Reading is obviously where our scripture study must begin. We cannot study and come to understand what we are not already familiar with. We cannot study 1 Nephi thoroughly without knowing the rest of the Book of Mormon. The prophets have admonished us to go beyond reading to study, and though reading is different from careful study, it is an essential part of scripture study. It is not something that can be done once and then forgotten; it must be done over and over again. Thus the repetition of the advice: “Read, read, read.”James faulconer
Joseph Spencer is very good at reading. And the Church is better for it.
You learn about Spencer’s talent quickly in First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, the first in a twelve-volume series put out by the Maxwell Institute at BYU. Where the “theological” could be intimidating, the “brief” and “introduction” are inviting. As is “1st Nephi”–a book that seemingly needs no introduction (and I emphasize seemingly). Spencer is aware of this:
“We know this book best… we turn the departure from Jerusalem into novels. We paint the tree of life. We film the trek through the desert. We sing about building the boat. We sermonize about our personal Liahonas. We make keychains that look like the iron rod. Our children strive to be like Nephi. We pray over our Lamans and Lemuels. First Nephi inspires and gives shape to Latter-day Saint devotion.”Spencer, Introduction
Spencer is right. (I know this, because I teach Sunbeams, where I have sung so many songs about Nephi’s courage and building boats.) But what I thought I knew made reading the book a humbling–and compelling–experience. I should know First Nephi best, but the insight-to-page ratio was so high that I began to wonder if I’d ever really paid attention at all. What more, each insight is made clearly in a warm and friendly tone. Even more, Spencer’s book is grounded in what Nephi says. While all theological interpretation is creative, the best theology takes the text as its canvas: the constraints within which to draw meaning. This book does that well. (The index suggests he cites 1 Nephi about 250 times, several of these citations grouped across several sentences or pages. As far as a book about a book goes, that’s good.)
In short, Spencer’s book is novel, careful, and clear. And it’s missional, too–determined to hear Nephi out, and from that sturdy platform, apply what we’ve learned to the Church: its members and mission. All of this makes it a worthy and promising start to this series of theological forays into the books of the Book of Mormon.
Let me follow with a few additional notes on Nephi’s design, the reading strategies Spencer uses (and doesn’t use), the thing I love most about the book (how considerate and pastoral it is), and some closing critique and hope for the future of the series.
“A Tight, Deliberate Structure”
Aside from learning that I don’t know how to read, the other main takeaway is that First Nephi is a very designed book. First Nephi has “a tight, deliberate structure,” with “a theological center of gravity.” The larger outline of the book, the original divisions, the “central story” of each chapter, and word choice all cascade and run together to make some larger observations about God and His covenant. Yes, Spencer acknowledges that “First Nephi is less a report about a family’s difficult experiences than an explanation, historical and theological, for intertribal conflict between Nephites and Lamanites.” This has been stated many times before, in many different ways. Spencer creates an outline, however, that centers First Nephi on the scriptural traditions Lehi’s family receives from the plates, and on their own visionary encounters with God. These two strands–ancient scripture and modern (for them) revelation–combine into an impactful message centered around God’s plan to redeem the Lehites. If you understand that, everything–Lehi’s dream, Nephi’s vision, Isaiah, and much else besides–falls into place.
It’s terrific stuff. My favorite part was early on in the book: I was reading about Lehi’s dream, and realizing (as Spencer argues) that it’s not really about the individual believers journey to Christ–though we can read it that way. It’s about Lehi’s sons. The vision is framed by Lehi expressing concern for Laman and Lemuel, and everything in the dream shifts dramatically after Laman and Lemuel reject the fruit–a moment that also comes at the center of the vision. In the context of what I was reading, this–and his exposition of Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11-14–hit me like a ton of bricks. Far from making the story less personal, it reminded me that the God I worship is over history. (And at a time like this, with the Coronavirus everywhere in the news, that’s a comforting thought.)
One thing that intrigued me was Spencer’s reading strategy. How does he approach scripture? What assumptions does he make, and what methods does he follow?
The main thing he wants me to know is this: “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Said another way, don’t miss or forget the “big picture” that makes up the larger book of First Nephi. As he says at the outset of the first chapter:
We’re always missing the big picture because we get stuck on the details. One little aspect of a situation stands out to us for whatever reason, and we end up missing everything else. It’s like becoming obsessed with just one scene in a movie and never really getting the point of the whole film. It’s not that there isn’t anything genuinely interesting about what draws our attention. It’s usually quite meaningful, in fact. But we’re always missing the bigger picture. And our experience of the world is poorer for it . . .Spencer, Chapter 1
The same chapter closes, in part, with these lines–forming a kind of inclusio of his own:
We read a little every day, mostly looking for something to touch us, to speak to our everyday life in a way that will help us press on as disciples of Jesus Christ. And there’s of course nothing wrong with that. But if it’s all we do with scripture, we’re likely to find that we’ve silenced the voices of the prophets… we’re to weave the scriptures we carry with us into the words we hear from living, breathing prophets in our own day. Only then can we see the biggest picture of all concerning what God’s doing in the world.SPENCER, CHAPTER 1
Spencer’s point comes from a conviction similar to the folks who make the Bible Project videos: each book or section of scripture is a literary whole, and should be treated as such. Rather than being obsessed with one scene, we should ask: what’s the larger point of the book? (For other examples of book-by-book analysis, see the Bible Project’s videos on Samuel and Matthew.)
In addition to emphasizing the big picture, Spencer also talks a lot about words. He discusses the difference between “command” and “constrain”; he notes the different places “Lamb of God,” “Messiah,” and “Christ” all appear; he looks at the distinction between “Holy Ghost” and “the Spirit”; and in all these moments, makes meaning out of it. This assumes a very precise, “tight” translation of the Book of Mormon, instead of a loose translation, i.e. Joseph receiving the words and clothing them in words he himself understood. Is this an accurate assumption? I don’t know. But Spencer draws pages of meaning from where and when these words appear in Nephi’s book, and in a way that coheres with Nephi’s message.
In summary, he asks questions like these:
- Structure. Can we take the structure seriously? (For example, is there evidence it was designed, and not just random?) Assuming we can, what are the contours and elements of that structure? What are the author’s original divisions? Are there editorial hints or transitions that suggest how to group these divisions? Are there “central stories” within each division? And what can all this tell us about the book’s theological concerns and the author’s intent?
- Textual Details. Assuming that earlier manuscript changes have priority, what can we learn from the Original and Printer’s manuscripts? When it comes to specific words, titles, and names, what is this word’s count and frequency? More, what is the word’s distribution and sequence, and what can that tell us?
- Drawing Conclusions. With this close reading and context in mind, what can we learn and draw from this scripture?
These are good questions. For a comprehensive look at First Nephi, they are not entirely sufficient–there are historical approaches that Spencer could have used. There is very little doctrinal connection here; there is not much effort to look outside of the text at historical facts. There are no deep dives into Lehi’s encounter with God as a model of theophany, or whether or not the family left Jerusalem in the midst of a passover. (A good example of a counter-approach is Brant Gardner’s Second Witness commentary, which is analytic and attempts to be comprehensive.) But while Spencer’s commentary misses on the analysis, it functions brilliantly on the level of synthesis. Much as I love these other commentaries, none of them left with as clear and compelling a picture of the overall message of the book as Spencer’s.
Which brings me to my last point.
Being Considerate, and Pastoral Care
The final thing I want to note about this remarkable book is something I find endearing: Spencer’s determination to make his work readable and relevant to readers like you and I. He does this in three key ways:
First of all, as a good writer, he’s ridiculously thoughtful. He’s great at providing check-ins throughout each chapter: zooming in, then zooming out, then zooming in again, then zooming out, then zooming in yet again and zooming out yet again, all to make sure I never lose sight of the picture. I’ve seen it in his other works, too, and it’s very considerate. This is not a trait shared by all writers, and certainly not by all scriptural commentaries, which can seem like a string of miscellaneous insights without much to draw them into a complete whole.
Secondly, Spencer spends the second half of the book addressing modern concerns: the murder of Laban, Nephi’s treatment of Laman of Lemuel, and women (or the lack thereof) in Nephi’s writings–all questions he’s been asked by his students at BYU and elsewhere. He offers rich and creative answers to these questions, but not until after we are oriented to what Nephi wanted us to know. That’s a price I was happy to pay, and I really liked his answers to these questions, though I won’t explore them here.
Thirdly, he has pastoral as well as academic ambitions. These are not cool scriptural nuggets that have nothing to do with our lived-out lives. No. Each chapter ends with a mini-sermon (each set after a lovely Brian Kershisnik woodcut): a takeaway that suggests how we might better relate to each other, to modern prophets, and to the world. Some examples:
- Chapter 1 ends with a call to weave together the voices of ancient prophets with the voice of modern ones.
- Chapter 2 ends with a missionary call, drawing insight and renewed Abrahamic purpose from Nephi’s vision.
- Chapter 4 ends with a call to live together in love, drawing this from the story of Laban.
The other chapters have similar conclusions, but they’re all about how to live as a church and community. And so Spencer sets an example both of how to dig deep into ancient scripture, and how to draw out, from these insights, spiritually powerful and intellectually rich spurs to action.
Critique and Conclusion
This book is not perfect, and heaven knows there may be flaws. (I suspect Spencer would admit as much.) Some minor quibbles:
- Spencer has a habit of hanging a lot of meaning on specific words, like pronouns (i.e. his chapter on women) or phrases (i.e. the “more sacred part” he discusses in The Vision of All, critiqued here). I am not certain that the Book of Mormon translation is precise enough to bear that load–see comments on this blog post for an example of this discussion–or that Nephi intended us to read this much onto these phrases.
- The analysis does not take into account other forms of critique or analysis, such as other forms of literary analysis (i.e. Grant Hardy) or historical and cultural analysis (i.e. Brant Gardner), or political analysis. As scholarship progress, I hope to see a theological synthesis like Spencer’s integrated into a more holistic synthesis that looks at all of these considerations, and circumscribes all these perspectives into one great whole.
- Spencer leaves some arguments unpacked that should be whole books, like his take on the Great Apostasy described in Nephi’s vision. I have lots of questions about that.
For these and other reasons, I look forward to other scholars engaging with the variety of readings and interpretations that Spencer offers. But these are minor quibbles. The book accomplishes what Spencer hoped to accomplish, which is to show how much we miss of a theological nature.
I hope Spencer’s book is widely read. It’s a powerful, compelling, and rich introduction to the book I thought I knew. It’s a model of clear, lucid writing. It invites every reader to consider how Nephi’s perspective should shape our personal and collective ministry. And it sets a high bar for what promises to be a very interesting series.
My friend Marissa is going to Harvard Divinity School, studying the stories of holy women. She recently posted a meditation on female anointings, and in it, described her encounter with a prayer that LDS women used to say as they anointed and blessed their pregnant sisters. Here is the prayer she found:
I love this prayer. In her post, Marissa adds the following:
I love the parts of my religion it [the prayer] reminds me of. I love that, in our early church when things were so theologically creative, women laid their hands on each other and pronounced blessings, the way we still do in the temple. This prayer sounds a lot like those temple blessings. It uses some of the same words, it has the same tendency to dart back and forth between the spiritual and the physical, nearly scientific, with its talk of marrow and ligaments, its attention to the details of the body. I love that about my religion too—the insistent mixing of the mundane with the divine, the assurance that the body is permanent, is part of our soul, is a necessary part of salvation, and therefore worthy of our theological attention and love.
Terryl Givens has said that “One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance–the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual.” This prayer, with “its talk of marrow and ligament, its attention to the details of the body,” is a prime example of that. It’s also a testament to the enduring faith of Latter-day Saint women. I hope my children–should God grant me children–know about prayers like these.
Back in 2008, as the Amazon Kindle e-reader was coming-of-age and people wondering if printed books would make it, Alan Jacobs suggested three ideas about the future of books. He hypothesized that (1) reference works would be read dominantly online, because hyperlinks are so great for reference (think of Wikipedia); that (2) narrative books, like history and novels, would be best read on the Kindle, because there is a forward momentum with e-readers–you can’t skip around, you can only go forward or back a page, and that creates a momentum; and that (3) the traditional, printed book “will be the best home for works that need to be lingered over, meditated, considered with care.”
This came to my mind today–partly because I was perusing the Bible Design blog–and I started to think about how I read scripture, which seem to fall into Alan Jacobs’ third bucket: works that need to be lingered over, and considered with care. That got me thinking about we read scripture as a church. In wards and branches, we have forgotten print scriptures. Nearly everyone reads scriptures on our phones. And if we do have a printed set of scriptures, we settle for the familiar, 2013 editions that are sold in Deseret Book.
I rarely see anyone with printed scriptures. Makes sense–it’s one less thing to carry. We leave our bulky scriptures behind, and use our phones at church; we enjoy the ability to take notes and highlight things, and leap around the scriptures at will. But what we use to read changes how we read. “The medium is the message.” And I’ve been pausing to consider: what difference does it make when I’m reading scripture on my phone, and in print? (And what difference does it make what kind of print editions I use?)
Consider: if I read scriptures on my phone, I’m encouraged to move about: to click on footnotes, to swipe to see resources from the side, to jump from hyperlink to hyperlink. And that’s if I don’t succumb to the temptation to check our notifications, or swipe to see another app. (Spoiler: I often do.) In many ways, reading digitally makes this kind of behavior almost inevitable.
This way of moving about what we’re reading–even when it’s scripture–has a place. I love the scripture resources on LDS.org. I love that in an instant, I can access a range of resources from my phone or computer: LDS commentary from BYU’s Citation Index and Book of Mormon Central; Christian historical and literary commentary from Faithlife and the Netbible; and even Jewish and rabbinic commentary from Sefaria. In addition, there are printed reference works that I can draw on. Popular and reliable study Bibles like the Oxford NRSV, the Jewish Study Bible, the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, and even our own Thomas Wayment’s new translation of the New Testament (replete with helpful study notes) are also available.
And we need better study bibles, especially as Latter-day Saints. The footnotes in our current print and leather editions are lacking. The context afforded by a quality study bible is invaluable, and brings us into engagement with modern Christian scholarship on the history and literary nature of the Bible. That’s important. Don’t get me wrong. More of us need to know about, and draw on, the wonderful resources that different translations of the Bible–set in various study bibles with maps and footnotes of every kind–provide.
But whether in print or online, these reference works do not encourage sustained encounter with the text. They encourage encounters with verses and chapters, yes. But after a short perusal of a passage, we notice the clickable hyperlinks or notes at the bottom of the page, which call and beg for our attention. And often, we follow–always learning something, often many things, and some of it valuable. But there is still much to be said about a sustained encounter with the text.
It could be said that a principal problem in our day is that our default mode of interaction is to treat scripture more like a reference work, moving about, and less like a book, standing relatively still.
In a 2012 Slate article “What Will Become of the Paper Book?,” Michael Agresta wrote:
Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura”—for better or for worse.Michael Agresta
J. Mark Bertrand, picking up on this idea, wrote a provocatively titled article, “Are Bible Apps destined to Purify the Printed Word?” He begins the article by detailing the history of the Bible, highlighting two major inventions that each transformed how we read the Good Book: first, the invention of the codex, which moved the Bible from a collection of scrolls into a single, bound book; and second, the Gutenberg printing press, which ushered in the Reformation and a new age of Biblical literacy. The Bible became available to millions of Christians, in their own languages, to be held in their own hands–all radical things, for the time. Then, he brings the story up to our day: the age of the digital book. Asking whether the demise of the printed Bible is inevitable, he argues that any reported death is in fact greatly exaggerated.
… the printed Bible is not under threat. If anything the advent of e-books has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the physical form of the Good Book. The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.J. Mark Bertrand
This call for a deep, immersive experience is compelling. Our attention has been called our “most important asset.” But whole industries and self-help books have emerged to explain how and why our capacity for attention is slowly eroding. This year is the tenth anniversary of Nicholas Carr’s much lauded “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” In it, he describes a feeling we might all relate to: a slow realization that sitting down to read a book (or any lengthy essay) was becoming rarer, and more difficult. The internet, and the entire infrastructure of phones and devices that connect with it, change our brains–quite literally. And as good as the Gospel Library is, it too can take part in that process of eroding our capacity for attention:
In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness.Mohsin Hamid, “How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience?”
“A less intermediated, less fractured experience.” Isn’t that what we want? If, as Mary Oliver has written, attention is the beginning of devotion–then we need to do everything we can to develop, and guard, our capacity for attention.
So what? Where do we turn, both as Christians and Latter-day Saints, to attend to scripture in a sustained and devoted way? In an age of feature creep, J Bertrand Russell offers this suggestion, specifically referring to the study bibles:
Reading from a study or reference edition can sometimes feel like watching a movie for the first time with the cast-and-crew commentary turned on. The information is helpful, yes, but it can sure get in the way of the film. I can understand the desire to pack a Bible full of extras. The challenge of designing such a text can be exhilarating. But the easiest way to prevent all the features from getting in the way of Scripture is not to design around them. It is to cut the features. An unmediated — or at least, minimally mediated — design might have just one feature: readability. But that’s a pretty good feature to have.J. Mark Bertrand, interview for 2k/stories
The principle Bertrand is suggesting: readability is an exercise in subtraction. This can be difficult. But it can be done.
Perhaps no one has done this better for the Bible than Crossway. This publishing house owns the English Standard Version, a translation I’m drawn to both because it’s very, very good as a translation–and because everything Crossway does pays close attention to the readability of the text. In particular, they’ve done a lot for reader’s bibles, which as you can guess, strip out much of the extras. What is left is text–in some cases, just the text–set on pages with wide margins, single columns, and beautiful typography. (Just like it should be.)
Consider their ESV Reader’s Bible. Take a look at how the pages are formatted: aside from the red text, indicating shifts in chapter, the first pages of Genesis read like a story–the greatest story ever told.
It is, as Genesis says, “very good.” J. Mark Bertrand’s review of it is comprehensive, and he calls attention to design choices that are invisible to those of us (myself included) who frequently take book design for granted: the opacity and thickness of the paper, the quality of the binding, the typography–it is all combined into one, marvelous experience. It is bookmaking (scripturemaking) as an art form.
Unlike the single-volume Reader’s Bible, the six-volume set does not have to compact so many things. Therefore the margins and the spacing between letters and lines and words have more room to breathe. It is incredible.
Crossway is not the only one publishing these. Consider Bibliotheca, another fine reader’s Bible, also in a set. J. Mark Bertrand titled his review of it “Bibliotheca, Mon Amour”: Bibliotheca, my love.
Lovely, isn’t it? I particularly love the gradients of each book in the set, in addition to the custom typeface that the creator designed for the site. You can see more of how he designed it here.
Now, these are whole Bibles. But even small books of the Bible can be printed and set. When we were reading the New Testament in Come, Follow Me last year, I was struggling to get “into” Paul. Even after reading N.T. Wright’s excellent biography of Paul, I had a hard time reading through his letters. I was wishing that I could read his letters more like its first hearers: stripped of chapters and verses, forcing me to pay attention to the larger themes of scripture.
Enter Crossway’s Reader’s Letters of Paul. Beautiful, compact, and eminently readable. And relatively inexpensive! Take a look below. (If you want a more detailed look, here is a PDF excerpt from the book.)
Reading Paul here did not solve all my problems. I still consulted notes and study notes to make sense of some of Paul’s finer arguments. But for the first time, I was honoring something that the New Testament scholar and pastor N.T. Wright had once said:
The Bible was not primarily written in order to be read in 10 verse chunks. We have cut the Bible down to size. Now, obviously there are some bits like the Psalms, and like some passages — the book of James is written in very short bursts — but most of it including Paul’s letters and certainly the Gospels and certainly great books like Isaiah and so on are read in order to be experienced the way you experience a symphony.
Imagine if you were to a concert and you got the first 10 bars of Beethoven 5, and then the conductor turned around and said, “Okay, that’s all for this week, come back the same time next week, and we’ll have the next ten bars.” You would think, “Wait…” And if somebody said, “Oh, but if you listen to the whole thing you’d never remember it all, you’d think, “Well, that’s not the point.” You don’t listen to it in order to remember — you will remember quite a lot of it — you listen to it in order to be swept along in the full flow and sweep and flood of it. And I grieve over the fact that there are many many Christians who have never ever read one of the Gospels or even one of the epistles straight through at a sitting…N.T. Wright, “The Whole Sweep of scripture”
Now, it is a challenge to read whole books in one sitting. Some take a very long time. But when I was reading Paul, I made a determination–to read his letters all the way through. I wanted to imagine myself as if I was a follower of the Way–which is what the early Christians called the Jesus movement–who had just received a letter from this apostle of the Lord. I remember reading Phillipians all the way through. And then again, each day, for two weeks. I cannot tell you all the specific parts of the letter, but I can tell you the tone: it is a tone of joy. It is bursting with joy. And all the more remarkable because he was in prison. Having read it in full, made far easier with the Reader’s Letters of Paul, I have come to love that letter. I read it whenever I am tempted to despair. Imagine being able to do something like this, but for individual books of The Book of Mormon, or specific sets of revelation? (Imagine: a Reader’s Kirtland Revelations, or a Reader’s Book of Alma.)
Dan Carlin, host of the popular (and endlessly entertaining) Hardcore History podcast, likes to say that “history has ruined fiction” for him–meaning, that history is so much more interesting than fiction, once it’s known. Borrowing from that formulation, reader’s bibles have ruined reference bibles (and many scripture apps) for me.
As Latter-day Saints, we need to make the scriptures come to life for us–and our children. This begins by reading scripture, and being intimately familiar with it. I have spent most of the time so far gushing about Bibles. But what of our other, Restoration scripture?
When it comes to reformatting and repackaging Restoration scripture to make things more readable, The Book of Mormon has received the most attention so far. Unlike the Bible, it was originally published as a book in single-column pages, with much larger chapters and no verse markings. The chapter divisions were changed (increased from 114 to 239) by Orson Pratt in 1879, who also added our modern verse divisions. And the pages moved from single-column to double-column in the 1920 edition. These changed allowed The Book of Mormon to look more like Bibles of the day–but in the process, made readability a more difficult goal.
As important as these modern divisions have been, we have begun a welcome trend back toward readability, largely thanks to Yale professor and Latter-day Saint Grant Hardy. In 2003, through the University of Illinois Press, he published The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition. There are several reasons Hardy undertook this effort–among them, making it easier for friends of his to approach it–but my favorite is this one:
My wife, Heather, is an astonishingly good reader. I was teaching at the time, and I came home from work one day, and she said, “Oh, I read 100 pages in the Book of Mormon today.” Something like—certainly first and second Nephi—this morning. And she said, “It’s just not . . . there’s not that much there.” She said, “I went to Seminary. I went to Sunday School. I’ve read it a bunch of times. I know the stories. I know the basic doctrines. It’s really repetitive, and it’s awkward.” And she said, “I think I’ve gotten pretty much what I can get out of it.” She tossed it across the room. And I said, “Let me get you a Book of Mormon you can read. I think there’s more there. Let me see what I can do.” So, I had this project. She actually worked with me on this project, and it’s the best gift I’ve ever given anyone perhaps—other than giving my daughter’s phone number to the guy she married, but that’s a different story. I gave Heather a Book of Mormon that she could read, and she taught me how to read it—often reading it for several hours a day and sees all kinds of astonishing things and connections and patterns in it.Grant Hardy, LDS Perspectives podcast
This endeavor benefited not only Hardy and his wife, but also myself. I encountered this edition in college, and for the first time, I began to recognize larger patterns in The Book of Mormon, such as who the main narrators are (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) and how their contributions shaped the structure of the book. I also began to notice little details, such as how the Amalackiahite Wars–which range from Alma 43 to Alma 63–are fought on two fronts. Suddenly, “the war chapters” became more than just war chapters. The logic and flow of some of the largest books in Restoration scripture began to make sense. Additionally, the passages of Isaiah found in The Book of Mormon are set in poetic form, allowing you to more easily see where the difference in poetry and prose lie.
Now, many years later, the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of The Book of Mormon has been published, this edition designed more for members of the church. While it bills itself as a “study edition,” it doubles as a reader’s Book of Mormon. It has the chapter and verse numbers–both the original chapter numbers, provided in Roman numerals, and the modern chapter divisions, given in Arabic numerals. The text is set in paragraphs and, where applicable, poetic lines; pages are set in single columns; the verses are small and superscripted; and the footnotes offer new and rich insights about the allusions found within the book, and the changes across multiple printings. In addition, each book is prefaced with a beautiful woodcut printing by Brian Kershisnik.
These editions are fantastic. I mentioned earlier how these reader’s editions had ruined apps for me. Well, I can hardly go back to reading the Book of Mormon in the traditional, Church-published editions, for all the reasons I just described: the easy-on-the-eyes paragraphs and poetic lines; the single column pages; the barely visible versification; the typography; the wood-cut printings; even the footnotes, far more spare than what the Church has produced, are incredibly rich and valuable.
(While it’s very good as a study edition, I would quite like to see a reader’s edition: one with wider margins, type with more room to breathe, and no versification or titles at all. I’d also love to see this published, perhaps, in a three-volume set: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni.)
While these two editions by Grant Hardy are the most prominent examples of printing the Book of Mormon in a readable format, they are not the only instances of the Spirit moving to make our important scripture more readable. Ben Crowder, a talented software engineer at the BYU Library, has prepared a reader’s edition himself–which you can download or purchase as a print edition. Nathan Richardson, a speech therapist and book designer, has made a “do-it-yourself” scripture formatting template, which provides the Book of Mormon in a word document. This file comes without verse numbers, the original chapter breaks, or punctuation, it allows you to participate in the project of making the text more readable. (And if this intrigues you, he’s offered this with the Doctrine and Covenants and other standard works, too.)
(Both Crowder and Richardson also provide editions of their reader’s editions in print, for a cost. I encourage you to take a look.)
We do not yet have any reader’s editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Book of Moses. Pearl of Great Price Central has put out a study edition of the Book of Abraham–a good start in making this important book approachable. It places the book in a single column with subtle headers and footnotes. These are important frontiers for us to push through, with new opportunities awaiting us.
Whether it be from scholars like Hardy, or hobbyists like Crowder and Richardson, or groups like Book of Mormon / Pearl of Great Price Central, the important work of making our scripture more approachable and readable has begun. The Spirit has begun to move within our church–and in history–providing the Body of Christ with new tools and formats for “feasting upon the word of Christ” (2 Nephi 31:20). Recall J. Mark Bertrand’s quote from earlier:
The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.J. Mark Bertrand
Scripture mastery is more than memorizing twenty-five verses from the Book of Mormon: it is understanding the whole of the book, and the larger message it tells. Consider the Book of Mormon: it is a tragic story, a story Grant Hardy once called “a tragedy… an unrelenting record of human folly and ruin.” But it is also a story of a God who has made promises to His children: a God who weeps, and a God who covenants, and a God who desires His children return. The sweep of the Old, New, and “Other” Testaments–as well as the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price–is a testimony to God’s love; to the reality of Jesus Christ; and to the truth that God speaks to us today. He cares, he loves us, and he bids us return.
It is vital that we not only memorize the doctrines and principles from scripture, but that we are familiar with the messages of the larger books: the drama of Genesis and Exodus; the prophetic poetry of the Psalms; the intense prophecies of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah about the exile; the bold tale of the Gospels, of the son of God Jesus Christ, and his life, death, and resurrection; of Paul’s preaching, boldly, to the Saints in the early church, to the apocalypse of Revelation. Then there is the dramatic tale told on Nephi’s small plates, and his concerns for his people expressed both in Psalm and in prophecy; and Mormon’s retrospective record, looking back and seeing how Nephi’s worries and woes played out, and preserving these lessons for Gentiles in a later day. And of course, there is other scripture, the dramatic history told in-between the lines in the Doctrine and Covenants, of a young man’s quest to meet God again–this time, not in an Eastern desert, but in an American grove–and being called as a Prophet, and leading this church, moment by moment, question by question, with new revelations come in response to those moments.
This is the sweeping tale of scripture, which preserves a record of one God and many peoples striving to observe His will and fulfill a covenant that extends from here back to Abraham: the covenant to be a holy people, blessing all the nations, preparing themselves and all the earth to live in a world remade by God.
If we only read scripture in small sections and chunks, and never allow ourselves the opportunity to be lost in the story, will we ever gain the familiarity with scripture that God has called us to? Not just familiarity with the Book of Mormon, but with the Biblical tales as well? We may not. We need to mature in our understanding of scripture; but we must read it first. Reading is always the first challenge. And scriptures, printed in formats that making reading nearly inevitable, is a good first step, especially in an age where one of our many, many challenges is simply how to pay attention. For me, finding time not just to study, but to read scripture–to feast on the word–is a key part of meeting that challenge. Reader’s bibles have dramatically reshaped my ability to, well, read the Bible! We, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, need something similar. As I learned with Paul last year, and the Book of Mormon this year, editions of scripture stripped of the extra material can help us read them–deeply, immersively–as they were intended to be read: in full. With a good Reader’s Bible–and even a Book of Mormon set in a single column–I find it easier to read, and engage with, God’s sacred word.
Let me end this plea with actual pleas, questions for our Church. Where is our Crossway, our publisher who will print God’s word with utmost care and attention to detail? Where is our Reader’s Book of Mormon, set in one, or many volumes? (And our Reader’s Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Moses and Holy Bible, too?) Who will produce beautiful, readable books that create the conditions for sustained attention, “the beginning of devotion”? What typographers, and publishers, and designers, and artists, and businessmen, and others will conspire to craft beautiful books to shape and form our souls in ways that digital resources–valuable reference works though they are–cannot? I think as we meet these questions, our familiarity with scripture will enhance; and our ability to meet God where we are will grow too.
This past Sunday, I subbed for our Sunday School class. Much as I love teaching Sunbeams, it was a great change of pace to discuss scripture with adults. And part of the challenge (and fun) was looking for ways to not just introduce Jacob’s wonderful discourse in 2 Nephi 6-10, but also to talk about the elephant in the room: Isaiah, who dominates the next two weeks.
The lesson was met with some positive feedback, and I had several people come up and let me know how much they liked it. So in the spirit of sharing, here’s part of what I did for the lesson, and here’s the handout I gave people a link to for later reference.
Reading Biblical Poetry
The first thing I wanted to do was help people know that Isaiah is mostly poetry, and so think about how to read Biblical poetry. I borrowed heavily from The Bible Project’s great video on how to read Biblical poetry, which you can see here:
While I could have shown the video in class, probably, I decided just to hit the main points myself, keeping it really high level:
- I explained that 33% of the Bible is poetry. So how do we read it?
- Biblical poetry doesn’t use rhyme to mark something as poetry, but rather couplets set parallel to each other.
- The first line of each couplet makes a basic statement.
- The second line either completes, deepens, or contrasts the first line. (This is really general, but hey, rule of threes.) I drew these points on the board.
- Let’s see an example of this. Jacob uses chapter 6 to comment on Isaiah 49:22-23. But that’s actually part of a larger poem, Isaiah 49:14-23. Let’s take a look at it.
- At this point, I passed around this as a handout, which showed the larger passage in poetic form. I also made a couple of notes regarding the “setup” of the poem.
- I took a minute to observe that, unlike the KVJ or our own Book of Mormon, this translation shows the couplets. It helps to see the couplets when you read poetry, and you should try to do that whenever possible!
- We spent a couple of minutes reading through the couplets, and I asked them each time what they thought the second line was doing. Verse 14? Deepening. The first half of verse 15? Deepening. The second half? Contrasting. Verse 14? Deepening or completing. It was fun, and they really got into it.
Isaiah’s Two Halves
At this point, I had them break into groups and read the poem again, looking for the answer to these two questions: what is the poem about? And why would Nephi and Jacob have taught this to their people? What message did it have for them? After a fruitful discussion, I asked them what it might mean for us. We had a great time.
One of the things that came up in the discussion was that the Isaiah passages Jacob was quoting to his people were basically hopeful. And this makes sense, if we know something about the book of Isaiah! I only spent a couple of minutes making this point, but it proved helpful for several people in our group:
- Isaiah has two halves!
- I drew a picture of a book, and wrote “Isaiah 1-39 / Judgement” on the left side, and “Isaiah 40-66 / Hope and Comfort” on the right side. I take this basic idea from the Bible Project, commentaries, and BYU’s Joseph Spencer, who said this:
The simplest or most obvious literary feature of the Book of Isaiah is the fact that it comes in two halves… whether we divide the book between chapters 33 and 34 or between chapters 39 and 40, what’s important for our purposes is the fact that the two halves are literarily and theologically different. The first half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of judgment (both of covenant peoples and of Gentile nations), while the second half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of restoration (of the covenant people thanks in part to the assistance of the Gentile nations). Other major prophetic books are similarly organized, with prophecies of peace and restoration coming after prophecies of destruction and judgment…Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”, Chapter 2
- I explained that (generally speaking) it’s helpful to ask which “side” of Isaiah the passage is from. If Jacob or Nephi (or Jesus or Abinadi) is quoting from the first half, like most of next week’s readings, it’s from the “judgement” section. If it’s from the second half, it’s from the “hope” section.
- I asked them which “side” today’s reading is from–the “hope” side!–and which “side” next week’s reading is from. And then, with that very brief note about Isaiah’s larger structure, we moved on.
Making Isaiah Approachable
After this, we launched in 2 Nephi 9-10, which is, I think, where most lessons on 2 Nephi 6-10 spend their time. (It’s certainly where the manual focuses us.) But I wanted to make sure we spent some time on the Isaiah chapters–learning how to read the poetry and making Isaiah’s own book a little more approachable. This handout I gave people a link to also helped to point people toward some of the YouTube videos and directions.
I’m always trying to learn how to make Isaiah more inviting. These are little “hooks” that have helped me into a very daunting but powerful testament, a testament that bears witness of God’s covenant love for His people–anciently, and today. I hope it helps!
If you have any other ideas or things that work for you and your class, let me know.
What happened then: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time–especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.from the mixed up files of Mrs. BasiL E. Frankweiler, p. 39
When Susan and I were in graduate school, we came to appreciate the wisdom embedded in three simple words from the Doctrine and Covenants: “as for years.” We embraced this phrase as we observed others in our situation who never truly unpacked and settled in. There is a strong temptation for young adults to look on their years in school or their first jobs as merely way stations toward a permanent job and home and hence to hold back. It’s easy for any of us to regard ourselves as simply passing through life, without making the effort—or assuming the risk—of putting down roots.John Tanner, “As for years”
I’ve moved a lot in my life. Between 2008 and 2017, I never lived in the same ward for longer than a year. I had the same roommates for a while, and that was great! I got to know them quite well–we were great friends. But I didn’t get to know others very well, or for very long. “Fleeting” was my experience in each place, before moving on to the next apartment building, to the next ward, to the next place.
Until 2017, that is–when I moved into a ward in Utah County. It was my mother-in-law’s ward; my father-in-law had passed away, and we wanted to be close in the aftermath, and we found a great opportunity. We spent two-and-a-half wonderful, wonderful years there. And though my wife and I recently moved from Utah to New York City (in late 2019) for work, I miss that ward quite a lot. And I’ve been thinking about why. And I think, I think, it has to do with two things: a hard-won unity, and living as if for years. Let me explain.
In an interview between Blair Hodges (Maxwell Institute) and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, they had this exchange.
HODGES: So Tom, for the rest of our time together I thought we’d do a little something of a little primer on how different people have reckoned with Paul. We’ll talk about how historical figures understood Paul, and how we can see how their immediate concerns shaped the questions they asked and therefore the results of their studies. Along the way hopefully we’ll get a better sense of who Paul is and why he’s been the source of so much theological disagreement, which is kind of ironic given that one of his major themes was [laughs]—
WRIGHT: Unity, yeah, yeah. But he’s always after a mature unity. It’s not the lowest common denominator unity. It’s about a sense of a hard-won growing up into unity rather than filing everything down into an easy unity. So, [laughs] we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still having that struggle.#38—N.T. WRIGHT ON PAUL AND HIS RECENT INTERPRETERS [MIPODCAST]
Before hearing this, I’d never thought about different kinds of unity. What would an easy unity look like? And what’s the difference between an easy-won unity, and a hard-won, mature unity? There’s a few answers to this, but let me start with the “easy” unity. The first thing I think about here is a hypothetical Church lesson where something controversial or wrong is said, and people stay quiet, not wanting to “steady the ark,” or cause contention, or seem deviant and different because they might be expressing a controversial opinion. In each of these cases, it is fear keeping them at bay–fear of reprisal, fear of contention, fear of shame–fear of the unknown. What would happen if I questioned that view? Or shared my personal experience? Or voiced an opinion I know not everyone shares? I know I’ve definitely refrained from saying something because I knew the comment might not be accepted, or might be easily misunderstood.
But then, some fears are founded. Maybe I know that the teacher would shut me down. Maybe I know my neighbor would think I’m unfaithful. Or maybe I just think that’s would happen. Even the suspicion might be enough to shut us down. What’s required is a feeling of psychological safety, or even a feeling of relational and spiritual safety–the knowledge that candor won’t be punished, that vulnerability won’t be mocked, that we can be open with each other.
My last ward, before moving to Manhattan, was wonderful. I was there for two-and-a-half years, which is just about long enough to form real relationships and feel at home. (I still miss it.) I once shared with a group there that I believe in evolution–it was actually while sharing a testimony, and I was using evolution to illustrate a point. Two reactions ensued: first, several people thanked me for my testimony, joking along with me that I gave the “Dinosaur Testimony.” The second reaction appeared the following Sunday, when I had the assignment to clean the church. I was cleaning the doors with an older lady in the ward. While squee-geeing the glass lobby doors, she asked me if I really believed in evolution? I said that yes, I did. She asked if I’d ever read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny (wherein Joseph Fielding Smith comes down hard against evolution). She said I should really read it. I knew her well enough to be confident she cared about me, and worried about my soul–her shade about evolution notwithstanding. But I knew that, and I knew I wouldn’t convince her here–Joseph Fielding Smith had been an influential prophet in her lifetime, and she had gone to school before DNA had been discovered–so I told her thanks for the recommendation, and that I might check it out. I spoke to her a bit longer about my views. I could tell she was ruffled, but she listened. I ended with my testimony. We then talked about her family, and her long-time in Utah. I asked her how the city had changed. And after all that, she thanked me for helping her clean.
Although we were separated by gender, age, culture, and generational experience, we were serving together in the Church. I had been the Executive Secretary and had set up many appointments for her. We had spoken before during Sacrament. We were cleaning the lobby. And it was refreshing because I knew that we could speak frankly. We didn’t convince each other, but I think she left respecting me, and I respecting her.
In another episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, Fiona and Terryl Givens gave an interview where Fiona voiced this fascinating thought:
FIONA: My feeling is whenever we moved to a ward, which we haven’t done particularly often, but I have found that in order to gain a voice it is really, really important to immerse oneself in that community. Not to stay at a distance from that community. So helping move, taking dinners. Whatever is required in a service-orientated capacity, we should be busily engaged in. Because that is a huge bridge builder. Because essentially, when you’re serving someone, you’re telling them that you love them. And that gains one an incredible amount of capital to be able to raise something in a gospel doctrine lesson, or a Relief Society lesson that might not otherwise be accepted. But because people recognize that you are a fully collaborating member of the community, you are more than likely to get a bye. So for example, in our Gospel Doctrine class a few weeks ago, the topic being discussed was how do you prepare yourself if you’re going to the temple. And so, you know, I sat for a while and then I thought, well, I’ll offer my contribution. And I said I think it actually might be very helpful to go to Catholic mass three or four times before one goes to the temple. Because Catholics do ritual and symbolism extremely well. And it was very interesting to watch how it played out, you know. Some people woke up and said, “Oh, did Fiona just tell us to become Catholics?” And then others thought, “Well, that is odd. Did I hear her correctly?” So it’s sort of a wake-up moment for most of the class. But actually, there were a lot of people who were entertaining the idea. There was no outright rejection of my suggestion, which I thought was very helpful.
TERRYL: And it was because they trusted you. They’ve seen you—
FIONA: And they did trust me, yeah.
HODGES: You aren’t trying to be a rabble-rouser.
FIONA: I was not trying to be a rabble-rouser. Exactly.
TERRYL: And it had nothing to do with academic credentials or anything else. It’s about being a part of the community and having paid our dues through service to the community.Maxwell institute podcast, episode 30, with fiona and terryl givens
I love this thought. Coming back to my original tale, our most recent Utah ward–the one we spent over two-years in–was the first ward I felt we really gave our all. I’m an introvert at heart, and more at ease in reading a book then carrying on a conversation–but I tried. The fact that everyone in the ward knew my wife (she had grown up there) helped. We did not know how long we would live there, but we put our best foot forward.
In 1831, in Spring, the Saints had started to move to Kirtland, Ohio. A group of saints from Colesville, New York were given permission by a member named Leman Copley to stay on his farm in Thompson, a short distance from Kirtland. In May 1831, Joseph Smith received the following revelation:
I grant unto this People a privelige of organizeing themselves according to my laws & I consecrate unto them this land for a little season untill I the Lord shall provide for them otherwise & command them to go hence & the hour & the day is not given unto them wherefore let them act upon this land as for years & this shall turn unto them for their good…Revelation Book 1, Page 87 (D&C 51:16-17); emphasis my own
“Act upon this land as for years.” What a wonderful phrase! I think I learned how to do this in 2017, in the Utah ward I came to love. Part of it was the time I spent there; part of it was the quality of the time I spent there. We had people over for dinner; we did service projects; we volunteered; we tried to do good. It was the first time I had really, really tried to take Fiona Givens’ advice: “to immerse oneself in that community… Not to stay at a distance from that community.”
We’ve been in Manhattan for five months so far. (Much longer than the Colesville Saints’ six weeks!) We’ve assumed some of the risk of setting down roots. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying–to give our all to the place; not to treat it as a waystation, but as a final destination, regardless of how true that really is; to win that hard-won unity. I’m anxious to report how that goes.
This past December, I read “Fleeing the Garden: Reading Genesis 2-3,” a collection of essays put out by the Mormon Theological Seminar. I really liked this book. It’s a set of seven essays (or eight, if you count Adam Miller’s introduction), each taking theological dives into Genesis 2-3. It was produced when, in either 2017 or 2016, six scholars–three women and three men–came together and spent months going over every verse, discussing it and all it could mean. They call this the Mormon Theological Seminar, and each essay has the scholar take their interests and training round again to the text of Genesis 2-3.
Now, with any anthology or compilation of essays, especially when they’re each by different people, there will be essays that resonate more strongly than others. Because I have only recently discovered the joys of exegesis, Ben Spackman, Jim Faulconer, and Julie Smith’s essays were particularly fascinating to me. Ben Spackman’s deep dive into the translation of “Adam” was revelatory for me; Faulconer’s essay helped me more vividly put myself in the place of ancient Jew, reading Genesis; and Julie Smith, in perhaps my favorite from the collection, helped me see how Eve’s “wise choice” theory, propounded by prophets from Joseph and Brigham to today, is both a wonderful and problematic reading, and offers other holistic frameworks for making sense of the ambiguities, though ultimately pointing out that no one explanation explains all of the text. All of these essays pay close attention to the text and invoke it often. Spackman and Smith’s essays also felt like different kinds of reception history. (Julie Smith’s footnotes tracing what different LDS leaders have interpreted the “wise choice” theory were, for me, worth the price of the book.)
(I also loved Adam Miller’s introduction about how God accommodates to our worldview when he reveals himself, though he makes the same points in more accessible language in his “Scripture” essay in Letters to a Young Mormon, which I was grateful I had read first.)
The other essays were also good readings, though it seemed to me that they were either drawing from the text of Genesis 2-3 less (using verses or scriptures as a springboard for theologizing) or drawing from the text in ways I doubt the original author of Genesis intended, or at least that weren’t the primary points of the text. Which isn’t to say they were bad, but they were different. The two essays on Genesis and the environment–Welch’s essay on Wendell Berry and localism, and Wendt’s essay on eco-literacy–touched me profoundly, since I’m living in a generation wrestling with the problem of poor planetary stewardship (aka climate change) and a deep disconnection with the land. These essays helped me see what Genesis might have to say about those modern-but-also-ancient problems.
Adam Miller’s main essay “on dirt, dung, and digestion in God’s garden” was extremely thought-provoking. I will never think about “bowels of mercy” the same way again, nor will I take for granted the messiness of embodiment. Importantly, he asks a question (twice in the chapter) that acts as a quiz, asking what we think the role of digestion will be in a resurrected state, that was arresting. (I still don’t know how I would answer it.) Joseph Spencer’s essay begins with a fascinating theology of the phrase “and it shall come to pass.” I was impressed by, and even enjoyed, how much he could draw from that simple phrase. But while I have found a lot of Spencer’s work profoundly accessible and interesting, I had a harder time connecting with this essay. Still, I trust there is something for me in there, and I intend to return later to re-read it again.
So again: I really enjoyed this book. A fun mix of theology, exegesis, reception history, and novel interpretation from one of the most challenging chapters in history.