Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Do We Care?

When John W. (Jack) Welch, John L. Sorenson, and I were first getting The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) up and running in the early 1980's, we encountered some resistance, particularly from faculty members in the BYU Religion Department. Joseph F. McConkie, for example, said disparagingly "I don't care what color the buttons were on Nephi's coat, and I don't think God cares." The Book of Mormon is so doctrinally rich, so abundantly Christological, and such a profoundly spiritual tour de force that proof-texting its pages for gems of plot, homily or divine inspiration yields a lifetime of treasures. The most frequently cited passage in the text - Moroni 10:4 - adjures readers to get on their knees and receive a personal witness of its truthfulness through the power of the Holy Ghost. I raise  my voice with millions of others worldwide who have done precisely as the Prophet Moroni requests. I have asked God in the name of Jesus Christ if The Book of Mormon is true and He has answered me in such unmistakable ways that I have a testimony of "plainness; in the which I know that no man can err." 2 Nephi 25:7.
My personal conviction, though, does not satisfy my intellectual curiosity. We are all dual beings - partly flesh and partly spirit. "And the spirit and the body are the soul of man." Doctrine and Covenants 88:15. Feed only the body and you miss the awe. Feed only the spirit and you starve to death. The Lord Himself has counseled us to "seek learning, even by study and also by faith." Doctrine and Covenants 88:118. Everything I learn about The Book of Mormon deepens my understanding of and my appreciation for this divine gift. Just like a knowledge of Greek and a map of Paul's journeys enhance our understanding of and appreciation for The New Testament, the text of The Book of Mormon becomes more real and alive the more we know about the people and cultures moving across its pages. We care because we want to better understand.
We also care because we want to share, and others must have some modicum of interest before they will take the time to read and investigate. There are more than 7 billion of our brothers and sisters on the earth today. How many of them have even heard of The Book of Mormon? Two or three percent, perhaps? And of that small fraction, how many have a reasonably accurate concept of what the Nephite scripture is all about? How many have actually read the book with real intent? As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
Graphic by Fernando Vazquez illustrating the
need for The Book of Mormon in the world
God lives. Have you read His recent book?

For many years, the German edition of Das Buch Mormon showed an image of Izapa Stela 5 on the dust jacket.
German edition of The Book of Mormon with
an image of Izapa Stela 5 on the dust jacket.
My departed friend and former Bishop, Orville C. Gunther (President of the South German Mission on August 16, 1967, when one of his missionaries, Jack Welch then serving in Regensburg, discovered chiasmus in The Book of Mormon), credited many conversions in Bavaria to an initial intellectual curiosity that when satisfied, was followed by a life-changing spiritual witness. I have talked with dozens of people over the years for whom FARMS materials were an important part of their conversion process. I have spoken with many more who decided to remain faithful through their turbulent youth because FARMS materials provided an intellectually satisfying and defensible anchor in their mental storm. So, we care because we want many others to experience The Book of Mormon for themselves and who knows what might pique or hold their interest?
There are many sub-disciplines within Book of Mormon studies - warfare, etymology of the onomasticon, Hebrew literary devices, Biblical law, population dynamics, holocaust psychology, etc. One of the most important from an exegetical or evangelistic perspective is geography. A convincing map would have more positive influence on the cause of The Book of Mormon around the world than almost any other study aid. So, yes we care whether the Grijalva or the Usumacinta is the River Sidon because the sooner we have the river identified the sooner we will find Zarahemla and that will really put The Book of Mormon on the map. Like Schliemann's discovery of Troy vindicating Homer, dirt, rocks and pot shards will enhance the credibility of The Book of Mormon so more of God's children take it seriously.
Book of Mormon studies are important enough that Pres. David O. McKay called Elder Milton R. Hunter specifically to oversee that effort around the Church, and as a member of the First Council of the Seventy (now First Quorum of the Seventy) many of Elder Hunter's General Conference addresses treated that theme. As a young missionary in Peru in 1974, I corresponded with Elder Hunter. When he realized that I was prepared to make a contribution to Book of Mormon studies, he arranged for me to be released from my mission in-country, but remain in South America for 2 extra months travelling and doing research. (Remember the old blue missionary copies of The Book of Mormon that included photographs of Pachacamac, Palenque, and Chichen Itza? That was Elder Hunter's work.) Book of Mormon studies are important enough that Elder and later President Howard W. Hunter took great personal interest in the work of the BYU New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) over several decades. Book of Mormon studies are important enough that when Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley invited FARMS to formally become part of BYU in 1997, he was lavish in his praise of the work FARMS had done, indicating how important it had been to the Brethren to have high quality, faithful scholarship helping move the cause of The Book of Mormon forward around the world.