Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Reading Translated Scripture

"Orth . . . has a completely different vocabulary, so the words for anthem, anathema, and anathem are altogether different and yet linked by a similar pattern of associations. Rather than use the Orth word, which would be devoid of meaning and connotations to Earth listeners, I have tried to devise an Earth word that serves as its rough equivalent while preserving some flavor of the Orth term. . . . These characters may speak of carrots, potatoes, dogs, cats, etc. This doesn't mean Arb has exactly the same species. Naturally, Arb has its own plants and animals. The names of those species rough Earth equivalents have been swapped in here to obviate digressions in which, for example, the phenotype of the Arb equivalent of a carrot must be explained in detail." Chapter 1, Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
I may have misspelled the names, since I am listening rather than reading the book, but it seems to me that upwards of 90% of people's problems with accepting the Book of Mormon as having a historical foundation arise from assuming it was translated in some way substantially different from that described by Stephenson in writing his speculative fiction about a world that doesn't exist. Add to that
  • a translator who likely doesn't fully understand the terms and ideas presented in the original work (unlike Stephenson who understands it all because he made it up), and is thus making some flawed approximations, 
  • the likelihood that not only some of the physical objects didn't exist in the translator's experience, but also some of the ways of thinking were incomprehensible to him, 
  • and original authors who had their own physically and ideologically limited perspectives, 
and the Book of Mormon doesn't look like a freakish, composite mish-mash of 19th century ideas that must have been created by an inspiring genius sponge fraud. Instead it looks like a perfectly ordinary translation. The miracle is exactly where Joseph put it--in the visitations of heavenly beings and translation by the gift and power of God--even if we don't know or understand the details. The miracle is in the soft touch of Heavenly Parents who work with people where we are, inspiring us toward creative acts of love despite the pressures to tear down and exclude.

I understand why people reject this view of translation. Most people I know do, both believers and unbelievers. Even when thinking they accept it, they don't embrace the consequences of it. There are implications of this belief that call into question many things said by prophets both ancient and modern. There are implications that make the Parents who gave us the book either less, or more involved in human life than different groups claim as reality. There is a subjection of the Book of Mormon to scholarship, and a rejection of aspects of scholarship that deny the divine. There is a hidden universalism that rejects the notion of "one true church," yet a retained exclusivity that say Gods acted here with this one man and this small group of people. There is a tangible, physical hope for Zion, yet a grave precedent for how people have gotten there in the past, and a denial of the idea that we can build Zion as Mormons alone.

I haven't explained these connections here, but I see each of these tensions logically tied to belief in the Book of Mormon as an inspired, but ordinary translation. Since these tensions inspire me, I'm happy to live with them. I can often see why others aren't.

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