Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: Understanding the Book of Mormon

For Christmas I got Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide. It came recommended by Bushman, a name I respect even if I haven't read his work yet, and looked like a different kind of scriptural study than I had done before. Hardy was the chief editor of the Reader's Edition of the Book of Mormon published a few years ago, so he is intimately familiar with it and its structure in ways few others are.

I like it overall and there are several parts of it that I'm going to take particular note of and jot in my own scriptures; but it also has some pretty large flaws (to my way of thinking) that prevent me from universally recommending it. In this post I'm going to talk about the book itself and in another I'll stick to specific things he talks about that I want to comment on or remember.

Hardy has set himself a difficult task, addressing both people who believe that the Book of Mormon is the word of God and those who believe Joseph Smith is a devilish deceiver. It would be much easier in some respects if he addressed only one or the other, but it also provides him some freedoms. Saying from the outset that he is not out to demonstrate the truthfulness of the Book gives him certain latitudes with both audiences that he would not have if he were only addressing one. It adjusts expectations, so that LDS readers aren't put off by a lack of testimony thumping for instance. Or at least, I'm not put off.

His goal is to convince both LDS and skeptics that the Book of Mormon deserves more serious, concerted thought than he believes we/they have given it. The prophets have said little different.

Hardy is a literary analyst. That's his job. It's what he does. To me, the book is less about understanding the Book of Mormon -- which I interpret as understanding what the Book of Mormon is trying convey -- as it is a literary analysis of the Book's three major narrators (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni). That's not a bad thing, but it is an acquired taste and a specific purpose. If you don't go looking for literary analysis you will likely be disappointed in not finding whatever else you were looking for.

He asks over and over what we can learn about the narrators from what they chose to include in their records, what glaring omissions there are, and how they incorporated their selections. This makes for intellectually interesting reading, though I object when he says several times that it is the analysis of the narrators that makes the Book "interesting."

Particularly this second part opens wide the doors to unfounded speculation and this is where I find most of my difficulties. Like many religious authors, he starts out well by saying phrases like it is possible that... or one story that is consistent with the evidence is...; then he inevitably ends up with phrases like certainly, surely, and it is obvious that... when there is nothing certain, sure, or obvious about it. My wife found his characterizations of Nephi "unfaithful." I came away feeling more that he was trying to be deliberately provocative in an attempt to make both audiences take this kind of analysis more seriously: Okay, so you don't like my interpretation: what's yours? Despite that, there were some interesting and poetic thoughts I liked and some I will ponder on more.

His discussion of Mormon is much more laudatory, praising Mormon for executing a very difficult set of goals and balancing his roles as historian, prophet, and author well. Because of Hardy's long association with the structure of the Book, he is able to bring to our attention unique parallels between sections, demonstrating that when Mormon or Moroni borrow phrasing from other parts of the book, it is deliberate because those particular phrases are used nowhere else. Hardy is careful to quote the Book at length, highlighting key phrases and words, and he does an outstanding job of providing context for all quotes. Indeed, the context is the message for him.

I recommend his book for people interested in treating the Book of Mormon like literature. He does his job and he does it well. Just don't go looking for something that isn't there.

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