Title: "The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”
Author: Brant Gardner
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
There are three key things that, if a book or paper can accomplish at least one, will instantly endear a book to my heart forever – completely aside from whether or not I agree with the author’s main or final conclusions:
- Cause me to reassess and legitimately question (or even change) a current firmly held position or belief.
- Cohesively articulate a concept I had already been independently working on, but in a manner far better and more comprehensive than I could possibly have done.
- Help me to re-evaluate my own life, and clarify my own understanding of my own personal lived experience.
As much as #1 and #2 seem to be of necessity mutually exclusive, Brant Gardner’s new book “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon” , which I was grateful to receive as an Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher, happened to do both. And, perhaps more meaningful to me, also accomplished #3.
As a convert to the LDS Church in my early twenties, I have an interesting relationship with the Book of Mormon. Since my first encounter with the Book, as a skeptical and cynical critic, my opinions and theories pertaining to its origin have changed in dramatic ways.
I have run the gamut from viewing it as being a completely uninspired hoax, to being a literal word-for-word divine dictation, from expanded modernized interpretation of an ancient record to an inspired 19th century pseudepigraphon.
Following my first recognition of Something Good inherent in the Book, I have never since regarded the motivations and source of the text as anything but benevolent, and inspired in one way or another.
But everything around its production – especially the more I studied the historical background of Biblical texts, as well as the modern details of Joseph’s youth and the circumstances surrounding the production of the English text of the Book – kept me thinking, and puzzled, wondering how it all ‘worked’. What about the anachronisms? What about the language? What about the revisions?
While not answering every single possible question one might think of, Gardner, in this physically slim tome, still covers an unprecedented amount of material ranging all over the scope of Mormon Studies, even creeping into realms of cognitive science(!).
Gardner writes like a gifted diplomat. He finds value in nearly all that has been published on the subjects under discussion, believing apologist and unbelieving critic alike. You will find favorable use of the works of Dan Vogel and D. Michael Quinn right next to the findings of Richard Bushman, Royal Skousen and Blake Ostler. This book does not invalidate or denigrate any of their valuable work, but rather builds upon it, validating much of their efforts, and yet weaving it together in innovative and clarifying ways I didn’t think could be possible.
Many other prominent scholars who are not specifically writing on the texts of Mormonism are also utilized, and not simply as proof-texts to confirm an already decided point of view.
In fact, Gardner states several times throughout the book itself that what he found through the process of his writing of this book was not completely in tune to what he expected to find.
Make no mistake, the book is certainly written from a faithful perspective. That is, it begins with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is in fact a legitimate translation of an ancient record. The Book does not attempt to explain why he holds this conclusion – as much of that discussion can be found throughout Gardner’s master multi-volume Second Witness: An Analytical Commentary on the Book of Mormon.
This book focuses on not the “if” of it being a translation, but rather the “how”, or process of transmission.
The process by which Gardner presents his theory is a masterful layering of material, that at times may initially appear unrelated to the issue at hand. However, in the final chapter, every skillful layer is brought together in a way more impactful than I could have imagined it. The book is a journey – and it’s a fun one to travel though.
A key theme that gets hammered home pretty well in the early chapters is the importance of removing from our mindset a “religion vs. magic” dichotomy.
The history – and importance – of the exploring the so-called“Magic World View” of Mormon origins is given an important contextualizing survey, from Mark Hoffman to Quinn to the review of Quinn by Stephen Ricks and Daniel C. Peterson, to Dan Vogel. This is not just some attempt to “normalize” or “inoculate” against the strange view of Joseph Smith the scryer sitting with his head in a hat staring into a seer stone.
While at times presenting repetitive themes that are then seemingly tossed aside, the concept Gardner hammers home – about those actions which we might classify as “magic” being in many cases simply primitive attempts to scientifically explain otherwise unexplainable actual lived and observed results and experiences - is in fact an essential part of understanding Gardner’s closing argument.
Now… what exactly is Gardner’s ultimate theory or argument?
There’s a reason Gardner presented it all in a full-length book. I find it extremely difficult to do it justice here.
But to put it very briefly, Gardner argues that the meaning of the content of the historic Book of Mormon was, for all intents and purposes, ‘deposited’ or revealed as pre-language ‘mentalese’, or the brain’s native Language of Thought, which Joseph’s brain was then able to ‘translate’ or work out into his own written and spoken language.
He argues that some of the way this was manifest to Joseph’s consciousness was through his eidetic memory, the scientific term for the documented means of visually recalling information and memories. It was not a matter of Joseph seeing with his eyes, but seeing with his brain – like we all do when we dream. And, technically, how we see in general. The eyes provide information, the brain interprets that information – and sometimes plays tricks on us, and adds its own ideas – and creatively removes other actual data. The interpretation of the light images by the brain is really what we see with. In this case, Joseph’s brain was getting images from the Divine Deposit – not his eyes, and not a random dream.
The seer stone was simply a dark object used as a focusing device, which Joseph had been comfortable using during his youthful time as a scryer, or seer – it was his own way of understanding and describing and projecting his eidetic experiences. Gardner explains in modern scientific terms what Joseph understood with a “folk” explanation, that we today generally write off as “magic”.
So yes, Gardner explains, Joseph did translate, but he wasn’t translating directly from Reformed Egyptian, or even use the plates at all. He was translating from the divinely deposited raw meaning of the text, and working it out into his own language.
Concepts were expressed as concepts, while maintaining structure. Names and proper nouns were transmitted the same way our brains record them – as specific literal data, and not simply as a ‘meaning’. While this sacrifices some of the popular attempts and needs of some to classify certain terms and phases as Hebraisms, it still does quite strongly allow for ancient structural and poetic patterns to come through, although not always perfectly.
This is admittedly just a very crude summation of the ideas expressed in the book, and I almost feel I need to apologize for it. It doesn’t do this work justice by far.
Yet these observations not only potentially explain in a very cohesive and coherent way the process of revelation for the Book of Mormon that accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the text, but also has implications for all Revelations – especially when taking into consideration Joseph’s tendency to revise them, and understand them better as time went on.
In fact, at risk of sounding hyperbolic, I like to refer to it as Gardner’s Grand Unifying Theory of Revelation.
If the initial Revelation was in and of itself a physical experiential deposit in Joseph’s brain/memory, as he gained more understanding, returning to that Deposit would allow greater understanding and meaning and significance to that event. He would have had a wider vocabulary and context with which to express that embedded Experience.
It has particularly interesting implications for Joseph’s adapting understanding and expressions of the First Vision experience, as well as other Divine Manifestations, including, as I see it, the experiences of commissioning to what was later understood as the reception of Priesthood Authority.
On a far more personal note, it also has some fascinating explanatory implication – and resonates quite eerily – with my early experience I wrote about previously , where, as a young teenager, before having learned anything about Mormonism, I somehow worked out the story of the Restoration (along with VERY similar significant pronouns) in the context of exploring thoughts and concepts that came to my mind as a result of pondering relevant concepts and questions.
When all is said and done, I see this as one of the most important and groundbreaking books to come out in the field of Mormon Studies, at a time where there are many important and groundbreaking books coming out in this very rich and expanding field.
Do not miss this one.