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Better Depictions of the Translation Process of the Book of Mormon

I’ve finally finished the transcription of Part 3 of the Mormon Stories interview between John Dehlin and Richard Bushman (There’s a part 4 and part 5 still to go!)  In this discussion, John Dehlin questions Richard Bushman about whether the translation story should be depicted differently, and Bushman agrees that traditional paintings and tellings of the story should be changed to better reflect what happened.  Bushman also discusses that traditional views of magic shouldn’t be denigrated.  This transcript follows my previous post where Bushman discusses the translation process in great detail.

JD, “You know most people would be just stunned to know that there’s no real evidence that the plates were used materially in the translation, and that the Urim and Thummim, meaning the crystals in the breastplate weren’t used either.  That’s real different from the accounts that we kind of grow up with primary and Sunday School and Seminary.”

Bushman, “Yeah.  Well that’s the account that’s in the historical records though, so we just have to live with it.”

JD, “So we have to live with it.  You know this really does bring up the question—oh two questions.  One is, isn’t it completely dishonest or disingenuous to ever use the word ‘translator’ or ‘translation’?  Aren’t those just the wrong words first of all, and then I’ll ask you the second question later, so let’s start there.  Why do we even call it a translation?”

Bushman, “Well Nibley’s discoursed on that subject.  What does it mean to translate, to carry over from one culture or one time to another?  You know we use the word ‘translated’ to talk about bodies being resurrected or carried about one way or another.  So I don’t think you could call it dishonest.  It certainly has misled us into thinking that—you know I used to speculate, did Joseph Smith learn Reformed Egyptian staring at those plates and coming up with the words?  And that of course is beside the point if you see it this way.  Maybe we do need to have another word.  I think we certainly need to make clear to our children as we teach them or whoever, that when we refer to a translation is carrying a message from one culture into the language of another, not necessarily by using a dictionary.  So you do have to generalize or change the meaning of translation from its ordinary usage.”

JD, “Ok, do you think that we need to change the art and the pictures and the graphics and the motion pictures that we are using to depict the process.  Do you think it’s disingenuous to continue having the curtain and using some type of spectacles, and showing Joseph staring at the plates thinking earnestly and then dictating?  Do you think that’s something we need to change maybe?”

Bushman, “Yeah I definitely think that we need to change it.  It’s not because it’s a horrible mistake because the guys who do those pictures are not trying to deceive anyone.  That’s what they think actually happened.  It’s just a matter of accuracy. The problem is if you’re not accurate, then down the line you put your own credibility in jeopardy, and I just think all of our young people should feel they are really getting the straight story on Joseph Smith or they’re going to go through the experience you’ve had: disillusionment, anger.  It’s a very sad thing and it’s unnecessary.  We do need to avoid that.”

JD, “So is it possible that somehow the mechanics were never really known, and so someone in the 1850s or 1860s and let’s say 19th century correlation sort of just came up with this story, and even subsequent apostles and prophets sort of understood that to be the way that the translation happened?  In other words, when did we learn about the hat in the stone?  Have we always known it and we just never talked about it?  How did this creep in, and how did it get allowed to creep in the way that it did?

Bushman, “Well it’s actually an interesting historiographical question.  I mean the stories of the hat in the stone were recorded very close to Joseph Smith’s lifetime by the people who were there, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and Emma Smith, so It’s not like—that we sort of made up this new version.  It’s been there. But I think what threw us off was our own embarrassment about Joseph Smith.  We so wanted him to be kind of a 19th century protestant view of a prophet, you know a noble soul, sort of partly ethereal, who speaks only spiritual wisdom, and not someone who is involved in magical practices, which is superstition and which protestants are dead set against in the 19th century.  That effort to kind of suppress anything that would scandalize Joseph Smith, or turn him into a scandal I think motivated the desire to make it all sort of lovely and common-sensical, rather than anything that would be magical.”

JD, “So someone along the way maybe felt embarrassed or said, you know people aren’t going to buy this or people aren’t going to believe it or people are going to think we’re goofy, and so let’s depict it, let’s re-write history and depict it in a way that’s a little bit more palatable?”

Bushman, “Well I’m not sure it’s quite that calculated, but it has that effect that you just kind of bowdlerize the story, whitewash it.  It ends up this way.”

JD, “I know that life is more complex than this, but I know a lot of people.  It seems like some of the people who leave, they don’t leave because they’re weak or they’re sinners or they’re adulterers. They leave because they’ve got this view of what integrity and honesty is.  They always bought that integrity and honesty was like absolute, that there are blacks and whites, and that there is good and bad.  A lot of people would say to me, John, look if the Church knows that they’re depicting the translation process inaccurately, it is their duty and obligation to stand up, do a General Conference, tell everybody alright, here’s the deal.  We were saying it wrong, here’s how it is, and from now on whenever it’s depicted in a motion picture or in the Ensign, we’re going to stick his face in a hat with a stone in it.  I know you can’t answer for them, but do you have any thoughts on that, or is that just something you just have to leave to the way things are in life sometimes.”

Bushman, “Well I think your depiction of the disillusioned person is probably quite accurate.  It’s the absolutist, it’s that personality that sees things as black and white that is going to be shocked and deeply offended by this whole thing.  It’s not a personality that can’t tolerate ambiguity and realize people get caught in situations and all sorts of strange things come out that is going to feel like you’ve got to lay down the law one way or another, and the church has failed to do that, so while I was thoroughly devoted to it at one time in my absolutist way, I am now thoroughly against it in my absolutist way, so I don’t know what to do about that kind of personality because they’re going to have troubles with the Church.  That’s quite true.”

JD, “Yeah, I guess the Church is in a bind.  We are all speculating.  They can’t come out and say ‘we were all wrong and here’s the right way’, because one, people may still think it’s goofy, and that might cause them to leave, but also they’ll wonder why the deception and then what else have we been deceived about right?”

Bushman, “Yeah.  Well, I think there are all sorts of middle grounds.  You just begin to straighten up and tell the story as the records tell it and say well, our artist previously had a different view of things.  We now are in a better position, though I know there are still a lot of people who are averse to the magical thing.  They think my book gives altogether too much credit to magic.  I hope we can overcome that.  There’s nothing malicious about magic. It’s a form of supernaturalism that people the world over have believed in.  People who study magical practices from times past find much that’s admirable in them like there is in freemasonry.  It’s not the devil’s tool.  It’s a form of human questing for powers beyond themselves.”

JD, “How much of this misunderstanding about magic do we owe to Michael Quinn do you think, or is he just one of many?  Shall we sort of thank him for the research he did to help us really understand this better?”

Bushman, “Well the basic research was done before Michael Quinn by scholars of European culture and American culture.  Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic is the key turning book, and then other books written about the hermetic tradition in the Renaissance.  Michael built on that, I suppose maybe many Latter-day Saints learned nothing about magic until they came to Michael.  The trouble is his book doesn’t really put things in balance.  What it does is it just piles it higher and deeper and gets this huge material, collects it all and assumes that this vast quantity of lore which developed over the centuries was in the minds of everyone who ever went out and searched for buried treasure.  So it kind of leads your astray at the same time that it opens up a new world to you, so I think it is a fabulous work of scholarship, ingenious I must say, but I mean It’s really overblown in so many ways.”

JD, “Kind of like the dynamic about the fascination with Indians and trying to fit that back.”

Bushman, “Yeah, exactly.  You pile it all up and think everybody in the world was just totally absorbed in magic.”

JD, “Ok, ok. You talked about a couple theories: one, that Joseph Smith was compiling, using his own words and his own stories and understandings to come up with the text through this translation process, and the other one is that he’s reading it word for word.  I’ve read the accounts where it says the words would appear and he’d read them, and then they’d disappear.  But if that was the case, it would make one ask why changes were then made to the Book of Mormon in subsequent editions.  If he was dictating from the mouth of the Lord word for word, why were tens or hundreds or thousands of changes necessary?  Is that right?”

Bushman, “That’s a huge problem for revelation generally, it’s not just the Book of Mormon, but the Doctrine and Covenants revelations which have many changes in them too.  It goes into complex questions about the relationship of a prophet to the God who is revealing His will to the prophet.  I think to say that the diction of the Book of Mormon is the diction of God, first of all implies God speaks English and that these words are not necessarily Joseph’s words when they do seem very much to be within the vocabulary of a 19th century New Englander.

So I think to eliminate Joseph Smith entirely from the picture even if he was reading those words in the stone is going to get us in trouble, and I just don’t think is accurate.  I can’t find a really clear way of describing how a prophet’s mind relates to the mind of God.  Is his mind just a blank slate that God writes on, or does He work through the prophet’s mind and culture to provide the words, even if they are written on the stone?  To me that’s not necessarily the key points here.  How does God get these words into his mind?

I just think that Mormons instinctively feel that somehow God is working through the mind of the prophet.  He’s not a blank slate, partly because that’s the way we receive revelation ourselves, that’s the way Patriarchs receives revelation, bishops receive revelation.  I’m a patriarch.  I believe very strongly that the Lord has given me words to say to people.  When I go home and transcribe it, boy I straighten up the grammar.  I may change a word here or there to make the sense clearer, and every patriarch I know does that, so it’s just sort of the Mormon style, the somewhat loose relationship between the mind of God and the words the Prophet speaks.  It’s not one for one.”

JD, “So God doesn’t dictate in his revelations necessarily.”

Bushman, “Well, that’s a hard—“

JD, “Word for word.”

Bushman, “word for word, yeah right, that He works through the mind of the prophet.”

JD, “Yeah.”

End of Part 3

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6 comments on “Better Depictions of the Translation Process of the Book of Mormon

  1. In common language the BoM was dictated not translated as we normally think of it but another type of translation would have been involved. Is his mind just a blank slate that God writes on…? I believe this explanation is close for one of the most advanced methods of revelation where concepts and images are communicated directly to the prophet’s mind and the prophet must explain them in words or we might say translate the concepts and images into words. Joseph called this method pure Intelligence flowing into him. Seer stone and head in a hat suggests a different much less advanced type of revelation where something visual is seen “on the surface of the stone” which wouldn’t be visible to others because it’s being transmitted to the body of Joseph not to the seer stone which simply provides a focal point for his eyes. In any case interpretation would be required by Joseph and his ability to receive more advanced methods of revelation would advance with learning and experience.

  2. This month’s Ensign has the picture of Joseph with his finger on the plates reading (translating?) them. It is a story about Emma and Joseph’s close relationship — of course without any mention of his polygamy/polyandry or Emma’s disenchantment.

    It would be so much better of the Church would just be straight on the history. This kind of stuff hurts belief when folks find out the truth.

  3. There are erroneous paintings out there. (But come on, they kind of pale compared to the errors in Friberg’s Book of Mormon paintings of Nephites as muscle-bound German ubermen) However I think folks exaggerate somewhat the lack of information about the translation process. The use of the seerstone was pretty common knowledge when I was a kid. It was also discussed in the Ensign back in the 80’s. For instance this is a paragraph from the Ensign I remember reading as a kid:

    After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.

    So it’s not like this information was being hidden.

    That said there are lots of bad art out there and I think the Ensign would help everyone if they avoided the doctrinally questionable stuff. (Of course then they get into trouble for photoshopping the wings off an angel – they can’t win)

  4. I just love it when folks have such profound love for the gospel that their research into consists of looking at the pictures. I guess that is why so few read the scriptures unless they have Frieberg paintings in them.

  5. […] Better Depictions of the Translation Process of the Book of Mormon […]

  6. […] Better Depictions of the Translation Process of the Book of Mormon […]

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