An Unsettling Book: Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon

August 18, 2011 | 11 comments
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Understanding BofM iiThis is the fourth in a series of reviews of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (OUP, 2010) that we are posting this week at Times and Seasons. It says something about the book that there is still a lot to talk about.

Understanding is the latest in a string of books that LDS scholars have authored over the last decade that attempt to make the case, directly or indirectly, that the Book of Mormon as a book of scripture deserves (and can sustain) a serious reading by a general or scholarly audience. Previous efforts include Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon (OUP, 2002) and The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2009), as well as discussion of the Book of Mormon in Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

Non-LDS readers, whether the average reader or the scholar, certainly need some convincing that the Book of Mormon is worth reading. As Bushman notes, the Book of Mormon “has been difficult for historians and literary critics from outside Mormondom to comprehend. A text that inspires and engages Mormons baffles outside readers” (p. 84). Of these books, Understanding presents what is probably the most direct and detailed discussion of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Book of Mormon as a narrative. As such, it is likely to be rather unsettling to both non-LDS readers (who are unprepared to acknowledge the sophisticated narrative techniques uncovered by Hardy) and LDS readers (who may be uncomfortable with the candid discussion of the book’s various shortcomings, such as the anachronisms noted at several points in the book). It is certainly a book that should be read by both audiences: Hardy’s discussion will reduce the bafflement that non-LDS readers encounter when reading the Book of Mormon and also give LDS readers a new appreciation of the structure and complexity of the text. But there is a price to be paid for writing a book that simultaneously addresses two distinct audiences with widely differing perspectives. Understanding is not a book that will make most people happy.

Rather than continue with generalities, I want to discuss three specific topics (out of many) in the book: embedded documents, intrusive narrators, and the status of history-like narrative.

Embedded Documents

Hardy devotes all of Chapter 5 (p. 121-51) to embedded documents included in the Book of Mormon narrative. He focuses on documents inserted by the narrator Mormon, noting a memoir by Zeniff, an edict of King Mosiah, a revelation to Alma, and six letters, as well as sixteen sermons which may or may not be transcribed documents (p. 122). I found Hardy’s extended discussion of Zeniff and his first-person memoir at Mosiah 9-10 particularly interesting. In a book whose actors are generally either very good guys or very bad guys, Zeniff is a decidedly neutral guy (p. 125, my phrasing; Hardy refers to Zeniff’s “morally indeterminate status”). Hardy goes on to discuss additional embedded documents: King Benjamin’s discourse in Mosiah, Alma’s sermons delivered to Zarahemla, Gideon, and Ammonihah in the early chapters of Alma, and letters penned by Helaman or Captain Moroni in the later chapters of Alma. He observes that “embedded documents add variety and verisimilitude to Mormon’s abridgement” (p. 144). Embedded documents also support Mormon’s argument for “the rationality of faith by citing successful fulfillment of prophecy,” which is obviously more persuasive if the document containing the original prophecy is provided (p. 144). Hardy concludes that “the documents that Mormon inserts into his history can offer significant clues as to his intentions and sensibilities” (p. 151).

Of course, other Book of Mormon narrators embed documents as well, in particular Nephi’s inclusion of several chapters of Isaiah. Interestingly, the Doctrine and Covenants also includes embedded documents. Section 7, dated April 1829, is perhaps the best example, its eight verses being a first-person narrative which the heading, citing the History of the Church, identifies as “a translated version of the record made on parchment by John [the Apostle] and hidden up by himself.” Similarly, D&C 93:7-17 is a first-person report of John the Baptist, identified in accompanying verses as “the record of John” (D&C 93:18). Of course, most sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are delivered in the first-person voice of God himself (variously identified as God, the Lord, Jesus Christ, or by various titles familiar to readers).

The Pearl of Great Price offers examples as well: Moses 1 (offering two verses of anonymous narrative, followed by first-person discourses by God and Moses with additional interspersed narrative), Moses 2 (where the third-person narrative of Genesis 1 is transformed into a first-person discourse by God), and Moses 6 and 7 (offering first-person exchanges between God and Enoch, interspersed with unattributed narrative). I am sure other examples can be found in these and other revelations delivered through Joseph Smith — I found the examples in the last two paragraphs just off the top of my head. In any case, my impression is that the use of embedded documents and other first-person accounts is not necessarily a practice of the narrator Mormon or even of the three major Book of Mormon narrators (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni), but appears to be a feature how Joseph Smith gave form to his revelations, whether in the Book of Mormon or in other accounts.

Intrusive Narrators

In the overview presented in the first chapter, Hardy contrasts biblical narrators, who are “anonymous, onmiscient, reticent, and unobtrusive,” with Book of Mormon narrators, who are anything but unobstrusive (p. 15). As Hardy notes, Book of Mormon narrators reveal their identities, address readers directly, explain their editorial choices, offer explicit judgments, and apologize for their supposed poor writing skills. I want to focus on narrator self-identification, specifically the iconic apositive form encountered in the very first verse: “I, Nephi.”

Other Book of Mormon narrators and speakers identify themselves using the same form: “I, Mormon” (Words of Mormon 1), “I, Moroni” (Mormon 8:1), as well as “I, Jacob” (2 Ne. 6:2) or “me, Jacob” (Jacob 1:1), “I, Enos” (Enos 1), “I, Jarom” (Jarom 1), “I, Omni” and similar introductions by Amaron, Chemish, Abinadom, and Amaleki (Omni 1, 4, 9, 10, 12), “I, Zeniff” (Mosiah 9:1), and so forth. This apositive form of identification is likewise seen in the same sources noted in the prior section and in other places: “I, John” (D&C 93:12), “I, God” (D&C 19:16 and throughout Moses 2), and “I, Abraham” (Abraham 1:1). Again, it appears to me that the presence of self-identifying (if not always intrusive) narrators is characteristic of Joseph Smith’s other revealed writings, not just Book of Mormon narrators.

History-like Narrative

I wish Hardy had provided a longer discussion of the possibilities and pitfalls of history-like narrative, the sort of realistic narrative that has the form of historical narrative but is not necessarily making historical claims. In the overview provided in the first chapter, he outlined his approach of bracketing the historicity question which has dominated prior discussion of the Book of Mormon and focusing instead on the text itself: “I am not, however, making a claim about a historical Nephi; I am trying to make sense of a text” (p. 26). And: “I treat the Book of Mormon as a ‘history-like’ narrative (a term that can encompass both historical fictions and authentic histories) …” (p. 26).

The discussion of history-like narrative begins with the theologian Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale Univ. Press, 1974), which Hardy briefly discusses in the Introduction and elsewhere (p. xvi, 153). Frei offered a penetrating critique of how the Bible was read and interpreted by precritical readers of the 16th and 17th centuries and by critical moderns in later centuries. Historical criticism flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries as scholars distinguished between the biblical text and the events referred to in biblical texts, using growing knowledge of ancient history from non-biblical sources to critique the texts. Frei successfully argued that historical criticism unnecessarily limited interpretation of the biblical text to its purported historical references, thus opening up logical space for the application of narratology, the study of the form of narrative rather than its references, to the Bible. This is exactly what Hardy is doing in Understanding, bracketing the question of what to make of the text’s historical references and focusing instead on the form and sophistication of the text itself.

But there is certainly more in Frei and the discussion he inaugurated that applies to the Book of Mormon as history-like narrative than Hardy provides. Obviously, it would be a mistake to suggest that by critiquing the assumptions of historical criticism and its tendency to limit the interpretation of texts to the text’s historical reference Frei was suggesting a return to precritical approaches — Frei critiqued both precritical and historical-critical approaches. Precritical readers simply took the literal reading of the text as fully establishing the historical events referred to, then used figural and typological readings of disparate sections of text to establish (a wide variety of) larger points of interpretation and meaning. That is not what Hardy is doing in bracketing the historical questions raised by the Book of Mormon text.

However, Frei’s discussion does raise uncomfortable points for how LDS readers generally approach the Book of Mormon, which often resembles precritical methods. In particular, lacking any agreed or established external evidences of the real-world setting of Book of Mormon narratives, the only source for discussion Nephite history, culture, religion, etc., is the text of the Book of Mormon. This predisposes LDS discussion to simply take the Book of Mormon text as fully establishing Nephite historical events, as did precritical readers for biblical events. In contrast, this is not how LDS discussion of biblical text in relation to historical events proceeds (LDS scholars frequently avail themselves of critical tools and the scholarly literature when weighing biblical texts against the events described in those texts). This would suggest there is something lacking in the way LDS readers generally approach the Book of Mormon. I will readily admit that others could extend this discussion more productively than I, but it is clear there is more to be said about how Frei’s discussion can be applied to the Book of Mormon and to Hardy’s approach.

A final point about Frei is that while his criticisms are definitively held to be insightful and productive, his prescription for how to go beyond the limitations of historical criticism and properly elicit meaning and interpretation from history-like or realistic narrative is rather unclear, at least in Eclipse. So when Hardy states that Frei “argued that narratives can be understood by their own logic and on their own terms rather than by constant reference to external standards of truth” (p. 153), that should be the opening statement to a longer discussion of what Hardy understands as Frei’s method for establishing such an understanding or meaning, or for Hardy to set forth his own method for establishing such an understanding or meaning. However, the book does not suffer for the missing discussion, which will hopefully appear in subsequent publications. [For a longer and more insightful discussion of Frei's book than I can provide, see James E. Faulconer's "A New Way of Looking at Scripture," Sunstone, August 1995, p. 78-84, which is his review of Walter Brueggemann's Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Fortress Press, 1993). For a discussion of how Frei never really got around to explaining his ideas of how to go about understanding or interpreting realistic narrative, see the review of The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative by Leander E. Keck in Theology Today, January 1975, Vol. 31, No. 4, p. 367-70.]

A few positive points in conclusion. Both LDS and non-LDS readers would plainly benefit from reading Understanding, although I caution against putting a copy under the tree for every LDS relative on your Christmas list as the book’s candid discussion of certain textual problems with the Book of Mormon is a bit much for the uninitiated. Importantly, the book moves what might be termed the New Mormon Studies productively forward in new directions and is likely to generate similarly interesting responses in coming years. Hardy has done us all a service in writing this fine book.

11 Responses to An Unsettling Book: Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon

  1. Boldly, Nobly, and Independent on August 18, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for the review, Dave. I don’t really have much to add, but I sure want to read the book now. :)

  2. James Olsen on August 19, 2011 at 6:59 am

    Great review Dave – as you said, there’s a lot more we might productively discuss. I very much appreciate your note of caution – a counterbalance to our earlier grandstanding. As you note, both the text and the implications of the text include a number of things to make latter-day saints pause. I wonder about your final cautiion though. What would happen if everyone did findnd copies under their Christmas tree? (Well, for one, I suspect Grant and Heather would have a very nice Christmas themselves!) I imagine that most of them would go unread. Those who would read their copies are likely to be those predisposed to more intellectual investigations of their religion. Of this group, those faithful saints with such predispositions who are nonetheless uninitiated into intellectual approaches are not likely to see the same unsettling aspects that you do – or at least, won’t see them as prominently. They will, however, likely pick up on the excitement and enjoyment to be had in taking the text of their scripture more seriously. Most saints who are already initiated into intellectual exploration are not likely to find much that’s unsettling beyond what they’ve already discovered (though there may be some for whom this exacerbates doubts/struggles). Something else I suspect that would happen is that members of the church would become more aware of and conversant concerning the complexities of their text – including some of its difficulties – and (repeating my mantra here) more capable of discussing the book with persons interested in the BofM but not interested in the missionaries.

  3. Landes on August 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Grant Hardy speaks to some length about the process of writing this book, as well as many of the issues described here, in this interview: http://mormonstories.org/?p=1547

  4. rey on September 3, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    This “I” whoever stuff is particularly problematic, because the book of mormon doesn’t just make Nephi say “I, Nephi” at the beginning of Nephi’s book, but the guy continues to say it like every 3 verses. Its an obvious attempt by the forger (Smith) to convince us that the book was really written by Nephi, by constantly saying “I, Nephi.” Joseph Smith was obviously thinking “If I say ‘I, Nephi’ a billion times, then people will believe Nephi really wrote this.” Yet, it has the opposite effect. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a nervous forger was the author.

  5. rey on September 3, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Much like “I Paul” and “in my own hand, large letters, as in all my epistles” whereas we find no reference of such in the others. When the author goes out of his way to prove he really is who he says he is, he is undoubtedly a forger, as with swearing oaths “behold before God I lie not” means “I’m lying.”

  6. Dave on September 4, 2011 at 7:38 am

    rey, thank you for the comments. What seems obvious to you about Pauline authorship for some reason seems like a matter of continuing discussion and disagreement by scholars. In particular, your allusion to Galations 6:11 (NIV: “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”) comes from a letter that scholars almost universally agree is authentically Pauline. Perhaps you are a bit overconfident in your opinions.

    Likewise with your view of Book of Mormon authorship. It is easy to suggest Joseph Smith was the author of the book as opposed to several ancient authors — critics have been saying this for almost two centuries now. It is harder to explain how, if Joseph were the actual author, the sort of complex literary features discussed by Hardy in the book (I’ll assume you have read it) appear in the text.

  7. rey on September 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Why should any complex literary feature be thought beyond the power of an educated English speaker? If Hardy could find them, Smith could write them. Our language is the most evolved that ever did exist. Complex literary features are in fact, more likely to originate in English than in an ancient text. The ancient languages being as simple as they were, having such a rigid syntax and such paucity of expression, the occurrence of such complex literary features itself betrays and English speaking author. As to why I can settle a question that scholars continue to debate for all eternity: they make their living off of keeping the questions alive. If they definitively closed the discussion, their cash-flow would dry up.

  8. Dave on September 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    rey, I left your first comment up but depublished your next four comments. Maybe you are new to blogging, but serial commenting is not generally welcomed. If you want to vent about Joseph Smith, get your own blog and have at it. Comments here are for discussion about the post, not as a platform for publishing the book you are dying to write.

  9. Th. on September 19, 2011 at 10:57 am

    .

    For what it’s worth, I loved the book.

  10. Carey on October 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Rey, can you cite any scientific support regarding your claim about the English language being the most evolved that ever did exist? That’s a pretty big claim to make and the last few books I read on evolution showed how that sort of idea has been shown to be flat out wrong.

  11. rey on October 17, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Carey, you obviously don’t know any foreign languages.