Bootstrapping a Book of Mormon Readership

August 17, 2011 | 14 comments
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Understanding BofM ii

Compare this classic statement of Richard Bushman, meant to encapsulate his own efforts as part of the New Mormon History movement:

As more and more historians work to situate Mormonism in American history, Mormons like me want to join the discussion. We will write better if we are less defensive, more open to criticism, more exploratory and venturous, but even with our inhibitions and parochialisms, we should come to the table with our Mormonism intact.[1]

with this statement from Grant Hardy:

As the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints becomes a world religion, the need for our traditional siege-mentality diminishes. When we speak with others about our beliefs, we can be con fident that we have something to add to the diversity of human re ligious life—without necessarily having to be in full missionary mode—and we can take seriously differing points of view without feeling that we are somehow giving ground to the enemy. . . .We are at a point where bridges to the wider world will only make us more visible and attractive. And to those with faith in the ultimate destiny of our religion, reaching out to a wider community is not threatening. Our scriptures, our traditions, our doctrines, and the inspiration of our leaders are impressive and secure. We have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from stepping across the room and striking up a new conversation.[2]

Hardy’s book Understanding the Book of Mormon is an attempt to practice what he formerly preached – that is, adopt the spirit of the New Mormon History more generally in the way we converse with others about our religion and specifically in our analysis of the text of our most cherished scripture. For me, the most exciting aspect of the book is simply its approach to the text, and the impact of this approach is what I will focus on.[3] In addition, however, I want to say that it is an utterly delightful treasure trove of literary insight from close reading that will undoubtedly serve readers of all stripes – though whether the book is capable of inspiring new Book of Mormon readers (which is something the book must do if it is ultimately to be successful) is very much still to be seen.

As noted in previous T&S reviews, Hardy’s “goal is not to move readers from one side to the other” of the historicity debate, but rather to bracket that debate and instead “provide a way in which they can speak across religious boundaries and discuss a remarkable text with some degree of rigor and insight (27).” As also noted in earlier reviews, this bracketing is something with inherent difficulties. A growing consensus seems to be that 1) the book is wonderful for those on the “inside” of Mormonism; but 2) it fails in its attempt to deliver universally-interesting-textual-insights to an “external” audience. In other words, the strategy of historicity bracketing fails.

There’s a great irony here. Within our hyperpolarized environment (hyper because of the high stakes involved – rational credibility or sanity and eternal salvation), it is precisely Hardy’s bracketing the historicity debate that’s bound to get the attention. At least for now, I think that Hardy’s book – a book dedicated to getting folks who are distracted from the actual text of the Book of Mormon (focused instead on the external aspect of historicity) – is a book whose own text is destined to be largely ignored or at least play second fiddle, while folks are distracted by a much more sexy but analogously external aspect: its bracketing of historicity (and whether or not it works). That is, Hardy’s bracketing of the historicity of the Book of Mormon in order to focus on the text of the Book of Mormon ends up distracting his readership from that text. Ultimately, I’m optimistic that folks of all stripes will read and appreciate Hardy’s own text (and likewise that of the Book of Mormon), but even in my own review I can’t resist focusing on this very conspicuous side feature.

The promise of Hardy’s approach is, as stated, that two wholly separate interpretative communities will be able to overlap and collaborate in fruitfully exploring a text whose normative status is dramatically different within the two communities. I think Hardy’s biggest challenge is not getting the two isolated interpretive communities together. That is, unlike some of my colleagues here, I don’t think Hardy fails to deliver a universal message (or a message would be interesting to non-believers who are interested in the Book of Mormon) – though I’ll acknowledge this is just my own (biased) judgment. Rather, I think his challenge is in actually creating a second, “external”[4] interpretive community out of those persons who for various reasons are or would be willing to dedicate their time to thinking and talking about the Book of Mormon (to date, a very small group indeed). Hardy admits that the Book of Mormon “will always be a difficult book for outsiders,” it’s language and tone “off-putting (152);” but even this claim assumes an already existent non-Mormon readership – persons who are put-off. Throughout the book, as Hardy sounds his mantra (that “an essential perspective is lost (153)” when readers are blinded by their ideological commitments with regard to a text), the question he ignores is – where is the “external” interpretive community? One can certainly imagine this book helping interested persons whose reading is ideologically overwhelmed or who have a dim view of the Book of Mormon, to read and appreciate the text. It also seems to me that it would be very helpful to anyone wanting a fruitful engagement with believing Mormons about their scripture. Yes, Hardy’s admiration for the Book of Mormon shines through, and several of his stylistic features are bound to be irritating to non-believers – like the way he’ll talk frankly about the intentions of Alma or Mormon, and then slip an “(or Joseph Smith)” in parentheses. But his bias is certainly no more prominent or egregious than is common in scholarship written by authors of all faiths (if it were, I doubt Oxford would have published it). The problem is not Hardy’s bias or even his bias + a hyperpolarized audience. The problem is the existence of Hardy’s assumed “external” interpretive community.[5]

So let’s say I’m right – that the problem isn’t bias or atmosphere, but simply no “external” community to bring into dialogue with believers on universally relevant points. Nonetheless, I don’t think he’s being problematically anachronistic in his project. Rather, I think it’s simply the case that Hardy’s book is (hopefully) doing something other than what he explicitly envisions. That is, the main function of this book (if it’s successful) will be to bootstrap a new, “external” Book of Mormon readership. This will happen in two ways. First, as noted, is the explicit attempt to deliver a more universally palatable discussion of the Book of Mormon’s content. In this chicken-egg scenario, Hardy’s taken the initiative to deliver something that would be of interest to his assumed audience. That’s important. Second, and just as important if not more so, is the impact that this book will have on Mormons and how they approach both their scripture and their neighbors. Mormons have to be both prepared and competent to talk intelligently to non-Mormons; and a book like this (which perhaps sugar coats the message for believers by showing them so many new and exciting insights) will undoubtedly do just that.

Analogously: I don’t wish to downplay the contributions of, for example, Jan Shipps and the tiny minority of other non-Mormon scholars of Mormon history in the second half the twentieth century; they were and are critical; but the reality is that the New Mormon History done by Mormons did and is doing more to facilitate honest, scholarly treatments of our sacred history than anything else. It has made Mormon history more universally interesting and placed it on a playing field with bleachers set up for spectators of all kind. What’s more, it helped show the Church how to go about doing something like the Joseph Smith Papers Project. I don’t mean to overstate the case – we’ve still got some distance to go and our “external” interlocutors are still a small bunch – but the New Mormon History effected a pivotal shift both inside and outside of Mormonism. I see Hardy’s efforts as potentially operating in the same vein. This book, and the other books it inspires, will facilitate the external community it assumes. Or (a more humble claim) at the least, it’s another critical step for us, just as FARMS and books like Dillworth Rust’s were clear, though inadequate, strides forward. It’s conscious of the problem and consciously working to overcome it.

Toward this end, Hardy often makes aspects of the Book-of-Mormon-as-literature approach appealing by drawing parallels with other works of fiction. He discusses the fruitful and rewarding ways in which interpretive communities, with an appropriate level of seriousness take up, analyze, interpolate, and fill in gaps in fiction in order to appreciate and gain from both the message and texture of the texts. We ask and try to answer difficult questions concerning Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, and Huck Finn. The analogy is something of a difficult sell, however – great fiction has going for it the fact that it’s great fiction with an already avid readership. These sorts of literary ventures are not merely enriching for fans of the stories, however, but serve one of the significant purposes of all good literature: human and cultural exploration as well as contemporary enlightenment. And when done well, these efforts work to constitute an audience that goes beyond mere fans.

I think an even better example of this than the literary ones to which Hardy draws comparison is philosopher Robert Pippin’s analysis of western genre films. His book Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy[6] is a paradigmatic example of an incredibly close viewing and brilliant analysis of rich fictional characters. The book was pure delight for me – I grew up on and still love a good western. Pippin’s analysis, however, is extended toward and made relevant even for those who aren’t fans of westerns. Triangulating his analysis of the Book of Mormon with similar examples is an important part of making the venture plausible and thus working to create the external community.

Perhaps the most promising and original aspect of Hardy’s reading is the way that it discloses the Book of Mormon’s three main editors: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. I don’t know anyone – religious or not – who has failed to appreciate a close reading of the Gospels – one that highlights the differences in style, perspective, message, audience, theology, and Christology of their four authors. Academia’s approach to the Gospels and the way New Testament studies discloses its different authors as human subjects, culturally embedded, can be a lightyear leap in spiritual and intellectual fecundity, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning Christ. Hardy’s reading of the three narrators of the Book of Mormon does the same. Or at least, it can. Certainly for believers. But once again, he’ll first need a community of non-believers seriously interested in the Book of Mormon and their accompany insights to fully pull it off. [Editor's note: see Rosalynde's post for a provocative criticism (and perhaps refutation!) of this very claim.]

All of this, in my mind, casts a bit of doubt on how tightly we can bracket historicity. Not because I think it misguided or doomed to failure, and certainly not because I’m in favor of our intractable debates that keep us from closely examining the text (or the “essential perspective” Hardy refers to) and keeps us from real dialogue with “external” interlocutors. Rather, I’m hesitant here because I think that the phenomenon of Mormonism has history and historicity as constitutive features. On the one hand, I don’t think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would cease to exist or even flourish or help others to flourish if, for example, the Brethren proclaimed the Book of Mormon to be divine fiction and Joseph’s visions as spiritual and not literal. But the historical literalism and concreteness of Mormonism – which shows up in everything from embodied, handshaking angels to heft-able gold plates to geographic coordinates for the Garden of Eden – is something that makes our religious and existential experience what it is.

If Hardy’s successful in creating a partnering, “external” community of Book of Mormon readers, they will benefit from the partnership in the same way those outside Judaism, Christianity or Islam benefit from either reading the Bible as literature or otherwise coming to understand the depth and power of Biblical texts, or through better understanding the richness this book has for believers. It will come in the way powerfully written literature shapes our lives. Many in today’s world – including believers – have a hard time distinguishing this sort of benefit from the benefit gained when a community grants scriptural status to and faithfully reads a work. Significantly, for Mormons, scripture is history. And according to Hardy, for Mormon, the prophet-editor, history shows itself as scripture. Believers will benefit from Hardy’s analysis as it helps improve their reading of beloved scripture, but also, perhaps necessarily, in the way that his revealing of a rich and complicated text facilitates their belief in its historicity. Belief in historicity impacts, inevitably and potently, one’s present religious experience. Thus, any bracketing is a limited bracketing – it’s a way of turning down the volume of historicity in order to highlight certain other, more universal features of the text. But the volume will of course be turned right back up by the reader. It’s hard to imagine this sort of analysis not being fully exploited by both sides of the historicity debate. Perhaps Hardy’s historicity bracketing will be successful, however, if there are two different interpretive communities turning the volume up when they read him – not just one. And who knows, maybe it will one day contribute to making the debate merely background noise.

This raises one final issue I want to address. One thing that a close and detailed reading of the Book of Mormon a la Grant Hardy reveals is a group of struggling, imperfect, mortal prophets (much like those revealed by the close and detailed readings of our own history by the New Mormon Historians). It’s one thing to read Nephi’s Psalm as a pious confession of his weakness and need for God’s strength – common devotional readings of this confession actually elevate Nephi’s righteous status, highlighting the godly humility of this near-perfect human. It’s a wholly different thing to have literarily compelling evidence that Nephi attempts to cover up the historical seriousness of the murder he committed, and the way he shamefully exploits his mother in order to do so.  Herein lies the delicious idiosyncrasy of Mormonism. We believe in struggling, sometimes weak, and wholly imperfect, prophets. And it doesn’t just stop there. The same can be said of our view with respect to our institutions (even “the Kingdom of God on the Earth”), the historical trajectory of our dispensations, and even our scripture (it’s not just Hardy bringing this out – we have the confessions of the Book of Mormon prophets themselves on the matter!). And yet, perhaps dissonantly, but sincerely and passionately, we believe them to be literally prophets, leading divinely established and guided dispensations with authoritatively sanctioned institutions, and writing revered scripture. Mormonism gives us this fusion of the mortal and divine – and Hardy helps us to see it more clearly in the Book of Mormon.


[1] “What’s New in Mormon History: A Response to Jan Shipps,” Journal of American History Vol. 94, No.2 (September 2007), available at http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/94.2/bushman.html.

[2] “Speaking So That All May Be Edified,” in FARMS Review of Books, Volume 12 Issue 2 (2000), available at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=12&num=2&id=356.

[3] Let me footnote, however, the irony of what I’m doing here: namely, taking a book dedicated to giving an extremely close and dense reading of what it purports to be a rich and complex text (i.e., the Book of Mormon), and in the wake of my extremely cursory reading of Hardy’s book, I’ll give a superficial paraphrasing and discuss a small fraction of what’s inside that book.

[4] The scare quotes are meant to indicate that one need not be officially external in order to be a part of this group – one just needs to not believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Active Latter-day Saints might be part of what I’m calling the “external” interpretive community.

[5] Again, I don’t mean that no one who denies the historicity of the text is reading it – that’s certainly false. Instead, there seems to be a small fraction of isolated individuals – former believers, anti-Mormons, the occasional scholar – who are perhaps familiar with the text or use it to some degree. Those who make significant use of the text are doing so in the service of the historicity (or other ideological) debates – I think it inaccurate to claim that they’re interested in improving our grasp of the text itself.

[6] Yale University Press (2010).

14 Responses to Bootstrapping a Book of Mormon Readership

  1. dallske on August 17, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    This is the second blog post providing a review of grant hardy’s book I have read this week. From these two posts I have been able to rationalize the purchase of his book and look forward to its arrival. I myself am leaning to the option that the BoM was translated similarly to the BoA in that Joseph, while being inspired, didn’t actually take what was on the plates and put it into english. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t historic, I’ll admit that. This is merely my primary reason for putting the history matter out of my mind for now and going full focus on literary criticism. I feel it is much more worthy of my time. Thanks for the review.

  2. John C. on August 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    I’m really enjoying this series of reviews. Thank you, T&S. James, how do you see the development of Mormon Studies programs in the west in light of your concern with developing an external interpretive community. If nothing else, Hardy’s book will provide a good textbook for those programs and for folks investigating American religious history, no?

  3. James Olsen on August 17, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    dallske: I hope you find your investment worth it! If Hardy did his job well, then it ought to be the case that all of us learn how to approach the text from multiple different angles (or be inspired to do so) – without it (at least decisively) impacting our view of historicity.

    John C.: I’ll confess my relative ignorance about these programs. But as I understand it, we have three universities that in the last couple of years have begun sponsoring Mormon studies, and maybe a few more willing to offer a course here or there. Aside from the fact that enrollees tend to be predominately Mormon, these numbers remind me of Sam’s recent post on 14.1 Million (whether we have 4 or 14 million Mormons, we’re still overwhelmingly insignificant). This is the chicken-egg scenario I mentioned. Something that would be of tremendous service to the programs that do exist, and help the notion of a religion class on the BofM to sound more plausible, will be reasonable texts published by well reputed academic presses. So yes, hopefully Hardy’s book (or subsequently inspired/developed ones) will provide a good textbook – which will undoubtedly make the general atmosphere more conducive to more such classes. Likewise, hopefully it will help create more Mormons able to responsibly teach or enroll in such classes. My point is that at this point those who might potentially make up an external community are a tiny minority, and even more important, there’s no generally agreed upon approach or strategy for how such persons can fruitfully engage or better understand the “internal” community (and as we all know, telling them “Well, just ignore all the crazy stuff in our writing and just focus on the sane parts” doesn’t work).

  4. Hunter on August 18, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Interesting review. Thanks. (That last point about Hardy’s analysis of prophets as a fusion of the mortal and divine was wonderful.)

  5. Brad on August 18, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I wish more and more that the church leaders and members would focus more on the literary aspect of scripture much as Lowell Bennion did in his Understanding the Scriptures, 1981, and as Grant Hardy is trying to do. Unfortunately I continually hear the defensive narrative regarding historicity all too often not only from members but also leaders. Jeffery R. Holland’s talk on the Book of Mormon some three years ago in which he underhandedly criticized historicity skeptics comes to mind. This sort of narrative of “either it’s 100% or not” is not doing us any good. I like to think, wishfully so perhaps, that at some point maybe a sort of agnosticism with regard to historicity can be a more accepted approach to the Book of Mormon.

  6. James Olsen on August 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Brad: I appreciate and respect your sentiments, though I must confess my feelings are quite different. As the above shows, I’m very much in favor of our becoming more academically literate and fluent in our ability to communicate with others (which will certainly mean our ability to speak neutrally concerning historicity). Nonetheless, historically and continuing today there’s something wonderful and edifying (and, I believe, accurate) in our discussion of the Book of Mormon as literally an ancient text. I’m fine with Elder Holland bearing his candid testimony to the membership of the church – I’ll confess it quite moved me. I agree he could’ve worded it slightly different in order to be less alienating. But not only do I think there’s a place for such testimony, I very much appreciate hearing it from our prophets and prophetesses.

  7. Brad on August 18, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    James, you mention the “ability to speak neutrally concerning historicity.”

    I confused as to what the neutral position would be. Is it the ability to merely speak intellectually about the historicity question such as Hugh Nibley and FARMS (who are still strongly defensive), or is it LDS openness to the possibility that the BOM could be a 19th century text, much as we LDS ask others to be open to the possibility that it is not. I hope for the latter, but feel that the church leadership and the majority of members want the former.

    Openness to the notion of the BOM as a 19th-century text does imply denying the BOM as spiritually inspired or enlightening in its doctrines. However, it would require moving past the Nibley and FARMS narratives and maintaining some agnosticism on the issue. It would be somewhat like the question of the Pentateuch as being written by Moses or not. I can accept the Pentateuch as progressively authored by multiple authors as a sort of Hebrew mythology/law code, but still derive spiritual enlightenment from the messages of the stories. Some may find its spiritual message based on the notion that the Pentateuch was authored by Moses and was a literal history, but the church doesn’t make that a prerequisite. However, for the BOM it does. Historicity is at the crux of the matter.

    To reiterate, I wish the church leadership would drop the defensive narrative about historicity and promote a different narrative that doesn’t place as great of importance on historicity, but upon the message of its stories, whether they were written by JS or not. I believe that the BOM is actually more powerful when the focus is upon its doctrines and messages and not the question of its historical nature. To accomplish this the church wouldn’t need to make any proclamation abrogating former positions, but simply shift foci in its narratives and representations of scriptures.

  8. John C. on August 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Brad, your wish can be fulfilled whether the church is agnostic on the question of historicity or deeply committed to the book’s historicity. So I don’t see your wishful shift in approach as necessary to achieve your wishful aim.

  9. Brad on August 18, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    John C., ??

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 19, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I just read books and sites like this, and have no personal contact wuth people like Jan Shipps who are in the potential non-LDS audience for Hardy’s book, but I agree that it would appear to be very limited in size, compared to the vast body of LDS who already invest a lot of their time and thought in understanding the Book of Mormon.

    Perhaps that is the one thing that election of a Mormon president of the US would actually do, to create an army of people looking at the Book of Mormon trying to find insights into how he thinks. I imagine every foreign embassy assigning one staffer to study Mirmonism and the Book of Mormon

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 19, 2011 at 11:33 am

    (Continued) and the same would be done in all sorts of business, NGO, and governmental offices across the USA trying to psychoanalyze the new prez. No political pundit worth his or her salt could pronounce on the new White House without wondering whether there is some theme in the Book of Mormon that reveals what the prez is thinking. The attitude that no sane person would actually want to know what Mormons really believe might change just a bit. And anyone applying real energy to the task will be able to use Hardy’s book.

    I personally doubt an LDS prez would have a net positive effect on Church growth, since plenty of people will translate their political antipathies into negative views of the Church. But it could prompt broader efforts to accurately understand Mormons among many people of general good will, for whom it just isn’t worth the effort currently.

  12. Christian Cardall on August 19, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    It’s a wholly different thing to have literarily compelling evidence that Nephi attempts to cover up the historical seriousness of the murder he committed, and the way he shamefully exploits his mother in order to do so.

    This is the sort of finding that renders hopelessly permeable the bracket placed to keep historicity issues at bay. No doubt Hardy covertly hopes demonstrations of this sort of depth will make unbelievers think twice, even as he overtly washes his hands of missionary intent.

    Despite the pessimism expressed by some here about a lack of interested unbelieving audience, I would think examples like this might well make the nature of “prophetic” processes a fascinating subject for outsiders to consider (scare quotes for the benefit of those who don’t accept revelation in the same way believers do). How might sophisticated features unintentionally be generated by those believing themselves to be receiving revelation? It’s not as hopeless a question as apologists might hope, and even believers might learn something useful about revelation (as they understand it) by a dialog with unbelievers that tackle it.

  13. Christian Cardall on August 19, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    (Sorry, intended for the first paragraph above to appear as quoted material but I didn’t get it right.)

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Christian: Interesting point. Real prophets need revelation because they have a deficit of understanding. An imperfect understanding leads to imperfect behavior. Thus, every pre-revelation behavior of the prophet is subject to being identified as erroneous by a new revelation. That was certainly the case with Peter’s revelation about taking the Gospel to gentiles. He had apparently not fully understood thr meaning of Christ’s injunction to take the Gospel to “all the world”. People in need of revelation are by definition imperfect. The Mormon principle that all Saints are entitled to receive appropriate revelation tells us that the prophets are different from the rest of the Saints only in degree, not in kind. We don’t have to be perfect to receive revelation, and neither do the prophets.