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Teaching Sunday School How to Read Biblical Poetry

This past Sunday, I subbed for our Sunday School class. Much as I love teaching Sunbeams, it was a great change of pace to discuss scripture with adults. And part of the challenge (and fun) was looking for ways to not just introduce Jacob’s wonderful discourse in 2 Nephi 6-10, but also to talk about the elephant in the room: Isaiah, who dominates the next two weeks.

The lesson was met with some positive feedback, and I had several people come up and let me know how much they liked it. So in the spirit of sharing, here’s part of what I did for the lesson, and here’s the handout I gave people a link to for later reference.

Reading Biblical Poetry

The first thing I wanted to do was help people know that Isaiah is mostly poetry, and so think about how to read Biblical poetry. I borrowed heavily from The Bible Project’s great video on how to read Biblical poetry, which you can see here:

I unabashedly love The Bible Project.

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.
Isaiah 49:14-23
  • I took a minute to observe that, unlike the KVJ or our own Book of Mormon, this translation shows the couplets. It helps to see the couplets when you read poetry, and you should try to do that whenever possible!
  • We spent a couple of minutes reading through the couplets, and I asked them each time what they thought the second line was doing. Verse 14? Deepening. The first half of verse 15? Deepening. The second half? Contrasting. Verse 14? Deepening or completing. It was fun, and they really got into it.

Isaiah’s Two Halves

At this point, I had them break into groups and read the poem again, looking for the answer to these two questions: what is the poem about? And why would Nephi and Jacob have taught this to their people? What message did it have for them? After a fruitful discussion, I asked them what it might mean for us. We had a great time.

One of the things that came up in the discussion was that the Isaiah passages Jacob was quoting to his people were basically hopeful. And this makes sense, if we know something about the book of Isaiah! I only spent a couple of minutes making this point, but it proved helpful for several people in our group:

  • Isaiah has two halves!
  • I drew a picture of a book, and wrote “Isaiah 1-39 / Judgement” on the left side, and “Isaiah 40-66 / Hope and Comfort” on the right side. I take this basic idea from the Bible Project, commentaries, and BYU’s Joseph Spencer, who said this:

The simplest or most obvious literary feature of the Book of Isaiah is the fact that it comes in two halves… whether we divide the book between chapters 33 and 34 or between chapters 39 and 40, what’s important for our purposes is the fact that the two halves are literarily and theologically different. The first half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of judgment (both of covenant peoples and of Gentile nations), while the second half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of restoration (of the covenant people thanks in part to the assistance of the Gentile nations). Other major prophetic books are similarly organized, with prophecies of peace and restoration coming after prophecies of destruction and judgment…

Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”, Chapter 2
  • I explained that (generally speaking) it’s helpful to ask which “side” of Isaiah the passage is from. If Jacob or Nephi (or Jesus or Abinadi) is quoting from the first half, like most of next week’s readings, it’s from the “judgement” section. If it’s from the second half, it’s from the “hope” section.
  • I asked them which “side” today’s reading is from–the “hope” side!–and which “side” next week’s reading is from. And then, with that very brief note about Isaiah’s larger structure, we moved on.

Making Isaiah Approachable

After this, we launched in 2 Nephi 9-10, which is, I think, where most lessons on 2 Nephi 6-10 spend their time. (It’s certainly where the manual focuses us.) But I wanted to make sure we spent some time on the Isaiah chapters–learning how to read the poetry and making Isaiah’s own book a little more approachable. This handout I gave people a link to also helped to point people toward some of the YouTube videos and directions.

I’m always trying to learn how to make Isaiah more inviting. These are little “hooks” that have helped me into a very daunting but powerful testament, a testament that bears witness of God’s covenant love for His people–anciently, and today. I hope it helps!

If you have any other ideas or things that work for you and your class, let me know.

the argument became a part of the adventure

What happened then: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time–especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.

from the mixed up files of Mrs. BasiL E. Frankweiler, p. 39

Mature Unity, and Living “As For Years”

When Susan and I were in graduate school, we came to appreciate the wisdom embedded in three simple words from the Doctrine and Covenants: “as for years.” We embraced this phrase as we observed others in our situation who never truly unpacked and settled in. There is a strong temptation for young adults to look on their years in school or their first jobs as merely way stations toward a permanent job and home and hence to hold back. It’s easy for any of us to regard ourselves as simply passing through life, without making the effort—or assuming the risk—of putting down roots.

John Tanner, “As for years”

I’ve moved a lot in my life. Between 2008 and 2017, I never lived in the same ward for longer than a year. I had the same roommates for a while, and that was great! I got to know them quite well–we were great friends. But I didn’t get to know others very well, or for very long. “Fleeting” was my experience in each place, before moving on to the next apartment building, to the next ward, to the next place.

Until 2017, that is–when I moved into a ward in Utah County. It was my mother-in-law’s ward; my father-in-law had passed away, and we wanted to be close in the aftermath, and we found a great opportunity. We spent two-and-a-half wonderful, wonderful years there. And though my wife and I recently moved from Utah to New York City (in late 2019) for work, I miss that ward quite a lot. And I’ve been thinking about why. And I think, I think, it has to do with two things: a hard-won unity, and living as if for years. Let me explain.

In an interview between Blair Hodges (Maxwell Institute) and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, they had this exchange.

HODGES: So Tom, for the rest of our time together I thought we’d do a little something of a little primer on how different people have reckoned with Paul. We’ll talk about how historical figures understood Paul, and how we can see how their immediate concerns shaped the questions they asked and therefore the results of their studies. Along the way hopefully we’ll get a better sense of who Paul is and why he’s been the source of so much theological disagreement, which is kind of ironic given that one of his major themes was [laughs]—

WRIGHT: Unity, yeah, yeah. But he’s always after a mature unity. It’s not the lowest common denominator unity. It’s about a sense of a hard-won growing up into unity rather than filing everything down into an easy unity. So, [laughs] we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still having that struggle.


Before hearing this, I’d never thought about different kinds of unity. What would an easy unity look like? And what’s the difference between an easy-won unity, and a hard-won, mature unity? There’s a few answers to this, but let me start with the “easy” unity. The first thing I think about here is a hypothetical Church lesson where something controversial or wrong is said, and people stay quiet, not wanting to “steady the ark,” or cause contention, or seem deviant and different because they might be expressing a controversial opinion. In each of these cases, it is fear keeping them at bay–fear of reprisal, fear of contention, fear of shame–fear of the unknown. What would happen if I questioned that view? Or shared my personal experience? Or voiced an opinion I know not everyone shares? I know I’ve definitely refrained from saying something because I knew the comment might not be accepted, or might be easily misunderstood.

But then, some fears are founded. Maybe I know that the teacher would shut me down. Maybe I know my neighbor would think I’m unfaithful. Or maybe I just think that’s would happen. Even the suspicion might be enough to shut us down. What’s required is a feeling of psychological safety, or even a feeling of relational and spiritual safety–the knowledge that candor won’t be punished, that vulnerability won’t be mocked, that we can be open with each other.

My last ward, before moving to Manhattan, was wonderful. I was there for two-and-a-half years, which is just about long enough to form real relationships and feel at home. (I still miss it.) I once shared with a group there that I believe in evolution–it was actually while sharing a testimony, and I was using evolution to illustrate a point. Two reactions ensued: first, several people thanked me for my testimony, joking along with me that I gave the “Dinosaur Testimony.” The second reaction appeared the following Sunday, when I had the assignment to clean the church. I was cleaning the doors with an older lady in the ward. While squee-geeing the glass lobby doors, she asked me if I really believed in evolution? I said that yes, I did. She asked if I’d ever read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny (wherein Joseph Fielding Smith comes down hard against evolution). She said I should really read it. I knew her well enough to be confident she cared about me, and worried about my soul–her shade about evolution notwithstanding. But I knew that, and I knew I wouldn’t convince her here–Joseph Fielding Smith had been an influential prophet in her lifetime, and she had gone to school before DNA had been discovered–so I told her thanks for the recommendation, and that I might check it out. I spoke to her a bit longer about my views. I could tell she was ruffled, but she listened. I ended with my testimony. We then talked about her family, and her long-time in Utah. I asked her how the city had changed. And after all that, she thanked me for helping her clean.

Although we were separated by gender, age, culture, and generational experience, we were serving together in the Church. I had been the Executive Secretary and had set up many appointments for her. We had spoken before during Sacrament. We were cleaning the lobby. And it was refreshing because I knew that we could speak frankly. We didn’t convince each other, but I think she left respecting me, and I respecting her.

In another episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, Fiona and Terryl Givens gave an interview where Fiona voiced this fascinating thought:

FIONA: My feeling is whenever we moved to a ward, which we haven’t done particularly often, but I have found that in order to gain a voice it is really, really important to immerse oneself in that community. Not to stay at a distance from that community. So helping move, taking dinners. Whatever is required in a service-orientated capacity, we should be busily engaged in. Because that is a huge bridge builder. Because essentially, when you’re serving someone, you’re telling them that you love them. And that gains one an incredible amount of capital to be able to raise something in a gospel doctrine lesson, or a Relief Society lesson that might not otherwise be accepted. But because people recognize that you are a fully collaborating member of the community, you are more than likely to get a bye. So for example, in our Gospel Doctrine class a few weeks ago, the topic being discussed was how do you prepare yourself if you’re going to the temple. And so, you know, I sat for a while and then I thought, well, I’ll offer my contribution. And I said I think it actually might be very helpful to go to Catholic mass three or four times before one goes to the temple. Because Catholics do ritual and symbolism extremely well. And it was very interesting to watch how it played out, you know. Some people woke up and said, “Oh, did Fiona just tell us to become Catholics?” And then others thought, “Well, that is odd. Did I hear her correctly?” So it’s sort of a wake-up moment for most of the class. But actually, there were a lot of people who were entertaining the idea. There was no outright rejection of my suggestion, which I thought was very helpful.

TERRYL: And it was because they trusted you. They’ve seen you—

FIONA: And they did trust me, yeah.

HODGES: You aren’t trying to be a rabble-rouser.

FIONA: I was not trying to be a rabble-rouser. Exactly.

TERRYL: And it had nothing to do with academic credentials or anything else. It’s about being a part of the community and having paid our dues through service to the community.

Maxwell institute podcast, episode 30, with fiona and terryl givens

I love this thought. Coming back to my original tale, our most recent Utah ward–the one we spent over two-years in–was the first ward I felt we really gave our all. I’m an introvert at heart, and more at ease in reading a book then carrying on a conversation–but I tried. The fact that everyone in the ward knew my wife (she had grown up there) helped. We did not know how long we would live there, but we put our best foot forward.

In 1831, in Spring, the Saints had started to move to Kirtland, Ohio. A group of saints from Colesville, New York were given permission by a member named Leman Copley to stay on his farm in Thompson, a short distance from Kirtland. In May 1831, Joseph Smith received the following revelation:

I grant unto this People a privelige of organizeing themselves according to my laws & I consecrate unto them this land for a little season untill I the Lord shall provide for them otherwise & command them to go hence & the hour & the day is not given unto them wherefore let them act upon this land as for years & this shall turn unto them for their good…

Revelation Book 1, Page 87 (D&C 51:16-17); emphasis my own

“Act upon this land as for years.” What a wonderful phrase! I think I learned how to do this in 2017, in the Utah ward I came to love. Part of it was the time I spent there; part of it was the quality of the time I spent there. We had people over for dinner; we did service projects; we volunteered; we tried to do good. It was the first time I had really, really tried to take Fiona Givens’ advice: “to immerse oneself in that community… Not to stay at a distance from that community.”

We’ve been in Manhattan for five months so far. (Much longer than the Colesville Saints’ six weeks!) We’ve assumed some of the risk of setting down roots. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying–to give our all to the place; not to treat it as a waystation, but as a final destination, regardless of how true that really is; to win that hard-won unity. I’m anxious to report how that goes.

“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.

On Turning 30, and How Much Can I Really Change Now?

I remember reading, some time ago, a tweet from a journalist I follow. He was about to turn thirty, and another journalist had given him this counsel: “Before you turn thirty, you’re full of promise. After you turn thirty, you are who you are.” William James, the eminent psychologist, said it another way: “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” I remember sitting back at the time, a bit stunned–I was 28 at the time–wondering: is this true? Am I set, doomed to live what what I’ve got–a decent personality mixed with some pretty big character defects?

Another memory. On my mission, a prominent Seventy came to our mission. In a talk on agency and responsibility, he made an offhand comment that a missionary will never rise above the level of commitment and dedication they show on their missions, after their missions. The “never” really stunned me, as I didn’t consider myself the best missionary. But could I change? And would I ever change, if I didn’t now?

Both of these memories suggest that there may be a time in our lives when our character is somewhat cemented. (“Cemented”–what a word to use when describing our own nature.) And both memories have stuck with me, cemented in my mind. I’ve mostly refused to believe the latter quote I heard on my mission–after all, for the last decade I’ve been home from my mission, and I’ve refused to believe I can’t change! But now that I’m about to turn thirty (next month), the former quote has been weighing on me. Am I set in my ways? Am I fundamentally no longer “full of promise”? And what does that say, if anything, about the project of self-improvement–and the hold the Atonement ought to have over me?

Perhaps this last question is the scariest source of my anxiety: not only is there a concrete sense of anxiety that comes from an awareness of still deep flaws, flaws I’d really like to eliminate; but there’s the more-abstract-but-no-less-real question of, am I too set in my ways for the Atonement to have a fundamental hold on my character?

The answer to these questions are, I think, yes and no. And as thirty looms, this has been really important for me to come to terms with as I think about who I want to be in a decade. I want to make three points explaining my feelings.

First, agency is circumscribed. This is something I’ve become more and more convinced of: we have agency, but we cannot choose to change everything about ourselves, and what we can choose to change about ourselves.

First, what limits us? Think about all the things:

  1. Habits. For better and for worse, they’re difficult to break. This can be anything from mental habits (every time it’s crowded in the subway, I get frustrated) to physical habits (going to brush my teeth first thing in the morning), and much else besides.
  2. Genetics. There are genetic things that influence us (some would say determine us), like how the lipostat in our brain governs our weight. Weight’s easy to grasp, but things like happiness, our openness to new things, and even our political dispositions might be inheritable.
  3. Environment. We tend to “follow the scripts” set for us by the family we grew up with, our “family of origin.” For example, I’ve noticed that when I drive, I tend to mirror my dad in wanting to make comments about how bad drivers are. But knowing about our environment growing up can predict whether we believe in God, what our political party likely is, and how vulnerable we’re willing to be. And of course, our peers growing up, and our peers and environment now, can all influence us.
  4. Deep-set beliefs coupled with biases. What do we believe? How much do I believe that I control my own fate? (This is something scientists call the “locus of control.”) What do I think is involved in self-change? What do I believe about learning, about society, about religion, about people? Along with our basic beliefs, there are dozens upon dozens of cognitive biases–shortcuts that our brains make, that can trip us up if we’re not careful.
  5. Culture & Norms. Closely related to our environment, our society’s culture and norms can impact what we believe, and how we act. It’s difficult to act agains the norms, even if it’s healthy. For example, if our family has a culture of eating out indiscriminately and often, it can be difficult to break bad habits of eating.

The above list isn’t comprehensive, just suggestive. And the points overlap. But I think the overall point is clear: mortality is a mess. Some people are “luckier” in this constellation of environment, culture, beliefs, genetics, and habits than others. Some aspects of ourselves are probably more amenable to change than others. (For example, we might be able to change some habits, but not our entire personality.) And I think that warrants care when we set out to change ourselves and others.

I know a man who my family helped for a long time. This man–I’ll call him Rob–did not win the birth lottery. He was raised in a poor home; he did drugs for a long time; he had a criminal record that limited his employment; he had had several girlfriends; and was raising his son in joint-custody with his wife. His trailer was a mess, a fact I knew from spending time over there, helping clean it up. He always worked odd jobs. And he had been baptized a few years ago. We tried to help him change, and the church supported him for a while. But he kept making self-destructive decisions, no matter how much we tried to help him. I remember, as one of his home teachers, trying to explain the “Be Proactive” principle from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: the idea that he could change, that he just had to focus on what was within his influence. But he ended up, after all this help, back on the streets. Something fundamental about him could not, would not change. By thirty (or perhasp sooner), he was no longer full of promise; he just was who he was, seemingly fixed.

At the time, I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t change. Now, older and maybe a little wiser, I think–“there but for the grace of God go I.” Rob was born into a constellation of factors that severely limited his agency and–though it’s not my place to say–he may never be able to fundamentally change. Me? My mind has not been addled by drugs; I haven’t been saddled by a criminal past; I have a strong belief that my own actions, not my fate, determine my future; I have an introspective nature; and I believe in a God of grace. Perhaps I’m lucky: perhaps I possess a constellation of these same factors more capable of allowing change. Maybe I’m not so static as I seem. Perhaps this suggests a second point: some people are more capable of change than others. The fact that I’m sitting here, writing a blog post about it, might suggest I’m more capable of change than others. (Then again, maybe not.)

Which leads me to my third point: agency is circumscribed, but grace can transform, heal, and conquer. This is less empirical than a priori: I’m not basing this on empirical evidence as much as I’m deducing this from the theory of my own faith. But my religion counts for something, I think: I firmly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ preaches that we can change. Maybe all the change I want and hope for will not happen in this life; maybe progress will happen in the world of spirits, and perhaps–just perhaps–we can even progress through kingdoms of glory, eternally. (There’s enough diversity of opinion among LDS leaders over time to warrant the belief.) But to whatever extent change can happen, eternal progression (and so eternal change) characterizes this life.

Is grace available to all? Well, in theory, yes: anyone can demonstrate faith and allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can pledge their lives to God through covenant, and open up those wellsprings and channels of grace. But in practice, of course, there may be people–like Rob–who has been injured by mortality to such an extent that, at least in this life, they may never be able to fully reach out in faith. (Can I make that judgment call? Perhaps, perhaps not: I don’t think we should easily give up on anyone, although I’m sure there are cases where it’s for the best if we do.)

Terryl Givens likes to quote the original translation of 1 Nephi 13:32, which originally read “Neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of woundedness [now blindness], which thou beholdest they are in…” Rob–and many others, including myself–are wounded. Perhaps it is our wicked environment, our injured culture, our wrong acquired habits, our genetics, and our false beliefs that inflict these very wounds. I think that, in some part, it is. And so Christ is our Healer, reaching out to heal our broken hearts and minds.

To summarize my own conclusions: our agency is circumscribed by things like genetics, environment, and culture; some people are more set in their ways than others; and yet for all of us (maybe), transformative grace and healing is within reach.

I suspect some lessons that emerge from this might be: we can change, but not all at once. We can change, but not all in this life. We can change, but not everything about us (personality–as defined by a psychologist–seems to be largely set, for example). We can change, but it takes effort and prioritizing. And we can change, but perhaps–as it was for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”–we can’t always change what we wish we could, and some changes aren’t “meant to be” in this life.

Maybe the main lesson from all this is that we’re kind to others and to ourselves. Maybe that, and to recognize that deep and fundamental change is difficult, especially after thirty–and that any single change may require sustained attention, prayer, and thought. As I sit on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, and prepare to enter my fourth decade, I wonder what transformative leaps I can make. I want to have a better relationship with food. I want to write more. I want to learn to concentrate on my work better, and not give in to distractions. I want to learn some languages. All of these things will challenge me. But fundamentally, I believe–because of Christ, and because of His promises–that change is possible. And for that, I am grateful.

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.]

Conversion of the Imagination

Here are some interesting quotes on the imagination, and what it means to convert the imagination.

To create a future, we need better imaginations, and for better imaginations, we need to feed them better ideas and better images.

Austin Kleon, January 31, 2019; “Images in the Head”

[What Paul is doing] is a difficult double task. It involves nothing short of that hardest conversion of all, the conversion of the imagination. But that is what is required if people are to understand where they are and who they are as the family of God.

Wright, N. T.. Paul: A Biography (p. 219). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Paul rereads Scripture with an imagination converted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. An imagination so converted will necessarily see the moral world in which we live and move through new eyes.

Richard B. Hays. The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Kindle Locations 111-112). Kindle Edition.

Formative Christian worship paints a picture of the beauty of the Lord—and a vision of the shalom he desires for creation—in a way that captures our imagination. If we act toward what we long for, and if we long for what has captured our imagination, then re-formative Christian worship needs to capture our imagination. That means Christian worship needs to meet us as aesthetic creatures who are moved more than we are convinced. Our imaginations are aesthetic organs. Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. As we noted in chapter 1, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures this well: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Smith, James K. A.. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And he shall be led in paths where the poisonous serpent cannot lay hold upon his heel, and he shall mount up in the imagination of his thoughts as upon eagles’ wings.

Revelation through Joseph Smith, Doctrine & Covenants, 124:99

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.]

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