Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy

Understanding The Book of Mormon; A Reader's Guide, by Grant Hardy, Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of North Carolina; Oxford University Press, 2010

The Book of Mormon is a literary enactment of the all encompassing plan God has for human history and for individuals. It is somewhat surprising that Mormonism – generally regarded as an optimistic, forward-looking faith – has as its foundation such an unrelenting record of human folly and ruin. Simply put, this astounding work of early 19th century American literature, is a tragedy in which humanity repeatedly fails to take advantage of the tender mercies of faith which a compassionate God has provided to make them mighty 'even unto the power of deliverance' from all the horrors of this life and the next.

While historians have searched The Book of Mormon for clues about 19th century America or Joseph Smith, Mormon writers have generally focused either on the evidence for the book's historical claims or correlations with the current LDS theology. And for many Latter-day Saints, careful scrutiny of the volume's contents is secondary to the direct relationship with God that the book makes possible. They are encouraged to pray about the Book of Mormon, in accordance with the promise that God “will manifest the truth of it...and by the power of the Holy Ghost” to those who “ask with a sincere heart, with real intent.” Individuals who feel they have received such a spiritual witness are often content to redirect their energies from textual analysis towards living the wholesome sort of lifestyle that Mormonism advocates.

What all these approaches have in common is the urge to start with something outside the Book of Mormon- Joseph Smith, Jacksonian America, Meso-American archeology, ancient Near Eastern culture, Mormon theology, or a personal spiritual quest – and then selectively identify and interpret pertinent passages. The book, after all, is long and complicated, and the double-columned verses of the official edition offer little guidance to those trying to make sense of the narrative. In addition, the copious references at the bottom of the pages steer readers towards doctrinal or topical approaches.

Literary theorist Dominick LaCapra has offered a general warning that “ the rhetoric of contextualization has often encouraged narrowly documentary readings in which the text becomes little more than a sign of the times or a straightforward expression of one phenomena or another. At the limit, this indiscriminate approach to reading and interpretation becomes a detour around texts and an excuse for not really reading them at all.” Or as the Catholic sociologist Thomas O'Dea famously pointed out, “The Book of Mormon has not been universally considered by its critics as one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.”

The situation is similar to how David Bell has characterized reading books on a computer screen:

“If physical discomfort discourages the reading of texts sequentially, from start to finish, computers make it spectacularly easy to move through texts in other ways – in particular, by searching for particular pieces of information. Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the danger lie, because when you are reading you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrender to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.”

Few readers, even if we count Latter-day Saints, have surrendered to the organizing logic of the Book of Mormon as a whole. This is perhaps because it appears at first glance to be a confused jumble of strange names and odd stories, told in a quirky style, and all of very suspicious origins. An 1841 critic described it as “mostly a blind mass of words, interwoven with scriptural language and quotations, without much of a leading plan or design. It is in fact such a production as might be expected from a person of Smith's abilities and turn of mind.” The world's general impression has not changed much in the last 180 years. What is one to do with such a text other than scan it for phrases and incidents that might have some bearing on a particular thesis?

There has never been a detailed guide to the contents of the Book of Mormon. In this study, for the first time, I have suggested that the book of Mormon can be read as literature – a genre that encompasses history, fiction, and scripture- by anyone trying to understand this odd but fascinating book. The starting point for all serious readers has to be the recognition that it is first and foremost a narrative, offered to us by specific, named narrators. Every detail and incident in the book has to be weighed against their intentions and rhetorical strategies. We might imagine a history written by an impersonal, omniscient narrator whose point of view was similar to Joseph Smith's but that is not what we really have. The heterogeneous materials in the Book of Mormon – including historical accounts, prophesies, sermons, letters, poems, allegories, and apocalypses supposedly written by different authors in different periods, are all presented as the work of three primary editors/historians, each with a distinct life story, perspective, set of concerns, style, and sense of who their audience will be.

Imagine, for a moment, the situation of Nephi, the first important narrator of the Book of Mormon. He was educated in Jerusalem and literate at a time when such training was rare. He seems to have been fascinated by books and records and then, in his teenage years, he was suddenly taken from the culturally rich and intellectually stimulating environment of Judah's capital to live in a distant land, in the company of only his relatives, with a single text (the Brass Plates) to read for the rest of his life. He pored over the ancient text, offering interpretations, interweaving his own revelations with the words of the past prophets, reading himself back into existing scripture, and envisioning himself as the author of future scripture.

No one else in Nephi's family seemed much interested in such close readings and creative interpretations of the Brass Plates. In fact, Jacob was born after the family left Jerusalem so he had no firsthand knowledge whatsoever about the traditions and culture of the Jews. So, in many respects, Nephi is a tragic figure, principally engaged in solitary, intellectual, introspective, time-consuming and frustrating literary activity, cut off from his culture, despairing of his descendants and alienated from his own society. It is only through the entire course of his narrative that he gradually becomes aware of his true prophetic mission.

Unfortunately,, what Nephi comes to know is not always pleasing. Even before he arrived in the Promised Land, he learned to his dismay that his descendants will have no long term future there, while the posterity of his wicked brothers will continue on. Towards the end of his writings, he finally has to concede that most people are not like him:

“And now, I, Nephi cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth my utterance, and I am left to mourn because of unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be.”

In the end Nephi is wiser but not happier and this correlation of knowledge and suffering is, of course, the stuff of Greek tragedy, though perhaps a more pertinent example can be found in Milton's Paradise Lost, when Adam sees in vision the destruction of his posterity in the Flood:

"How didst thou grieve then, Adam, to behold
The end of all thy offspring, end so sad,
Depopulation; thee another flood,
Of tears and sorrow a flood thee also drowned,
And sunk thee as thy sons; till gently reared
By th' Angel, on thy feet thou stood'st at last,
Thou comfortless, as when a father mourns
His children, all in view destroyed at once;
And scarce to th' Angel utter'dst thus thy plain:
“ O visions ill foreseen! Better had I
Lived ignorant of future, so had bourne
My part of evil only, each day's lot
Enough to bear...”

Writing many centuries later, the second narrator of the Book of Mormon is Mormon himself who tells stories with unmistakable spiritual meanings as if, in contrast to the consciousness of the Hebrew Bible, history and theology were inseparable. He presents characters as moral exemplars, and identifies patterns such as “God's arm is extended to all people who will repent and believe on his name, "the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people,” and “the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.” Properly interpreted, history itself reveals religious truths, the totality of human experience offers sufficient evidence to demonstrate God's divine plan and influence in earthy affairs.

Or at least that is what Mormon says he believes. What makes his book interesting is watching how he selects, adapts and arranges his material, particularly when it is plain that his sources do not seem to adequately illustrate spiritual verities on their own. This is particularly the case in his characterization of Captain Moroni when, in his narrative, a large space opens up between what Mormon says about this incomparable warrior, and what he actually shows.( the captain's victories, for example, come at the cost huge cost of lives which Mormon tries to gloss over).

The third most important narrator is Moroni, Mormon's son ( not to be confused with the earlier military chief). There is a note of resignation and passivity in his narrative not previously encountered in the Book of Mormon. At least four times Moroni confesses that he doesn't know or doesn't care about the fate of his Nephite people. His overriding emotion is one of loss – he is alone, little space left to write, no ore to create new Plates, no family, no friends, and no plans beyond finishing his father's record and burying the plates. Sixteen years after the final battle (though apparently there have been subsequent traumas), Moroni is still in shock. Both the physical and psychological challenges to writing are nearly overwhelming, though he is writing.

Sometime later, after he evidently found some breathing space and ore enough to fashion additional metal tablets on which to inscribe his redaction of Jaredite history, he confesses to yet another set of challenges (directing his concerns to God):

“Lord, the Gentiles will mock all these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord, thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing...wherefore when we behold our weakness and the stumble because of the placement of our words, I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock us.”

In this passage Moroni even seems to be speaking on behalf of the entire line of Nephite record keepers and otherwise expresses a combination of frustration, self-consciousness and anxiety, though familiar to anyone who has tried to put his or her thoughts on paper for public display, are exceedingly uncommon in the Book of Mormon.

Moroni's peculiar character is manifestly demonstrated, though it may come as a surprise to most Latter-day saints, in the way he artificially Christianizes his chronicle of the Jaredite people, who left for the new world before the time of Moses and whose own records show no evidence of the knowledge of Christ, even as He was foretold by the early prophets of the Hebrew religion. Perhaps no theme was as important to Book of Mormon narrators as demonstrating the universality of the Christian religion, showing that the prophets could guide the faithful in every land and era (even before Jesus's birth) to believe in Christ and accept his salvation. The challenge for Moroni, then, was to do so with Jaredite record ( Ether's book) and to make it more consistent with his father's previous work.

Ultimately, it probably makes little difference to Latter-day Saints whether the Jaredites worshiped Jesus or not – unlike the Lehites, they are completely annihilated with no identifiable posterity, no role to ply in the larger story of the House of Israel, and no direct connection to moderns readers, but the fact that a close reading of the narrative of the Book of Mormon shows that Moroni failed to make a convincing connection in this respect ( except as might be acceptable to the “gutter journalism” of our own day), despite many ingenious efforts, is, at the very least, a tribute to Joseph Smith's inventive imagination.

1 comment:

  1. The only new religions whose scale and reliance upon distinctive scriptures are comparable to the Mormons ( 13 million strong with the majority living outside the United States) are the six million Baha'is who consider the writings of Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) and other founders to be sacred, and the twenty-three million Sikhs whose veneration of the Adi Granth ( a collection of religious poetry compiled in the seventeenth century) is extraordinary.