A reader writes:
While your attempt to find "Reading about Mormonism's origins, history, and doctrines certainly makes you reflect on that possibility. It has made me ask questions about my own (Christian) faith, about the absurdity of what I believe. I've asked myself, if I were hearing or reading the Gospel narratives for the first time, what would I make of them? Would they be "weird" or "ridiculous"? Its a useful question for any person who persists in their attachment to a religious tradition. And it can be unsettling.
The more I've thought about this, though, the more I do think there are real doctrinal — not just sociological — reasons Mormonism really is more weird than at least my Christian faith (I'll leave others out of this, for now). All religious traditions ask us to take certain beliefs on faith; they are not, in the narrow sense, empirical. I can't prove that Jesus was the Son of God or that he rose from the dead. I can't prove his miracles. I fully admit all this, and imagine a variety of religious believers from different backgrounds would admit to similar core propositions that elude rational justification.
However, what bothers me about Mormonism is not their similar notions. It's their claim to empirical truths which are self-evidently not truths. For instance, we know that the picture of the Americas in the Book of Mormon is just wrong.
Richard and Joan Ostling, in their sterling book, Mormon America, outline the opinion of many scholars, both within and outside Mormonism, and it seems pretty clear that any dispassionate investigator can't find much of anything, archaeologically, to corroborate the history the Book of Mormon describes. We know that the Israelites were not, as the 1981 introduction to the Book of Mormon put it, "the principal ancestors of the American Indians." We easily can detect the historical anachronisms that litter the Book of Mormon — the use of the wheel, horses, and domesticated animals, for instance, or for certain plants such as wheat, or the metal work involved in the type of steel swords used in Book of Mormon warfare. (All this is mentioned in the Ostling's book.)
Of course, none of this even begins to touch on the literary analysis that shows how much of the text of the Book of Mormon probably was borrowed from 19th century Bibles (for instance, a third of the book of Isaiah finds its way into the Book of Mormon) or from the swirl of ideas he would have been exposed to — rather than coming from an ancient text written in "Reformed Egyptian."
I'm not trying to be mean or snide in noting this. But these are not doctrinal issues. They are historical claims made in a book that, by the account of those who believe it, should be read literally.
For me, whatever I believe about Jesus or Paul or the claims of the New Testament, I know a city called Jerusalem existed. I know that the cities Paul traveled to were real. The basic geography and the historical figures involved seem to check out. This does not mean the New Testament is without problems. And I've read my "historical Jesus" materials. But even more, Christian approaches to Scripture, for centuries and centuries, have emphasized the difference between the spirit and the letter — even in those benighted medieval years, a rather elaborate four-fold mode of interpretation prevailed. Believing that the Gospels are inspired does not prevent me from also acknowledging the human personalities involved in their writing, their circulation over many years, and more. I don't think this simply is a product of time or age (read Augustine on Genesis), but disposition and intellectual stance. It's a skeptical disposition and reasoned engagement with sacred texts that Mormonism simply doesn't allow for.
(Photo: wheat via Wiki. From Wiki: "'Barley' is mentioned three times in the Book of Mormon narrative dating to the 1st and 2nd century BC. 'Wheat' is mentioned once in the Book of Mormon narrative dating to the same time period. The introduction of domesticated modern barley and wheat to the New World was made by Europeans after 1492, many centuries after the time in which the Book of Mormon is set.")