My purpose is to cheer on the promising buds of gospel scholarship.
As a Latter-day Saint who prizes thoughtful writing on the Book of Mormon and on the Pearl of Great Price, I will henceforth keep in mind a cautionary note, what I shall call the Two Bridges.
The first bridge is The Bridge to Nowhere. The second evokes strategy--even The Bridge Too Far.
We may, at times, meet sloppy prose, slippery logic, weak argument, incoherent transitions, and bizarre claims about the meaning of the word plausible (it does not connote the flimsiest thread binds Iron Truth), or of the role of authority (a scholar slept Here--disturb not!). Of these faults, the most serious is the lack of judicious discrimination in handling sources.
Here juts The Bridge to Nowhere. . .
Elsewhere, we find intricacy, detail, baroque piles, with multitudinous accompanying signs posted on interminable byways and winding paths: The Highway to Faith Just Ahead. One More Bridge. Watch for Ice.
Before us lies. . . The Bridge Too Far.
These Two Bridges, never fully distinct, may even converge into but One Bridge: the Bridge to Bird Island--that sandbar on Utah Lake on whose north shore Zarahemla once proudly rose (or was it the east shore and the Hill Cumorah?). And what is true of our work on the Book of Mormon may equally apply to work on Abraham or Deuteronomy or Paul.
Keeping well in mind that the Lord asks our patience and our faith, He never requires A Bridge Too Far. Faith sufficient to study, ponder, and plant the seed of belief in the testimony of the Book of Mormon is the "invitation" sent out "to all men" (see Alma 5:33; Alma 32). That testimony comprises not only doctrine but historical narrative as well; for, like the Bible, the Book of Mormon has its own assumptions about itself.
I speak of the work of independent students, what Elder Oaks calls "alternative voices," not of the publications in official Church organs. Who can but admire the careful and thoughtful work the Church sponsors on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History? (Hint: it's small on speculation.) Faithful Latter-day Saints stand for the truth of the Book of Mormon's doctrine and storyline, but must they further vouch for any particular take, or even consensus, on geology, geography, ethnology, genetics, numerology, law, literary and lit-crit studies, linguistics, source criticism, or on what constitutes a festival or a temple text?
"Of course not," we say, "no one ever suggested any such thing!" Then why do we sometimes push our readings and interpretations to the degree we do? "Well, maybe we get a bit carried away in love and zeal and ice skates. It's like Pokemon Go: it's an exercise; it's fun; we battle monsters! Enemies we hunt up online surround us as we play! The pressure is constant!" Then let's be direct about it--lest we wind up saying to our readers: You really can't understand the book aright until you throw off encrusted tradition and read it with new eyes, that is, with our eyes--and here's the latest scholarship for you to master. Which is the same thing as saying: You jolly well must accept Zarahemla in Alaska, if you really wish to explain both the Mayans and the Mulekites, so well as the absence of snow and jungles in the Book of Mormon.
It's nobody's authorial intent to so present the Case of the Book of Mormon--but what of the reader? What of the reader, fed on the seeds so liberally spread on Bird Island, who comes to believe he or she must answer all the thorny historical and scientific questions anyone could possibly ask of the Book of Mormon, and so resorts to any possible answer, however far-fetched? What of the reader (or author) who has no reason to suppose that what is being promoted as the "latest scholarship" is founded in a decades-ago exploded secondary source? No matter how pleasing the sound, everything must be tested.
Alas! the method and the manner of Bird Island. How many years will it take to root out such a deep disregard for philology? Twenty? Thirty? Could we root it out all at once! Root, hog, or die!
In our very desire to support and supplement and invite faith in the word of God, and to stave off the singularly odd and repetitive attacks of the critic, might we sometimes nevertheless devise linguistic models, ethnological constructs, or geographic certainties of such complicated skein--that all ultimately culminates in A Bridge too Far? Is our immune system in overdrive? The cleverest-seeming scholarship may, at last, serve up many a dish for the gullible. (Look up the dictionary meaning of the word sophisticated.)
Lehi in Arabia? Great. Lehi in South Arabia? Yeah. Lehi's shrine in . . ?
Lehi in America? Fine. Lehi in Mesoamerica? Okay. Lehi in that particular cenote? You jump in first.
Bunyan's Christian, that simple Bible-reading pilgrim, pauses in front of our pyramidal learning, takes in the algae-clogged sandbar, and scratches his head: "Another Slough of Despond, is't not?"
Or might our piles and pyramids of learning by which we say we see, in occasional contradistinction to King Benjamin's tower even distort doctrinal horizons? Sometimes, with Alma, we feel to say: "Ye cannot suppose that this is what it meaneth" (Alma 40:17); or "it mattereth not" (40:5, 8). There are vital reasons why scriptural scholarship, in which history and doctrine are inseparably tied together, is the most difficult scholarship of all.
Besides, the road to faith need not stretch beyond the few and evil days of our mortal probation. Brigham Young read the Book of Mormon closely and prayerfully for two, not twenty, years before seeking baptism. If he had waited twenty years, he would have missed leading the Pioneer Trail. The pageant must go on; the dispensation of the fulness of times unroll. Wagons Ho!
It's time to drop some things cold; it's time to take responsibility for what we publish.
Shall we sing loud just because we find ourselves off-key? What to do? Kicked out of the pulpit; tuned up; then kicked back in--the Brigham Young solution? So very much of what finds publication in Book of Mormon studies over the span of the decades parallels the precarious situation of one or another of these Two Bridges.
Of what, then, may sound Book of Mormon scholarship consist? Of silly Ph.D's? Of startling originality for its own sake? And what's the point of such Scriptural endeavor anyhow? It should--and in sobriety of word and argument--invite what Hugh Nibley calls a second look. It ought not provide the artillery for public rows. Enough already of these interminable online rows about Scripture!
Hugh Nibley, in a footnote buried somewhere or other, speaks of "the peculiar and the specific." Evidence ideally ought to be "both peculiar and specific": that is the high standard Nibley strove for. Did he sometimes reach it? It's clear he thought he occasionally did. And so can we.
Proof, that is to say, "being convinced of a thing," lies within, a subjective choice ever. While the peculiar and the specific do not spell proof, that telling combination is an utterly different thing than the tenuous and the speculative. All Scriptural scholarship among the Latter-day Saints hovers somewhere between one or the other pole; I do not say it hovers safely. And if what goes into publication tends to be both tenuous and speculative (or even jejune and incomprehensible), so be it. Presses must roll--and posthaste! But when a correspondence simply must be pointed out, when it shines so bright as the three stars in the belt of Orion, the student will come to know what is nebulous and what is not.
Hugh Nibley, "Bird Island."