Provo — Two years after their first documentary film about the origins of the Book of Mormon, scholars at Brigham Young University have produced a second film detailing how the Mayan and Olmec civilizations parallel details in the book. "Journey of Faith: The Book of Mormon in the New World," incorporates footage of archaeological sites and inscriptions in Mesoamerica — southern Mexico and Guatemala — with the opinions of LDS scholars about how details in the Book of Mormon coincide with known religious, cultural and military practices in that region from 600 B.C. to about 400 A.D.
Produced by the Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies at BYU, the 90-minute film explores what FARMS director S. Kent Brown said is a "growing consensus" among LDS scholars of archaeology, history and religion that "this is the area where the Book of Mormon took place."
He said the film "makes predictions about the culture and society in the place that we see the closest connections." For instance, Brown said, societies chronicled in the book were "literate — they produced books and documents. That (region) is the main place (in the New World) that we find this kind of thing" during the time period specified.
The book also describes a people who used cement, who built cities, temples, highways and defensive fortifications, and "we find that in Mesoamerica." Modes of warfare and temple worship among ancient peoples are explored, including human sacrifice.
Also chronicled in the book are accounts of social stratification, with descriptions of royalty, government and legal professionals, as well as servants and slaves. "We see evidence of that also in this region," Brown said.
While some may see it as being a bolder statement of assertions than the physical evidence currently warrants, that doesn't trouble Brown or the filmmakers, who don't claim to have produced a definitive statement of what actually occurred.
"In a way, this film gives us a photograph of where the current research stands at this minute. It's very likely that this will grow blurry over time as new research brings us to different conclusions. We welcome someone to come behind us in 15 years and make another film that will update us," he said.
While LDS leaders and scholars have maintained the book is an account of actual civilizations that inhabited a portion of the American continent, secular scholars have never adopted the text as a historical document.
Church leaders have remained silent on the topic of geographical location or setting for the book, but Latter-day Saints revere it as historical and scriptural, a work on par with the Bible. Church founder Joseph Smith said an angel directed him to gold plates buried in western New York from which he translated the book through the power of God.
Brown said while scholars will undoubtedly continue to debate over locations and other details surrounding a historical setting for the book, "one of things that doesn't go out of date are the principles. The teachings and (religious) doctrine remain firm and fixed."
The film has been premiering this week at BYU for audiences at the annual Campus Education Week and follows a documentary first released in 2005 about the foundational story that sets the scene for the Book of Mormon. It chronicles the story of Lehi, Sariah and their family, Hebrews who the book says lived in Jerusalem about 600 A.D. but were told by God to leave that land, build a ship and travel to the New World.
Filmmaker Peter Johnson approached FARMS with the idea of producing documentary films about the book, and that film was the first attempt to do so. Though FARMS is primarily a religious publisher of scholarly works on Mormon studies, Brown said officials decided they would take the leap into film, and "we're still trying to feel comfortable there.
"The reception we got (with the first film) encouraged us to try again. This effort is more complex than the other — it's boiling 1000 years of history into 90 minutes of film, and we had to work very hard to make it sensible."
Johnson said the book was intended as a spiritual, rather than a political record, and contains "no historical chronology that tells us where the (people chronicled) moved and what they did. What we do have embedded in the Book of Mormon are clues."
Scholars who speak during the film have worked for decades, he said, "devot(ing) their lives to researching and understanding that which now bears fruit in the research we have. It is dense."