Grant Hardy’s Subject Problem

Understanding BofM iiCriticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of the Book of Mormon simply ignore the book’s style altogether.

Grant Hardy, in his new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, wants to uncouple the problems of historicity and literary merit. He brackets the first, setting aside the apologetic debates that have dominated Book of Mormon studies over the past four decades. Instead, he turns his attention to the content of the book, and in particular to its peculiar stylistic qualities—and on this matter if he is no apologist he is nevertheless a bit apologetic, conceding the book’s literary deficiencies but pleading on its behalf that, to borrow a Twainism, the Book of Mormon is “better than it sounds” (273).

Hardy seeks to rehabilitate the literary reputation of the Book of Mormon by drawing attention to what he calls its “organizing principle”: “the fact that it presents itself as the work of narrators with distinct voices and perspectives” (268). Because the Book of Mormon is structured as the product of three discrete narrative voices—Nephi’s, Mormon’s and Moroni’s—and because, according to its own internal claims, the three narrative voices work with a variety earlier sources, the text is always inhabited by at least two minds, Joseph’s and, say, Mormon’s, and often by three or even four. This textual complexity offers an entrée for a kind of literary analysis that moves beyond the manifest deficiencies of the book’s prose style.

As an interpretive strategy, his approach is shown to be stunningly fruitful—though I suspect that a reader as intelligent, attentive and sensitive as Hardy could fruitfully read the back of a cereal box. Hardy devotes a section of the book to each of the Book of Mormon’s three primary narrators, and in so doing he provides a roughly chronological and nearly comprehensive sustained reading of the text. It is a tour de force and I am tempted to call it virtuosic, though occasionally the breadth achievement is obscured by the thick texture of his very close reading.

But if Hardy has an ambitious exegetical aim—and that bell rings on every page—he also has an important social objective. He offers not only a new reading of the Book of Mormon, but a new way of reading the Book of Mormon—that is, he offers a new discourse that he hopes will charter a new kind of inquiry undertaken by readers of all tribes. As Hardy puts it, he seeks to demonstrate “a mode of literary analysis by which all readers, regardless of their prior religious commitments … can discuss the book in useful and accurate ways” (xvii). He seeks, in short, to establish a new interpretive community, blessedly free from the entrenched allegiances that distort other discussions of the Book of Mormon.

For Hardy’s bracketing of the historical question is neither caprice nor cowardice, as it often is in defensive treatments of the Book of Mormon, but rather a legitimate sequel to his hermeneutic approach. Hardy enters the text by way of the motivations, personalities, and perceptions of its narrators, and therein lies his justification for avoiding, at least temporarily, the historical questions and the epistemological commitments they entail. Whether one regards the Book of Mormon as 19th-century folk pulp or as the authentic translation of an ancient document, one can attend to the text’s self-presentation as the work of three narrators—Nephi, Mormon and Moroni or “Nephi”, “Mormon” and “Moroni”—and thus read the text narratologically. “After all,” Hardy reminds us, “narrative is a mode of communication employed by both historians and novelists” (xvi).

In Hardy’s discursive theory, then, the subjectivity of the narrators offers a kind of haven from historicity. Whereas archaeological or rhetorical readings of the Book of Mormon lead directly into a thicket of assumptions—none of them externally verifiable, and thus none available to non-believers—about the book’s historical context, Hardy sees the question of narrative subjectivity as a route around those thorny patches. “Imagining [Nephi, Mormon and Moroni] as having life experiences and independent minds does not necessarily mean that one accepts their historicity,” he argues (xvii). One can engage with the substance of the text on its own terms by accepting the book’s narrative device, whether one sees that device as a tool of fiction or of historiography.

I’m sympathetic to Hardy’s desire to defer the ultimate questions in order to create an epistemological space for encountering the Book of Mormon on its own terms. And he’s hit upon an innovative and absorbing method for doing so. But in the final analysis, I’m not persuaded that the category of narrative subjectivity can do the work he asks of it. The narrative mind can work as a neutral rendezvous for devout and skeptical readers only if one holds human subjectivity constant over time, assuming that narrators of all times and places share the same foundations of consciousness and perception.

It has been the work of nearly a century of continental philosophy to vex precisely this notion of the autonomous, self-contained, transhistorical subject—but one need not quote Nietzsche, Althusser and Bourdieu to recognize that two narrative minds separated by twenty-five centuries will bring to the text a different set of perspectives, concerns, sensibilities, motivations, personalities and perceptions. Thus even a narratological analysis implies some assumption of historicity—and indeed to the extent that “Nephi,” “Mormon” and “Moroni” speak to contemporary readers as legible, coherent personalities, and Hardy brilliantly demonstrates that they do, one must reluctantly (or triumphantly) recognize a modern context at some level. One need only compare the laconic narrative voice of the Hebrew bible with the over-determined narrative personalities at work in the Book of Mormon to sense the difference.

As an example of Hardy’s narrative subject problem, consider the comparison he suggests between the narrative development of Mormon and the development of the implied narrator Benengali in Don Quixote. Hardy introduces the comparison to highlight the depth of Mormon’s indirect characterization in the Book of Mormon, which is striking when placed against the relatively incoherent, undeveloped personality of Cervantes’s Benengali. Hardy concludes:

The Book of Mormon may not be as much fun to read as Don Quixote, but at least in this one respect, it is more thoroughly composed. However readers may conceptualize Mormon, part of the interest of the book is observing the way he interacts with and shapes his material.

Hardy is indisputably right in both judgments here, but he doesn’t pursue the implications of the comparison. If Don Quixote fails to exhibit for the modern reader a coherent and developed narrative subjectivity, this is most likely not an artistic failing of Cervantes but rather an artifact of the history of the narrative genre. When Benengali was conceived in the early modern dawn of print culture, the romance had not yet become the novel, the author had not yet entirely separated from the narrator, and indeed the human being had not yet become the modern subject comfortably at home in its fully-furnished mental interior. Thus to interpret a narrative voice as coherent, undeveloped, deliberate or whatever is necessarily to make certain assumptions about what it means to be a human subject — assumptions that are inescapably historical in nature.

This is not to say that Hardy’s exegetical project is illegitimate, but rather that his social project will probably fail. Narrative subjectivity will probably not be the analytical charter for a tolerant new interpretive community around the Book of Mormon. But Hardy’s work remains a landmark achievement, one that I salute and from which I have personally learned much. For my part, I continue to find Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon to be his most significant work, which is to take nothing away from the intelligence of his readings in Understanding the Book of Mormon. But the lucidity and openness of the page in the Reader’s Edition has opened the text to me in little short of a revelation. Thank you, Brother Hardy.

Originally appeared under a different title and in a somewhat shorter form at

27 comments for “Grant Hardy’s Subject Problem

  1. August 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    So . . . what?

    What exactly *does* the existence of fully formed personalities tell us about Book of Mormon historicity and/or Joseph Smith’s translation?

    I’d like to know what you thought about that.

  2. August 16, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    It has been the work of nearly a century of continental philosophy to vex precisely this notion of the autonomous, self-contained, transhistorical subject—but one need not quote Nietzsche, Althusser and Bourdieu to recognize that two narrative minds separated by twenty-five centuries will bring to the text a different set of perspectives, concerns, sensibilities, motivations, personalities and perceptions. Thus even a narratological analysis implies some assumption of historicity—and indeed to the extent that “Nephi,” “Mormon” and “Moroni” speak to contemporary readers as legible, coherent personalities, and Hardy brilliantly demonstrates that they do, one must reluctantly (or triumphantly) recognize a modern context at some level. One need only compare the laconic narrative voice of the Hebrew bible with the over-determined narrative personalities at work in the Book of Mormon to sense the difference.

    Well, this kind of blows my mind. Again.

    You say that “narrative subjectivity will probably not be the analytical charter for a tolerant new interpretive community around the Book of Mormon.” But do you think that it will become the charter for a critical new interpretive community?

  3. Jonathan Green
    August 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Rosalynde, I believe your central objection is that “two narrative minds separated by twenty-five centuries will bring to the text a different set of perspectives, concerns, sensibilities, motivations, personalities and perceptions. Thus even a narratological analysis implies some assumption of historicity…”

    Now I tend to agree with this point, and I haven’t read Hardy, but there might be a way around this objection. Some cognitive approaches to literature, including those that are interested in theories of mind, ground themselves in evolutionary biology, with the consequence that the historical time scales involved are so long that differences between today and 2000 BC would be virtually meaningless. I don’t know if Hardy is pursuing that kind of approach, however.

  4. Julie M. Smith
    August 16, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    “One need only compare the laconic narrative voice of the Hebrew bible with the over-determined narrative personalities at work in the Book of Mormon to sense the difference.”

    Could you expand on this a little? Because the last word I’d use to describe an Isaiah or an Ezekiel is “laconic” (I vividly remember an atheistic author describing his first experience of reading Isaiah as feeling like being trapped in an elevator with a highly caffeinated Al Sharpton!) and I definitely would have pluralized “voice” in relation to the Hebrew Bible.

  5. Hans in California
    August 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    More Twain on the BoM: “The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel–half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern–which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.”

  6. Rosalynde Welch
    August 16, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Adam, I think the most elegant answer is that the Book of Mormon has a modern context at some level. You can make a strong version of that answer, essentially that the BoM is a modern fabrication, or a weak version, that Joseph’s mind left traces on the translation in some ways.

    You could also come up with a scenario in which God wanted the record to have recognizably modern narrators for his own inscrutable purposes, and so intervened in the historiographic/revelatory process at some point to place them there. Not an elegant solution, but after all the BoM does explicitly invite us to read it ahistorically.

    In the end, the historicity of the narrative personalities is only one aspect of the book, together with other textual and theological puzzles that make the book so challenging to pin down.

  7. Ray
    August 16, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    #5 – and your point is . . . ? Actually, please don’t answer that.

    Rosalynde, I actually hope Hardy’s approach generates a new way to read the Book of Mormon within the LDS community (and those who study it academically). I think there’s not much anyone can do among the hardcore “opponents” of the Church, but if we can change our reading from the current proof text default to understand better what it actually says and doesn’t say, I think we will have done the Church a great service.

    If nothing else, at least we will stop perpetuating beliefs about the Book of Mormon that simply aren’t accurate, and that alone will do much to derail some of the arguments against it – the ones we cause by our misreading of the book itself.

    That only can happen if the membership at large (or, at least, those who comment regularly in church) read it, so maybe it’s an unrealistic hope – but I certainly do hope for that outcome.

  8. Rosalynde Welch
    August 16, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Andrew, Hardy’s method is so labor-intensive and low-flying that I doubt a non-believer, even a hater, would ever invest the time and energy to come up with anything comparable. So I don’t expect to see a crop of new critical studies that take the same approach. I do think it’s possible that Hardy’s method will reach some open-minded non-believers and dispose them more positively toward the BoM, even if they don’t undertake a similar project. See ie, this prominent blogger who mentions the book as one of the best of the year:

  9. Rosalynde Welch
    August 16, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Jonathan, good point. Unless I missed it, I don’t think Grant ever explicitly discussed the problems or possibilities of his trans-historical narrative subject. But I think he could probably get around my objections with a defense along the lines you suggest, at least well enough to convince most of his readers.

  10. Rosalynde Welch
    August 16, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Julie, I’d obviously distinguish the poetic or lyrical (prophetic) voices from the *narrative* voices in the Bible (which, by the way, great point and duly noted: “voices” not “voice”). But I would maintain that the narrative voice of the pentateuch is “laconic” in comparison to the BoM narrators: in the biblical narrative, no individual personalities as such interject directly or even reveal themselves indirectly *at the primary textual level*.

  11. glass ceiling
    August 16, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I have always had the impression that most of the Bible was written by old men, and that the writers of the BoM were (as often as not) men under 40.

    Also, consider the literary road to the King Jame’s version of the Bible. LOTS of changes in many ways. (And was it written in a grammatical fashion so as to impress a king?).

    Also, much of the New Testament was written for nations. 1st Nephi was written for a tribe. I’m sure there are other legitimate differences to consider.

  12. glass ceiling
    August 16, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    I meant that much of the Old Testament was written for nations.

  13. James Olsen
    August 17, 2011 at 6:15 am

    Rosalynde, what a provocative and interesting criticism – that the way in which Hardy brackets historicity in order to give a narratological analysis discloses narrators that are, in fact, too modern, and thus lending credence to those who argue against the historicity of the BofM. Nevertheless, in addition to Jonathan’s and Julie’s remarks, a few notes: first, why can’t we chalk up Hardy’s “modern” narrators to Hardy’s (as opposed to your suggestion of Joseph’s) modern-bound analysis? We have essentially the same thing going on in numerous other narratological analsyses – which is part of what Nietzsche, et al use to prove their point: it’s at least extremely difficult today to not read back into earlier narratives our contemporary, transparent notions of subjectivity. It’s even more rare to find a Charles Taylor or the like who painstakingly attempt to reconstruct differences between modern subjectivity and pre-modern self-understandings which can then be used to illuminate old texts. Particularly since Hardy wasn’t attempting anything of the kind, isn’t the simplest explanation not to say that Hardy was so unintentionally brilliant that his thorough mining of the text reveals that it simply couldn’t have been written by ancient American authors, but rather to claim that however interesting and insightful Hardy’s narratology is, it’s plagued with his own modern understandings and assumptions?

    Second, nothing in Nietzsche, et al that I’m aware of makes the sort of strict dichotomy that your criticism does. To make your case I think you need to identify the specific anachronistic elements of self-understanding and be able to contrast them with the different order subjects that existed in ancient cultures in America (if we even have in principle access to such), or at the least trace the contemporary development of those elements in response to specific modern events, thus making their earlier existence less plausible. It’s not enough to say that Hardy’s editors are coherent and intelligible to a modern audience, therefore they must be anachronistic.

    On a related note, Biblical studies – and particularly New Testament studies – uses narratology to reconstruct the personalities of its authors in much the same way as Hardy (e.g., the authors of the gospels), at least to such a degree that it doesn’t strike a non-specialist like myself as a terribly uncommon project. And as Julie pointed out, the “laconic” voice of Torah narrators is by no means the only ancient example. I suspect (though this is only a guess) that Hardy does the samesort of thing in his own area of expertise working with ancient Eastern thinkers.

    I think the continental insights concerning evolving subjectivity are meant to be applied in terms of caution and humility, not in terms of erecting an unbridgeable gap in self-understanding with incommensurable historical subjects. If the latter were the case, we could hardly note this fact, let alone use it to criticize an analysis like Hardy’s.

  14. August 17, 2011 at 8:08 am

    In both the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History, there is some indirect revelation that this is a constructed text. Many argue that the repeated stories reveal this. However, more directly, things like all the times “until this day” are used or other anachronisms. It is never as overt or personalized as it is in the Book of Mormon, but it is there.

  15. Rosalynde Welch
    August 17, 2011 at 8:18 am

    John C., absolutely, and it is exactly that difference in narrative construction (characterized, individualized vs. anonymous, corporate narrators) that I’m pointing to.

  16. larryco_
    August 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Rosalynde, this is really an exquisite examination of a one-of-a-kind book. You are to be commended.

    I first read it about six months ago and find that it still affects how I look at individual verses in the BOM. I also hope that this is not the last word we hear from Hardy on the subject. Whereas I felt that Vogel took 700 pages on a book that should have been 300 with his examination, I felt a desire upon finishing Hardy’s book to have a 6-hour private sit-down with him – away from the pressures of addressing the broad audience he is attempting to reach – to gain a true understanding of things I had never before contemplated about the BOM, even though I had read similar books about both the NT and OT.

  17. Nate R
    August 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I am not feeling the force of this objection about narrative subjectivity.

    So it is impossible to know exactly what the motivations and character of Nephi and Mormon are. Should we just throw our hands up in the air and just give up? That’s a discussion killer.

    We can at least TRY to reconstruct the motivations and character of the narrators (realizing that we don’t have enough evidence to be certain about such judgments–though, we don’t even have enough evidence to be certain about the motivation of MODERN narrators). Further, the text do leave clues as to the personalities of their narrators. For example, Mormon, as a general himself, inserts a whole lot of details about military tactics. What Mormon chooses to include in the text (and what not to include) tells us something about Mormon, the narrator.

    Also, as noted in earlier posts, this kind of reconstruction of the narrators intention is done all the time. I have been teaching classes the last few years where I ask my students to do exactly that: “what is the author’s view about x? what evidence and argument do you have for that claim?” Perhaps you think this sort of approach is totally misguided, but if we are to ever understand ancient texts in any adequate way we at least have to TRY to answer these types of questions.

    Finally, certain aspects of human nature remain fairly constant. That’s why I can read the Odyssey and relate to Odysseus so well, or read about Abraham sacrificing Isaac and feel some of the horror that Abraham must have felt. I might even see reasons why Homer(s) and the Biblical authors would construct the text this way instead of that way. So it seems to me that we CAN bridge the temporal gap and (at least) begin to understand the narrators.

  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    August 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    RE: James Olsen’s comment about Hardy’s own contemporary view affecting the analysis of Nephi, Mormon and Moroni–Perhaps opportunities for that kind of overlay are most frequent when Hardy points out how the narrators omit discussing certain things, things that we moderns would expect to hear, and thus find the omissions meaningful and perhaps revealing. In cultures other than our own, some things are simply not expressed, and such reticence is not the result of a thought process but simply a cultural reflex.

    One of the difficulties for plain talking Americans dealing with native Japanese can be the Japanese cultural avoidance of statements that are directly confrontational, and their dependence on others to be emotionally and intellectually sensitive to certain lacunae in communications. I wager that Hardy, an expert in Chinese literature, could point to many better examples. Some of the omissions that Hardy perceptively points out may have culturally bound causes that are totally opaque to us, include unique ones that developed over a millennium of Nephite/Lamanite cultural isolation, such that we would not understand them even if Mormon described the reasons why he omitted certain information.

    Some of the narrative omissions that Hardy brings to our attention may be for cultural reasons and customs that are obscure to us today, and not the result of the narrator’s craft or their emotional significance to him. Many behaviors are invisible to those embedded in their own culture, and thus do not indicate intent or thought.

  19. Rosalynde Welch
    August 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks for the great comments, all, and I’ll try to respond to them as I find time.

    James, fantastic comment, thanks for the careful read. On your first point, I’d say yes, it certainly is possible that under the corrupting influence of modernity Grant has simply read more into the text than is actually there. :) (For some kinds of literary criticism, of course, this is not a critical problem, but it’s not clear to me whether it would/should be for Grant’s project.) As you point out, it’s not possible as readers entirely to escape our modern context, but it is the work of critical historicism to tease out the historicity of the text to the extent that we can, and acknowledge our own entangled limitations when we can’t. The point of my review is not to argue (even covertly!) that the Book of Mormon is a modern text, only to point out that the category of narrative subjectivity is itself historically constructed, not a refuge from history as Grant would like it to be for the sake of his social aims.

    As far as the specifics of my critique, as an example Grant relies on the category of memoir to look at Nephi. Just riffing off the top of my head here, memoir relies on a particular position of the narrator/author with respect to space, time and community; on an authority inherent in the individual and a respect for individual experience; and on a kind of interiority that allows for reflection and self-fashioning. All these (historically constructed) elements are necessary even to get as far as “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents”. We can’t take memoir or the memoirist for granted as trans-historically stable categories.

    If biblical studies hasn’t incorporated the techniques of the new (now not-so-new) critical historicism, well — too bad for them! :)

  20. Rosalynde Welch
    August 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Nate R, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure what discipline you’re based in, but in sophisticated literary studies of early or pre-modern texts, it definitely would be a critical no-no to make ahistorical assumptions about narrative subjectivity. This is not to say that we can’t reconstruct earlier psychic and social structures from intra- or extra-textual sources: we can and we should, so I think your question to your students is right on target inasmuch as you’re asking them to justify textually rather than assume.

    Still, though, my point is not that Hardy’s critical project fails: on the contrary, it’s a spectacular success under the parameters it sets itself. Only that his *social* project is shakier, precisely because it relies on the category of “narrator” to provide a shelter from arguments about history for readers from all camps. I suggest that it can’t perform that function.

  21. James Olsen
    August 17, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Very helpful example Rosalynde. Thank you.

  22. August 17, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    It’s a tough argument Hardy tackles, trying to appeal to both believers and non-believers by treating it as narrative criticism only. I agree with Ray that the best possible outcome is going to be for believers to read it in a more nuanced way (acknowledging the style limitations and faults would sure help). As for the non-believers, the point that it’s a complex narrative with multiple authors and POVs does ring apologetic in that JS wrote it quickly with little revision yet doesn’t trip up on the details in the complex narratives. Critics can still persist in saying that it’s a sucky piece of literature and nearly impossible to slog through on its literary merits alone: preachy, didactic, awkward, etc.

    It feels like the ultimate choice is that it’s a poorly written but well-constructed historical book or it’s a poorly written but well-constructed modern invention that is merely cleverer than it looks to critics. Either JS or the narrators themselves are bad, but consistent writers.

  23. comet
    August 18, 2011 at 1:41 am

    I second Jonathan’s query.
    Also,unless the book itself presents us with doubts about the existence or accessibility of consciousness or subjectivity on the part of narrators and speakers in the BoM, the coherency of the narrative should be enough to enable us to arrive at reasonable inferences from the text, regarding at the very least the primary editors.

  24. chris
    August 18, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Hi Rosalynde,
    If I understand correctly, you are saying that anciently we don’t have examples of first person narratives, so pointing out a supposed 2000 year old piece of writing with first person narratives pretty much suggests modern origins. Is that correct?

    What about Herodotus from late 400BC? It’s granted that he did not observe everything that had happened in the way Nephi writes about himself, but he did inject himself into the text as a narrator/compiler.

  25. chris
    August 18, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Here’s another first person narrative from a priestess in a type of scriptural form from 2200BC, predating Lehi by quite a bit.

  26. sjames
    November 6, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Thanks Rosalynde for stimulating my curiosity enough to get a copy of the book, which I’m enjoying – while not that familiar with narrative interpretive work. Grant refers to the study as an ‘experiment’ in narrative interpretation, and while the methodology is for me justifiable, a significant quantum of the literary analysis appears to hinge on insights ‘borrowed in’ from the literature at various strategic points in the text and giving significant shape to the particular ‘readings’ of the BoM. eg that provided by Sternberg (poetics, gaps, 3 agendas), Alter (biblical narrative, omissions), (Riquelme (disruption), Kitto (elision), Seidel (mimetic and reflective time), Menard (recontextualisation)and others. Much commentary on Grant’s book seems to be looking through his textual lenses rather than at them.

  27. echarles1
    January 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    As a happy Catholic who is interested in the history and beliefs of the LDS I have to say that reading the Book of Mormon is difficult at best. I’ve never been able to get to far into any chapter. It occurs to me that it needs a new *English* translation. I don’t know how that squares with Mormon theology but as an outsider it would be a big help.

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