Books, Mormons, Interpretation

October 17, 2007 | 36 comments
By

The topic of the 2008 conference of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities is “Interpretation: LDS Perspectives.” I won’t be there, unfortunately. But if I were to attend, I know what I would talk about.

Deciding whether or not there is such a thing as a Mormon mode of interpretation is synonymous with the question of whether or not there is or will be a distinctly Mormon variant of the Western intellectual tradition. That’s not a question that can be answered in a single conference, or in a single century. It might turn out that there is no Mormon intellectual tradition at all, that we’re just like everyone else in how we read and think (except we read some oddball texts and hold beliefs about them that no one else does). But if there are any characteristically Mormon habits of mind, they will arise from how we read the Book of Mormon.

That’s not a terribly unusual claim. Every intellectual tradition has the question of scriptural interpretation somewhere in its genealogy. How to read Shakespeare or Marx or Toni Morrison is a question whose answers are never more than a generation or two removed from how to read the Bible. The Book of Mormon is our distinctive scriptural text, and how we read it will determine if there is a Mormon way to interpret texts.

The Book of Mormon is, however, a very unusual book. First and foremost is its sheer physicality, the textual and historical demonstration of its tangibility. The text repeatedly reminds us of its physical existence, with Nephi creating plates that are handed down from one generation to the next, edited by Mormon and hidden by Moroni. In mundane history, the plates are retrieved by Joseph Smith, touched and seen by witnesses, hunted by various people and protected by others. The book flaunts its own existence as physical artifact–it’s written on gold plates, for crying out loud! Of all the issues in early Mormon history, one thing beyond dispute is that Joseph Smith had something shiny and metallic covered with marks that looked like writing.

The physical presence of the Book of Mormon is all the more surprising because the gold plates are also profoundly absent. Joseph Smith returned the plates to Moroni, the last prophet in the Book of Mormon, who has them to this day. Think about that for a bit. Books are both physical objects, composed of paper and ink in measurable quantities, and also the conveyor of text, stories, myth. Are physical objects supposed to disappear into the textual narrative written upon them? Answer: no, not usually. How do you make sense of a self-consuming book that is both assertively tangible and incontrovertibly absent? What happens to the minds of people who spend too long trying to figure it out?

The text of the Book of Mormon is also a conundrum to which the usual methods of analysis, ultimately derived from traditions of biblical interpretation, have little to offer. When skeptics read the Book of Mormon, they don’t see the mind of God or hear the voice of long-dead prophets, but instead detect only the words of Joseph Smith or some other nineteenth-century impostor. Believers see in the text God and prophets…and Joseph Smith, inextricably connected to a translation for which there is no known Urtext. The possibilities for textual criticism, language studies, or source analysis are meager, and always clouded by uncertainty over whose authorial voice is manifesting itself at any given moment. Much of the last two millennia of Western intellectual tradition has been shaped not by skeptics, but by believers trying to make sense of the Bible. What will be the intellectual outcome of believers trying to make sense of the Book of Mormon?

In more than a few ways, the Book of Mormon is reminiscent of the body of Christ, where both its physical corporeality (the Word made flesh, God incarnate, wounds in hands and feet that can be seen and felt) and its absence (the empty tomb, the Ascension) are central and essential. Perhaps the similarities are so close that Mormons really won’t develop any new patterns of thought, or perhaps we are doomed to repeat old arguments over sacramental theology. But I suspect that growing up reading the Book of Mormon (and thinking about it, and listening to people at church talk about it) is not quite the same thing as growing up without it, perhaps in some specific and identifiable ways. I have some guesses. Whether or not they are correct, and whether or not there is a Mormon way of reading, is something that should become clear over the next several centuries.

Tags: ,

36 Responses to Books, Mormons, Interpretation

  1. Adam Greenwood on October 17, 2007 at 9:32 am

    Real interesting question. Thinking over the differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible, I think the Book of Mormon doesn’t lend itself to figurative or allegorical readings nearly as well as the Bible does, given its clear historical focus and its care to account for the origin and transmission of its textual sources. For the same reason, the Book of Mormon doesn’t lend itself to inerrancy very well either (Nate O. just discussed this).

    The Book of Mormon as a very straightforward, practical, historical text is bound to have some influence. Perhaps that’s why the temple rites seem less natural to Mormons since the renewed focus on the book.

  2. Rosalynde Welch on October 17, 2007 at 10:51 am

    “In more than a few ways, the Book of Mormon is reminiscent of the body of Christ, where both its physical corporeality (the Word made flesh, God incarnate, wounds in hands and feet that can be seen and felt) and its absence (the empty tomb, the Ascension) are central and essential.”

    Very nicely done, Jonathan; this was an inspired final turn to your argument. May I play skeptic for a moment, though? If Terryl Givens is to be believed (and I think he is, qualifiedly), then the textual content of the BoM was not very important to the early Saints, and thus the particular ways in which the text shapes its readers probably were not terribly central to an early Mormon way of seeing the world. Much more important, I think, was Joseph’s way of reading the Bible and his broader notion of translation as a method of religion making, rather than the content of any of those translations. This raises the question of whether a distinctively Mormon intellectual tradition will necessarily be grounded in early Mormon texts and ideas or whether it can arise from substantively different, contemporary Mormon texts and ideas.

  3. Adam Greenwood on October 17, 2007 at 10:57 am

    If Terryl Givens is to be believed (and I think he is, qualifiedly), then the textual content of the BoM was not very important to the early Saints, and thus the particular ways in which the text shapes its readers probably were not terribly central to an early Mormon way of seeing the world.

    That is a strong objection to my comment, which focuses on the nature of the contents, but I don’t think it undermines the corporeality and the felt absence of the book, neither of which rely on its text.

  4. Jonathan Green on October 17, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Rosalynde, I don’t know if any current or future Mormon mode of interpretation would be an inheritance from the early Saints, and I rather suspect that not many interpretive guidelines will be gleaned from the text. I think it more likely to arise when readers of the Book of Mormon (as something inseparably connected to Joseph Smith’s prophetic career) have to do X, Y, and Z to make sense of it, and then those readers might find that they can carry out X, Y, and Z on other texts as well. Your mention of Joseph Smith reading the Bible is interesting. Is there a way for it to make the transition from the prophetic reading practices of one man, to the rational interpretive practices of a scholarly community?

  5. David Clark on October 17, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    I think that Mormons will very soon have to come to terms with interpreting the Book of Mormon and this is going to cause all kinds of problems for us. The main reason is that as we recede from 1830 the language of the Book of Mormon and the ideas behind the language will become more and more foreign to those living further and further from 1830. I only see two options for filling in the context which will continue to make the Book of Mormon relevant. One is to identify and study the cultures that produced the Book of Mormon, which is impossible. The other is to say that the northeastern U.S. circa 1830 supplies the context for understanding the Book of Mormon, this has gotten people excommunicated so I don’t see that as viable either. I guess a third alternative is to simply ignore the problem and move on.

    I would really like to be _wrong_ about this, so someone please tell me why I am wrong.

  6. kevinf on October 17, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Is it possible to look at the context of the northeastern US in 1830 and apply that to the BoM? We believe Joseph Smith translated from an ancient text with divine assistance, but that doesn’t disregard Joseph Smith’s place in the context, does it? The text was being rendered in English, and even if it has a strong KJV slant to the language, that is language that would have been familiar to the readers of the 1830′s. I’m curious about what we would expect the language to look like if we were to see additional ancient texts translated by a contemporary prophet. Would the language of a modern day translation of the Book of Zenos still come out the way that Jacob 5 is rendered? I suspect that even under those circumstances, the context of our current language would be a factor.

  7. NorthBoundZax on October 17, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    David, I think your third option is the one that will be most pursued by the rank and file. To do that, however, is to progressively discard/ignore the parts that feel most foreign and concentrate on that which we identify with. Of course, we (and everyone else) already do that with other texts of differing decrees of sacredness. I have heard the Lectures on Faith mentioned exactly once in sacrament meeting in the last decade. Outside JS-H, I think there are about eleven verses of the entire PoGP that seem to matter much any more in church (Moses 1:39, and some from Abraham 3). Other than the hymn, when was the last time you heard anyone discuss Kolob or Obilish in a church capacity? – For me, probably pushing 15 years or more.

    Like you, I don’t see that as the best approach, but given your insightful analysis of consequences of other approaches, it looks to be the safest and simplest. Tragically, with that approach we lose a lot of the richness that could otherwise be gleaned from the text. I think relaxing the emphasis on the historicity of the Book of Mormon could greatly prolong the life span of the ‘more foreign’ aspects, but I don’t really see the present church leadership making that direction an easy road to take.

  8. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    I think the vast majority of members will continue to interpret it exactly as most do now – in a lot of different ways, but ultimately as the word of God and a witness of the Restoration. Maybe I’m an optimist, but the doom and gloom just don’t resonate with me. I am highly educated; as part of my thesis work on Manifest Destiny I read just about everything published in the 1800′s about “those damned Mormons and their Golden Bible;” I have a deeply considered and complex view of it; but I don’t see the general attitude “having” to change.

    I just don’t the Book of Mormon as a “problem” – as it was characterized in #5.

  9. David Clark on October 17, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Ray,

    The problem is this. Sometime in the future the Book of Mormon will start to seem strange and foreign to then readers of the book. This is a fact of life for all texts. What do these future people do, just accept that scriptures are weird and incomprehensible and move on? That’s the problem I am getting at. It’s not a problem with the Book of Mormon, but a problem with understanding it.

  10. Dave on October 17, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    I guess I would disagree that any distinctively Mormon mode of interpretation has to emerge from how Mormons read, view, or interpret the Book of Mormon. David Clark’s comments raise some difficulties with such a claim, especially the fact that there is no Book of Mormon culture (apart from what can be cobbled together from the text itself) in which to ground any deeper interpretation of the text. The fact that those who issue interpretations of Book of Mormon scriptures generally do so based on their religious authority rather than on any well-defined or scholarly “mode of interpretation” is another problem with the claim.

    Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible provided a nice summary of the range of Mormom approaches to interpreting the Bible. As I recall, there was nothing distinctively Mormon about of the approaches discussed; the range mirrors the various approaches taken by other Christian and secular scholars, weighted toward the conservative side of the spectrum. So it will be interesting to see what comes out of the conference.

  11. kevinf on October 17, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Of what value is Nibley’s work relating to textual analysis of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, and more specifically, the Nephi/Lehi period where cultural context should be most available, if the book is indeed what it claims to be? I can grant that the farther down the line from Nephi’s time we get, the less cultural context there would be, and also for the Jaredite period. But at least the first couple of books should be somewhat more accessible.

  12. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    #9 – “Sometime in the future the Book of Mormon will start to seem strange and foreign to then readers of the book.” That “time in the future” started about 1829. If your concern is that the Book of Mormon is going to seem weird, I would submit you are stating one of the obvious reasons why most Christians already reject it.

    If all you are saying is that the Book of Mormon someday will face the same problem among Mormons as the Bible does among Christians, I agree there is that possibility – but if that does happen, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if another text were discovered / revealed / published to take its place. Isn’t that ultimately the Mormon way?

  13. Curtis DeGraw on October 17, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Don’t General Conference talks already play that role to some extent? With an open canon, defined as including the words of the living prophets, is this really as big a problem as the Bible is for mainstream Christians?

  14. David Clark on October 17, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Responding to #11: Of what value is Nibley’s work relating to textual analysis of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, and more specifically, the Nephi/Lehi period where cultural context should be most available, if the book is indeed what it claims to be? It is valuable. Nibley also tried to provide the cultural context for the Jaredites but it was much less complete and much more speculative. Still that leaves a lot of the Book of Mormon.

    Responding to #12: If your concern is that the Book of Mormon is going to seem weird, I would submit you are stating one of the obvious reasons why most Christians already reject it. My concern is not with people who convert. Anyone converting to any new religion is going to find the texts in the new religion weird. My concern is with people in the religion, I would hope that they have ways of comprehending their own texts. It’s not obvious why people reject it in any case. In any case I would submit that most Christians don’t find it weird, in fact one of the big complaints from the anti-Mormons is that it is just stolen from the Bible, i.e. all too familiar to them.

    Responding to #13: Don’t General Conference talks already play that role to some extent? With an open canon, defined as including the words of the living prophets, is this really as big a problem as the Bible is for mainstream Christians? Yes, that is essentially option #3 in my initial comment (#5). However, if you in a sense “ditch” the Book of Mormon in the future, because it’s incomprehensible in the future, you lose Moroni 10:3-5, do you really want to go that route? If you don’t ditch it then you need tools to understand it, it just seems odd to ask people to pray about a book that they can’t understand.

  15. Jonathan Green on October 17, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Ray/Curtis, for this thread, please pick one ID and stick with it. Even if you change your mind in between posts.

  16. Jonathan Green on October 17, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    David Clark, regarding the eventual linguistic obsolescence of Book of Mormon English, I don’t see why some future translation committee can’t resolve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. There’s ample precedent. Also, I don’t understand why situating the Book of Mormon in a pre-19th century cultural context should be impossible. I think you’re underestimating the power and flexibility of human imagination, and overlooking the possibilities of interpretive strategies that don’t rely on historical context.

  17. kevinf on October 17, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    I’ve always thought that Ray and Curtis were two different people. Have a reason for asking that? Although # 12 may not sound like the Ray that I know, where Ray # 8 is consistent. :)

    Jonathan, you ask interesting questions, but in my mind, I do come back to wondering if we aren’t trying to use a temporal yardstick for an otherworldly measurement. I understand the value of critical texts, but we may not be able to use that as fully here as we’d like. Which, I guess, is the point of your original post. The BoM, for whatever purposes, really becomes a matter of faith. Perhaps if we are looking for a prototypical Mormon text, this may not be it. We then are looking at books by Talmage, John Taylor, B.H. Roberts, and Widstoe perhaps?

  18. David Clark on October 17, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Jonathan,

    If it is just linguistic obsolescence then yes a translation committee can resolve the problem. The problem is that it’s very difficult if not impossible to divorce the linguistic problems from the historical context. For example, anyone who can read English can read Leviticus. However just because one reads the words does not mean that you will derive meaning from Leviticus, and I would venture most modern readers don’t. Some, but not all, of that meaning can be recovered through knowing the historical and cultural context. My question is: Will the Book of Mormon have the same problems in the future and what tools can these future people use to overcome the problems?

    Of course I may have jacked the thread, if so, feel free to ignore me.

  19. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Sorry, Jonathon. I went in after #12 to check the previous posts and forgot to logout before adding #13. I’ll be more careful from now on.

  20. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    kevinf, yes, we are one and the same. I go by my middle name, Ray.

    As to #12 not sounding like me, I simply meant that we have never been freaked out by a text getting “old” – and that we teach that there are plenty of scriptures still undiscovered / revealed / published, as well as modern scripture being produced constantly. I didn’t mean it to sound nefarious or contrived – just a natural outcome of an open canon and continuing revelation. I don’t think the Book of Mormon will fade into irrelevance, but having new scripture added to existing scripture is part of our core doctrinal foundation, imo. That’s what I meant in #8; #12 & #13 were just “even if, so what” additions.

  21. Adam Greenwood on October 17, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    However, if you in a sense “ditch” the Book of Mormon in the future, because it’s incomprehensible in the future, you lose Moroni 10:3-5

    Don’t think so. It was the fact of the Book of Mormon, rather than its doctrines, that was the praying impetus for many of the early Saints and for many of us after. That would affect some, though.

  22. David Clark on October 17, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Responding to #21: Moroni would disagree, “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them…” (Moroni 10:3). The promise involves reading the words, which implies a level of understanding them as well.

  23. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    I simply fail to see how we will lose an understanding of the words, unless the language changes so radically that we don’t learn them anymore. I’ll worry about that if it happens – maybe. Somehow, I think we will adapt to fit that situation.

  24. Darren on October 17, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    My initial impression of this post is that It all comes back to 1 Cor 2 where it instructs us that things of the Spirit are understood by the Spirit.

    I lay no claim to understanding all of the literary nuances that are found in the scriptures but because of the Book of Mormon and the D&C I understand Isaiah much better than i do the writings of Paul. I believe that the prophecy of the old testament that the scriptures should become one in our hand is just that. Understanding the old and new testaments are prophetically tied to the cannon of this dispensation including the words of modern prophets spoken and written.

    One thing that I believe is that the effort the brethren are making with the priesthood/RS manuals is doing just that, putting into our hands an expanded cannon. Over the period of about twenty years they will have made available the words of our prophets in such a way as to provide a scriptural resource worthy of any written in ancient times.

  25. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    I forgot to add, the actual promise isn’t conditioned on reading the book – just on remembering the mercy of the Lord over time and realizing He can speak to you, as well. Many people have reported gaining a testimony before understanding the message(s). If it was an intellectual issue of textual comprehension, you would have a point; I just don’t see it in context of the actual verse you are using.

  26. Bizarro Kevin (aka kevinf) on October 17, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    Curtis, er, Ray, I’m shocked! Secret identities and multiple names? You’re going to have to rebuild your street creds, dude. I’m struggling with the contextual analysis of that fact!

    Adam, I really don’t intend to disagree with you on so many things, but I will point out that according to Shipp and some other writers, the initial proselytizing of the church during the 1830′s was based on a message of the restoration of primitive Christianity, and the Book of Mormon was a reflection of prophets come again, and the promise of new scripture that attended that restoration. At least that is how I recall the argument.

  27. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    kevinf, doesn’t your decoder ring . . . never mind. *grin* Please, no response here.

  28. David Clark on October 17, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Responding to #23: I simply fail to see how we will lose an understanding of the words, unless the language changes so radically that we don’t learn them anymore. I’ll worry about that if it happens – maybe. Somehow, I think we will adapt to fit that situation Try this experiment. Read a random chapter of one of Paul’s epistles in the KJV. Then read the same chapter in a modern translation (try NIV or NRSV). I think you will be amazed at how much better you understand Paul in the mordern translation and by comparison how much less you understood the KJV. It’s still English and it’s only a 400 year difference. The Book of Mormon is coming up on 200 years old so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that in the future something similar might happen.

  29. Curtis DeGraw on October 17, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    David, in #14 you said you are concerned about those in the faith, not those outside it. That is what I am addressing.

    If we don’t teach our children to understand the language of the scriptures, then of course they will struggle to understand them. If we do, they won’t. I understand the KJV because I was taught to understand it. My children understand it because they were taught to understand it. Many of my oldest son’s friends (college age) don’t understand it nearly as well as my nine-year-old – because they were raised on the NIV or other, more modern translations.

    The Japanese Book of Mormon is an even better example of what you are describing. The original translators used old, formal, honorific conjugation patterns. When I was serving my mission, the American missionaries understood those passages better than the vast majority of the native Japanese we taught. It didn’t affect the believers *nearly* as much as those outside the faith, because they had exercised their desire to know, gained a testimony of the book and, therefore, made the effort to understand its language. The Church did update the translation, however, because it was a real and powerful deterrent to “outsiders” understanding it – having to patiently work through a book that was the equivalent of Isaiah throughout its entirety.

    I think you are correct in much of what you assert, but I think your assertion would be more valid if it was focused on those outside the faith instead of those inside it.

  30. Ray on October 17, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Sorry; did it again. That last one was mine. Yikes!

  31. Patrick on October 17, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    As to “updating” the language of the BoM, I have found it enlightening to study the BoM in both English and German. The insights (inspiration?) of the translators frequently shed new light on passages I thought I already understood. I suppose an “updated” English BoM would be another “translation” of the “original” English text (the only “Urtext” we have available)…?

  32. Adam Greenwood on October 17, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Adam, I really don’t intend to disagree with you on so many things, but I will point out that according to Shipp and some other writers, the initial proselytizing of the church during the 1830’s was based on a message of the restoration of primitive Christianity, and the Book of Mormon was a reflection of prophets come again, and the promise of new scripture that attended that restoration. At least that is how I recall the argument.

    I think that’s right, but if I recall from Givens, it wasn’t the specifics of what the Book of Mormon said that was so exciting, it was the idea of new scripture and new prophets.

  33. kevinf on October 18, 2007 at 2:12 am

    Adam,

    That’s what I recall. I haven’t read Givens yet, but that parallels what I have read elsewhere. Still no other thoughts about what might be the prototypical Mormon texts outside of the Book of Mormon? Or do we really, besides the canon of scripture, not have a body of essential writings that we would consider as a second tier to the BoM? I think particularly of “The Articles of Faith”, “Jesus the Christ”, John Taylor’s “Mediation and the Atonement”, amongst others. “Lectures on Faith” might qualify as well, being one of the earliest volumes written for the church.

  34. William Morris on October 19, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Non-English translations and By the Hand of Mormon: http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=380

    ——-
    For the reasons already mentioned (Rosalynde was the first to bring up Givens, I think), I don’t think that we should look to the Book of Mormon for a Mormon mode of interpretation. Where I see more room for Mormon interpretations of cultural texts is in our unique doctrines, specifically those of agency, the role of family as the ultimate model (and end) of an ideal society, the perfectability of mankind (and the idea of progression and estates), and dialogic revelation (see Givens). You could also toss in Mormon concepts of morality such as the Word of Wisdom and chastity in there too.

    I think that in some ways Mormons already perform these sorts of interpretive acts. For example, adultery in fiction requires a different interpretation for Mormons than for other readers. I suppose you could say the same for many other religions. But that gets back to the issue that has yet to be settled, or as Jonathan puts it: “Deciding whether or not there is such a thing as a Mormon mode of interpretation is synonymous with the question of whether or not there is or will be a distinctly Mormon variant of the Western intellectual tradition.”

    At one point I was convinced that a Mormon reading of the ending of _The Master and Margarita_ could lead to some actual answers to this lingering notion, but when I attempted it, I failed.

  35. Jonathan Green on October 20, 2007 at 6:31 am

    William Morris, you might be right, but I hope not. A mode of interpretation based primarily on moral strictures sounds like a recipe for a neo-Puritan approach to literature. That’s a fine thing for people who wish to read like that, but there’s not much distinctively Mormon about it. In the things you mention, I don’t see much that is uniquely Mormon (the perfectibility of mankind is a myth of modernity, for example, even if it hasn’t done well since 1914). The one distinctive impulse I see is dialogic revelation, which I agree is important and distinctive enough that it should be taken into consideration.

  36. William Morris on October 24, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    I suppose I agree with you, Jonathan, on the neo-Puritan thing. I wasn’t super taken by Neal Kramer’s attempt.

    Perhaps perfectibility of mankind is the wrong term to use if it resonates too much with the myth of modernity and the progression of culture/society — the idea that things are always improving. I’m not ready, however, to abandon the whole idea of agency and progression. It seems to me that although the Mormon concept of progression (and it’s modern manifestation with Franklin Planners, Seven Habits and the vast amount of self-help books available at your local Deseret Book) is mixed up with modernity, there is (along with our sense of dispensations and restoration/apostacy/restoration) a potential narrative mode and/or critique of modern narratives that could be uniquely Mormon.

    My gut feeling, though, is that an breakthrough in a uniquely Mormon mode of interpretation will come because a Mormon work demands it. But that’s probably just wishful thinking.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.