To cap off our roundtable review of Grant Hardy’s new book Understanding the Book of Mormon we’re fortunate to feature an interview with the book’s author. The interview will be posted in two parts. Our thanks to all who have participated, and especially Bro. Hardy.
1. Can you tell us a bit about the background to this book? What inspired you to begin this type of project? Were there any prior works that were a critical influence for you? What sort of process did you go through to write the book? What were the biggest challenges in writing it?
Understanding the Book of Mormon is a sequel to an earlier project, The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2003. As I was reformatting the text in the manner of modern biblical translations (with paragraphs, topical headings, poetic stanzas, quotation marks, indented documents, and so forth), I came to a better understanding of how the Book of Mormon is structured, and particularly the crucial role played by the major narrators. Reading in context, with an eye toward the editing of the narrators, uncovered interpretive layers and nuances that seemed to make the Book of Mormon a much more interesting work than many have assumed, both inside and outside the Church. So in a sense, Understanding the Book of Mormon is a set of field notes on the Reader’s Edition. (I was pleased by Rosalynde Welch’s observation that the Reader’s Edition is the more important of the two books. I agree. The particular arguments in Understanding will always be subject to debate and revision, but the Reader’s Edition could be a starting point for a new generation of Book of Mormon scholarship.)
In addition, it seemed to me that a narrative-based approach might offer some common ground between insiders and outsiders. Regardless of whether one views Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni as ancient prophet/historians or as fictional characters invented by Joseph Smith, they are presented in the Book of Mormon as playing a crucial role in selecting and shaping its contents. Too often, believers and critics alike get so wound up in trying to prove or disprove historicity that they cite a few verses and then almost immediately get sidetracked by ancient Near Eastern or nineteenth-century parallels. As a result they end up not really reading the text at all. Similarly, a great deal of what passes for commentary from faithful Latter-day Saints is little more than paraphrase, with regular references to conference talks and gospel principles. None of these approaches lend themselves to careful, comprehensive readings. I myself am a believer who accepts the existence of ancient Nephites, but I’m not offended or threatened by those who see things differently, and indeed I think that there is much to learn from astute readers of any religious persuasion (or lack thereof). In many ways, I wish that outsiders would take the Book of Mormon more seriously as fiction, and that Latter-day Saints would take it more seriously as history.
My models in this endeavor were Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg, who analyze the Hebrew Bible from a narrative perspective while at the same time acknowledging the contributions made by historical-critical scholarship. It is probably not coincidental that they are both Jewish. Over the last half century, Latter-day Saints have come under the sway of evangelical or even fundamentalist Protestants in the way that we approach scripture. I’m not sure that this is a positive development, and it certainly does not seem to be a necessary part of being true to our tradition (whatever Joseph Smith may have been, he was not a fundamentalist). I have often asked myself, Why can’t Mormons be more like Jews?
As for writing Understanding itself, it was more a matter of rewriting. I would start with a few ideas from my own reading and from conversations with my wife Heather, who is a much better reader than I am, and then I would write a quick draft that would then be the subject of weeks, if not months of additional conversations (Heather is a gifted editor as well). The most difficult chapter was the one on Third Nephi, which went through eight complete revisions before I finally got something we were satisfied with. As might be expected in a book that concentrates on formal analysis, the form of Understanding was important to me. I wanted something that would lead readers through the main events and characters of the Book of Mormon from 1 Nephi to Moroni, as well as something that focused on the narrators, where every chapter also introduced and illustrated some specific, representative literary technique.
2. Tell us about your relationship with Oxford? What sort of a process did you go through to get this book published?
The process of getting a book published with Oxford is the same as with any other academic press. After the manuscript was finished I sent a proposal to the religion editor at Oxford (OUP was the first press I contacted, largely because they had recently published Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon), and she was interested enough to ask to see the entire manuscript, which she then sent to outside readers who are experts in the field. The readers’ reports were mixed, as they often are, with there being some concern that I was simply assuming historicity, which would make the work more devotional than academic. I think that it is possible to bracket the historicity question, at least temporarily, and I believe there are strong arguments on both sides— indeed, if I weren’t LDS, I would most certainly regard the Book of Mormon as religious fiction, or as a fascinating, modern example of pseudepigrapha—but somehow that didn’t come through as I intended. So I rewrote the manuscript yet again, deleting passages that might be misinterpreted and adding more parallel examples from fictional works that bear some similarity to the Book of Mormon. Oxford sent the revised manuscript to additional readers, including non-Mormons, and they were quite positive in their assessments, so contracts were signed, copyediting commenced, and the printing presses started to roll.
3. Have you been disappointed, encouraged, or neither by your book’s reception?
The book’s reception is still unfolding. More than disappointment or encouragement, I have felt surprise that my work hasn’t attracted more attention, particularly from Latter-day Saint sources. After all, this is the first academic book on the contents of the Book of Mormon, and Oxford is not a marginal press. I would have thought that Mormons would have been more engaged with a text they hold sacred, which many read from nearly every day. I do understand that reviews often take a while to appear in print, but Understanding the Book of Mormon was released more than a year and a half ago and there still have not been many formal responses—a few book notices, on-line reviews from Blair Holmes and Rosalynde Welch, a Dialogue review by Julie M. Smith (the last two were recently reprinted in Times and Seasons), and a review by Terryl Givens in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. But nothing substantive in Sunstone, BYU Studies, or in any of the publications of the Maxwell Institute. I expect that full reviews from BYU will appear eventually, but I’m puzzled by the slow pace. Most authors would rather be criticized than ignored, and I tried to give readers plenty to talk about.
There have been two particularly interesting responses from non-Mormons. The first was a review in the on-line magazine Slate by Alan Wolfe, a highly-respected commentator on the contemporary American religious scene. My analysis persuaded Wolfe that the Book of Mormon does have a complicated, coherent structure, and in fact he went back to the text to give it another try. In the end, he still didn’t see it as having much literary merit, but I was delighted that my work had encouraged him to take a fresh look. I did not expect to convince everyone, though I was hoping to make easy, off-hand dismissals of the Book of Mormon less academically respectable. The other unexpected response has come from the Community of Christ. Last month I was invited to give a presentation in Nauvoo at a meeting of Midwestern leaders, including two of their apostles, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nearly everyone in attendance—some fifty people—had read my book. It appears that there are many in that Restorationist denomination who are looking for ways to better utilize the Book of Mormon as scripture, while still acknowledging the serious historical problems of the text. I was thrilled that they were willing to reach out to a Latter-day Saint for advice on the Book of Mormon, and I would be quite pleased if they found my literary approach useful in better understanding a scripture that we have in common.
4. Much in our reviews focused on your attempt to write to two audiences and fruitfully bring them together in exploring the Book of Mormon. Tell us what it is that you’re most hopeful that the Mormon audience will take from this book. What is your main message (and any subsidiary ones you want to mention) to the faithful?
I’m not sure that my approach will bring together insiders and outsiders when they explore the Book of Mormon—our interpretations of what the book ultimately means and where it comes from will always be far apart. But it seems to me that it should be possible to come to some agreement on how the book is structured, on what is says, and what it claims for itself. And I would hope that all readers, regardless of why they come to the text, would be able to agree that despite the awkward diction and repetitions, the book is not nonsense. It shows evidence of careful composition, for instance in the chronological flashbacks and the smooth handling of the frequent but irregular notices of the beginnings and endings of years of the judges. That is simply in the text, objectively.
For Latter-day Saints, I hope that my work will encourage them to see the Book of Mormon as more than just a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. The contents matter as much as the book’s mere existence. Too often we don’t really read the Book of Mormon, preferring instead to skim it for proof-texts of principles that we know from elsewhere. Yet it seems incredibly important to me that the book was written as narrative rather than as a collection of propositional truths like Gospel Principles. Close readings, within the book’s multi-layered, thick contexts, often reveal lessons and insights that can help us become more Christ-like, even after we have been converted by Moroni’s promise. I try to apply a critical, questioning mode of reading that, while staying within the parameters of the narrative, allow us to identify and interpret connections, seams, and disjunctions. Indeed, this is along the lines of the way that historians read texts, and I often wish that Latter-day Saints treated figures from the Book of Mormon as if they were real individuals, with distinctive personalities and concerns, who struggle to articulate their ideas persuasively, and who develop over time. Instead, we too often claim the book as history and then read it as inspirational myth. I would also like Mormons to understand the important ways in which the Book of Mormon is not like the Bible (which may well increase our appreciation for both).
5. Tell us why you think non-Mormons ought to be interested in this book. If you’re not interested in evangelizing them, what, beyond mere trivia, will the kind of close reading you put on display do for them? Why should they care?
This question comes up regularly and I’m always a bit puzzled by it. People who ask why anyone would care about a religious tradition that is not their own probably need to get out a little more. The Book of Mormon is one of the most significant books in American religious history and in recent world scripture. But this is not to jump up and down and insist that everyone should pay attention to us. The real question is, How interested are you in other religions and philosophies? Have you ever read the Qur’an? Why? Can you name half a dozen books from the Apocrypha? Are you interested in studies of the Daodejing or the Yoga Sutra? Have you ever wondered what the appeal was of Tibetan treasure texts? Are you excited about the other volumes in the Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series? (I mean besides the forthcoming one on the Book of Mormon, written by the non-Mormon scholar Paul Gutjahr). If not, then you have no business asking people to care about your book, unless you are targeting them as potential converts. But those who are curious about the varieties of religious experience will at some point or other be interested in the Book of Mormon, and we have not made it easy for them. Simply put, the book is not easy to read or appreciate, particularly in the official, double-columned, verse-by-verse format.
In academics, there is a long tradition of monographs on significant texts that are easier to read than the texts themselves. For instance, I’m reading Spinoza’s Ethics right now, but only because I have already read a couple of studies that convinced me the book is worth my time and that explained its organization, main ideas, and significance. In the past, there has not been a detailed, academic introduction to the contents of the Book of Mormon. I’m afraid that our scripture will generally be a tough slog for those who do not already accept it as revelation, but people who make it all the way through Understanding will come away knowing the Book of Mormon better than many Latter-day Saints do. There will always be scholars of US history, or religious studies, or sacred texts, or American literature who would like to know about the Book of Mormon, or who at least feel an obligation to have some basic understanding of it. My book will give them access to what might otherwise be an opaque, bewildering text. By the same token, if there were some insider who could explain the Bahá’í scriptures to me, I would be most grateful; I’m always interested in the best, most persuasive readings that believers can come up with. (By the way, there has been some terrific work done lately on the Sikh’s Adi Granth, which is the most successful new scripture of the last few centuries, as measured by the number of adherents. The Book of Mormon comes in second.)
6. Over the course of the week much was said about the modern subjectivity that your reading imparts to the three main editors (see particularly Rosalynde’s critique here). Can we really expect ancient subjects whose worlds are so very different than our own to have left such a coherent and familiar picture of who they were, their motives, goals, and stylistic elements? And doesn’t your answer to this question directly bear on the historicity debate?
Rosalynde’s review highlighted a new, significant critique of my narrator-based analysis, for which I’m grateful, but before I respond to her specific objection, let me make a few general comments. I was somewhat surprised (but then again, not really), by how much of the discussion in the essays and comments about my book at Times & Seasons were concerned with historicity.
This is the way that Latter-day Saints and their critics primarily approach the Book of Mormon, and it can be hard to imagine doing anything else. But I don’t think this is a burning issue for most academics—for them the book is obviously fiction, which doesn’t make it any less interesting. Try to imagine things from the other side.
For example, I think that the Mahabharata is a fascinating epic of great cultural, philosophical, and religious significance. I have read books about its textual history, its complex organization, and its themes. Yet there are some Hindus to whom it is of paramount importance whether the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas actually happened, or whether Krishna was or was not an actual historical figure. You can follow their arguments about dating the war based on astronomical references or about the significance of finding the submerged city of Dwarka in the 1980s, but such issues don’t matter much to me. While it can be intriguing to see how believers try to adapt their faith to the challenges of modernity, the reality of Hindu gods is not really a live option for me at this point, and the evidences put forward don’t even come close to what it would take to persuade me to take such claims seriously. (From the outside, a lot of Mormon apologetics looks something like this. I am deeply interested in the epic, but arguments about its historicity seem peripheral, parochial, or even a little silly. So I believe that it is possible to decouple close literary analysis from the question of ancient Nephites. Don’t get me wrong; taking historical contexts into consideration is one important way to read scripture (it does make a difference whether you view the Book of Mormon as a product of the ancient world or nineteenth century), but it’s not the only way to read, or even the most fruitful way. Perhaps Mormon scholars need to spend more time with their colleagues in religious studies departments.
The Book of Mormon presents a problem for religiously neutral readings though, because it was written by dictation, one time through, over the course of just three months. So any complex coherence can be taken as evidence of divine intervention rather than human composition. Latter-day Saints are very quick to jump to the conclusion that “Joseph Smith could not have written this.” But that wasn’t the point of my book, and I don’t think that arguments based on complexity are particularly compelling to outsiders. Could Joseph Smith have kept the lineage of Jaredite kings straight in both Ether 1 and then in reverse order in chapters 6-11? Perhaps, if he had worked things out beforehand and then used a mnemonic memory palace to be able to recall them forwards and backwards, but in any case, there are all kinds of astonishing human achievements in music, or math, or athletics that seem completely beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. That doesn’t prove that Mozart or Ramanujan or Michael Jordan had divine assistance. I was sincere when I talked about bracketing the issue of historicity, and I deliberately tried to leave respectful space for various ideas about origins of the Book of Mormon.
Rosalynde takes up the question of historicity, but from the opposite end. To her, my reconstruction of the narrators makes them seem too modern for an ancient work. I’m sympathetic with this. I have often wondered if the Book of Mormon just isn’t strange enough to be an ancient text. Again, such subjective judgments are hardly conclusive, but the plainness of the book could be a point against its historicity. Rosalynde makes a much more specific argument, about the distinctively modern self-consciousness and self-presentation of the narrators. There are several possible responses. The first is to point to a few ancient authors who do appear to write from a coherent sense of self—people like Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Sima Qian. Modern minds, and even autobiographical perspectives, did not absolutely begin with Augustine or Rousseau. (The point here is not simply first-person narration; it’s more a matter of having motivations, notions of autonomy, a sense of audience, and a feel for how one is positioned within a literary tradition— all of which must be intelligible to moderns; see Ben Huff’s essay.) Second, I could acknowledge James Olsen’s suggestion (comment #13) that perhaps I have read modern sensibilities into my interpretations of Book of Mormon narrators. It’s quite possible, though there is always a delicate balance in reading old texts (we are still talking about historicity, right?) between recognizing the real differences between how moderns and ancients mentally construct the world and their own identities—what aspects are mutable, what counts as evidence, what sorts of assumptions go unquestioned—and concerns that are universal across time and space, without which, there would be no chance of cross-cultural communication. It would be odd, in most cultures, that Nephi talks incessantly about his descendants but never about his own children, particularly the sons that presumably would succeed him as king. Or third, I could argue that perhaps Nephi and his prophetic successors were rather unique—that their implicit canon (the brass plates), their conversations with the Lord, and their sense of writing for readers many centuries in the future gave them a subjective sensibility that was quite distinct from other ancient authors.
In the end, I suspect that it is the Nephites’ religious assumptions that seem the most suspiciously modern, and perhaps the most satisfying answer for believers is to assume that this is a function of the translation, or of posthumous editing by narrators working on the other side of the veil, or that it is the result of extraordinary revelation. All of these are supernatural explanations that I would not expect outsiders to take seriously, but as for me, I actually believe in angels and translation by seer stones. Rosalynde’s question makes me want to read the Book of Mormon through again, looking for evidence of how the narrators think about the world and their place within it. It could be the subject of a whole book.