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.

“Fleeing the Garden: Reading Genesis 2-3”

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.

Michael Austin’s “Buried Treasures”

Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time is Michael Austin’s chronicle of him reading, for the first time after 30 years, the Book of Mormon. Having spent the better portion of that intervening span analyzing and teaching great literature as an academic, he admits he was afraid the Book of Mormon wouldn’t measure up to the great works he had spent so long studying and teaching. His report? “I was wrong… it is a book that Latter-day Saints should never be ashamed to place alongside the great books of the world’s traditions—both religious and secular.”

This chronicle is composed of 44 short chapters, written originally as blog posts, so they’re short and accessible; they range across the whole Book of Mormon. Some chapters read like sermons, drawing principles to live by from the text and with quotes I’d happily draw from when preparing a Sacrament talk. Other chapters show you some literary or rhetorical aspect of the Book of Mormon that makes you appreciate how rich the Book of Mormon really is. My favorites were “Alma and the Dunbar Number,” “Why Alma’s Mission Failed while Ammon’s Succeeded,” and “Why the ‘Anti-Nephi-Lehis’ Matter Today.” (That last one, especially, touched me deeply.)

But calling those favorites belies how much I loved the entire book. He has some great insights onto warfare in the Book of Mormon, including how nearly ever war was, in fact, a civil war. He walks you through the “typological” connections in the Book of Mormons, the allusions the Book makes to itself and the Bible, that enhance it richly. (The connections between Lehi’s Tree of Life Vision and the Fall story in the Bible was especially enlightening.) He dwells on how the Book would have been received by the faithful saints in the 1830s. And he shows you, too, how to read “against the grain” at parts: questioning some of Mormon’s decisions, especially when it comes to how Mormon depicts religious freedom and warfare. Far from diminishing my faith in the Book of Mormon, it enhanced it: for it showed that the Book is precisely what it claims to be, an inspired tragedy commissioned by God, but written in the limited perspective of a faithful but flawed historian, doing the best for his people and for the people he knew would inherit his book a millennium-and-a-half down the line, testifying of Christ.

I heartily recommend this collection. There were some observations I disagreed with, and several small grammatical mistakes, but the substance and range of the insights have expanded my view of the Book of Mormon immensely. It’s accessible and handy and always thought-provoking, and as I read the Book of Mormon each year, I’m going to be looking back to this book to see what buried treasures I might have missed.

[UPDATE: Michael Austin added “an additional chapter” through a blogpost here, called “Enos and the Joy of the Saints.” It’s an excellent addition.]

Brant Gardner’s Labor Dilgently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture

Brant Gardner’s “Labor Dilgently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture,” serialized in the Interpreter Journal in eight-to-nine parts, builds on his prolific portfolio of studies on the Book of Mormon by asking some very specific questions “about a very specific aspect of two different men.” Gardner poses his main question this way:

Nephi conceived writing Nephite history. Mormon conceived turning that history into a message to a future generation. Each wrote with purpose and elaborated that purpose by recounting stories. Knowing that each man used a chronology of events as the backbone structuring his intent, how did they select and then write the stories so Nephite history served their larger intent?

At first, I thought this might mean a “literary” approach, following what Grant Hardy has done. While there are literary aspects of this project, it resembles more a “source criticism” approach, trying to do for the Book of Mormon what source criticism has done for the Bible–identify the strands of thought and sources that make up each Biblical book. But of course, the comparison isn’t quite fair: unlike the authors and redactors of the Hebrew Bible, we know so much more about the Book of Mormon’s abridgment, because Nephi and Mormon both allude quite often to what they are doing. Both men leave explicit notes and implicit clues about how they built their book from their life experience and their life work. And both are very pointed about how they hope their work will be read.

The way Gardner approaches this is by dividing the book into two parts: first, he looks closely at the writers themselves. “What do we know about them? How did they learn to do what they did? What sources did they use, and what techniques did they employ to further their messages?” In the second part, he begins to interrogate the writers’ handiwork: “What drove the creation of specific chapters? What message was intended by the stories selected and the way they were told?”

Several things stuck out to me. Gardner is very attuned to detecting structure in the text: for every “and it came to pass,” “now,” and “behold,” he’s detected patterns that show how Nephi and Mormon use these terms in purposeful way. Additionally, I’ve always wondered about the original chapter breaks–which seem to have been designed by Nephi and Mormon. But they have never made sense. Gardner uncovers fascinating rules behind these, such as the “testificatory amen.” (Any “amen” exerts a nearly omniconsistent force in ending the old chapter and beginning a new one.) There are exceptions, and Gardner offers hypotheses for each.

He also notes–and I found this utterly fascinating–when Nephi and Mormon seem “triggered” by something. No, not in that way–what he means is that they’ll write something which will remind them of something else: something they promised to write earlier, or need to say now. So they’ll deviate into an aside or editorial, before returning to the planned episode or main narrative. There’s a detectable thrill in tracing the possible thought-lines of these two great authors, and trying to imagine them engraving each word and sentence.

There are so many other observations: repetetive resumption; sermons as chapter boundaries; the Mayan hotun, and its possible connection with Mormon’s calendrical system. There are new insights on every page. For me, the second half of the book–where Gardner walks through each original chapter division of the Book of Mormon–will be a constantly-consulted resource going forward. It is a fascinating, novel approach: I don’t think anyone has so systematically analyzed the subjective and objective experience of how Mormon and Nephi received their scribal training, drew from records and experience, made and engraved the plates, and set out to divide their records into chapters and episodes. It’s an incredible read. I can’t wait to revisit it.

(My one complaint: because the Interpreter Journal split this serialized book into five parts, and because Kindle titles are so long and almost exactly the same, and the specific chapters are at the very end of the title, I had SUCH a hard time finding the right book on my Kindle Paperwhite. Which was VERY frustrating. I look forward to seeing this as a single volume, though I’m not looking forward to having to re-annotate the entire thing–since my notes won’t transfer over. I’ll do it; it’s just annoying.)

[UPDATE: Brant Gardner assures me a single-volume edition is coming! I’m most looking forward to it.]