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.
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.
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. 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” 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.
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 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.
 “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.
 “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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Yale University Press (2010).