Faithful and good readers. Apologies for my absence. Shortly after my last post, I attended the Philosophy of Science meetings in Montreal, and then was called upon to sit on a EPA Scientific Advisory Board. That was earlier this month and required me to read about 1500 pages of documents to prepare. I was also teaching two classes. Excuses, excuses. I will try to do better.
The prophet offers a challenge to those who see the revelations he has received and doubt that they are genuine. He suggests that you try to write one. If you cannot, then you ought to accept that they came from God. If they are just the works of a man, then they should be reproducible by a man or a woman, or at least reproducible by the wisest among us. It is worth quoting the verses in full:
“And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, than produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there be any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. 2.023
But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith. 2.024.” 
(And you thought you were going to read D&C 67: 6-8 didn’t you.)
What are the markers of revelation as such? Is irreproducibility a marker? When I was a missionary asked the investigators to consider as they read the Book of Mormon whether “a man could have written this book.” I’ve been thinking about the way we approach scripture and what marks it as a sacred text. Tradition? President Kimball specifically rejected the Song of Songs from the Old Testament so that doesn’t seem to be it. Revelation marking itself by self-reference has always seemed problematic, “Why do you believe the Bible?” we used ask the people of Arkansas where I served my mission. “Because the Bible says it’s true?” Some would answer.
Complexity lately has been used as a marker for revelation. Sometimes Mormon apologetics has suggested complexity as a way of signaling that certain texts cannot have been produced by a given person situated at a certain time given the internal structure: Chiasmus, literary structures, etc. This seems to be a species of the ‘Intelligent Design’ argument (which if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know I think is bad science and bad theology).
The logic seems to be, if we can show that the Book of Mormon could not have been written in the 19th Century, we must accept its source claims. As in intelligent design, this serves to create a ‘God of the Gaps’ problem. If, for example, we find chiasmus in other period writings or we find immensely complex constructions (e.g., see the writings or Opal Whitley, who as a child constructed a complex world which she wrote of paper scraps and when compiled contain a complete and coherent imaginary world of subtle complexity) we are left with the problem of explaining the nature of the complexity, and its use by God as a hint that we should accept something as being from Him. Is complexity sufficient for marking revelation or establishing the credentials of the Book of Mormon?
I ask because, my area, computer simulation is making huge leaps in understanding and unmasking complexity. So if in the near future we may be able to apply an algorithm for estimating complexity. If it gets a certain score do we accept it as revelation based on computer simulation (they recently did this with whale song to show that the information content was insufficient for conveying enough information to be considered a language).
At some point, computer assisted literary analysis using AI ought to be able to give us a cracking good estimate of complexity, situated in time and place of texts, and use of external sources. Will our testimony be based on these analyses?
Let’s pretend that computers actually can do such an analysis. Should we really make the extrapolation that the most complex, or hard to reproduce, or most textually anomalous text for a given time comes from God? This seems to be an assumption in many of the attempts to prove the Book of Mormon using such methods; i.e., that such things mark it as being given by God. To me this agenda seems flawed in principle, because suppose we find that the BM, through complex artificial intelligence computer programs, lies outside of the norm for texts of the period by a long ways? Do we wave that before the world and give a hardy QED slap in the air that faith is now unnecessary because we’ve reduced doubting the Book of Mormon to being just a probabilistically unsound stance? And what if the Koran smokes us in complexity, or Opal Whiney surpasses it in textual complexity? Do we add those to the canon?
The strategy used by Mormon apologetics largely stumbled in situating the text using archeology, and proofs in that arena largely turned out to be harmful for many people’s faith. Will this happen with literary analysis? Will it end like those who pegged all their belief on finding Zarahemla in Guatemala? It sets up a problematic situation if your predictions and analyses sometime in the future have better explanations than the ones you now offer by presuming to show that God makes himself known though his ability to manifest himself in complexity or in low probability events.
I am not arguing that such efforts are a waste of time. Heaven forbid. I’ve been reading Grant Hardy’s book, Understanding the Book of Mormon with hungry fascination. And I think that answering anti-Mormon dismissals using such analyses has an important role to play at any given time. Apologetics allows a space that provides temporary breathing room, while people form a more appropriate relationship with the text. But in the end, I think the approach has to be flagged as providing reasons for continuing taking the texts as interesting and worthy of exploration, but, not as a means to faith. Or even a means of propping up faith. I don’t think God is reveled in the extent of complexity. And this has to be kept in mind lest we forget the purpose for the text, to lead people to a relationship with God.
I’m offering this as a note of caution because I saw the naïve enthusiasms of early archeology backfire to the point where it is hardly mentioned anymore (except among bona fide crazies who move the setting of the Book of Mormon around willy-nilly to match the latest fad in spotting the narrow neck of land). I see those same kinds of enthusiasms in textual literary studies of our scripture today.
Scripture is marked for me in the manifestations of the Spirit. Not in textual complexity or situational inexplicability. Call me skeptical (or call me Ishmael), but I don’t think literary studies are going to turn out to be the unmasking of God. God is not hiding in the details. He is open and ready to form a direct and personal relationship with you. He’s not hiding in the latest statistical improbability.
 The Qur’an Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali