One can read the Book of Mormon as canonized scripture, to guide the Church and its members in doctrine and practice, or as a sign of Joseph Smith’s calling to bring forth new scripture and establish a restored church. Then there is the possibility of reading the Book of Mormon as literature, to enlighten, uplift, and inspire the reader. So, how literary is it? How exactly does one read the Book of Mormon as literature?
Others have weighed in on this topic, of course. Alter and Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible (1990) shows how this is done with the Bible. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry “Book of Mormon Literature” observes that the book “is both coherent and polished (although not obtrusively so)” and notes the use of chiasmus, allegory, metaphor, typology, and other literary forms. Mark D. Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Signature Books, 1999) uses biblical type-scenes to illuminate similar type-scenes in the Book of Mormon. Terryl Givens has a short chapter on the Book of Mormon as literature in The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2009). Most recently, in Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (OUP, 2010), Grant Hardy explores in detail how the three primary narrators Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni each shape the text in subtle and unexpected ways.
I found Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature (Yale Univ. Press, 2013) helpful. I am less interested in literature per se than in using the views of literary critics as a perspective from which to read and evaluate the Book of Mormon and other scriptural narratives. Both history and fiction offer realistic narrative. Historical narrative is subject to constraints that don’t apply to fictional narrative, of course. Yet scriptural texts are often reworked and edited in the course of their transmission in such a way that they become as much like realist fiction as like history. And realist fiction is itself written to be eminently plausible in a real-world sense. So the distinction between historical and imaginative narrative is not always very clear (think of the narrative in Jonah and Job, for example). This is one reason a literary approach to scripture can be so productive, as illustrated by the sources referenced in the prior paragraph.
So here are a few points discussed by Eagleton in his chapters on narrative and interpretation.
- “Some narrators in fiction are known as omniscient, meaning that they are assumed to know everything about the story they tell and the reader is not expected to question what they say” (p. 80). In fiction, we grant the writer liberty to narrate omnisciently, but it raises questions for any historical narrative. It is everywhere in the Bible (“In the beginning was the Word,” but whoever wrote this was not an observer; the words of Jesus in Gethsamane are quoted verbatim; etc.) and in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 6:1-6, for example). It’s not clear why we grant scriptural writers the same license, the same authority over their narrative that we grant novelists.
- “[A]uthors quite often rig their narratives to suit their fictional purposes” (p. 101). Isaac Asimov famously coined the term “pocket franistan” to describe the frequent appearance in science fiction stories of some gizmo or gadget that would save the beseiged city or ship just in the nick of time (think of one of Wesley Crusher’s science projects saving the imperiled USS Enterprise). But this happens in all fiction, even realist novels. And it is frequently encountered in the Bible (Acts 7, where Paul is conveniently present at the stoning of Stephen) and the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4, where Nephi, stumbling along in the dark alleys of Jerusalem, happens upon a drunk and prostrate Laban). Of course, implausible things do happen in history. Brigham Young really did meet and talk with Jim Bridger on the trail in western Wyoming as the first company of Mormons journeyed to Utah.
- “All literary works are orphaned at birth” (p. 117). Both novels and scripture take on an interpretive life of their own once published. The particular conditions that gave rise to the text, including the author’s intent (if any), may influence but don’t control future reception and interpretation.
- “Fiction does not primarily mean a piece of writing which is not true” (p. 121). As Eagleton notes, “Works of fiction can be full of factual information.” Furthermore, characters and events that are embellished (or simply made up) can convey truths on the human condition (or at least views about it) as easily as (and perhaps more easily than) perfectly accurate factual narratives. There is no particular controversy in applying this idea to scripture. No one thinks the value of the parable of the Good Samaritan turns on whether there was an actual Samaritan that helped an actual Jew in distress on the road to Jericho.
So what is your favorite passage in the Book of Mormon from a literary perspective? What verse moves you every time you read it? Here’s mine (hey, I’m a simple guy):
And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.