We’ve all heard of chiasm, that Hebrew literary device of repeating elements in reverse order. Since 1969, when Jack Welch first suggested that the Book of Mormon contained chiasm, some Mormon apologists have argued that the presence of chiasm in the Book of Mormon is evidence of its ancient origins. Numerous chiasm articles have appeared in popular LDS magazines as well as under the imprint of FARMS, among others. Meanwhile, opponents have said, more or less, “you’re nuts.”
I’m a skeptic. I’ve always thought that the alleged chiastic patterns were simply too susceptible to cherry-picking. Today, I stumbled across another piece of evidence that buttresses my own skeptical views on chiasm. It comes from an unusual source — the small non-Brighamite Mormon sect often called the Strangites.
The Strangite sect is comprised of a few thousand members who followed James Strang after the death of Joseph Smith, rather than following Brigham Young. Strang had a number of clashes with Brigham Young over church property (he claimed legal title to various properties, including the Nauvoo temple). Eventually, in the wake of anti-Mormon violence (which didn’t distinguish between Brighamites and Strangites), Strang led his followers to the Great Lakes area. While leading his sect, subsequent to his break with Brigham Young, Strang claimed to have translated additional sacred records, including the Brass Plates. From his translations, he created various works which have scriptural value to the Strangites.
And here’s the kicker — Strangite apologists argue that these non-Brighamite works contain chiasm, proving their ancient origin. See this page of Strangite claims of chiasm.
Now, this can’t be true, can it? If chiasm is an indication of ancient origin, then Strang’s writings can’t contain chiasm, can they? Why, that would mean that Strang’s translations are ancient too! Given the claims of chiasm in Strangite works, it may be time to again examine whether it is appropriate to consider chiasm as being of probative value in establishing an ancient origin. As part of that discussion, let’s ask: How can we reconcile claims of chiasm in Alma with claims of chiasm in Strang’s translations? There are a few possible explanations.
1. One option is that Strang was the inspired one, not Brigham. (After all, how much chiasm has Brigham produced?). We’ve all followed the wrong guy. Umm, oops.
This option is pretty drastic, but bear in mind that if chiasm has strong probative value (and if Strang’s writings show chiasm) then this is an important possibility. After all, how else would Strang be able to write chiasm? Hmm, for some possibilities, keep reading.
2. Another possibility is to differentiate between “us” chiasm and “them” chiasm. This argument would be that the Strangite texts don’t really have chiasm; the book of Alma, however, does. They are just making it up, or interpreting creatively, or engaging in wishful thinking; we, however, have the real thing.
An argument along these lines would require some in-depth parsing and comparison of texts, far beyond my own expertise. I suspect that this answer will be a standard apologetic response, and it’s an understandable one. It preserves our chiasm while allowing us to discount someone else’s chiasm.
But there’s the rub. Now we’re distinguishing between good chiasm and bad chiasm. We’re admitting that some people can see patterns when those patterns really aren’t there. That’s a dangerous door to be opening, because it invites follow up questions: Is it possible that we are also just seeing patterns because of our own wishful thinking?
3. A third possibility is that “the devil made him do it.” This explanation is that Strang indeed wrote valid chiasms, but not because he was translating an ancient record. Rather, these were planted by Satan, in order to weaken the chiastic claims of the Book of Mormon.
I personally don’t find this line of reasoning particularly convincing. (I am equally dubious of the argument that “Dinosaur bones were planted by Satan to make good Mormons wonder if God really made the Earth.”). But it is a conceptually coherent explanation for Strangite chiasm which preserves some probative value to FARMS-ite chiasm.
4. Finally, maybe the whole endeavor is wrongheaded. Maybe Strangites are seeing chiasm in Strang’s works, while we see chiasm in Joseph Smith’s, precisely because apparent chiasms have no probative value at all. This could be for a number of reasons. Maybe some people (among them Joseph Smith and James Strang) were able, by regular reading of Hebrew scriptures, to absorb and adopt various “scripturese” speech patterns, whether consciously or not. Or maybe we’re all just engaging in cherry-picking interpretations of rorschach blots when we look for chiasm.
I’ve already outed myself as a chiasm skeptic, so of course I’m a proponent of option #4, myself. But I’m curious as to how proponents of extracting probative value from Book of Mormon chiasm view the claims of Strangite chiasm. Do you go with option 2? Option 3? (Not option 1, I hope!) Is there something I’m missing here?
(Note: I’m a sometime follower of chiasm discussions, and I check them out from time to time when I see them in BYU studies or FARMS review. I don’t recall ever seeing discussion of Strangite chiasm in the articles I’ve read. I googled the terms, and didn’t find anything there either. But my knowledge here is far from exhaustive; if I’m missing an apologetic discussion of Strangite chiasm, by all means, please point me to it).