Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Friday, September 4, 2015

Neal Rappleye on criticism

Neal Rappleye has written a few things for the Interpreter that I've reviewed on another blog. Someday I'll add those to this blog. Neal also maintains his own blog.

Neal's basic complaint here is that I haven't shared my proposed geography. He needs to recall my experience with Matt Roper of the Maxwell Institute. I visited Roper three times to get his input before I published anything. I shared an early draft with him, thinking he would act as a colleague. Instead, he never gave me input, he shared my material with others, he reneged on an agreement to collaborate with me, and he spent six months preparing a review that contains obvious errors.

So while I would love to work with Neal, or any of the Mesoamericanists, as colleagues, Roper has poisoned that well and Neal and the others have not only endorsed what Roper did, they applaud it.

I understand Neal is a student, and he writes well. Unfortunately, he has embarked on the Mesoamerican theory. All my critiques are intended to improve the quality and accuracy of the conversation. Hopefully he has an open mind and will be willing to consider the merits when I publish them.

Here is my review of what he recently wrote on his blog.

Book of Mormon Geography in Neville-Nevilleland

Jonathan Neville is an advocate of the Book of Mormon Heartland model who has been generating an endless array 
[The only thing that's endless in this field is the logical and factual errors I find in Mesoamericanist writings. I've barely scratched the surface, actually, even though I've posted over a hundred separate entries so far. I have plenty more drafted, ready to post at the right time.]
of polemical posts against Mesoamericanists, including me, on 2 different blogs. Like other Heartlanders, he has adopted an unfortunate mode of discourse which blames Mesomaricanists for damaging faith and even misleading the Church. 
[I agree with Neal here: this discourse is unfortunate. I have always said I think the Mesoamericanists are doing what they think is right because they think they are vindicating what Joseph Smith said in the 1842 Times and Seasons articles. I've also said they are nice people, I'm not questioning their motives or faith or anything of the sort. But the faulty premise they rely on has led them to expressly repudiate the writings of 2 of the 3 witnesses and to claim Joseph Smith was uncertain, changed his mind, etc. Because I hear this complaint frequently, I have put together a manuscript that consists mainly of quotations from Mesoamericanists that will be released soon.]
Also like most Heartlanders, he has never produced a detailed study of Book of Mormon geography. 
["Most Heartlanders" have never written anything about the topic. There are thousands of "Heartlanders" who do their own investigation. Since Neal refers to "most" here, I'm curious about the ones who have produced a detailed study of Book of Mormon geography.]
Despite that, he has confidently asserted,
It turns out that if you put Cumorah in New York and Zarahemla in Iowa, the geographical references in the text fit nicely. The archaeology, anthropology, and geology also match up with the seas, the narrow strip of wilderness, going up and down, the narrow neck, etc..
This, however, has never once been demonstrated. 
[Not to Neal, apparently, but to many others.]
Brant Gardner has recently critiqued the general Heartland model based on specific textual details. In his so-called “peer review,” Neville repeatedly accuses Gardner of engaging in straw man argumentation. Such an accusation would have more teeth, however, if Neville would offer at least some kind of analysis of the textual details and how they might fit with a model based on his two points. 
[This is a fair criticism in one respect, and I'm glad Neal is so eager to see the model, but the accusation has teeth anyway. Gardner was attacking a straw man as anyone who reads his review knows. He never cited any specific model.]
But, alas, Neville never does this. If Neville disagrees with the Heartland model as described by Gardner, then why doesn’t he offer his own description of the Heartland model? Just how do “the geographical references in the text fit nicely” across the Eastern United States?
[This will be published soon enough. However, I've had to spend some time examining and explaining the fallacies of the Mesoamerican models so I can be sure my own model doesn't suffer from the same deficiencies. I notice the Mesoamericanists really have no answer for the problems I've pointed out.]

John L. Sorenson’s model maybe imperfect. It maybe laden with assumptions. But in his The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Sourcebook, he laid out his thinking on the subject in detail
[And I've relied on Sorenson's analysis, both in that book and in Mormon's Codex. In fact, I applied his own filters. Neal and other readers of the Interpreter would have seen this except they refused to publish my article because they disagreed with my conclusions.]
He provided his interpretation of over 700 verses he deemed relevant to the Book of Mormon. Sorenson is the most thorough, but other Mesoamericanists have also given some fairly detailed discussions of at least a few hundred verses. This gives me something I can actually read and critically examine. 
[I'd be interested to see where Neal has critically examined this. So far, all of his published works defend the Mesoamerican model. If Neal has explanations for the errors I've noted, for example, I'd like to see them.]
I can weigh and consider Sorenson’s and other Mesoamericanists’s interpretations. Can Neville, or any other Heartlander, show me where this has been done by an advocate of the Heartland model? You see, I would love to take the Heartland model seriously, but they haven’t given me anything to take seriously. 
[This is all I ask. I hope Neal really means this. I'm going to bold it.] 
This is why Gardner says that the hypothesis (meaning, of course, its advocates), “really doesn’t care much about geography.” And while Neville takes umbrage to this statement, 
[I don't recall taking umbrage; I merely pointed out it's inconsistent with the term Gardner used. In fact, Neal has used it here, as well. A "Heartland" model is defined by geography.]
his constant haggling over early Church history statements and serious lack of any detailed analysis of the textual-geographical data really serves to illustrate the point. If he and his associates really care so much about geography, where can I read his detailed analysis of the 700+ geographic passages?
[The link to the final book will be available soon.]
In rebuffing Gardner, Neville insists that even though geography is the last factor considered by Rod Meldrum and Bruce Porter, “Every analytical method prioritizes steps, but the final step is no less important than the others. This is as true of the Porter/Meldrum approach as any other.” But this does not actually match what Porter and Meldrum actually say. They unambiguously assert, “these prophecies about ‘remnant’ and ‘Gentiles’ upon this land becomes a primary witness and testimony that should supersede any geographical passage in the search for a setting for the Promised Land.”[1] Need we review the meaning of the termsupersede in light of Nevilles assertion?

[Nothing Neal writes here refutes my point. Porter/Meldrum refer to "any geographical passage" because most of them are ambiguous anyway (which is proven by the number of variations of Mesoamerican geographies). I'm not aware of a single geographical passage that cannot be interpreted more than one way. Geography is listed last, but it is no less important; in fact, identifying geography is the whole point of their book.]

verb (used with object), superseded, superseding.

  1.        to replace in power, authority, effectiveness, acceptance, use, etc., as by another person or thing.
  2.        to set aside or cause to be set aside as void, useless, or obsolete,usually in favor of something mentioned; make obsolete:
  3.        to succeed to the position, function, office, etc., of; supplant.
From here, I will let the reader decide if Porter and Meldrum seem to weight geographic evidence—their “final step”—as equally as their first priorities.
[Good. Always best to trust readers.]

Amidst all his ranting about straw man arguments, however, Neville is prone to commit such logical fallacies himself. In a blog post entitled, “Seriously … this is the map you are supposed to accept,” Neville shows the following picture from Brant Gardner’s Traditions of the Fathers.

From Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History
(Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 145, red circles added by Jonathan Neville.

The red circles were added by Neville to emphasize his point. The sea east and west are actually north and south of the narrow neck of land and Zarahemla. Neville then offers an absurd explanation for this problem:
Now, you might wonder why the sea east is north and the sea west is south of the supposedly “narrow” neck of land that is 125 miles wide. The answer is that Joseph Smith didn't understand Mayan mythology so he didn't know how to translate the book correctly. Well, that's not fair. When he translated 1 Nephi, Joseph translated directions accurately because when Nephi lived in the Middle-East, he used the same cardinal directions we do today. But when he came to the New World, Nephi and his successors immediately rejected the Hebrew customs and embraced Mayan mythology and worldview.
As far as straw men go, this is the weakest kind. Where to even start?

[Maybe it's weak because it's not a straw man? This is a fair and accurate paraphrase of Gardner's argument, which anyone who reads Gardner's chapter on this will recognize.]
  1.        No one has ever said that Joseph Smith didn’t translate the book correctly. The “correctness” of the translation is not the issue at all. The issue is how well the Nephite directional system translates into cardinal directions.  [This is the kind of argument that explains why I'm going to publish the excerpts from Mesoamericanist writings.]
  2.     Israelites used a directional system that translates easily into our cardinal directions. This is not necessarily true of all directional systems used in ancient cultures. [I can't see the relevance of this point.]
  3.        There are absolutely zero directional references in the New World until Mosiah. That is roughly 300 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. As such, no one supposes that Book of Mormon peoples necessarily “rejected” their traditional directional system “immediately.” It was probably a gradual process. Even if it was immediate, though, why would that be so objectionable? [Again, this is why I have to publish the excerpts from the Mesoamericanists. The fundamental premise of the Mesoamericanist argument is that Lehi's company encountered a huge Mayan civilization that completely absorbed them.]
I could go on. I recommend one read the detailed analysis of Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican directions from Gardner himself to get an accurate view. [Me too. That's why I recommended his book on my blog. I think Gardner is an excellent scholar, but he has very weak facts--and a faulty premise--to work with.]

In a rather backhanded compliment, Neville remarks, “I admire the creativity of the Mesoamericanists.” Frankly, the creativity of Heartlanders is far more impressive. I mean, they seriously want you to believe this map:

Or this slightly different version:

Whatever shortcomings a Mesoamerican model might have in terms of placement of seas, these pale in comparison with the placement of the seas in Heartland models, which are impossible to square with the text.

Take, for example, the story of the 2,000 stripling warriors, which I have been studying of late. Their story takes place “in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea” (Alma 53:22). This is, of course, the land of Zarahemla (see v. 12), but just in case there is any doubt that they are stationed south of Zarahemla, note that their adventures include Manti (Alma 56:14; 57:22; 58:1, 13, 25–28, 39), the head of Sidon (Alma 56:25), along with a city by the seashore (Alma 56:31). Please, look at the Heartland maps and tell me, where is the body of water that could plausibly be considered a west sea in the vicinity of Manti, the head of Sidon, south of the land of Zarahemla? How can these stories playout in the Heartland, which places all the seas, including the west sea, (north)east of Zarahemla, and nowhere near Manti? (This is an episode that plays out very well in most Mesoamerican geographies, mind you, especially Sorenson’s.)
[All I can say is, you'll see how perfectly this plays out in my model.]

Perhaps Neville would be inclined to explain some details of his own Heartland geography model (presuming they differ substantially from those shown above) and how these stories about Helaman’s army play out in them, so I can critically examine such a hypothesis. I would love to see just  how “creative” Neville has to get to make this fit.
[No creativity--just applying the text to the real world.]

The fact is, no matter how many times Neville wants to simply assert that the Heartland fits better geographically, etc., until he can show how stories like this actually do fit better geographically, the assertions are meaningless.
[They're not meaningless. Unpersuasive, perhaps, but only because Mesoamericanists have not tried applying the text to the real world in North America. Anyone could have reached the same conclusions I did if they weren't obsessed with a faulty premise.]

Beyond all that, in his outrage at the idea that Lehi and co. would adopt native ways of conceptualizing the world, there seems to be an utter naïveté about basic anthropology. 
[This is a fascinating comment. I'm supposedly naive because I don't reject Nephi's account in favor of an imagined encounter with an extensive Mayan civilization...]
Lehi and his family were a small group of immigrants. 
[That's an inference from the text, but not a necessary one, as even Gardner admits in his book.]
Their survival in a totally new environment depended on adopting local ways and customs, and not just in terms of growing crops or building shelter. 
["Basic anthropology" has plenty of examples of people migrating to unoccupied areas; in fact, every human civilization occupies a once uninhabited area, if one accepts the account of Adam and Eve. But even accepting Darwinian evolution, as Mesoamericanists generally do, "basic anthropology" teaches that people migrated to uninhabited areas and survived without adopting any local ways and customs. For that matter, Neal's premise isn't even true when immigrants encounter existing civilizations. How many of the "local ways and customs" of the Indians did the English and French adopt?]
Being able to communicate with locals would be essential, and adopting—to at least some degree—the predominant worldview, would be a necessary part of that. All of this is true no matter where Lehi landed, whether in Mesoamerica, North America, South America, or anywhere else on the planet.
[Unless they landed in an unoccupied area--as they claimed.]
Underneath all of this there also seems to be some sort of assumption that adopting the native ways (in this case, Mayan) of conceptualizing directions and the world around them is wrong. 
[This is worded oddly, but I'll infer he means I characterized Mayan culture as "wrong" somehow. I don't think it's wrong; just different, and not what Joseph translated from the plates.]
The Israelites believed the world was flat and that the sky was a solid dome which held the celestial waters at bay—a worldview largely held, and likely adopted from, the wider ancient Near Eastern world. And this erroneous view of the cosmos is reflected in several places in the Bible.  So what, then, is so objectionable with the idea that the Nephites understood directions in a way that was similar to that of their neighbors, or if the northern and southern seas mentioned only once in the text (Helaman 3:8) are merely metaphorical based the cultural worldview at the time (another idea Neville does not seem to like, despite having no real argument against)? 
[Hmm. I pointed out that one is not matching the text to the terrain if, whenever one finds a feature in the text that doesn't fit, once deems it "metaphorical." Neal seems oblivious to the compound error that Gardner makes here. First, he assumes without evidence that the Book of Mormon was written from a Mayan worldview. Then he assumes without evidence that the north and south sea is merely metaphorical. While this approach may be required because without it, the text doesn't match the terrain, that's hardly an excuse. What is the limiting principle here? If these two seas are metaphorical, why couldn't any other geographical descriptions also be metaphorical? Gardner's argument boils down to this: the north and south seas must be metaphorical because they don't exist in Mesoamerica. And that's the argument Neal approves here?]
Seriously, does any passage become difficult to interpret if those seas are just metaphors? Because reading it as literal certainly creates difficulties for any geography, including Heartland-based models. What is actually wrong with these ideas?
[No doubt, the text becomes easier to interpret if we deem any passage that doesn't fit to be a metaphor. Is that the criteria by which Neal wants to judge a proposed geography? I prefer a literal reading of the entire text--which is why I rejected Mesoamerica after decades of accepting it.]
We cannot read the Book of Mormon like it is some kind of fairy tale, where we get to project our modern way of seeing the world onto its various characters. 
[Wait--it's not a fairy tale, but it is metaphorical whenever we want it to be?]
If it is a real history of real ancient peoples, then we should expect those people to think, act, and conceive the world the same way real ancient people did. This means holding world views about the cosmos, or understanding directions, and a variety of other things differently than we do.
[This is an incoherent argument. "Real ancient people" held a tremendous variety of world views. There is no limiting principle of Neal's proposed expectation here. By contrast, I say we should interpret the text the way a specific group of "real ancient people" would; i.e., Hebrews. There is no reason for imposing a Mayan (or Inca, Aztec, Zapotec, or any other world view) on the text--except to justify one's preferred geography that doesn't match up with the text, as Gardner and Neal do here.]
 It also means that we need to be able to do more than simply put the names of Book of Mormon cities, rivers, and seas on a map willy-nilly—the stories and events which tell us about those places need to fit a real world location. 
Otherwise, Zarahemla might as well be in Never-Neverland.  

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