The Book of Mormon as Narrative

January 27, 2012 | 12 comments
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This is the third post in a series taking a broad view of the Book of Mormon (first, second). In this post I will discuss aspects of narrative encountered in the text. Not all scripture is narrative: consider the lengthy legal codes in the Torah and the moral exhortation found in James. Not all historical accounts are in the form of a narrative, although most history books written for the popular market are narrative histories. Most novels are in the form of a narrative, including historical fiction, which adds authorial speculation to large chunks of authentic history, often mixing fictional characters with actual historical figures and events.

Historical Fiction

Here is the key question: How does a reader distinguish between historical fiction and actual historical narrative? Authors of historical fiction may volunteer that information in the title or the text, as with Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War, a historical novel recounting the battle of Gettysburg. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975. Even absent such authorial disclosure, features of the narrative itself can also signal that the text is historical fiction. Sometimes narrative details are obviously supplied by the author rather than by historical records or observations. Here are the first few lines from The Killer Angels, recounting the activities of a spy employed by Confederate General Longstreet.

He rode into the dark of the woods and dismounted. He crawled upward on his belly over cool rocks out into the sunlight, and suddenly he was in the open and he could see for miles, and there was the whole vast army below him, filling the valley like a smoking river.

Even more indicative of historical fiction is when the text recounts the thoughts or even the dreams of a character, as in this short passage concerning John Buford, the Union cavalry commander who on the first day of the battle occupied and held the ridges northwest of Gettysburg until Union infantry arrived to reinforce his position.

Buford rode back to the seminary. He made his headquarters there. … He dismounted and sat down to rest. It was very quiet. He closed his eyes and he could see fields of snow, miles and miles of Wyoming snow, and white mountains in the distance ….

Both of the above quotations describe events as experienced by one character (limited to that character’s point of view) but narrated in the third person, the so-called “third-person limited point of view.” An even more limited point of view would describe only events and observations but not the thoughts or feelings of any character. This is the appropriate narrative stance for true historical narrative. In the other direction, a broader third-person point of view is “omniscient narration,” in which the narrator can know and relate any event as well as the thoughts and actions of any character.

Obviously, historians are not omniscient, hence omniscient narration is not appropriate for true historical narrative. Fictional narrative in general can select any point of view and can use first-person or third-person narrative, however the author chooses for the particular tale to be told. [Note 1]

Book of Mormon Narrative

The above discussion should help the reader pay more attention to point of view and voice (first- or third-person) when reading Book of Mormon narratives. This is certainly not a new idea. In 1995, one Edgar C. Snow, Jr. published “Narrative Criticism and the Book of Mormon,” reviewing how that approach “attempt[s] to isolate the narrative of a text from the real author of the text in an attempt to let a text speak for itself as much as possible.” Snow discusses the roles of implied author, narrator, narratee, and implied reader, as well as the implied author’s use of setting, events, and characters, but does not discuss point of view or focalization. [Note 2]

A more ambitious work is Mark D. Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Signature, 1999), which proposes to “focus[] on the internal literary features of the text and how these forms address its original nineteenth-century audience ….” Thomas adopts Robert Alter’s concept of narrative scenes, used by Alter to examine biblical narratives, to consider a variety of repeated Book of Mormon narrative scenes, such as warning prophets, conversion stories, and dying heretics. [Note 3]

Most recently, Grant Hardy employed concepts drawn from narrative criticism in his close reading of the Book of Mormon in his Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (OUP, 2010). Hardy highlights the narrative techniques employed by the three primary Book of Mormon narrators, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. This is a book any serious student of the Book of Mormon must read. The best quick introduction to the book is Hardy’s 12 Questions interview posted last year here at Times and Seasons (Part 1, Part 2). [Note 4]

Those using narrative techniques to look at specific Book of Mormon narratives generally bracket or set aside questions of authorship and historicity in order to focus on the text itself. Otherwise, the debate over authorship and historicity invariably overshadows the discussion of the text. The LDS position on authorship and historicity is clear and unequivocal. Elder Oaks: “The historicity — historical authenticity — of the Book of Mormon is an issue so fundamental that it rests first upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the first principle in this, as in all other matters.” [Notes 5] Elder Holland, from his October 2009 General Conference talk “Safety for the Soul“: “I want it absolutely clear when I stand before the judgment bar of God that I declared to the world, in the most straightforward language I could summon, that the Book of Mormon is true, that it came forth the way Joseph said it came forth and was given to bring happiness and hope to the faithful in the travail of the latter days.”

Some Book of Mormon Examples

No doubt any reader familiar with some of the narrative concepts discussed above (and treated in much more detail in the cited references) will notice new and surprising features when reading Book of Mormon narratives. A book that does exactly this is Richard Rust’s Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon (Deseret, 1997). Here are a couple of Book of Mormon examples I have noticed in my own reading.

First, the text is often explicitly aware of a limited point of view. While many titles that we now use to refer to Jesus Christ appear in 1 Nephi and the first chapters of 2 Nephi — such as “the lamb of God” or “the Savior of the world,” both used in 1 Nephi 13:40 — the actual term “Christ” first appears in a first-person statement by Jacob at 2 Nephi 10:3: “Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ — for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name — should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him ….” The text here displays awareness that a speaker in the mid-sixth century, unlike a reader in the 19th century, would not know the name of Jesus Christ. A similar narrative device is seen at 2 Nephi 25:19 (where Nephi reports that “according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) and at Mosiah 3:8 (where King Benjamin reports that “he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary,” information that in 3:2 he states was “made known unto me by an angel from God”).

Second, the Book of Mormon does at times use omniscient narration, such as the following passage recounting the sea voyage of the Jaredites. At Ether 6:4-6, Moroni’s narration becomes progressively broader as the passage develops:

4 And it came to pass that when they had prepared all manner of food, that thereby they might subsist upon the water, and also food for their flocks and herds, and whatsoever beast or animal or fowl that they should carry with them — and it came to pass that when they had done all these things they got aboard of their vessels or barges, and set forth into the sea, commending themselves unto the Lord their God.
5 And it came to pass that the Lord God caused that there should be a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters, towards the promised land; and thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind.
6 And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind.

There are no doubt dozens of examples like these that an attentive reader will notice. What features have you noticed in Book of Mormon narratives?

Notes

1. Lacking a degree in English or literature, I am relying on Chris Baldick’s Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms (OUP, 2d ed., 2001) and Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 1997), especially Chapter 6, “Narrative,” for terms and concepts. Mary Klages’ Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum Books, 2006) is very good for contrasting structuralism with post-structuralist literary criticism, but provides little discussion of narrative. For a discussion aimed particularly at scriptural narrative, the interested reader is directed to Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Harvard Univ. Press, 2006).

2. Edgar C. Snow, Jr., “Narrative Criticism and the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 1995 (Volume 4, Issue 2), pages 93-106. Quotation from pages 95-96.

3. Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives, Signature Books, 1999. Quotation from page 2. In Chapter One, Thomas discusses his methodology. In addition to narrative scenes, he considers narrative formulas (such as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” in fairy tales) and biblical parallels when examining Book of Mormon narratives. For a mildly critical review of the book (“Though better than most other LDS revisionist approaches to the Book of Mormon, Thomas’s book seriously underestimates the complexity of the scripture — whether for ideological reasons or just because of the writer’s incapacities as a literary critic isn’t clear yet.”), see Alan Goff, “Scratching the Surface of Book of Mormon Narratives,” FARMS Review, 2000 (Volume 12, Issue 2), pages 51-82.

4. Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (OUP, 2010). Like other treatments discussed above, Hardy brackets questions of authorship and historicity while focusing on the literary and narrative features of the Book of Mormon text.

5. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” an address delivered to the 1993 FARMS Annual Dinner in Provo, Utah. Transcript posted at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship site (linked above), accessed January 27, 2011.

12 Responses to The Book of Mormon as Narrative

  1. David G. on January 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Very nice rundown, Dave. You may be aware of this already, but Hardy reviewed Thomas’ book here:
    http://maxwellinstitute.com/publications/review/?vol=12&num=2&id=356

    It’s interesting to get Hardy’s thoughts on a book that asks similar questions as Understanding the Book of Mormon, but that just doesn’t quite get the same results.

  2. J. Madson on January 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    I assume you are familiar with NT Wrights work on narrative and the authority of scripture. If not, a must read. I gave a presentation at claremont last year working off of narrative theory which should be published soon. You can see a small summary of it here:

    http://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/non-violent-reading-of-book-of-mormon-claremont-conference/

  3. J. Madson on January 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Dave, here is the essay of NT Wright’s I was thinking of:

    http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm

  4. Dave on January 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for the comments and links.

    FARMS has not yet published a full review of Hardy’s book, but Daniel C. Peterson did offer brief and positive comments in the Book Notes section of a recent volume (scroll down to the discussion):

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=1&id=800

  5. Mogget on January 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    How would a reader distinguish between historical narrative and fiction that imitates historical narrative?

    Mogs

  6. chris on January 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    #5 – how about Moroni 10:4? :)

  7. Dave on January 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Mogget, good historical fiction does, by its nature, imitate historical narrative. For modern texts, there is generally little confusion (historical fiction is in the fiction section of the library). Anciently, discrete modern genre categories of fiction and history (nonfiction) were not recognized. To a certain extent, all historical narrative prior to the 19th century is, at least in part, historical fiction as we would describe it.

  8. Mogget on January 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Why yes, Dave, the two are not readily separable. I was just being a bit of a jerk and wondering if you knew that, though, cause it wasn’t entirely clear!

    I shall now wander back to FPR and mind my own business…

    ;)

    Mogs

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    I agree with your basic point about the conceptual distinction between historical narrative and historical fiction, which is told in the setting of real events but offers information which we know is not real, because what it describes is not possible in reality, including assertions about a person’s state of mind or, even more incredible, God’s state of mind. For those who do not accept God as part of reality, almost all of the Bible, which asserts God as real, ends up being viewed by those unbelievers as historical fiction. For those who accept God as real, and able to communicate his thoughts and omniscient viewpoint to mankind, the narrative can be viewed as recounting real events, though with some errors in transmission over thousands of years. The fact that the Biblical narrative is being true to history even as it recounts the fictions (= parables) Jesus used to teach also shows that many stretches of the narrative were never meant to recount literal events, but rather report accurately the telling of crafted stories that have a purpose other than recounting a succession of real events. I guess most of us doubt that Baalam’s ass actually spoke to him, at least not in a conversation where the topic was something other than “How the heck can you talk, or be smart enough to think anything worth saying?” The difficulty of matching Genesis Chapter One to the known historical reality is due to insisting it is a strict historical narrative rather than a teaching story with elements of truth reformulated into a purposive story whose conclusion is an argument: “Therefore, God created the sabbath day for us to thank Him for the world, which he owns.”

    While it is common for writers of science fiction and fantasy to frame their stories so they allegedly occur in the real world, Joseph Smith’s introduction asserts boldly that the world of the Book of Mormon reality, of visions of God and angels, of eternal plans of God reaching over the centuries and being revealed in prophecy, of Christ who appears in the Americas, and of a general and prophet named Moroni, are unequivocally parts of modern American gritty reality. The miraculous events in the Book of Mormon are real if and only if the encounter of Joseph Smith with those same miracles is real. Accepting that our reality is miraculous is to acknowledge that God has real power in the world. The denial of miracles in reality is a denial of the power of God, as God himself complained of in the First Vision.

  10. Dave on January 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Mogget (#8), as jerks go, you are at the kind and considerate end of the scale. Your comments are always welcome.

    RTS (#9), yes the sense of the “real world” that the reader brings to the text is central to whether that reader can accept the text as historical or whether it is seen as some form of fiction, fantasy, speculation, or metaphor. I will address that in my next general post on verisimilitude.

  11. Paul Bohman on January 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    The example of Jacob at 2 Nephi 10:3 has always stood out for its sudden self-awareness that the text does not fit with the times. When Jacob uses the name “Christ” and then inserts a parenthetical explanation of how he came up with that name seemingly without precedent and no previous explanation, the easiest answer for how that could have happened is that Joseph Smith realized the anachronism after he dictated it, then backtracked to provide an explanation that would cover his tracks. If Joseph made it all up, this is an easy and straightforward rationale.

    But Joseph could have inserted this explanation even if the original source really did mention Christ. While reading/translating/receiving revelation, Joseph could have come across the mention of the name “Christ” and he could have realized that it was out of place, and so he could have wondered about it and either 1) inserted his own explanation of how he assumed Jacob must of known, or 2) he could have received a revelation expanding on the original text to explain how the name got there. This second explanation would fit in line with Blake Ostler’s expansion theory.

    And yes, I suppose Jacob could have inserted the parenthetical explanation himself. The reason I don’t think that’s true is because of the way the parenthetical phrase seems to obviously be providing an explanation to modern readers. It’s like the text is saying “Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have said ‘Christ,’ because no one around me uses that term, and in fact it’s a Greek term, and it wasn’t used in the Old Testament either, and so that makes it seem really strange when I use it, in fact, it’s pretty much impossible that I would have used the term, so here’s a way for me to explain it away: I saw an angel who told me the word ‘Christ.’ So, like magic, all of your reasons for objecting to this term must now fade away, because angelic visitations pretty much trump any other rationale that you may have. You can say it doesn’t fit the evidence, but I can say God told me, through an angel, and that’s impossible to argue against, because you weren’t there, and because God can use whatever anachronistic term he wants to because he’s God and he knows everything.”

    Or, another explanation is that Mormon, or some other editor, added the parenthetical phrase, either as personal commentary/explanation or by revelation.

    For me, the least credible explanation is that Jacob said it himself.

  12. chris on January 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    Actually Paul, my take is slightly different. I would think it would seem more natural for Nephites to be thinking of Christ in terms of “the Lord” or maybe even “the Messiah” or even as the Son of God. All of that would seemingly fit better into their world view.

    What’s fascinating about him being called Christ is as you point out, that’s not what anyone back then would have called him, since it’s a Greek word.

    But, what’s interesting about it is he was labeled “Christ” because the angel said that’s what he would be called. And by Christians all over the world, that’s what he is called. So the angel is apply a future label to the Lord in the past to make it clear just who was being talked about. It’s not confusing an old testament concept of the Lord or Messiah with someone who is perhaps still yet to come, but cementing it very firmly by saying it’s the very same Christ who will be preached the world over.

    That knowledge may not be very helpful in the past, but it links the past BoM with not only the NT church in Christ’s time, but especially in our own time.

    In general, if we want to question the BoM, the entire concept of the narrative practically boggles the mind. You can just imagine Mormon wheeling around an ancient version of a Samsonite filled with thousands of primary historical documents, determining which ones to work into a single (semi) cohesive story. That boggles the mind. But so does the idea of Joseph (or his conspirators) just making it up. It’s really a marvelous work and a wonder that defies explanation. It could only have come about then and now by the power of God.