Panel discusses the Book of Mormon
HEIDI TOTH - Daily Herald
Robert Price considers the Book of Mormon fiction. Richard Bushman
wants to separate the text of the book from the beliefs of individual
members of the LDS Church about Joseph Smith as a modern-day prophet.
Phyllis Tickle is an "absolute literalist" who believes the book was
divinely inspired, but as an Episcopalian doesn't necessarily accept
it. Robert Rees and Mark Thomas, both Mormons, believe many of the
best insights into the book, which lies at the core of their faith,
come from people who are not LDS.
The five religious scholars discussed the Book of Mormon, sacred texts
and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a roundtable
discussion Wednesday night at the Salt Lake City Library. The two
Episcopalians and three LDS scholars sparred graciously with each
other and members of the audience, sometimes agreeing and sometimes
not. All agreed that the Book of Mormon is a valuable piece of
But their perspectives varied.
Thomas, a BYU professor who started the Book of Mormon Round Table
four years ago because of a void he saw in discussions about the book,
said the greatest need in understanding it was open discussion without
hostility between believers and non-believers. Too often, he said,
Mormons use the book to exclude people, and non-Mormons use it to be
excluded. Thomas repeatedly said that, especially in a response to
questions and comments from the audience, it should be used to help
people of all faiths understand one another.
The Book of Mormon provides a way to start a dialogue about religious
beliefs, he said.
"Mormonism was born in a fortress," he said. "Mormonism is at the
point where it needs to get out of the fortress, stop throwing rocks
and get to the crossroads. We don't need to defend ourselves."
Rees said discussions with non-Mormons about the Book of Mormon
provide Mormons with insight. In his experience, members of the LDS
Church tend to read the book superficially, while others will read it
Price, a humanist, New Testament scholar and member of the Jesus
Seminar -- a group of scholars who study the historical Jesus -- was
least like the other panelists in that he rejects the book as the word
of God and believes it amounts only to literature.
He is an Episcopalian who was converted as a youth, goes to church
frequently and puts the Bible in the fiction category as well --
stories, doctrine and all.
"I consider myself a Christian, but I'm not even sure Jesus ever
existed," he said. The uncertainty doesn't keep him from worshipping,
and he benefits by participating in the drama of religion, he said. "I
love all the religions. I no longer believe literally the stories or
the doctrines of any of them."
Bushman, a historian at Columbia University whose ancestors have been
LDS for five generations, said his experience as a Mormon historian
has taught him to appreciate the doctrines; but he looks at the text.
In an academic study the Book of Mormon, the text needs to be
considered on its own, he said.
"Great documents frequently are embedded in a story that in some way
becomes more important than the document itself," he said. He added
that the both doctrine and the view that the Book of Mormon is an
endorsement of Joseph Smith as a prophet muddies the study of the
"That complicates the study of the text because always in the
background is his authenticity as a prophetic figure," Bushman said.
The scholars also discussed tenets of the Book of Mormon they found
most insightful or intriguing. For Thomas, it's that the book is the
"voice of the downtrodden, and it's a voice that you don't hear
Rees, an editor of a series of essays on the Book of Mormon, and
Tickle, religion editor at Publisher's Weekly, both said caring for
the poor is a major theme. Rees also noted that the terrible cost of
war stands out.
"We forget as Latter-day Saints that the Lord's conjecture is to
renounce war and sue for peace," he said. In recent years, LDS Church
leaders have emphasized the desirability of peace but have also said
that wars to defend righteous principles must sometimes be fought.
Tickle enjoys the Book of Mormon both because of the drama and the
closeness she feels to the stories, which overwhelm everything else
for the first 10 minutes or so each time she reads it.
"This is the only sacred work I know of that deals with country I walk
on," she said.
Panelists also briefly touched on what defines a sacred text, and
although "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings" and J.D. Salinger were
mentioned, none could be classed as sacred.
Rees defined a sacred text as anything that opened the reader up to
more light and more love, and included in that list the Apocrypha, the
Dead Sea scrolls and a number of American Indian writings.
Tickle defines text as sacred if a community has sprung from it and
returns to it for direction and if she is able to take it with her
into her most holy prayers -- and if its sacredness continues after
the writing is finished.
"They must live, and they live in flesh," she said of the texts.
Price admitted he struggled with the concept of classifying something
as scripture. Some texts, such as the Quran or the Book of Mormon, he
accepts as scripture both as a matter of respect and because he
recognizes that people consider them holy even though he doesn't share
Bushman mentioned that his wife, who has contributed to a book about
the Book of Mormon, was studying the "little books." "Her point is
that if Chemish could contribute to the Book of Mormon by writing two
verses, surely we could write our own scriptures," he said, adding if
people write down experiences that bring them closer to God that
becomes scripture for them and their family.
Heidi Toth can be reached at 344-2543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.