Grant Hardy and Personal Scripture Study

August 19, 2011 | 11 comments
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Understanding BofM iiEvery semester, one of my principal goals in my tax classes is to get my students to engage with the Internal Revenue Code. And it’s harder than you might think: often they don’t read the Code itself, focusing instead on the explanations in their casebook.[fn1] And their aversion to reading the Code is completely understandable: unlike court decisions, the mainstay of law school, there is no narrative flow, no character, no imagery, nothing that we traditionally latch onto in order to immerse ourselves in a text.

And frankly, using the casebook isn’t a bad short-term decision. The casebook explains what the Code provisions mean and how they’re applied, at least in simple situations.But in the longer term, relying on the casebook’s explanation does my students a disservice. While it helps them be able to answer my questions in class, and while it likely helps them do decently on my exams, if they rely on the casebook at the expense of reading through and struggling with the Code, they don’t develop their skills in reading and understanding the Internal Revenue Code. Ultimately, while their casebook helps them understand the tax law on a surface level (and, for that matter, provides a necessary starting point), if they’ve read the casebook at the expense of reading the Code, they’re going to be in trouble when my final asks them to read and apply a Code section that we never read in class.[fn2]

In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, we often suffer from a similar problem in approaching the Book of Mormon. Not that we ignore the Book of Mormon—as a Church, we seem to have done a remarkable job responding to prophetic encouragement to open the book and read. But I’m not convinced that we’re reading the text so much as we are reading the 180 years of tradition that have grown up around the text. That is to say, I’ve been familiar with Book of Mormon stories since at least Primary. And generally, I’ve heard the same lessons derived from the same stories, and it’s hard not to think about those lessons as I read the stories.

I’m not suggesting that we eliminate our current reading methodology—I suspect that our narrative familiarity with the Book of Mormon helps us slog through the chloroform-y parts.[fn3] Still, sometimes I think the common knowledge we’ve grown up gets in the way of our engaging the text.

In Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, Grant Hardy provides a method to read against our accumulated tradition and a sustained example of such a reading. And the result, as others have noted, is virtuosic, a self-contained exegetical reading of (virtually[fn4]) the entire Book of Mormon.[fn5] But in its virtuosity, his work is not replicable, at least by most of us. Or at least by me—I have to find time to study my scriptures around work, paying attention to my wife and my daughters, cooking, cleaning, blogging, and millions of other things. I probably could, if I devoted the time, do a careful reading of the whole Book of Mormon. But I probably won’t, at least not for the next, say, 15 years.

So is there any value to me—and to those of you in my situation—in Hardy’s book, other than giving us a pretty, self-contained, really cool reading of the Book of Mormon? It takes some work, but using Hardy’s insights doesn’t have to involve an extended analysis of the whole Book of Mormon. It can be equally valuable in helping us engage with smaller chunks of the text.

Generally, to the extent that we, as a Church, have an exegetical approach to the Book of Mormon, I think we take Nephi’s explanation of his approach to scriptures as normative. Note that, if we look at Nephi’s narrative intentions—and we believe Nephi understood himself to be writing scripture—then we can infer from his narratological intentions that he intends for us to read what he wrote in order to apply it to ourselves. We can read it that way, or we can read against his grain.

And I’m not suggesting that that’s not a good interpretive regime, just that, if we only use the scriptures to apply them to ourselves, we miss part of the depth and fullness of the scriptures. With the Book of Mormon, though, we don’t have a lot of the tools that could be brought to bear in reading the Bible or the D&C (e.g., archeological knowledge, historical knowledge of what was going on at the time, manuscripts of various ages, alternate traditions, separate authors writing about the same events, etc.). Hardy provides a formalist reading methodology that doesn’t require any of these external informations, making it especially suited to our reading of the Book of Mormon.[fn6]

[fn1] A “casebook” is basically the law school version of a textbook.

[fn2] And more importantly, they’re going to be in more trouble when a client or partner asks them about some section not covered in their casebook.

[fn3] Although I frankly don’t have a lot of sympathy for poor Mr. Twain. If he truly wants chloroform, he should try his hand at the Code, offering memoranda for various investment funds, most prospectuses, or any number of non-tax legislative regimes. On the other hand, since he’s now dead, he probably won’t.

[fn4] As others have mentioned, Hardy focuses on the three main narrators/editors of the Book of Mormon: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. But the Small Plate of Nephi section of the Book of Mormon ends with several short narrations by recordkeepers other than the Big 3. Hardy doesn’t really concern himself with these secondary narrators. Nor should he—none of them really provide enough text or context to provide a significant worldview. Nonetheless, it’s an area wide open to a critical reading along the lines Hardy demonstrates.

[fn5] Others in this series have done an excellent job analyzing what Hardy does in his book; in super-broad terms, he looks at the three main editor-authors and, from the way they  structure their writings, infers what their goals are. He then analyzes what they’ve included and excluded in order to understand why they’ve included what they’ve included.

[fn6]And yes, I get the irony in my saying that we can profitably apply Hardy’s book to our own reading of the Book of Mormon to get beyond applying the Book of Mormon to ourselves.

11 Responses to Grant Hardy and Personal Scripture Study

  1. Derek on August 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    The Internal Revenue Code is 20 times longer than the Book of Mormon. I think it would take them longer than one semester to read the whole thing cover to cover like we do with the Book of Mormon.

  2. Bob on August 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    So, if Grant Harding or others are able to bracket out history in the Book of Mormon argument, and then builds their case on three narratives existing in that book, what firewall does he have against an assertion that Spalding-Rigdon-Smith are not the personal voices of the Book of Mormon?

  3. Brad on August 19, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I agree, when we as LDS read the BOM we often tend to read the 180 years of tradition around it. When I read, I often come across passages that remind me of the BOM historicity debate and how apologists have used such a scripture to buttress their claims. For instance in 2 Nephi 12:16 it reads: “And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.” In the footnote church editors wrote: “The Greek (Septuagint) has “ships of the sea.” The Hebrew has “ships of Tarshish.” The Book of Mormon has both, showing that the brass plates had lost neither phrase.”

    But sometimes I find the footnotes and all of the apologist debates about the BOM distracting and agree with Hardy’s more formalist approach.

  4. Bradley on August 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    For many LDS, the question arises: I’ve read the BOM a few times. Why should I read it again?

    I found the answer recently by watching two movies from the 1980s that I really liked when they first came out: The Road Warrior and Blade Runner. Watching them 20 years later was like watching with a completely different set of eyes. Same story, different message.

    So, if you’ve read the BOM a bunch of times already, you may not have read it with your current eyes.

  5. Kim Siever on August 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    4.5 years ago, I decided to try something new with the my reading of the Book of Mormon. I don’t even remember how I came up with the idea. I felt I was spending too much time on reading the Book of Mormon and not nearly enough time on studying it or pondering it.

    I read only 1–3 verses each day, but I try to get as much as I can out of those verses. I look for parallel thoughts, poetry, patterns, and so on. I read all the scriptures in the footnotes, and I try to think about what the scripture means. I admit I do tend to focus on personal application of the scriptures, but I found two things.

    Firstly, I have come to know the Old Testament much better as a result.

    Secondly, I have found insight in verses and had previously considered superfluous.

    One of the great things about this method is that I often find myself appending the footnotes with scriptural references I think are much more fitting.

    When I first started, I regularly had to fight the inclination to try racing through the verses. I don’t give myself time limits or specific content limits; I just try to limit the verses I read to specific contexts. If the speaker is moving to a different thought, I will usually wait until the next day to continue and focus on the previous verse(s) at the present.

    In 4.5 years, I have made it only to Alma 13, and my children like to comment on it each time they pass me in their own scripture reading. But I think to myself, what difference does it make if it takes me 10 years to read the book using this method? I get more out of my studying now than I ever did at any other time in my life.

  6. James Olsen on August 20, 2011 at 1:17 am

    Bob: I don’t think Hardy’s interested in a firewall. In fact, he’s candid all the way through that it might be Joseph Smith who’s the ultimate author (or perhaps someone else – but I don’t think any historian worth their salt recognizes Rigdon or Spaulding). He also constantly draws parallels between what his narratological/editorial focus reveals in the BofM and what other fiction authors have done that is similar. Part of what he does in bracketing historicity is to not worry about who did or didn’t write it, acknowledging that different readers will have different views on the matter and not discrediting any of them. This is perhaps one of the “unsettling” aspects Dave’s post refers to.

    Bradley: Agreed. What would be tragic is if we read the Book without getting anything new or different. I think it’s a function of our having learned myriads of other things all of which color our reading (either how we read or what we see when we do). Hardy’s able to give the kind of reading he did because he’s done a fantastic job educating himself on numerous things (like narratology!) that are manifest in his reading. I think that rereading our scripture without something new is (perhaps among other things) a symptom of our more general damnation (i.e., lack of progress). (Oh, and Blade Runner is an amazing film.)

  7. comet on August 20, 2011 at 3:43 am

    “But I’m not convinced that we’re reading the text so much as we are reading the 180 years of tradition that have grown up around the text.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Funny, though, how the metadiscourse substitutes for the Hardy-like close reading and we don’t seem to be too much the worse for it–somehow things just keep chugging along anyway in the church (on three, two cylinders?).

  8. Bob on August 20, 2011 at 9:48 am

    James Olsen,
    Well__I am not an historian worth his salt. But if there are historians who think the book could have been written by “perhaps someone else”__what other names have we?

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 20, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I sympathize with your students’ attitude toward the IRS Code. A text that is concerned with creating algorithms for performing calculations is written almost entirely without mathematical notations and without the disciplined methods for making “if-then” statements that have been developed for computer programming and engineering of processes. Using notations designed to show logic and calculation would make the rules easier to read and understand, and would also make it easier to identify failures of logic. I remember translating an obtuse section of the Code into mathematical notation and discovering that performing a complex calculation for determining whether to apply rule A or rule B was a total waste of time, because the results were the same either way. The dense block of text cocealed that fact.

    Kim: Your methodology is what I understand to be the standard for certain rabbinical traditions.

    Sam: My own reading of the Book of Mormon has been an effort to understand what the author had in mind, in lieu of the facile and sometimes shallow ways we apply the scriptures to our own modern lives. I think the example of Nephi in doing application of Isaiah’s words to his own people showed that, because of his personal knowledge of Judea, he clearly understood Isaiah’s original intent and referants. It was only then that he constructed a new framework of meaning for Isaiah’s words.

    The example I usually offer for how we try to short-circuit this process is the way we talk about the 2000 Ammonite warriors when they say their faith un God was taught by their mothers, and they didnot doubt their mothers knew it. This then segues into Family Home Evening and family prayer and other common teaching moments. It completely misses the fact that these young men were child witnesses to one of the most horrific and yet inspiring narratives in the Book of Mormon, when many of their fathers ealked out unarmed to face an attacking army bent on killing bith them and their families. The fact that the mothers firmly supported them, and stood firm rather than flee, or begged mercy as other Lamanite women had done, was the indelible demonstration of their faith to those 2000 boys. We should not kid ourselves about the difficulty of comung up to that standard of example in the face of imminent death, but it makes the courage of the young men a direct reflection of the courge of their mothers.

  10. James Olsen on August 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Raymond: I agree with the importance of knowing author’s intent/context in order to improve our understanding and ability to personally apply the scriptures. I think that the two mutually motivate one another. I think we’d be hard pressed, however, to defend this as Nephi’s thought, since he explicitly states that he did not teach his people the things of the Jews, and yet still commanded them to apply the words of Isaiah to themselves.

  11. Alison Moore Smith on August 20, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    As an accountant, I am not remotely surprised that your students won’t engage in the tax code. The code is so convoluted and nonsensical that it makes me mad every time I read a line of it. And it makes me madder when I see the printed time estimates for complying with the convolution. What a waste of man hours!

    Accounting should be outlawed. And lawyers, too, while we’re talking about wasted hours.

    I return you to your regularly scheduled programming.