I stumbled onto the following article, which I'll make this week's online essay, a few weeks back: The Book of Mormon, Historicity, and Faith by Robert Millet of BYU. It is from Volume 2, No. 2 (Fall 1993) of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, a production of the Maxwell Institute. Millet takes a more ecumenical view of some issues than other LDS scholars, so I was curious what new views he would bring to the historicity discussion.
First, for an overview, here's the abstract of the article:
The historicity of the Book of Mormon record is crucial. We cannot exercise faith in that which is untrue, nor can "doctrinal fiction" have normative value in our lives. Too often the undergirding assumption of those who cast doubt on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, in whole or in part, is a denial of the supernatural and a refusal to admit of revelation and predictive prophecy. Great literature, even religious literature, cannot engage the human soul and transform the human personality like scripture. Only scripture—writings and events and descriptions from real people at a real point in time, people who were moved upon and directed by divine powers—can serve as a revelatory channel, enabling us to hear and feel the word of God.
Nothing new here. I'm not sure what "we cannot exercise faith in that which is untrue" means: what are we to make of other religions, of Christians of other denominations, or even of fellow Latter-day Saints who have slightly different (or even radically different) views of various principles, doctrines, historical episodes, or metaphors? What are we to make of Lamoni, who had faith in Ammon's teaching in Alma 18 that God is a Great Spirit? How about the young President Kimball, who for the first several decades of his life thought of the God of the Old Testament as God the Father rather than, following 20th-century LDS doctrine, as the preexistent Jesus Christ? And of course do we deny faith to Christians who accept the Trinity?
In the article, Millet narrows the debate to three stark options: "Joseph Smith told the truth, did not know the truth, or told a lie." Anything less than full historicity he classifies as a "doctrinal fiction" approach. So what is a parable if not a "doctrinal fiction"? The account of the iron rod and the straight and narrow path in 1 Nephi 8 is a metaphor writ large, a symbolic sermon, a "doctrinal fiction." Is it therefore of no value? Is it not true because there isn't a literal iron rod or a literal straight and narrow path? I think the tendency of the strong historicity crowd (or at least Millet's depiction thereof) conveniently avoids the fact that we all recognize the scriptures as being full of "doctrinal fictions." If faith is restricted to absolutely true propositions, there's more truth in the math department than in the religion department. I don't think that's where he's trying to go with that argument.
I also see the strong historicity crowd granting themselves exceptions to the literal standard whenever it is convenient. So they don't believe that God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt or that there was really a worldwide flood that covered all the continents with water that flowed from windows in the dome of the sky, even though that's what the text says. But when anyone else tries the same approach and sees as metaphorical an event they insist must be taken literally, they treat that view as simple apostasy. I think they need a new approach.
Here's Millet on the expansion view, one new approach: "It propounds the view the the Book of Mormon represents an ancient core source mediated through a modern prophet. I feel this is basically an effort to have it both ways ...." The expansion view at least tries to deal with anachronisms without saying "Adieu" to an "ancient core source," but the strong historicity crowd doesn't want a compromise, they want an all-or-nothing choice. "Because certain theological matters were discussed in the nineteenth century does not preclude their revelation or discussion in antiquity." From Millet's perspective, anachronism is an undiscovered category.
On the other hand, Millet also relates the position he encountered in his studies in graduate-level religion courses: "Now whether Jesus of Nazareth came back to life — literally rose from the dead — is immaterial. What matters is that Christians thought he did. And the whole Christian movement is founded upon this faith event." Most believers want more than "faith events," they want real events. The Liberal Protestant shift away from "real events" has not done much for their vitality. And there isn't much middle ground between Liberal Protestantism and Evangelical Protestantism. Hard to see any more of a middle ground in the Mormon discussion than in the Christian discussion.
I get the impression that some strong historicity advocates think the LDS Church ought to be composed of about 5000 people — those who believe exactly like they do. At least Millet takes a more liberal view of church membership, in a passage which seems like a nice one to end with:
There is room in the church for all types and shapes and sizes of people, and certainly all of us are at differing stages of intellectual development and spiritual maturity. Further, there are a myriad of doctrinal issues over which discussion and debate may lead to diverse conclusions, particularly in matters which have not been fully clarified in scriptures or by prophets.