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. . . . [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.