Here is the conclusion of Times & Seasons look at Grant Hardy’s new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, and the second half of our 12 Questions interview:
7. Do you worry that some of the “unsettling” aspects of the book (e.g., your frankness concerning the anachronistic Isaiah passages or New Testament linguistic influences or stylistic similarities between all three books of restoration scripture) will have a negative impact on the faith of some of your Mormon readers?
No, I don’t. The Book of Mormon is what it is; I don’t feel like I need to apologize for it or try to hide its more troubling features. That would seem like a failure of nerve or a lack of faith, and it seems to me that there are enough wonderful things about the text to balance out the things that seem strange or unsettling. As believers, we should read it as carefully as possible, and we should bring to our study the best biblical and historical scholarship available, but there is enough theological flexibility to accommodate whatever we might find. For people who accept the book as scripture, it is almost as if it comes with something like the standard addendum to political ads: “I am Jesus Christ and I approve of this message, in these words.” I don’t always understand why the Book of Mormon takes the form it does, but who am I to say, for instance, that “God would never use poor grammar in a revelation” or “God would never allow historical anachronisms into his perfect word,” Similarly, I was a bit disappointed to hear that Christian Vuissa’s new film Joseph Smith – Volume 1: Plates of Gold didn’t at least briefly and tactfully portray Joseph using a seer stone in a hat (especially since Vuissa has handled difficult issues quite nicely in some of his previous films). It is time for us as Latter-day Saints to get over our embarrassment and embrace that well-documented and widely-reported aspect of our heritage. It may seem odd by today’s standards, but if that is how the Lord chose to communicate with his prophet, why should we try to conceal or ignore the facts? And who knows, sometimes weaknesses turn into strengths.
With regard to some of the specific issues mentioned in the question, the presence of Second Isaiah in the Book of Mormon is one of the strongest arguments against its historicity, but Latter-day Saints should recognize that ideas about Second Isaiah are among the most widely accepted in all of biblical scholarship; to dismiss the scrupulous work of generations of fine, often devout scholars with a simple “Well, they just don’t believe in prophecy” is both arrogant and foolish. It is very much like rejecting evolution because it doesn’t fit your particular interpretation of Genesis. You can either show some respect for evidence, argumentation, and scholarship, or you can withdraw into fundamentalism. I’m not exactly sure how Adam and Eve fit into the scientific story of human origins, just as I’m not quite sure how to explain Nephi’s quoting of Isaiah 48-49, but I trust that there is some reasonable explanation (though it may require the sort of divine intervention that only believers would accept). By the way, even if scholars were to discover evidence that led them to revise their opinions and date Isaiah 40-55 as pre-exilic, the Book of Mormon is still in trouble, because careful analysis suggests that even chapters 1-39 (quoted at length by Nephi in something quite close to their current KJV form) underwent considerable revision and augmentation after 600 BCE. Similar things could be said about New Testament phrasing. Why try to deny or downplay what is so obviously there for all to see? Let’s evaluate the evidence as fairly and open-mindedly as possible, and then we can figure out later what it might mean or how believers might account for it. (See again the last paragraph in question #6 above.)
8. Similarly, the Book of Mormon editors and prophets as you disclose them are quite human – perhaps uncomfortably human. What, in your opinion, does this say about prophets generally, and specifically our prophets today?
Earlier this year, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in which she stated that “Mormons don’t use the term ‘infallibility’ to refer to their leaders and readily acknowledge that they are imperfect men. In practice, though, LDS belief comes awfully close to that standard.” I’m not sure that this is healthy. A close reading of the Book of Mormon (or the Old Testament) will show that regarding prophets as infallible goes directly against the whole force of the narrative. I believe with Joseph Smith that “a prophet is a prophet only when he is acting as such.” At the same time, the Book of Mormon also stresses the need for generosity and humility toward divinely-appointed leaders who are doing the best they can to lead with inspiration in sometimes trying times. Perhaps reading the scriptures more attentively can help us better balance our reactions to those who have been called of God in our own day.
9. Despite these and other aspects that might be unsettling to the faithful, there seems to be a general consensus that this book is much more palatable for Mormons than non-Mormons. Consequently, how well do you think you succeeded in your attempt to give your two audiences a “neutral ground” on which to discuss the Book of Mormon? Given the difficulty of both the task and the current climate, can faithful Mormons really reach out to non-Mormons on the subject of our scripture without alienating or turning them off, especially if we stop anywhere short of simply granting their claims concerning the absurdity of belief in the Book of Mormon?
It seems like I have been answering this question all along, but I’ll add a bit more here. Perhaps in order to facilitate discussions between Mormon and non-Mormons, it will be necessary for outsiders to acknowledge that the Book of Mormon can be seen as a rich, complex, coherent work of religious literature (that’s the point I’m pushing in my book; I’m happy for non-believers to remain non-believers, I just think that the Book of Mormon deserves a little more respect). On the other hand, Latter-day Saints who wish to participate in academic conversations will probably need to recognize that belief in the Book of Mormon as revelation or as ancient history does seem absurd to reasonable, even sympathetic outsiders. I personally believe that the Book of Mormon had its origins in the ancient world based on my interpretation of the evidence, but also because of my religious background and spiritual experiences that are outside the realm of academic discourse. I don’t expect that people with different backgrounds and experiences will interpret the literary or historical evidence in the same way. But I am still interested in what they have to say (for instance, Krister Stendahl’s essay on the Third Nephi is one of my favorite articles on the Book of Mormon ever).
I don’t really know if this sort of flexibility on both sides will eventually lead to better conversations. Nevertheless, it’s clearly up to Latter-day Saints to make the first move, that is, to make a case that the Book of Mormon is an interesting text that will repay close attention, that it is worth reading even if you’re not looking for conversion. We can’t expect outsiders to read our scripture more closely than we ourselves have done (and if you want to see what close reading looks like, you can start with the mainstream biblical scholarship that Mormons have avoided for so long).
10. As Sam notes, when most of us read the Book of Mormon, we can’t help but read 180 years of tradition into the text. One of the most enjoyable aspects of your book is the new and often refreshing ways that you read “against the grain.” What has been the single most helpful tool for you in overcoming the cultural constraints under which we so often approach the text?
There are a several tools that have helped me to see new things in the Book of Mormon. (1) I try to read widely in history, literature, philosophy, biblical scholarship, and religious studies, and I’m always on the lookout for ideas that might be applicable to Mormon scripture. For instance, outsiders often regard the Book of Mormon as a forgery of sorts, but forgeries can be interesting, and I have recently discovered that even imaginary forgeries can be compelling—read Arthur Phillips delightful new novel The Tragedy of Arthur with the Book of Mormon in mind. If study time is limited in your life—as it is for most people—you might start with the New Oxford Annotated Bible; the introductions and general essays offer a crash course in biblical scholarship, and after you’ve read through the Bible in the New Revised Standard Version, aided by the focus provided by brief annotations, not only will you know the Bible better than most other Latter-day Saints, you will also have all kinds of ideas about how to approach the Book of Mormon. (2) I use an old Infobases program from 1992 (“LDS Scriptures Infobase”) that allows me to track specific words and phrases in the standard works quickly and precisely. I’m interested in identifying connections and allusions, as well analyzing patterns of usage. For example, the phrase “son of man” occurs 196 times in the Bible, but only once in the Book of Mormon (and that is in a direct quotation of Isaiah 51:12). I’m not sure what that means, but it is potentially interesting. (3) My most important tool though, as I noted above, is the Reader’s Edition, which offers a fresh perspective as I encounter familiar words and phrases in a new format that emphasizes narrative continuity and context. That version does the initial work that readers must otherwise do for themselves (rather laboriously) of figuring out which sentences go together in paragraphs, who is saying what to whom, identifying where there are changes in topic or transitions from narrative to commentary to inserted documents to sermons, etc. When all of that is readily apparent, readers can then focus more easily on finding connections or narrative gaps, or looking for subtle shifts of tone. If you read through the Reader’s Edition, from beginning to end, I guarantee that you too will see things that you have never noticed before.
11. Dave wrote: “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.” Would you take the time now to briefly set forth your methodology on this point, or otherwise respond to the invitation?
The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative is an important, provocative, and sometimes rather dense work. I had not intended to offer a detailed response to it in Understanding, which would have taken my book far off course, but rather I pulled out one significant idea—that post-Enlightenment attempts to understand scripture by reference to external referents (as in the historical-critical method or as embodiments of general moral principles) can distort or obscure the meaning that comes from the stories themselves. Frei is a careful scholar—for instance, his term “history-like narratives” intentionally blurs the line between history and fiction—and while he acknowledges the power of historical criticism, which makes it impossible for thoughtful readers to return to pre-critical approaches, he at the same time realizes that something is lost when we can no longer read the Bible on its own terms. Frei’s work is historical and descriptive rather than prescriptive, so as Dave notes, he does not offer a clear path forward, though others have taken up the challenge. The emergence of the fields of biblical narrative criticism and narrative theology in the last few decades is in many ways a response to Frei’s documentation of a major shift in Western thought in the 18th and 19th centuries.
For my purposes, the important thing is that Frei resisted any general hermeneutical theories. He cogently identified problems in contemporary biblical interpretation, but then intentionally left open the question of how to reconnect to the indispensable narrative character of scripture (though he does a little more with this in his later books—his image of an eclipse suggests that we might someday come out of the shadow). Frei recognized that the Bible is a strange book, which makes unusual demands on its readers, and this is also true of the Book of Mormon. In Understanding, I tried to implement Frei’s notion that the meaning of a narrative is the narrative itself (or that the meaning emerges cumulatively from the text), by giving close attention to what the Book of Mormon actually says and how it says it. At this point I think it would be a mistake to try to develop a general theory of interpretation based on philosophical, historiographical, or literary considerations. It seems to me that what we need right now is not abstract theorizing but better and more accurate descriptions of how the text works, how it is organized, how it makes its points, and how it employs language. (Not surprisingly, I’m a huge fan of Royal Skousen’s painstakingly detailed textual and linguistic analyses.)
We can certainly learn from scholars of the Bible such as Frei, Alter, and Sternberg, but the Book of Mormon is in many ways a very different book, which makes its own way through a whole series of religious issues. It seemed to reaffirm traditional modes of biblical interpretation (literalism, typology, prophecy, salvation history, and canonical authority) at the very time that the Christian consensus about how to read the Bible was collapsing. The Nephite scripture—with its near absence of standard archaeological-historical evidence—ends up promoting pre-critical approaches (but not exactly), while its multivocal, deconstructable narratives sound almost postmodern (but not quite). Richard Bushman once suggested that “read in the twenty-first century, the book seems almost postmodern in its self-conscious attention to the production of the text” (Rough Stone Rolling, p. 87), but this doesn’t exactly capture it. Despite the Book of Mormon’s perspectivism (and self-awareness of such), it is all about meta-narratives and un-ironic truth. What an odd, engaging text!
12. Everyone is of course curious about what you might be working on now – particularly anything Book of Mormon related. Any hints for us?
I took some time off from Mormon Studies to co-edit the first volume of the Oxford History of Historical Writing and to create a thirty-six lecture CD/DVD course for the Teaching Company entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition (both of which were released earlier this year), but now I’m anxious to start working on the Book of Mormon again. I was hoping in Understanding to identify some common ground between believers and outsiders as they analyze the way the book is structured and how it presents its message. The more important question, however, is what exactly that message might be. (My concern here is academic rather than religious; I’m not so much interested in persuading outsiders of the book’s ultimate meaning or truth as in analyzing what the book claims for itself.) It seems to me that one of the main purposes of the Book of Mormon is to clarify and resolve ambiguities in the Bible. In other words, it is, among other things, a fairly serious work of theology. I’ve sketched out an outline for a volume with chapters on the closed canon, Deuteronomistic history, rational religion (including the challenge of Deism), the delayed Parousia, salvation history, soteriology, ecclesiology, the destiny of the house of Israel, and so on. Many of these were important issues in the nineteenth century, while others go back to debates found in the New Testament itself, and still others come to prominence in the twentieth century.
Once again, perhaps naively, I’m hoping to find some common ground. The characters in the Book of Mormon obviously respond to the Bible, which was part of Joseph Smith’s culture but which also has a presence within the narrative framework—in the Brass Plates, in Nephi’s vision, and in Jesus’ sermons to the Nephites. And while there is no question that the Book of Mormon addresses nineteenth-century concerns (otherwise, it would never have gained a following), I will try to leave open the question of whether it does so as a result of Joseph Smith’s own thinking, his inspiration, God’s direct revelation, or the visions and foreknowledge of ancient prophets. Regardless of ideas of origins, it seems to me that careful readers should be able to agree on the main points of Book of Mormon theology, and I’m optimistic that I might be able to persuade outsiders that Joseph Smith was an observant student of the Bible and an innovative, perhaps even prescient, theological thinker. (It shouldn’t be a stretch for Latter-day Saints to accept that the Book of Mormon adds something significant to the biblical witness, but what, exactly?) Still, don’t expect anything from me in the near future. I work at a university with a heavy teaching load, I have the privilege of serving in a rather demanding church calling, and this project will require a lot of reading in biblical scholarship, theology, and religious history. In addition, I’m sure I will end up rewriting the manuscript many times before I’m ready to publish. But to me this sounds like a great way to spend the next several years. The Book of Mormon continues to be a vital, fascinating text in both my life and my scholarship—a statement that can serve as a concluding testimony of sorts.