I’ve been reflecting on the structure of the Book of Alma1 , as well as what the Book of Alma means. What is its message? What did Mormon intend us to learn from it? What did Mormon intend us to learn from its structure and narrative?
The Structure of Alma
First, structure. The Book of Alma might be described in 4 narrative cycles, framed with a prologue and epilogue. Here’s my working outline:
Prologue (Alma 1-3): The stage is set. We meet Nehor and Amlici–whose legacies will haunt the remainder of Alma’s record. The Amlicite Civil War is recounted.
Movement 1 (Alma 4-16): The Nephite Reformation: the story of Nephi’s efforts to reform the Church of God, ending with the terror at Ammonihah and their subsequent destruction at the hand of the Lamanites.
Movement 2 (Alma 17-26): The Lamanite Mission, led by Ammon and his brethren, and the eventual (though short-lived) war between Ammon’s converts and the other Lamanites.
Movement 3 (Alma 30-44): The Zoramite Mission and ensuing Zoramite war, with Alma’s counsel to his three sons sandwiched in between the two events.
Movement 4 (Alma 45-62): Helaman’s (unsuccessful) reform, the ensuing Amalackiahite wars, and the military leader’s constant reform efforts
Epilogue (Alma 63): The effects of the war on the Nephite people, including the passing of a generation.
Importantly, each of these cycles is a kind of repetition, a “variation on a theme,” that includes these similarities:
Reform. Each section begins with an attempt to reform the people
Preaching. Each reform effort involves preaching and sermons centered on Christ
War. Each section ends with a war precipitated by the reform attempt, usually involving a secession or separation.
Covenant Victory. Each war involves a victory by God’s covenant-keeping people
A couple of notes and nuancing.
First, the prologue sets up some major players: introducing the Amlicites (who will return later during the Zoramite war) and Nehor, who directly influenced the people of Ammoniah (and may have set precedent for the Zoramites’ conduct).
Second, the preaching and sermons that make up the reform effort are a dominant note in every cycle except for the final one, which is instead dominated by the war (flipping the emphasis of most sections)–possibly a long war because of Helaman’s initially unsuccessful reform, and Moroni’s repeated attempts to bring his people to obedience.
Third, most of the cycles–including the prologue and epilogue–involves separation and fragmentation: the Amlicites, Ammonihahites, Zoramites, and followers of Amalickiah separate themselves politically or spiritually from the Nephites, and (more importantly) from covenant faithfulness, while the Anti-Nephi-Lehites separate themselves from the Lamanites and join with the Nephites.
Fourth, all of the wars are won by God’s people, the one difference being the destruction of Ammonihah, which is accomplished by the Lamanites (fulfilling God’s promise in 1 Nephi 2:16, that the Lamanites will be a “scourge” unto Nephi’s children, and showcasing that God is the one fighting the battles).
If this outline is correct–at least in the broad strokes–what does this suggest? What meaning are we supposed to take from the Book of Alma?
The Meaning of the Book of Alma
As a preliminary note, I think two obvious themes emerge. The first is the more obvious one: the covenant, and specifically, the covenant God had made with Lehi (2 Nephi 1:20) that ties keeping God’s commandments to prospering in the land, with God’s protection denied those who disobey. This theme is obvious in the church’s efforts to humble and discipline the Church of God, and in the subsequent wars and consistent victories by the righteous. Commenting on Alma 50:17-23, Brant Gardner specifically links Mormon’s emphasis on war with demonstrating the covenant:2
Mormon is not narrating Nephite history in these verses, he is using it to demonstrate the fulfillment of Lehi’s promise for the land. He specifically invokes Lehi and then emphasizes the contrast between the prosperity of the Nephites and the conditions that “brought upon them their wars and their destructions.” While many readers of Captain Moroni’s exploits in Alma see in them a glorification of that military chief captain, Mormon saw him restoring proper Nephite obedience before the Lord, having removed the contrary elements. Thus, “there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni.” Mormon was correct that many readers might miss this message, so he made it explicit.
Mormon’s military descriptions have a specific purpose in his envisioned project; they carry a larger message about the literal fulfilment of Lehi’s promise… here was a promise given to Lehi that had two prongs. Nephi recorded the Lord’s promise to his father: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). At times, Mormon emphasizes the positive aspect of the promise. In this case, he emphasizes the negative side. In addition to pointing out that they invoked the curse through their rebellion, he emphasized that it was due to their own actions.
This seems right. The wars are a feature not because the Book of Mormon is obsessed with violence for its own sake, but because it demonstrates the covenant. (Additionally, our human author–Mormon–has fought a war himself. As Ben Spackman notes, the focus on these wars might be an “alternate history” for Mormon: “Imagine [Mormon] sitting there, surround by plates and destruction, thinking “this could have all been different, if we’d had a Moroni.”)
The second theme, I think, is found in the sermons. While the sermons vary, all of these are linked to the Nephite anticipation of a suffering Messiah, who would take upon Him the sins of all people, and covenant faithfulness to this Messiah. Alma explains this to the people of Zarahemla, Gideon, and Ammonihah; Amulek preaches to his native city of Ammonihah and later to the Zoramites; Ammon and Aaron both preach Christ and repentance to the Lamanite dynasty; and Alma’s counsel to his sons, especially to Corianton, is centered on this Messiah figure.
Christ and Covenant. Covenant and Christ. These are the two main themes of the Book of Mormon. Mormon’s son, Moroni, says as much in the title page:
Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.
With this lens in place, the Book of Alma begins to make some sense. Every movement involves reform and war. Each reform effort is initiated to bring the people–the Nephites, the Lamanites, the apostate Zoramites–back to their Lord, and observing the covenant that promises them the Lord’s protection. Those who do “prosper in the land,” and those who don’t are “cut off from my presence.” Blessedly, each movement includes some individual instruction as well, helping outline and illuminate the figure of the Lehite Messiah, Jesus the Christ–the very Lord who prospers them–so that the people can better trust God and His mercy.
I’ve long had this issue with the Book of Mormon: the book’s emphasis on war. This emphasis, that runs throughout the Book of Alma and culminates in “the war chapters,” has long bothered me: why would a God of mercy place so much about war in a book ostensibly about Christ? The idea in this quote has begun to help me answer that question, and I think it can sort-of generalize to the Hebrew Bible’s similar emphasis on violence (especially in Joshua). ↩︎
It’s a really, really good book about an issue near and dear to my heart: what is Genesis 1-11? This issue originally became near and dear to me because I love science, and I wanted desperately to know how I could accept the best parts of science, scholarship, and scripture. How do we bring together the best findings of “Biblical criticism” (which often consists of very good, Christian scholars trying to read scripture closely) and the amazing scientific findings of the last several hundred years, and make sense of them in light of the best parts of the Restoration? The Book of Moses and the JST, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple–God’s word to us in these Latter-days? For me, this has always felt essential: synthesizing all these approaches to truth–revelation, reason, authority, observation, and science–without letting one overwhelm the other.
As I’ve been trying to “get” Genesis 1-11 for myself, and synthesize these approaches, I’ve also been concerned with the pastoral side of things: how do I discuss this kind of thing with fellow church members? Is it even important? (I believe it is.) And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t diminish faith, or cause contention, or fracture our church? How do we discuss issues like this in a way that fosters unity? And how can we, if unity simply means–we all believe the same thing?
In the spirit of these questions, a particular section of this volume of “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?” really stuck out to me. In the conclusion, and after reviewing the positions of each of the volume contributors, Charles Halton (the editor) tries to describe the relationship between the debate about Genesis 1-11 and the church. He writes:
[In talking about these different viewpoints]… this is not to say that questions of genre and historicity are unimportant for the study of the book of Genesis. These are topics that concern many within the contemporary church and, accordingly, we should think deeply about them. In doing so, it is vitally important that we should take care to not let these issues become impediments to Christian unity. Christians have a very long and deeply troubling history of division, rancor, exclusion, and fratricide over a myriad of issues, including the ways in which Gen 1 – 11 is understood. The root of these conflicts–whether they split churches, get seminary professors fired, or even lead to bloodshed–is a lack of charity.
…Each of the contributors to this volume is a respected and senior scholar of biblical studies. Each of the contributors wrote their essays with deep insight and expertise that came from a lifetime of study. And all of the contributors share a concern that their work benefit the theological understanding and practice of the church. Nonetheless, each contributor offered different conclusions regarding the genre of Gen 1 – 11. This should give all of us who read their essays a healthy dose of humility and an appreciation for the complexities involved in this topic. If they cannot come to a consensus, this must be a thorny question indeed. Even more importantly, this fact should join Christian readers together even more deeply and make us all the more reticent to fracture the body of Christ when we have disagreements regarding issues such as this.
Charles Halton, “Conclusion”; emphasis my own
He goes on, and I’ll quote this in full (because it’s do dang good):
Let me make what might strike you as a startling claim. Actually, I’m not the one making it — I am repeating what St. Augustine has said: avoiding errors is not the primary task of interpretation. In other words, when we are reading Scripture, our primary goal should not be to prevent ourselves from making a hermeneutical mistake. To put it differently, the thing we want most from our reading of the Bible should not be to attain its correct interpretation. Augustine was not saying that correctly understanding Scripture is unimportant. Arriving at proper interpretations was important for him but more paramount within the act of Christian reading is for the reader to interact with Scripture in a way that builds up charity. Augustine said: “[I]f he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.” For Augustine, charity is what God most wants to foster, not correctness of belief. In his understanding, charity was such an essential component of Christian devotion that he said this within a sermon on 1 John: “But there is nothing to distinguish the sons of God from the sons of the devil, save charity. They that have charity, are born of God: they that have not charity are not. There is the great token, the great dividing mark.”
One might rejoin Augustine with Paul’s desire that the church be united in “one mind” (Romans 15:6) and, accordingly, argue that uniformity of belief and correct interpretation are marks of the true church and are the goals for which we should aim. However, Ephraim Radner points out that in Romans 15 Paul links this one mindedness with “contributing to the needs of the saints,” being “hospitable,” “blessing one’s persecutors,” “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,” and not being “haughty” or “conceited.” In other words, Paul does not mean that Christians have one mind when they are united together in uniform doctrinal understanding and biblical interpretation. On the contrary, “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others.” Christians are united together in a way of life that points toward Christ. Of course, this implies that we share in common a few bedrock ideas (such as, who is Jesus?), but Paul sees this one-mindedness as an interconnected way of life and not as unitary belief structure. This way of life is centered around deference to others, or, as Augustine may have put it, charity.
Christians [and Latter-day Saints] are not a people who should fracture easily, particularly over the highly complex issues that we confront in Gen 1 – 11. Where there are areas of disagreement we must take pains to extend charity and deference to others, to recognize our own limitations, have patience with one another even as we work for change, and also rejoice in our agreement on the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith. In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1 – 11 ultimately points toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate. This shared way of living with one another not only unites us together when we disagree over the genre of Gen 1 – 11 but it also unites us together with Christians of all times and places — Christians who had tremendously different outlooks on their faith than we do today. This way of life unites us with the likes of Augustine and Charles Wesley and Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Calcutta. But this way of life also unites us with Origen who, along with being one of the church’s greatest apologists and influencer of early trinitarian formulations, also denied the resurrection of the body and was denounced as a heretic by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553. This way of life unites us to Martin Luther in spite of his, at times, virulently anti-semitic rants. And it unites us to the Anglican Church that profited from directly owning and managing slaves on the Codrington plantation where punishments for slaves in the West Indies included being pinned to the ground and slowly burned from heel to head for rebellious behavior and for lesser crimes, castration and feet chopped in half. Before we start withholding charity from our brothers and sisters because they embrace a different idea regarding Genesis we would do well to contemplate the fact that if Origin, Luther, and the Anglican Church could stray so far, it is almost certain that generations from now Christians will look back on our ethics and beliefs with a mixture of horror and amusement. This should cause us to extend charity most generously to those with whom we disagree, particularly when it comes to topics as challenging as the genre of Gen 1 – 11.
Let us discuss matters such as the genre of Gen 1 – 11 and debate them vigorously if we desire. But if Christians are united together with the people and organizations that committed moral atrocities and who believed twisted and aberrant theologies, then how we regard Gen 1 – 11 should not come between us. May our God forgive us if this topic and even this book spur division in place of unity and strife instead of love.
CHARLES HALTON, “CONCLUSION”; EMPHASIS MY OWN
As the Lord’s people, we’re commanded to be united. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” I’ve written about it before, but what does this mean? I’m inclined to say, with Charles, that it does involve some basic, shared beliefs. While we’re not a creed-loving people, but it does involve some basic ideas, perhaps best encapsulated in the temple recommend questions: do I believe in God, our Heavenly Father? In the resurrected Christ? In the reality of their appearance to Joseph Smith? But beyond this, we can believe many things.
I think sometimes those things can tend to distract us from what “unites us”: we get caught up in whether certain ideas are “conservative” or “progressive.” And we worry, with some reason, whether certain ideas will undermine the faith of the Church. But the Church is, and must be, a big tent: a collection of various people from various countries speaking various languages, all with various histories, but united by our covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” This unity does not emphasize orthodoxy, but “‘contributing to the needs of the saints,’ being ‘hospitable,’ ‘blessing one’s persecutors,’ ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,’ and not being ‘haughty’ or ‘conceited.'”
Further, in the Book of Moses, it says that “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness.” The result was not that everyone believed the exact same things: no, it was instead “that there was no poor among them.” This lines up with the above quote’s summary of Paul’s teaching on unity: “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others”–or in other words, charity.
In light of Mormon’s emphasis on charity (which paraphrases Paul’s language), and the scriptures from the books of Moses and Mosiah, this certainly seems to align with our faith. Certainly, as a church, we can tend towards orthodoxy: and we have apostles to keep doctrine pure, and doctrine is the purview of prophets and apostles, and it is important. But as long as we’re aligned in the key things, then this unity-as-charity seems to make the most sense. We are not united in believing the exact same propositional statements about the nature of God (though a certain orthodoxy is necessary); and a quest like that is probably hopeless. No, we’re instead believers united in their allegiance to a loving Heavenly Father, and to His call to bless the nations. This unity leaves room to focus on what is most important, and leaves an allowable space for us to make the best sense of scripture, history, and science as we see fit.
I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine. It looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day-Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.
Joseph Smith (Discourse, 8 April 1843, as Reported by William Clayton)
“Meaning” (in the way he’s using it) is what’s intended. It’s what Jesus meant when describing the parable of the prodigal son, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount, in the original context. It’s focused on the person preaching or writing, on the authorial intent.
“Significance” is what stands out to the listener. It’s what we get out of it, what strikes us as poignant or important. It’s oriented around the hearer, “the eye of the beholder.” It’s what we take out of a parable or sermon. It’s likening the scriptures to ourselves.
Their point in the podcast is to say that while searching for significance is good, it’s vital to find the meaning first.
This happens with my wife: she’s telling me something, and I’m somewhat distracted, until something stands out that’s relevant to me, or something wakes me from my stupor. I tune in, and occasionally, admit, “Honey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t really listening. Can you say it again?” And with a kind eyeroll (and the occasional dirty look), she sweetly repeats, allowing me to focus on what she means.
As Latter-day Saints, we sometimes focus more on the significance than the meaning. I do this all the time. I’m sitting in General Conference, or reading scripture, and I’m searching for answers to my questions. I’m searching for significance: what does God want to say to me? In doing so, I’m asking what this means for me, without asking what this means–period. I should be searching for both what the prophet intends, and for its significance to my life and world.
In thinking about all of this, I was reminded of Joseph Spencer’s discussion of First Nephi:
… Nephi has purposes we ought to let guide us. That’s perhaps something we don’t often reflect on as we read scripture. 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. Part of what it means to have faith in the prophets is to trust that they have divinely ordained reasons for speaking to us. They aren’t just another means to the end of feeling the Spirit and receiving direction for our lives. They’re messengers with things we’re supposed to come to understand.
I’ll admit that during conference, I was probably more focused on finding significance for my own life than trying to come to terms with “prophetic priorities,” with the “divinely ordained reasons [they had] for speaking to us.” By doing so, have I “silenced the voices of the prophets?”
It’s a heavy question that’s been weighing on my mind. As I go through Benjamin’s words this week, and conference talks too, I’ll be thinking about it.
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.”
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 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.
We all use metaphors to describe our lives, things like: “Love is a battlefield.” “Life is a highway.” “All the world is a stage.” It turns out, though, that political philosophers get really dark about it. Here’s political philosopher Michael Oakeshott on why that is:
… it is characteristic of political philosophers that they take a sombre view of the human situation: they deal in darkness. Human life in their writings appears, generally, not as a feast or even as a journey, but as a predicament; and the link between politics and eternity is the contribution the political order is conceived as making to the deliverance of mankind. Even those whose thought is most remote from violent contrasts of dark and light (Aristotle, for example) do not altogether avoid this disposition of mind. And some political philosophers may even be suspected of spreading darkness in order to make their light more acceptable. Man, so the varied formula runs, is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both … and the civil order appears as the whole or a part of the scheme of his salvation.
The precise manner in which the predicament is conceived, the qualities of mind and imagination and the kinds of activity man can bring to the achievement of his own salvation, the exact nature and power of civil arrangements and institutions, the urgency, the method and the comprehensiveness of the deliverance — these are the singularities of each political philosophy. In them are reflected the intellectual achievements of the epoch or society, and the great and slowly mediated changes in intellectual habit and horizon that have overtaken our civilization. Every masterpiece of political philosophy springs from a new vision of the predicament; each is the glimpse of a deliverance or the suggestion of a remedy.
After re-reading this a few times (it’s a hefty statement), it seems that Oakeshott is making a few points:
To some, human life is not a feast or a journey, but a predicament
Political philosophy is the study of the predicament, and how to find a way out
Different philosophies pose the predicament in different ways: man “is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both…”
How this predicament is described, and how the solution is achieved, is what distinguishes each great work of political philosophy
Now, let’s be clear: I’m no political philosopher. Nor will I ever be one. But I find these ideas incredibly interesting, especially the first point about the metaphors we use to describe our existence. Why? Because it matters so much. Think about it:
Is life a feast or a journey? A war or a test? Are we soldiers or students or pilgrims?
If it’s a feast, what are we feasting on? If we’re students, what is the lesson we’re supposed to learn? If we’re pilgrims, what is our journey–our starting point, our waystation, and our final destination? If life is a war, what are we fighting against, and who is on our side, and who is on theirs?
If it is a predicament, what is the predicament? Are we ancient humans stuck in a modern world, waylaid by our biological drives and evolved habits of mind? Are we sinners saddled with depraved souls, with grace as the only way out? Are we, as the Hebrew Bible envisions it, the creation of God inclined toward idolatry–to the worship of anything but God? Are we students in a classroom, sent here to learn? Are we, as Socrates taught, rational creatures beset by ignorance? Are we, as Terryl Givens like to point out, children of God wounded by the world and by each other, requiring the grace and healing that comes in the arms of Christ? Or are some kind of all of these?
Or is all of these an exercise in climbing the wrong ladder? If we are not, in fact, in a “predicament,” is some other framing device better?
Journeys, feasts, predicaments–these are the metaphors we use, and I think they matter a lot because they shape our approach to the world. But I wonder why we all use different metaphors? And I wonder if one metaphor is objectively more right than another? Or if all of these metaphors get at some aspect of life?
A few thoughts.
First, Oakeshott suggests that political philosophers think in terms of predicaments. This requires they take a “sombre view” of the human situation. Are we, as Latter-day Saints, required to take a “sombre view” of the human situation? I’m inclined to say… yeah. Yes we are.
As Latter-day Saints, we’re generally sunny in our outlook. We believe everyone will get a shot at heaven. (I’m thinking of the book title, “Odds Are You’re Going to Be Exalted.”) But we also have a pretty dark and tragic book at the heart of the Restoration: the Book of Mormon, which for all its optimism, ends with the godless Nephites being wiped out by the godless Lamanites.
I’m reminded of Bible scholar Gordon Wenham’s statement: when talking about the first part of Genesis, he said that the book “declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic…” Why? Because, in short, God has made covenants to Abraham to save the human race. This could describe the Book of Moses equally well. (Think of the scene where Enoch sees the wickedness and suffering of mankind, and weeps with God–but then leads a whole city into God’s rest and loving arms. He sees mankind without God; and works to turn mankind to God.)
Second, journeys and predicaments both suggest a storyline, a narrative. All of these narratives invite us to act, to move, to launch ourselves forward. And perhaps that’s enough? Without a conflict requiring resolution; without a journey needing completing; without a “what-is” requiring a “should-be”; we would be static, frozen in place.
Third, Adam Miller has talked about the questions being asked today, while both Terryl Givens and Nathan Oman have talked about finding new language to celebrate the restoration–new ways to answer today’s new questions. Perhaps to find the “right” metaphor and image, we need to know–what questions are being asked? What metaphors best make sense to this generation, and to the questions they’re asking, and draw from the Restoration?
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. Butwhat 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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…
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 imaginemyself 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.
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 more readerly-centered edition, akin to the Reader’s Bibles shown above: 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 multi-volume set (a lá the multi-volume Reader’s Bibles), perhaps divided by the contributions of 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 twoweeks.
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.
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…
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.
I’m Bryan. I’m a human, Christian, and Latter-day Saint (Mormon). I’m trying to figure out how to better follow Jesus, and this blog is where I write about it. I’m interested in worship, community, intellectual life, scripture, and technology. I love reading, parks, and reading in parks. I live in New York City, and work as a software designer.
Occasionally, I write a long-form post that pulls together a lot of my thinking. The one so far also happens to be a favorite post of mine: