Joseph Smith is probably one of the most fascinating men to come out of American history. He can be viewed as many things, but the most interesting to me is viewing him as an author. Coming from the outside, I view the Book of Mormon as a novel, with Joseph Smith as the creator of it. This immediately puts me at odds with the Saints, but that is to be expected. One of the “proofs” used to show that the Book of Mormon was not a work of fiction created by Smith is something called “The Book of Mormon Challenge.” It’s pretty interesting, and I’m going to go over it point-by-point over the course of a few blogs:
Point 1. “Write a history of ancient Tibet covering a period from 600 B.C. to 450 A.D. Why ancient Tibet? Because you know no more about Tibet than Joseph Smith (or anyone else) knew about ancient America.”
So the challenge starts off with an immediate display of stupidity. I don’t get this one. Ancient America was not as foreign to Joseph Smith, an American, as ancient Tibet would be to the person taking on the challenge, presumably as an American. Disregarding geography, there are enough anachronisms, such as horses and steel in the New World, to say that the point doesn’t really work. Even if you’re uneducated, you know something about the country you’re born in. And if you’re living off the land like the Smith family did early on, you’re familiar enough with it to make guesses. Even if he had only a smattering of education, history had to be a part of it. Therefore, this is a dumb point.
Point 2. “You are 23 years of age.”
According to this challenge, being 23 means you’re incapable of writing a really long text. Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers when he was around 24. I don’t feel like this point is worth going more into for that very reason.
Point 3. “You have had no more than three years of formal school education, and have spent your life in backwoods farming communities.”
And here we get into the main problem with this challenge. To put it bluntly, as revered as he is, this challenge paints Joseph Smith as an idiot. It doesn’t take into consideration the insanely religious environment he grew up in. How is it impossible that someone who’s been surrounded by religion his entire life, and probably heard a great deal of preaching, can go ahead and pour out his interpretation of it into a novel? People tell stories all the time, and considering that a number of key plot points were lifted from others texts (such as View of the Hebrews and the King James Bible), this isn’t some mind-bogglingly difficult task. It’s not like he pulled The Brothers Karamazov out of a hat.
Point 4. “Your history must be written on the basis of what you now know. There was no library that held information for Joseph Smith. You must use none. There is to be no research of any kind.”
Really, he knew no religious history whatsoever? None? Well, maybe that isn’t so hard to believe. When you find the River Laman, let me know. Also, I have to wonder if the creators of this challenge know the first thing about writing a novel. Smith’s history came from the Bible, which he knew intimately. Why is it so hard to believe that he could take what he knows from the Bible and apply it to other locations, or use it as a template to create further stories? Storytelling is an integral part of being human. It’s something that everyone does, even small children, and it’s not something that always demands a large amount of research.
Point 5. “Your history must be 531 pages and over 300,000 words in length.”
We’ve already covered this. Once again, it’s possible for a 23 year old to write something really long. It’s also possible for that thing to be a history based on previous knowledge gained from just being around other people and working the land.
Point 6. “Other than a few grammatical corrections, you must have no changes in the text. The first edition as you dictate it to your secretary must stand forever.”
Um...the first edition of the Book of Mormon is different from the one currently circulating. I recall reading that several instances of “and it came to pass” were mercifully deleted. Also, I like how the author of this challenge covers his rear end by saying “other than a few grammatical corrections.” Sorry, you can’t pick and choose what is and isn’t divinely inspired. If there are grammatical errors in your holy book, then God put them there.
Point 7. “This record is to contain the history of two distinct and separate nations, along with histories of different contemporary nations or groups of people.”
Because we all know how hard it is to be creative. Ask a fan of science fiction how difficult this is to do and get back to me.
I’m going to stop here, because there are 30 separate points, and I don’t want to overdo it here. I’ll get to the other points sometime in the future, but here’s my take on these first seven challenges:
In order to make the creation of The Book of Mormon seem miraculous instead of just damn impressive, the author of this challenge paints Joseph Smith as a backwards, ignorant fool, which he most certainly wasn’t. The author completely disregards the heavily religious nature of the “burned over district” and tries to imagine Smith living in an environment that wasn’t overly religious. Smith grew up in a time and place where new religions and charismatic preachers were commonplace sights, and not anomalies. The author also downplays human creativity and the ability to put information out of a wide variety of sources. A person could never visit the library, turn on a TV, listen to the radio, or go on the internet and still find out what’s going on and hear other people’s theories about history and faith. Further, the size of the Book of Mormon gets mentioned, and I’d like to point out that if the book was dictated rather than written by Smith, then that means that he had an even easier time of it, since oratory and oral history were much more common in the past than now, and a less demanding task for someone with only a few years of education. Plus, I think we all know that Smith had some access to books, so this challenge so far is insultingly stupid.
The later challenges are better, and I probably won’t have snippy retorts to all of them, but so far the task of writing The Book of Mormon seems difficult, but not completely impossible. You know what else is difficult? Reading Finnegans Wake. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done and that people haven’t already done it.