Jeffrey R. Holland's recent sermon and testimony has put a spotlight back on the Book of Mormon. It was a powerful and moving address. Three great commentaries on the talk can be found here at Mormanity, Dave's Mormon Inquiry, and Life on Gold Plates.
While his primary audience obviously consisted of believers in the truthfulness of Book of Mormon, it once again piqued my curiosity about how non-believers account for the Book of Mormon. I've been curious enough to try and step into others' shoes to see how they account for it. And while I often find myself being able to empathize with their position, I also repeatedly find their explanations frustratingly insufficient. Perhaps that sentiment goes both ways.
Nevertheless, for those who do not believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God, explaining it away presents a serious and difficult challenge. Most do not step up to the challenge at all, and dismiss it far too easily. Those who so quickly dismiss it never seem to convincingly articulate why, or at least how they do account for it. It's one thing to question various pieces of a puzzle, but to dismiss this puzzle without examining so many significant and important pieces seems reckless and irresponsible.
After examining any and all of these alternative explanations, it's still more improbable for me to believe that Joseph Smith, and those witnesses who saw and felt the plates, were lying the whole time. Not that people don't lie; people lie all the time. But in this case, look at what was at stake! And what would have been the motive for even attempting to pass off a "19th century hoax" as a sacred record and ancient witness of Jesus Christ? These are not unreasonable questions. And I think they demand good and reasonable answers, especially if I were to be persuaded to change my mind regarding the Book of Mormon--that it truly is what it purports to be.
I most certainly would need someone to do much better in making a case than regurgitating the same explanations that have already been brought forward. That Joseph thought it would be fun to get involved with magic, produce a hoax, and then live the unrelenting and persecuted life he lived in defending that lie--even eventually giving his life for it--just doesn't work for me.
As Elder Holland recently pointed out, why would Joseph and Hyrum turn to a fabricated hoax for spiritual strength and comfort right before they were killed? Meanwhile, there still cannot be found a reasonable and good explanation for how it was fabricated in the first place. Either Joseph was a genius who wrote it himself or he improbably got help from some other ghostwriter(s). And if the best someone can do is connect a few verses of Alma 40 with similarities from the 32nd chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, or say that Joseph just copied from some other manuscript, then an explanation has been attempted for only a small portion of the book. But how was the rest of it written? What of the rest of Alma, or Mosiah, or the vast majority of the rest of the Book of Mormon? Certainly there are many other complicated books which have single authors (J. R. R. Tolkien comes to mind), but what of the Book of Mormon's powerful, moving, and convincing witness of the divinity of Christ, our Redeemer? After all, Christ is the central character and focus in the Book of Mormon from beginning to end. Was Joseph Smith really capable of that?
So far the "best" explanation I've been given by a thoughtful critic of the Book of Mormon is that it's simply a "hodge podge of various common 18th century themes, sources, and religious controversies combined into an imaginative and compelling story." But even this explanation doesn't give the entirety of the Book of Mormon and all it represents the amount of thought that it demands. And besides, didn't Alexander Campbell already say essentially the same thing while calling Joseph an impostor back in 1831? Such a flippant explanation does indeed seem a little pathetic for someone familiar with the totality of the Book of Mormon, let alone the abilities of Joseph Smith or the unbelievable help (aka: vast conspiracy) Joseph would have needed to pull off such an amazing scam.
It's actually harder for me to believe these alternative explanations than to simply believe that God and angels were involved. And as crazy as that can sound to a non-believer, it shouldn't be that crazy for any believer in the Bible, which also describes angelic visitations. Knowing what I know, it would require a greater "jump of reason" for me to conclude that the Book of Mormon wasn't brought forth by the "gift and power of God".
The Book of Mormon continues to be a marvel to me. I continue to be amazed at its relevance in my life today, as well as the great wisdom and power I find in its pages. And while I'm open minded about the actual translation process and even the presence of seeming anachronisms, those points all seem to miss the point. The Book is of God. I feel similar to Blake Ostler, who recently wrote on another blog: "The Book of Mormon is like breath to me. I love its teachings and passages so much that they are like a part of my soul."
And even I fail at fully accounting for all that it has meant for me.