The Bible, as we have received it, sets out the drama of salvation with its wrenching fall and crucifixion, but joyous resurrection and exaltation. Though its compilation is in many ways ad hoc, there is a satisfyingly comedic structure to the whole. As Terryl Givens puts it in his The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, just out from Oxford University Press, “There is a neat symmetry . . . Primordial creation is balanced by apocalypse and heavenly postscript . . . All tears are wiped away, and the primal fall and alienation are remedied by reunion under the beneficent reign of God the Father” (p61). The Book of Mormon is very different.
Certainly, the Book of Mormon describes the state of our first parents, their fall, Christ’s condescension and atonement, the resurrection of the just, and the song of redeeming love. In its content, it describes the same divine comedy, and perhaps even more poignantly, with its more personal framing and scale. We are shown why the flaming sword barring Eden was a sign of love. Christ speaks from the heavens to those in the New World, while the disciples in the Old World are still guessing what his death means, and calls them to partake of the redemption he had wrought. Alma speaks of the song of redeeming love as something his audience has already felt to sing.
Yet in form, the Book of Mormon is inescapably tragic. Mormon’s narrative concludes with “an Armageddon that he witnesses and in which he anticipates that he will perish” (Givens p61). Nor are his people killed by a fire from heaven, or a destroying angel, but by their own kin, named after rival brothers and taught to hate one another. If the tragic form of Mormon’s narrative was not clear enough, Moroni treats us to a review of nearly the same story, played out by the people of Ether, before signing off himself.
What are we to make of this striking contrast, and of the tragic form of this book written specially for our time?