Review: 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction

I think one of the most repeated refrains I see in comment threads in the bloggernacle is that our Church meetings generally lack the vibrancy and ability to deeply engage with the scriptures and ideas in ways that can stimulate interest and growth.  As Terryl L. Givens put it in a recent interview, “one of the main reasons we’re losing people is that we’re boring them to death.”[1]  The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is one organization that is working to provide resources that provide thought-provoking discussions, deep thought, and spiritual growth to members of the Church.  One of their most ambitious projects this year has been the production of a series of short books discussing the Book of Mormon—the Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series.  I recently finished Terryl Givens’s 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, and really enjoyed the experience of reading it.

I suspect that the purpose of the series is partly two-fold—to excite people about the richness of our scriptural cannon and to introduce the work of some of the great minds at the Institute’s disposal to a broader audience. (Though certainly not all of those great minds—I was disappointed to realize that Philip Barlow would not, in fact, be giving us a 467 page discussion of Amaleki’s 18 verses, for example.)[2]  Terryl Givens is certainly a heavy-weight hitter in that category, having published significant volumes about both the Book of Mormon (By the Hand of Mormon and The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction) and Latter-day Saint Theology (Wrestling the Angel, Feeding the Flock, etc.).  In fact, in one publication of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, he was called “the most prolific, best known, and, perhaps, most important Mormon theologian writing today.”[3]  That is high praise, but has a fair amount of truth to it.

This book is a small, quick read and rather than going through the text of Second Nephi comprehensively, it addresses major issues brought up in 2 Nephi in four main chapters.  The introduction focuses on the idea that Nephi split his book into two parts, diving them at the point where it is announced that Jerusalem has fallen.  Givens uses this as the setup to say that the “tasks that Nephi launches in his second book” are that he “has to clarify and reaffirm to his people their place within covenantal history, after the cataclysm of Jerusalem’s fall. And he must teach the full meaning of a covenant. … He has to bring together the covenant’s ancient roots and its future fulfillment, centering and orienting that covenant around the person of Jesus Christ.”  The first chapter follows up on this by discussing the Everlasting Covenant, putting the Abrahamic Covenant into the context of being an expression of a covenant made between God and humankind in the premortal existence that is “the master framework that encompasses the entire gospel.”  The second chapter discusses how the Abrahamic covenant continued to apply to Lehi’s family even though they were no longer living in the Levant land promised to Abraham, developing the idea of a “movable land of promise” and that “Zion is not dependent on place,” as also demonstrated in history of the modern Church.[4]  Thus, the first two chapters focus on the first of Nephi’s goal, the reaffirmation of Lehi’s people (and ours) within covenantal history.

The other two chapters are oriented around Jesus Christ and the Gospel as articulated in 2nd Nephi.  The third chapter discusses the Christocentric nature of the text, particularly addressing the issue of foreknowledge about the Christ among the Nephites hundreds of years before his birth (pre-Christian Christians).  The fourth and final chapter dwells on important “points of theological clarity and correction [that] emerge” through Nephi’s efforts to discuss the covenant and affirm Jesus as the Christ.  These points are: “the fall as fortunate, the principal of opposition, teachings on atonement, the centrality of agency, and the doctrine of Christ.”  This last chapter was, perhaps, the most interesting part for me, as it laid the groundwork for some interesting discussion about atonement and Jesus the Christ as “our present Hope and Healer.”[5]

The style and content of the book resembles previous works by Givens (though I’ll hasten to point out, that’s not a bad thing).  For example, his discussions of the Everlasting Covenant and baptism are similar to what is found in Feeding the Flock.  His discussion of pre-Christian Christians resembles the discussion of the same topic in The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction.  His discussion of agency and atonement has a fair amount in common with what he discusses in both his essay in the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism and the book co-written with his wife Fiona, The Christ Who Heals.  The book also follows Givens’s established style of turning to the revelations, writings, sermons, and experiences of Joseph Smith to flesh out his ideas and using other Western thinkers and theologians as foils to compare them against.  While the discussion is rooted in 2 Nephi throughout, much of it is handled as 2 Nephi illuminated though the broader lens of the Restoration.

One area of the book that I felt could have been strengthened was the discussion of Isaiah in 2 Nephi.  In one interview, Givens expressed that he hoped “to at least provide a pretty good explanation of why Nephi puts such emphasis on Isaiah and how we might more willingly embrace the challenge of trying to make Isaiah relevant to ourselves in our situation today.”[6]  He does make that effort on at least two occasions in the book, indicating that Nephi quotes Isaiah to his family to reaffirm that “they had not been abandoned by God and that their people would be brought back into God’s fold.”  He follows this statement with a list of themes in the Isaiah texts of 2 Nephi that support that goal.  Later, while talking about feasting on the word, Givens discusses how Nephi appropriates Isaiah, working “to adapt Isaiah’s words to his people’s particular predicament … repurposing them to fit a people and place Isaiah may never have had in mind.”[7]  There was, however, very little discussion of what Isaiah may have had in mind when the text was written (Assyria, for example, isn’t a word in the book).  A discussion of that original context could have been used to strengthen the discussion of how Nephi adapts Isaiah.  Givens also does little to grapple with contemporary scholarship about Isaiah.  For example, rather than addressing issues of what parts of Isaiah are truly Messianic when viewed in context, Givens simply states that: “Contemporary biblical scholarship may dispute the extent to which Isaiah’s prophecies are Messianic; however, Nephi explicitly invokes Isaiah because ‘he verily saw my Redeemer’ and ‘my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ.’” [8]  Saying it that way felt a bit blithe when compared to, say, Joseph Spencer’s discussion of the issue in The Vision of All.  Thus, I think my only real complaint about the book was that there wasn’t more investment in discussing Isaiah’s place in Second Nephi.

I recognize, however, that the book is intended to be brief, touching on topics enough to show new ways to read the text and sharing interesting thoughts to chew on while studying the text for ourselves.  Terryl Givens’s book hits the mark on those accounts.  The prose throughout the book is beautiful and the discussion is stimulating and interesting.  I feel like the discussion of the Atonement is the centerpiece of the book and that it goes beyond some of ways that Terryl Givens has approached the topic before.  There was a greater emphasis on the idea of the Atonement of Jesus Christ being an at-one-ment or reconciliation with God.  As Givens writes, “The word atonement should not serve primarily as a description of heroic sacrifice—but as description of the product, the outcome, of that sacrifice. Atonement is not a legal term referencing reparation or ransom or payment for sin … it refers to a mode of being that the sacrifice is meant to accomplish.”  There is also greater emphasis on the importance of being grateful for the resurrection provided through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.  For example, after quoting Jacob’s rhapsody of praise about the greatness of God in providing the resurrection (2 Nephi 9:8-13), Givens remarks that: “The atonement addresses sin as well as death; but—as we might expect in a text that was not filtered through a traditional Christian lens—abundant life, not forgiveness, is the focus” in Second Nephi.[9]  There is a lot of rich discussion about atonement in the book—more than I can or should cover in a brief review, but that discussion is a huge part of what makes the book a gem.

So, in brief, I recommend picking up a copy of Terryl Givens’s 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.  It’s a quick read and well worth the time and (the very affordable) cost.  It does a lot of great contextualizing of Second Nephi and drawing out the richness of the theology presented by Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob in the second book of the Book of Mormon and making that theology and their experiences relevant to a Latter-day Saint audience.

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Briefly Second Nephi, with Terryl Givens” MIPodcast #99, https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-givens/.

[2] “Announcing our new ‘Briefer Theological Introductions’ (April Fool’s Day), 1 April 2020, The Maxwell Institute, https://mi.byu.edu/briefer-theological-intros-april-1/.

[3] Carrie McLachlan, James McLachlan, Loyd Isao Ericson, “Editor’s Introduction,” Element: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, 7:1 (Spring 2018).

[4] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition.

[5] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition.

[6] “Briefly Second Nephi, with Terryl Givens” MIPodcast #99.

[7] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition

[8] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition

[9] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition.

2 comments for “Review: 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction

  1. Taiwan Missionary
    June 8, 2020 at 3:02 pm

    Chad:

    I totally agree that “our Church meetings generally lack the vibrancy and ability to deeply engage with the scriptures and ideas in ways that can stimulate interest and growth.” Terryl Givens’ crack that one of the main reasons that we are losing people is that we are boring them to death is unfortunately true.

    One of the problems that causes this, I think, stemmed from the correlation movement that started several decades ago: the Church found that there was a lot of inconsistency in what was being taught, and so uniformity of curriculum was implemented. In actual fact, that also meant finding the lowest common denominator from which to teach. If we want interesting and vibrant talks and lessons, the price that that carries is strange, heterodox, often half-baked musings among the interesting stuff. The Church had seen what was happening to the Catholic and Protestant Churches during the intellectual ferment of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (think Vatican II and conservative reaction) with liberal-conservative splits, and the Church did not want the Mormon message being diluted. So it opted for control.
    I long for the days of GC when a speaker would start by saying, “I haven’t the slightest idea what I am going to say to you today.” I listen to GC and profit from the talks, but it is dull. There are times that I would like to give GC a general laxative mixed with chili peppers.

    I think that church curriculum has become a victim of its own success. I used to read the Ensign with enjoyment, and many of its articles had intellectual heft. No more. I think that the Church realizes what has happened, and is trying to liven things up a bit (the first two volumes of Saints are promising), but it is hard to turn around a train that has been speeding in one direction for 60 years, and to change a Church culture that has become so correlated that it now views intellectual inquiry with suspicion (so much for DC 93).

    I would like Church talks and classes to be more interesting—but that also makes a lot of people very nervous. There was a news story a few years ago that made the national press about a Honolulu Bishop who fired a S.S. Teacher for using one of the Church’s approved essays on difficult issues, that anyone can access on the Church’s website. A class member had asked the teacher about reasons for the Priesthood Ban against American blacks, so the teacher used the essay on that topic. That upset some Ward members, and they complained to the Bishop.

    It is sad when you can get in trouble for using Church-approved sources in Church-approved settings.

    So I make periodic trips to Benchmark Books and choose what to read among Mormonism’s uncorrelated authors. I like Givens and Bushman, and maybe it is a sign of progress that Deseret Book now carries their titles. But we have a sizable group in the Church who do not WANT interesting; they want pablum, and they want YOU to have only pablum.

    Thanks for your post. I am going to get Givens’ book on / Nephi.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    June 8, 2020 at 10:06 pm

    Yeah, Correlation has its good sides and its downsides. The level the curricula is geared towards is one downside and the general culture it has encouraged of sticking only to the manual and fearing all else is another.

    In any case, you’ll have to let me know what you think about the book.

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