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.

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