Why BoM Commentaries Work, and Don’t Work: A (Semiotic) Explanation
Specifically, let us focus on the abundance of “commentaries” on The Book of Mormon, with attention to the most recent, and self-proclaimed “‘go-to’ source” for “contemporary understandings of the Book of Mormon”; namely, Brant Gardner’s Second Witness
series. (Your welcome, Brant, for giving the book so much free publicity!) From
the back cover: “This series employs a dazzling range of systematic approaches
to propose plausible answers to tough ‘why’ questions, present parallels and
models from both the Old World and the New and, perhaps most significantly,
reveal glimpses of Mesoamerican culture, religions, and lifestyles through this
Now, if you can tell what that means, I’ll send you a free book. Meaning, a metacommentary might be needed; or punctuation. Joking aside (briefly), I’d like to use a few select examples from Gardner’s text to open an explanation as to why so many “commentaries” are, when benign, little more than imaginative fan-lit. By “fan-lit” I mean something like projections from a favorite text which aim to extend the life and reach of that text, its characters, and integration with one’s life. When reaching for more than fan-lit, however, commentaries invoke a quasi-text: one designed to fill in for the absent translated text. And that quasi-text, we
shall see, can nurture some bitter fruits.
Gardner’s text is valuable for presenting more recent writings on the Book of Mormon, and for synthesizing a great deal of writings that call upon archaeology, philology, bible studies, and what he calls “ethnohistory.” No doubt the labor was great, and the value is not small.
Rather than an understanding of the BoM, however the real value lies in
expanding a Mormon’s understanding of other cultures, other myths, other
religions and peoples. Commentaries that have as their aim the comparison of the BoM text with the texts, myths, and tales of other religions and cultures do for Mormonism a good service. When read with that purpose, many BoM commentaries cleverly use the habit of devotional reading to teach about a world often ignored. The Reynolds & Sojdahl commentary, for example, provides extensive quotes from Nordic mythology, the Book of Enoch, Native American religion, Conquistador journals, and many more besides. That is to say, the BoM can be the origin of an expanding understanding about theology, history, mythology, ritual, politics, war, charity, and so on, with the result being a learned people. But…
What is the problem, then?
Aside from the irritating habit of identifying the occupations of authors he cites (“practicing attorney with a passion for scripture study”) and regularly assuring us that so-and-so teaches at Brigham Young University, and quoting a quote of another quote, the text doesn’t wrestle with
counter-arguments from the same fields so effortlessly plundered. But these foibles are easily ignored, once you realize he’s not writing for anyone other than believing Mormons who’d like
to hear what some other respected figures says.
The real problem with such a commentary, and thus, with all the synthesizing, quoting of quotes, and plundering? I’ll get to that.
First, let me explain that my own approach to the Book of Mormon can be found in The Abridging Works. The account I give of how to study the book, how it was composed, what plates were involved, and so on, runs counter to the Received Tradition whose latest receiver come down from Sinai is Mr. Gardner. I believe my account, however, provides a reasonable alternative to that tradition; and a reasonable alternative is often itself an important thing.
Boasting aside; now, then, on to the fun!
Gardner claims in the opening essay to “use the following principles to attempt to find defensible connections between the Mesoamerican cultures and the Book of Mormon text: 1. The Book of Mormon should be analyzed as a translated ancient text” (1:4).
Now, I wholly agree with that first principle, so long as he means, “a translation of an ancient text,” and not that the BoM is itself a translated ancient text. It’s an important distinction: the former insists on a distinction between a translation text and a translated text; the latter potentially confuses the two. Indeed, let’s see how Gardner applies his principle.
Two lines later: “Because the Book of Mormon proclaims itself as an ancient text, it should be analyzed as an ancient text.” Now, the book I read says it is a translation of an ancient text (see also Gardner’s principle 1, above). Gardner, however, uses this principle as a way to bend and wrest the text into whatever forms imaginable, justifying such an endeavor on the basis of an absurd dichotomy between “high-context texts” and “low-context texts.” What is the
difference? A high-context text supposedly comes from a high-context society (conveniently, found around the Mediterranean); and that means that they don’t say everything they ought to, when they describe something. Writers simply assume a shared knowledge, and so a commentary is helpful as a mediator when these texts circulate into other societies.
Alternately, we live in a low-context society, because we provide full-blown descriptions. Why? Because we don’t assume our readers share the same cultural background. His own use of
this high-low dichotomy, however, is rather confounded by the fact that the BoM is an English translation text (thus, “low-context”) of a translated text not currently extant.
Empirically speaking, there is no way to apply this dichotomy, no way to say where “high” and “low” readings are found; for every text could be informed by everything as context. That is the problem with the word “context”: it means everything other than the text.
How relevant “context” is divided from the irrelevant is a question still seriously debated, for entire disciplines (like anthropology) are built on presumptions of cutting the relevant from the irrelevant. The question is always: relevant to whom? What seems an absolutely clear
text to one reader can become opaque when circulated to some other community. And, without spending too much time taking it apart, the notion of “high” and “low” at a textual level is pure rubbish, and when projected on societies, well, it doesn’t blossom into validity.
But before you are dazzled by this use of high-and-low, let again me point out the first slippage in this text: Gardner moves from “translated ancient text” to “ancient text.”
We shall see how this slippage is useful later on, when dealing with words and phrases said to compare favorable with words and phrases in other texts.
The dichotomy misused, however, is a useful thing for the likes of Gardner: dropping the “Book of Mormon” (the original translated text, apparently, and not the translation text) into a high-context setting allows him to provide those contexts for you, Noble Reader. How does he decide which contexts frame a word, passage, or verse? The same way we all do: by what is guessed as being relevant to the community of readers (e.g., apologists); rather than what is demanded by the text itself.
The second fruit of Principle 1 (P1) is that “regardless of a translator’s talent, something is always lost in the translation” (1:5). That means that Gardner can again insert additional text into the Book of Mormon (as “commentary”), because apparently the “Gift and Power of God” cannot get around Gardner’s Maxim. (Let me plug Gardner’s latest offering, called The Gift and The Power,
which purports to explain how the translation was done! You’re welcome, again, Brant!).
Now, so concerned is Gardner, that he concludes, “Thus, we must never forget that the Book of Mormon is a translated ancient text. If we approach with any other set of assumptions, we will miss important information and misread it in important ways” (1:5-6). Agreed. Now, keep this “thus” in mind (actually, a restatement, not a conclusion, but that’s nit-picky), as we turn to Principle 2 (P2). What he means is not that any commentary is hamstrung by the problem of working with a translation text that lacks a translated text; rather, confounding translation text and translated text allows him to insert whatever readings he finds, well…read on.
P2: “The Book of Mormon should be plausible in a real-word
historical setting appropriate to the text’s indicated time and place”
(1:6). Fair enough. But plausible by what standards? That’s the problem with “plausible”: it
relies on assumptions held by the author (and his or her presumed readership),
and is not in principle brought out for scrutiny. Is it plausible that Joseph Smith pulled a
gold-looking set of plates engraved with characters in “Reformed Egyptian,” and
so on? Plausible to whom, that is the
So, we find ourselves again pulled into a seemingly
objective measure, though by stepping back we realize that yet again the
“analytical and contextual” commentary will be entirely dependent on the
notions Mr. Gardner would presume exist outside his head. That is to say, “plausible” is whatever one
deems such, and so the principle is speaker-dependent.
Second, “appropriate” by what standards? See the previous argument.
Third, the “time” of the Book of Mormon’s setting is clearly
tracked; the “place”? Not so much. And that becomes the basic problem that
Gardner is going to o’ercome, by relying on entirely “plausible” and “appropriate”
readings of a text that was translated imperfectly, and which has no original
document to compare against. Got it? Out of the confusion of translation text and
translated text, he will attempt to induce a quasi-text: a loose assemblage of
readings arranged non-contiguously which stand in for the absent translated
text. How? The “place” (read, quasi-text) can be triangulated by virtue of the interpretive looseness
that Gardner grants himself, when re-interpreting the English text as a result
of his Maxims; and then once triangulated, the “place” can be used to flesh out
the contexts (by drawing on archaeological reports, for example), material so unfortunately
left out by the translator.
Circular? Yes, but we’ll get to
Now, Gardner would have you believe that he’s not just
pulling out “parallelisms” like some other guys, like Ferguson with his 311
parallels. No, “To find the correct
picture requires not single points of correspondence, but complex
correspondences. A complex
correspondence consists of multiple points of coincidence that are mutually
interrelated” (1:7). As an example of a
“complex correspondence” he gives us Helaman 3:4-7, and summarizes the complex
as having “four interrelated characteristics: Large bodies of water and many
rivers; Land rendered desolate and without timber; Buildings of cement; Around
the time of Christ” (ibid.). The
problem? There is no boundary given to
how one finds this “complex,” and so the boundary is found on the maps one
looks at, and then one decides what is “plausible” and “appropriate.” Find two of the four? Keep looking, but keep your finger on those
two. Again, we are back in the author’s mind,
and far from the text itself. That is,
he can give an example of what he has in mind, but he cannot give a practical
(useable) definition by which others might find similar things.
Principle 3 is another convenient one: “The BoM need not
perfectly fit the archaeology of the region” (1:8). Denying this is an “escape clause,” Gardner
turns to biblical archaeology as an example of how artifacts often don’t
support a text. Yes, and? I suppose if one believes the account in the
KJV is The Account, only then is such a comparison felicitous, and not
problematic: for the archaeology will catch up to the Truth some time, right? Yet, he will allow himself the privileges of
archaeology when they fit, as he says, though, “The connections must be
plausible” (1:8). Do you sense the
parameters in which interpretation (under the guise of “commentary”) are
becoming ever wider, and hazier, and strictly bound up with Gardner’s sense of
Turn to Principle 4: “The context should be productive.” The “correct” context “will effortlessly
become the missing ‘high-context,’ explaining motivations, actions, and events
that otherwise remain enigmatic” (1:9).
And, “The right context tells us more about the text than the text
alone” (ibid.). Note that they key
criteria for deciding upon the right framing, is how “effortlessly” it comes
about; and how well it explains what is regarded as “enigmatic”. The problem is that what is “enigmatic” is
entirely a matter of the ignorance and presumptions of the reader; while
“effortlessly” has no serious definition that can be used to decide a degree of
more or less. Again, this commentary
will become Mr. Gardner’s attempt to give us the Book of Mormon, as he’d like
it to be.
Now, let us see what
happens when an author relies on author-dependent principles to interpret a
text. We begin with “word-level”
On page 45 you’ll find Table 3. This two-column comparison gives us the English
translation of “Exodus 16:2-3, 18 [sic,
actually verse 8]” and the English 1 Nephi 16:19-20. The relevant comparisons are in bold, and
given here. From Exodus: “And the while
congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the
wilderness”; “hunger”’; and “your murmurings are not against us, but against
the Lord”. Now, the sequence from 1
Nephi: “did suffer much for the want of food”; “Laman and Lemuel and the sons
of Ishmael did begin to murmur exceedingly”; and “they did murmur against the
Lord” (1:45). This is regarded as a
“complex correspondence” which allows Gardner to suggest that Nephi structures
his narrative around the (Englished) Exodus myth. Yet, what is really “the same”? Not the sequence. Not the words. There is something we can gloss with the word
“hunger,” and something else glossed by the word “murmur”; and the target of
some of the murmurings, “the Lord”. Now,
do hunger and murmur have an independent, arbitrary, coincidental yet mutually
related relation? Keep in mind that a
discontinuous stretch of text is required of Exodus (in English) in order to construct
even the most tenuous of likenesses. He
then takes a verse from Exodus 14:11 to compare with 1 Nephi 2:11 (they both
are verse 11?!!), and concludes with a passage from Numbers 14 and 1 Nephi
16. The similarities? The word “murmur” occurs in both, and both
describe people wanting to return home. Other
Tables don’t even give the translated texts, but instead give Gardner’s summary
or generalization of the meaning of passages, which seem to be found in both
Exodus and 1 Nephi.
The basic problem here is that finding an example of a word
we’d like to use to organize our data is not the same as giving a definition
with directions about how I go about finding such things that might be called
“complex correspondences.” We shall see
how semiotics explains this author-dependent “analysis,” but first let me
mention a few other examples of how a non-principled “commentary” qua
interpretation says more about the community it is intended for, and less about
the text it interprets.
Recall Principle 1?
Translated, ancient, text? Turn
to page 51. Gardner quotes a dispute
about the authorship of the Title Page.
Is it all Moroni, or did Mormon have a hand in it? You may recall what Joseph Smith said about
it, but nevertheless many a scholar happy to cash a check drawn from the Lord’s
Sacred Funds is also willing to ignore Smith’s description. One “scholar” argues that the word
“interpretation” and “seal(ed) up” are words found in writings of Moroni rather
than those of Mormon, and so “ ‘the distribution of those expressions weighs
heavily in favor of Moroni as the sole author’” (1:51). Gardner more or less agrees, and given that
the 1840 Title Page indicates “Moroni” was the author, this is a happy
coincidence. The problem? Moroni never used the word “interpretation”
and “seal” in the BoM, because those are English words given by Joseph Smith in
the translation text.
Principle 1 is easily ignored, largely because we don’t have
the original translated text. (And that
brings up a problem with commentaries in general, which I will address
eventually.) Now, to be fair, Gardner
admits that such analysis “leans heavily on the assumption of a tight
translation that preserves the original authors’ vocabularies, a position,” he
says, “not supported by the evidence examined in this commentary” (1:52). Very reasonable, yes? But, what evidence could one find to argue
either way? This being a translation of
an ancient text, without the ancient text we have no evidence. A change in wording could mean a more or less
correct rendering, but we don’t know which one.
The problem is that lack of a translation text, and the failure to keep
translated and translation texts distinct.
For example, Gardner gets in a muddle about how to interpret
“language” as found in 1 Nephi 1, and in particular, “all the language of his
fathers” as found in Mosiah 1. Now, does
“language” mean the same thing in every usage?
It doesn’t even do that in English, which, by the way, is the language
of translation. Yet, Gardner is willing
to say that when used in the BoM, “‘language’ embodies a larger
learning—because it is consonant with ancient Mediterranean culture,” (1:65);
and so, “‘language’ is a synonym for ‘culture’” (1:64). “If Nephi,” he announces, “is describing his
education when he says ‘language,’ then he would be describing the elements
that were most essential in his formation as a person” (1:65). Language, Culture, Education,
Person-formation? Pick one: language
learning is part of person-formation, and part of one’s education, which is all
part of a culture. Note, however, that
Principle 1 has been ignored: Nephi never wrote “language,” as that was from the
Note also that the term is used throughout the book, and the
real answers may be found in the “context” of use; rather than from decontextualized
readings across the entire book. Language
in 1 Nephi need not mean the same thing as language
in Mosiah 1. While such a response may
seem to follow Gardner down the path of least contexts and
read-it-how-you-pleasism, in fact, there are easy cues to interpret each
usage. Easy, so long as one reads with
an interest in what the text actually says, and not what it didn’t or doesn’t
say or should’ve said.
Conveniently, Gardner also declares that “Ultimately, we
have no definitive answer about the language of the plates” (1:65). If only the writers had said something about
it! Wait, you say, they did: Reformed
Egyptian, and the Language of the Egyptians.
Now, the good thing about that description is it allows students of
Egyptology to posture and preen (until they encounter the Book of Abraham); and
it allows the Gardners to remain agnostic, above the fray, but willing to poach
if his interests are furthered. Though
explicitly demurring on the matter of language-of-composition, Egyptian can be
dragged out whenever a few consonants seem to work well: the favored instance
being the name “Nephi”. One author
published an essay cited by Gardner which regards “goodly” as a pun on
“Nephi”. The link? N-F-R is said to be an ancient Egyptian
adjective meaning “good,” “fine,” or “goodly”.
Clever, right? Except the actual
alignment of consonants is considerably less than identical. Given that vowels are easily disregarded
because not written in ancient texts (and yet, also not so easily disregarded
by native speakers), the possible range of combinations that a two-consonant
name could be fitted to soon approaches the astronomical; leave off one of the
three consonants, and the world of the Word is yours. Nibley gives us “Nehi, Nehri” a “famous
Egyptian nobleman,” and also suggests that “Nihpi” will work even better than
“Nfy”. But what if the BoM is, in fact,
an interpretation (or “translation” if you prefer); and so the names are not
quite exactly as given in the translated text?
Remember that our alphabet does not correspond well to the reconstructed
ancient Semitic varieties. Or forget
that fact, and you can find two consonant combinations in whatever language
A few pages later Gardner writes: “Lehi means ‘cheekbone,
jaw.’ Paul Hoskisson (professor of
ancient scripture at Brigham Young University) points out that it would be
unusual for this place name to be used as a personal name among the Jews and
that body parts are rarely used in names.
Hoskisson instead suggests that Lehi may be a shortened version of a
Neo-Babylonian name that translates approximately as ‘(O God,) incline thine
head,’ with the meaning, ‘(Incline they) cheek (O Jehovah).’ Nevertheless, John A. Tvedtnes disagrees that
body parts were not used as names and prefers the “cheekbone, jaw” translation”
(1:67). Now, “Lehi means” what? in what
language? When? among which group of speakers?
Pick one. And if that doesn’t
float yer boat, freely add parenthetical piety, or not. This is the sort of thing that happens when
no critical principles are used against a translation text that lacks its
translated text. This is not science, or
art; it is closer to fan-literature; say, arguments about Klingons, or the
location of Dune, or wondering whether Harry Potter was bisexual.
The basic question: Is it possible that the word
“Egyptian(s),” for example, as found in the published Book of Mormon doesn’t
even refer to the same thing as our word “Egyptian(s)”? The term was used in Joseph Smith’s time and
region to name anything mysterious, ancient, priestly, and magical; and so I
think Joseph Smith’s use of “Egyptian” is a more fruitful question to explore,
than is the matter of Nephi’s and Mosiah’s use of “language”. Such a distinction preserves the difference
between translated and translation texts which Gardner thought important enough
to name Principle 1.
Thus far we’ve seen
how “word-level” interpretation, combined with confusion about translated and
translation texts, allows for immense
flexibility in comparisons. Now we can
move to “phrase- or text-level” comparisons.
The favored next-level commentary concerns “motifs” or
“symbols”. Soon enough I will address
the problem of a lack of theory of “symbols,” but for now let us see what
happens when such a lack of theory joins with freedom of interpretation. This part approaches parody, so you’ve been
Gardner quotes Blake Ostler’s “analysis” of Lehi’s vision
“in the context of subgenres of throne-theophanies, biblical and
pseudepigraphical:” [From Ostler:]
account of Lehi’s throne-theophany and prophetic commission is very closely
related to Ezekiel’s account in the Formgeschichte
or historical development of the literary pattern, but because Lehi’s account
also exhibits elements of the pattern unique to pseudepigraphic works it must
be considered as part of the line of development inherited from the Hebrew
theophany-commission pattern quite independent of Ezekiel’s inaugural vision”
What is going on here?
A “pattern” of “subgenre” is named, and given qualities said to be
essential to things thus named. Then
some of the qualities, devised as some general word, can be discovered “in the
text.” Look to chiasmus and the like for
similar “discoveries”. When then text
under “scrutiny” doesn’t fit perfectly the seemingly solid pattern identified
by bible scholars, then the text is said to be an independent, or original,
creation, with some similar elements.
The question is: is there a text which does not fit into that scheme as
constructed by one’s peers, and one which could falsify such a general level of
reading? This question, once asked to
chiasmists, exposed the entire charade as a muddle of self-trickery, for the
The same question, however, can be asked of anyone finding
“motifs” or “symbols” to compare with those in the bible or elsewhere. These terms confuse the form (the physical
word used) and the thing stood for by the form (the “idea” or “object” or
what-have-you). Secondly, the acceptable
“range” of similarities and the limits of generalization are set by one’s
peers, not by some self-existing genre. As
a result of this confusion, one can go for formal motifs sometimes, and more
vague symbolic linkages another time, depending on the credulity or
perspicacity of one’s readership. But
the real problem is simply that those so eager to find and compare motifs and
symbols have no theory of signs that can guide the symbol treasure hunter.
That is to say, a
semiotic (or theory of signs) explains and undercuts virtually everything (yes,
everything) that is done in the name of apologetics and faith-defending. How?
This is going to get technical, even though really
simplified. A text consists of “symbolic
signs,” in the language of Peircean semiotics.
A symbolic sign exists wherever a thing can be made to stand for
something else, to some other person. A
bird can be a symbol of freedom, or of sorrow; whatever, so long as someone
agrees. Now, symbols of this sort
require language in order to be made; they are language-dependent. Indeed, linguistic signs are all symbolic
signs, though some also show other sign features (which I will get to). Someone must say, “birds are symbols of
freedom,” or some such statement, because birds as such don’t inherently
possess the quality of “freedomness” as they do, say, brownness. Note that no one really says “birds are a
symbol of brown,” because a great many birds are brown.
This brings in another kind of sign, the “iconic sign.” By icon Peirce means only that it has some
quality which is interpreted by someone as similar to another quality in some
other thing. So, some interpreter finds
a relationship of similarity between two things, and that allows one thing to
be an “icon” of another thing. Pictures,
statues, maps, and the like are obvious, if complex (“diagrammatic”) icons;
while a blue hat is simply iconic with a blue whale, just as a blue hat is
iconic with a red hat (both sharing hatness).
So, any particular thing has an infinite number of qualities, and thus,
an infinite (in principle) number of things it can be an icon of.
What culture does is teach people how to construe iconicity
in a manner agreeable and “natural” to others they interact with. Thus, a certain arrangement of clothing is
acceptable as iconic with some other ideal figure (like another missionary),
while some other is not. The differences
are entirely arbitrary, from an objective perspective, but entirely natural
from a cultural standpoint. Now, a mode
of dress can be made to stand for abstract qualities, like “worthiness” or
“modesty” or “spirituality,” just as easily as it can be made to stand for
iconically another instance of dress.
The breadth of icons can thus be categorized culturally, arranged to
some scheme; and if your clothing falls outside the accepted range (as
interpreted by the person looking at you), then your clothing will not be
“symbolic” of “faithfulness,” but a sign of something else.
Now, it matters who wears the clothing, for that points to a
particular person; that is to say, Peirce’s second grand order of signs ties
together the abstractions of “symbolic signs” to the tangible qualities of
iconic signs. These are called
“indexical signs.” By these signs a
particular person is read or “indexed” as having “faithfulness.”
(If you want to email me about how I’ve simplified Peirce’s
semiotic, go ahead; but this is a summary for the purposes of explaining how a
commentary is possible, and also something else at the same time.)
So, any part of the Book of Mormon text, as a tangible
artifact, can be found to compare favorably with virtually any other thing in
the known universe. The word “Nephi” (let’s
call that a sign-form) has (an instance of) the letter “N”, and so does
“Nattering Nabobs”. Of course, no
marketable community would regard that as a significant discovery of formal “iconicity”
in the text. Also, one might imagine
what “Nephi” stands for (as a symbolic sign), and decide that what is stood for
is iconic with what is stood for by some other sign-form (Nephi is like a
nattering nabob). Hence, the imagined
figure could be found to be similar to some other imagined figure stood for
(symbolically) by some other sign-form.
Hence, movies can portray a figure as “Nephi” in ways found agreeable or
disagreeable; what actually happens is someone names an actor “Nephi” on the
screen, and by so dubbing, she constructs the physical figure as an icon of an
imagined figure stood for by the name “Nephi,” as found in the text. Still with me? The question revolves around this: What is regarded
as significant, relevant, or informative in some community of interpreters?
If some part of that word, written or pronounced, is similar
to some word, written or pronounced, as divined by some imagined scholarly
circle, then there may be a significant “iconicity” discovered. All that matters is that some community
regards the iconicity as both non-arbitrary, and filling out the empty
qualities. When filled out (say, “Nephi”
means “goodly” in X-language, so he must have had whatever qualities are
suggested by that word), more and more seemingly non-arbitrary comparisons
(iconicities) can be “discovered.” As
some point the looseness of similarities come together to form some seemingly
coherent, non-coincidental “complex correspondence,” to use Gardner’s
term. But given the inherent range of
iconicity any particular thing can generate, there is no end to the number of
distinct iconic sign-relations which can be “found” to hang together. What matters are the principles behind the
new “diagrammatic icon” (a better term than “complex correspondences”); and such
principles are not explicit in any apologetic text or BoM commentary I’ve ever
read. What seems “effortless” and
“appropriate” is enough, for those are measures that one’s community of readers
will provide feedback on.
Because the principles for finding iconicities across texts
are not explicit, the communities which organize around discovering, shaving
off, adding to any assemblage of similarities found to exist between one text
and another, these are driven by practices and a logic which has very little to
do with the process of discovery and confirmation of “good” versus “poor”
parallels. This is not the old
“parellelomania” argument: how one decides who is a parallelomaniac and who is
making a ground-breaking discovery in the BoM is merely a matter of consensus
(or silence). And consensus is not
driven by any criteria itself independent from the dynamics that formed the
group. The same thing can be found in
groups that agree that some color of pants is modest, and another a sign of
immodesty. There is no group-independent
criteria which are applied to a discovery of iconicity between a word in the BoM
and a word in some other text; except what Gardner or some other guy thinks is
“plausible” or “appropriate”. They play
God, in effect, and by their decree a thing lives or dies (inside some
community of readers, anyway).
That is to say, apologists can decide which parallels are
good and which poor, but they can’t give you explicit criteria for deciding
which is which. One must be apprenticed
into this, and never share the secrets with others, for they are
unspeakable. Think, Masonry, or any
cult, trade, or guild. For that reason,
who you know, and what others know about you: these are allowed to stand in
where empiricism in other fields does its work.
The same things can be said of phrase-level iconicity,
except that one is free to generalize (translate into “meaning the same as,”
that is, referential iconicity between what the two phrases stand for); and thus,
you enter into the rich, dazzling realm of language (and I don’t mean
“education”). Hence, what is “plausible”
at phrase-level iconicity is even fuzzier (and more effortlessly found) than
what is allowed at word-level. As a
result, the BoM can be said to be “Another Testament of Christ”; that is,
iconic with other things said to be “Testaments” (I think they mean,
“Testimony,” but I’ve covered that one before).
Or the BoM (as a general thing) can be said to be the symbol of our
Similarly, to look for some stretch of signs inside the text
of the BoM for iconicity with the vague qualities said to be represented by the
“genre” of throne-theophany maintained by a scholarly caste outside
Mormonism? That is to give oneself so
much room for digging about that one will, eventually, come up with something
that seems non-arbitrary to some group of readers. Which group?
Almost never is it the group that actually devised and argued over the
question of the genre so cheaply mobilized for the sake of comparison; but
rather, a group with no real grasp of the debates currently ongoing about the
use of the term “throne-theophany subgenre” are the actual readers. That is to say, where accountability is built
into academia (peer review), that is precisely the point where apologists
escape important feedback loops of accountability, when they present or write
to other apologists. A true apologist in
the old tradition actually engaged in dialogue with opponents, rather than mustered
bloviations before his own side, shadowboxing the silhouettes cast by his own
So, any essential iconicity (likeness between two distinct
things) is too mundane to be of interest to anyone, really (except perhaps
Intellectual Property attorneys).
“Nephi” in the BoM is like the word “Nephi” as found online. So?
But “Nephi” is like (by my personal standards, not necessarily within
the native-speaker’s community) the word “NFR” as found in this Semitic
dictionary? Now that can be used to
imagine other qualities, to project more qualities onto the thing stood for by
the first “Nephi,” and that is the beginning of a FARMS course with all the
forms of scholarship, and none of the spirit.
Such iconicities that hold out promise for future organizing of texts
and persons are those given favorable readings.
Such a course, however, is merely apprenticing students in the craft of
finding “plausible” iconicities, and the tricks for creating ones that can’t be
Similarly, “symbolic” relations can be established far more
easily: “Nephi” stands for “faithfulness.”
What is meant is, the imagined person stood for by the symbolic sign
“Nephi” is iconic with what I imagine is stood for by the word “Faithfulness,”
and, happily, some group apparently agrees with my “discovery/invention.” When
recirculated in the words and writings of a group, confirming the new
sign-relation becomes itself a badge of membership. This is what happens in Correlation, in
Apologetics, in Mormon Studies…in any culture.
Now, the real problem
with this devising of cross-textual iconicities (a great phrase, right?) is that there is no original text of the BoM.
It is that absence which allows all the semiotic horseplay
to pass as scholarship. That is to say,
the published BoM is said (by itself) to stand for some other ancient text,
which itself is said (by the BoM) to stand for some greater assemblage of
texts, which themselves are said to represent some events or states of affairs
from long ago. But these are all created
by the published BoM, and the discourse surrounding the published BoM (e.g. eye
witness reports, Joseph Smith’s stories).
Without the published BoM, there are (for us, anyway) no Plates of
Nephi, no Abridging Plates, nor record of Neniff; nor Alma, Zeniff, or
Coriantumr. No more than there were in
1820, practically speaking. These are
all creations of the text, and of the imaginative oomph that it gives the
So what about all these Nephi-is-Egyptian or
imaginative projections whose “validity” (i.e., liveliness, ability to generate
further speculation that seems “valid” and “relevant,” “effortless,” “plausible
and appropriate”) is decided by some community of readers; nothing more. A community then proceeds to give life and
form to these imaginings: in further speculations, in living one way versus
another, in shaping social relations, generating capital, titles, honors. Think sci-fic-conventions, and you’re pretty
close to the practices of Book of Mormon Studies. That is merely a comparative example, and in
no way an evaluation of either one.
A traditional commentary on a text was justified by this: a
translation text did not capture some of what is now regarded as relevant or
newly “found” in the translated text. Why
do we need another edition of The Odyssey? New archaeological discoveries, new
philology, new views about what we’d like to see (more violence, less violence;
more chauvinism, less chauvinism; more high-English, more vulgarity). Why a commentary on The Odyssey? Because someone
is reading the translation who can’t read the translated text, and someone (and
some publisher) thinks the readers ought to know where the translation text doesn’t
match (iconically) the translated text. A
commentary mediates that relationship, and attempts to re-align the translation
text more “iconically” with the translated text, thus restoring the “feeling”
or “quality” shared by the two.
But what happens when you remove the translated text, and
are only dealing with a translation text?
A traditional commentary without a translated text becomes entirely
unanchored from the logic of practice developed inside academia. In fact, such a thing is little more than an
attempt to “re-translate” through the translation text some imagined translated
text. Gardner is writing a new Book of
Mormon, in short, and even gives his god the name Yahweh-Messiah, “to highlight
the person the Nephites understood as their Messiah” (1:viii). It is vanity, pride, and hubris which so
often drives “faithful” devotions; the fruits of such graftings are not often
The missing translated text is thus imagined and
triangulated into existence as a quasi-text; induced by arrangements of signs
and texts mobilized by the logic of icons, and given life by some group. Though an actual translated text never seems
to emerge, of course, a quasi-text does develop with some contours and sharp
corners for the truly faithful to heft and toss at others of lesser faith. But this quasi-text is never fully realized,
and exists in the metatexts that are commentaries, studies, fan fiction, and
So, what are all these commentaries on the BoM, these
manuals, these words designed to establish new textual relations in the
BoM? They are imaginative projections of
a quasi-text, an imagined translated text; all made possible by the BoM. This works in the same manner that one might
write a story about Samwise Gamgee (himself a “gardner”!) and Frodo Baggins shacking
up and getting married (somewhere other than California). That is, a lively text inspires the
imagination to fill in details left unsaid in the text, and the BoM is by that
standard a very lively text. There is
almost always some group of Mormons (since the term is self-applicable) willing
to hear one’s new version of the BoM; some new reading of where Alma lived, what
other religions are just like Nephitism, which curelom is a cumom; especially
felicitous are those translations that seem acceptable to “scholars” as well as
“faithful” Mormons. But, let me repeat,
there is no translated text, and so no “commentary” is, that is not, in fact, a
re-translation of the English translation text.
By “re-translation” I mean something like, “an attempt to say what
Joseph Smith didn’t say”: a quasi-text.
The bitter fruits previously mentioned result from a
quasi-text which then comes up against a professional whose field was plundered
in its devising: an archaeologist, a biologist, a linguist. Suddenly the Egyptians, the Maya, the Toltec,
the Olmec, the Moundiggers, or the Inka have become projected into the
translation text. And testimonies can then
be rendered vulnerable by the very apologists who sought to preemptively defend
the faith. And we know what the BoM says
about wars of preemption, right?
So, what is possible, then, if we can’t just insert
decontextualized archaeological reports, words stripped from lexicons of
ancient tongues, or insert whatever people, place or thing we’d like? Someone will hold our quasi-text making
accountable. But what if we restrain
from creating quasi-texts to stand in for a translated text, and look to how
the translation text creates a new world?
I believe the Book of Mormon is designed to prevent apologetics, is an
obstacle for the priestcraft guild, and maybe something closer to a model of
the universe than an ethnohistory of an undiscovered people. That’s for Part Two.