long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Perfect Storm-Part 1

There's a perfect storm coming. It involves M2C.

Definitionperfect storm is an event in which a rare combination of circumstances drastically aggravates the event.

The event is the “de-correlation” of the New York Cumorah, which is nearly complete. For some time now, the visitors centers have taught M2C. Last year, volume 1 of Saints created a false historical narrative to completely censor the New York Cumorah from Church history. Book of Mormon Central is spending millions of dollars to promote M2C and suppress the teachings of the prophets, including the development of the ScripturePlus app

This fall, a series of events is creating a perfect storm to mop up any lingering traces of the teachings of the prophets.

Four specific items are combining to aggravate the impact of M2C.

1. Article on the fantasy map.
2. Sidney Sperry Symposium
3. Lecture on Mayan wars at BYU
4. Thrive Day 2019

We'll discuss one each day this week.

The fantasy map
Part 1 of our Perfect Storm of M2C involves the BYU fantasy map of the Book of Mormon that we’ve discussed here many times.

An article titled “Visualizing the People, Places and Plates of the Book of Mormon” seeks to explain and justify the fantasy map currently being taught to all BYU students. The map is a variation of the similar CES map taught to all seminary and institute students.

The article appears in the print version of the Winter 2019 edition of BYU Religious Education Review. It’s not online yet, but it will be soon. When it is posted, you can read it here:

The BYU fantasy map has been around for several years now. As you read the article, see if you think it successfully justifies teaching young Latter-day Saints to think of the Book of Mormon--no, to study the Book of Mormon--in a fictional, fantasy setting.

It's no wonder that more and more Latter-day Saints (to say nothing about non-LDS) are concluding the Book of Mormon is fiction. That trend will continue to accelerate as we see the rest of the perfect storm this week.

The title of the article focuses on the key point: visualizing.

Psychologists know that visualizing information is the most persuasive technique. Once you imprint a particular concept on the minds of people using specific images, it is difficult for people to “unsee” that image.

The fantasy map instantly conveys a specific interpretation of the Book of Mormon: a land northward, a land southward, and a “narrow neck” between them. As we’ll see below, this is not a “neutral” depiction; it is a specific interpretation of the text developed to support a specific geography.

Most people outside of the M2C bubble realize this, but this article is intended for educators who presumably are unaware of this map and who, instead of reading the article critically, would likely defer to their colleagues who developed the map. 

The article cites the most recent version of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography. (This essay has been substantially changed once without notice and could be changed again at any moment, as we’ve discussed before.)

The article includes these excerpts from the essay: “The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas” and “All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters.”

The connotation of "contention" in that statement is surely "heated disagreement." This is wisdom because some people have an emotional, intellectual, or financial interest in a particular position that clouds their judgment and their ability think critically. 

I operate instead on the premise that "By proving contrarieties truth frequently appears." In my view, it is not contention to critically examine and discuss important issues and claims. There is no room for ad hominem attacks or other logical fallacies. Everyone who loves the Book of Mormon is a beloved brother and sister regardless of their opinions and interpretations. None of this discussion involves relative intelligence, faithfulness, etc., so there is no need or excuse for any contention. But we also have to be realistic and serious.

With that in mine, let’s look at how the guidance from the Gospel Topics Essay is implemented in this article and in the project it discusses. Original text in blue, my comments in red.

p. 26. “To not promote anyone’s personal theories regarding exact locations of Book of Mormon events, VirtualScriptures.org includes a geography-neutral Book of Mormon map.”

Neither element of this sentence is true. That should be obvious to everyone who reads this article, but I suspect it's not, so let's discuss it.

First, the map necessarily promotes the personal theories of the creators because they used their own interpretation of the text to design the graphics. Are we to infer that the creators actually believe their interpretation is "objective" in any sense? Or, worse, that they believe their interpretation is "correct" in some sense? 

Maybe they're drawing a semantic distinction by referring to "anyone's personal theories" (i.e., any one person's personal theory) when it was actually a committee who interpreted the text to develop the map. But no matter how they spin it, this map is nothing but personal theory regarding exact locations of Book of Mormon events. The entire purpose of the map is to label exact locations. Putting them on a fantasy map instead of in the real world does not dissolve the personal theory component.
Second, the map is the antithesis of geography-neutral. It depicts two very specific claims that are at the core of the discussions about Book of Mormon geography: Cumorah and the neck of land. The map places Cumorah outside of New York--it depicts a setting that could never be New York--and it conflates the narrow neck, the small neck, and the narrow neck of land as one feature. A "neutral" map would not take a position on either point. A "neutral" map wouldn't even take a position on whether terms such as "land northward" are proper nouns or relative references that depend on a given author's physical location at a point in time.

“It is intentionally not linked to any modern maps of the Americas.”

Think about this a moment.  This map is teaching LDS students, both overtly and subliminally, that the best explanation of Book of Mormon geography is fiction and fantasy. 

It's one thing to say that we don't know for sure where the events took place, but it's something entirely different to teach that the Book of Mormon describes a fictional setting.

We all get the concept of creating an "abstract" map not tied to the real world. Some people think creating an "abstract" might convey a sense of neutrality and objectivity, but that's a delusion. Two-and-a-half years ago I discussed the inherent problem with "abstract" maps of this sort. The proponents always claim to be objective, but at every step of the way, they make a subjective decision about how to interpret a passage or word.

We also get the problem of identifying any "real world" setting that would necessarily exclude alternatives. That's why "neutrality" has to refer to alternative real-world settings. Implying that the Church position on "neutrality" includes fantasy as an option undermines the fundamental claim of historicity. 

Maybe that's exactly the point. 

Maybe, as long as we're going to completely de-correlate the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah, we might as well teach the youth using a fictional fantasy map. 

Students at BYU and seminary/institute tell me at least some of their teachers still believe the Book of Mormon is a real history, but those teachers all believe M2C. In the last several years, not a single student has told me his/her CES/BYU teachers still believe what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah. (Very few students have any idea about what the prophets have taught, of course.) That doesn't mean there are no such teachers, but if there are, they wouldn't be teaching these fantasy maps.

It's also easy to understand why Book of Mormon Central would support the use of this fantasy map. The fantasy map is based on the M2C interpretation of the text, so it's an easy transition for people to make from the fantasy map to the Book of Mormon Central M2C theory.

No matter how you look at it, this M2C-approved fantasy map is not neutral. And there's nothing wrong with that, when the M2C bias is fully disclosed. But in this article, it is framed as neutral.

“Our map is a relational one, based on details found only within the text itself.”

This claim of relying on "the text itself" is another way of claiming the map is neutral and objective. The "text itself" is not objective, and an "objective interpretation" of the text is not a thing. 

It's all subjective.

Then why assert that the map is based on "the text itself" here?

This claim is the pretext all M2C scholars use for rejecting the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. Letter VII, General Conference addresses, declarations in books published by the Church--all of these are outside "the text itself" and therefore can be ignored, reframed, and repudiated.

(Ironically, the second part of the article discusses Mormon's cave. It relies on the teachings of the prophets, including Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff and David Whitmer. Each of these men also taught that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the same Cumorah referred to in Mormon 6:6. Oliver stated it was a fact. Heber C. Kimball visited the site and saw the embankments still around the hill. Yet this article (and the visualizing project overall) rejects what the prophets said about Cumorah’s location.)

Attempts to visually represent geographical features in the Book of Mormon will naturally lead to judgments that may not always match other interpretations of the same passage.

Exactly. This sentence acknowledges the falsity of the previous claim that the map doesn't reflect anyone's personal theories. The map necessarily reflects the creators' subjective judgments. 

This is why neutrality makes sense, and why implementing a particular interpretation does not. 

VirtualScriptures chose to implement a particular interpretation, but they didn't have to. They could have chosen neutrality, as we'll see in a moment.

“For example, we represent wilderness references in the book as mountains on our map.”

Wilderness as "mountains" is the specific M2C interpretation from John Sorenson, Book of Mormon Central, and other M2C proponents. 

I once had well-known M2C scholars tell me the Book of Mormon refers to "a narrow strip of mountainous wilderness." I asked them to show me the passage in the text. Of course, they couldn't. They were referring to Alma 22, but they had read John Sorenson's version so many times they thought the text actually said that.

“The wildernesses could have just as easily been unclaimed land, swampland, jungle, desert, or any combination of those or other natural features.”

This axiomatic statement leads us to ask, then why does the fantasy map depict the wilderness as mountains? The answer is simple: the creators and proponents of this map work with Book of Mormon Central and they're promoting the specific M2C interpretation.

Had they wanted to, the map's creators could have portrayed a generic “wilderness” instead of depicting and specifying mountains. However, the M2C interpretation requires mountains to work, so that's what this fantasy map shows.

“It is intended that readers will be able to take our internal map and stretch it, compress it, and modify it to fit whatever model they prefer for their own study purposes.”

I've been hearing this rationalization for years, but it makes no sense. How can anyone take the image of this fantasy map and stretch, compress, or modify it? One could print the map and use scissors to “modify” it somehow, or use image manipulation software to cut it up virtually, but of course the outcome would be useless. Maybe the “intent” was for readers to print the fantasy map on silly putty and manipulate it that way? That's not a facetious question. How else could someone modify this map?

Because I’ve worked extensively in computer animation and I still use the same software as VirtualScriptures, some time ago I asked the developers if I could adapt their work for an alternative interpretation of the text. They were favorable, but their bosses said absolutely not. Perhaps that policy has been relaxed, but I doubt it. After all, the people who promote this fantasy map work closely with Book of Mormon Central, the ultimate enforcer of M2C.

Even if the developers were willing to make their code available, most people don’t have computer animation software they could use to “stretch, compress and modify” the fantasy map. Given the constraints of fixed images, a truly “neutral” approach would offer at least some variations of this map that represent alternative interpretations.

That’s not going to happen so long as Book of Mormon Central has veto power and the allegiance of the developers and managers of VirtualScriptures.

Chapter-by-Chapter App.

The article goes on to discuss a “Chapter-by-Chapter App” that could be quite useful. "When a user selects a chapter that mentions a city or other geographic feature for the first time, that feature will appear on the map." This sounds great, but because it relies on the fantasy map, it's merely another tool for enforcing the M2C interpretation.

Mormon's Cave.

The next section of the article discusses "Mormon's Cave." It includes this classic M2C talking point:

We have ten different secondhand accounts from people who saw this cave in vision.7

[This statement is factually incorrect, and it's impossible to know if it was a poor editing job or just carelessness by the author. None of the people who gave the secondhand accounts claimed they saw the cave, in a vision or otherwise. That's why they are secondhand accounts. The only ones who entered the depository were Oliver, Joseph, two of Joseph's brother, and possibly others. None of these claimed the experience was a vision.]

Footnote 7 goes to the article by Cameron Packer that we've discussed before. Here's a link so you can read it for yourself.


If you can't get the link, send me an email and I'll send you the .pdf.

The knowledge of the "cave" in the Hill Cumorah came from Oliver Cowdery, who told Brigham Young that he and Joseph visited the site on at least two occasions. That is consistent with David Whitmer's testimony about the divine messenger taking the Harmony plates to Cumorah. David also said Oliver told him about visiting the depository.

Oliver's account is also consistent with Brigham Young's statement that Joseph returned the plates to the Hill Cumorah.

Why are M2C scholars so eager to frame this experience as a "vision" instead of a literal visit?

We can't read minds; doing so would be contentious anyway. Instead, we look at what the scholars have written and make rational, conservative inferences.

M2C scholars reject Oliver's Letter VII testimony about the Hill Cumorah in New York, so to be consistent they have to also discredit the testimony about Mormon's depository in the hill.

IOW, if Oliver visited Mormon's depository in the Hill Cumorah in New York, then he had every reason to declare it was a fact that this was the very Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.

And if Oliver told the truth in Letter VII, all the prophets who reaffirmed the New York Cumorah were also correct.

That would mean the M2C scholars, including the ones who created the fantasy "VirtualScriptures" map, are wrong.

You can see where this is going. These scholars have a very powerful incentive to portray the prophets as ignorant speculators who misled the Church by declaring, in General Conference and elsewhere, that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York.

You can read about this in the publications of Book of Mormon Central, FairMormon, etc.

You can also read the statements and decide for yourself whether Brigham Young and the others were relating an actual experience or a "vision."

Brigham Young related the account just two months before he died. It was one of his last sermons, and he related it because he was afraid that otherwise the account would be lost. He prefaced his remarks by explaining that he lived in the area and knew it well. Like the others who spoke about the room, Brigham described the contents in physical terms, such as "many wagon loads" of plates.

The scholars rely on Heber C. Kimball's word choice; i.e., he spoke of a "vision" that Joseph and Oliver had. While that could refer to a supernatural experience, the 1828 Webster's dictionary defines the term to include "the act of seeing external objects" and "Any thing which is the object of sight." I've discussed all of this previously.

Recall that Heber testified he visited the Hill Cumorah in New York and saw the embankments around it. He referred to the depository on at least one other occasion. He said there were more plates than ten men could carry. Heber spoke about this more than once, etc.

This is a good example of the two movies on one screen that I've discussed before.

2. Visit to the Nephite repository.

Movie 1. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, David Whitmer and others said Oliver told them about occasions when he (Oliver) and Joseph visited the repository of Nephite records inside the Hill Cumorah. Oliver must have been speaking of visionary experiences because the Hill Cumorah is a drumlin that could not contain a natural cave such as Oliver described.

Movie 2. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, David Whitmer and others said Oliver told them about occasions when he (Oliver) and Joseph visited the repository of Nephite records inside the Hill Cumorah. They were familiar with the area and emphasized the physical reality of Oliver's description. Kimball reported visiting Cumorah and seeing the embankments around it. Oliver never said it was a natural cave, and photos of an actual room in the hill show walls built up with cut stones.

I actually like the interactive cave because it shows the "Small plates" as distinct from the "Gold plates," although it also depicts them both in the compilation graphic, which as we all know by now doesn't make sense. Still, you should download the cave and explore it.


The end of part 1.

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