Divine Comedy, Divine Tragedy

September 24, 2009 | 12 comments
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The Bible, as we have received it, sets out the drama of salvation with its wrenching fall and crucifixion, but joyous resurrection and exaltation. Though its compilation is in many ways ad hoc, there is a satisfyingly comedic structure to the whole. As Terryl Givens puts it in his The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, just out from Oxford University Press, “There is a neat symmetry . . . Primordial creation is balanced by apocalypse and heavenly postscript . . . All tears are wiped away, and the primal fall and alienation are remedied by reunion under the beneficent reign of God the Father” (p61). The Book of Mormon is very different.

Certainly, the Book of Mormon describes the state of our first parents, their fall, Christ’s condescension and atonement, the resurrection of the just, and the song of redeeming love. In its content, it describes the same divine comedy, and perhaps even more poignantly, with its more personal framing and scale. We are shown why the flaming sword barring Eden was a sign of love. Christ speaks from the heavens to those in the New World, while the disciples in the Old World are still guessing what his death means, and calls them to partake of the redemption he had wrought. Alma speaks of the song of redeeming love as something his audience has already felt to sing.

Yet in form, the Book of Mormon is inescapably tragic. Mormon’s narrative concludes with “an Armageddon that he witnesses and in which he anticipates that he will perish” (Givens p61). Nor are his people killed by a fire from heaven, or a destroying angel, but by their own kin, named after rival brothers and taught to hate one another. If the tragic form of Mormon’s narrative was not clear enough, Moroni treats us to a review of nearly the same story, played out by the people of Ether, before signing off himself.

What are we to make of this striking contrast, and of the tragic form of this book written specially for our time?

12 Responses to Divine Comedy, Divine Tragedy

  1. J. Madson on September 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

    maybe its a warning. It always seemed to me that the BoM does not want us to emulate them but to learn from them. Mormon himself seems to point to this in his chapter 7 when he tells us we should abandon the arm of the flesh, accept Jesus, and live differently than they did.

  2. Clark on September 24, 2009 at 11:33 am

    It’s interesting though that the structure of the Bible is largely coincidental. (i.e. the book ends of Genesis and Revelation)

    The Book of Mormon, with a few exceptions (i.e. Ether) is largely chronological. The Bible more organized by group. (i.e. the Torah proper, The Histories, the Prophets, the Poets, the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, and the leftovers)

    That said the Book of Mormon does mirror a structure for human history explicated in the Book. I think Nephi and Jacob’s use of Isaiah set the typology but it’s reiterated with the olive tree analogy and so forth. My feeling is that Mormon might have consciously been applying that typology to his editorial decisions. It’s interesting that Ether is a kind of repetition of the whole Nephite story.

  3. bfwebster on September 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    My favorite Nibley quote is from his 1957 Priesthood Study Guide, An Approach to the Book of Mormon:

    Woe unto the generation that understands the Book of Mormon.

    He later wrote that for months after the manual came out, he received letters from people sure that it was a typographical error. His response was: look at what happened to the people in the Book of Mormon. When we look around and see the same things in our own civilization, then we’ll know where we’re headed. ..bruce..

  4. Ben Huff on September 24, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Clark, I would like to hear more about what you are saying about Isaiah. I am thinking about scattering and then gathering . . . but in the Book of Mormon it mostly looks like scattering, and then everyone dies, though more than a few have been “harvested” along the way, to be laid up in the heavenly storehouse, like those who believed Alma and Amulek.

    Certainly there is a dramatic structure to the parable of the olive tree, and they come close to disaster before the last round that produces good fruit. But of course things look quite good in the end there. What is the happy ending for the Book of Mormon?

  5. Anon on September 24, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I think the focal point of the BoM is 3 Nephi/4 Nephi. That is what everything before looks forward to, and in Mormon’s eyes it really the ‘ending’ of the story that he is abridging. His own portion of the story definitely tragic, but I don’t think it’s seen as an ending, but as a ‘to be continued’. The BoM in a number of places looks forward to the day when the BoM itself comes forth and reclaims the scattered descendants of Lehi. In fact, the last chapters of the BoM (the book of Moroni) focus not as much on the destruction of the Nephites as it does on the atonement through the sacrament prayers, faith/hope/charity, gifts of the Spirit and coming to Christ. That is the ‘end’ that the BoM points us towards, not the tragic fall of the Nephites.

  6. Anon on September 24, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Sorry, one more:

    In response to #4, the olive tree allegory has a good ending and bad ending. Many branches are burned, many bring forth good fruit. That is the message of the BoM, anyway, you choose your own ending (i.e. 2 Nephi 2). Inasmuch as you keep the commandments of God you are prospered. Inasmuch as you don’t, you are smitten.

    The BoM discuss both endings, but to warn us away from the latter and point us towards the former.

  7. Ben Huff on September 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Good answer, Anon! Yes, the story of the Book of Mormon, as Mormon and Moroni are writing, includes what will happen when it comes forth and is actually read, reminding the Lamanites of their heritage, restoring plain and precious truths, etc.

  8. Ben Huff on September 24, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Your reading of Third and Fourth Nephi as ending #1, and Mormon as ending #2, and perhaps Moroni as epilogue, Anon, is strengthened by the near-discontinuity in the narrative between the start of Fourth Nephi and the start of Mormon. We breeze through three hundred years in a few dizzying verses, with only the sketchiest trace of a story.

    For most dramatic purposes, we might even say that the story of the Nephites ends with 3 Nephi 28, with the transfiguration of the “three Nephites” and the sketch of their ministry, playing with wild beasts “as a child with a suckling lamb” and going forth among the Gentiles. 3 Nephi 29 and 30 then turn to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and call the Gentiles to heed its message.

    Then we get what feels like a real story again in Mormon 1, and of course that is the tragic ending. Good stuff.

  9. Clark on September 24, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Ben, Nephi and Jacob use Isaiah to enforce a Messiah/Atonement imagery that works on numerous levels. (Personal, national, racial, etc.) This is repeated in various ways. The flight from Israel which is itself typologically tied to the Moses Exodus. But then the wickedness of the Jews (a constant theme in Isaiah, which typologically applies to morals on the individual, group and nation) is repeated in the narrative. So the Lamanites fall, then the Nephites fall. We have the wicked priests of King Noah with Abinadi being the stand in for a Jerusalem prophet and Alma taking the role of Nephi. So that’s a subnarrative following the type. The text as a whole follows this same type with the gathering being a future looking event by Mormon. But the Ether section put in follows the same type, minus the restoration. (And why Ether is unique in that I can’t say)

    I think that this type is typically characterized as the Nephite cycle, but I think that presentation is misleading. I think the main type isn’t that of cycle but the Isaiah passages quoted being the fundamental type of human existence. It is much more archtypal and in a fashion I’m not sure fits the cyclic view taught in seminary.

    As I said there are exceptions. Ether, as presented, has an absolute end. Arguably the Noah story does as well, except for a small remnant. Most apologists, of course, would see the Ether destruction as not absolute or even possibly absolute, but also clearly Mormon doesn’t present it that way.

  10. Clark on September 24, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    To add, what is most interesting in the Book of Mormon isn’t this typology but where the narrative works against the typology. I’d argue 4th Nephi is so interesting precisely because it doesn’t fit too well with the typology Mormon is so interested in. Which is why he cuts it so short I suspect. He’s interested in the Inferno and not the Paradisio (as is the case with most readers of Dante)

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 24, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    The climactic visit of Christ and establishment of Zion in 3rd Nephi and 4th Nephi is precisely what makes the destruction of Mormon’s people a tragedy. It is the final and consuming tragedy in a succession of such tragedies, which begin with the conquest of Jerusalem, the conquest of the original Nephite nation that prompts the escape to Zarahemla of Mosiah I, the captivity of the Zeniffites (Alma and Limhi leading the two branches), and the destruction of the wicked in 3 Nephi 8-10. And of course the Jaredite story is added in as another example.

    And the Book of Mormon prophets, especially Nephi and Moroni, are very explicit about these tragedies that they foresee and see are a foreshadowing of the judgments that will come on us in the last days. 3 Nephi is very clearly an example of the destruction of the wicked and the establishment of a righteous society that will be enacted on a larger scale at Christ’s Second Coming. And do not forget, that in D&C 1 the Lord is very specific that his calling of Joseph Smith to restore the gospel is directly related to the “calamity” that is about to befall mankind in the last days. The restoration is a blessing precisely because the alternative is going to be really bad.

    Terryl Givens emphasizes in By the Hand of Mormon, and to a lesser extent in this new short book, that the Book of Mormon invites us to step into its world, where tragedy and blessing are both imminent, and God is ready to help those who ask for him. It tells us that this is the true story of the earth and humanity.

    This promise, of safety in the midst of imminent loss, is what transforms the message of the Book of Mormon from a downer to an upper, because, even as we weep over the tragedy of the Nephites, we realize that the very fact we hold this record in our hands is a testimony that God has not abandoned us, that his promises to his ancient prophets have been fulfilled, and that his promises to us are thus assured. The Book of Mormon is the earnest or security that God does follow through on his promises, and that we are justified in having hope, because the last chapters of the Book of Mormon, the fulfillment of the prophetic visions of Nephi and the Brother of Jared, are being written by the Latter-day Saints.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 24, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Continuing:
    It is as if we, the readers of the Book of Mormon, are in one of those recursive magazine cover photos, in which the reader sees himself reading the same magazine that he is holding, and so on into infinity. By adopting the Book of Mormon as a story of our own past, we become players in the continuing story told prophetically by Nephi and Moroni.

    Indeed, the last author, editor and protagonist of the Book of Mormon was taking an active role in events from 1823 to 1829. The story of Moroni’s instructions to Joseph, and his ongoing participation in the translation and the obtaining of witnesses, could constitute an additional book, The Acts of Moroni, that belongs in every way with the other parts of the Book of Mormon. The testimony of Joseph Smith, and the testimonies of the 3 and 8 witnesses, could logically be appended at the end of the Book of Mormon as this final book, with the dating notations down in the corner of each page showing “1820” to “1829”.