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Mormon Media Observer: Please get the Book of Mormon right

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Maybe I should compliment Timothy Stanley, a history fellow at Oxford, who has written some interesting blog posts about Latter-day Saints and the presidential campaign for the legendary Atlantic magazine.

He wrote another interesting post this week.

To be sure, his analysis of Latter-day Saints being an asset to Mitt Romney is spot on and fascinating political reporting, unique in its depth. If anything, he may be underestimating the effect Latter-day Saints have had in helping Romney in some states.

But in his explanation of the Latter-day Saints in Polynesia, he mixes into his analysis strange accounts of the Book of Mormon that, well, are just plain wrong. This is the Atlantic, the magazine founded in the years before the Civil War, a national treasure, and it deserves better. We all do.

To be sure, it’s exciting when any national writer mentions the Book of Mormon's Book of Alma in the national press. But I found a few glaring errors that frustrated me:

First, Stanley wrote, “According to some Mormons, thousands of years ago a group of Israelites, led by the prophet Lehi, escaped Babylonian captivity and sailed to freedom in Central America.”

Well, virtually all Latter-day Saints believe the Book of Mormon story, not some, but Lehi, in the first chapters of the Book of Mormon, escaped not from Babylon, but Jerusalem. (He avoided the Babylonian captivity.)

And sailed to freedom in Central America?

Let’s be clear here. I think it likely Lehi settled in Central America, but the Book of Mormon doesn’t say. And to say he sailed to freedom seems at best a distortion of the journey’s purpose.

Then, Stanley writes a few other things that loosely follow the Book of Mormon story before he goes off the rails for me:

“According to the Mormon Book of Alma, a mixed group of Nephites and Lamanites sailed to Polynesia in 55 BC. They settled down peacefully and, mixing with migrants from Southeast Asia, became the modern Polynesians.”

Well, sure, there are many folks who think that the people of Hagoth, builder of ships, became part of the Polynesian culture, thereby linking the islands to the Book of Mormon story. Indeed, Stanley cites a FairLDS blog for some of his idea, in fairness. That the Book of Mormon people are ancestors of the Polynesian people remains a common folklore and has the backing of some statements by church leaders.

But the Book of Alma doesn’t say so.

I don't have a problem with the underlying points this article makes about the LDS relationship to the islands. (I don't agree with all of it.)

But the problem I have with it is the problem I have with so many people who glibly talk about what the Book of Mormon says when it seems obvious they haven’t read much of the book nor discerned its central meaning. The fourth verse of the entire Book of Mormon says Lehi had dwelt at Jerusalem all his days, for example, not at Babylon.

Some writers can make the book seem something like an adventure narrative instead of a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ or a book that restores the fullness of the gospel. These writers miss the centrality of what the book is to us as Latter-day Saints.

In fairness, we can all be too glib in talking about the church. Sometimes we might make folklore into doctrine. Sometimes we can speculate where the scriptures have never spoken.

Sometimes we too can go too far off the rails. I have been tempted at times, so I think it’s worth avoiding too much criticism here.

I thank the Atlantic for trying to write something about the Book of Mormon and for its excellent analysis of politics, but I urge all writers, including Stanley, to avoid the caricature of Book of Mormon stories, as happened here.

Let’s make the Book of Mormon what it really is. Please. We all deserve better.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.

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