(Series introduction here)
What would I write now if I were to give an account of some stretch of nine formative years of my life in a paragraph, serving as the key markers of a short bio I’d then write—say, from my momentous move as a high school freshman, through my marriage and graduation from BYU (i.e., my entering of the promised land!)? I know that what I would write this year would be different from how I would’ve written it last year—and even more different than had I written it upon graduation. This isn’t just rhetoric—my extended family created a family history book published the year I graduated, and I wrote a two or three page biography for inclusion. I recently read it to my kids. I’m not at all unhappy with it, but I would not have written it the same way today.
I can’t read Nephi anymore without reading a carefully crafted political narrative with lots of faithful spin (I don’t remember who first keyed me into seeing it this way). Discussing this with other saints sometimes makes them uncomfortable; but for me (and I think it should be the case for everyone), Nephi’s flaws (or at least, the flaws that my own reading of the text highlights) make the text more believable and certainly more useful. We have anything but a polished, perfect hero. We have a dedicated zealot, committed to a specific understanding of what his father’s experience and their family exodus meant, a narrative of himself as the rightful heir to that spiritual heritage, and a narrative that reveals that Nephi clearly felt threatened by contenders—whether those contenders were people (his brothers or the sons of Ishmael) or the competing narratives for what had happened (which other witnesses might tell). Nephi’s not writing this as a young man, remember; he’s writing this as an old “king” of a broken and exiled half-family in a strange land, experiencing a plethora of threats. He writes a forceful narrative to make it look like the Lord was with him all along and like his brothers were off all along. That’s how Nephi’s account reads to me, generally speaking.
But while this oft-noted point about politics is conspicuous, I can’t think it’s merely politics. It’s certainly also identity. How much of this is identity in the making (writing in general, but particularly autobiography, is a powerful means of shaping identity; language in general is expressive and creational in this way) and how much of this is articulation of long-formed identity?
The first line of the headnote is striking. It’s an account of Nephi’s parents and their four sons. Not of their household, not of the later sons and daughters born. (Were the daughters–mentioned in II Ne 5:6–later? We don’t know; they’re immaterial to Nephi’s account; which of course makes me wonder about his worldview more generally.) This is about the drama that took place between these six people as they organized and left Jerusalem. That’s clearly where the competing narratives originate, and that’s what Nephi focuses on. Each event he mentions (and then expands upon in I Nephi) is intentional in how it reflects well upon Nephi, poorly upon Laman & Lemuel, and marks Nephi as the God-chosen heir of Lehi’s heritage. Nephi notes their sufferings in the wilderness—not their suffering on account of being unprepared or on account of Lehi’s poor or hasty choices or on account of their having no real direction of what to do or where to go. And the book ends, not with their reaching land but with their reaching the Promised Land.
Politics aside, is it possible today to genuinely experience my life as so profoundly enmeshed with the designs of deity? I let God off the hook all the time, citing bad luck, other people’s poor choices, genetic and personal weakness, and the like. Mostly, however, it doesn’t feel like choice. My own experiences seem so cosmologically insignificant. Is the difference because Nephi’s a megalomaniac, is he merely faithful in the wake of events far more dramatic than my own, or is this one of the ways in which culture transcends choice, with Nephi no more able to craft his experience than I am? Is one more faithful than the other?
One final note on Grant Hardy’s provocative quote marks around “I, Nephi.” Reading chapter one in the wake of these quote marks, it’s conspicuous that our author never names himself as Nephi, but refers to himself as “I, Nephi.” I’ve always ignored this as a quirk—an odd, perhaps formal, but not ungrammatical way to refer to himself. But what if, as Hardy’s quote marks suggest, it’s more than that? What if it’s a title? Again, Nephi is writing this as an older king (or something close to that), and writing it to counteract other, competing narratives that are challenges to his theocratic authority. Was Nephi’s name changed when he became King? Like the Egyptian kings, did he receive a new name that shorthand referenced deity: ‘I am’ Nephi?
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1. Again, I’m using Hardy’s A Readers Edition this time through, which is a wonderful new way for me to read the text.