As I prepared for today’s GD lesson on Mosiah 7-11, it dawned on me that Mosiah 8 might be a good occasion to teach the class the stone-in-the-hat methodology Joseph used in his translation of the BoM. As you’ll recall, King Limhi asks Ammon if he can translate languages, and he replies that he cannot. He then asks if he knows anyone that can, because he possesses the 24 Jaredite gold plates and he wants to learn the reasons for their destruction. Ammon tells him that the King of Zarahemla (IE Mosiah ) is a seer who possesses interpreters by which he can interpret languages. After further explanation, in v. 18 Ammon says “Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.”
I suggested that there is a parallel between this expressed manner of translation by “seeing” (for a seer is a see-er, “one who sees”) and the way that Joseph himself translated the BoM.
I wrote the following on the board and asked if anyone knew what it was:
Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem
Several knew it was Latin, but no one knew what it was. I then explained that on Facebook this past week a bunch of my friends had posted links to the ATM at the Vatican that uses Latin instructions. The article gives this as an example without a translation, so I took a crack at it myself and came up with “Please insert [your] card so that you may peruse the account to be accessed.” (I also mentioned that the word for “card” is interesting; a scida is a piece of papyrus bark; scidulam is the diminutive form [in the accusative case], and thus means “a little piece of papyrus bark,” which is how they chose to represent the modern ATM banking “card.”) So then I asked how I was able to figure this out, and people correctly stated that I had studied Latin academically in college and had applied that skill set to the problem.
I asked how many knew a language other than English, and about half the hands went up. I suggested that we think of translation as an academic process, because that is how we do it and therefore what we know. Our artists are no different; that one painting that has Joseph translating by carefully tracing his finger over the characters on the plates is the same process one’s daughter follows when translating from Spanish in her high school Spanish class.
But, I suggested, Joseph did not spend 12 years studying Reformed Egyptian at Cambridge University. He did not translate by an academic process, but by the “gift and power of God.”
I then talked about the implements Joseph used in this seeric process; first, the interpreters for the 116 pages, and second the seerstone for the rest of the BoM. I explained that Joseph used the seerstone by placing it in his hat and lowering his face to the brim to exclude light. I suggested that there has been confusion about this because of W.W. Phelps applying the term “urim and thummim” to these implements, which historically have been used without distinction for both the interpreters and the seerstone. I talked briefly about the witness statements, which paint a very consistent picture of how the seerstone was used in practice. (This morning I had reviewed the Dialogue article “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing,” which is the seminal article on this subject, to refresh my recollection on the witness statements, since I had a feeling this might come up in class.)
From there the class moved on to a discussion of seers and prophets, whether they are exactly the same things and, if not, what the distinctions are. And then we moved on with the lesson.
The upshot? No one had any problem whatsoever with the stone in the hat methodology. I had set it up with adequate contextual background. Just as importantly, I taught it absolutely matter-of-factly, not as some great mystery. There is no debate among Mormon scholars on this point, so why not express it as a given rather than making a huge deal out of it?
(I admit to having second thoughts about trying it today, as we had a visitor in class I knew to be extremely conservative. But we had another visitor in class today who is a knowledgeable scholar of the Church, so I felt as though I had enough back up should I need it. But it wasn’t a problem at all.)
I wasn’t originally thinking of going there with this lesson. But I spent much of yesterday watching the UVU Mormonism and the Internet conference sessions, and I was inspired. I had this vision of one of our young people seeing the South Park “All About Mormons” episode, which portrays the stone-in-the-hat methodology, asking his parents about it, and the parents saying “That’s absurd, of course it didn’t happen that way.” And then they look into it and feel blindsided over the issue.
This is why I continue to be a believer that inoculation can work. I’ve done this sort of thing with various ostensibly touchy issues on a number of occasions, and it has always worked out well.
Now, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Just because I have been able to do inoculation and do it well doesn’t mean that the tens of thousands of GD teachers in the Church would necessarily have similar success. Handled ham-handedly, it has the potential to be a disaster. Sensitively prepared curriculum materials that broached issues like this would be a good start, and I believe they will come eventually, but that is something that is going to take [a long] time.
In the meantime, I will continue to pick my spots and do a little inoculation here, a little there, one class at a time.