terms. Then it when it actually happened and a flood of Lamanite refugees were entering Lamanite lands, Amalickiah’s position would have been strengthened a great deal.[6]

Unexamined verses:

Yet the debate can move even farther. In the Book of Omni the Nephites fled the Land of Nephi. A few verses later and within a short space of time, and then in greater detail in Zeniff’s record, the Nephites sent scouts to spy on the Lamanites, that they might “come upon and destroy them” (Mosiah 9:1).  This verse seems to strongly suggest that the Nephites had already committed to launch a sneak attack, and they simply were looking for the best location. Zeniff changed his mind after seeing what was good in the Lamanites, but with the benefit of hindsight he also admitted at least living among them was overzealous and naïve. The account might also suggests the entire story suggests a need to reassess his description of the other Nephite commander as blood thirsty and austere (Mosiah 9:2.) 

The main attractiveness of preemptive war is that a power can attack at the time and place of their choosing, instead of waiting for the enemy to choose the battlefield. This is usual for weaker enemies to surprise and stun their enemies, and also for powerful states to subdue a dangerous and rising power. The Nephites later had to fight the Lamanites when the latter power invaded, suggesting that the preemptive strategy had merits.

Shortly later Ammon recorded, using almost the same words as Zeniff, that the Nephites wanted to “take up arms” and destroy the Lamanites instead of send missionaries to them (Alma 26:25).  This repudiation and the fabulous success of his missionary work is commonly cited as repudiation of the supposedly war mongering tendencies.[7]

Yet there remain various unexamined items which undermine this interpretation. Brant Gardner and other scholars discussed how a new king had to legitimize his rule through the successful military campaigns that captured sacrifices, and the Lamanites needed a new king because both Lamoni and his father converted.[8]  The innocent victims in the city of Noah from the subsequent attack (Alma 16:3), and the innocent Nephite soldiers who died retrieving them suggest unexamined consequences of Ammon’s actions and an under appreciation of Nephite offensive plans (Alma 28).

The next examples are recorded in Helaman 1.  This chapter contains both the dangers against and motivation for using preemptive war.  The Nephites faced a serious challenge to leadership and executed somebody for being “about” flatter the people, which may have increased the feelings of social alienation and gave rise to social bandits who are romanticized as brave fighters by the people against a corrupt government.  But a few verses later the Lamanites, with both political and military positions filled by dissenters, captured Zarahemla in a quick strike and smite the Nephite chief judge against the wall. These verses provide an example of how the distinction between unrighteous and aggressive wars and increasingly justified preemptive wars is incredibly thin, and becomes thinner with the rise of modern technology.

I wrote down the same ideas many years ago, but I already transcribed the fellow published by Cambridge Press:
[W]hat is different today is the combination of speed and destructiveness; in the [1839] Caroline case a decision had to be taken very quickly by the man on the spot, but although the volunteers carried by the Caroline would have been a nuisance had they landed on the Canadian side of the river, they did not pose an existential threat to large numbers of civilians, or to the colony or...to Britain itself. The stakes today are potentially a great deal higher. 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 people and could easily have killed more; the use of some form of WMD could push the death toll much higher, and there is no reason to think that potential terrorists would be loath to cause such mayhem. The central point is that although "instant, overwhelming....[leaving] no time for deliberation" [the legal precedent established by the Caroline case] sound like absolute criteria they are in fact, and must be, relative terms- a second was, in practice, a meaningless unit of time in 1839, but in 2007, the average laptop can carry out a billion or more "instructions per second."[9]

The final result is something far more nuanced than a couple verses or stories favored by either side. Preemptive war was clearly on the minds of most Nephite leaders. Given how preemptive war fades into the background of both Zeniff and Captain Moroni’s actions, and the lack of clear denunciation of the practice, outside of the spiritual state of the participants, preemptive war is justified. But even though it can be used, the record of the text, and particularly the fallout from Captain Moroni’s changes, suggest that it was of extremely dubious value.
This last point is best application to the Pearl Harbor attack. The devastating Japanese attack seemed dastardly.  As I’ve written before, both the Japanese and Chinese have a history of using strategic surprise. After a surprise sneak attack to start the war against the Russians, the Japanese quickly ran out of steam before signing a favorable peace treaty. But in a long war they had little strategic vision beyond a quick strike. They gained a similar advantage against America, but they again showed they had little staying power.


Readers might be wondering why I could spend a significant amount of time on Pearl Harbor day justifying its use. After all, the dead in the USS Arizona still remain there as a reminder of the injustice. The practice can seem like a sucker punch, which is why America still remembers this day so poignantly. Yet Epaminondas and the 3rd century Thebans used the same strategy. Instead of living in infamy, they stopped the yearly invasions from Sparta. He struck at a surprising time and place to permanently alter the balance of power, and free thousands of helots living in near slavery.[10]  The practice of preemptive war is simply a tool of statecraft among many.   As you've heard in every lame lecture on pornography, tools can be used for varying purposes.  A sucker punch for one country can be another’s war of liberation. I mourn the fallen of Pearl Harbor and wish there could be a better discussion of the practice and application of scriptures.

[1] This is a representative example: Jeffrey Johanson, “Wars of Preemption Wars of Revenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol.35, no.3 (Fall 2002), 244-247. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N03_244.pdf
[2] Mark Henshaw, Valerie Hudson et. Al. “War and the Gospel: Perspectives from Latter day Saint National Security Practitioners,” Square Two, v.2 no.2 (Summer 2009.) http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHenshawNatSec.html
[3] Mormon said there “was never a happier time” during a lull in the war chapters (Alma 50:23). R. Douglas Phillips refers to it as a “golden age” in “Why is so much of the Book of Mormon Given Over to Military Accounts?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 27.
[4] Using the terminology of John Welch, “Why Study War in the Book of Mormon?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 6-15.
[5] Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed, chapter 15.
[6] I have significant additional research into the fallout from Captain Moroni’s decisions. It is available upon request in my new book length manuscript, Starving Widows and Evil Gangs: A Revisionist History of the Book of Mormon.
[7] Joshua Madsen, “A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015.) 24. “The mission of Ammon and his brothers to the Lamanites, specifically in defiance of Nephite cultural stereotypes, ultimately demonstrates that acts of love and service can break through false cultural narratives, unite kingdoms, and converts thousand to Christianity where violence could not…In the end, Nephite just wars did not bring peace, whereas those like Ammon who rejected their culture’s political narratives and hatred did.”
[8] Brant Gardner, “The Power of Context: Why Geography Matters,” Book of Mormon Archeological Forum, 2004.
[9] Chris Brown, “After ‘Caroline’: NSS 2002, practical judgement, and the politics and ethics of preemption,” in The Ethics of Preventive War, Deen K. Chatterjee ed., (Cambridge University Press: 2013), 34.
[10] Victor David Hanson, “Epaminondas the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 93-118.
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Monday, November 27, 2017

Decisive Battles in Chinese History

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book, Decisive Battles in Chinese history. The study of Chinese military history faces steep hurdles where English academics have to afford trips to far away archives, from Chinese cultural values and the way events were transmitted to the West. The first Westerners who had significant academic engagement in China were Jesuit missionaries, beginning in the sixteenth century. They interacted with Chinese elites who also disdained war and emphasized cultural values over military ones. The Jesuits sent back to the West the stories of Chinese civil virtue and martial impotence. (Ironically, Jesuit cannon making skills were among the most sought after technologies the Chinese wished to obtain.) Chinese scholars emphasized the strongly held cultural values that helped create the great dynasties and almost completely ignored the equally important role of warfare. From the first dynasty of China in 221 BC, civilian leaders exercised political dominance over the military. Though outranked by their civilian counterparts, the military men held great power, and it was the use or lack of military power that brought about the rise and fall of dynasties. It’s true that many Chinese leaders adopted passive or nonviolent ways to subdue their enemies, such as marriage proposals or generous trade agreements. But these were often done as a way to compensate for military weakness. During times of martial strength, Chinese leaders preferred pacification campaigns because they had the means to carry them out; during times of weakness, in contrast, they often adopted other methods. But it was the relative martial strength of the dynasty, its ability to project power, and other practical considerations that often determined strategy, not an overwhelming cultural preference for pacifism.[1]

Song Dynasty warship, 13th century. Notice the trebuchet on the roof. (All pictures used with permission.)
There are many books about major or decisive battles, but few have more than a handful of non-Western battles, nor do they examine the battles with the expertise of a Chinese military historian. If they do include non-Western battles, it is usually because of their association with (and defeat by) the West. In A History of War in 100 Battles, for example, only four battles do not have a European or American opponent, and only six are from the Southern Hemisphere.[2] Another book presented itself as the authoritative guide to battles in world history but didn’t include a single section devoted to Chinese history, the index did not include an entry on China, and the book contains only scant references to Japanese history.[3]

It is true that China entered a long period of military weakness at the same time the West was expanding its influence globally, and there are significant questions about its capabilities even today. But the picture is far more complicated than the West dominating and China trying to keep up. China has one of the oldest civilizations and has a claim to some of the longest continuous cultural traditions. It fielded armies as big as half a million soldiers during the Warring States period, or roughly the same time that Rome was little more than a collection of huts on a few hillsides. (See more about numbers and army sizes below.) China invented key technologies such as the crossbow and gunpowder. During a time when America was a small nation clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, China extended its rule over hundreds of thousands of square miles with hundreds of millions of people. It also has a history that seems almost cyclical at points, where a strong dynasty would eventually collapse, followed by a period of weakness and then consolidation and expansion under a new emperor. It had the singularly unfortunate timing to enter a period of weakness and fail to industrialize during a period of rapid change in the West. For example, at the start of the Opium War in 1839 (see chapter 10 of my book), the Chinese armies possessed fairly modern weapons and defensive fortifications but could not keep pace. The British fielded their first ironclad the very year the war started and had several other advantages that unfairly cast the Chinese as backward and hopelessly inferior.

Battle of Shanghai
Japanese soldiers entering the port of Ningbo during the Battle of Shanghai, 1937.

This book uses battles as a hook, and each chapter highlights an engaging battle that selectively focusing on unique Chinese characteristics including their major belief systems, ruling ideology, connection between technology and warfare, Chinese military theory, major political events and key rulers, their foreign policy with their neighbors, cultural developments, and their interaction with the West. The text pushes back on a variety of ideas and stereotypes ranging from the Chinese use of gunpowder, their supposedly weak reaction to the West, the viability of the Dynastic Cycle in studying history, the context of their military theory, the exclusivity of martial and cultural spheres,  and the uniqueness of Western imperialism.  It offers a groundbreaking reassessment of Mao Zedong’s leadership and his impact on the development of guerilla warfare. In world filled with disturbing reports of conflict and potential warfare, Decisive Battles in Chinese History offers a unique addition to students, historians, and anybody wishing to better understand Chinese history.

This is great but you might ask, what does this have to do with Mormonism? Truthfully, not a great deal. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean, when I get involved in Mormon discussions I feel a bit like Captain Barbosa.   I’m just a humble pirate or military historian. The intersection of my studies with Mormonism remains somewhat small. I mostly like to discuss military history, Mormon stances on warfare, and specialize in warfare in the Book of Mormon. But I’m also branching out as a thoughtful member of the church who is struggling with the standard Orthodox positions and I appreciate Wheat and Tares bringing me aboard.

That being said, there are still several intersections between Decisive Battles and Mormonism. The most ironic one comes from the charges of antagonistic Mormon critics. I have a book coming out that looks to be, if I can say so, quite good and successful. One of the chapters I presented in Kings College London, in front of Richard Overy (see footnote 2), to enthusiastic applause. But when I take the same skills, research, methodology, and apply them to the Book of Mormon suddenly I’m some Mopologist hack. In fact, I know that the critics tend to obsess over details and try to delegitimize scholars that sustain the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, so I tend to work even harder on my Mormon studies than my already successful writing career.

More substantively, I have an entire chapter that discusses numbers in Chinese history. The Battle of Fei River was, naturally, one of the most decisive battles in Chinese history. Fought in the late 4th century AD, a rising dynasty based in the north marched south to conquer the dynasty who fled there a century earlier. (I’m being somewhat brief here, but you can get the fun details in the book.) The battle was a loss for the north, and their empire quickly disintegrated, and resulted in the longest period of disunion in Chinese history. Not surprisingly, this is called the Period of Disunion and it’s roughly contemporaneous with the fall of the Roman Empire and early medieval history.
Northern Qi heavy cavalry from the 4th century AD. They were particularly unsuited to warfare in Southern China.
Reportedly, Fu Rong lost over 800,000 men in the Battle of Fei River, and this is the big intersection with the Book of Mormon. The numbers could either be correct or wrong, but either solution doesn’t present a problem for the text. Exaggerating the size of armies and numbers of the dead was often done for several reasons. Scribal error, the unreliability of eyewitness estimates, and the use of the wrong numbers to make a deliberate moral or political point were the primary factors. Ancient historians often wrote not to tell what happened but with a specific moral purpose. Hence, they didn’t have the same scruples about bending facts to fit their story.

In this case, one of two sources for the battle was written during a period in which the contemporary ruler planned a massive, large scale invasion of Korea, so Confucian historians likely massaged the numbers in order to dissuade the current emperor from his endeavors. The other source that records this battle was written by the southern dynasty that survived, and hence they also probably massaged the record to enhance the legitimacy of their rule.

Even though they were likely inflated or exaggerated, the numbers were still within the realm of possibility. While modern readers should have a healthy skepticism of numbers, the ancient Chinese could field and kill large armies. The War of the Eight Princes (also a chapter in my book), decimated the western Jin dynasty in ancient China; scholars argue that the Jin army had seven hundred thousand soldiers at the start of the war. The battles from this civil war raged across northern China for only about six years, and one ancient historian suggested that capital province had only 1 percent of its population survive the conflict. Modern historians posit that the powers in the Warring States period from almost a thousand years earlier could possibly field up to half a million men for one campaign. Historians will likely never know what the true numbers were. There is good evidence that the numbers in the Battle of Fei River were wildly inflated (but just as strong evidence to say that those numbers were still possible) and that they were overstated because of political and cultural factors. Whatever the size of the army, the effect is not in question as the northern dynasty quickly collapsed after their battlefield defeat.

12th century ink painting of the 3rd century Battle of Red Cliffs.
Careful readers will of course be reminded of supposedly ludicrous accounts of million man battles in the Book of Mormon. I’m giving you the short version because this post is already getting long, but as you can tell from the above discussion, this is a bread and butter topic for military historians. The first modern historian, Hans Delbruck, reassessed battle numbers in classic and medieval sources. When I say I take the same methods and techniques and apply it to the Book of Mormon this is exactly to what I’m referring. I have several chapters and blog posts that deal with this subject in great depth and I will probably detail them in future posts as they are predictably brought up by critics.

My answer to the question of wrong numbers in the Book of Mormon is the same as those for Fei River, the numbers could be right or wrong but the text is in good company either way. Suggesting they might be plausible, the Aztecs raised up to 400,000 men for routine campaigns, and the Toltecs reportedly lost millions in the course of a campaign. The Nephite and Jaredite numbers are well within historical norms, for the region. And the evidence of those battles remains as hard to find as other historical norms.  The archaeological evidence of battles is notoriously difficult to find because battles rarely produce permanent structures that remain to be studied hundreds or thousands of years later. And the most prominent and permanent features of warfare like walls are often mistaken for slight rises in the ground and often missed.  Yet critics of the Book of Mormon expect the evidence to look like Triceratops poop from Jurassic Park.

But let’s say the numbers are wrong. Brant Gardner has research that some battlefield numbers could be symbolic, and Mormon would have the same proclivities and tendencies as other ancient historians that had trouble counting large numbers or deliberately exaggerated to make a moral point.

More interestingly, there are additional avenues of approach in Book of Mormon that takes numbers as unit names and combines that with something called the military participation ratio to come up with a much smaller number. A century, centurion and myriad are two examples from Roman and Greek history that show how 100, one hundreth, or 10,000 might not refer to a number of people. The Roman century actually had 80 people by the late Roman Empire and that’s not including any sick, wounded, or desertions that likely would have made a number of soldiers in a century far lower than what the recorded that recorded the number of legions and centuries would have the reader believe. (As I discussed in my first book, the Theodosian Code allowed soldiers up to four years of leave without significant punishment, so this was not a random concern.)   Again, ancient historians did not have a golf clicker as an army walked by, but relied upon supposed eye witness accounts based on things like the number of banners, but not the exact troop strength of each unit marching under the banner.

The military participation ratio is the number of soldiers compared to the population that a society could field. 25% was the upper limits for any society and the normal about 15%. The final number at Cumorah was listed as 230,000 and 15% of that ratio is 35,000. That number is right in between the only two specific numbers listed earlier in the text: Mormon 2:9 (42,000) and 2:25 (30,000). (See Mormon 6:7 as well, which suggests women and children were in the order of battle and strengthens the idea that the final number is the total population.)  Just from a logistical point of view I have trouble believing Mormon started the war with 30,000 but at the end of that desperate war of survival 20 years later he had seven times that number. (Though Hugh Nibley suggested that’s because we are only getting one minor thread of their defeat personally witnessed by Mormon until the final gathering of the entire realm.) That being said, 23 unit names of 10,000 filled with only about 30,000 military aged males (calculated using the mpr) and civilians makes much more sense to this historian. This might open me up to charges of being a mental gymnast, yet I’ve seen the same arguments modifying the size of armies listed in ancient sources, done by first rate scholars in excellent journals, and they are published with a golf clap from the academic community.[4]

Thanks for reading this post. I hope you found it informative and have better insights into my background and what I bring to the study of scriptures.
  • What kind of discussions of Chinese topics would you like to see here?
  • What kind of subjects would you like to see concerning the Book of Mormon?
  • Why haven’t you pre ordered my book already? (Just kidding…mostly.)
  • Why is there a different perception between Mormon and non-Mormon research despite the same skills and methods being used? It can’t just the supposed begging the question of apologists, but I believe it’s a rather skilled campaign to delegitimize so called “faithful” research.
[Thank you for reading. I work as a free lance author and I'm struggling with medical bills. If you found value in this work please consider donating using one of the pay pal buttons at the bottom of the page.] 
For more pictures that didn't make it into the book please see my personal blog.
[1] A good book that shows how Chinese officials were far more practical and realistic in their war making than the stereotypical portraits painted of biased Confucian historians can be found in Peter Lorge ed., Debating War in Chinese History (London: Brill, 2013).
[2] Richard Overy, A History of War in 100 Battles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[3] Richard Holmes and Martin Evans, eds., A Guide to Battles: Decisive Conflicts in History (London: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[4] N. Whatley. "On the Possibility of Reconstructing the Battle of Marathon" N. Whatley, Journal of Hellenistic Studies 84.1 (1964):119-139.  Kelly DeVries. "The Use of Chronicles in Recreating Medieval Military History,” Journal of Medieval Military History, 2.1 (2004): 1-30.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

How Do You Read the Scriptures: A Case Study

There is a particularly evocative verse in the Book of Helaman, starting in chapter 10 it reads:

15 And it came to pass that when Nephi had declared unto them the word, behold, they did still harden their hearts and would not hearken unto his words; therefore they did revile against him, and did seek to lay their hands upon him that they might cast him into prison.
16 But behold, the power of God was with him, and they could not take him to cast him into prison, for he was taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them.
17 And it came to pass that thus he did go forth in the Spirit, from multitude to multitude, declaring the word of God, even until he had declared it unto them all, or sent it forth among all the people.

What makes it evocative for me is the multiple interpretations of this scripture that are possible. With an increasing discussion of good and bad apologetics, the release of the excellent Greg Kofford volume on the subject, (with accompanying drama) Andrew's excellent post, and the continuing debate over methods, this set of scriptures can act as a good case study in how you might read the scriptures.

What follows is a short list of how different readers my read the passage, including the one that most closely aligns with my view.  (There are certain limits and dangers in using labels, but as anybody who has ever tried to cook dinner after their child pulled off all the labels of their kitchen products, they still matter. If you have a better label please feel free to mention it in the comments below.)

Average Orthodox:

The text records exactly what happened in history. The Book of Mormon is the most correct book on this Earth. The people who read this way assume the text is what God wanted. People from this category in other religions would use the phrase “God Breathed” to describe the text without knowing much about its production history.

The person from this category would believe this event happened exactly as written. You could even write some sort of ad libbed homiletic commentary heard in Sunday School: Isn’t it (wonderful/amazing/) that (Deity) choose to (verb, double points for “show His love”) by (event just discussed in scripture.)

Critical historical:

This is a type of reading that accepts the Book of Mormon as historical. The Nephites and Lamanites existed in a time and place, but the text, like all historical documents shows the bias and weakness of the author.  Instead of assuming the characters behaved exactly as written, the figures were nuanced and real. This means the Nephites were selfish, sought power and influence, clannish, and had what modern readers would call ethno centric and even racist views of their neighbors. Readers that follow this style know that Moroni was portrayed as a hero but often created as many problems as he solved with his aggressive tactics, indefinite detention of prisoners(Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4), and poison they made the Lamanites try (Alma 55:30-31); while Amalickiah is portrayed as the villain but might have  had some legitimate complaints. I described how reading with critical eye can change the text in Record Keeping Magic.

Individuals with this mindset in other religions probably read middle brow archaeological magazines from decent, if heavily biased Christian scholars. They have read Dever’s book placing the Bible in history, and have a pretty good knowledge of forms and poetry that enhance their appreciation of the text.  They can give the same homilies in Sunday School as the average orthodox member, but they also like to mention the chiasms that enhance the teaching about the atonement, and the social commentary the sermon provided.

In reading this story they might suggest that the Roman’s had a special pathway that led from the barracks straight into the temple to disrupt potential civil unrest.  Perhaps similar to the folk lore from Hebrew history that got included in scripture, and using the example of the Roman soldiers, Nephi's miraculous saving by the Spirit could be described as an intervention by a friendly governor.  The same governor(s) to whom the people indirectly pleaded with Nephi in Helaman 11:8.  (“The people began to plead with their…leaders that they would say to Nephi,” which suggests he was sequestered somewhere safe.)

The Big Picture View:

These people don’t get hung up on the historicity of the Book of Mormon. They could be simply agnostic on the subject, or actively reject the concept due to a graduate program in Biblical Archaeology, other advance training, or just because they never did get the strong impression the text reflects history.  (Unlike the members of the Orthodox category, they notice that the face value descriptions of characters read like a bad novel.) In other religions these would be individuals that don’t care as much about the archaeological magazines from nuanced historical group, but instead focus on what kinds of charities and outreach their church does, and the application of the loving verses in the Bible.

These individuals would probably think that the naturalistic explanation from the above category is straining too much. They would likely say that the story is beautiful, and as they prayed about the text to help them get closer to Christ, it did, and that’s all that matters. They see the text as a helpful agent in getting close to God, and even in staying simpatico with the church. They would have a difficult time in Sunday School, but some brave souls make it work and provide good big picture ideas about improving a person’s life, and improving their relationship with their fellow man.

These are pretty broad categories that describe what I’ve seen in apologetics. I make no claims to this being exhaustive and I still need to read the rest of the excellent new Kofford volume on the subject.  But I do think that examining one scripture using these different methods helps to crystallize the key concepts and bring new understanding between the groups. As the drama continues on facebook between the different groups it would help to pause and consider how much of it might be based on different reading styles, and not because the people with that style are wicked.
  • What kind of reading do you do?
  • What kind of readings did I miss?
  • What would you add or subtract to these categories?
  • How do these categories apply to possible apologetic arguments? For example, if somebody cares about the big picture, would describing how something could be history really help or matter?
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Friday, October 20, 2017

On Mental Gymnastics

I don't think the anger comes out of a desire to see the church disappears. In my case is more the aghast and shocking reaction to the mental gymnastics that that nuanced members have to do to justify the historical problems particularly. In my mind and in the minds of many exmos there is no "perfectly rational and intellectual defense of all historical problems ". I see it as people clinging desperately to Mormonism and for many of us is not something worth clinging to. To many of us the evidence against the church is much more black and white and damning.  I feel like I'm speaking to a truther or a anti vaxers when I hear some of the justifications for belief by the nuanced crowd. (In the comments here) https://www.facebook.com/randall.bowen.315/posts/530303953981179

I see the term “mental gymnastics” a great deal. Gymnasts are well trained athletes that must put thousands of hours into their craft just for entry level competition, and Olympic athletes dedicate vast sums of time and effort to training.  I’m often bemused by the term, as though being a mental couch potato is better. When the critics use that term they aren’t comparing apologists to dedicated athletes, nor are they praising mental laziness, so obviously something else is going on. Based on my research into the use of words as insults, I think critics use the term as shorthand for deceptive and straining arguments while trying to turn the academic debate upside down.

The important connotation with words like mental gymnasts is the contortions that the gymnast must perform. The critics imply that church members must go through all sorts of crazy contortions in order to support the truth. The critic in contrast, can point to their simple narrative as the correct position that doesn’t need explanation. With an increasing discussion of good and bad apologetics, the release of the excellent Greg Kofford volume in the subject, and continuing debate over its methods, the term seems like a particularly egregious, gutter style tactic.

Those who have dealt with critics have probably heard this narrative. The critics enjoy telling stories of vast million people Jewish American tribes that rode Tapirs into battle and came over on submarines while not leaving a trace of evidence. Joseph smith made it up as he went along, and so on. (As you can tell, I tend to focus on the Book of Mormon so I hear way more of those lousy narratives than the Joseph Smith/ church history ones.)

What the critics are doing is somewhat sophisticated. I say somewhat because I doubt that it is deliberate in most cases. As we might see in statements like "Bush lied and people died," its quite common in political arguments to shape the conversation (or figurative battlefield more often), using loaded terms.  (The phrase is loaded, because it assumes that Bush deliberately lied and simply wasn't mistaken.)

I first noticed this trend in the Book of Mormon. In my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents, I wrote how “robber” was one of these terms. Throughout history the term was used by various historians to describe what called objectively be called the private armies of individuals. But in situation where the government power was deteriorating the distinction between legitimate agents of the government collecting taxes and ruffians robbing the people became blurry. Hence the term robber could be used against agents of the government, rebels could be called terrorists, terrorists could call themselves freedom fighters, and so on.

The term genocide, terrorist, war monger, and even liberal and conservative on occasion are used more often for their pejorative and emotional value than clinical accuracy. These terms shift the debate and put the other party on defense, and even clouds the debate with the FOG of war. (Fear obligation guilt.) Politicians that oppose war feel obligated to reaffirm their patriotism. Those that want to use western land have to wade through guilt inducing narratives from Native Americans and so on. And in the game of politics, the simpler argument usually wins.

In the case of the Book of Mormon or other apologetic endeavors, the rhetorical maneuvers actually make an intense study of a topic into something negative. Apologetics seems to be the only field where random memes and face value impressions seem to count more than diligent and thoughtful research.  If you disagree with my assessment, try to make an argument about chariots or horses in the Book of Mormon, or a nuanced historical assessment of Smith's marriages to a critic and let the ridicule flow. They preemptively dismiss the idea that translations might be loose, loan words used, history is complicated with incomplete sources, and that the etymology of words allows for alternative interpretations of chariot. (In my study of Chinese, the two character word for palanquin chair uses the primitive for chariot.)   Using this technique a mocking comment about submarines counts more than sophisticated insights gleaned ancient seafaring practices.  A meme of an Indian being pulled by on a sled by chariots, and other mocking items counts more than a thoughtful study of translations and cross cultural contact.

I'm particularly annoyed by the mocking based on numbers. One of the first tasks undertaken by professional historians such as Hans Delbruck included a reassessment of numbers. Unscientific methods of counting, unreliable reports, mistakes in translation, and deliberate exaggeration to prove a moral point are all perfectly acceptable ways to understand and amend our understanding of battle numbers. Doubting large numbers is also a favorite historical past time, from the Battle of Fei River to the size of Hangzhou, the histories of China have often been disputed as fantasy.  (I especially like to point out Marco Polo's description of unicorns. Its plain to modern readers that he simply got it wrong and they are rhinos, but seeing critics explain away the obvious application regarding the naming of animals is too fun. That is some gymnastics worth watching.)

In short then, a discussion of wrong numbers is not only appropriate, its almost one of the first tools developed by modern historians. (I have a chapter in my next book about numbers, and you can previews here and here.) The contrast between the diligent study put into the text, and the seeming ease with which critics dismiss it with a way of their hand makes me feel a good deal like Dr. Evil,  and that I didn't go to six years of school just to called Mr., thank you very much.

The face value reading of something matters. Strong impressions are vital, and it's possible to connect those impressions to Moroni's promise. But face also has the same Latin route as the word superficial. Assuming that a chariot has to mean whatever was seen in Ben Hur is not a proper way to read and understand a text.  I'm often bemused at how cavalier members and critics can be with something that is supposed to be a sacred text. Without getting into a long discussion of the various deficiencies of the church's scripture study program, and the critics have their own issues as well, if a member believes that something is scripture they should be willing to dive deeply into the text's possible literary styles, allusions, patterns, historical antecedents, possible cultural comparisons, moral messages, and doctrinal exposition. In short, while critics use the term mockingly, I think we should be mental gymnasts instead of couch potatoes when it comes to our scriptures.  The current use and acceptance of “mental gymnastics” is a way to delegitimize substantive Mormon arguments, solidify their own (often shallow or deliberately obtuse) interpretations of the text, and they do so often unwittingly using a cliché term.
  • Upon reflection, are there any terms that you might use which that are emotionally charged and used to shape the conversation?
  • This post doesn’t mean to imply that every apologetic argument is good simply based on its complexity or number of footnotes. What are some legitimately bad apologetic arguments that stretch to reach a conclusion?
  • What was the most annoying conversation you had with a critic (or apologist)?
  • What is the difference between a nuanced and valid argument, and mental gymnastics that reconciles at any cost? Can you provide examples?
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