Sunday, March 30, 2014

Literalism and Relevancy

In a recent discussion with a good friend and supporter of my research, it became obvious to the two of us that the metaphorical and poetic nature of religious revelations was also directly related to its continued relevancy, in that it gave the articulation point to map the insights into the present as the time of revelation receded farther into the past.

That would mean that, potentially, both the diminishing importance of the Book of Mormon and the need for ongoing revelations within the context of the Latter Day Saints movements could be due to the Biblical primitivism and revelatory literalism, which impedes the religious reuse of the revelations, other than would have been the case for metaphoric and poetic readings.

As a result, it might make sense to look back at Maimonides, who took great advantage of the metaphoric and poetic contents of the Old Testament during the rescue of that scripture for the Aristotelian philosophy of the Middle Ages.

Mormonism and Me

After another weekend of reading various theories about how the Book of Mormon came into existence---Spalding no, Spalding yes; Revelation versus Fraud; etc etc etc---I felt it was time to summarize my position on the matter.

However, on reflection it occurred to me that the disagreement was really higher up stream than that, and mostly driven by an analogy between Martin Luther and Joseph Smith Jr.

Fundamentally, I see the LDS position on the Old Testament as sketched for example by Ellis T. Rasmussen in the LDS Encyclopedia as untenable. I see the Old Testament as the founding document of the religion that Jesus of Nazareth who became the Christ himself practiced, and into which his movement was embedded historically.

Given the plurality of laws, narratives and words of wisdom that the Old Testament espouses, all of which require filtering from conceptual models that are external to the Old Testament, in order to be applicable to the present-day---such as a cosmopolitan, interracial, gender-sensitive stance---there seems to be little profit of going to that document rather than any other.

This holds especially true for the prophecies of the Old Testament, which I cannot interpret as metaphorically encoded announcements of a divine plan, but rather see as political speculations of the respective and often competing elites of the times of authoring in Palestine and Mesopotamia. (This stance is close to Spinoza's position, though updated to reflect present day scholarship in terms of literary criticism and biblical archaeology.)

When Martin Luther approached the reformation of the Catholic Church, he tried to replace the control of the Church hierarchy with the Bible as a document that he considered unassailable. This position can be explained historically, but it cannot be replicated for a present-day Protestantism that has undergone the transformations of Modernity.

Joseph Smith Jr's restoration attempt flounders on similar points, in that it assumes a biblical primitivism for the Old and New Testament, and critically for its prophetic parts, that cannot be sustained any more than the Lutheran sola scriptura. The problem is that for Smith Jr, this stance is intimately tied to the correctness of his revelatory document, the Book of Mormon. Since the Bible is not a document of divine revelation in the sense that Joseph Smith Jr assumed, neither is the Book of Mormon, however its contents was generated.

It is really not clear how to take a different stance, given the discrepancies between divine control and human freedom in the story of early Mormonism itself. Honestly, it boggles the mind that the Book of Mormon is the product of a divine mind that can give an accurate prediction of how the Reformation will play out hundreds of years before it took place yet is foiled in its revelatory attempts of translating the Golden Plates by the wiles of Martin Harris' wife. To support human freedom in the latter case and divine control in the former is truly confusing.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dissertation Organization

I remain convinced that in some sense a dissertation, just like a master thesis, is an exercise in knowledge organization before it is anything else. The degree in the Social Sciences and Humanities is given to those people who can demonstrate that the can take a large body of knowledge, enter it, trace its connections to their respective lairs, and emerge with a 300-400 page record of that journey that documents their successful traversal.

Thus, developing the infrastructure required to get to the point of completing that traversal successfully is a key element of the overall effort. Just as in the case of the master thesis, having developed such infrastructure is an enabling tool for the next stage of the journey---whether that is the habilitation or the professional career of the researcher, is a separate matter.

With the first 100 page draft of my overall project, I was able to convince myself that the abilities tested for in the master thesis are still available; I dusted these off, so to speak. The approach of re-deriving things from the primary sources does not only speak to the archival-centric focus of the effort, but also forms a bulwark against the mountain of secondary literature, by definition average on average, and an inoculation against easy interpretations, especially in the partisan literature.

The overarching effort requires some form of dashboard, that makes it easy to

  • track the incoming literature
  • track the "processing" phase of the identified literature, at minimum
    • obtaining (downloading, ordering, purchase, ...)
    • bibliographical indexing (BibTeX)
    • processing of contents
      • determination of novelty and relevance
      • excerpting
    • secondary long-term storage in the case of downloads
  • query of state of each item
  • answering "what next" and "how much effort" types of questions
On the surface of it, one would suspect that bug and task tracking systems might be best suited to this effort; on the other hand, their notions of modules, features and OS types square badly with the requirements of the object being manipulated.

BibDesk type database applications on top of BibTeX files are helpful at the level of granularity of the individual book or article, esp. if one is willing to use the chapter approach to sub-sections in works such as Sacred Loneliness or Early Mormon Documents, to map the granularity gap between bibtex and the units of information at hand.

As with all structurally organized information, they might provide a way to transform out of a specific solution, once a better approach is identified.

On the Braden and Kelley Debate (Part I)

Reading the Braden and Kelley Debate up to the Third Speech of Mr Kelley, there are several points of interest for me.

  • Kelley is right that Braden is a jerk in calling Joe Smith an impostor, because Braden specifically had the concept of visionary available to him, and chose not to use it. That is unnecessarily ad hominem (and not backed by arguments, as Kelley notes).
  • Kelley points out that the "road sign is not the road" by exposing the differential between the iniquities of David and Salomon as compared to the excellence of their Psalms and Wisdom words, respectively; thus undercutting the "Joe Smith was a knave" argument as impinging the truth of the revelation. 
  • Braden gives a fascinating interpretation of I Cor 12-14, where the child/adult distinction that Paul uses is leveraged to make the present-day Church the fully developed, adult form, where miracles & revelations and & inspirations are not necessary anymore. His parallelism with the development of the US political state, in the context of the post-Civil War era of the late winter of 1884, must have been especially poignant.
  • It is strategically unclear to me why Kelley insists on the exegesis of the Jacobs prophecy in Deuteronomy, whose vague "wall" terminology Turner already exposed as difficult to interpret.

Friday, March 28, 2014

On Socio-Economic context of the Spaulding Theories

When reading through the theories about the origin of the Book of Mormon, and their defenders and detractors, be it the divine inspiration or the knavish romance re-working theory, one is struck by the pervasive patterns of socio-economic concern. The story of the origin of the Book of Mormon is riddled with financial insecurity.

  • Spaulding attempts to finish his romance to pay of his debts and operates a tavern in Conneaut in the meantime to support himself. 
  • Pratt sells his belongings to afford passage on the journey to Palmyra, to the point of requiring reclothing by Emma Smith and her lady friends before heading off to Ohio and converting the Indians and Sidney Rigdon's congregation.
  • Howe and Hurlbutt are not beyond selling out, possibly to the Mormons, at the earliest opportunity, despite their apparent incentive to expose the Mormon fraud.
  • Even wealthy farmer Martin Harris expects to do well financially with the Golden Bible publishing project.
The dark hand that stalks the forests of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri is neither the Devil's nor God's but Poverty's. 

Maybe intertwined with this background is the notion of the social networks of trust and believability that are transacted with accusations and responses (the "card" of Sidney Rigdon) that are published in newspapers (the undisturbed grave of Alvin Smith). The honesty of a man, the veracity of his dealings, are as important to defend as his homestead. [Thus the odium of the river card shark.] 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Re-Mapping Mormonism

I have been hard at work figuring out the various maps of the plats for the Mormon settlements following Kirtland, Ohio, e.g. Zion (I and II); Far West (I and II); etc.

I am doing the maps using the canvas tag and drawing in HTML5; being forced to identify an algorithm is very helpful in identifying the patterns.

For Zion I, I found this webpage from an urban planning professor to give the text of the plat explanation/revelation for Zion I; though apparently this is directly from the Church History.
(Apparently the plat that Joseph Smith Jr designed later received an award, if this missive is correct.)
I also found a nice article by Richard Jackson about the predecessors underpinning the plat and one about the legacy of the Zion Plat by Craig Galli at BYU Studies.

For Far West I, the scan of the sheep skin plat is available at BYU digital, though the pencil marks, and the distinction between ink and pencil marks on the plat, are not always easy to make out. It is also difficult to sort out how the lot distribution in lot #60 was supposed to play out.

BYU library has a Far West II scan, and they are in the process of digitizing that and bringing it up online. A shout-out to Rick Grapes, of BYU Map Collection, and Dr Mark Jackson, the research librarian for Geography, Geology, and Civil Engineering at BYU, for all their help.

I have been in contact with Michael Ellis, aka Zomorah, whose blog contains very nice maps he has drawn himself, of some of the early Mormon settlements in Missouri and Illinois. We are still haggling over some of the details, but that in itself is helpful---Michael also seems to have personal access to the museums in Salt Lake City, which I currently lack.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Books mentioned by Moses I Finley with respect to Ancient Slavery

In this classical Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Moses I. Finley mentioned several books from the 19th century that he considered important in the way they approached the question of slavery.

Among these are:

  • Johann Caspar Friedrich Manso of Breslau, a man of the Enlightenment, who published a multi-volume History of Sparta, to wit, Sparta: Ein Versuch zur Aufklärung der Geschichte und Verfassung dieses States (1800-1805), in three volumes: Volume 1 // Volume 2 // Volume 3.
  • Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Finley considers to be "arguably the first modern history tout court" (p.90), as much as he relegated slavery to a small section
  • Lorenzo Pignoria, De Servis Quondam Rei Librariae Adhibitis, 1674 (1694; 1702; 1747)  
  • William Blair, An Inquiry into State of Slavery among the Romans, 1833
  • B. Büchsenschütz, Besitz und Erwerb im griechischen Alterthume, 1869.
To be continued