"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oh, If Understanding the Book of Mormon Were Enough

Understanding the Book of MormonUnderstanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When it comes to scripture, I am devoutly skeptical. However, I generally appreciated Dr. Grant Hardy’s scholarly work Understanding the Book of Mormon. He reads the way I love to read. Hardy digs deep and buries himself in the text. He engages in thorough cross-referencing and rigorous comparing and contrasting.

To get the most out of Hardy’s analysis, I reread the Book of Mormon while reading his book. In particular, I found his assessments of Captain Moroni and the Book of Ether innovative. I also like how he takes both believers and non-believers to task for cherry picking passages they like and essentially dismissing the rest of the book. Still, I have serious concerns with Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Implicit in every chapter, and often explicit, is Dr. Hardy’s adoration of the Book of Mormon. This bias leaks into his textual analysis. Where the Book of Mormon exhibits literary weakness--as everyone from Moroni to Mark Twain agrees it does--Hardy backs away from his touted strategy of close textual reading. He even boasts of working from “gaps” and “omissions” in the text to beef up Nephi’s simplistic characters and one-sided storytelling.

It’s important to point out that Dr. Hardy focuses on the Book of Mormon’s narrative elements, not its theology. That is to say he primarily explores characters, events and, above all else, the narrative voices of Nephi, Mormon and Moroni. Hardy would have us believe that each narrator has a distinct voice. Certainly on a rudimentary level they do. As Hardy ably demonstrates, each narrator displays a basic awareness of his political and social surroundings.

But as Dr. Hardy points out, Mormon’s narration incorporates close to 200 “phrases he has picked up.” Hardy suggests this might be intentional use of “phrasal allusion.” The opposing argument, every bit as reasonable, is that the Book of Mormon narrators aren’t especially distinct. What is more, Hardy grudgingly admits that Moroni’s voice is even less distinctive than Mormon’s. He states that Moroni’s writing contains “…an unusually high proportion of phrases borrowed from previous Book of Mormon authors.”

Dr. Hardy seems to want it both ways. He digs deep to find textual evidence of unique voices. Yet elsewhere he confesses that “it is not always clear whether these kinds of verbal echoes are deliberate or whether Moroni is simply relying on common tropes….” Hardy buries one of his frankest confessions in the End Notes: "Latter-day Saints have long been wary of acknowledging just how much of the language of the Book of Mormon is derived from the Bible...."

Frankly, at the core of my criticism of Understanding the Book of Mormon is a suspicion. As Dr. Hardy makes clear in his Afterword, he doesn’t just want us to “understand” the Book of Mormon, he wants us to like it. Even if we don’t believe it, he wants us to hold it in high literary esteem. In short, Dr. Hardy wants learned skeptics like me to give the Book of Mormon more respect than it gives us. For the Book of Mormon narrators unmistakably promise stern eternal consequences to those who remain in unbelief.

Dr. Hardy rightly assesses the Book of Mormon as stubborn. Indeed, the Book of Mormon’s narrators demand nothing less than spiritual allegiance. So I find it foolhardy at best—and covertly evangelical at worst—that Hardy attempts to build a bridge between Lehi’s tree of spiritual fruit and that great and spacious building where worldly folk like me are said to dwell.

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UPDATE-9/20/10: My review came to the attention of the author, Dr. Grant Hardy. His response can be found at www.goodreads.com/review/show/108813190

3 comments:

  1. I received a good question about this review on Goodreads.com. A friend asked, "So explain to me why you are "suspicious" of Dr. Hardy wanting people to Like the Book of Mormon?" Here was my answer, which hopefully clarifies my concern:

    I think the closing point of my review is a bit muddied (which is not to say I take anything I said back). But I'll try to clear it up here.

    My suspicion is that Dr. Hardy's analysis bears at least a trace element of proselytizing. This is a suspicion, a subjective hunch, derived from a careful reading of his analysis, an assumption that Hardy believes the Book of Mormon, and a keen understanding of member missionary methods (based on 25 years of living the faith).

    In any case, I think there is something disingenuous about a believer trying to foster casual literary affection amongst non-believers. This isn't To Kill a Mockingbird. The Book of Mormon is an elaborate, aggressively persuasive spiritual argument. Its intent is to bring all humankind under the influence of a single rigidly patriarchal belief system. Maybe other people can get buddy-buddy with it on a narrative level, but I refuse to.

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  2. Great review Jake. I'm anxious to read the book myself.

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  3. Thanks for the feedback, Justin. When you have read Dr. Hardy's book, I'll be curious to hear your response.

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