Friday, January 18, 2013

Asking the Wrong Questions I

Dave Lauer may be a very nice man. I wouldn't know. What I do know is that (1) he works for Calvary Chapel in Boise, Idaho where he is developing a "Witnessing to Mormons" class called Grace Works, (2) that he misrepresented himself when he first contacted me in November, and (3) that he has been harassing the poor receptionists with his phone calls. (They do not deserve the harassment.)

He sent me a list of questions for me to answer. Given that he was willing to misrepresent himself I am certain that he would have little compunction about misrepresenting me so I have elected to make my answers public. So I am posting them in this forum.

The first question is
What do you believe is the relationship between the Joseph Smith papyri [sic] and the Book of Abraham and how have you come to this conclusion?
This is the problem of substituting opinion for evidence. It helps to set up a straw man argument. Drawing one opinion of a group may not be representative of a group. Remember Pauline Kael's famous remark after Nixon won by a landslide in 1972: "I only know one person who voted for Nixon." Pauline Kael's circle of acquaintance was obviously not representative of the larger population. I prefer to deal with the entire spectrum of views rather than the particular one I hold.

As I have discussed herehere, here, here, and here, and elsewhere, there is not one Latter-day Saint position on the relationship between the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham, but three and none of them are the official position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because there is no official position. I have laid them out as follows:
1. The text of the Book of Abraham was translated from papyri that we currently have. (Or, from the unbelieving perspective, Joseph Smith thought that the text of the Book of Abraham was on papyri that we currently have.)

2. The text of the Book of Abraham was translated from (or Joseph Smith thought the text of the Book of Abraham was on) papyri that we do not currently have.

3. The text of the Book of Abraham was received by revelation independent of the papyri.

Of these three positions, the first seems to be a minority viewpoint espoused by few if any members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Of the remaining two options, the last is preferred by a majority of the members of the church who care about this issue. Most members find the issue unimportant.
(I have a friend I respect very much who is involved in Mormon Studies and who questions my assertion that position 3 is the most popular; he thinks position 2 is. I agree that we need better and more recent data on this issue. Either way, it is clear that those who hold the last two position dwarf the number who hold the first.)

At this point, my personal beliefs are irrelevant because positions 2 and 3 are the positions most favored by believing Latter-day Saints. This has two implications. The easiest straw man to attack to attack is position 1 but few Latter-day Saints believe that position. So if one rails against position 1 then the typical Latter-day Saint who knows anything at all about the issue will simply shrug her shoulders and say: "So what?" One must deal with both positions 2 and 3 on the issue and the two points of view have very different assumptions and implications.

One implication of the two positions that poses a problem for Mr. Lauer and others who deal with this issue is that in neither case is the identification of the texts on the current fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri important. They happen to be a portion of the Book of the Dead and a portion of an abbreviated version of the so-called Document of Breathings made by Isis, but they could be Homer's Odyssey or the Instructions of Onchsheshonqy, or the Law Code of Hammurapi for all that it matters to Latter-day Saints. Most Latter-day Saints do not think that the Book of Abraham is or was on the current fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri and so it does not matter to them what text is there. Thus the opinions of Egyptologists and other experts about the identification of those texts is moot.

One does not see much debate between positions 2 and 3 among Latter-day Saints. This is because those who hold these views do not see it as significant enough a matter to debate. In fact, most Latter-day Saints do not care about this issue. It is unimportant to them.

An analogy might help Mr. Lauer here. It is a bit like saying that the Evangelical movement cannot be true because evangelicals have a mistaken view of the historical background of the book of Nahum. How many evangelicals care about the historical background of Nahum? How many could easily find it in their Bibles? Just because some outsider thinks that this should be a big issue for some religious group does not make it a big issue for that religious group. Most evangelicals that I know of care a whole lot more about Paul than Nahum; to me that is understandable. If an individual were developing a program for witnessing to evangelicals and kept harping on a non-issue like the historical date of Nahum and criticizing evangelicals for that, most of them would rightly think that that individual was nuts.

Note also that most members of the Church of Jesus Christ hold positions that are also held by those who are not members. So this issue is neither decisive for separating Latter-day Saints from non-Latter-day Saints, nor possible to attack without either sparing a large group of Latter-day Saints or attacking a sizable group of non-Latter-day Saints.