Mormon Stories, the Book of Mormon and Dr. Michael Coe
Mormon Stories, the Book of Mormon and Dr. Michael Coe
by Gregory L. Smith
from Dubious “Mormon” Stories: A Twenty-First Century Construction of Exit Narratives
first published by Interpreter magazine
The power of podcasts and Dehlin’s style and approach are well illustrated by his interview with renowned Mesoamericanist Michael Coe.74 This example illustrates how the power of the podcast—and its perils—can be exploited for rhetorical advantage. It also demonstrates Dehlin’s degree of objectivity and attitude toward those who disagree with him.
The podcast is an excellent example of how Dehlin appears ill-prepared and ill-informed.75 “I think there are steel swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon, or shields or helmets or whatever,” says Dehlin.76 There are, in fact, no metal shields mentioned anywhere. Breastplates are mentioned and those who discovered the last battle of the Jaredites are said to have found breastplates “of brass and of copper,” which seem to be something of an anomaly to the Nephites since they are brought back as evidence of an unusual tale (Mosiah 8:9–10). The construction or material of Nephite breastplates is never specified. The word helmet is never used in the Book of Mormon. What is mentioned is “head-plates,” which is quite a different matter, but the material of which they are made is never described.77
73 Discussed in a broader context in John D. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 5.
74 For a response to Coe and Dehlin, see John L. Sorenson, "An Open Letter to Dr. Michael Coe," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1/1 (2012): 91–109, http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/an-open-letter-to-dr-michael- coe/. See also http://wp.me/p3gtkJ-5Z.
75 See note 30 herein and the subsequent section.
76 Coe interview, part 1, 24:00.
77 Alma 43:38, 44; 46:13; 49:24; Helaman 1:14; 3 Nephi 4:7; Ether 15:15.
So Dehlin has not even properly focused the matter upon which a discussion needs to take place.78 His remarks occupy a single sentence and are over in perhaps ten seconds, and the attack proceeds—yet it takes multiple footnotes and an entire paragraph to even begin to correct his misstatements.79 Dehlin has laid an unsure (and nonfactual) foundation for discussion in an instant, and any response would likely take pages of print or many minutes of airtime. This demonstrates neither balance nor objectivity.
Five other rhetorical techniques will be examined, with attention given to how they help Dehlin craft his narrative.
Mormon Stories’ first technique is to dispute claims that the Book of Mormon does not make. For example, Coe and Dehlin spend considerable energy deriding the idea of “coins” in the Book of Mormon—despite the fact that the Book of Mormon text never mentions “coins” at all, but a weight- based system of exchange.80 Dehlin sat on a review panel at Sunstone under “Book of Mormon > Anachronisms > Coins.”81 Furthermore, Dehlin told one audience that FAIR’s website “also talks about all the tough issues . . . every difficult issue you can ever want to find there is there.”82 Yet he did not avail himself of this resource. Nor did he use the Maxwell Institute’s website to provide balance or even an alternative voice to his interview.83
Dehlin discloses that “for my listeners, a lot of this information I’m getting for my questions [for Coe] comes from a website called MormonThink.com. It’s an excellent website which lists a lot of this stuff.”84 On the “Nephite coins” issue, MormonThink.com provides very little, claiming only that “apologist Daniel Peterson of FARMS says that Alma 11, which describes Nephite coinage, is almost certainly wrong.”85 This misrepresents Peterson, who argues that the modern heading (and not the revealed Book of Mormon text itself) discussing “coins” is in error.86 The only source given by MormonThink.com is a website called “The Mormon Delusion.”
It would be fascinating and useful to see Coe actually engage seriously with the evidence marshaled by Sorenson or Peterson, but that can never happen if neither Coe nor Dehlin can tell us accurately what that evidence is. They don’t appear to have read the Book of Mormon closely. Coe states frankly that he did most of his research on this topic in 1973 for Dialogue; he seems to assume that the relevant Mesoamerican and Mormon studies have not advanced the discussion at all.87
78 On Book of Mormon “steel,” see William J. Hamblin, "Steel in the Book of Mormon," http://www.fairlds.org/authors/hamblin-william/steel-in-the-book-of-mormon (accessed 18 April 2012); John L. Sorenson, "Steel in Early Metallurgy," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 108–9, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=15&num=2&id=423; John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ), 277–88.
79 See, for example, William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 400–24.
80 John W. Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 36–46.
81 Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt (Redding, CA: FAIR, 2008), 103; see index item on p. 297.
82 See footnote 51 herein. A Google search of “Book of Mormon coins” yields a link to FAIR’s wiki site: http://fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Anachronisms/Coins (last modified 15 November 2011).
83 See http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/search/?fulltext=coins.
84 Coe interview, part 1, 43:08. On MormonThink.com’s hostility and bias, see notes 58–65 herein.
85 “Nephite coins,” on page “Book of Mormon Problems,” accessed 15 November 2011, emphasis in original,
86 Daniel C. Peterson, “Review of Mormonism, by Kurt Van Gorden,” FARMS Review of Books 8/1 (1996): 97.
A second technique is to engage Coe on matters about which he is not an expert. For example, Dehlin mentions DNA and the Book of Mormon, chiasmus,88 and the question of whether Mesoamerican languages show any links to the Old World.89 Coe is quick to agree that these fields of study likewise provide arguments against the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, but he is not professionally equipped to comment on them and he gives no sign of having informed himself about them. (Coe did not know what chiasmus is. Dehlin used Google to find a definition, and the confident declaration that chiasmus doesn’t help the Book of Mormon quickly followed.90) Dehlin offers editorial comment about how “DNA evidence and other things have really started people—Mormons—thinking more clearly about what the Book of Mormon claims to be, what type of record and evidence it purports versus the evidence that science continually affords us.”91 Dehlin mistakenly believes that the idea of a limited geography or small pool of DNA donors causes problems for believers, since “either Joseph and all the prophets from Joseph to now or most of them pretty much all got it all wrong, calling people Lamanites who they shouldn’t have called Lamanites, you know.92
Dehlin omits what population genetics tells us about his proposed scenario—if even a small Lehite colony were added to many indigenous peoples, and if Lehi had any descendants in the modern era, then by Joseph Smith’s time all Amerindians would be descendants of Lehi. This does not mean that Lehi would be the majority source of genetic material or that any “Lehite” signal would persist. It means simply that after twenty-six hundred years, if one has any descendants, one typically has a great many descendants. If Dehlin does not understand this, he does not understand the relevant science at all.93
Dehlin also uses Coe’s “evisceration” of the Book of Mormon to portray a negative conclusion as inevitable. While acknowledging that in so doing he is “asking [Coe] to step out of the realm of scientist and into the place of a counselor, a father, or a sage,” Dehlin declares:
If the Book of Mormon is a laughing-stock to non-LDS anthropologists, and if the historical record and the scientific record, if 99 percent of it is contradicted by the scientific records versus what’s in the Book of Mormon, this is devastating to me and to my faith and to my religion. And do you have thoughts or feelings or perspective on that clash? You can kind of live in a partitioned world where you kind of reap the benefits of science and of intellectual inquiry and at the same time compartmentalize and still believe. But at some point for some it becomes untenable.94
The message conveyed to the listener is obvious—you cannot believe the Book of Mormon literally: if you do, you are either compartmentalizing your intellectual life or you are willing to reject history, science, and 99 percent of the book itself. Dehlin skillfully leads Coe to confirm what Mormon Stories has been advocating as part of his “uncorrelated Mormon” effort:
Okay, so you’re saying . . . that you can embrace science and the historical record and either look at religion as more of a social phenomenon, as a moral phenomenon, spiritual phenomenon in your life and just let go of the literality of it all and kinda become, . . . as you wrote in Dialogue, become a “Liahona Mormon” or a metaphorical symbolic Mormon, a cultural Mormon and not take the doctrines and the teachings literally. . . . Or you can stop believing but still be a highly moral, ethical person.95
87 Coe interview, part 1, 14:00.
88 Coe interview, part 3, 25:00.
89 Coe interview, part 1, 56:00.
90 Coe interview, part 3, 25:00–27:30. 91 Coe interview, part 1, 45:00.
92 Coe interview, part 1, 53:30.
93 I discuss this point at length in “Often In Error, Seldom in Doubt: Rod Meldrum and Book of Mormon DNA,” FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 86–88. See also Matthew Roper, “Swimming in the Gene Pool: Israelite Kinship Relations, Genes, and Genealogy,” FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 160.
94 Coe interview, part 3, 47:00.
95 Coe interview, part 3, 52:00–55:00.
A third technique resurrects arguments that most LDS scholars and apologists have dismissed because they do not constitute reliable evidence for the Book of Mormon, even though some used to find them persuasive. This includes a supposed elephant glyph that is actually a macaw,96 Quetzalcoatl as a veiled reference to Christ,97 and Izapa Stela 5.98 Some of these may have been current issues when Coe was doing his research in 1973, but they are not necessarily major topics of interest today. The fact that LDS scholars debate such matters on their merits does not, however, fit the narrative being offered by Mormon Stories, in which Mormons (like “Marxists,” in Coe’s characterization) cling to whatever evidence will support their beliefs.99
96 Coe interview, part 1, 44:00. Brant Gardner identifies the item as a macaw, not an elephant, in Second Witness, 6:260. It is mentioned as a possible elephant by Roper and Peterson in 2004, but this one-sentence reference is accompanied by three pages discussing biological remains that they obviously consider of more significance. Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, “Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons,” review of Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon, by Stan Larson,” FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 194–96.
97 Coe interview, part 2, 10:00. Brant Gardner has likewise been skeptical of this argument: “The Christianization of Quetzalcoatl: A History of the Metamorphosis,” Sunstone 10/11 (1986), 6–10, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/055-06-10.pdf; “Quetzalcoatl’s Fathers: A Critical Examination of Source Materials,” 1997, http://www.ku.edu/~hoopes/aztlan/tripart.htm; “A New Chronicler in the Old Style,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 13–22; “Where Much Is Promised, Less Is Given,” review of Decoding Ancient America: A Guide to the Archaeology of the Book of Mormon, by Diane E. Wirth, FARMS Review 20/1 (2008): 15–32; “Excursus: Quetzalcoatl: A Malleable Mythology,” in Gardner, Second Witness, 5:353–95. See also Andrew J. McDonald, “New Evidences for Old?: Buyer Beware,” review of Evidences of Christ in Ancient America, by Blaine M. Yorgason, Bruce W. Warren, and Harold Brown,” FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 101–18.
98 Coe interview, part 3, 45:00. Hugh Nibley was criticizing the “Lehi’s Tree of Life” interpretation of the Stela by 1958: Hugh W. Nibley, “M. Wells Jakeman, Stela 5, Izapa (Provo, Utah, 1958),” 1–7. FARMS played a major role in the LDS reassessment of this artifact: Stewart W. Brewer, “The History of an Idea: The Scene on Stela 5 from Izapa, Mexico, as a Representation of Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life,” 12–21; “Book of Mormon
A fourth technique creates straw men, easily-dismissed arguments that no Mormon has ever offered. For example, Coe and Dehlin spend time on the obvious and undisputed lack of references to King Benjamin, Alma, Mormon, or Moroni in Mayan texts. Yet no marginally informed Latter-day Saint has ever expected to find such references (see Enos 1:14–16; Mormon 8:14–16). New World chickens are likewise announced to be of Polynesian rather than Middle Eastern100 descent, although chickens are mentioned in the Book of Mormon only by the risen Christ, in a passage whose language is clearly influenced by the New Testament.101 In fact, Sorenson mentions the chicken as evidence of transoceanic contact with the Americas from Asia, so he clearly doesn’t think a Middle Eastern chicken is necessary for the Book of Mormon’s antiquity.102
Archaeology: A Rich Source for LDS Folklore,” 19; John E. Clark, “A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step toward Improved Interpretation,” 22–33, all from Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999).
99 On Coe’s repeated comparison of Mormon archaeologists to Marxists, see Coe interview, part 3, 6:00, 18:00. 100 Coe interview, part 2, 9:00.
101 Compare 3 Nephi 10:4–6; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34. See discussion in Gardner, Second Witness, 5:321–
102 John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen, “Scientific Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages
to and from the Americas, part 1,” http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=154; citing Tolstoy (1974) for the Asian origin of the chicken.
A fifth technique peppers the discussion with chuckles, giggles, and snorts from Dehlin as Coe gently skewers the naïve Mormon believer. Words aren’t necessary to invite the listener to join in the audible mockery.
When overtly expressing their views, Dehlin and Coe usually adopt a kind, even sympathetic tone. This is part of the narrative subtext—Mormon Stories is respectful and tolerant, while believers are not. Dehlin summarizes:
Well, this is a tough, I mean a tough thing for believing Mormons to hear, but I think it’s important if we are going to live in a world of reality. If we are going to benefit from all that science has provided us, I don’t think that we as Mormons can just conveniently dismiss what science and history and linguistics and anthropology and archaeology and genetics all tell us about the Book of Mormon, so I really appreciate you being willing to share with us your life’s work and perspective even though it’s a really tough pill to swallow.103
“If I’ve done anything right with Mormon Stories,” says Dehlin elsewhere, “it’s been by interviewing folks from all sides with a similar, respectful tone. I challenge you to find a mean-spirited or sarcastic interview (overall).”104
Dehlin’s sympathetic tone is also somewhat muted when he speaks to his followers on Facebook. Prior to the publication of the Coe interview, he was more jubilant: “Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow. This one’s gonna be a tough pill to swallow.”105 In these less formal moments, his attitude toward those believers who are dishonest, unintelligent, or humorless enough to dispute his conclusions is revealed as less tolerant or benign.106
103 Coe interview, part 3, 55:00.
104 John Dehlin, “Shawn McCraney on Mormon Stories,” 5 March 2010 (10:12 AM), http://www.mormondialogue.org/topic/48196-shawn-mccraney-on-mormon- stories/page__st__40__p__1208815075#entry1208815075.
105 John Dehlin, post on Facebook wall, 11 August 2011 (11:25 AM), https://www.facebook.com/johndehlin/posts/233427193367049.