Utah Sen. Bennett makes a leap, defends his LDS faith in new book

Published September 18, 2009 6:00 pm
Preaching to choir? » Bennett finds reasons to believe in Mormon scripture, but will his book find its audience?
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Bob Bennett has a challenge for those who reject The Book of Mormon as a fanciful work of fiction.

"You give me your explanation of where it came from," says Bennett, Utah's junior U.S. senator. "If it's fraudulent, it will be easy for you to pick apart."

In a new book, Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of The Book of Mormon, the lifelong Mormon and grandson of a church prophet, argues that the foundational book of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be dismissed so easily.

The product of seven years of off-and-on writing, the 318-page Leap of Faith, was published by church-owned Deseret Book last month.

The book largely is Bennett's explanation to nonbelievers of why educated, smart people believe The Book of Mormon -- which church founder Joseph Smith says he translated from gold plates -- to be God's restored gospel.

Bennett does it by examining arguments that Smith forged the book.

Tapping into his experience with fraudulent documents -- he helped unmask a bogus biography and a fake will while working for the late billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1970s -- Bennett dissects The Book of Mormon's three main story lines, the migrations of successive families from the Middle East in ancient times and the civilizations they built in the Western Hemisphere.

At every turn, the one-time debater for East High in Salt Lake City weighs the evidence, conceding points to Book of Mormon critics and yet concluding it is what Smith claimed it to be: God's revelation.

"I'm saying it takes a leap of faith to believe The Book of Mormon," Bennett says. "You have to believe in angels. You have to believe in miracles and, in today's world, that's a tough leap to make.

"You have to admit it's not totally, intellectually illogical to make that leap," Bennett says. "There are things that buttress those that make that leap from a scholarly point of view."

To his thinking, it also takes a leap of faith to reject the book as a forgery by an unschooled, young farmer living in upstate New York in the early 19th century. Its size -- 584 pages in its original edition -- and complexity should confound nonbelievers, he says.

"The biggest challenge ... for a critic of The Book of Mormon is the fact that it exists," Bennett says. "If it's fabrication or a forgery, somebody produced it."

But Terryl Givens, a Mormon and a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, notes that The Book of Mormon has not undergone much if any scrutiny by scholars outside the faith.

"The story of its coming forth is too fantastical for non-Mormons to overcome," he told Religion News Service.

Bennett, who turned 76 on Friday, says his book germinated for decades, ever since he first encountered critics of The Book of Mormon as a young man.

But what really prompted him to write a defense of his faith were books and news stories that took swipes at Utah's dominant religion before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

One book in particular rankled Bennett: the 1999 title Mormon America, by Richard and Joan Ostling. While much of the book portrayed Latter-day Saints and their culture favorably, the evangelical Christian authors were less complimentary of church teachings, Bennett says, essentially saying, "If you believe its doctrine, you have to be crazy."

Using a laptop, Bennett worked on his book while waiting for Senate votes, on long plane rides between Washington and Salt Lake City and in motel rooms as colleagues golfed or shared cocktails, two things he avoids.

"I live in a world of conference. Everybody is always talking. I thought maybe I ought to do more reading and writing," Bennett says. "I find the best way to crystallize those ideas is to sit down and write them."

Bennett didn't put his title -- U.S. senator -- on the cover of the book because he didn't write it as a senator but as a believer, the grandson of Heber J. Grant, seventh president of the LDS Church.

He rejects accusations that he is publishing it now, when facing challenges for a fourth term from within his own Republican Party, to remind Utah voters that he is a devout Mormon. The publication date was picked by Deseret Book, Bennett says.

His book may not reach the general audience he originally hoped for.

Several secular publishers were interested until former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, dropped out of the race for president in 2008. They figured interest in Mormons would die down, Bennett says, and the book wouldn't sell well.

Deseret Book generally distributes to its own church-owned stores and to independents that carry LDS titles.

If the book is less likely to find its way into non-Mormon hands, it may turn out to be useful for the faithful, particularly those confused by The Book of Mormon, or seminary students and missionaries.

Too few Mormons really understand their bedrock book, Bennett says, and many use it merely as a "theological version of Bartlett's," a source of quotes for church talks.

It contains, he says, far more than the quick summary Bennett used as a missionary in Scotland in the 1950s, which went like this: "It's a story of the descendants of Lehi, who split into two groups, the Nephites and the Lamanites. The bad guys win."

"You get into the book," Bennett says, "and that's not what it says at all."

Some church members have told Bennett they are uncomfortable to learn there are unresolved "problems" with The Book of Mormon.

For instance, he doesn't have an answer for why Moroni, the last author of the book and the angel who purportedly showed the plates to Smith, would use words about charity that are almost identical to those uttered by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament.

Bennett calls it "a golden nugget of forgery evidence."

"They [his own critics] say, 'One of our own should not be pointing these things out in case the critics have missed them,' " Bennett says.

But Bennett says, to remain credible, he had to put even the unanswerable arguments into his book.

"If you're not upfront with what is really there [in The Book of Mormon], then [if] some teenager or young missionary discovers something you haven't told them, that is going to shake their faith."

Historian Richard Bushman, who wrote the noted 2005 biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, says Bennett's willingness to tackle tough arguments enhances the book, even if it "gives comfort to the enemy," as the old phrase goes.

"He's not thinking of enemies. He's thinking of a question a reasonable person might have."

Bushman says he found Bennett's book engaging. He was surprised in July 2008 when Bennett gave him a copy of the manuscript while Bushman was in Washington.

"I had no idea. I thought, 'What's a U.S. senator doing writing on The Book of Mormon?' "

He read the manuscript on the plane back to California, where he teaches at Claremont Graduate University.

"It really pulled me through," Bushman says. "It's not a technical, scholarly work, but it is an informed work. You feel like it's a personal quest, a man debating with himself."

Bushman believes the book will have two key audiences: Mormons who will love reading a confirmation of their beliefs and those who wonder if they should still believe.

"There are a lot of people who grew up Mormon who are wavering, and wonder if they can believe," Bushman says. "It will be a high-level testimony for them, from a high-level thinking man who is going through the same questions they are."

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"It is simply taken for granted by the critics that the story is so ludicrous that on its face that it is of no real consequence. But the story makes up most of the book. It is very intricate and densely packed with connecting narrative, explanatory flashbacks and detailed descriptions of warfare. If it is forged, the forger must have worked extremely hard to produce it."

"The internal evidence that applies to Joseph's story is as consistent with the possibility that the book is a forgery written entirely by Joseph Smith as it is with the claim of divine intervention."

"Some of them [critics] are beginning to realize that their failure to engage on these issues means that the intellectual high ground that they once held has been slipping away."

"If it is a forgery based on its author's talent for fictional narrative, it is clear the Joseph showed no such talent in any of his other writings, none of which resemble it."

"Accepting the idea that Joseph Smith got his outside help from (a) third party requires a leap that jumps over a huge pile of evidence that the book is genuine; it leaves one pondering the identity of one of the greatest unknown forgers of all history."

Source » Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of The Book of Mormon

Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of The Book of Mormon

By Bob Bennett

Deseret Book

318 pages




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