Alma the Younger strikes me as one of the sterner of the prophets, which makes sense if you consider his background. I know a few people in my life who have had similar, if less spectacular trajectories. It’s not an ironclad rule that those who wander tend to be more intense about obedience on their return, but it’s at least a correlation.
And that has colored how I read his words, especially in the letters / commands to his sons and especially in the chapters addressed to Corianton.
Something changed for me as I read these chapters in preparation for my Gospel Doctrine lesson last week, however. I noticed for the first time that although chapter 39 is the one I always remember and although it is full of memorable lines (“I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime,” vs. 7) it’s a relatively short portion of the total addressed to Corianton. After dealing directly with Corianton’s screwups in chapter 39, Alma never mentions them again in chapters 40 – 42.
That ratio seems important. We, as parents and leaders, may tend to get stuck on the “you done wrong” portion and kind of hammer that home. Alma the Younger very plainly states what Corianton did wrong but then doesn’t belabor it. He sustains the conversation for a long time, but never returns to that topic.
This called to mind another famous verse, D&C 121:43:
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
Instead of seeing 40 – 42 in a kind of exasperated, lecturing tone (which is how I’ve always heard Alma’s voice in my head for these chapters), it occurred to me that spending so much time on Corianton’s concerns may very well have been an act of love.
The style of chastisement Alma uses here relies on trust. Trust in the other person that you don’t have to sort of hold their eyelids open and make them stare at their wrong-doing until they break. Trust that, instead, once you give them the info, they will wrestle with it themselves. Trust in God and in the Holy Spirit that, even as you move on to show forth love and address other concerns, the Spirit will work on the heart of the person you’re chastising. It’s humble. You’re not demanding an admission or hanging around to be a participant or (worse) a spectator in the repentance process. You’re stepping back, and allowing the person and God to work through it together.
It’s also very loving. It makes the painful part short, and then emphasizes love. That’s what I think Alma the Younger is doing here.
Which raises another point: when we try to see the words and actions of the prophets in the best light possible, I think we can learn more than being quick to write them off as fallible, even though they are. This might not be a universally beneficial exegetical tool, but I think we can differentiate between historical passages (“this is what happened”, where the lesson might very well be what not to do) and teaching passages (“here’s a sermon from so-and-so,” where the lesson is more likely to be hand-picked as a good example).
So I’m not necessarily advocating for a kind of across-the-board “assume they’re right” stance, but a more narrow approach that (1) is specific to the Book of Mormon, with its editorial review process and (2) differentiates between kinds of texts. In short: when Mormon has excerpted a teaching passage from another prophet, we have at least two prophets who are saying, “This is the good stuff.” So it very probably is. Even if not word-for-word perfect, we’re looking at high-grade, double-screened passage, and we should be heavily disposed towards assuming it’s correct.
I say this because Alma the Younger has a pretty harsh style in a lot of ways, and so if we’re not giving him the benefit of the doubt I think we naturally read Alma 39 – 42 as pretty doctrinaire theologizing. That’s how I’ve always read it in the past.
This time I thought instead about how, of all the people who could empathize with Corianton’s disastrous sabotage of his father’s work (intentional or not), Alma the Younger would have the best insight. He had, after all, done much the same thing.