September 2, 2009

Review: Bob Bennett's "Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon"

Author: Bob Bennett
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Religion/Apologetics
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 318 plus preface
ISBN13: 9781606410530
Price: 29.99

I read about it in the Salt Lake Tribune: a senatorial campaign is upon Utahns and one of the candidates happens to release a book on the Book of Mormon.1 I thought to myself: "A book about the Book of Mormon by Bob Bennett? He's not an expert on the subject. What can he possibly say that will either be new or helpful?" Actually, my thoughts weren't so well-formulated; that is a direct quote from Bennett's opening line of the book (see p. ix). By drawing upon personal experience and his own "competence...to understand and weigh the arguments" of different critics and believers, Bennett investigates the Book of Mormon to determine the likelihood that it is a forgery (p. ix, 19).

But wait, the author is a prominent fellow who has served as one of Utah's Senators since 1992 and rumor has it he faces a difficult upcoming election.2 Isn't this a "fishy time" for Bennett to release the book? 

Perhaps, but according to the Bennett campaign the publishing date was determined by Deseret Book, not Bennett. Moreover, the book itself makes it clear that Bennett has been working on it long before this upcoming election.3

Fair enough, but shouldn't we consider Bennett's political position in general? It doesn't matter that he didn't foresee the current tough election, he could desire to share a mix of politics and religion with his constituents any time, right? 

Quite the contrary in this case. The book is nearly silent on political matters and in some cases is clearly not simply a butterbath for believers. For instance, he doesn't flinch in asserting that readers of the Book of Mormon should not find a "reflection of American democracy in any way" in the complex Nephite political systems (p. 143). Also, he's clearly friendly with the scholars he interacts with, be they Republican, Democrat, or none of the above. No electioneering here, no political point-scoring attempted.4


So what is this book trying to do? As noted, Bennett sought to analyze the Book of Mormon as a potential forgery. Citing his own experience with past forgeries—directly with various Howard Hughes controversies and indirectly with other forgeries including the Hofmann "salamander letter" fiasco—Bennett holds the Book of Mormon to "the most rigorous tests for forgery" (p. 9).

Why would Bennett wish to do so? The Book of Mormon has played an important part in Bennett's spiritual life and he was bothered by many "shallow treatments" of the work, so by page eight I was almost cheering him on when he called both critics and believers to task for not paying enough responsible attention to the Book of Mormon:
Inside the Church, too many members treat the book as something of a theological version of Bartlett's Favorite Quotations—a source for inspirational snippets that can be used to make various points in speeches and sermons but not a book to be read and pondered at length. Those Latter-day Saints who go no farther than that in their study of the book do not really understand it, and some make claims for it that go well beyond what the book itself maintains (p. 8).
Critics who sneer at what they see as a silly romance full of anachronisms and other contemporary commentators who feel the book is something of an embarrassment that should not be prominently featured by the Church, are also invited to give stricter heed. Bennett wants these readers to take the book seriously because for him, the book came from someone, and our obligation to the book depends largely upon who that "someone" is.

Bennett quickly lays his own cards out on the table,5 wanting the reader to know he is a believer in the claims Joseph Smith made for the book, namely: that an angel delivered a set of golden plates from which he translated an ancient record of scripture by the gift and power of God. His argument is that he can discover no definitive empirical evidence for that claim. At the same time, he feels that no smoking gun has been discovered showing the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Thus, a decision either way requires a "leap of faith," hence the title. Also, given current (and for Bennett, understandable) skepticism about angels and miraculous translations, Bennett seeks to explore various possibilities for authorship. The rest of the book reads like a thoroughly reasoned investigation, a careful weighing of evidence and counter-evidence, to clarify the relevant issues. After describing the situation surrounding the publication of the Book of Mormon Bennett identifies three main suspects: God (through revelation to prophets like Mormon and Joseph Smith), Joseph Smith himself, or "Third Party," which could include Solomon Spaulding, Sidney Rigdon, or other unknown candidates (p. 40-42).

Bennett employs three standard tests for forgery and a fourth test unique to the Book of Mormon. The first test evaluates "internal issues" regarding consistency in the narrative, length, internal details and so forth. The second test regarding "external issues" looks for anachronisms original readers might have missed, corroborative evidence, and other things outside of the text itself. (In both cases, Bennett says, readers must "be careful to separate what the Book of Mormon [itself] says from what it does not say [because t]he work cannot be held accountable for the errors of its more enthusiastic backers," see p. 10, emphasis in original.) The third test addresses "motive." Be it fame, money, thrill, inspiration, psychosis, or whatever else, this question is important when considering a possible forgery. The fourth test which Bennett says applies specifically to the Book of Mormon is that of "relevance." Because the book claims to be revelation from God, Bennett expects its contents to reflect what God might want to reveal to readers today. Or does it speak mostly to the past to contemporaries of Joseph Smith? (see pp. 9-11).

Using these four tests, Bennett proceeds to analyze the Book of Mormon, first by exploring story lines and then by looking at more specific sermons and doctrines. Bennett is familiar with different theories of authorship and interacts with theories from Fawn Brodie, Alexander Campbell, Hugh Nibley, Jack Welch and other prominent Book of Mormon analysts. It is an even report, not an apologetic whitewashing or covering up of sticky details; Bennett frankly admits some of the more difficult puzzles readers have discovered in the Book of Mormon. For instance, he calls Mormon's seeming quotation of Paul a "golden nugget of forgery evidence" (p. 189). He also draws attention to some of the strong evidence in favor of historical authenticity, calling on critics to take more seriously the impressive geographical parallels Nephi incorporates into the small plates (see pp. 88-99). His tone is even and he does not always grant his own perspective the rhetorical advantage of having the last word, which a few faithful readers may find uncomfortable. Occasionally he raises problems he has found no good solution for, but he also emphasizes evidences of which he has found no convincing refutation. When he uncovers a seeming "draw" he notes the need for critic and believer alike to make a "leap of faith."

In a few cases I believe Bennett actually grants a little too much to critics, perhaps overlooking some of the more relevant and recent scholarship on the Book of Mormon. While he responsibly qualifies wordprint studies said to prove different authorship for sections of the Book of Mormon (p. 83) he still lends them a little more weight than I would (p. 142).6 In his discussion on archaeology (p. 146) he could use some advice on the trouble of toponyms in Mesoamerica and other considerations.7 He makes a few other minor blunders, like describing the Nephite monetary system as using "coins,"8 and claiming Mark Hofmann planted a bomb in his own trunk to throw off police when eyewitness testimony make it clear the explosion occurred in Hofmann's front seat (p. 30). While it is likely not Bennett's fault, the index is pretty weak (several important discussions on "Reformed Egyptian" don't find a reference point there for example) and the footnotes are much too sparse for my taste. I chalk these last two complaints up to publisher's decisions, however. The book is clearly written for general readership, but the picky reader should take that into consideration while reading.9 

Despite these problems, the book is an enjoyable and easy read which provides a sensible introduction to many of the controversies surrounding the Book of Mormon. He includes large excerpts from the Book of Mormon interspersed with summaries and commentary in order to give the reader more experience with the Book of Mormon itself. He accurately describes the complex inner structure of the Book of Mormon, including the different authors and records claimed to be used as sources. After outlining and examining several Book of Mormon stories Bennett's final section discusses specific doctrines he believes God would want readers to consider today. He believes the doctrinal discussions on agency, sin, repentance, responsibility, theodicy, and the reality of Christ and His atonement all make the book truly relevant for our time; an indication of authenticity. He then shows how the stories and the doctrine intertwine to make the doctrines play out in actual experiences; the book preaches while it demonstrates.

This balanced treatment is a thoughtful study that provides a fruitful example of how one should weigh claims about the Book of Mormon, whether or not the reader agrees with the particular points Bennett makes. As the title suggests, Bennett believes that whether a person is friend or foe, believer or critic, everyone must ultimately make a "leap of faith" in their decision as to the authenticity of the book. He hopes sincere investigators will invite God to help them make the leap by reading it carefully and asking God if it is true, as the final Book of Mormon chapter urges. This, Bennett says, is what sustained his own leap of faith.


3 1/2 out of 5 plates

*Worth the read
*Balanced candor
*Unique analysis 
*Nothing entirely new data-wise 




Excerpts of Bennett's book can be read here at DeseretBook.com.)



FOOTNOTES

[1]
See Thomas Burr, "With tough election ahead, Bennett pens LDS book," The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 August 2009. The news article itself seems to tilt ever so slightly to the side of believing Bennett had ulterior motives about the timing of the release of the book, namely: that of gaining more street-cred with Mormons in Utah.

[2]
Burr, ibid.: "The three-term senator faces three GOP competitors in his 2010 re-election bid, all of them portraying themselves as more conservative alternatives to the incumbent."See also See Robert Gehrke, "Senate race already getting testy eight months out," The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 August 2009.

[3]
According to senator Bennett's campaign manager/son, Jim Bennett: "This book is in the works for something around seven years....This has been going through the editing process at Deseret Book for quite some time. No one anticipated one way or another what the political climate would be when this was released," see Burr, opt. cit. It seems the editor who created the headline for the article ("With tough election ahead, Bennett pens LDS book") missed this quote, disbelieves it, or believes Bennett can see the future. (Still, I have great sympathy for the reporter who is frustrated by an editor's unfortunate choice for a headline.) Bennett talks about his frustration with media treatment of the Book of Mormon which became a writing project which turned into a book since 2002 (see pp. ix-x). His research for the book indicates it is not a hashed-together attempt to curry political favor.

[4]
Bennett, a Republican, specifically goes to bat in behalf of Hugh Nibley, a prolific Mormon scholar, social critic and Democrat. Bennett acknowledges a few terse dismissals of some of Nibley's work by various critics and notes: "I took issue with [Nibley] myself, on his political beliefs--but on the items I cite here, I cannot find any articles or books that challenge" the particular evidence Bennett refers to (p. 94). Other references to current politics (and they are very few!) are incidental to the book. For example, he very briefly describes how bias at CBS News might have led some folks to accept fraudulent memos painting George W. Bush in a negative light during the 2004 presidential campaign. Bennett is silent in terms of Bush's presidency either way (see pp. 30, 32).

[5]
Since Bennett quickly lays his own cards out on table in regards to his belief in the Book of Mormon, I'll follow suit: I was initially completely skeptical of Bennett's book because I didn't know what to expect and I don't always agree with his political views. Now that I have read the book, I regret the timing of the release if only because it is an easy way for critics to dismiss or poke some fun at a book that deserves a responsible hearing.

[6]
See BHodges, "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 8 December 2008.

[7]
See, for instance, William J. Hamblin's "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 2:1, pp. 161-97.

[8]
The word "coins" is not original to the Book of Mormon text, but was decades later to a chapter heading discussing the Nephite monetary system. See John W. Welch, "Weighing & Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 8:2, pp. 36–46.

[9]
It is ironic that Bennett quotes Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, two Evangelical scholars who stated that Evangelical scholarship on Mormonism suffers from virtually ignoring all of the more recent and sophisticated scholarship, and at the same time overlooks many excellent resources himself (see p. 215-26). There are a few other specific cases wherein I think Bennett could have cited more recent research much to his advantage, including information on the early Israelite pantheon, changing views of the Godhead, Isaiah inclusions in the Book of Mormon text, and a few other areas. (Bonus points for discussing the problem of Deutero-Isaiah nonetheless! For a clearer view see Kevin L. Barney, "Isaiah Interwoven," FARMS Review Vol.15:1, pp. 353-402.) I also believe he drastically undersells the statements of the witnesses who said they saw and handled the golden plates. See Richard Lloyd Anderson's Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Deseret Book 1981) and "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 14:1, pp. 18—31. Of course, critics of the Book of Mormon could likewise claim Bennett does not provide their best arguments (though I believe he does a fairly good job of representing a variety of critical views). Aside from this, readers can benefit from Bennett's approach and continue applying a similar method to the various evidences they feel Bennett overlooked.

14 comments:

Henrichsen said...

Bennett's father was a U.S. Senator from the State. His father has a hymn in the LDS Hymn Book. He is closely related to Heber J. Grant. I do not think that he needs to prove his Mormoniness to anyone for campaign purposes or otherwise. If he was trying to firm up conservative support he could have come out with a typical "proud to be a conservative American book." Bennett is too classy for that kind of thing. He is very honest and has integrity.

Thanks for the review.

Clean Cut said...

Wow. Impressive review. And what a fascinating approach to a book about the Book of Mormon, by a U.S. Senator no less. I'm very intrigued, and especially look forward to a candid evaluation of both "sides". Thanks for the post.

Kent (MC) said...

I was wondering if this book would be relevant so I'm glad you reviewed it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

He is actually the grandson of Heber J. Grant. Thanks for the review. I am excited to read the book now.

Wes Kohl

BHodges said...

His cousin was Truman G. Madsen, to whom he dedicated the book.

Floyd the Wonderdog said...

Thanks for the wonderful review. I had been wondering about this book.

Don Kauffman said...

Wow, that was fast.
I also loved the quote about how the BoM is used in the church today.
I understand there is no new "data," but did you learn anything else?

Sanford said...

Assuming the Senator really wasn't involved in setting the date, does Sheri Dew have to report a politically favorable publication date as an in kind contribution to the campaign?

Matt W. said...

I saw this on DB's website a few weeks ago, and was curious as to why DB would be publishing a Book of Mormon book at this time, as they typically match up their publications with Sunday School. Why not with this?

BHodges said...

Matt W., I suspect the publisher wanted to take advantage of the extra publicity by releasing it right now. I don't know how much Bennett himself could have prevented such a thing, but that's what it seems like. I could be way wrong, but as you say it is kinda funny that it wasn't released around BoM curriculum time.

Reed Russell said...

Okay, Blair - you changed my mind. I'll buy it!

Excellent review, BTW - very well crafted.

BHodges said...

Personally Reed, knowing your background a little, you might wait for the paperback. IOW, the sticker price is a bit heavy considering your background knowledge ;)

BHodges said...

D. P. Sorensen's rather useless and snarky review can now be read in City Weekly. I strongly doubt D.P actually read more than 2 pages worth.

http://npaper-wehaa.com/cityweekly/2009/09/03/#?article=521942

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