Review: Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Michael Austin’s book, Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time is a quick, insightful and though-provoking read about the Book of Mormon.  The book began its life as a series of blog posts at By Common Consent, documenting some of Austin’s thoughts as he read the Book of Mormon in-depth for the first time in decades (after spending a significant amount of time during those decades focused on literary criticism and Biblical studies).  The book, published by the By Common Consent Press earlier this year, takes the form of a collection of short essays that, as put by the author, are “not scholarly articles, or even well-thought-out personal essays; rather, they are the record of a deeply personal experiment upon the word.”[1]

A bit of background on the author: Michael Austin is a former English professor who currently serves as an academic administrator in Evansville, Indiana.  He has published several books and articles, with the subjects of political discourse in the United States of America and literary criticism of the Bible and Mormon Literature being some of the notable topics.  A few of his published books include Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, Inc., 2014), That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Prometheus, 2012), and Reading the World: Ideas that Matter (W. W. Norton & Company).  He also has written for the By Common Consent blog and Sunstone magazine over the years and received the Association for Mormon Letters Award in Criticism.  As he notes in Buried Treasures, his training focused on reading “closely, intensely, looking for symbols and types and patterns,” which he brings to bear on the Book of Mormon with both spirituality and wit.

The essays in the book—by the constraints placed upon them by their origin as blog posts—are short, varied, and readable.  In general, Michael Austin avoids the issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, focusing on the text itself.  The author’s background is in literary criticism, so most often, chapters focus on discussing literary techniques used in the Book of Mormon (with types and type-scenes being a favorite topic) or rethinking certain narratives, characters, or groups based on clues in the text itself.  This focus means that it bears some resemblance to Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010).  (Indeed, despite Austin’s statement that he “didn’t read any” of the “work on the literature, history, and doctrine of the Book of Mormon” published by previous authors so he didn’t spend his time responding “to other people’s experience with the text,” he does draw on Hardy’s work in several of the essays.)  Other chapters in Buried Treasure take a more spiritual or pastoral turn in their reflections on the meaning of sections in the Book of Mormon, such as his reflections on how God is good while discussing the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi or the meaning of the baptismal covenant recorded in Mosiah.  Yet other chapters reflect on connections between the Book of Mormon and the Bible or Biblical research.  All told, the 44 short essays collected in the book cover a variety of topics as Austin explores the Book of Mormon.

One of the biggest highlights for me was Austin’s discussion of type scenes that the Book of Mormon shares with the Bible.  For example, one essay discusses type scenes through the lens of similarities and differences between Alma the Younger’s dramatic conversion in the Book of Mormon and Paul’s dramatic conversion in the New Testament.  While the experiences are similar enough that Austin points them out as type scenes, he also makes a case that the two individuals in question are quite opposite in where they are coming from.  Ultimately, the conclusion he draws is that: “Despite very different starting positions, however, Alma the Younger and Saul end up having almost exactly the same conversion experience with exactly the same results. The two narratives, in this case, encourage us to universalize the possibility of conversion—to remove the possibility of context-specific interpretations and understand that real, meaningful change is ALWAYS possible for us and for those we love.”  Many of his discussions of type scenes are among the most thought-provoking and interesting chapters in Buried Treasures.

In fair warning, I suspect that Austin’s efforts to challenge traditional readings of the Book of Mormon will bother some Latter-day Saints.  For example, at the end of an essay that discuss shifting views about race and Lamanites as ancestors of all Native American, he states that: “We might profitably use this recent shift in what was once an important part of LDS theology as an invitation to show more humility about other things that seem unequivocally true today, but which may not seem quite so true tomorrow.”  Given how much a statement of that sort undermines trust in the Church as it currently stands, some may find such assertions disturbing, and that is not the only time he makes a statement along those lines.  Traditional heroes also often come out as flawed figures, villains are made more relatable, and sometimes readers are encouraged to go against what seems to be the author of the Book of Mormon’s intentions.  For example, in discussing the war chapters of Alma, he states his feeling that: “We should read the story of Captain Moroni as a cautionary tale—even though Mormon clearly intended it to be a moral example—as so much of what he does cannot be reconciled with contemporary values that I am not willing to part with,” even though “everything Captain Moroni did was consistent with the moral understanding of his culture.”  His point was that if “we want to use Book of Mormon as the basis for anything in our own lives, we have to be willing to evaluate the morality of its characters by the standards of the world that we want to live in” rather than merely trying to understand their world.  His occasional treatment of prophets and heroes in the Book of Mormon in this vein might be viewed by some with umbrage.  Hence, it is likely that some Latter-day Saints would object to Michael Austin’s conclusions in at least a few of his essays that are collected in Buried Treasures.

With a variety of topics and approaches among the essays collected in Buried Treasures, there is a lot to think about.  Even though I didn’t always agree with Michael Austin’s conclusions, I appreciated that his essays made me think more carefully about the Book of Mormon.  I also appreciated that Austin was able to do this in a way that felt like light reading.  While I suspect that not everyone will appreciate the more challenging aspects of Michael Austin’s wrestle with the Book of Mormon, I really enjoyed exploring what he had to say from his “deeply personal experiment upon the word.”

 

Footnote:

[1] Austin, Michael. Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. Kindle Edition.  All other quotes from the book are the same reference, so will be omitted in the footnotes.

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