In On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, we get a fascinating peek into Richard Bushman’s psyche during the time immediately after the publication of his monumental work, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. It is delightful to find out that he checked the book’s rank on Amazon several times per day, but sobering to see his reaction to the book’s reception by the non-Mormon scholarly community.
In a letter to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, he wrote: “The first of the serious reviews of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling arrived this past week. . . . Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp’s reaction to my book is probably about as sympathetic as we can hope for. . . . The review tells me that we cannot expect a positive reaction to the biography–or to Joseph Smith–from scholars. As Laurie says, an epistemological gap yawns between my view of the Prophet and that of most academics. . . . I had hoped my book would bridge this gap, but after this review, I can see it will go only part way. I will be consistently seen as a partisan observer” (pages 101-102). As further reviews showed, his analysis was, unfortunately, spot on: the divide is too wide to be bridged even by a first-rate treatment of the life of Joseph Smith, if its author is a faithful member of the LDS Church.
Which brings us to Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, an attempt to bridge the gap through a literary reading of the Book of Mormon. He writes, “I will leave it to others to prove or disprove the historical and religious claims of the book; my goal is to help anyone interested in the Book of Mormon, for whatever reason, become a better, more perceptive reader” (page xvi). That is a laudable goal and, for the LDS reader, he succeeds brilliantly; this book belongs not on the shelf but on the desk–where it can be frequently consulted–of every serious student of the Book of Mormon. But as much as one might wish otherwise, it is difficult to imagine a sympathetic response to this book from most non-LDS readers. Hardy asks us to look closely at the text “without worrying too much about whether the mind ultimately responsible . . . was that of Mormon or Joseph Smith” (page xiv), but how closely can the non-LDS reader look before noticing a terrible dilemma: as Hardy himself points out, the Book of Mormon has the marks of careful craftsmanship, but “the more complicated and interconnected the text, the less likely it is that Joseph Smith made it up” (page xv). The greater the literary complexity of the Book of Mormon, the more likely it is what it claims to be, which places–to put it mildly–a certain burden on the reader. The non-LDS reader cannot avoid questions of historicity when Hardy writes on the very first page: “The Book of Mormon [was] produced in a sudden rush of revelation as a young, poorly educated New York farmer dictated the text, one time through” (page 3). While it should be possible to analyze the Book of Mormon as literature while bypassing sticky questions of historicity, this doesn’t seem to work in practice. Hardy examines Nephi’s appropriation of Isaiah and Moroni’s inclusion of passages that echo Hebrews because these are necessary exercises for understanding what Nephi and Moroni were doing as narrators, but they require redaction criticism, which means thinking about historicity. The fact that Rough Stone Rolling couldn’t completely bridge the divide–even when people regularly enjoy biographies of subjects with whom they would disagree on virtually every topic–does not bode well for the reception of a book that, despite itself, forces the reader to consider the literary complexity of the Book of Mormon on every page. Hardy notes that “this is a book designed to polarize readers” (page 9) and he is right.
But the likely cold shoulder from non-LDS readers should not stop Mormons from embracing this book with open arms. Hardy’s analysis of the Book of Mormon has more than one moment of pure genius; his insights into the text are often jaw-droppingly compelling.
Perhaps the most difficult and most crucial component of a close reading is noticing what is missing and Grant Hardy is unusually adept at doing precisely that. How many readers have slogged through the Book of Mormon dozens of times without realizing that Nephi never reports on his own kingship or his own sons? Or that when Lehi gathers his family and pronounces final blessings on his posterity, “Nephi’s blessing is conspicuous for its absence” (page 51)? Hardy points out that Mormon “never speaks of war figuratively or makes it a metaphor for Christian living” (page 108) and, unlike Nephi and Moroni, never quotes scriptures at length. He notes that there are no stories in the Book of Mormon of good men who fall (no Sauls or Davids), that Captain Moroni never “engage[s] in personal acts of faith” (page 174), that Samuel the Lamanite never mentions Jesus’ visit to the Americas, that Jesus never uses parables in the Book of Mormon, and that “a close reading of Ether suggests that Jaredite culture was almost entirely non-Christian” (page 235).
Hardy also excels at reading against the grain of the text. He finds in Lehi’s lack of response to Nephi’s killing of Laban a telling gap, one filled with something designed to distract the reader: an argument between Sariah and Lehi (and an artfully structured one at that). Not only does he present a symapthetic portrait of Laman and Lemuel, but it doesn’t undermine the message of the text but rather enhances it. Similarly, he finds evidence that Mormon strives to create a heroic version of Captain Moroni that might skirt the edge of accuracy (“it is hard to see how the accusation ‘thou art a child of hell’ might have been a successful opening for negotiations” [page 148]), but the end result is a greater appreciation for both men.
A third strength of Understanding the Book of Mormon is Hardy’s gift for noticing textual parallels. His cases for reading Nephi as deliberately structuring his story on the model of the Old Testament Joseph, for comparing Abinadi and Moses, and for seeing the Jaredite record as reversing the Fall are very compelling. And, finally, Hardy’s ability to elucidate characterization is nothing short of astounding. Nephi, Zeniff, Mormon, Captain Moroni, Helaman, and Moroni, are all liberated from what Joseph Smith called “the little narrow prison . . . of paper [,] pen [,] and ink” and into the kind of fully-formed reality that just might keep the reader awake during Sunday School.
Understanding the Book of Mormon invites comparison to Terryl L. Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launches a New World Religion–although that work is a reception history of the Book of Mormon instead of a literary analysis–and Richard Dilworth Rust’s Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon. Hardy covers some of the same terrain as Rust, but Hardy’s method of organizing material by narrator (as opposed to Rust’s of organizing by literary element) yields a more comprehensive reading and reveals more about the character of the narrators, while Hardy’s consideration of gaps and reading against the grain exposes insights unexplored by Rust.
So while it seems rather unlikely that non-LDS readers will be able to accept Hardy’s reading, Understanding the Book of Mormon is a groundbreaking work in the analysis of the Book of Mormon and the wide (LDS) audience that it deserves will be amply rewarded with stunning new insights.
Slightly adapted from my review in Dialogue.