Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Two Bridges: A Cautionary Note about Today's Book of Mormon Scholarship

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. Most serious is the lack of judicious discrimination in handling evidence.

Here juts The Bridge to Nowhere. . .

And on every hand 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

Before us lies. . . The Bridge Too Far.

Let's cut through the tangle!

Keeping well in mind that the Lord asks our patience and our faith, He never requires A Bridge Too Far. Faith sufficient to study and to ponder, and then to plant the seed of belief in the Christian witness 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. So much for fears that faithful and studious Latter-day Saints may not measure up to the latest fad in Biblical studies! Those who fearlessly take up the Bible on its own terms will both see through the faddish and walk understandingly on the "old paths" (Jeremiah 6:16).

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? 

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.

Of what, then, may sound Book of Mormon scholarship consist? 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 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 the tenuous and speculative, so be it. Presses must roll--and posthaste! But when a correspondence simply must be pointed out, when it shines so bright as Israel's tents or the stars in the belt of Orion, the student will come to know what is nebulous and what is not.

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