Every semester, one of my principal goals in my tax classes is to get my students to engage with the Internal Revenue Code. And it’s harder than you might think: often they don’t read the Code itself, focusing instead on the explanations in their casebook.[fn1] And their aversion to reading the Code is completely understandable: unlike court decisions, the mainstay of law school, there is no narrative flow, no character, no imagery, nothing that we traditionally latch onto in order to immerse ourselves in a text.
And frankly, using the casebook isn’t a bad short-term decision. The casebook explains what the Code provisions mean and how they’re applied, at least in simple situations.But in the longer term, relying on the casebook’s explanation does my students a disservice. While it helps them be able to answer my questions in class, and while it likely helps them do decently on my exams, if they rely on the casebook at the expense of reading through and struggling with the Code, they don’t develop their skills in reading and understanding the Internal Revenue Code. Ultimately, while their casebook helps them understand the tax law on a surface level (and, for that matter, provides a necessary starting point), if they’ve read the casebook at the expense of reading the Code, they’re going to be in trouble when my final asks them to read and apply a Code section that we never read in class.[fn2]
In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, we often suffer from a similar problem in approaching the Book of Mormon. Not that we ignore the Book of Mormon—as a Church, we seem to have done a remarkable job responding to prophetic encouragement to open the book and read. But I’m not convinced that we’re reading the text so much as we are reading the 180 years of tradition that have grown up around the text. That is to say, I’ve been familiar with Book of Mormon stories since at least Primary. And generally, I’ve heard the same lessons derived from the same stories, and it’s hard not to think about those lessons as I read the stories.
I’m not suggesting that we eliminate our current reading methodology—I suspect that our narrative familiarity with the Book of Mormon helps us slog through the chloroform-y parts.[fn3] Still, sometimes I think the common knowledge we’ve grown up gets in the way of our engaging the text.
In Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, Grant Hardy provides a method to read against our accumulated tradition and a sustained example of such a reading. And the result, as others have noted, is virtuosic, a self-contained exegetical reading of (virtually[fn4]) the entire Book of Mormon.[fn5] But in its virtuosity, his work is not replicable, at least by most of us. Or at least by me—I have to find time to study my scriptures around work, paying attention to my wife and my daughters, cooking, cleaning, blogging, and millions of other things. I probably could, if I devoted the time, do a careful reading of the whole Book of Mormon. But I probably won’t, at least not for the next, say, 15 years.
So is there any value to me—and to those of you in my situation—in Hardy’s book, other than giving us a pretty, self-contained, really cool reading of the Book of Mormon? It takes some work, but using Hardy’s insights doesn’t have to involve an extended analysis of the whole Book of Mormon. It can be equally valuable in helping us engage with smaller chunks of the text.
Generally, to the extent that we, as a Church, have an exegetical approach to the Book of Mormon, I think we take Nephi’s explanation of his approach to scriptures as normative. Note that, if we look at Nephi’s narrative intentions—and we believe Nephi understood himself to be writing scripture—then we can infer from his narratological intentions that he intends for us to read what he wrote in order to apply it to ourselves. We can read it that way, or we can read against his grain.
And I’m not suggesting that that’s not a good interpretive regime, just that, if we only use the scriptures to apply them to ourselves, we miss part of the depth and fullness of the scriptures. With the Book of Mormon, though, we don’t have a lot of the tools that could be brought to bear in reading the Bible or the D&C (e.g., archeological knowledge, historical knowledge of what was going on at the time, manuscripts of various ages, alternate traditions, separate authors writing about the same events, etc.). Hardy provides a formalist reading methodology that doesn’t require any of these external informations, making it especially suited to our reading of the Book of Mormon.[fn6]
[fn1] A “casebook” is basically the law school version of a textbook.
[fn2] And more importantly, they’re going to be in more trouble when a client or partner asks them about some section not covered in their casebook.
[fn3] Although I frankly don’t have a lot of sympathy for poor Mr. Twain. If he truly wants chloroform, he should try his hand at the Code, offering memoranda for various investment funds, most prospectuses, or any number of non-tax legislative regimes. On the other hand, since he’s now dead, he probably won’t.
[fn4] As others have mentioned, Hardy focuses on the three main narrators/editors of the Book of Mormon: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. But the Small Plate of Nephi section of the Book of Mormon ends with several short narrations by recordkeepers other than the Big 3. Hardy doesn’t really concern himself with these secondary narrators. Nor should he—none of them really provide enough text or context to provide a significant worldview. Nonetheless, it’s an area wide open to a critical reading along the lines Hardy demonstrates.
[fn5] Others in this series have done an excellent job analyzing what Hardy does in his book; in super-broad terms, he looks at the three main editor-authors and, from the way they structure their writings, infers what their goals are. He then analyzes what they’ve included and excluded in order to understand why they’ve included what they’ve included.
[fn6]And yes, I get the irony in my saying that we can profitably apply Hardy’s book to our own reading of the Book of Mormon to get beyond applying the Book of Mormon to ourselves.