My Embarrassment with the Book of Mormon



17 comments
by John G. Turner

The Book of Mormon embarrasses me. Not because of its content, but because I haven't read it . I cringe when Mormon History friends ask me if I've read the most famous of American scriptures, as it seems irresponsible to undertake a project of any significance on Mormon history and avoid the "Gold Bible."

So this summer, without great enthusiasm I borrowed the BOM on CD for a car ride from Provo to Logan. Actually, there were so many CDs at the BYU library that I only took the first few. As I was trying to get to Utah State before the archives opened, it was quite early, and I didn't make it through very many chapters of 1 Nephi before fatigue forced me to another form of entertainment. Mark Twain's famous (infamous to some, I imagine) of the BOM as "chloroform in print" seemed persuasive. I put the project aside and endured the indignity of continuing to tell friends I hadn't read it. Depressing setback.

I'm teaching a graduate course on Religion in 19th-Century America this semester. I'm privileging my students with a disproportionate amount of things Latter-day Saint (including an assessment of Will Bagley and Ronald Walker, et al. on the Mountain Meadows Massacre). As part of our introduction to Mormonism, I assigned selections from the BOM that further my own reading (1 Nephi, chpts. 1, 18; 2 Nephi, chpts. 29; 3 Nephi, chpts. 1, 11-15; 4 Nephi, chpts. 1; Moroni, chps. 9-10). I also gave my students Laurie Maffly-Kipp's excellent short introduction to the Book of Mormon. [She also suggested the selections].

These short chunks suited me more than my prior attempt -- I found some portions quite eloquent (esp. the closing chapters of Moroni). My students' reactions varied sharply. Several, though, found the book evocative and biblical.

I don't have any scholarly or even well-informed opinions about the book. After all, I've got a long way to go. From the little I've read about the book's production, however, I find entirely unpersuasive the theories that anyone either than Joseph Smith translated the text (however one wishes to define "translate"). I read the BOM as a product of its time, but that does not prevent me from being drawn into the narrative at points or contemplating its function as scripture. Thus, even though I do not accept Smith as a divine prophet, I do think outsiders underestimate him despite Harold Bloom's designation of him as a "religious genius."

Coincidentally, Royal Skousen's The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009) arrived in my mailbox the day of the above-mentioned class. Skousen has been working on a Critical Text Project of the BOM for two decades, examining discrepancies among the earliest BOM sources. Now, Skousen presents a corrected text that aims to approach as nearly as possible that dictated by Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery and others in the late 1820s.

Somehow, Yale sells this attractive cloth-bound, 800-page tomb for only $35. They must be expecting robust sales. I have only read Grant Hardy's introduction (a concise source on the production of the BOM), read Skousen's own preface, and poked around the text. I like the way Skousen has presented the text in "sense-lines," breaking up the text in phrases and clauses. [Thus, he has not tried to reproduce the original manuscript's lack of punctuation or sentence breaks]. The method increases the text's readability somewhat. I do wish the most important discrepancies were footnoted in the body of the text itself (as in, say, the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament) rather than in an appendix.

Yale's publication of Skousen's crowning achievement itself signifies the maturation and partial mainstreaming of Mormon Studies. It's not as if the leading university presses have ignored Mormonism; indeed, they have long published books on various Mormon history topics. However, Skousen's work is of another genre, an effort of textual criticism focused on an American scripture, edited by a professor at BYU who has done at least some of his work through FARMS. I reckon that until recently Skousen's work would not have found such a warm reception at places like Yale. I'm glad times have changed.

Alas, whether via Skousen or the 1981 BOM left in my departmental mailbox by a Mormon elder who missed me, I have hundreds of chapters to go. I need a Mormon version of the "Read-the-Bible-in-a-Year" promoted by so many evangelical churches. Even better yet, a Walk Thru the Book of Mormon in a weekend program. Actually, what I'd really like is something akin to my NRSV Study Bible, an annotated BOM with a discussion of how these text have functioned among the Saints. Any suggestions?

UPDATE: The folks at Juvenile Instructor have a review and discussion of Terryl Given's Very Short Introduction to the BOM, which should help those of us trying to teach even portions of the book. [Givens, whose productivity and intellectual breadth is establishing him as the LDS equivalent of Mark Noll, also has a history of "Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought" forthcoming next month].

17 comments:

Jettboy at: September 7, 2009 at 9:10 AM said...

As I have read the Book of Mormon, I think that it probably would be best to break it down into stories and major sermons. That isn't to say that I have given it much thought to how that might be done. Probably the best way to approach the Book of Mormon is with familiarity. Not that this helps the first time reader, but it does dispense with an uncomfortable first reading.

If you talk to those who love the Book of Mormon (as I do) what you notice is the more times someone reads it the more they enjoy the book. There is a depth that is missed by those who are just trying to get past its slow narrative. A suggestion I would give to first time readers is similar to the above break down into parts. Regardless of what you think of its validity as history, if you treat it as an historical chronicle with religious purpose (like you would the first part of the Old Testament) it becomes easier to digest and understand. Take it in parts rather than as a whole chunk as the text is a lot more dense than is supposed, but seems to always be treated as thin by detractors and supporters.

Maybe I will come back and re-post what the break down readings might help.

John G. Turner at: September 7, 2009 at 9:15 AM said...

Thanks -- I'd love to have the suggested breakdown. Especially as I'm progressing through Brigham Young's life, the BOM is becoming a bit more significant in his preaching, and I'd like to keep up!

Brad Hart at: September 7, 2009 at 9:43 AM said...

Mormon historian Hugh Nibley wrote some interesting books and "study guides" that could be used in ones study of the Book of Mormon. Of course his books adopt the stance that the BOM is a divinely inspired work. With that said, I have found his books to be quite interesting, as they provide some valuable insight and perspective into BOM study.

Here's a link to one of his more popular books:

http://www.amazon.com/Approach-Mormon-Collected-Works-Nibley/dp/0875791387/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1252338088&sr=8-13

Jettboy at: September 7, 2009 at 10:08 AM said...

Here is my first break down for the First book of Nephi. If you want I can e-mail the rest or continue posting it here.

All books and chapters broken down from the LDS 1981 edited copies.

1 Nephi chapters 1-7 (The calling of Lehi’s family to the wilderness)
1 Nehph 8-9 (dream of Lehi and Nephi’s plates)
1 Nephi 10-15 (encapsulated Lehi prophecy and Nephi’s Christian gospel history vision)
1 Nephi 16-18 (continued travel and building of ship. Emphasis on Exodus)
1 Nephi 19 (Purpose of writings to chronicle destiny of Israel. Note: the Book of Mormon doesn’t see a marked difference between Israel and Christianity. They are one and the same.)
1 Nephi 20-22 (Nephi reads Isaiah to explain Israel’s destiny)

Jettboy at: September 7, 2009 at 10:48 AM said...

The Second Book of Nephi
1-4 (Lehi blesses the servant Zoram, and his sons and grandsons. Promises and warnings about the Promised Land)
5 (The split between Nephi and his brothers. Formation of Nephites and Lehites)
6-10 (The sermon of Jacob concerning the scattering and gathering of Israel. Christ is center of salvation)
1-24 (Nephi quotes chapters of Isaiah as illustration of Jacob’s teachings)
25-26 (The salvation of Christ in history)
27-31 (The Book of Mormon as a final warning to repent before Christ comes in Power)
31-32 (How to become a Christian by Christ’s example)
33 (Nephi’s testimony of his writings)

Edward J Blum at: September 7, 2009 at 12:11 PM said...

great post and I wish I was in your class!!! I would learn a ton.

Maff at: September 7, 2009 at 5:34 PM said...

For what it's worth, John, I've always had the same trouble trying to read through the Bible. It works best when I read smaller chunks on particular themes or topics. While some people may be able to pick it up and just read it straight through, it has never worked for me. The same is true for the Book of Mormon. Somehow I just can't keep my attention focused chapter after chapter without some aids to memory--and a good brisk walk!
Laurie Maffly-Kipp

John G. Turner at: September 7, 2009 at 6:18 PM said...

Laurie, I'll follow your advice and that of others, as I would like to get through the "founding Scripture." I've found it much easier to read most of the revelations in D&C, since they are by nature thematic "chunks."

I've had the same sort of reaction from non-Christian friends who have tried to read the Bible as literature or out of some sense of obligation. It's much tougher going to read somebody else's scripture than your own! I also agree with Jettboy's first comment, that the more one familiar one is with scriptural texts, the more meaningful they can become. Still, I'm just hoping for one time through for starters.

Maff at: September 7, 2009 at 6:51 PM said...

Good luck with it, John!

David G. at: September 7, 2009 at 7:17 PM said...

Hi John. As for your wish for a nice equivalent of the NRSV study bible, I'm not sure if one exists yet. The closest thing I've seen is Grant Hardy's The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition, the pb edition of which formats the BOM text like a modern biblical translation and has helpful appendixes.

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Mormon-Readers-Grant-Hardy/dp/025207341X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1252372181&sr=8-1#

Givens would be the one best prepared to do something like you're hoping for; maybe you should pitch the idea to him? Good luck in the mean time.

John G. Turner at: September 7, 2009 at 7:31 PM said...

David, I should look at Hardy's volume, but from the description I figured it still wouldn't be exactly what I feel I need to understand the BOM's place in Mormon theology and history. His intro to Skousen's volume, by the way, is fantastic.

You're right, Givens should write it. I'm sure a team that included Skousen and others at BYU could write a great volume as well.

David G. at: September 7, 2009 at 8:09 PM said...

If you haven't looked at it, you might want to read Noel Reynold's article, "The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century," BYU Studies 38, no. 2 (1998): 6-47, which argues that current centrality of the BoM in Mormon religiousity and proselytizing was a product of President Ezra Taft Benson's emphasis on the book in General Conference addresses. It's a good way to index the shifting importance of the BoM in Mormon thought and practice.

http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/byustudies&CISOPTR=2281&REC=19

Jettboy at: September 7, 2009 at 10:23 PM said...

If you want to continue following my breakdown of readings you can go to my blog post on the subject. Thanks for giving me a chance to share. Hope it helps.

smb at: September 8, 2009 at 6:08 PM said...

I have read it devotionally several times and enjoyed it when I did.

About a year ago, I decided to read it from a scholarly perspective. For that purpose, I grabbed the facsimile edition by Herald House, a six-pack of Diet Coke, and read it over a couple of days, probing it for insight about the worlds it represents. (I also tried to pretend that I was an American of ca. 1830.) I read it in a few afternoons and found all sorts of interesting things for my research.

Fern RL at: September 9, 2009 at 1:10 PM said...

I love reading the Book of Mormon, and have done so several times.

I think it helps to have firmly implanted in your mind where "the small plates of Nephi" end, (with Omni;) and that The Words of Mormon were written centuries later; that Mormon and his son, Moroni, abridged most of the remaining record; and that Ether predates all the rest, being a record of the Jaredites, who came to the Americas at the time of the Tower of Babel.

Yes, the Book of Mormon can also be "like chloroform in print" to those unaccustomed to Hebrew poetry and their manner of communicating, but there was one writer who was fairly straightforward and concise, whose small contribution you may want to read first: I refer to Amaleki, the last writer in the book of Omni, who started writing in verse 12 of Omni's one chapter and concluding in verse 30. I especially like verse 26.

I agree with Jettboy, that breaking it down into little sections helps also.

Also, to read each thought that is contained within the punctuation marks, helps.

John G. Turner at: September 9, 2009 at 1:21 PM said...

Thanks Sam and Fern, I ultimately do disagree with Twain, also. I have occasionally encouraged non-Christian friends to read the Bible, without much success. I believe they experienced it like "chloroform" as well, which simply illustrates how difficult it is for non-believers to appreciate the scriptures of others.

Now I just have to find the time to carry out this project!

Ben at: September 9, 2009 at 7:28 PM said...

There's an interview with Givens about the Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction posted at
http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/The-Book-of-Mormon-A-Very-Short-Introduction.html

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