A Review of “1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction”

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.)

Reading Strategies

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.

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