Criticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of the Book of Mormon simply ignore the book’s style altogether.
Grant Hardy, in his new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, wants to uncouple the problems of historicity and literary merit. He brackets the first, setting aside the apologetic debates that have dominated Book of Mormon studies over the past four decades. Instead, he turns his attention to the content of the book, and in particular to its peculiar stylistic qualities—and on this matter if he is no apologist he is nevertheless a bit apologetic, conceding the book’s literary deficiencies but pleading on its behalf that, to borrow a Twainism, the Book of Mormon is “better than it sounds” (273).
Hardy seeks to rehabilitate the literary reputation of the Book of Mormon by drawing attention to what he calls its “organizing principle”: “the fact that it presents itself as the work of narrators with distinct voices and perspectives” (268). Because the Book of Mormon is structured as the product of three discrete narrative voices—Nephi’s, Mormon’s and Moroni’s—and because, according to its own internal claims, the three narrative voices work with a variety earlier sources, the text is always inhabited by at least two minds, Joseph’s and, say, Mormon’s, and often by three or even four. This textual complexity offers an entrée for a kind of literary analysis that moves beyond the manifest deficiencies of the book’s prose style.
As an interpretive strategy, his approach is shown to be stunningly fruitful—though I suspect that a reader as intelligent, attentive and sensitive as Hardy could fruitfully read the back of a cereal box. Hardy devotes a section of the book to each of the Book of Mormon’s three primary narrators, and in so doing he provides a roughly chronological and nearly comprehensive sustained reading of the text. It is a tour de force and I am tempted to call it virtuosic, though occasionally the breadth achievement is obscured by the thick texture of his very close reading.
But if Hardy has an ambitious exegetical aim—and that bell rings on every page—he also has an important social objective. He offers not only a new reading of the Book of Mormon, but a new way of reading the Book of Mormon—that is, he offers a new discourse that he hopes will charter a new kind of inquiry undertaken by readers of all tribes. As Hardy puts it, he seeks to demonstrate “a mode of literary analysis by which all readers, regardless of their prior religious commitments … can discuss the book in useful and accurate ways” (xvii). He seeks, in short, to establish a new interpretive community, blessedly free from the entrenched allegiances that distort other discussions of the Book of Mormon.
For Hardy’s bracketing of the historical question is neither caprice nor cowardice, as it often is in defensive treatments of the Book of Mormon, but rather a legitimate sequel to his hermeneutic approach. Hardy enters the text by way of the motivations, personalities, and perceptions of its narrators, and therein lies his justification for avoiding, at least temporarily, the historical questions and the epistemological commitments they entail. Whether one regards the Book of Mormon as 19th-century folk pulp or as the authentic translation of an ancient document, one can attend to the text’s self-presentation as the work of three narrators—Nephi, Mormon and Moroni or “Nephi”, “Mormon” and “Moroni”—and thus read the text narratologically. “After all,” Hardy reminds us, “narrative is a mode of communication employed by both historians and novelists” (xvi).
In Hardy’s discursive theory, then, the subjectivity of the narrators offers a kind of haven from historicity. Whereas archaeological or rhetorical readings of the Book of Mormon lead directly into a thicket of assumptions—none of them externally verifiable, and thus none available to non-believers—about the book’s historical context, Hardy sees the question of narrative subjectivity as a route around those thorny patches. “Imagining [Nephi, Mormon and Moroni] as having life experiences and independent minds does not necessarily mean that one accepts their historicity,” he argues (xvii). One can engage with the substance of the text on its own terms by accepting the book’s narrative device, whether one sees that device as a tool of fiction or of historiography.
I’m sympathetic to Hardy’s desire to defer the ultimate questions in order to create an epistemological space for encountering the Book of Mormon on its own terms. And he’s hit upon an innovative and absorbing method for doing so. But in the final analysis, I’m not persuaded that the category of narrative subjectivity can do the work he asks of it. The narrative mind can work as a neutral rendezvous for devout and skeptical readers only if one holds human subjectivity constant over time, assuming that narrators of all times and places share the same foundations of consciousness and perception.
It has been the work of nearly a century of continental philosophy to vex precisely this notion of the autonomous, self-contained, transhistorical subject—but one need not quote Nietzsche, Althusser and Bourdieu to recognize that two narrative minds separated by twenty-five centuries will bring to the text a different set of perspectives, concerns, sensibilities, motivations, personalities and perceptions. Thus even a narratological analysis implies some assumption of historicity—and indeed to the extent that “Nephi,” “Mormon” and “Moroni” speak to contemporary readers as legible, coherent personalities, and Hardy brilliantly demonstrates that they do, one must reluctantly (or triumphantly) recognize a modern context at some level. One need only compare the laconic narrative voice of the Hebrew bible with the over-determined narrative personalities at work in the Book of Mormon to sense the difference.
As an example of Hardy’s narrative subject problem, consider the comparison he suggests between the narrative development of Mormon and the development of the implied narrator Benengali in Don Quixote. Hardy introduces the comparison to highlight the depth of Mormon’s indirect characterization in the Book of Mormon, which is striking when placed against the relatively incoherent, undeveloped personality of Cervantes’s Benengali. Hardy concludes:
The Book of Mormon may not be as much fun to read as Don Quixote, but at least in this one respect, it is more thoroughly composed. However readers may conceptualize Mormon, part of the interest of the book is observing the way he interacts with and shapes his material.
Hardy is indisputably right in both judgments here, but he doesn’t pursue the implications of the comparison. If Don Quixote fails to exhibit for the modern reader a coherent and developed narrative subjectivity, this is most likely not an artistic failing of Cervantes but rather an artifact of the history of the narrative genre. When Benengali was conceived in the early modern dawn of print culture, the romance had not yet become the novel, the author had not yet entirely separated from the narrator, and indeed the human being had not yet become the modern subject comfortably at home in its fully-furnished mental interior. Thus to interpret a narrative voice as coherent, undeveloped, deliberate or whatever is necessarily to make certain assumptions about what it means to be a human subject — assumptions that are inescapably historical in nature.
This is not to say that Hardy’s exegetical project is illegitimate, but rather that his social project will probably fail. Narrative subjectivity will probably not be the analytical charter for a tolerant new interpretive community around the Book of Mormon. But Hardy’s work remains a landmark achievement, one that I salute and from which I have personally learned much. For my part, I continue to find Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon to be his most significant work, which is to take nothing away from the intelligence of his readings in Understanding the Book of Mormon. But the lucidity and openness of the page in the Reader’s Edition has opened the text to me in little short of a revelation. Thank you, Brother Hardy.
Originally appeared under a different title and in a somewhat shorter form at Patheos.com.