Penguin Books has just published a “Penguin Classics” edition of the Book of Mormon edited by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. Penguin Classics, of course, are the paperback editions of literary staples like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. They are printed and marketed largely as texts for college classes. The assumption is that a text included in the Penguin series has become a stable part of the high-brow diet of books, or at least ought to be. It is worth reflecting a little bit about what this edition of the Book of Mormon might or might not mean.
The Penguin book itself is based on the 1840 edition of the text rather than our current edition of the scriptures. The text was chosen because this was the last version that Joseph Smith was personally involved in editing. Also strictly speaking there is no standard 1830 version of the text for the simple reason that Grandin edited the book as he was printing it, with the result that different copies of the 1830 edition contain different versions of the text. Our current edition, in contrast, contains an elaborate set of interpretive aids that were added long after Joseph was murdered. Hence, the Penguin edition is printed without versification or the current chapter breaks, both of which were added in Utah by Orson Pratt. Rather, it is printed as regular prose â€“ much like a novel â€“ with the original chapter breaks, which were much longer than our current chapters. The Penguin edition retains the colophons that were in the 1840 edition of the text, but does not contain any of the chapter headings that are part of current LDS editions. I actually think that reading the text in its original format is a useful way of escaping the framing that the textual apparatus of current church editions imposes, as well as providing a better guide to the underlying structure of the narratives, as broken up by the original chapters. Previously the only way of doing this was by either getting a facsimile copy of the 1830 edition or else by using Grant Hardyâ€™s expensive readerâ€™s edition. The Penguin Classics version will provide a convenient and low price way of reading the Book of Mormon in its original textual format.
Maffly-Kipâ€™s introduction is one of the more interesting things about this edition. For those unfamiliar with her, Maffly-Kip is a non-Mormon religious studies professor at UNC, who for the last several years has been teaching a course of Mormonism. Her introduction is fascinating for how it tries to situate the Book of Mormon. Most of it is taken up with telling the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as given by Joseph Smith and his associates. She then provides a brief summary of how the text is used today by Latter-day Saints and members of the Community of Christ. It is a compact and elegant survey, but nothing that she has to say here will be much of a surprise to Mormons. The more interesting part of the introduction comes at the end. She writes:
Like all books that spur the imagination, the Book of Mormon presents new ways of viewing the world. Believers from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries continue to take it as divine truth. But whether one accepts this judgment or prefers to read the text as an inventive exercise in time travel that allows one to reflect differently on the present era (as in reading Mark Twainâ€™s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurâ€™s Court or Edward Bellamyâ€™s Looking Backward, for instance), the Book of Mormon gestures to a remarkably complex layering of human civilizations, historical records, and editorial tasks.
She offers two suggestions in terms of interpretative approaches. The first is to focus on the intertextuality of the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The Book of Mormon obviously quotes extensively from the Bible, as well as employing a host of biblical tropes and story forms. â€œThis intertextuality,â€ she writes, â€œoffers the motivated reader a way to read between the two books and in doing so, provides an excellent example of the ways books come to be understood as â€˜scripture.â€™â€ Her second suggestion is for â€œ[t]hose who read the text as a work emerging from the imagination of Joseph Smith himself.â€ For these readers, she suggests that the Book of Mormon might be seen as an ingenious exercise in making new meaning in a new landscape, in reshaping the world by placing oneself, and oneâ€™s family and friends, in a world charged with sacred meaning and divine inspiration.â€
Maffly-Kippâ€™s introduction is part of a larger struggle by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars to understand the place of the Book of Mormon in intellectual discussions. Paradoxically, the Book of Mormon suffers from both a super abundance of canonicity and a dearth of it. Among believers, of course, it occupies a hallowed place beside the Bible as a repository of Holy Writ. To Latter-day Saints, however, the Book of Mormon is also canonical in the sense that we have quasi-ritualized readings. In short, we proof text or read particular stories â€“ say Alma 32 or the missionary stories of the Sons of Mosiah â€“ in isolation and according to very conventional patterns. In contrast, the complex totality the bookâ€™s narratives are seldom given a rigorous exegesis. Among non-believers, of course, the Book of Mormon is not scripture, but it is (as of yet?) also non-canonical in the broader sense of the term. The Quaâ€™ran and the New Testament are not considered scripture by the non-Muslim or the non-Christian, but they are recognized as texts having a heft worthy of the interest of an intelligent mind. They are thus canonical in the sense that War and Peace, Emerson, Whitman, or The Federalist are canonical. The Book of Mormon in contrast remains a book that few non-Mormons would consider reading. In part this is no doubt linked to the fantastic claims made about its origins, and in part it stems from the marginal status of Latter-day Saints. Even Harold Bloom, an immensely sympathetic interpreter of Joseph Smith, concludes that there is no call for even a student of American religion to actually read the Book of Mormon. The result is that the non-Mormon is likely to accept Mark Twainâ€™s quip that the book is â€œchloroform in printâ€ and turn her attention elsewhere. There is thus an important sense in which the paradoxical status of the Book of Mormonâ€™s canonicity tends to foreclose a careful reading of it.
There are developments, such as the nascent flowering of serious interpretative — as opposed to purely apologetic — LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon, that suggest that this state of affairs might change. The Penguin Classicâ€™s edition of the Book of Mormon may be part of this, but in order for the book to make its way firmly into the canon we are first going to need to come up with a much richer set of interpretations for the text than we have hitherto offered. I wonder what other avenues we might take other than the two offered by Maffly-Kipp. One possibility is comparative. For example, Jared Hickman, who was recently hired at Johns Hopkins University is a master of seeing how the Book of Mormon and other LDS texts — most notably the sermons of Joseph Smith — can be brought into dialogue with other texts, such as the canonical works of American pragmatism. Any other suggestions?