May 29, 2005

Hill Cumorah

Every religion has its apologists, but few are capable of moving, if not a mountain, at least a drumlin. But such is the case with some Mormon apologists.

At the outset, I should probably note that I don't have any particular brief against Mormons, nor do I necessarily think that it's much of a drawback for a religion to be based on what appear to be fictional premises (that the inhabitants of the New World were of Semitic origin; that they were preceded here by a people called the Jaredites who came from the tower of Babel). Or, to put this in a way that may be easier to swallow, God need not worry about fact checkers when revealing his purpose to man; religious texts have meanings that go far beyond mere historical anecdote.

As someone who's studied a (small) bit of New World archaeology, I think it's fair to say that the text Joseph Smith published makes numerous errors -- the most telling, perhaps, being his work's references to horses, metal weapons, wheeled carts and chariots, and other animals and devices unknown in the New World until the landing of Columbus. And, of course, all evidence indicate that the New World's inhabitants most likely did not travel by boat from the Holy Land to the New World, but rather crossed a land bridge over the Bering Strait.

Because the archaeological record is so at odds with Mormon history, apologists have offered a revised interpretation of Mormon geography:

For at least fifty years (and in some quarters substantially longer), serious students of the Book of Mormon have read that book in light of a different model. Under this model, Lehi and family represented a limited incursion into an extensive population that already existed in the Americas, and their sphere of operations was limited to Mesoamerica, ranging in the hundreds of miles, not thousands. For simplicity, I shall refer to this as the "limited geography" model. The limited geography model arose based on various factors (including scientific considerations), not the least of which was a careful reading of the text of the Book of Mormon itself, on its own terms, rather than relying on traditional mythology about that text.

The difficulty with the limited geography model, however, is that Joseph Smith himself contradicted it. As Fawn Brodie relates in No Man Knows My History, Smith certainly believed in an unlimited New Geography for the Book of Mormon:

Stopping near an Indian mound on the Illinois River, he excavated a skeleton from near its surface and said to his companions: "This man in mortal life was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelf. He was a a warrior and chieftan under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. The curse of the red skin was taken from him, or, at least, in part." Lifting the thigh bone, which had been broken, and pointing to an arrowhead still lodged between two ribs, he described in vivid detail the great battle in which Zelf had been killed. Brigham Young eagerly siezed the arrowhead, and others carried off the leg and thigh bones for souvenirs.

Smith wasn't alone in this interpretation. Oliver Cowdery, one of three witnesses who signed a statement saying that they had seen the original plates of the Book of Mormon which were hidden in Hill Cumorah, as well as an angel of the Lord, wrote in a letter in July 1835:

By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. [It is printed Camorah, which is an error.] In this valley fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites—once so highly favored of the Lord, but at that time in darkness, doomed to suffer extermination by the hand of their barbarous and uncivilized brethren. From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope, or doubt. A few had fled to the South, who were hunted down by the victorious party, and all who would not deny the Savior and his religion, were put to death. Mormon himself, according to the record of his son Moroni, was also slain.

But a long time previous to this national disaster it appears from his own account, he foresaw approaching destruction. In fact, if he perused the records of his fathers, which were in his possession, he could have learned that such would be the case. Alma, who lived before the coming of the Messiah, prophesies this. He however, by divine appointment, abridged from those records, in his own style and language, a short account of the more important and prominent items, from the days of Lehi to his own time, after which he deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah, and after gave his small record to his son Moroni, who, as appears from the same, finished, after witnessing the extinction of his people as a nation.

These were the records Joseph Smith said he was guided to in the 1820s by the angel Moroni when he lived in Palmyra in upstate New York. Under the limited geography theory, Hill Cumorah, the site of that battle, would have to be somewhere in Central America, something that the Church of Latter Day Saints hierarchy had noted some time ago:

In 1954 Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith rejected a limited geography thesis: "Within recent years there has arisen among certain students fo the Book of Mormon a theory to the effect that within the period covered by the Book of Mormon, the Nephites and Lamanites were confined almost with the borders of the territory comprising Central America and the southern portion of Mexico; the Isthmus of Tehuantepec probably being the 'narrow neck' of land spoken of in the Book of Mormon rather than the Isthmus of Panama...This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place the waters of Ripliancum and the Hill Cumorah someplace in the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years."

(Quoted in footnote 21 to George D. Smith's essay in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.)

Posted by Ideofact at 11:02 PM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2005

Blind and dumb

I've always had a somewhat negative reaction to Fawn Brodie, but I have to say I'm finding her life of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, to be a rather engaging read. She's rather hard on him and on religion generally -- an attitude I'm finding a bit refreshing after slogging through quite a bit of religious writings lately -- but still offers some enjoyable anecdotes, like this one:

One day [Joseph Smith] was explaining his creed and book to the Campbellite preacher Hayden. "Oh this is not the evidence I want," Hayden said, "the evidence that I wish to have is a notable miracle...if you perform such a one then I will believe with all my heart and soul."

"Well," said Joseph, "what will you have done? Will you be struck blind or dumb? Will you be paralyzed, or will you have one hand withered? Take your choice, choose what you please, and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ it shall be done."

"This is not the kind of miracle I want," Hayden protested.

"Then sir," said Joseph, "I can perform none; I am not going to bring trouble upon anyone else, sir, to convince you."

Posted by Ideofact at 11:07 PM | Comments (5)

Trapped

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I have to confess that now, having seen both the original version and the modern remake, I have to say that both disappointed me somewhat. Isoldi Keane, the Mormon mesmerist who lures attractive young girls to Salt Lake City and polygamous marriages is a decidely unmesmerizing mesmerist. In both films, as soon as young Nora discovers that the Mormon missionary already has one wife, she recoils in horror and decides to escape. How much more terrifying (in either version) would it be if, having learned of Keane's previous wife, the lovestruck Nora lost none of her ardor for Isoldi, and asked again how soon it would be until she would be his wife?

Then the pursuit of her mounted by her jilted, non-Mormon ex-betrothed would take on a tragic air; though he would have saved her from polygamy, he would have deprived her of Keane, who would be perhaps almost vampiric in his evil, rather than a duplicitious (and not very clever) bigamist. (In both versions, he introduces Nora to his first wife--his sister, he explaines--and makes sure they have adjoining rooms; predictably, jealous wife number one tells the comely Nora that Keane is already married...).

The modern version, by the way, is a lot of fun, although I wish I had seen it in a bigger group of friends, with a bit more alcohol in my system...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:43 PM | Comments (0)

Any good

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The other day I came across one of my favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes, which I'd inexplicably forgotten was from his rather gloomy essay The Crack Up:

...let me make a general observation -- the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the "impossible," come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both...

...I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to "succeed" -- and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future. If I could do this through the common ills -- domestic, professional and personal -- then the ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it to earth at last.

"Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort," at least for a little while. As Fitzgerald explains two paragraphs down, at the age of 39, he prematurely cracked.

I'm reminded of a few things -- the elegance of Fitzgerald's prose, his keen insight, and how quintessentially American his thinking was.

Posted by Ideofact at 09:23 PM | Comments (1)

In a lonely place...

...is where this blog has been for a while. Time to serve up some content, I think...

Posted by Ideofact at 09:13 PM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2005

More pictures

I have always been fascinated by Great War art -- here's an American poster from Howard Chandler Christy that I find particularly effective:

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Meanwhile, I continue to read about Mormons or Morel...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:21 AM | Comments (1)

May 02, 2005

Moreau

Each preserved the quality of its particular species: the human mark distorted but did not hide the leopard, the ox, or the sow, or other animal or animals, from which the creature had been moulded.

--H.G. Wells, the Island of Dr. Moreau

Compare with this story:

On a farm about six miles outside this gambling town, Jason Chamberlain looks over a flock of about 50 smelly sheep, many of them possessing partially human livers, hearts, brains and other organs.

The University of Nevada-Reno researcher talks matter-of-factly about his plans to euthanize one of the pregnant sheep in a nearby lab. He can't wait to examine the effects of the human cells he had injected into the fetus' brain about two months ago.

"It's mice on a large scale," Chamberlain says with a shrug.

As strange as his work may sound, it falls firmly within the new ethics guidelines the influential National Academies issued this past week for stem cell research.

In fact, the Academies' report endorses research that co-mingles human and animal tissue as vital to ensuring that experimental drugs and new tissue replacement therapies are safe for people.

Doctors have transplanted pig valves into human hearts for years, and scientists have injected human cells into lab animals for even longer.

But the biological co-mingling of animal and human is now evolving into even more exotic and unsettling mixes of species, evoking the Greek myth of the monstrous chimera, which was part lion, part goat and part serpent.

In the past two years, scientists have created pigs with human blood, fused rabbit eggs with human DNA and injected human stem cells to make paralyzed mice walk.

Particularly worrisome to some scientists are the nightmare scenarios that could arise from the mixing of brain cells: What if a human mind somehow got trapped inside a sheep's head?

Posted by Ideofact at 01:07 PM | Comments (0)