Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The Strength of the Book of Mormon

Posted by BrianJ on December 26, 2007

This is Part Three of a three-part series (read Part One and Part Two). The Book of Mormon authors who worried so much about their weak writing were promised by the Lord that it would be made strong:

And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal. (2 Nephi 33:4)

Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness. And I, Moroni, having heard these words, was comforted, and said: O Lord, thy righteous will be done, for I know that thou workest unto the children of men according to their faith. (Ether 12: 28-29)

I can imagine that Nephi and Moroni might have pictured the Lord rewriting and embellishing their words to make them more like the Old Testament, but what actually happened is even more profound: What made the Book of Mormon weak in the past are actually its strengths today. We struggle through the Old Testament because:

1. We don’t “do” chiasmus, so any that exist in the Book of Mormon go undiscovered by most readers. We do “do” conflict-resolution-explanation (“thus we see”), and that is how the Book of Mormon is written.
2. We don’t “get” Hebrew rhetoric. We do “get” English and “straight talk.” With a limited language and limited time and space in which to write, the Nephites played right into our strength—or at least our abilities.
3. We trust authority. One result of Nephite recordkeeping is that every word is attributable to someone we identify as being a prophet (except for a few cases when the person writes very little or even admits their unworthiness; eg. Omni). No question, for example, about whether to regard the Book of Mosiah as “authentic.”
4. We don’t read aloud. We each have our own set of scriptures—something unimaginable even a few hundred years ago—and we read silently to ourselves. So we don’t really need or want our scriptures to read like a sermon; we just want them to be readable.
5. We have trouble defining our own culture, let alone relating to someone else’s. The benefit of an obscure and barely referenced Nephite culture is that we get to—sometimes have to—ignore it.
6. Here’s where the Old Testament would have an advantage over the Book of Mormon in our day: the Old Testament is a story of conversion—and what better story to give to an investigator. That storyline is often missed, however: first, due to the complexities mentioned before; second, since members and most investigators already know the general Judeo-Christian story, we read the Old Testament not as a conversion story but as an illustration of stubbornness and ignorance. The Book of Mormon, in contrast, is addressed to Nephites who had some understanding of God but needed to repent and draw closer to him—which is exactly the message members and investigators need as well.

Imagine our missionaries around the world handing people the first ten books of the Old Testament to read as an introduction to our faith. I think it would be a disaster. In contrast, the Book of Mormon, thanks to its weaknesses, is actually pretty easy to follow and makes a very clear statement: “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”

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Note: this series was originally published, with some editorial changes, on my personal blog.

19 Responses to “The Strength of the Book of Mormon”

  1. NathanG said

    Brian,
    I think this set of posts is interesting in light of the “redundancy” question you posted. What is the advantage of the Book of Mormoon today? It’s a book that is easy to understand for people today, at least it’s written in a way that people can learn important lessons without having to be scriptorians (as an aside, scriptorian seems to be an LDS word, I googled it and found page after page of LDS websites).

    This is not to say that our weakness in what we can understand is a good thing, but since the Book of Mormon is simple for us today, it is a fantastic missionary tool (for so many Bible believing people who have yet to read the Bible) and fantastic place to start people beginning to understand things of God. Hopefully this stimulates our desire to learn more and we become the “scriptorians”, or at least engage in significant study of the scriptures.

  2. Excellent series Brian. Thank you for this analysis.

  3. Joe Spencer said

    Brian, I have a great many thoughts about all of what you’ve posted, but having family in town is making it almost impossible for me to get any time here on the blog. I hope I’ll be able to respond to this (and other discussions) sometime soon. In general, though, let me express my gratitude for your having started the serious discussions of the Book of Mormon that will inevitably occupy us over the course of the next year!

  4. Clark said

    1. I think this is true to a degree. Although while the narrative does the conflict pattern, I think there’s a lot of other literary forms in the text we pick up on. Some, such as the cyclic patterns, were drilled into us in seminary but some Mormons might miss. Chiasmus can be missed, but I think one can generally see what is going on in places like Alma 36 without it. Other poetry is often missed though. And of course most struggle with Isaiah let alone Nephi and Jacob’s use of it.

    2. I agree and disagree. Certainly we miss a lot of the Jewish rhetoric. Some we pick up on, primarily because it is so studied. (i.e. the types and symbols in Nephi’s vision) Some we miss because they are hard (Isaiah). Over all though I don’t think the Book of Mormon is primarily simply preaching, Nephi’s comments notwithstanding. (Indeed Nephi is among the most complex) There is an interesting break though. Abinadi tends to represent the “last” of the old school after the manner of Nephi. With Alma taking over one gets the impression of a near Protestant reformation of Nephite religious culture. There is definitely a greater simplicity thereafter (with less Isaiah) until one gets to around the time of 3 Nephi. Samuel is always an enigma and one wishes we had more of his preaching. But Christ returns back to a style much more like Nephi in some ways.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I think much of the text is far more complex and, correspondingly overlooked by many. The parts most read are Alma and then Mosiah. (Although I’d argue for some complexity in both – there’s a lot to the section starting in Alma 11 that I think we overlook)

    Certainly you’re right that there’s a lot of simple stuff we can get out of the Book of Mormon. Much like most find the NT far easier than the OT. But I think there’s a lot of complexity in the NT (Romans being but one example) and there is in the Book of Mormon too, even in the sections we tend to see as simpler narrative.

    3. I think the question of authenticity still is raised. Not just by critics who question historicity. We have Blake Ostler’s question of expansion. (Which tends to have expansions being inspired, but then one could argue that a midrash or pseudopigrapha is inspired – arguably what some of the JST expansions exist as)

    But beyond that there are still some questions. The quotations from the KJV – especially those from texts after Nephi left Jerusalm – remain thorny. There are the Isaiah expansions. There are the quotations from 2cd Isaiah which scholars tend to see written after Nephi left Jerusalam. Now many will see these not as a problem at all. I suspect the majority opinion will be a simple literalism that says the Book of Mormon invalidates say 2cd Isaiah claims and many might have problem with expansion theories.

    Of course the question of authority and the question of authorship are technically separate questions. We might question authorship while acknowledging authority. But I think that while the BoM is probably less controversial in terms of authority relative to the other Books of scripture save perhaps most of the D&C, it is still there in a minor way.

    4. This is quite interesting. Even in the early decade or two of the Book of Mormon how often was it read aloud? My impression is not often. The Bible was primarily the oratory text for the Church. But reading it aloud is pretty helpful. I did this for a while (getting stares when I was doing it outside). Even acknowledging the problems of translations you get a very different experience reading it aloud.

    One thing I wish the Church would do which would help is to break out the poetry better and make the verse structure a little less intrusive. (A lot of modern Bible translations do this now – my favorite being the Jerusalem Bible translation) I think it’d really help reading. Of course the Elizabethan language makes reading it orally more difficult as well. (Although reading the BoM makes reading the Bible easier and prepares you for reading Shakespeare aloud)

    The issue of whether the texts themselves were intended to be oral is an interesting one. Some clearly were, such as Benjamin’s speech. Others seem oriented around writing as you mentioned in your prior post. How do we take Mormon’s editing. Clearly he wasn’t giving it orally – he was primarily alone. (Or was he speaking it to Moroni before recording it?) Was he thinking in terms of oral presentation or writing? It’s hard to know.

    5. I think this is a negative. While we have trouble defining our culture this often means that we make tons of assumptions without being aware of it and then read them back into the Book of Mormon. Were we more aware of culture we’d do this less. On the one hand you’re right, this allows us to “liken the scriptures to ourselves” as Nephi wants. On the other hand I think this leads to a likening that is naive and often wrong and contrary to what Nephi wants. (Consider how he likens Isaiah which shows a fairly sophisticated and nuanced reading)

    6. That’s an interesting point. In a way both the OT and BoM have a similar underarching structure of national conversion. And you’re right, it is easier to pick up in the BoM.

  5. brianj said

    Nathan, Eric, Joe: thanks.

    Clark, again thanks for challenging me:

    2. I think you state my opinion well with your comparison of the NT and OT. The NT as a whole (especially the Gospels) is so much easier to grasp (note: “grasp” does not equal “fully comprehend”) than the OT, but there are still sections of real complexity within the NT.

    3. Agreed.

    4. I’d love to see a restructuring of BoM verses (except that it would totally mess up all past scripture links). But I would settle for your suggestion: format the poetry to look like poetry. I couldn’t ever get into Isaiah until I found a KJV that formatted it that way—what a difference it makes!

    5. You’re absolutely right that this can be a negative. My reason for seeing it as a good thing is that it lets anyone read it. For comparison, try reading 1 & 2 Kings without some knowledge of ancient Near East history.

  6. Joe Spencer said

    Just a note in passing (again: I’ll get back to this in some detail when family is gone…). There are at least two “editions” of the Book of Mormon that are very helpful for reading poetry in the Book of Mormon. Grant Hardy’s “Reader’s Edition” of the Book of Mormon breaks down poetry in the same way most modern translations do (it doesn’t break out chiasmus, but does set up the parallel structures of the poetry in much the way that, say, the NIV or the NRSV does). It is a must-have, in my opinion, for many reasons. Second, Donald Parry put together and FARMS published a Book of Mormon reformatted to reveal poetic and parallelistic structures a number of years ago. It is remarkably cheap (12 bucks or something). It is one person’s take on the poetic and parallelistic structures of the Book of Mormon (I have not used it to read the whole Book of Mormon, but I consult it when I’m looking carefully at the linguistic structure of a given passage; I find that he often has noticed word connections and structures that I’ve missed, but there are other times where I’ve caught something he entirely misses).

    At any rate, both of these are something anyone looking for poetic structures in the Book of Mormon might consider. (I should mention, though I’ll probably discuss this further when I have a chance, my take on “finding” chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, etc. I do worry about those who find chiasmus everywhere in a sense: if they have an apologetic axe to grind, I think it is unfortunate because finding so much chiasmus does not prove the truth of the Book of Mormon any more than finding a couple of decent examples. But there are other reasons to look for poetic structures: structure is a necessary consequence of writing, and structure gives meaning to the words of scripture; searching out the meaning of text requires analyzing the structure of the words, and if there is a chiastic structure, it must be considered. This means that seeking out chiastic and other structures is a means to an end, and gets silly only when it is an end in itself. In short, I think we ought to be quite aware of every chiasm in the Book of Mormon, but we ought to be searching them out with the intent of understanding how they give us a clearer understanding of the text. Let me note further that the Alma 36 chiasm that Jack Welch uncovered is massively problematic. He made some headway in thinking the structure of the text, but because he had an axe to grind, he missed the subtler points of poetic structure, and his “masterpiece” article misses the point. His work there is a perfect example of how one can go astray looking for poetic structure. The structure of Alma 36 is actually far more complex than Welch makes it out to be, and its complexity raises major questions about things like authorship, etc. For more on Alma 36, you’d have to read the first chapter of my hopefully forthcoming book, which I have recently submitted for publication.)

    More soon.

  7. clarkgoble said

    Brain, out of curiosity, how would formatting for poetry screw up scripture links? The way I like it done is to either have the verse number in the margin with a mark in the text indicating where it comes in the text or else have it as a very small superscript in the text. It improves readability so dramatically much that I just pray that the Church does this in the next edition of the scriptures. There’s a lot of complaints about the difficulty of the KJV text and even the Book of Mormon. While it isn’t as good as an alternative translation, I think a change of formatting would help tremendously in reading. It would also encourage less proof-texting.

    Joe, I look forward to your book. You ought tell us something about it.

    I agree that chiasmus tends to be a large overt structure that is overly forced into the text by interpreters. If chiasmus is a natural “organic” work – perhaps largely unconscious – then it shouldn’t be exact.

  8. brianj said

    Joe: thanks for the recommendations.

    Clark: Sorry, I only wrote half of what I was thinking. I was thinking about a Major renumbering of verses, not just changes to the layout. Too many thoughts are totally broken up by the current versification (and chapter-fication). I know—it would be a problem no matter how you slice it.

  9. Clark said

    I don’t think there’s any need to renumber. One of my Catholic Bibles (NAV) did this in texts that had problematic verses. (i.e. renumbered based upon removing verses not in ancient manuscripts) I found it quite annoying.

    As I said, if you put the verses and chapter breaks in the margins and then a little tick (‘) to show where the breaks occur in the text it solves everything. I also like not having footnote letters in the text. A tick of some kind and then down below giving the verse number works best (IMO).

    I’ll have to scan in some examples as it’d make it much clearer.

  10. brianj said

    Clark—I know exactly what you mean about the layout. I read the OT and NT that way (in various online editions, including the NET). So, while you were being perfectly clear, I wasn’t. My feeling about renumbering is based on this: people read in chapters and study in verses. In the first case, you have people who read one chapter per night. It’s a mantra. So they read Mormon 6 on Tues and then Mormon 7 on Wed. The problem is that those two chapters are so closely tied together, but the reader misses the emotion when the chapters are read separately. In the second case, in class we so often ask someone to read “Verse 10”. The problem, of course, is that verse 10 often is the second half a sentence that started in verse 9—and we miss it in class. Again, I often wish for a renumbering, while at the same time I know that it will always be a problem. And yes, I agree that putting verses in paragraph form (as in the NET) would at least alert the reader that verse 10 is in the middle of a paragraph (and that alone would be very very helpful).

    In other words, I know what you mean and I’m willing to give one of my kidneys to see that it gets done.

  11. Joe Spencer said

    Perhaps it would be worth doing a post on how to overcome this problem in the classroom. How can a teacher subvert unfortunate numbering and arbitrary chapter breaks while teaching? I’ve got some ideas…

  12. Clark said

    If you could bring projectors to class with a laptop you could set up the poetry and display it on the wall.

    Does anyone know what Church policy is about projecting like that?

  13. brianj said

    Joe – I just point them out when they are particularly egregious. What other ideas do you have?

    Clark – My bishopric occasionally projects ppts onto the chapel wall during Priesthood (special topic lessons). I’ve often considered doing it during my class (which is also held in the chapel), and the only reason I haven’t is for lack of time to prepare the slides (maps, paintings, etc., not just text). I don’t know that there is a policy, but maybe I’ll find out in a few weeks (after I use the projector, of course).

  14. Clark said

    Let us know. I’m not currently a teacher (when my wife got made Primary President the Bishop told me he wasn’t going to give me a calling so I could take care of our toddlers). However it’s something I’ve long wondered. I think it’d be great – much better than chalk boards or the like.

  15. NathanG said

    I am just finishing the end of my “formal” education and have endured countless awful power point presentations (too much text on single slides with distracting animations don’t make up for lack of preparation to teach). By the same token, some outstanding lecturers used both the chalkboard and power point effectively. My overall assessment is that power point is a tool that should be used sparingly, like for what you talked about Brian. I just dread seeing power point in church because I lack faith that it improves most lessons.

  16. Michele Mitchell said

    Re powerpoints, Clark & NathanG, I use the ward library LCD projector(don’t most wards have one now?), my own laptop, and the screen my husband installed in the ceiling of the RS room where Gospel Doctrine is taught, almost every time I teach. I nearly always find or create a map, a chart, a picture, some text, I don’t feel I can do without. The beam of light & the noise from the projector is a barrier between me and the class members and I sometimes spend undue time with the visual part of the lesson. But I’m figuring it out a little better as I go. Among other things, it’s been useful for showing JST side by side with KJV and for providing alternate translations.

  17. clarkgoble said

    Nathan, I was thinking of Powerpoint (or better yet Keynote) mainly for quotes, maps and the like. I recognize folks can go overboard. The dreaded boring Powerpoint presentation from hell is well in my mind. Ideally projections should be used to aid in discussions rather than just iterating what the teacher is saying.

    The original reason I brought it up though was to put on-screen alternative translations or text from the Book of Mormon framed poetically.

  18. Joe Spencer said

    I wrote up a nice long response and it was eaten… and I hardly have the patience to replace it right now… later on.

  19. brianj said

    (sorry Joe, I checked the spam filter and didn’t find it.)

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