I’ve been witness to many discussions, in and out of the bloggernacle, questioning the importance of some of the stories in the Book of Mormon. While we are all able to come to a few semi-acceptable reasons for the inclusion for some of the long narratives of our favorite book (think the second half of Alma, for example), we still seem to go on wondering if it’s really that big a deal that we read them.
I’ve recently come across a good possible explanations for the inclusion of stories, one that should put the question to rest, at least for me. I find my answer in Louis Midgley, A Singular Reading: the Maori and the Book of Mormon, an essay published in “Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World,” by FARMS, 1998. (It’s been sitting around my house for a few years, just picked it up a month ago).
Brother Midgley spent a few years as a missionary in New Zealand, and writes of his struggle to understand the value placed by Maori Saints on the Book of Mormon, as it was so different from his own approach to the book. About his own view of the usefulness of the book: “I was anxious to find proof texts and was busy harmonizing its teachings with what I understood to be the received teachings among the Saints in Utah.” Later: “I merely glanced at the narratives to locate the more overt teachings. . . I focused on individual verses and saw them as authoritative teahings on matters I had learned from other books that the Maori Saints were mostly unaware of.” This mirrors my own reading of the Book of Mormon, a reading focused on doctrinal pearls and single-verse statements of eternal truth.
Midgley continues: “Instead, the Maori were fascinated by the narrative portions of the Book of Mormon.” “. . .the Maori saw the tragic story of families in conflict and subtribes and tribes quarreling with each other and bent on revenge for personal insults and factional quarrels. They looked at the larger patterns of events and less at what might be construed from specific verses. They saw stories of ambitious rivals to traditional authority trying to carve out a space for themselves. They noticed how ambition led to quarrels within families and between extended families and tribes. . . . They found that the Book of Mormon described patterns of events similar to those in their traditional lore and also in their present situation. In that sense the book was their history or at least their kind of history– a mirror of both the noble and base in their own past and present, on an individual as well as community level.”
Where American readers are frustrated with the fast turnaround from righteousness to wickedness in Book of Mormon peoples, Maori readers find those passages extremely relatable, because they remind the islanders of their own history of quick turns from religious harmony to inter-tribal strife and wickedness. The Maori read Laman and Lemuel as much more sympathetic figures than Americans do, because they find Nephi’s claims of leadership over them galling and audacious, just as they lament the many usurpations of their own independence by other groups throughout history. This helps them identify with the difficult path of the Lamanites, seeing in that long rollercoaster ride a very human and poignant reminder about their own rebelliousness and humble state.
In short, while American readings of the Book of Mormon focus on doctrinal explication and the structured unfolding of explicit messages, The Maori skip over such nit-picking details and feast on the cover-to-cover ups and downs of characters, tribes and peoples, drawing symbols and lessons from these broadly written narratives.
Obviously, Americans can do this too– I don’t mean to suggest that we always write off these stories. But I don’t think we’re nearly as good as we could be at cobbling together the tapestry of events, to get the full effect of the epic narrative that others seem to be getting. Right now, Book of Mormon stories are used to get kids interested in scriptures, and for the occasional backup to some point of bright-line doctrine. They could be much more, as the Maori reading illustrates.
Anyway, even if we’re not doing it, others are. The war chapters of the Book of Mormon are very meaningful to the Maori people, as are many other narrative twists in the book. And that may be one of the major reasons the Lord had his prophets include them– the Book is to go to all nations, after all. If we don’t find much value in a certain facet of it, we might guess that it will bring deep meaning to someone else.
Does anyone have experience with any other cultures that find greater meaning in some aspect of the Book of Mormon than we do?
(As an aside, let me just mention that a while ago, in this theory about the varied growth of the church in different areas of the world, I posited that the Pacific Saints have probably made a big deal of Hagoth and other explorer Nephites, as a means of drawing a connection from the book to their cultural heritage. Brother Midgley bears out that speculation, writing that “. . . Maori Saints, finding in the book of Alma the brief account of seafaring adventurers who eventually disappeared somewhere in the Pacific drew the conclusion that Hagoth’s people had somehow touched their own people, thereby linking them in some way to the Nephites and hence to Israel.” Would you think it ironic if I took this passage as a proof text, giving credence to my overall theory of membership? Of course you wouldn’t!)
*I realize my use of “Polynesian” in the title is not really accurate for a post about Maoris. Forgive me for not wanting to spend more time on alliterative title possibilities for ‘Maori.’ I should be ashamed*