Let me begin by saying that I not only believe in the historicity of The Book of Mormon, I feel a deep and passionate commitment to our narrative. But this is a point on which I think Mormon historicitists, believers in a divine or human fiction, or any other type of good Mormon ought to be able to agree: The Book of Mormon is rich far beyond our nascent attempts to uncover. I think it very fitting that it came to us on golden plates. If this is so, why is it that for most of our history—and perhaps still today—we have remained “under condemnation” for treating it lightly?
There are obviously a lot of ways that we can treat it lightly. The one I want to focus on here is how we—as a people—have treated the Book lightly on an intellectual level.
One of the formative experiences of my mission, one that has motivated much of my educational experience, was the opportunity to spend a few evenings in discussion with Stanley Kimball who was then teaching at Southern Illinois University. A well-known historian of pioneer trails among other things, he had a deeper knowledge of church history than anyone I’d ever met – he was also wonderfully candid and witty. Before dinner one night, as I covetously reviewed his library, he confessed that it had always been important to him to give mind service to the Kingdom. I asked him to elaborate, and he told me that while the Lord had commanded us to serve him with all our heart, might, mind and strength, we usually left our minds out of it. Mind service was an area he had dedicated his life to.
I’m convinced that The Book of Mormon could use a lot more mind service. I see wonderful beginnings – from the gems of Hugh Nibley to the work of Terryl Givens and Grant Hardy to Jack Welch and Dan Peterson to Royal Skousen and Jim Faulconer (obviously we could list more). I think that we have promising scholars and promising projects. Nevertheless, while I’m no prophet, my own assessment is that we certainly wouldn’t clear ourselves of condemnation for our failure to take our Book seriously (speaking of the church collectively and not individually). As many have noted, we too are people of a Book, and are accountable, so our Book tells us, for what we do with it. I don’t mean this as a call to apologetics, but a call to rigorous exploration of our constitutive book on a serious, intellectual level.
I want to claim that our failure of mind service is largely a cultural phenomenon. But I’m very interested to know what others think. I’ll first list a number of reasons that I think have or currently do keep us from approaching the Book of Mormon with intellectual rigor, and then discuss reasons why I think we should, why I think we have an obligation to do so. These ideas obviously aren’t all mine, we hear them bandied about occasionally, but I hope it’s useful to try and consider them all together.
1. The debate over historicity has distracted us, consuming a great deal of our intellectual efforts. Attempts to discredit the Book’s origins have been dogged. Defending the origins, bearing intellectual testimony of the origins to a world that has had a hard time taking even the documented, historical facts seriously on account of our fantastical claims, has been far more important to us as a people than trying to uncover the complexity of the content and make it accessible and relevant. What’s more, the outside world has been far more willing to engage in polemics over the historicity than it has to give more than a cursory glance at the content – “chloroform in print.” Thus, while we have a great deal of external motivation to focus on the historicity, we have little to no external motivation to focus on content.
This is complicated by our own intellectual fissioning into orthodox and heterodox believers concerning the Book’s origins. Internally, we’re coming to grips with whether we need to accept Joseph’s narrative literally and how to respond to those in our ranks who don’t. Different positions seem to proliferate, further distracting us from the content.
2. Related to this is what Terryl Givens calls the “oracular” function that the Book has played in our history (as opposed to a “textual” one). Many historians note the symbolic and sacred importance of the Book itself. Its existence has served as a witness to God’s work and presence in the Latter Days, a talisman testifying to the veracity of Joseph’s claims and the truth of the Restoration. Even today our missionary message – just as often preached to members as non-members – is to read the Book, not primarily for content but to determine or reconfirm its veracity, which constitutes proof of Joseph Smith as a prophet, which constitutes proof of Thomas S. Monson as a prophet. And we’ve all heard the tales from our parents and grandparents (or ourselves) concerning how little the Book was read or studied even a short time ago. We’re all familiar with President Benson’s candid statements concerning our continued condemnation and the subsequent major push from church authorities to make reading the Book regularly a standard part of church culture. I think it fair to say that without regular reading and common familiarity with the text as a people, there’s little internal motivation or support for intellectual exploration.
3. There seems to be a serious hazard to intellectual exploration of a sacred text – our sacred experience with the text too often seeps away as we approach it from a secular angle. I think it is analogous to one’s inability to type smoothly while thinking about the keys and the movement of one’s fingers.
We’re simply doing something different in academic religious studies than what we do in Sunday School, seminary, or personally “spiritual” scripture study—analyzing the text and how it’s taken up as opposed to seeking divine and personal meanings. Religious studies attempts to be a rigorous socio-cultural and literary examination, and as such it inevitably pulls up the weaknesses, frailties, abnormalities, and anomalies of the text—as well as the mortal nature of its authors. We’re much more open to hearing about the frailties, biases, and cultural-conceptual limitations of Josephus than Joseph, the misleading military lens of ancient Greek historians than that of Mormon and Moroni. We’re often uncomfortable with the way scholars hack the Bible apart and splice it back together again. This discomfort is exacerbated with the thought of scholars taking the same surgical approach to the Book of Mormon (again, this can be seen or perhaps anticipated in our internal debates over its historicity). We already apologize away the contrasting Christologies in The Book of Mormon, the incongruent doctrines espoused by different prophets, different ethical codes and cultural values in different times and amongst different groups. We’re uncomfortable with and often try to ignore the significant religious differences between dispensations; this is multiplied when scholars (sometimes irreverently) point out significant differences within a dispensation, which can be revealed by scriptures like The Book of Mormon. Examining the mortal nature of holy scripture can get in the way of its sacred and religious function in the same way that focusing on the humanity of our contemporary prophets sometimes gets in people’s way of taking them as prophets. While many of us think the opposite ought to be the case, we can’t deny the prevalence of such discomfort in our culture.
4. All of this has helped contribute to a general mistrust of religious studies in the church. I strongly suspect that ideological opposition to religious studies (and intellectual approaches to Mormonism more broadly) flourish among no more than bare majority, perhaps even a minority. But I think it would be silly to deny that intellectual skepticism is alive and well in our ranks and plays a large normative roll in our discussions. This is particularly true when it comes to religious studies. Most Mormons I know aren’t at all familiar with the particulars of religious studies, but find themselves with a strong bias against it; a sneaking suspicion that it is practiced largely by those who want to discredit religion (support for this bias is occasionally drawn – illegitimately I think – from General Conference talks). Again, I think it would be silly to deny that there are those in religious studies who have just this sort of agenda (Bart Ehrman, former evangelical and well-known professor at UNC is rather open about the joy he derives in exploding the naïve assumptions of his evangelical students). Our default position, I think, is to mistrust and largely ignore the world of religious studies.
BYU’s religion department is a good place to see this discomfort and skepticism in action. The department has at times been a battlefield between those who take religious studies as a serious and legitimate discipline, some of whom have dedicated their lives to it, and those who find this approach to the scriptures wholly illegitimate. Those opposed to religious studies seem to consistently win the battles (BYU’s Department of Religion continues to look and act dramatically different than most university religion departments, more like a CES Institute). But they likewise consistently fail to eradicate academic approaches and classes within the department or the steady demand for such classes from the student body. Any of us who have taken classes in the JSB are familiar with the epithets of “intellectual” and “fluff” that get pinned on certain professors.
Now as to why I think we ought to engage in the broad spectrum of intellectual approaches to the Book of Mormon:
1. First and foremost, I’m claiming that we need to get out from under the condemnation declared by prophets at the beginning of this dispensation and repeated in our time. One of our strong tendencies in Mormonism is to abolish pernicious binaries: faith vs. works, temporal vs. spiritual, transcendence vs. immanence, etc. We certainly need to abolish any idea that taking the Book of Mormon seriously means merely giving it a “spiritual” read, proof-texting it, treating it merely as a book of moral stories (or coming to know nothing more of it than its stories), or the like. Surely our condemnation is more holistic, and consequently so should be our approach. (Note that while my focus here is on our failure to take The Book of Mormon seriously on an intellectual level, the same could clearly be said of our approach to other scripture, particularly the Bible. It is perhaps an understatement to say that the Bible aids the church produced in the early 1980s were selected ala carte from the vast resources of Biblical scholarship available; and there has been no attempt to update, despite significant developments in Biblical scholarship in the last three decades.)
I do not think that we need every member an intellectual. What we need is a culture that is broadly conducive to, supportive of, even seeking after rigorous, unflinching, intellectual approaches. This requires a membership actively engaged with and supportive of the scholars in its ranks and their approaches to our Book, as well as scholars utterly lacking in repugnant, condescending attitudes or unwillingness to impart intellectual treasures to a broad audience, one fluent only in the language of faith.
2. The richness of the text and its centrality to our religious experience demands it! Once again, whatever one’s feelings on the origins, we ought to recognize the depth and complexity of the text as a text. We do the Book a disservice and deny ourselves of further knowledge, competence, and edification by not mining its riches in the same way fundamentalists shoot themselves in the foot by trying to silence women. As I’ve heard attributed to Grant Hardy, there’s a reason God gave us a sacred 531-page book, and not merely a sacred pamphlet to proclaim the Restoration.
3. Moroni pleads for us to take it seriously. And for those uncomfortable with the idea of mortal scripture (whether believers or non-believers), Moroni claims that far from injuring the validity of scripture or its sacred and divine origins, we have the ability to learn from their inevitable mortality. “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been (Mormon 9:31).” There are more than merely “spiritual” or doctrinal lessons to be learned; there are social, political, and existential lessons. We ought to rejoice in and learn from the mistakes of both prophets and peoples in the Book of Mormon – their destructive nationalism, class distinctions and racism, their cyclical and at times glorified militarism, excessively sharp rebukes, chauvinism and familial favoritism. The human nature of the text is such that we can and ought to take it seriously on an intellectual level, and learn from it.
4. As mentioned, we reject the spiritual-temporal dichotomy as a false dichotomy. Perhaps Brigham Young put it best when he said “We cannot talk about spiritual things without connecting with them temporal things, neither can we talk about temporal things without connecting spiritual things with them. . . . We, as Latter-day Saints, really expect, look for and we will not be satisfied with anything short of being governed and controlled by the word of the Lord in all our acts, both spiritual and temporal. If we do not live for this, we do not live to be one with Christ (JD 10:329).” The reality is, the more you know about the temporal, political, cultural situation and the literary styles in Isaiah, the easier to get and the fuller your understanding of Isaiah’s spiritual message. The same can be said of one’s experience doing work in the temple for one’s kindred dead: the more you know about the person for whom you work, their life and times, the richer and more meaningful your own experience. Surely this is just as true of the Book of Mormon – the more you know about the Jerusalem of 600 BC, the more you know of the sociology of founding societies, the more you know of Hebraic literary styles, of competing theological themes, the richer will be your experience of the Book of Mormon, and the richer your potential for spiritual experiences. I think the opposite can also be true, that one’s spiritual maturity and doctrinal understanding gleaned from scripture, fruitfully informs one’s socio-anthropological understanding of the people who wrote and the times in which they wrote. There’s absolutely no inherent reason for our “temporal” knowledge and study of the scripture to detract from rather than compliment and add to our “spiritual” – and vice versa. Whether “temporal” studies contribute to or distract from our “spiritual” understanding is a reflection of us and not the inevitable normative force of the content.
5. Finally, we have a mission to take The Book of Mormon to all the world – and this certainly includes the academic world. How can the academic or intellectual world take our Book seriously when we don’t do so ourselves? And why should they have to be the ones to explore and reveal its richness? Surely waiting for them to digest and analyze our texts for us is a damning indictment of our laziness and deserved condemnation. On the other hand, we currently have the opportunity and the good beginnings of a potentially glorious mission.
The intellectual field is ripe, already to harvest. God bless us with more scholars, competent and committed enough to thrust in their sickles, and a people passionately committed to supporting them.