Proof texts and Polynesians: Why Your Casual Dismissal of the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon is Hopelessly Ethnocentric, and You Should Be Ashamed

November 10, 2004 | 15 comments
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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*

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15 Responses to Proof texts and Polynesians: Why Your Casual Dismissal of the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon is Hopelessly Ethnocentric, and You Should Be Ashamed

  1. Adam Greenwood on November 10, 2004 at 3:12 am

    I think saints in the military and in national security positions, of whom there are more than a few, also get a comfort from Alma. I don’t know of anyone who’s actually got any strategic insights from the Book of Mormon wars but people do take reassurance that what they’re doing is hard and nasty and, I don’t want to say blessed because the Book of Mormon doesn’t really sanctify fighting, but i guess i’ll say Part of the Plan.

  2. Rosalynde on November 10, 2004 at 10:47 am

    Our family reading is mired in the Alma 50s right now, and I’m struggling with this very issue. The strategy I’ve adopted this time around sounds something like what Midgley describes as the Maori’s approach: I don’t look for doctrine in the war sections, not least because I have a really difficult time understanding the point of view of the people who are doing the preaching at that point (like Moroni, and Mormon, who seems to edit more intrusively during these passages). Instead, I try to use the information in those chapters to reconstruct a rudimentary sociology of Nephite culture–their understanding of family, history, state, religion, memory, conflict, etc–which makes my experience of the rest of the BoM much richer.

  3. Jack on November 10, 2004 at 10:53 am

    Many Hispanic members feel that the BoM is *their* book; “written [as it says in the title page] to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel”. There’s been a lot of doubt cast on the claim that all native americans spring from the BoM peoples. However, you’ll be hard pressed to convince most Hispanics, who are a mixture of Native American and European descent (primarily), that Lamanite (and Nephite) blood runs thin in there veins. They take their lineage – most of which comes through Manasseh – more seriously (IMO) than North Americans do their own (generally speaking).

    That said, it seems that Hispanics identify with the actions, both righteous and unrighteous, of the peoples of the Book of Mormon more deeply than North Americans do – sensing the same potenciality within themselves.

  4. Ronan James Head on November 10, 2004 at 11:33 am

    The other-other sheep statement of Jesus in 3 Nephi is “proof” for some English Saints that the old legends of the Saviour visiting England (Cornwall and/or Glastonbury) might not be without basis.

  5. Ryan Bell on November 10, 2004 at 12:02 pm

    Wow, Ronan, can you give some more detail about those legends? I take it he didn’t appear as a feathered serpent?

  6. JWL on November 10, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    Another socio-political aspect of the BoM that has modern resonances outside the US are the Gadianton Robbers. In my Gospel Doctrine class an RM who had been in the Philippines said that Filipino LDS readily identified the Muslim insurgents in the south with the Gadianton Robbers and thereby saw that part of the BoM narrative as highly relevant to their national situation.

  7. Mike on November 10, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    I served my mission in Australia from 98-00 and received that issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies while I was there- serving with Islander companions and serving in areas with many islanders who lived there made the article that much more interesting. It has always been one of my favorite Journal of Book of Mormon stories articles.

  8. Keith on November 10, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    As I understand, the legends say Jesus visited England before his ministry at age 30, but maybe Ronan knows and can say more. The idea of Christ visiting England is immortalized by William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” (set to music by Parry).

    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountains green?
    And was the Holy Lamb of God
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
    And did the Countenance Divine
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among those dark Satanic mills?

    Bring me my bow of burning gold!
    Bring me my arrows of desire!
    Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
    Bring me my Chariot of Fire!
    I will not cease from mental fight;
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green and pleasant land.

    With respect to the topic at hand, I think Midgley is on to something in bringing out what can be seen in a narrative or “pattern” approach to the Book of Mormon (particularly in likening it to ourselves as a people). I also think he’s right to point out the diminished reading we get when we simply go for proof-texts or read to find a systematic theology. At the same time, the narrative approach alone might miss the richness of what’s given in the various sermons, visions, revelations, and so on. Of course, this helps put these sermons in context and so makes our understanding richer. I’m not arguing that Midgley wants solely a narrative approach, but I am suggesting that a narrative/pattern approach can be a great help. People are able, in various situations and cultures, to read their situations through the stories and patterns of scripture. (Of course, we often like to read ourselves, say, as the righteous Nephi rather than the rebellious Laman and Lemuel, when perhaps we ought to do the opposite.)

  9. JWL on November 10, 2004 at 2:47 pm

    That volume is sitting on my shelf, also and I will now read the MidgIey article right away. He may make this point, and I suspect it may be obvious to other readers here but I throw this in anyway.

    Another advantage of reading the BoM as a narrative is the extent to which the narrative is integral to the doctrinal teachings. For example, I read the Book of Alma as an exercise in moral story-telling, where Mormon uses this series of incidents from his national history to examine how a Christian should act in a wide variety of curcumstances. This builds to a crescendo in the last chapters as he uses the stories of Captain Moroni to explore how one acts as a Christian in the most horrific possible circumstances, war and treason. Similarly, abstract doctrinal teachings about pride and wealth have much more impact when told through the narrative of the cycles of Nephite prosperity and moral decline. Another aspect of the narrative that ties directly to doctrine is Mormon’s near-obsession with his people’s relation to the doctrines regarding the house of Israel, which he constantly references throughout his narratives of his people’s history.

  10. Ryan Bell on November 10, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    I think one reason we struggle with drawing lessons from stories as opposed to from sermons/teachings, is that you never know whether the events of the story happened for a reason, or by coincidence. In other words, we know for a fact that King Benjamin had full control over what he was telling his people– he made it up completely (which is not to say that he fabricated it, but that he created the sermon). On the other hand, Mormon’s long narratives are not made up, they report real events, albeit events we assume have been edited and reported on with certain messages in mind. Still, it’s much harder to figure out the desired message from a story that really happened, where there might not be any message in that story at all. I think the Maori reading requires more faith in the editorial process and in God’s hand guiding the events in the book. We may need more of that.

  11. Joe Spencer on November 10, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    2 Peter 1, it seems to me, states very clearly the prophetic mission: to instruct men and women as to how to approach and then pass through the veil. This is, as Peter sees it, the whole project, to help us to secure our invitation by showing up at the door (make our calling sure, as it is frustratingly translated in the KJV). If he is speaking for all prophetic projects (and his very inclusive “we” that permeates that chapter seems to suggest he wants to speak for all), then I think we have to ask ourselves why the narrative in the Book of Mormon in a way besides the way in which Brother Midgley asks it. His answer seems to be that narrative may ring with certain cultures, and that systematic theology is an attenuation of the text. But perhaps a thoroughly narrative understanding of the text is also an attenuation.

    If the scriptures are the key to the veil, the words of the collective angelic force bringing us further light and knowledge, all aimed at eventually thrusting us into the presence of God before judgment, then narratives might function in a still more surprising way than even Midgley’s thinking suggests. Ricoeur’s work on narrative, for example, falls short of Peter’s overarching declaration. How does narrative work into the prophetic project? Does it?

    What, after all, are the cunning fables Peter says he had not followed? Those mythoi cannot be the narratives.

  12. Ronan on November 11, 2004 at 12:35 am

    I hope to post about the whole Jesus-in-England-thing over at (a href=”headlife.blogspot.com/unitedbrethren”>United Brethren. Keith is right, the legend states that Jesus travelled with Joseph of Arimathea to SW England in his boyhood. Joseph then “retired” to England after Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus was intending to visit Uncle Joseph after he left the Nephites! It’s all wrapped-up in the whole Arthur/Grail thing, so maybe Dan Brown will write about it. More (sketchy) info here.

  13. Ronan on November 11, 2004 at 12:37 am
  14. Rob Briggs on November 12, 2004 at 12:45 am

    I, too, was impressed by Midgley’s piece. I read it at the time that I was taking an American Indian class in which we learned that Native Americans conceive of reality as a circle; the circle of circle, everything in balance with within the circle. That got me thinking about that strange verse in Alma 7:20, where it reads, rather confusedly to us, that God does not walk in crooked paths, i.e., he walks in straight paths, “therefore, his course is one eternal round.”

    Huh?? That doesn’t make sense to Latter-day Saints with western, thoroughly Hellenized, linear-thinking minds.

    But from a nonlinear mode of thinking, one that views reality as a circle, it makes sense. Reality is like a circle. When Native Americans represent the world, the natural, appropriate “frameâ€? to contain its elements is a circle. So that is an appropriate way to express the cosmic view that God’s course is One Eternal Round. (Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the Egyptian hydrocephalus that Joseph Smith thought enough of to include in the Book of Abraham symbolizes the cosmos within a circle.)

    Another example comes from Jane Hafen, a Taos Pueblo who teaches Lit. at UNLV. Similar to the Maori, Native Americans convey the meaning of life through narratives or stories. They are comfortable with stories and story cycles. In the Book of Mormon there are stories of peoples who lived in harmony, walked in right ways and prospered. Then they grew in pride and lapsed into unbelief. Finally, they returned to harmony and the right path and again prospered. The cycle (or circle) then begins again. These are story cycles. For Native Americans, they have a familiar ring.

    Jane gave me another example, this one not from the BoM but the 10 commandments. She pointed out a different interpretation of the commandment to love thy father and thy mother.

    We commonly assume that the command is to an individual who is commanded to love his/her individual parents.

    But Jane pointed out to me that among native peoples their thinking is much more oriented around the “people” — the community — rather than the “individual.” Our individualism is strange to them. Equally important to them is the notion of them inhabiting promised or sacred lands. So for them they honor their fathers and mothers that their days — the people’s days — may be long upon the land — the sacred or promised land which God had given them. It’s not the number of years that the individual lives which is important. It’s that the people be allowed to remain on their promised and sacred land.

    I like it. Makes perfect sense to me. And I can’t help but think that this notion of community on sacred or promised lands is much closer to the ethos of Israelites 3,000 years ago than our modern interpretation based on western individualism. Remember the importance of Eretz Israel? For them, the land itself is promised and sacred. For us, it’s a “resource.”

    Of course, the idea of native peoples living on sacred or promised lands does have a tie-in with the BoM where one of God’s oft-repeated promises — that they may remain on their promised land if they remain in the right path — holds a central place. But maybe we don’t fully see it.

    Jane, if you’re lurking, I wish you’d join in. I’ve some sense of how easily we botch the worldview of another ethnicity.

  15. Jim F. on November 12, 2004 at 3:19 am

    I doubt that Jane is lurking, but I am sure happy to see someone refer to one of my favorite people who also happens to be a terrific Latter-day Saint and a very good scholar.

WELCOME

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