An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself, by Earl M. Wunderli (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013, ISBN 978-1-56085-230-8). 389 pp. Softcover, $32.95.
An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself may be the most important book yet written about Latter-day Saint (LDS) scripture. That is saying a lot, because so many truly excellent works on the Book of Mormon and LDS origins have appeared from Signature Books. Author Earl M. Wunderli’s focus is on the Book of Mormon itself and the many internal indicators that it is not what it presents itself to be—namely, an ancient book written by many different authors over many centuries. This will not come as news to anyone who is even superficially familiar with some of the critical work done in the last couple of decades. But many previous books have examined the Book of Mormon in the light of similarities to Masonic rites and other clues to external influences on the Book. Others have debunked Mormon scripture with the tools of archaeology and genetics, cutting every support from beneath this uniquely American religion until LDS defenders appear like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, shorn of all four limbs but still pugnacious.
Wunderli is a philosopher and a lawyer. He brings a finely honed sense both of logic and evidence to the case of Joseph Smith and his Golden Bible. Wunderli subjects the text to exacting analyses of vocabulary statistics, patterns in the fabrication and the use of names, and comparisons between, for example, the way Jesus speaks in Gospel excerpts reproduced in the Book of Mormon and nonbiblical speeches ascribed to Jesus in 3 Nephi. He easily demonstrates how Joseph Smith would borrow names from the Old Testament, create new ones that had only slight differences, and then try to mutate them further with no real sense of linguistic evolution and grotesque results such as the personal name “Coriantumr.” As you read the Book of Mormon, you can just see Smith’s imagination running out of gas.
As revealing as An Imperfect Book is regarding the Book of Mormon, it is just as revealing in what it shows about the enterprise of apologetics. One pities the poor spin doctors who have made careers out of sophistical ax-grinding to defend the scripture they have cherished since an indoctrinated childhood. What an exercise in bad faith! What a feat of utter futility! What a colossal waste of time! Many years ago, I undertook to write a tongue-in-cheek scholarly commentary on H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon. Lovecraft included in his stories a few “quoted” passages from the blasphemous tome of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. Then a number of Lovecraft’s colleagues joined in the game, peppering their own tales with snippets from the Necronomicon. What I did was to treat them as surviving fragments of an ancient text otherwise lost. I was easily able to give it a seemingly serious, straight-faced academic analysis. I was just kidding around, though, just as Lovecraft and his pals were. As I read Wunderli’s amazing accounts of the gymnastics of Mormon apologists on behalf of their Third Testament, I thought of my Necronomicon commentary. The Mormon defenders are engaging in just the sort of silliness I did. They’re kidding around, too, but they don’t know it. They’re kidding themselves.
I was reminded of something else as I read this book. I kept recognizing the specific apologetical maneuvers, the same ingenious but futile sophistries,that form the stock-in-trade of evangelical apologists for biblical inerrancy. One can only wish that Christian apologists would read this great book, if only to recognize themselves in its mirror.