A Review of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon

August 15, 2011 | 22 comments
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Understanding BofM ii
In On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, we get a fascinating peek into Richard Bushman’s psyche during the time immediately after the publication of his monumental work, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. It is delightful to find out that he checked the book’s rank on Amazon several times per day, but sobering to see his reaction to the book’s reception by the non-Mormon scholarly community.

In a letter to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, he wrote: “The first of the serious reviews of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling arrived this past week. . . . Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp’s reaction to my book is probably about as sympathetic as we can hope for. . . . The review tells me that we cannot expect a positive reaction to the biography–or to Joseph Smith–from scholars. As Laurie says, an epistemological gap yawns between my view of the Prophet and that of most academics. . . . I had hoped my book would bridge this gap, but after this review, I can see it will go only part way. I will be consistently seen as a partisan observer” (pages 101-102). As further reviews showed, his analysis was, unfortunately, spot on: the divide is too wide to be bridged even by a first-rate treatment of the life of Joseph Smith, if its author is a faithful member of the LDS Church.

Which brings us to Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, an attempt to bridge the gap through a literary reading of the Book of Mormon. He writes, “I will leave it to others to prove or disprove the historical and religious claims of the book; my goal is to help anyone interested in the Book of Mormon, for whatever reason, become a better, more perceptive reader” (page xvi). That is a laudable goal and, for the LDS reader, he succeeds brilliantly; this book belongs not on the shelf but on the desk–where it can be frequently consulted–of every serious student of the Book of Mormon. But as much as one might wish otherwise, it is difficult to imagine a sympathetic response to this book from most non-LDS readers. Hardy asks us to look closely at the text “without worrying too much about whether the mind ultimately responsible . . . was that of Mormon or Joseph Smith” (page xiv), but how closely can the non-LDS reader look before noticing a terrible dilemma: as Hardy himself points out, the Book of Mormon has the marks of careful craftsmanship, but “the more complicated and interconnected the text, the less likely it is that Joseph Smith made it up” (page xv). The greater the literary complexity of the Book of Mormon, the more likely it is what it claims to be, which places–to put it mildly–a certain burden on the reader. The non-LDS reader cannot avoid questions of historicity when Hardy writes on the very first page: “The Book of Mormon [was] produced in a sudden rush of revelation as a young, poorly educated New York farmer dictated the text, one time through” (page 3). While it should be possible to analyze the Book of Mormon as literature while bypassing sticky questions of historicity, this doesn’t seem to work in practice. Hardy examines Nephi’s appropriation of Isaiah and Moroni’s inclusion of passages that echo Hebrews because these are necessary exercises for understanding what Nephi and Moroni were doing as narrators, but they require redaction criticism, which means thinking about historicity. The fact that Rough Stone Rolling couldn’t completely bridge the divide–even when people regularly enjoy biographies of subjects with whom they would disagree on virtually every topic–does not bode well for the reception of a book that, despite itself, forces the reader to consider the literary complexity of the Book of Mormon on every page. Hardy notes that “this is a book designed to polarize readers” (page 9) and he is right.

But the likely cold shoulder from non-LDS readers should not stop Mormons from embracing this book with open arms. Hardy’s analysis of the Book of Mormon has more than one moment of pure genius; his insights into the text are often jaw-droppingly compelling.

Perhaps the most difficult and most crucial component of a close reading is noticing what is missing and Grant Hardy is unusually adept at doing precisely that. How many readers have slogged through the Book of Mormon dozens of times without realizing that Nephi never reports on his own kingship or his own sons? Or that when Lehi gathers his family and pronounces final blessings on his posterity, “Nephi’s blessing is conspicuous for its absence” (page 51)? Hardy points out that Mormon “never speaks of war figuratively or makes it a metaphor for Christian living” (page 108) and, unlike Nephi and Moroni, never quotes scriptures at length. He notes that there are no stories in the Book of Mormon of good men who fall (no Sauls or Davids), that Captain Moroni never “engage[s] in personal acts of faith” (page 174), that Samuel the Lamanite never mentions Jesus’ visit to the Americas, that Jesus never uses parables in the Book of Mormon, and that “a close reading of Ether suggests that Jaredite culture was almost entirely non-Christian” (page 235).

Hardy also excels at reading against the grain of the text. He finds in Lehi’s lack of response to Nephi’s killing of Laban a telling gap, one filled with something designed to distract the reader: an argument between Sariah and Lehi (and an artfully structured one at that). Not only does he present a symapthetic portrait of Laman and Lemuel, but it doesn’t undermine the message of the text but rather enhances it. Similarly, he finds evidence that Mormon strives to create a heroic version of Captain Moroni that might skirt the edge of accuracy (“it is hard to see how the accusation ‘thou art a child of hell’ might have been a successful opening for negotiations” [page 148]), but the end result is a greater appreciation for both men.

A third strength of Understanding the Book of Mormon is Hardy’s gift for noticing textual parallels. His cases for reading Nephi as deliberately structuring his story on the model of the Old Testament Joseph, for comparing Abinadi and Moses, and for seeing the Jaredite record as reversing the Fall are very compelling. And, finally, Hardy’s ability to elucidate characterization is nothing short of astounding. Nephi, Zeniff, Mormon, Captain Moroni, Helaman, and Moroni, are all liberated from what Joseph Smith called “the little narrow prison . . . of paper [,] pen [,] and ink” and into the kind of fully-formed reality that just might keep the reader awake during Sunday School.

Understanding the Book of Mormon invites comparison to Terryl L. Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launches a New World Religion–although that work is a reception history of the Book of Mormon instead of a literary analysis–and Richard Dilworth Rust’s Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon. Hardy covers some of the same terrain as Rust, but Hardy’s method of organizing material by narrator (as opposed to Rust’s of organizing by literary element) yields a more comprehensive reading and reveals more about the character of the narrators, while Hardy’s consideration of gaps and reading against the grain exposes insights unexplored by Rust.

So while it seems rather unlikely that non-LDS readers will be able to accept Hardy’s reading, Understanding the Book of Mormon is a groundbreaking work in the analysis of the Book of Mormon and the wide (LDS) audience that it deserves will be amply rewarded with stunning new insights.

Slightly adapted from my review in Dialogue.

22 Responses to A Review of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon

  1. Ray on August 16, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Great review, Julie.

    I’ve argued for a long time that much of the criticism of the Book of Mormon by non-members is a direct result of misunderstandings held by members (past and present, including Joseph himself) – and much of what Hardy says in this book, I believe, makes the same point. I don’t think we can expect others to understand what, in so many ways, we really don’t understand ourselves.

  2. Stephen Hardy on August 16, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Great review, Julie, and certainly a book worthy of careful consideration.

    I have a few comments/questions:

    First, I am not related to Grant Hardy, although he has the same name as my father. It’s always jarring for me to see his name.

    I want to pose my observation/question carefully, because I am a believing and active Mormon:

    Why is it that the fact that the Book of Mormon is complex is seen as some sort of proof of its divinity?

    For me, that the rapidness with which it was produced is inspiring. It shouldn’t be hard, however, for us to look at it from a non-member’s point of view. If I believed that the book were a fraud, I could come up with a number of explanations for its complexity. For example, Joseph Smith (or some other author) could have pre-written it over a number of months of even years (he had some years between his first vision and the translation of the BoM) and then he could have read his manuscript to the scribes. Its not hard to come up with other possible scenarios.

    Let me make a comparison here: Some of you may have taken courses on Shakespeare, and watched as a certain scene in a certain act in a certain play is deconstructed, line by line, phrase by phrase and word by word. Its breath-taking. The brilliance of the word play, the double-meanings, the triple-meanings, the sadness/hilarity/poignancy of certain phrases jump out at you. You are then reminded that he wasn’t considered to be so brilliant then, and that he produced these plays quickly. You find yourself asking: Did Shakespeare himself know how brilliant they were?

    As you know, the authorship of the Works of Shakespeare has been a topic of debate for some time.

    But I find myself thinking: Well, somebody had to have written it! And of course I could come up with the same response to the BoM. Somebody had to have written it. Its brilliance does not, for me, necessarily suggest divinity as much as it testifies to the general brilliance of some human minds.

    So, speaking personally, I will likely find Grant Hardy’s book to be inspiring. It will probably bolster my testimony of the BoM. But I can’t imagine how someone who thinks that Joseph Smith was a fraud would be moved by a book like this. This book might be a challenge to someone who believes that Joseph Smith was stupid. But it won’t help with the fraud part of it. Non-believers are more likely to simply believe that he was a darn good fraud.

  3. Sam Brunson on August 16, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Stephen,
    I don’t know that Hardy expects his book to be inspiring. Instead, he’s providing a framework for a careful reading of the Book of Mormon. Julie’s right that, although he disavows any interest (in the book) for going into historicity debates, he seems to slip a little bit. But by and large, his goal seems to be to provide a careful reading of the Book of Mormon and, by and large, he succeeds with flying colors.

    Julie, thanks for this review. It’s what spurred me to actually order the book, which was worth every minute I put into it.

  4. chris on August 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Kindle?

  5. chris on August 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    BTW – your intro lead me to Amazon, where I scanned the reviews and saw this observation of Bushman’s:

    ‘Most of them pick up a few fragments and present them as if they were the key elements’

    I’m wondering if the same could be said of this book by Brother Hardy and his treatment of the BoM, not to mention if the various contributors of the record the BoM came from could say that about how not only we, but Mormon approached their writing!

  6. Brad on August 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I really like Grant Hardy and his approach. However, I don’t see him as trying to bridge any gap in this book. Instead he appears to write under the assumption that the Book of Mormon is a translation of Joseph Smith and merely offer a reasoned literary approach to a Mormon audience. There are some times when he does engage in the historicity debate, but he generally tries to steer clear of it.

    A brief note on gap bridging: I honestly don’t see much hope for the gap ever being fully bridged. By taking a literary approach to the BOM such as Grant Hardy, some progress can be made, but those who actually do attempt to bridge the gap, such as Richard Bushman, cannot ignore the historicity question. Bushman, in spite of his efforts, come off as a strong, yet extremely intellectual and well-argued, traditionalist. I like to think that the most realistic attempts at gap-bridging were made by people such as Anthony Hutchinson, Grant Palmer, and David P. Wright. In essence they argued that the BOM and Pearl of Great Price were complete constructions of JS, but still spiritually inspired and inspiring nonetheless. The church for them was a still a laudable organization worth supporting, but misguided in its worldviews on historicity. The church either excommunicated or disfellowshipped them on grounds that their arguments were apostate and spread confusion. Therefore the historicity question still seems very much either-or.

  7. Mark Brown on August 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Thank you, Julie.

  8. Ray on August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    “In essence they argued that the BOM and Pearl of Great Price were complete constructions of JS”

    Just for the sake of discussing the quote above, I’m going to ignore whether or not it’s an accurate representation of the positions of the writers mentioned in #6. With that disclaimer:

    Not really much in the way of bridge-building in that argument – certainly no more than Hardy trying to avoid questions of historicity and focus on just the words themselves.

    One says, “This is historical crap, but it’s a good message.”

    The other says, “Let’s ignore the question of historicity and see what message it actually teaches.”

    Given those two approaches, I see the second as far more of a bridge-building approach, regardless of whether Hardy meant it to be or not.

  9. Jim W on August 16, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found both new insights and better arguments for insights I’d long suspected. His take on Nephi’s narration in particular put in words what I’ve wondered about what Nephi left out, and why, and also his somewhat hardened take on his brothers compared to his father.

    What I also liked is Hardy’s suggestion that looking at the Book of Mormon from many angles will help increase its understanding. Whether it’s the pervasive testimony of Christ, the doctrine, the anthropology, the geography, the literary critique(s) – the more we ponder, the more value the book can have to us.

    I agree Hardy’s book won’t likely be picked up by non-LDS with an axe to grind, though I can see it perhaps being used in or as inspiration for a “Bible as literature” type course by and for avowed secularists.

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    I concur in the praise of Grant Hardy’s accomplishment, and note that in his introduction he credits many of the insights to conversations with his wife during their personal study of the Book of Mormon.

    With regard to the the fact of the intelligent, consistent complexity of the Book of Mormon, and what it means: Clearly, the 24 year old Joseph Smith did not create this massive literary work out of nothing. And there is no credible alternative explanation for its production, as Robert Bennett points out in his own recent book about the credibility of the Book of Mormon. The multiple witnesses to the production of the manuscript don’t leave any room for that. The whole thing was dictated, line by line, with no going back and revising.

    I have never seen anyone propose an explanation for why, supposing a laboriously crafted manuscript had existed, a clean version could not have been copied out by a single person, either Joseph or the hypothetical alternative author, in privacy, and simply presented as complete. If a complete manuscript existed, there was no rational need to go through an elaborate ruse of dictating the text from nowhere to a series of scribes. And the plates were themselves unnecessary to any attempt to promote the book, since the whole thing could have been presented as a purely revelatory experience, as so many other religious books have been. The story of the plates as real objects raised many questions and resolved none, especially in a time when there was no general knowledge even among scholars of the other examples of writings preserved on metal. If the manuscript had been produced by Joseph as a pure revelation, all of the opportunity for criticism and demands for production of the plates would have been eliminated. The narrative about the plates and their preservation and transmission to Smith only impress people who have accepted the Book of Mormon as scripture. It is a stumbling block that makes it harder for people in general to consider them.

    Then there is the entire matter of the length and complexity of the Book of Mormon. A book that was only 100 pages long would have been more affordable and easier to distribute. No one had any expectations that a narrative about Christian prophets among ancient Americans had to be of such length. It could have been presented simply as a memoir by Mormon, summarizing the background of his people and the highlights of their experience. The war chapters don’t give the story any traction with most people as a religious record, and the quotation of Isaiah verbatim is just an obstacle for most readers. The entire Jaredite narrative could be omitted. Why make something this long, with so many characters and purported authors? Most of the effort put into composing the narrative structure was not even appreciated for the first 150 years of its existence.

    If the author’s purpose was to create a tool for gathering a following and creating a church, the effort was a huge overkill. If the purpose was to execute an artistic vision, the claims about its origin largely prevented many people from reading (and therefore buying) it. A shorter volume that simply presented excerpts of the current volume, such as Nephi’s vision of the tree of life, and various sermons such as those of King Benjamin and Alma, could have been presented as a visionary commentary on the Bible, and the focus would have been more on the message rather than the unnecessary story behind it.

    In Joseph Smith’s day, plenty of people made themselves into successful and prosperous preachers, even ones claiming to receive visions, without collecting the opprobrium that was provoked by the claims for the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon as it was actually published was not necessary to set up Joseph in a career as a minister. The actual history of the Book of Mormon appears to have been as a barrier to investigators as much as it convinced others. And it definitely created enmity among all the existing ministers of religion for its affront to the Bible’s unique claim to scriptural status for Christians. It was not even used extensively in preaching within the Church, compared to the Bible.

    So, if we don’t assume the veracity of the Book of Mormon, the great mystery is, why make something so elaborate and long when it was not all that helpful in advancing Joseph’s religious popularity, and what value it had in that respect could have been supplied by a volume a fifth as long and much easier to sell? If it was a work of fraud, why work so hard at it that it works against your alleged objective of self-aggrandizement? And why throw in all of the Isaiah text, which (as a study published by FARMS showed) was not a strong focus of American religion in that era?

    There are other reasons that the theory of the Book of Mormon as an instrument of fraud makes no sense (including its beautiful teachings about, and by, Christ), but the intelligent complexity that Professor Hardy demonstrates shows that its alleged fraudulent author applied a lot of intelligence to its production (more than was ever appreciated by his contemporaries), yet apparently applied little intelligence to crafting the book so it would serve such a fraudulent purpose more successfuly.

    Instead, we have a book that rewards effort, and to a great extent works on our minds without our being conscious of its craft. Moroni’s extensive uncredited quotations and paraphrases of earlier parts of the narrative prepare us to meet his challenge to remember the mercies of God to mankind as we prepare to ask God if this narrative is true. Just reading the book requires a sacrifice of time and attention that plants the Word in our hearts and gives us an opportunity to see it germinate and begin to grow.

  11. Andrew S. on August 16, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Is it a coincidence that two great posts referring to this post go up in such quick succession (see: Hawkgrrrl’s post on journal writing)?

    Anyway, these two posts have convinced me to get this (more books for the Kindle…)

    Stephen’s comment intrigued me though. Obviously, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it all, but it seems to me that the literary complexity of the Book of Mormon need not necessarily point to greater historicity, but to oft-unnoticed brilliance of Joseph Smith. So one can still, as Ray says, “ignore the question of historicity and see what message it actually teaches.”

  12. JWL on August 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    My own view is that the whole gold plates and the angel provenance of the BoM deliberately serves a critical spiritual purpose. Unlike with the Bible, it leaves no middle ground despite the efforts of Mormon revisonists to create one. I can not see how anyone will ever be convinced by purely scholarly arguments of the BoM’s divinity. The gap is just too great. The best they can do is goad someone on the quest for a spiritual witness.

    The greater value of works like Hardy’s is to enhance our appreciation of and learning from this ancient work. We who accept its divine provenance have barely begun to probe its riches. The BoM deserves study as profound as that which has been accorded to the Bible. And as Hardy shows, many scholarly tools can be used to better understand the BoM. Another example of scholarly insight I am looking forward to is the study showing how beautifully the BoM illustrates the documentary hypothesis.

  13. J. Stapley on August 16, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Great review, Julie. I appreciate it.

  14. Bob on August 16, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    @Andrew S: How does the BoM show the “oft-unnoticed brilliance of Joseph Smith”? What was his brilliance if he did not write the book himself? The story is always he was “unlearned”__not brilliant.

  15. Andrew S. on August 16, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    re 14

    Bob,

    If he did not write the book himself, then that lends credence to the historicity of the book.

    But if you don’t buy historicity, then the literary complexity of the BoM raises insight that Joseph Smith was quite a bit more brilliant — BECAUSE we normally think of him as unlearned — than we thought.

    I’m not addressing other hypotheses that others may have been involved. I’m not addressing hypotheses that he might have been more educated than we think.

  16. Al on August 16, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    I enjoyed the review. I have had the book for a while now and I think that it is brilliant. Raymond (10) very interesting observations.

  17. James Olsen on August 16, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Julie: What strategy do you advise, given the dim view of our potential to bridge the gap? Your review makes it sound like the Bushmans and Hardys best option might be to simply wait and hope that in another generation our academic environment will have changed, and the possibility of gap-bridging will have arisen. Is that right? Is there anything else that a basically faithful or positive scholar can do to make our history and scripture more appealing/worthwhile to others? Or is it a lost cause overall?

    Stephen: I think you’d enjoy Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon if you’ve not already read it. It takes up these questions and the various answers that have been given.

    JWL: Why does God demand an either/or with regard to the BofM/Restoration? We don’t believe in other either/or choices (e.g., saved vs. not saved; heaven vs. hell; consciously inspired by the spirit vs. not inspired by the spirit; fully authorized revelation vs. apostasy), so why claim either/or with regard to our scripture? Do you think God disapproves, for example, of agnostic scholars of the Bible and all of the insight they bring? Why would he try to set things up so that middle ground couldn’t be taken with the BofM?

  18. Julie M. Smith on August 16, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    “What strategy do you advise, given the dim view of our potential to bridge the gap?”

    More Stephen Colbert and less defensiveness, isolation, persecution complex, and transparent missionary zeal in inappropriate settings? -Not- that Bushman or Hardy is guilty of any of those things–just that a lot of the rest of us are.

    “Is there anything else that a basically faithful or positive scholar can do to make our history and scripture more appealing/worthwhile to others?”

    Yes: we need to learn how to behave appropriately in the academic study of Mormonism before we can expect others to join us.

    I’m thinking of Douglas Davies at the Library of Congress conference on the Joseph Smith bicentennial–where he asked if he was at an academic conference or an evangelistic one based on the kinds of arguments that he heard. Link to summary here:

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/145-62-64.pdf

    And while I don’t think that Hardy has done anything in this book even remotely akin to what happened (or, I should say, what I have heard happened) at the JS conference, his approach does put non-LDS scholars in a similarly uncomfortable position, despite his intentions. We need to figure out how to avoid that if we want non LDS scholars to participate.

    One opening that occurs to me is to invite openly motivated readings of the Book of Mormon. I can find you a Japanese feminist or a Marxist or a womanist or a liberation reading of the Gospel of Mark by people who do not engage the truth claims of the text but rather use their location to mine the text for fresh insights. And while I’m not Japanese or a Marxist, etc., and I *do* believe in the truth claims of the Gospel of Mark, I have learned a lot from these approaches.

  19. James Olsen on August 17, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Thank you Julie, I really appreciate the response. I think the idea of inviting “openly motivated readings” of the Book of Mormon is a brilliant one. The closest thing I can think of so far is how actively courted Margaret Barker was – which undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the way that her reading of the BofM could be exploited in the historicity debate, or at least used internally within Mormonism. Can you think of any other examples?

    That said, invited persons won’t (or won’t be as affective if they) start from scratch. Hardy’s Reader’s Edition and Reader’s Guide have the potential of being very helpful on this end.

  20. danithew on August 17, 2011 at 8:07 am

    As usual a helpful review from Julie.

    I would only add that this book provides the best study framework and Book of Mormon commentary that I’ve read up to this point.

  21. JWL on August 17, 2011 at 9:24 am

    James Olsen –

    Our ignorance about the origins of the Bible opens the possibility of rather freely picking and choosing what in the scripture one accepts and does not accept (assuming that one is according some religous authority to it). Teachings we like were somehow inspired by the divine whereas teachings we do not like are interpositions of ancient social mores, tribal legends, etc.

    This is the kind of middle ground I was referring to, which is considerably constrained in the case of the BoM. If you accept Joseph’s story of angels and gold plates, you have to look at the work very diferently than if you think Joseph was a fraud, even a pious, well-meaning and talented one. If we want non-believing scholars to examine the BoM text seriously and share their insights with us, I am suggesting that we will need to create an “agree to disagree” understanding where they are not constantly forced to justify why they find the BoM to be interesting and worthy of study but still won’t accept that the text was translated from gold plates through magic spectacles in a hat.

  22. James Olsen on August 17, 2011 at 9:56 am

    JWL: Agreed. I mistook you for condemning the whole project of making the BofM accessible to non-believers in a non-evangelistic manner.