Redesigned FARMS Review of Books Released
Sporting a new cover design and format, the latest issue of the FARMS Review of Books (vol. 12, no. 1) looks at an array of recent books related to Mormon studies, biblical studies, and scripture study. In the editor’s introduction, Daniel C. Peterson sets the record straight concerning a particularly infamous example of contemporary anti-Mormon rhetoric. His remarks set the stage for much of the nearly 500-page Review, which in addition to several positive book reviews, includes a thorough debunking of another anti-Mormon publication, the Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism.
On the positive side, Cherry B. Silver reviews John L. Sorenson’s 1998 book Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life and finds that it admirably “convey[s] the wonder of an ancient world.” The book also “builds confidence in the story told by Book of Mormon narrators [through its] anthropological detail [and] complex, accurate view of ancient life” portrayed in the text and in the many accompanying photographs and illustrations. Silver names three important contributions that the book makes to Book of Mormon studies: (1) its compelling argument for the Book of Mormon as an authentic artifact of antiquity, (2) its evaluation of theories about Book of Mormon geography from the perspective of anthropology, and (3) its reader-friendly format that facilitates understanding and constitutes a “multifaceted substantiation of the Book of Mormon world.”
Silver notes the book’s omission of source information for publications by Sorenson and by some of the LDS scholars he refers to and the “lack of conclusive evidence” linking Mesoamerican life with the Book of Mormon account—a limitation that she readily acknowledges is inherent in this kind of study. Overall, Silver considers Images of Ancient America “a landmark book, providing a substantial bridge between research and religious communities in its scholarship, answering questions long posed by Book of Mormon readers about the actual life of these peoples, and setting forth key verbal and visual arguments for a Mesoamerican setting for this narrative.”
In his review of Guy G. Stroumsa’s Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism, Barry R. Bickmore observes, “When our neighbors approach the Latter-day Saint religion, they are often struck by the extent to which secrecy plays a part in our faith and practice,” something that seems undemocratic to them in “the religion some have called the quintessential American faith.” Bickmore reminds readers that “Mormonism claims primarily to be a restoration of primitive Christianity—not some peculiarly concentrated distillation of the American ethos.”
Referring to Stroumsa’s book as perhaps “the most comprehensive study to date on early Christian secrecy,” Bickmore notes that “Mormons and non-Mormons alike might be shocked by how many esoteric doctrines and rituals extensively permeated the ancient religion of Jesus’ followers.”
Bickmore discusses secrecy regarding doctrine and ritual in the primitive church and makes comparisons to current LDS theology and worship practices. Readers will be interested to learn about early Christian esoteric traditions concerning salvation for the dead, an anthropomorphic God, and covenant keeping.
In Bickmore’s view the study of primitive Christianity, facilitated by Stroumsa’s book Hidden Wisdom, will help Latter-day Saints better understand “the dynamics of the apostasy from the pure Christian faith, both in terms of what was lost and how it was lost.”
In another positive and thoughtful review, Nathan Oman looks at Edwin B. Firmage and Richard C. Mangrum’s 1988 Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900. This book deals with the church’s experience with the U.S. legal system and, as Oman notes, is divided into three sections: “The first section chronicles the years from 1830 to 1844. The second section deals with the massive legal battle the church fought with the federal government over the practice of plural marriage. The final portion focuses on the system of ecclesiastical courts that sought to serve all Mormon judicial needs in the nineteenth century.” Oman remarks approvingly that the authors provide “a genuinely new approach to previously treated events without resorting to violent revisionism.”
Toward the end of the review, Oman explains his philosophy regarding two methodological approaches in Mormon scholarship: “Mormon studies” and “Mormon perspectives.” According to Oman, the first method, used by Firmage and Mangrum in their book, views Mormonism as subject matter from within the framework of the discipline of the person undertaking the study. Oman believes that this method has the pitfalls common to any study that is conducted under the scrutiny of so narrow a field. In addition, there is the pitfall of granting “intellectual authority to some system of thought beyond the gospel,” because “it is naïve to assume that any intellectual discipline’s pursuit of knowledge is always neutral vis-à-vis the gospel. There can and will be conflicts between the truths of revelation and the assumptions of certain kinds of scholarly inquiry.”
Oman sees great value in the “Mormon perspectives” approach because of its potential to challenge and shape conventional thinking by using Mormonism as a lens to scrutinize existing theories. This approach is more daring because it “suggests that the experience and doctrine of a relatively minor—by the world’s standards—religion can seriously challenge and engage in the great dialogue of our civilization.” Although Oman believes that Zion in the Courts “could have been a much more ambitious work” if its authors had used Mormonism to examine the law rather than vice versa, he commends them for “an admirable job” of treating the legal experience of the Latter-day Saints in a work that may yet prove to be seminal in the developing field of Mormon jurisprudence.
The bulk of the Review is an extensive response to the anti-Mormon Book The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism, which was written partly in response to Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson’s well-received 1997 book How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. Both books address the same subjects: scripture, God, Christ, and salvation.
In questioning the assumptions underlying the evangelical view of Christianity, the reviewers of The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism focus on the hellenization of Christianity. They also look at the logic of the arguments presented, often finding the reasoning faulty. As one reviewer, Alma Allred, puts it, “[These writers supplant] logic and evidence with assertions and double standards.” The result, he asserts, is a gross misrepresentation of LDS beliefs and at times even a distortion of the evangelical view.
Of particular interest are the two reviews of a chapter by Norman Geisler titled “Scripture.” The first review carefully analyzes the chapter’s falsifications and distortions of LDS beliefs, and the second documents Geisler’s wholesale plagiarism of Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s book The Changing World of Mormonism. The last chapter of the book, “A Word to Our Mormon Friends,” also receives a review, “A Word to Our Anti-Mormon Friends.” This review summarizes many of the problems addressed in the other reviews and discusses the need for a more fair discussion of LDS beliefs by those who criticize them. In the end, the reviewers all show that The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism is exactly what the title proclaims: a book that purports to have the truth about Mormonism but really does not.
This issue of the Review also contains favorable reviews of three study aids for students of the scriptures: Searching the Scriptures: Bringing Power to Your Personal and Family Study, by Gene R. Cook; Treasure Up the Word, by Jay E. Jensen; and Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, by James E. Faulconer. It also includes an index to last year’s issues of the Review.