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BOOK OF MORMON SCHOLARS UNLEASH SALVO OF BARBS

Published: Tuesday, March 22 1994 12:00 a.m. MST

When Brent Metcalfe compiled a book of essays last year suggesting that Mormonism's founding scripture wasn't the ancient history it purports to be, he expected some criticism.

Nearly a year later, he's getting it, in a vitriolic volume that exceeds his own book by 100 pages and seeks to expose him as a faith-destroying secularist masquerading, badly, as a well-meaning pursuer of historic truth.Metcalfe, his fellow essayists and their publisher again have run afoul of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), and the gloves, if there ever were any, are off.

"Pseudo-pious," "shoddy pseudoscholarship," "deceptive and specious" and "distorted" are just some of the barbs aimed at Metcalfe and other contributors to "New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology."

The salvos contained in the 566-page "Review of Books on the Book of Mormon" come as no surprise, given the longstanding animus between scholars associated with FARMS, many of them professors at church-owned Brigham Young University, and those published by the independent Signature Books.

Two years ago Signature threatened to sue FARMS for referring to some of its writers as "anti-Mormon." Recently a review by BYU history professor William Hamblin containing an encrypted message - "Metcalfe is butthead" - was hastily edited out after the "Review" had gone to press.

The continuing scholarly battleground is the Book of Mormon, which church founder Joseph Smith said he translated "by the gift and power of God" from ancient gold plates given him by an angel. Most Mormons believe Smith and the book's claims for itself - that it is a history of Israelites who sailed to the Americas in 600 B.C. and were visited by a resurrected Jesus Christ.

"Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none," Smith said in 1834.

Indeed, there is nothing that sets The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its nearly 9 million members further apart from mainstream Christianity than its belief in the book as divinely revealed ancient scripture.

"Honest investigators will conclude that there are so many evidences that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that they cannot confidently resolve the question against its authenticity, despite some unanswered questions that seem to support the negative determination," Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Council of the Twelve, said at the FARMS annual dinner last October.

What separates the Book of Mormon's detractors from its defenders, Oaks said, is that the former rely exclusively on scholarship, while the latter combine scholarship, faith and revelation.

Metcalfe and the nine other essayists in "New Approaches" - most of them at least nominal Mormons - place the Book of Mormon squarely in the 19th century. Most, including Metcalfe, see it as entirely Smith's creation. A few agree it is frontier fiction but believe it contains inspired truths.

The essayists, employing what Metcalfe calls "literary- and historical-critical methods," question the book's authenticity on a variety of levels - textual, archaeological, demographic and linguistic.

In a few instances, they are credited by the FARMS reviewers for new insights, but some of the compliments are decidedly lefthanded.

BYU political scientist Louis Midgley, for example, calls "New Approaches" an "important event" and "the most sophisticated attack on the truth of the Book of Mormon currently available" from sectarian sources "or from the fringes of Mormon culture and intellectual life."

In an interview, Metcalfe commended some of the Review's contributors, such as BYU law professor John Welch, for "their spirit of reconciliation" and civility. Others, he said, minimize and obscure important issues by "ad hominem attacks and hostility."

BYU's Hamblin points out that Metcalfe, a technical writer for a Utah computer company, never attended college and, he contends, is an anti-Mormon prone to pedantry.

Commenting on a recent article in the independent journal Dialogue, Hamblin said, "Metcalfe's writing betrays an academic immaturity which could benefit from a healthy dose of disciplined tutelage in a good undergraduate program."

Said Metcalfe: "I consider it a compliment if the review is any indication of what it means to have a degree."

Especially disturbing to Hamblin and other FARMS scholars is Metcalfe's use of the term "apologist" for Mormon historians whose research reflects or supports their religious beliefs.

"For Metcalfe, anyone who disagrees with him by accepting the historicity of the Book of Mormon is an `apologist,' while those who agree with Metcalfe by rejecting the antiquity of the book are `critical scholars,' " Hamblin wrote.

If an apologist is "one who apologizes for, or defends by argument," said FARMS researcher John Gee, then Metcalfe and others are themselves apologists, but of a secular stripe.

Metcalfe denies his use of the term is pejorative, that it is meant only in the traditional sense of Christian apologists "who have been defenders of the faith."

What of the impact of Metcalfe's book, which University of Utah historian Davis Bitton calls "this multibarreled discharge against a beloved book of scripture"?

"Should we lie down and die, hang our heads in shame, or issue a formal apology: `We are sorry that we were so gullible as to be taken in and wish to thank our rescuers?' " Bitton writes. "None of these responses is very likely."

More likely for the small minority of Mormons even aware of Metcalfe's book is the response in the closing lines of the review by Robert L. Millet, dean of religious instruction at BYU:

"Ultimately, doctrinal truth comes not through the explorations of scholars, but through the revelations of God to apostles and prophets. And if such a position be labeled narrow, parochial or anti-intellectual, then so be it. I cast my lot with the prophets."

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