September 25, 2009

Review: Michael Ash's "Of Faith and Reason"

Title: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith
Author: Michael R. Ash
Publisher: Cedar Fort
Genre: Apologetics
Year: 2008
Pages: 191
Binding: Soft cover
ISBN13: 9781599552316
Price: 14.99

Michael Ash's apologetic articles have been appearing online and in LDS publications for over a decade. What offensive thing could he have possibly done to require such frequent apologies? Actually, Ash isn't "sorry." He considers himself an "apologist" in the original sense of the word, a defender of the faith. Ash has been busy researching and answering criticism against the LDS Church. His latest offering is Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, a collection of eighty-plus bite-sized examples of Joseph Smith "getting things right" in spite of the odds against him. Clocking in at under 200 pages, the book is a breeze-through which needn't be read cover to cover; readers can take any sections in any order. This is a "greatest hits" mix-tape and the reader can put it on shuffle or go straight through.

Ash doesn't provide (or expect to find) unequivocal proof that Joseph Smith's revelations and translations are authentic, because "faith—which entails humility and a heart aligned with the teachings of the Savior—is necessary for true conversion" (Ash, xii). Instead, he hopes a collection of "secular evidences" will assist in the process of conversion by "provid[ing] an atmosphere where a spiritual witness can flourish" (xiii). Such evidences can support, not replace, faith.

Rather than providing new research, Ash has borrowed from an already-burgeoning LDS scholarship that has been adding up since Hugh Nibley got the ball rolling. Readers who are already familiar with much of what Nibley, FARMS, and FAIR have produced will recognize most of Ash's included evidences. Ash says these available resources have remained unknown to many Latter-day Saints—including Nibley's work ("relatively few members have actually read his writings," [xiv]). To Ash, Latter-day Saints could profit greatly by spending less time watching TV or surfing the web and more time learning about exciting new discoveries (xv). Perhaps some readers are simply unaware of LDS scholarly sources, or maybe they're bored or discouraged by technical language and length. Ash hopes to make discoveries more accessible:
The purpose of this book is to share some of the evidences for the prophetic abilities of Joseph Smith, the antiquity of many unique LDS doctrines and practices, and the fascinating support for the authenticity of the LDS scriptures. While I rely on the research of top LDS scholars, the data is presented in short snippets that should make it easier to both read and digest. For those whose appetites are teased by the summaries in this book, the endnotes will lead to more in-depth material (xv).
To give readers an idea of how far scholarly evidences have come, Ash cites anti-Mormon literature spanning from the 1830s to today. Many criticisms have lost ground as new information is discovered. The original laughter over Joseph Smith's strange invention of "reformed Egyptian" has faded as examples of such hybrid scripts have multiplied (38-40). Foreign descriptions of the early Lehite journeys through the Old World wilderness turn out to be accurate descriptions of real locations unknown in Joseph Smith's 1830 surroundings (pp. 53-54, 62, 65). In all, Ash cites evidence regarding Joseph Smith's prophetic career, the Book of Mormon's Old and New World shadows, the Book of Abraham, and various uniquely-LDS doctrines. An appendix describes ancient documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library to familiarize Latter-day Saints with some of the material he cites throughout the book (181-189).

I believe Latter-day Saints can benefit by becoming more familiar with much of what Ash includes. Some of Ash's evidences are stronger than others—I seem less impressed with "word-print" studies, for instance,1 and his section on the Book of Abraham is too skinny.2 The largest problem I see is that the book does not discuss the nature of his parallels or describe any specific method of evaluating (or even discovering) them. Instead, Ash falls back on the tired "how could Joseph have known" angle. Such parallels can easily become enmeshed in ideological battles over whether the Book of Mormon is an actual ancient record (now translated into Joseph Smith's idiom), or a 19th-century inspired forgery, or a fraud of some kind, or something else. Parallels from the 19th century would trump those Ash advances for some readers, and such parallels are often presented in a similar style—that is, quick soundbites sans discussion of method.

With these defects, can Ash's approach help level the discussion for a person who is confused about criticisms of the Book of Mormon, or inspire readers to "give place" for the possibility the Book of Mormon is an ancient and authentic record? There have been interesting discussions in the pages of Dialogue, the FARMS Review, and elsewhere that discuss the use of parallels.3 Ash's book isn't geared for an audience interested in such meta-discussion, however. His effort should be judged by his goal, which is to provoke interest in otherwise disinterested or uninformed readers toward learning more about scholarly discoveries and Joseph Smith's claims. Ideally, readers will be hungry for more and not be satisfied with his book alone.

Perhaps Ash could have included Nibley's insistence that he not be held responsible for "anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven's sake, I hope we are moving forward here."4 Such comments led Nibley's former student David Rolph Seely to explain: "I have always assumed Nibley would be delighted for us to read his work critically, and statements such as the above should be taken as invitations to join the fray."5 Hopefully, Of Faith and Reason encourages readers to become more interested in the overall conversation.

Ash has a knack for turning difficult academic subjects into accessible and engaging topics for the average reader. His book traverses a lot of already-covered ground, but ground that the average Latter-day Saint is unlikely to have traveled.



3 1/2 out of 5 Plates

*Fine for the casual reader, problematic for those concerned about methodology.

*Those intimidated by the vast archives of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS) might profit by starting here to get a feel for the field.

*Of Ash's two books, Shaken Faith Syndrome is more highly recommended


FOOTNOTES
[1]
See my post "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 8 December 2008.

[2]
In Ash's first book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt he spends more time discussing the apologetic issues involved with the Book of Abraham. In my estimation, Shaken Faith is the better of the two books.

[3]
For example, see Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Signature Books 1993) and Kevin Christensen's response, "Paradigms Crossed," FARMS Review 7:2, 144-218. Another interesting exchange is Douglas F. Salmon, "Parallelomania and the Study of Later-day Saint Scripture: Confirmation, Coincidence, or the Collective Unconscious," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33:2, 129-156 and William J. Hamblin, "Joseph or Jung? A Response to Douglas Salmon," FARMS Review 13:2, 87-107. Finally, an important addition to the conversation is Benjamin McGuire, "Parallelomania: Criticism of the Textual Parallels Theories," (unpublished), available at solomonspalding.com

[4]
Hugh Nibley, "The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Response," Sunstone, December 1979, 49. Ash's book will greatly help those who aren't up to speed with Nibley enough to even recognize what "moving along" would be.

[5]
David Rolph Seely, review of Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 3, by Hugh Nibley, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5 (1993): 195. Footnotes 4 and 5 taken from Hamblin, "Joseph or Jung," FARMS Review 13:2, 95.

6 comments:

Matt W. said...

I hate to say it, but this review sort of cooled my enthusiasm to buy this book. Ash's "The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution" is a go-to article for me, and I really enjoyed his "Mormon Fortress" back in the day, but it seems odd that he would bemoan "surfing the web" in such a manner, when so much is available regarding the church via the internet.

Mike Ash said...

I'd like to thank my friend Blair for his review of my latest book, "Of Faith and Reason."

First a note to Matt W.:
I don't bemoan "surfing the web"-- I spend too much time doing it myself. I just think that too many people substitute this, and other recreational activities, for reading some of the quality literature that can only be found in books.

One comment regarding Blair's "larget problem" that he sees with my book-- a lack of discussion about the nature of parallels. He correctly points out that this dicussion didn't really fit with the intended audience of my book. I would also point out, in my defense, that with a few rare exceptions, the nature of parallels is something that is almost never discussed in the scholarly articles from which I drew my material. The nature of paralells is certainly important but it almost never mentioned in the many publications by FARMS or even Hugh Nibley.

These scholars have produced a massive amount of literature demonstrating that there are numerous supporting evidences that Joseph was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text. Parallels are often used to bolster these claims-- and to reiterate, the nature of parallels is never discussed. So at least I'm in good company.

I hope that Matt & others who read this review will understand that my book is intended to give an overview of many of these fascinating studies. It is aimed a the lay audience who is not familiar with these studies already (indeed they may not be really familiar with FARMS or Hugh Nibley [beyond the mention of his name]).

Mike

BHodges said...

Matt, his main bemoaning is about the time we spend watching TV, which on average is about 6x as much as the time we spend reading. Plus, he has no argument against quality arguments and discussions that can be read online. For instance many articles he references are available at the Maxwell Institute site, or FAIR. This point Ash makes constitutes about 3 sentences of the entire book and is accurate from my view: we waste a lot of time.

Mike is also right that the meta-discussion on parallels is absent from many scholarly articles (and should be, probably, due to purpose and length, other than an author briefly explaining her approach). The sources I listed in the footnotes will be a great place to start looking into the topic.

For Ash's stated purpose the book is almost right on. I only wish he would have tipped his hand a little in the intro or conclusion to help readers situate the evidences, or at least to alert them that they need to do so (IMO). Summary: perfect for lay audience, except in one point, which is no discussion (all I want is a little one!) on parallels.

PS- if you see someone in your ward reading The Kolob Theorem or something, hook them up post haste.

Brant said...

Just this last Sunday I had the opportunity to lend my copy to a sister who is fairly new in the church but interested in the scholarly background. It is a great introduction for her. I suspect that it will only whet her appetite, but also will show us which way to go next.

BHodges said...

Brant, I think that is where this book is most valuable. My bias towards teaching one to fish (even while providing a fish) obviously skewed my review.

Reed Russell said...

My only wish for the book - that it be fleshed out just a bit further - is completely satisfied with the inclusion of very comprehensive and valuable endnotes at the end of each section.

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