Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thoughts from "Understanding the Book of Mormon"

I reviewed Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon last week and today wanted to write up some of my notes from it. You may recall I argued that the book is less about understanding the Book of Mormon and more about a literary analysis of the narrators of the Book. So let's open with a quotation he pulls out about what literary analysis is:
"[Literary interpretation] is not a matter of discovering truths about a world so much as assigning thematic significance to component parts of a work. It is a search for coherence and sense. It involves making connections by subsuming more and more elements in a work under a network of thematic elements.
To someone like Joy, the admission that he is reading scripture without trying for Truth but mere thematic significance is "pointless." But let us allow him to make his case that studying the narrators is interesting at least. He makes an interesting point starting out about one of the key differences between the Bible and the Book of Mormon in terms of tone and narration, which is why he wants to interest us in the narrators:
The narrators in the Hebrew Bible are anonymous, omniscient, reticent, and unobtrusive. They speak from no particular time or place, reporting words, actions, and secret thoughts (even, at times, what God is thinking). They rarely comment on the story, offer judgments, mention themselves, refer to their own editing, or address their audience directly. We are seldom told how we should react to specific incidents, and as a result, biblical narratives are generally open to multiple readings and interpretations. This is part of the literary appeal. ... [In the Book of Mormon] the first round of interpretation has been done for us... . In summary, we might say that while the Bible appears to be divine in its authorship and human in its textual transmission, the Book of Mormon seems to be just the opposite -- it claims to have been written by specific, historical individuals but was transmitted to modern readers through divine intervention.
Unlike in the Bible, the narrators in the Book of Mormon are known characters with purposes, agendas, and limitations. I'll put some of his thoughts about those narrators below the fold if you want to keep reading:
Without going into detail about his characterizations of Nephi, which I already mentioned jarred Joy and me, some of Hardy's comments on the story of the brass plates in Chapters 3-5 of First Nephi are worth repeating:
Before that fateful night some family members could have held out the hope that their flight was a temporary matter ... [but now] there is no going back. ...
My own characterization of Laman and Lemuel is that they really want to have it both ways. They follow the prophet, but only half-heartedly. They want the summer cottage in Babylon. They are willing to serve, if it's convenient. They think of themselves as being righteous but aren't willing to really find out for themselves if it is true or commit themselves to live that way. God will not allow any of us be fence sitters. Trying to have it both ways builds up a tension inside a person that has to be resolved one way or the other, and they gradually and progressively choose to reject the prophets. Cutting off their opportunity to leave daddy and return to Jerusalem is key in that. One part of Hardy's discussion of 1st Nephi 5 is quite good:
Nephi has portrayed his mother as a dynamic, changing character; with each repetition there is also development. Sariah moves from doubt to acceptance [and] to see the Lord's hand in their family's history. ... Faith was a crucial issue for Nephi, and it appears throughout his writings. How do people come to accept the words of prophets as the word of the Lord? ... Sariah provides one particular answer. Her husband predicts a number of things; when one of those turns out to be true ... she is inclined to trust Lehi on the rest. ... Sariah's grasp of those principles is meant to be a model for readers.
One of my favorite quotes for a long time has been "All that I have seen [leads me to] trust God for all that I have not seen."

He also notes that Lehi apparently never gives up on Laman and Lemuel, encouraging them to repent and reminding them of God's mercy even on his deathbed after they have plotted his demise several times. Nephi speaks a lot more about justice, having seen their eventual downfall in a vision and feeling a sense of fatality (if not futility) about the whole affair. Even in recounting the same vision of the Tree of Life, Lehi focuses on the river protecting the righteous while Nephi says it is a punishment on the wicked.

This leads to his most poetic conclusion, that it is odd when Nephi sees the vision of the Tree of Life, he does not ask to taste the fruit, but rather to understand it: "The Spirit leaves, an angel takes over, and in the end Nephi is wiser but not happier. For the rest of his life, and through the entirety of his literary labors, Nephi works through the implications of that choice." As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, "better had I Lived ignorant of future, so had borne My part of evil only, each day's lot Enough to bear..."

Hardy has a lot to say about Nephi's adaptations of scripture, how his incorporations of scriptural phrases both supports them and puts them in a new prophetic context. Nephi doesn't just liken scriptures when he tells us he is doing it, but his reworkings of Isaiah put his own life and efforts into perspective and help him bear with his trials.

Hardy's discussion of Mormon is much more laudatory, praising Mormon for juggling three duties as fastidious historian, artistic author, and as prophet and moral guide. Among his more interesting comments, he notes that "Mormon himself is not a member of the lineage he chronicles" and that "Mormon never speaks of war figuratively or makes it a metaphor for Christian living." His assumption/conclusion is that Mormon believes that an accurate retelling of history will itself be convincing to people that the remainder of the prophets' prophecies will come true - just like the Sariah narrative.

In discussing how Mormon uses embedded narratives, he talks about Zeniff, who is not only the only person to give the Lamanites' point of view, but who does so at the climax of his piece of writing, giving it a lot of emphasis. He talks about Zeniff's great long-suffering and willingness to see the good in everyone, explaining some of his overzealousness and letting Noah become king after him.

There are a lot of phrases and stories that keep coming back. Two stories of missionaries, two stories of battle commanders, two stories of prophets being rejected and people being burned, and on and on. Mormon is trying to help us learn about each event from the other one: how are they the same, how different, and what do these reoccurrences mean? Hardy talks about Abinadi as a type of Moses before Pharaoh and of Alma and Amulek following Abinadi but oddly enough NOT following Moses' experience. -- Our work is not finished, therefore they kill us not, etc. Nephi and Lehi then follow Alma and Amulek, even to the point of being in the same jail, but where the guards of A&A are killed, the guards of N&L are converted. Some of the parallels, he argues, show that both competence (e.g. Limhi's people make the guards drunk and escape) and humility (Alma's people just pray and are delivered miraculously) are pleasing and approved of by God, but one set brings about more miraculous and clearly divine results. He also compares Alma's preaching with Mosiah's sons' and Capt'n Moroni's warring with Helaman's.

His vision of Moroni was the most novel without being jarring. His vision of Mormon is of someone who believes that historical evidence and recounting God's dealings with His people will convince people to change. His vision of Moroni, however, sees our day, sees people rejecting the entire book as fiction instead of history, and so relies heavily on the converting power of the Holy Spirit to communicate the truth. So he stumbles over his weakness in writing (until Ether 12, after which he doesn't mention it again) and calls on God to change our hearts again and again.

In the Book of Ether (where he makes some really unfounded generalizations), he does have one very interesting parallel: the story of the brother of Jared as a reversal of the fall, retracing the scriptural account backwards from the Tower to the Gareden: the family leaves the Tower, gathers animals and seeds like Noah, is chastened for wickedness like the people before Noah, then driven forth into the wilderness as Adam and Eve were from the Garden, God touches the sixteen stones (parallel to the fruit), and he returns to the presence of God.

The one time I felt the Spirit while reading Hardy was as he discussed Moroni's three attempts to conclude the Nephite record. Mormon 8-9 are chock full of unique references that hearken back to 2nd Nephi 3, the end of 2nd Nephi, and Mormon's last writings. By constructing his first conclusion this way, he is "linking the first and last generations of the Nephite history into an integrated whole. ... And then, in the last several verses of Mormon 9, he slips from the first-person singular into the plural, speaking not only for himself but also explicitly for his father and all those "who have written before him". Is it as if he were saying, From Nephi to Mormon to me. And it ends here." In his third conclusion in Moroni 10, he takes this borrowing further by using unique phrases from most of the Book's authors, including Amaleki, Lehi, Enos, and Jacob ... all of them from their own farewell statements. And then, when Moroni appears to Joseph Smith, what does he do? He is "still avidly quoting (and adapting) scripture."

Hardy also points out that the rawness of Mormon 9 is shocking for two reasons: this is what Mormon sounds like when he isn't being an editor for one thing, but more than that "the contrast between living with or without God could not be made more strongly."

On phrases that are repeated in interesting ways
"keep God's statues and commandments" appears 24 times in the Old Testament and 8 in the Book of Mormon accompanied by "according to the law of Moses", but never after Christ's visitation because the law of Moses had been done away.
"stand as witnesses" is only used in Mosiah 18 (the baptismal covenant) and Mos 24:13-14 as they escape.
"fair sons and daughters" is used by Mormon talking about the genocide and by Jesus talking about the calamity.
Parallel language is also used in Alma 27:12 and Mos 24:23 as two people escape their enemies.
The only time Mormon says "verily, verily" is to tell us that Captain Moroni was a really, really good guy.
Ether 12:27 -- Hebrews 11:32-34 -- 2nd Nephi 33:4

You may notice in these notes and my comments, Hardy's book is not about understanding the messages of the Book of Mormon. There is very little talk about the Atonement or Christianity itself, how Nephite Christianity is different, how the Book of Mormon expounds on and complements the Bible's message of salvation, what the mission of Jesus Christ is or any of the fundamental points the prophets set out to make. It is more concerned with how than what, and the why leaves much to be desired. Of course, given how didactic the Book of Mormon is (one of his favorite words), he may feel it unnecessary: you can't read the Book of Mormon seriously without coming away with its testimony of Jesus Christ and he wants to present something new This is an intellectual exercise. I like such exercises. The thing is, if this were all anyone read, they would not come away understanding the Book of Mormon.

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