Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sam the amateur apologist

Whether or not Mormonism has serious problems, Larry Judkins’ column Saturday about the religion certainly does.

I take issue with two aspects of my colleague’s piece: his facts and his perspective.

The perspective first: Mr. Judkins says he writes his column for atheists and those on the fence.

Regular readers may remember a previous column about walking out of a Democratic party meeting after Orland city council member Byron Denton offered a prayer. In that piece, Mr. Judkins substitutes high moral dudgeon for actually talking to believers.

For example: why does Mr. Denton feel his prayer was appropriate? Or, would a prayer have been appropriate that asked simply for fellowship and help in achieving justice - goals I’m sure Mr. Judkins shares? These questions are both fruitful and interesting. But Mr. Judkins fails to ask them.

Instead, in that piece as well as his Mormonism column, he ignores the other side entirely: neither fair nor intellectually honest.

So for context, here’s a bit of Mormonism 101.

Mr. Judkins argues that the few non-grammatical changes in Mormon scriptures - the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants - since Joseph Smith’s time are evidence that Mormonism is “blatantly false.”

Not so. As Mr. Judkins noted, Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the “most correct” of all books in helping a man “get nearer to God.” The Book of Mormon title page reads: “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God.”

This isn’t textual infallibility, as Mr. Judkins seems to claim, any more than saying my history paper was the “most correct” in my class implies that it was flawless.

Now, imagine that my history paper was 500 pages long, and I completed it in around three months by dictation, without notes or a library. Imagine moreover, that I said that I had not composed this work, which I call the Book of Mormon, but rather with divine help translated it from an ancient record. How could someone decide whether I was possibly telling the truth, or had invented the entire story from whole cloth?

One of Mr. Judkins’ claims is that the history paper was doctored when convenient, evidence it was invented. But this is baseless.

Mormons believe God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, though united in purpose, are three distinct entities. In developing this doctrine, Mr. Judkins says, text was purposefully changed from “mother of God” in 1830 to “mother of the Son of God” in 1835. The text was changed, but claims of ulterior motives don’t hold water, because the phrase “Son of God” already appears in the original 1830 version – a mere six verses later, when the writer “beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men.” (1 Nephi 11:24)

Moreover, Mr. Judkins fails to note the Mormon doctrine of continual revelation, that “that (God) will yet reveal many great and important things (pertaining to his kingdom?).” In this light, and with the view that prophets like Joseph Smith aren’t perfect fax machines from God, some mistakes are expected, and to be corrected as further understanding is received.

Another way of testing whether the history paper is accurate is to try to determine how accurate the local color is; whether it describes the time and place written about.

Tell the average person to write about far-distant historical settings without going to the library. What do you know about 11th century Tibet? “Well, it exists...and it was probably very mysterious...and romantic?” Knowing nothing, the resulting piece will be filled with anachronisms and inaccuracies.

So, are Mormon texts filled with such inaccuracies? Mr. Judkins does claim they are “easily disproved...hoaxes.” Really?

For example, the beginning parts of the Book of Mormon, set in 6th century BC Palestine, contains some remarkably accurate details. A father renames after his sons valleys and rivers located three days’ journey from a city, an act foreign to the Western mind but quite natural to Arabian nomads. The journeying party camps at a large, fertile area on the coast of desolate Arabia that was unknown in 1830.

Mr. Judkins says the “Book of Abraham,” which Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from an Egyptian papyrus, is a hoax because portions of the text were rediscovered and no similarities were found. Again, evidence that Joseph Smith is inventing things.

However, the Book of Abraham contains elements also present in other, later discovered Jewish apocrypha but not present in the Bible or in 1830. Details like how Abraham’s father tried to have him killed but failed and later repented, or how contemporaries were sacrificing their children.

I’m not trying to definitely prove anything here; I merely wish to show that Mr. Judkins is wrong – and somewhat insulting - when he claims that Mormonism has been proven blatantly false.

Finally, here are some scattered responses to Mr. Judkins’ scattered attacks.

A quick search on lds.org for “family values” – the use of which Mr. Judkins decries as hypocritical - returns a smattering of pieces: praising firm, loving parenting, decrying illegitimacy, and putting the home as the “basis of a righteous life.” It’s unclear what the past practice of polygamy has to do with any of this. Besides, polygamous families were families too.

And Mr. Judkins accuses the Mormon church of not repudiating past racism. Certainly, there have racists among the membership and leadership of the church, along with most of white society in the 1800’s and most of the 1900’s. Still, it should be noted that Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844 on an abolitionist platform.

Certainly, Mr. Judkins can cite opposing evidence on many details. And maybe he’s right. But not noting how Mormons themselves view the issues he raises - ignoring relevant ideas like continuous revelation - is simply unfair. Even in the limited space of a newspaper column.

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