Category: Scriptures

The Book of Mormon as Literature

One can read the Book of Mormon as canonized scripture, to guide the Church and its members in doctrine and practice, or as a sign of Joseph Smith’s calling to bring forth new scripture and establish a restored church. Then there is the possibility of reading the Book of Mormon as literature, to enlighten, uplift, and inspire the reader. So, how literary is it? How exactly does one read the Book of Mormon as literature?

Openings and Beginnings

When we read scripture, we generally start at the beginning. This is one reason why openings — first lines, first paragraphs — are so important. They set the scene for what is to follow. They set the context and frame our understanding for entire chapters and books to follow. Terry Eagleton has a lot to say about openings in his How to Read Literature (Yale Univ. Press, 2013). While his focus is on literature, not scripture per se, his comments are helpful because scripture is a form of literature. And when it comes to how to read our scriptures, we Mormons certainly need all the help we can get.

Partaking of the Fruit of the Tree

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is sitting in the darkened living room, gazing at the lighted tree. There is something magical and transfixing about the warm, gentle light, the fragrance of pine, and the palpable presence of nature that fills my home with its incongruous beauty. I have many memories of reading Scripture by the light of the Christmas tree. Usually we read from Luke, with Matthew’s bit about the Wise Men added in; sometimes we expand into Isaiah, either spoken or set to Handel. This year, though, when I stole a moment of stillness out of the hectic holiday rush to sit beside the tree, the words that came to my mind were Nephi’s: “I looked and beheld a tree . . . and the bbeauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the cwhiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” It had never struck me before how much meaning the Book of Mormon adds to our celebration of the Christmas tree. Scripture is rife with references to the Tree of Life, and the notion of everlasting life certainly accords well with what I was taught as a child: that the evergreen Christmas tree was a symbol of the eternal life brought to us by Christ. But Nephi’s education about the interpretation of the tree in 1 Nephi 11 is more specific. In answer to his query about the meaning of…

The Death of Ishmael[fn1]

Early in the Small Plates of Nephi, Ishmael and his family join Lehi and his family in the wilderness. In spite of their likely close proximity, though, we don’t know much about Ishmael.[fn2] Nephi and his brothers found favor in Ishmael’s sight. Although at various times Ishmael’s sons and daughters act for or against Nephi, we don’t have any sense about where Ishmael falls in the Laman & Lemuel/Lehi & Nephi continuum.

The Earliest New Testament

This is the third post (first, second) in a series on the New Testament. This post covers what should probably have been the first post: consideration of the seven undisputed letters of Paul, chronologically the earliest documents in the New Testament, written in the 50s. They give us the best information we have on the early Christian churches scattered around the Roman world. Oddly, Paul’s letters receive much less attention in most LDS discussion of the New Testament than the gospels.

King Noah’s Blues

I could see them before I crossed Michigan Avenue into Grant Park. There were probably five of them, holding big yellow signs with blocky letters, Bible verses. It seemed out of place, fifty feet in front of the entrance to the Chicago Blues Festival, but maybe I just didn’t understand the logic behind it. I don’t remember the verses the signs promoted, and the picketers seemed nice enough, holding signs but not harassing the passersby, passersby who, like me, basically ignored them. Maybe they’d picked out verses of scripture with special applicability to fans of the blues; then again, maybe these were just generic holy protest signs.


My previous post on the upcoming BYU New Testament Commentary series was so well received I have decided to do some follow-up posts discussing individual books. I’ll start with Revelation, partly because that will be the first volume in the BYU series but also because I happen to have a copy of Elaine Pagels’ Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation sitting on my desk for one more week. While a fairly informed reader of the New Testament, I’m no scholar and navigate Greek only with the help of a good interlinear New Testament and various supplements, so my discussion is mainly drawn from the secondary literature and the English text I read in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New International Version (NIV), and of course the trusty King James Version (KJV). But that’s enough to author helpful blog posts. Enough throat clearing: So who wrote Revelation, what is it talking about, and why is it included in the New Testament rather than just buried at Nag Hammadi along with other early Christian apocalyptic literature?

BYU’s New Testament Commentary

A website for the upcoming BYU New Testament Commentary series has popped up. The short announcement on the main page promises “a multi-volume commentary on the New Testament along with a new rendition of the Greek New Testament texts,” which will “combine the best of ancient linguistic and historical scholarship with Latter-day Saint doctrinal perspectives.” A short post at the Interpreter claims that the first volume, covering Revelation, will be available this summer in e-book format. This promises a dramatic upgrade to the quality of LDS interaction with the New Testament. Here are a few issues (offering both opportunities and challenges) raised by the new series.

But Is It Priestcraft?

In popular Mormon discourse, priestcraft seems to be the descriptor of choice for things that we don’t like. Paid clergy? Check.1 CES? Check.2 Deseret Book? Check. Authors of religious books? Maybe check.3 It’s fair, I think, to be suspicious of financial interests that are wrapped up with the Church. At the very least,  such interests raise the specter of conflict-of-interest. But—and here’s the big question—is it priestcraft?4 According to the Book of Mormon, “priestcraft” is comprised of five criteria:5 Preaching Setting oneself up as a light In order to get gain In order to get worldly praise Not pursuing the welfare of Zion Note that some are objective criteria (I’d say (1), (2), and (5)), while others are subjective. In addition, in context, these criteria appear to be conjunctive. That is, for something to be “priestcraft,” and thus forbidden by the Lord, it needs to have all of these things. So is paid clergy priestcraft? Note that the Church has paid clergy—at least some General Authorities get a stipend. What they do is certainly preaching, but it probably misses most, if not all, of the other criteria.6 Even those Church leaders who are imperfectly prideful,7 though, and want worldly praise probably aren’t in it for gain or to denigrate the welfare of Zion. Note that the pay issue isn’t central, in any event. An unpaid clergy member could neet all five criteria. Deseret Book? Not a fan, but I can’t get (5),…

Book of Mormon Word Cloud [updated]

I’ve been curious what a word cloud of the Book of Mormon would look like, so , just for fun on a Friday, I finally made one. I don’t have a lot to say about it, other than that “unto” seems to be a very popular word (which doesn’t really surprise me, but I didn’t expect, either). “Lamanite” shows up more than “Nephite,” though the usage of both is dwarfed by “people.” I took the text from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, and I copied it from here, and I made the cloud using WordItOut. (Note that I actually prefer the look of the Wordle cloud, but I couldn’t get it in the post at a decent size. That said, I’ve included it below.) Update: Ardis pointed out that, in many ways, the word cloud would be more useful if some of the dull words came out (really, other than an interesting look at word choice, having “unto” as the biggest word doesn’t tell us anything interesting about the themes of the Book of Mormon). So, in the interest of a more telling word cloud, I’ve run it again, taking 11 words out. And, thematically, I think it is a better representation of the Book of Mormon. So below is the Book of Mormon word cloud without unto, ye, came, pass, yea, even, thou, thy, saith, said, or thee:

In Memoriam

I spend the morning with my children at the cemetery. The high school band played, the mayor placed a wreath at the war memorial, and servicemen, including a veteran of Pearl Harbor, spoke to us. We bought red paper poppies to pin to our shirts. We didn’t talk about Memorial Day in sacrament meeting yesterday. The only mention was that the scouts would be placing flags on lawns. It seems that we should want to remember and honor those who have fought and fallen in our worship services. How many times in the Book of Mormon are the people exhorted to remember and always retain a remembrance of the the faith of their forefathers and the mercies God has shown to them? I am not a huge fan of the war chapters of the Book of Mormon; I’m not terribly interested in battles and strategy in general. But I do love the passion of Captain Moroni and his bold and heartfelt reminder to the people that there are things worth fighting for: our God, our freedom, our religion, our peace and our families. I love the sincere repentance of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, their abandonment of war, even to the point of death. Their story of non-violent acceptance is powerful and heartbreaking. I love that the Nephites took them in and protected them, sacrificing their lives for the new converts to their faith. I remember these stories, and my heart breaks. I…

Mormon Talks, Christian Sermons

Krister Stendahl, the noted Swedish theologian who was unusually considerate of the LDS Church, listed “holy envy” as one of his three rules of religious understanding. Let’s see if comparing Mormon talks with Christian sermons doesn’t create for us a bit of holy envy. I think there might be something we can learn from how other Christian denominations preach from the pulpit on Sunday.

The Real World of the Book of Mormon

This is the fourth in a series of posts taking a broad look at the Book of Mormon. This post continues the discussion of the prior post, The Book of Mormon as Narrative, by considering verisimilitude. This term refers to how faithfully a text represents the real world or, to various degrees, depicts events that do not conform to the readers’ view of the real world. First, a tighter definition of verisimilitude [Note 1]: The semblance of truth or reality in literary works; or the literary principle that requires a consistent illusion of truth to life. The term covers both the exclusion of improbabilities (as in realism and naturalism) and the careful distinguishing of improbabilities in non-realistic works. As a critical principle, it originates in Aristotle’s concept of mimesis or imitation of nature. The verisimilitude issue presents two questions, one for the author of a text and one for its readers. The Problem for Authors and Historians To what extent does an author intend for the text to offer “truth to life” or an “imitation of nature”? At first glance, this question seems more pressing for fictional works: some genres by convention allow departures from the real world known by the author (science fiction, magic realism) while mainstream fiction typically presents events and characters that are true to life in the sense that they are not out of place in the reader’s world or, for historical fiction, in the period…

The Book of Mormon as Narrative

This is the third post in a series taking a broad view of the Book of Mormon (first, second). In this post I will discuss aspects of narrative encountered in the text. Not all scripture is narrative: consider the lengthy legal codes in the Torah and the moral exhortation found in James. Not all historical accounts are in the form of a narrative, although most history books written for the popular market are narrative histories. Most novels are in the form of a narrative, including historical fiction, which adds authorial speculation to large chunks of authentic history, often mixing fictional characters with actual historical figures and events.

Institute Report: Genesis, Week 1

If there’s sufficient interest,  I will post some general notes, handouts and materials here instead of mailing out everything to my class. Handouts are pdf format and have live links embedded. I felt the first week went well; in contrast to the last time I taught this, few students had a science background, and only 1-2 had previous experience with me. I introduced myself and established some formal bona fides. The more important informal trust that comes from personal experience and knowing someone will come over time, I hope. I had students introduce themselves, give a bit of their own background in terms of studies and interests (only one with hard science, several in literature and humanities, a few in business/finance), and express what had brought them to the class, what they hoped to discusses, or nagging questions or issues in Genesis. As expected, questions ran the gamut, but no one expressed a desperate struggle trying to “square evolution with the story of Adam and Eve that I had to take literally as a Mormon.” Time passed quicker than expected, and I moved into some intro material for the following week. The purposes of the class dovetail with the approach, to understand Genesis as an Israelite might have and in process, answer some questions and make sure we’re asking the right kind of questions. “Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning…

The Book of Mormon: What has it done for you lately?

Julie is posting detailed commentary and Kent is providing literary reflection; I’m afraid all I have to offer on the Book of Mormon is general observations. This week let’s talk about situating the book as a whole, not so much in terms of content and form (which I’ll address in later posts) but in terms of function and use. How does the Church use the Book of Mormon? How do you use the Book of Mormon?

Scripture Unchained: A New York Institute Announcement

After taking off 18 months or so, I’m returning to teaching Institute in my free time. Beginning January 12, 8 PM in the Union Square chapel of Manhattan, I’ll be teaching a class called “Genesis, with an Introduction to Studying the Bible in Hebrew.” The Institute Director added the last part, but I don’t mind one bit. I’m quite looking forward to it. Institute can really be a breath of fresh air, especially for those who are looking for a deeper exploration of the scriptures than Sunday School allows. After all, there’s no schedule to follow, no manual to adhere to, none of the constraints that people argue over. Instead of 45 minutes with ambivalent mostly non-readers, I get 75 minutes with a self-selecting group of slightly less ambivalent reading-a-bit-more. This is not to say there are no constraints; in a lesser implementation of Helaman 10:4-5, teachers generally get vetted one way or another, and then are simply trusted to teach. I have reviews/recommendations from teaching for eight years under three different Institute Directors plus my three summers teaching at BYU, and they contact my Bishop and Stake President as well. After that… well, I teach the scriptures and the Gospel, and love it. And that’s all the local Powers That Be really care about. Are the students edified? Growing and learning? Reading their scriptures more? If so, they’re supportive. This class will be selective. I anticipate spending several weeks…

Finally, Family Scripture Study that Works for Us

My family is not very large (C and, uh, me. Not even a cat), so schedules aren’t hard to coordinate. We’re both active in the Church, and bibliophiles who regularly read and study our own scriptures,  and yet we’ve never been able to have productive scripture study together. I am largely to blame for that, since our questions and interests tend to not overlap very much and mine are too arcane and rabbit-hole-ish to be productive for her. In spite of trying several times, it’s never lasted long. I have memories of my teens, bleary-eyed hot breakfast at 5:15, slogging through Alma, taking turns reading in between bites of Hutterite pancake with cream and bananas. We read every day, but I never felt conscious enough to really pay attention, especially since I was competing with three brothers for pancakes. (My older sister wasn’t very competitive in the pancake horking department.) Somehow between hearing it at breakfast and sleeping through four years of Seminary (6:00-6:45), I learned enough through osmosis that my MTC group designated me the “scriptorian” of the group, thoroughly dismaying me as to how little one needed to know to be thus branded. Regardless, I was convinced at that point that group scripture study had value. If I with so little grey matter devoted to paying attention, could learn simply by being there, what could you accomplish if you actively engaged with the text and co-reader? This week, with…

Beyond Translation: Job and Isaiah at Ugarit? Part 2

In Part 1, I promised some Biblical examples of where translation alone fails to convey all the meaning an Israelite would have grasped. I’ve broken these examples into three fuzzy categories. 1) Israel is often described in the Torah as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” We probably all have milk and honey in our kitchen, yet not quite what is described here. In the Old Testament, milk doesn’t usually come from cows, and honey doesn’t come from bees. Cattle were primarily used for beef, while milk came primarily from goats, only rarely from cattle. Israelites didn’t raise bees, so honey was likely difficult to acquire. “Honey” was a boiled-down thick sweet syrup, usually made from dates or  some other fruit, though on rare occasion “honey” does seem to clearly indicate bee-honey. Israel, we might say then, was “a land oozing with chèvre and fruit-honey.” 2) Several times in Genesis 1, curious circumlocutions appear. There’s no mention of the sun or moon, but “greater light” and “lesser light.” Even though the account culminates in the seventh day, the Sabbath, there’s no mention of “sabbath.” And lastly, though we have the world bifurcated into water and dry land, the seas are mysteriously plural. All of these are explainable via polemical context. First, both the sun (shemesh) and moon (yareach) were also the names of those deities outside Israel, just as Ra designated both sun and sun-god in Egypt. We can…