Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Orson Scott Card and Brant Gardner

A week ago, I had never heard of Brant Gardner. Then I stumbled upon this video*, where he explains his background as an interested party in Book of Mormon archaeology. I loved his reference to "seeing the dog" - once a hidden image within a picture is visible it cannot be "unseen". I found his style very engaging, and his method of explaining complex facts very effective. So I watched more and more of his videos. Then I heard a reference in this video** (the transcript of the series is available here) to Orson Scott Card. Since Card has been one of my favorite fiction authors for some time, I wasn't sure I had heard him right at first, so I listened to the part over to be sure he was actually mentioned. I noticed a slide showing the quote and ran a search for the title, "The Book of Mormon: Artifact or Artifice" and found it.

Orson Scott Card continues to blow me away. He takes on so many different topics in his writing. He shares his thoughts in so many settings. In this case, the article was adapted from a speech he gave at a conference held at BYU. He does not speak about archaeological evidence here at all, really. Instead he uses his expertise - that of writing - to explain some things about the nature of the Book of Mormon. He explains how much the culture of an author plants itself within anything the author writes - even if that author is working hard to conceal his background. Card then explains the Book of Mormon itself in terms of who handled the writing of it. Which sounds complicated. But here goes: the Book of Mormon is an abridging of the writings of Nephi, Jacob, Enos, and various authors after them by Mormon, who then wrote accounts of Alma, Mosiah, Helaman, and Moroni, followed by his own book, then a book called Ether about a people called the Jaredites who had almost died out when their account was brought forth to the primary people in the Book of Mormon (the Nephites), and finally his son concludes the book with his own book, Moroni. This "book" was compiled on golden plates over a thousand years (600 BC to 400 AD) by its authors, and then hid up in a hillside for another 1400 years.

Enter Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith received the golden plates four years after first being led to them by an angel (Moroni, who hid it in the first place). Joseph Smith then translated the book by divine inspiration (it was Hebrew language written in Egyptian letters). Card explains how Joseph Smith's influence as a translator might exhibit itself properly (or unproperly):

If the account he gave us is true, then the Book of Mormon must be what it purports to be, which is the record of an ancient people written by an ancient author, and Joseph Smith's role in providing us with the Book of Mormon was solely as translator. Therefore, we should find his influence in the book, or the influence of any other 1820s American, only where we would expect to find a translator's influence: that is, in matters of word choice, consciously or unconsciously linking Book of Mormon events to experiences that he and his American readers could understand, choosing the clearest language he had available to him, fitting ideas he found in the book into existing American concepts as best he could.

Simply put: his use of language would shade how he translated words, but it would not change the underlying meaning if he was not the actual author. If he was the author, though, then he would fall back on his own culture - or a need to explain a deviation from his culture to his readers somehow - when creating the story. Card's references to Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe and even I Love Lucy to explain how much culture shows up writing are spot on.

Does the Book of Mormon contain such connections to 1820's culture, the culture Joseph Smith had grown up when the Book of Mormon was published? In Card's view, no, it simply does not. The only references are, as he says, in choice of language - Joseph Smith didn't write the Book of Mormon in Bulgarian because he doesn't speak Bulgarian (not how Card put it, but just a thought of my own there). Not far from where he grew up, French was the predominant language, but he did not speak it and therefore didn't use that language, either. No, he used the English he knew to translate. No translation from one language to another is ever perfect (Card is absolutely write) simply because the phrasing of certain words, the idioms that have meaning to one people and not to another, and even the different layers of words that might all have one word in another language (Greeks have something like four words for different types of love, for instance) cannot be conveyed completely without something getting a little lost in translation. The King James Version of the Bible was embellished greatly by its translators who wanted to make certain points to the readers or just make the prose sound more flowery in some way. Still, the underlying culture of the Book of Mormon shines through as completely distinct from that of Joseph Smith. Indeed, it shines through as the interests and purposes of different writers exhibit themselves. Nephi wrote largely to make a record of his journey to this new land, and to record the great deeds for his people to remember. Mormon was much more interested in military campaigns - especially of a certain Captain who he named his son after. And then there's the changing of culture over time, and the fact that three different cultures are talked about in this book. The complexity is unreal, yet never inconsistent within a part or in the whole. Card wrote, "Search all you like through that book. I have, and I can't find a flaw. Yet we should expect to find a consistent pattern of getting it wrong. Not just one example, but thousands of examples within a book that long, but - they are not there."

So does this article prove the Book of Mormon is true? Here is what Card thinks about such a notion:

Now, does this mean that I've proved the Book of Mormon true? Obviously not. You can always still suppose that perhaps Joseph Smith or whoever wrote the Book of Mormon was the greatest and luckiest creator of phony documents from made-up alien cultures ever in history. The Book of Mormon only matters because it's a life-changing book.

The truth, the important truth of the Book of Mormon is only understood with the Spirit through faith. If you don't believe in the book, it's not going to change your life. And I mean believe in it in a way far different from believing it's a genuine artifact. You have to believe in it also as something meant for you as a guide to your life. So, I have very little interest in attempting to prove the book. I haven't proven it here. The only real proof is when you prove it with your life, living the gospel it teaches and participating in the Church that was established with that book as the mortar holding it all together.

I absolutely agree. Proof is not needed for faith. Proof is needed for knowledge. As Christ told his disciple, Thomas, "because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Whether someone chooses to believe any book of scripture - the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or any other - comes down to faith, and how that faith is acted upon.

Me, I just loved this whole article and wanted to share it. I read over half of it to my wife as we waited to be admitted to a birthing room for our new son. I imagine it will have a special place in my heart for that reason in years to come. And yeah, I love that a great author respected outside our faith has turned his brilliant eye to analyzing the Book of Mormon and found no fault in its narrative. And I just love reading more things that make me love the work of Orson Scott Card on a new and deeper level. So there's that, too.

-- Robert

P.S. I am posting this on my son's birthday to give my wife the chance to write about him first. Then I'll write my thoughts, I'm sure, when I find time.

* This particular video actually is a six part series of videos, the rest show up in my list of related videos when I watch so I won't post them all here.
**This video is part of a six part series, but the first reference I heard to Card was in part one or two.

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