Tag: book reviews

“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.]