The vexed question of Book of Mormon geography

There’s been several more articles in the recurrent arguments over Book of Mormon geography. The Interpreter has posted a couple of articles arguing against the so-called “heartland” model (which locates Book of Mormon events in the American midwest and around the Great lakes) here and here and thus implicitly defending the old FARMs preferred model of Mesoamerica. This in turn seems to be a reaction to several books and a fairly prolific run of posts arguing for the heartland model here. And so the arguments continue.

Personally I’m an agnostic on Book of Mormon geography. I don’t know where it happened. And I think that where it happened is considerable less important than that it did: the reality of the Book of Mormon’s promises about the gathering of Israel and God’s intervention into history, or its witness of Christ, depends on the events within happening, but not so much on their geographical location. Though it’s also understandable why people get so involved in the question, because (at least as far as I can tell), many of those seeking to identify the location are aiming in some way to bolster that it did. But at the same time I’m not sure that the Lord’s going to let us find anything particularly conclusive on this subject yet, particularly since at present one purpose of the Book of Mormon is to ‘try [our] faith’ (3 Nephi 26:9).

In the meantime, I don’t find any of the models as presented completely convincing. The heartland model certainly has issues: I think it reads too much into things like D&C 125:3, or has geographical issues like the seas mentioned both east and west of the Nephite/Lamanite lands. But then I think the Mesoamerican model, while often pursued in a more professional manner, also has geographical issues (the placement of the seas, the narrow neck of land and so on) and I find the cultural case unconvincing. But then again, while I think they have problems, that doesn’t mean they might not be right. My biggest issue isn’t really anything to do with the actual models themselves but where people try to actually read the text of the Book of Mormon itself through their preferred (and unverified) lens. It’s that aspect that fuelled my rather negative reaction to the Journey of Faith 2 DVD (in three parts: 1 2 3), where the insistance on trying to see everything through a Mesoamerican lens led to easily avoidable mistakes like reading an explicit quotation of the Ten Commandments as a reference to Mesoamerican cosmology. I object to any model that leads to misreading scripture, but that’s really a case of people reading it in, rather than the model itself.

In any case, until a conclusive link is found for any model, I can’t help but think that many of these issues may be interesting, but they’re not as important as other matters. Yet – perhaps because of the perceived benefits of actually locating the scriptural scene – it’s definitely consumed a lot of attention. I don’t wish to dissuade any of those interested in the topic from researching it (who knows, after all, what the results will be). But I do think that means that discussions on the topic should really have an assumption of good faith, and avoid some of the accusations that can accompany this topic. And there are good examples of this: this article here, for example, deserves kudos for the author’s (J. Theodore Brandley) calm approach to his views,as does the Interpreter for their willingness to publish something at odds with their preferred approach and a couple of the commentators (such as Brant Gardner) for calmly engaging even where they disagree.

In the meantime, however, and as much as I find these topics interesting from time to time, I find my attention is attracted to other topics. From personal experience, I’ve found conclusive answers to matters of faith (such as the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon) come through revelation, rather than a firm geographical hypothesis. And beyond that question, I find I personally want to devote my time to questions I believe may well of be greater importance. The most vital questions about the Book of Mormon to my mind are not where but what: not where the book took place, but what it has to to teach us, what it has to say about what God is about to do, and what it has to say about what we should do.

The Adventures of Nephi son of Helaman

In my personal study I’ve be reading through the travails of Nephi son of Helaman (Helaman 7-11) lately, and really was just struck by the following points, and since it’s good to share:

1) Nephi is accused at one point of personal ambition, that he was seeking to make himself “a great man” (Helaman 9:16) and so had conspired for someone to murder the chief judge. What struck me on this read through is how this may well have seemed outwardly plausible to the people at the time, since Nephi himself had been chief judge (Helaman 3:37, 5:1-4). The circumstances of his abdication might have seemed particularly controversial, for while we learn from 5:4 that he was ‘weary’ of the judgment-seat and undertook to preach the Gospel as Alma had done earlier, the fact that this came in the wake of the Nephites losing half their territory (Helaman 4) and that Nephi appeared to lack political support (5:2-3) may have led many to think Nephi was seeking to reclaim an earlier position of power via other means. And perhaps we too need to be cautious about assuming what appear to be ‘obvious’ motives.

2) The attitude of the five who went to check on the chief judge following Nephi’s prophecy seems important. They didn’t believe Nephi was a prophet, but what I find significant is that they were willing to check and – should it turn out to be correct – expressed the willingness to then believe everything else he had taught (Helaman 9:2). It seemed an illustration of what Alma teaches in Alma 32:27, about how one could “experiment” upon the word and “exercise a particle of faith”. These five didn’t even necessarily “desire to believe”, but they were willing to go and look, and willing to believe all if what they checked was true.

3) The point at which Seantum, the brother and murderer of the chief judge, is accused is very interesting. Nephi tells them precisely what to say, and what Seantum’s replies and reactions will be (Helaman 9:26-36). The actual account of them doing so, however, simply states:

And it came to pass that they went and did, even according as Nephi had said unto them. And behold, the words which he had said were true; for according to the words he did deny; and also according to the words he did confess. (Helaman 9:37)

By giving Nephi’s prophetic instructions in detail, and then not actually giving an account of what happened other than to say it went like Nephi said, I think the passage emphasises the power and accuracy of prophetic fulfilment. It’s saying that Nephi’s prophecy was so accurate, there’s no need to retell it all over again.

4) Finally the section from Helaman 9:39 to 10:1 seems quite ironic. At least some believe Nephi is a prophet (9:40). Others even say “he is a god” (v.41). But amidst all the arguments, even those who claim to believe Nephi “went their ways” and leave Nephi “alone” (Helaman 10:1). That he feels “cast down” (v.3) is quite understandable – even those loudly proclaiming that Nephi is a prophet have wondered off rather than listening to him!

The Conductor of History

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing?

(Alma 37:45)

When reading the scriptures, types and typology are perhaps one of the most elusive but rewarding things we can discover. Particularly when reading those passages others might dismiss as simply “stories”, we should pay attention not only to what principles those stories might teach us, but also the ways that people, objects or events may be a ‘type’ that prophetically prefigures a future or eternal ‘antitype’. Thus ‘all things which have been given of God’, such as the Law of Moses or the bronze serpent of Moses typify Christ (2 Nephi 11:4, Alma 25:15, Alma 33:19). The Liahona not only guided Lehi and his family to the promised land, but serves as a type of ‘the words of Christ’ which can guide us ‘beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise’ (Alma 37:38-45).

A crucial thing about types is that these are not allegorical or symbolic readings, an artifact of either the writers or the reader. Rather the idea of types is founded on the conviction that – just as God can communicate directly through revelation – He can also reveal Himself and His works through everyday and historical events. Thus God on some level orchestrates these events so they may teach His intended messages, in some cases to audiences very far removed in space and time from the original events.

This idea of God orchestrating events to this level might be a trifle unsettling to Latter-day Saints, who obviously also have a conviction of human agency. Some might wonder how, even with God’s perfect foreknowledge of all things, God can be ultimately in charge of what happens. The idea of God as the ultimate ‘author’ of human history may appear to give insufficient acknowledgement that – unlike the fictional characters of an author who think, feel and act at the author’s whim – God has permitted us the power and ability to act for ourselves.

I was thinking about this when my mind lit upon an analogy that I feel fits better, that of God being the conductor of history. He, through His own choice, doesn’t control the musicians as puppets and we are not mere extensions of His will. But he knows us, and has past, present and future continually before His eyes. And thus, though he grants us agency, he remains in control of the final piece because he does dictate when and where we play.

“Choosing to be happy” and emotional integrity

I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of [i]being[/i] fortunate, and not necessarily [i]feeling[/i] overjoyed.

However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.

There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.

Unhappiness is not a sin

As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.

Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).

Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions

It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.

That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.

Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.

We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.