Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Friday, October 30, 2015

Gardner reviewing Wunderli

Here is my Peer Review of Brant Gardner's review of Earl Wunderli's book.

I first posted this in March, but because it's a peer review of an Interpreter article, I'm reposting it here, with updates. As you'll see, the Interpreter article led me to the more interesting FARMS Review article it referenced.

The Book with the Unintentionally Self-Referential Title

In 2002, Earl Wunderli wrote an analysis of Sorenson's Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography. He incorporated a summary of his analysis in his 2014 book titled An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013).

In the Interpreter, Volume 12 (2014) (link here), Brant A. Gardner wrote a review of Wunderli's book with the cynical title "The Book with the Unintentionally Self-Referential Title." This is yet another example of the FARMS-era lowbrow titles that have continued in the Interpreter.

Brother Gardner doesn't delve into Wunderli's analysis of the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. On page 26, he explains why:

"Wunderli includes a critique of the Limited Geography Theory, which is the theory most often accepted among LDS scholars with training in anthropology or archaeology. [Here I'll inject that this appeal to authority is problematic on several grounds, not the least of which is the legacy of former LDS anthropologists and archaeologists whose faith was shaken by the complete lack of Book of Mormon evidence in Mesoamerica, even after 170 years of searching.] Wunderli greatly abbreviates arguments he made against that geographic setting for the Book of Mormon in an earlier article in Dialogue. I have responded to the points in that article and will not cover those points again."

Brother Gardner uses a footnote to complain that "There is no indication in An Imperfect Book that Wunderli has seen that review."

Curious, I read that review. (Brant A. Gardner, "An Exploration in Critical Methodology: Critiquing a Critique," FARMS Review 16/2(2004): 173-223, available online here:

After reading Brother Gardner's FARMS review and Wunderli's Dialogue article, available here, I don't blame Wunderli for ignoring the review. Brother Gardner left Wunderli's critique of the Mesoamerican theory unscathed. If anything, the FARMS review demonstrated that the Mesoamerican theory is, ultimately, indefensible.

For those without a lot of time, the first 20 pages of Brother Gardner's FARMS review don't respond to the substance of Wunderli's analysis of Sorenson's model. Instead, Brother Gardner argues with himself about Wunderli's methodology, completely ignoring, misconstruing, and obscuring Wunderli's points. For example, he complains that "Wunderli assumes that 'choice above all other lands' must refer to North America rather than Oaxaca or southern Veracruz. There is no particular reason given why this must be so. It has certainly been a traditional reading, but the words of the text do not actually indicate a geography, only a qualitative description." p. 180-1.

The qualitative description is precisely what Wunderli is addressing in this section. Does anyone--anyone--think Oaxaca or southern Veracruz is "choice above all other lands?" Any reader is justified in taking judicial notice of well-known facts. People from around the world are not flooding to Oaxaca or southern Veracruz, and they never have. A quick google search shows that "both Veracruz and Oaxaca are notorious for high crime rates attributable to drug cartel activity and local government corruption." Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico. Residents survive on a limited diet and suffer from protein malnutrition that causes stunted growth and perpetuates poverty. Admittedly, these are modern qualitative descriptions, but the historical record is no more favorable. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is partly swamp and partly rainforest jungle, hot and malarial, with heavy rainfall. These "qualitative descriptions" support Wunderli's position; the burden is on Brother Gardner to show otherwise.

Hemispheric vs limited geography

Brother Gardner proceeds to criticize Wunderli:

"As he begins his discussion, Wunderli describes the hemispheric model and then gives a brief explanation of the limited geography model. His description of the limited geography model is fascinating because he elaborates on why it is a more powerful explanation of the text than the hemispheric model. Rather than present the hemispheric model as superior to the limited geography model, he does the exact opposite and suggests that the text really does not fit the hemispheric model." p. 189.

Of course, Wunderli has problems with both the hemispheric model and the Sorenson model (Brother Gardner often conflates Sorenson's model with the "limited geography" model, probably to simplify the analysis because he is certainly aware of the other limited geography models that have been proposed). There is nothing inconsistent about Wunderli's approach. Criticizing Sorenson's model doesn't require him to embrace the hemispheric model. Brother Gardner posits a false dilemma, as if one of these two options must be correct. He complains that, with respect to the problem of Moroni hauling the plates to New York, Wunderli's hemispheric model is even more improbable than Sorenson's model: "in the hemispheric model the problem is worse because the narrow neck is usually considered to be the Isthmus of Panama, which is further south than the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (the narrow neck in Sorenson’s model). Both models have the same 'problem,' but the hemispheric model actually has a greater distance to travel in the same amount of time." pp. 190-1.

Since I agree with Wunderli that neither of these models fit the Book of Mormon text, perhaps my own bias makes it difficult to understand Brother Gardner's logic, but how does the existence of a greater problem (hemispheric model) solve this still-significant problem of the Mesoamerican model?

Throughout, Brother Gardner seems to assume that readers cannot bring their own experience and knowledge to the discussion. For example, regarding distances, he writes: "Wunderli never contradicts Sorenson’s method nor the specific calculations derived from it. What he does is argue by insinuation against rather than by direct confrontation of Sorenson’s data: 'Sorenson uses this distance and other clues to calculate, with increasing speculation, how far it was between other places such as Zarahemla' (p. 173, emphasis added). Wunderli does not provide any counterdata." p. 192. 

However, any reader knows different people can travel distances at different rates (especially if different modes of transportation are at play) and Sorenson's calculations are, as Wunderli notes, compound assumptions not required by the text.

Brother Gardner then writes "Wunderli undermines his own position because he specifically states: "Sorenson's calculations are not unreasonable." But what Wunderli actually wrote was, "Sorenson's calculations are not unreasonable, but they do not at all preclude a hemispheric geography." Brother Gardner tries to find fault with this by claiming that under the hemispheric model, "those 450 miles would have to stretch to over 4,000 miles." It's an odd argument that 4,000 miles is precluded, when such a distance is historically attested.

Because I reject both the hemispheric and limited geography Mesoamerican models, I don't have a dog in the hunt over these distances. However, the debate does illustrate the fundamental weakness of trying to devise an abstract model first. No two people will walk the exact same distance in a week; neither will any two people come up with the exact same estimate of how far a hypothetical person would walk in a week, particularly when the terrain, elevation, and fauna are unknown. For this reason, I accept Sorenson's calculations as reasonable, but only given his assumptions. The problem is with his assumptions. First, he simply assumes a Mesoamerican setting. Then he makes these calculations so they'll fit. To me, that's circular reasoning. The only value of these assumptions is to show the impracticability of a hemispheric model.


Brother Gardner quibbles with Wunderli's take on Columbus, asserting that Columbus never set foot on North America but ignoring both that Columbus never set foot on Guatemala or southern Mexico and that Columbus did set foot on U.S. territory. Then Brother Gardner characterizes Cortes as "scattering" the Lamanites, although the indigenous Mayans still live where they always have--unlike the North American Indians who were removed (scattered) from their ancestral lands. Brother Gardner even makes the astonishing statement that "the Book of Mormon text describes events in Central America with far greater accuracy than it does North America." He then provides zero data to contradict Wunderli's persuasive analysis of history.

Brother Gardner then doubles down on his insistence that the "promised land" is the crime-ridden, impoverished area of Central America as he discusses the meaning of "land" in Jarom, Omni and Mosiah:

"In this early definition, is it even conceivable that 'the land' might include North America? We have two candidates for a narrow neck, Panama and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Both are rather significantly south of the bulk of North America. The Nephites are in 'the land,' but they have never been north of the narrow neck, hence have never been into the area we conceptualize as North America....According to Wunderli’s argument, the Nephite land of promise—the land choice above all other lands—must perforce be a location they have never visited. " p. 203-4.

I have previously shown how the "narrow neck" theme has been a fundamental error, and this is another example of how misleading it is. Neither Panama nor the Isthmus of Tehuantepec can be considered "narrow" as that term is used everywhere else in the text. Worse, the "narrow neck" is not even a border anyway.

In an extensive footnote (p. 205-6), Brother Gardner challenges Wunderli's observation that 2 Ne 1:8-11 "surely sounds like North American history from a Euro-American perspective, in which the Lamanites (Indians) lived by themselves but because of their unbelief, other nations came and took the land and 'scattered' and 'smote' them." But rather than deal with Wunderli's point about how the future Gentiles would scatter and smite the Lamanites, the footnote focuses on Richard Bushman's observations about the non-democratic form of government in the Book of Mormon, a topic Wunderli doesn't address. Then Brother Gardner offers extensive irrelevant quotations from Jarom through Alma that don't address the prophecy in 2 Nephi.

By limiting the possibilities to two Central American locations, a requirement the text never imposes, Brother Gardner artificially excludes North America as the Nephite land of promise and then cites his own contrived constraint to reject Wunderli's argument. His argument on history ignores Wunderli's points to the extent that one wonders if Brother Gardner is critiquing a different article.

Narrow Neck of Land

Regarding the narrow neck of land, Brother Gardner criticizes Wunderli in these words: "It never occurs to Wunderli that the area described in the [Sorenson] limited geography theory is also 'nearly surrounded by water... In the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec [real people] could tell that they were 'nearly surrounded by water' by climbing mountains near the narrow neck and visually scanning the horizon."

Actually, it never occurs to Brother Gardner that a "real person" standing on the "mountains" near the "narrow neck" that is 120 miles wide will see both land and water to the horizon--with the land widening the farther one can see. Not only is the Isthmus not actually "nearly surrounded by water," it doesn't even appear to an observer on the ground to be "nearly surrounded by water." There are no "mountains" in the Isthmus tall enough to see both oceans anyway, even on a clear day. The only point in the world where you can see both oceans is in Costa Rica, from Mount Izaru which is 11,325 feet. At that location, the two oceans are only 90 miles apart. But even from that spot, you would see the land continue to the horizon, northwest and southeast.

Worse, Wunderli does specifically address this point. "What is puzzling is why Sorenson believes southern Guatemala and southern Mexico meet these requirements at all. Both have the Pacific Ocean on one side; southern Mexico has the Gulf of Mexico (more specifically, the Gulf of Campeche) on the other side, and southern Guatemala the Caribbean Sea, although it is not clear that Sorenson extends the land of Nephi in southern Guatemala all the way to the sea. In any case, neither individually nor together are they "nearly surrounded by water."54 

Note 54 reads, "Sorenson himself describes his Book of Mormon geography in 'Mesoamerican Record,' 396 (emphasis added), as just a few hundred miles in length and width, bounded on two sides by oceans.' In his summary of criteria in A Source Book, 329, he recognizes that the land southward must be 'nearly surrounded by water' without explaining how his Mesoamerican location meets this criterion."

Wunderli's persuasive points about the "narrow neck" are otherwise unaddressed by Brother Gardner, which I take as a concession that Wunderli is correct.


Next Brother Gardner takes up the issue of directions. He states Wunderli's criticism accurately:

"Wunderli’s final criticism has to do with directions. He argues that, since the limited geography model interprets north differently from true north, it is therefore a distortion of the text. Wunderli suggests that north is true north and that the text therefore precludes Sorenson’s model because it violates that constraint from the text." p. 214.

Here's how Brother Gardner criticizes Wunderli:

"One of his textual 'proofs' is that 'the Jaredites and the Nephites seemed to have had the same directional system' (p. 191). This is also a truism and hardly an issue for discussion. Unfortunately, Wunderli fails to distinguish the essential difference between a consistent system and one that requires that north have only the meaning he ascribes to the word. When John E. Clark (who is both a well-respected archaeologist and a Latter-day Saint) examined the geography of the Book of Mormon, he noted..." pp. 215-6.

Before getting to Clark, let's look at what Brother Gardner is saying. First, he ignores the point that the Jaredites used the same system, which is a critical point because Brother Gardner embraces the Sorenson concept that "north" in the Book of Mormon means "west" because of a combination of Mayan, Egyptian, and other cultural artifacts. But none of those apply to the Jaredites. Then Brother Gardner characterizes the common meaning of the word "north" as one that Wunderli "ascribes to the word," as though every English speaker in the world doesn't also "ascribe" the common meaning to the word. Finally, he offers an embarrassing appeal to authority: Clark is both a "well-respected archaeologist" and a "Latter-day Saint." Neither characteristic has any relevance to the validity of the argument.

Now, look at Clark's point as quoted by Brother Gardner: "I do not pretend to know how Nephite 'north' relates to the north of today’s compass, and such information is irrelevant for my present purpose of reconstructing an internal geography." Mesoamerican apologists like to characterize the common meaning of 'north' in terms of the compass, on the assumption that the Nephites (and Jaredites) did not have a compass, but this is a red herring; in reality, most cultures (including the Hebrews) take their directions from the rising sun. Even today, few people use a compass every day to figure out where "north" is; people know because of where the sun rises and sets. 

Brother Gardner himself notes that to Mayan people, "the primary axis is an east-west direction based on the sun's daily path." Brother Gardner insists that "Wunderli is locked into the modern Western mind-set," when in fact human cultures throughout time and space have used the sun as the axis for determining directions. Brother Gardner, Sorenson, Clark, et al. try to avoid this reality by citing obscure variable directional systems, none of which are even hinted at in the Book of Mormon text.

Basically, the Mesoamerican proponents insist that Joseph Smith mistranslated the Book of Mormon. Here's how Brother Gardner puts it: "We have evidence that Joseph dictated 'north.' What we do not have evidence of is what the text on the plates said." p. 218. So Joseph Smith's translation is not evidence of what the plates said!

It is difficult to conceive of an argument that undermines the Book of Mormon more than this one. Not even Wunderli goes that far. If Joseph's translation of "north" is not evidence of what the plates said, is anything he translated evidence of what the plates said?

Other have noted this fundamental problem with Mesoamerica, as Brother Gardner admits: "The issue of cardinal directions in Sorenson’s model is important, but it has become a popular criticism largely on the basis of a Western inability to conceive of the world differently. We expect that 'north' must mean precisely what we think it means. When this notion is combined with the equally erroneous idea that the text of the Book of Mormon is a perfect rendition of the underlying text, it is easy to understand how even someone with Deanne Matheny’s background might suggest: 'Making this shift in directions creates its own set of problems, however, because in such a Nephite directional system the sun would come up in the south and set in the north.'⁴⁷" Footnote 47 reads: Matheny, "Does the Shoe Fit?" 277.

Brother Gardner's response to both Wunderli and Matheny reflects his skepticism about the accuracy of Joseph's translation: "Although the English text of the Book of Mormon subconsciously encourages us to read our own cultural perceptions into directional terms, the text’s internal consistency tells us that the directional system works. If we allow the hypothesis that the text is a translation of an ancient document, then the modern assumption of directions is the problem, not the presentation in the Book of Mormon."

"Our own cultural perceptions" is a euphemism for "ordinary meaning of the English language." Brother Gardner's approach here typifies the approach taken by Mesoamerican advocates generally, who also postulate that the Book of Mormon "horse" is actually a "tapir," etc.

Brother Gardner declines to address Wunderli's point about Nephi's use of modern cardinal directions while the family was still in the Middle-East. No wonder: that point alone demolishes all the strands of the "variable" directional system that Brother Gardner teases out of obscure cultural references. The frequent use of directional references in the Book of Mormon by different cultures on different continents emphasize that directions are fundamental for any culture, especially for people who traversed the planet anciently. The hypothesis that Joseph Smith incorrectly--or worse, misleadingly--translated Book of Mormon directions exists solely to fit the Book of Mormon into a location the text itself rejects.


Brother Gardner quotes Wunderli's conclusion: "Critics of the Book of Mormon have challenged the limited geography model on various grounds, but so far as I know, no one has challenged it based just on what the Book of Mormon itself says. And, in fact, what the book says seems to have been largely disregarded or misconstrued by the limited geography theorists."

In response, Brother Gardner cites the "significantly larger number of texts" analyzed by Sorenson, but he never directly addresses Wunderli's text-based objections: "And in fact, on the basis of what the Book of Mormon itself says together with a map of the western hemisphere, Sorensen's Isthmus of Tehuantepec theory fares poorly. It is hardly a "neck" at all; it is hardly "narrow"; it does not connect a land northward with a land southward "nearly surrounded by water"; there does not appear to be a separate "narrow pass" through the "narrow neck" to make it narrow enough to defend; and it is oriented askew. Panama, on the other hand, satisfies the criteria of the Book of Mormon perfectly."

In my view, Wunderli's analysis of the Mesoamerican setting is far more faithful to the text than the analyses offered so far by the proponents of the Mesoamerican setting. While Brother Gardner complains of Wunderli's "imposition of a reading on the text," Brother Gardner's own response is so convoluted that he insists that Joseph's translation is not even evidence of what was on the plates! In other words, Brother Gardner dismisses Wunderli for analyzing the text because he, Brother Gardner, knows what was on the plates themselves--knowledge Joseph Smith himself lacked.

Wunderli was right to ignore Brother Gardner's critique. As of this moment, I'm not aware of anyone else who has responded to Wunderli's analysis of the Book of Mormon text, which is why he retained it in his book. 

At any rate, as a believer in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I conclude that Wunderli's observations about the Mesoamerican setting are thoughtful, persuasive, and unchallenged. Neither the hemispheric nor the Sorenson limited geography (or any Mesoamerican geography) is consistent with the text of the Book of Mormon. If Brother Gardner's ineffective response is the best defense of the Mesoamerican theory (and I think Brother Gardner is as well-educated, thoughtful, and articulate as anyone), then anyone who still adheres to the Mesoamerican theory ought to reconsider that position.

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