Analyzing the Book of Mormon with Grant Hardy for fun and profit

12.21.11 | | 18 comments

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Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide is unquestionably the most important piece of Mormon criticism in the last few years. The way he has dissected the Book’s text and structure is remarkable. And while of course Book of Mormon criticism has been done before, I don’t think anyone has taken it nearly as deeply.

(Which is funny because, if I have any complaint about Hardy’s book, it’s that sometimes it could have gone on for another thirty dozen pages without boring me. All I want for Christmas is for this book to be twice as long.)As someone who reads the Book of Mormon as seriously as I’ve read any book—as someone who has probably read the Book of Mormon more times than any other book (likely exception)—as someone who finds critical/literary analysis of the Book to be both intellectually and spiritually satisfying—as such a person, reading this deeply serious analysis of the underlying structures of the Book of Mormon has been utterly thrilling.

Ever since, as a high-school student, I read Orson Scott Card’s “The Book of Mormon—Artifact or Artifice?” in Storyteller in Zion, I’ve been aware that there is more to the Book of Mormon than I learned in Primary or by skimming over the verses on those occasional nights my parents remembered to hold family scripture-study.

The Book of Mormon is a delightfully complex book. But outside scholars have generally refused to see its complexity and I saw people at Church focusing more on believing than dissecting; and so outside Card’s essay and my college-era subscription to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, I’ve felt pretty much on my own here.

(Note: I know this impression is a. unfair and b. my own fault, but let’s not fixate on my failings here.)

Understanding the Book of Mormon is written to believers and unbelievers alike and Hardy creates a  regular schedule to break from the action and remind people who dismiss the Book of Mormon as fiction that hey! people read fiction seriously! you can read this seriouslyo! Frankly, I thought covering that in the introduction was enough and we didn’t need to be reminded every few pages that, yes, we’re allowed to think Nephi and Mormon are made-up if we want.

Then again, maybe he didn’t do it enough. Here’s some excerpts from the least favorable Amazon review:

This book presents a detailed discussion of the Book of Mormon. However, when one starts from the position of blind faith, accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet and everything he wrote as a revelation from God, much of the discussion ends up being so laudatory it detracts from any of the value judgments the author makes. This is the same problem seen with the reviews here of Grant Hardy’s book.
The Ostlings, in Mormon America, point out many of the problems and errors, historical and archaeological, in The Book of Mormon and there are a number of other books that analyze the problems in a much more critical way, including one written by the Mormon scholar, Grant Palmer, The Insider’s View of The Book of Mormon. There are also a number of books that look at the origins of The Pearl of Great Price, one of the three sacred texts of Mormons. The latter is based on translations Joseph Smith claimed he made of Egyptian papyri, which – unfortunately for the church – still exist and have nothing to do with what he wrote but are hieroglyphics and pictures from the commonplace Book of Breathings, a Book of the Dead, an Egyptian burial guide.
The most significant problem with Grant Hardy’s book is that it tries to make the Book of Mormon into something it is not. The Book of Mormon is not great literature, nor is it filled with much wisdom. Regardless of whether you think Joseph Smith a prophet or a charlatan, the Book of Mormon is not pleasant to read; most will find it is poorly written, and has little to recommend it to non-Mormons, especially when compared to the King James Bible. It lacks the poetry of Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, or the charity and ethics in The Sermon of The Mount and other lessons in the New Testament. It is not surprising that few outside the Mormon Church pay attention to the book. You will find no quotations of Joseph Smith in any Book of Quotations, literary or philosophical, and no English Department is going to use The Book of Mormon as a set-book, even if Harold Bloom has a few good things to say about it. Far better to read and understand Shakespeare, Goethe or Milton, Herman Nellville or Steinbeck, or a hundred other writers of note. There you will find much more poetry, insight into humanity, and philosophy than in The Book of Mormon. Grant Hardy does not take that view, nor can one expect him to.

This book presents a detailed discussion of the Book of Mormon. However, when one starts from the position of blind faith, accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet and everything he wrote as a revelation from God, much of the discussion ends up being so laudatory it detracts from any of the value judgments the author makes. . . . [Note: although Hardy is a believer, I can imagine plenty of people who would find his openness on some points an attack on their faith.]

The Ostlings . . . [blah blah blah]

The most significant problem with Grant Hardy’s book is that it tries to make the Book of Mormon into something it is not. The Book of Mormon is not great literature, nor is it filled with much wisdom. Regardless of whether you think Joseph Smith a prophet or a charlatan, the Book of Mormon is not pleasant to read; most will find it is poorly written, and has little to recommend it to non-Mormons, especially when compared to the King James Bible. It lacks the poetry of Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, or the charity and ethics in The Sermon of The Mount and other lessons in the New Testament. . . . Grant Hardy does not take that view, nor can one expect him to.

Clearly the author of this review did not read Hardy’s book (interesting fact: this is this person’s only Amazon review). Hardy’s book demonstrates the opposite of all of these points quite well. I know that the more I read the Book of Mormon, the better I understand it and the more literary worth I find therein.  A book like this helps my understanding leap forward, but it’s not creating something that is not there: the Book of Mormon has great literary worth and stands up to serious analysis.

Hardy’s strategy is to talk about the Book’s primary narrators, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. He describes their apparent and connoted motivations and shows how their writing moves those goals toward fruition. This post is already nearing the overlong, so I won’t spend too much time discussing how the three writers variously use, say, embedded documents; instead I  want to leave you with a heartfelt pitch for this book.

Hardy’s book opened up my own understanding, just as his title promises. Until we understand the writers and characters of the Book of Mormon as people, we can only read them as icons and allegories, which, imho, is shallow and limiting. As real people (or, for you nonbelievers out there, as well drawn fictional constructs), these characters begin to teach and instruct and suggest and inform in the ways we learned about in high school when we read Hamlet or Atticus or Ahab. Reading the Book of Mormon as literature is worthy, fruitful, and fun. And, frankly, as a believer, finding something new is what keeps me reading.

Let Hardy dump a whole load of new on you all at once.

18 comments: “Analyzing the Book of Mormon with Grant Hardy for fun and profit

  1. Theric Jepson Post author

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    I feel more than a bit bad about leaving out the scores of things I left out. For instance, how vital the work of Royal Skousen has been to this and all future, serious studies of the Book of Mormon. Or how awesome Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon is to read. Or how brilliant a writer Mormon is and how ashamed I am for never noticing so many of the complexities he’s worked into the text.

    So much to love here.

  2. Angela H.

    I’ve wanted this book for months. Months! You’ve made me want it even more. I should just give it to myself for Christmas.

    I remember taking a class on point of view during my MFA and wishing that somehow, somewhere, I could take a class that analyzes point of view in the Book of Mormon in a serious way. It looks like this book is as close to that class as I’ll ever get.

    When we read the Book of Mormon as a family I’m always pointing out to my kids who the narrator is. Whenever Mormon breaks into the narrative I’ll ask them, “Okay, who’s talking now?” My kids are getting tired of me: “MORMON, Mom. It’s Mormon!” I don’t think I really realized anyone was narrating the Book of Mormon at all until I was [too old to admit]. I wish the structure of the BoM was emphasized more in regular gospel study, because it opens up so many interesting, and faith affirming, avenues to explore.

  3. Tyler Chadwick

    I’ve been trying to find a different entrance into the Book of Mormon for a little while now and I recently started re-reading it in the Penguin Classics edition so I can get a better feel for the narrative itself. Based on your recommendation, I think I’m going to get the Kindle edition of Hardy’s book to accompany my reading.

  4. FoxyJ

    I’m with Angela–after months of wishing for this book I think I’m going to buy it for myself for Christmas. Besides, I’m now in the ‘buy my own gifts’ category so I guess I’d better get what I want :)

    I was also rather old and had read the book a number of times before even realizing or noticing the structure and the narrators. I’ve always responded most to textual criticism and have done my best reading of any book through looking at language, form, and structure, so Hardy’s ideas really touch me. I know that for some people such an analysis is not as fruitful, but I do think that if we spent more time on these kinds of issues people would respond. I hope that our Sunday School teachers next year will do more of this kind of analysis–if nothing else a look at the narrative structure and language choice of the book would probably be a new angle that hasn’t already been hashed over a million times in Sunday School. I think that too often people want to assume that the BOM (and really all scripture) somehow descended from heaven whole-cloth without anyone constructing or shaping the narrative in any way.

  5. FoxyJ

    One more little thought: I’m in the book of Ether right now and I’ve noticed that the language feels different from the language of other books. I wonder how the Jaredite record differed language-wise from other Nephite records and how Mormon reflected those differences in his writing.

  6. Theric Jepson Post author

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    One thing that’s always been meaningful to me is watching Moroni develop as a writer over the course of his two and a half books. Hardy shows me how deliberately Moroni built that into his narrative. Sneaky, Moroni. Very sneaky.

  7. Wm

    One of the things that fascinates me is the clear affinity that Mormon has for Captain Moroni. Also: Nephi’s obsession with Isaiah.

  8. Theric Jepson Post author

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    Especially because Captain Moroni would be fairly easy to interpret as a powerheaded dope. Mormon goes to great pains to tell us that’s not what we should think of him.

  9. Jettboy

    Foxy J, Mormon’s son Moroni wrote (edited) the book of Ether. Also, I have a feeling he was more faithful to the historical text than his father.

    “[Moby Dick] is not pleasant to read; most will find it is [overly] written, and has little to recommend it to non-[English literature students], especially when compared to the King James Bible. It lacks the poetry of Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, or the charity and ethics in The Sermon of The Mount and other lessons in the New Testament.” My guess is the critic wouldn’t have much nice to say about the Koran or any other non-Judeo-Christian religious literature. Boring as the Book of Mormon can be, I find it spiritually impressive and satisfying reading for the shear magnitude of the textual narrative.

  10. FoxyJ

    Ah, Moroni. As I was typing “Mormon” I had a feeling I was wrong but I was too lazy to go check. The Jaredite record was interpreted much earlier in the BOM, but apparently it was not written down by anyone. Or maybe it was and Moroni decided to do his own version. I also have wondered whether it was in the fairly condensed form we have it, or whether it was paraphrased by Moroni.

  11. Theric Jepson Post author

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    Hardy hypothesizes that twenty-four plates don’t leave much room. Somehow I had always imagined “plates” in this context to mean a stack of plates ala the Golden Plates or the Brass Plates, but twenty-four individual plates is an equally valid theory and would lend to a condensed source material.

  12. Jettboy

    Maybe that is why Moroni’s writing seems more source oriented to me. He didn’t have as much to condense as his father so couldn’t put as much of his own “voice” to the narrative by incorporating several versions. I’m not saying Moroni didn’t follow after his father in the ancient tradition of paraphrasing and moralizing, but it seems more direct narration.

  13. Theric Jepson Post author

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    Also, he seems a little anxious to just be done with it already. Hardy suggests that Moroni didn’t really want to do the abridgment at all, but was obliged because Mormons said it would be there.

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