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Happy One-Hundredth to Hugh Nibley: A Story, Some Reflections, and a Book Review

Posted by joespencer on March 27, 2010

Today marks what would have been Hugh Nibley’s hundredth birthday. I thought it fitting to offer something of a tribute to him here, particularly because of all he did—and continues to do—for Mormon scripture study. What follows, as the title of the post makes clear, is (1) the story of my own entanglement with Nibley; (2) a few reflections on what I hope will continue to be Nibley’s influence in Mormon studies; and (3) a review of Nibley’s just recently released magnum opus, One Eternal Round. I offer the story in order to encourage others to tell their Nibley stories; I offer my reflections in order to generate some discussion of Nibley’s contribution to Mormon studies; and I offer the review for those interested in the book. Happy birthday, Brother Nibley!

Nibley and Me

My first encounter with Nibley came in the form of folklore. At some point during high school, my father told me a story about Nibley doing some public debate with a general authority at BYU, during which Nibley insinuated that—unlike the prudish general authority at the other podium—he at least had given LSD a try. The other story came from my second companion in the mission field, who informed me that Hugh Nibley had been lost in the jungle in South America with a group of people until they stumbled on some natives who spoke a native language completely unknown to the West; Nibley struck up a conversation with them and promptly got directions, explaining to his companions that they spoke perfect Hebrew.

These stories left the name “Nibley” floating in the back of my mind, though they both sounded at least a bit beyond credibility.

My next encounter with Nibley came in a bookstore, only a couple of days after my mission. High school had completely destroyed my interest in reading, but Talmage’s books had helped me to realize that there were books on things I was interested in. So, almost as soon as I was off the plane, I found my way to Far West Books in Kennewick, Washington, to see what I might be able to read. There were a few titles I knew I was after—a couple recommended by my mission president, primarily—but I glanced through what else was available. When I saw the title Temple and Cosmos, I found myself intrigued enough to buy the book without really knowing anything about the author.

But the book went on the shelf, because I was eager to start the seven-volume History of the Church, and I figured I would get to Temple and Cosmos once I finished that. So I hauled Nibley’s book to Provo with me a couple months later when I returned to BYU. Once I was back at BYU, and especially once I began dating my future wife, reading time was a bit more difficult to find, and I found that I was working rather slowly through the History of the Church. After the wedding that summer, and once we were settled into our first apartment in Provo, I finally found I had the time to get some serious reading done. About July of 2002, I finally cracked the book by Nibley.

I was, of course, completely swept away. I had read a dozen or so LDS books over the previous eight or nine months, but I had walked away from each of them feeling like the authors had not really delivered anything of significance. I felt like I had encountered information, but I never felt like I had been taught—as if the authors didn’t care to do any real work on the topics they wrote about. Nibley, on the other hand, was intensely interested in raising the most audacious questions, was committed to pursuing them through to their conclusions, and was unmistakably invested in being fully faithful.

Over the course of the next year, I read every volume of Nibley’s Collected Works that had been published to that point—which was 14 volumes, up through Abraham in Egypt. I began studying Hebrew, joined the Student Society for Ancient Studies, decided I would become a Plato scholar, read everything I could find from FARMS (though I was interested in what it all had to say about scripture; I couldn’t have cared less about the apologetics), and so on. And then, one weeknight, I was sitting outside our stake presidency’s offices waiting for a temple recommend interview, working on my Hebrew homework while I waited. A member of the bishopric walked by, asked what I was working on, and then asked if I was hoping to be the next Hugh Nibley. After a moment, he looked thoughtful and said, “Yeah, we don’t see him out much these days.” It took me a moment to realize what was implied: I had been, for months, in Hugh Nibley’s ward. I was particularly shocked because—ignorant me!—I had thought he was dead! (I suppose that the wildness of the stories that had introduced me to Nibley made me think he was some figure who had disappeared after the 1970s or something.)

This was 2003 or so. We left the ward a year or so later when I graduated, and less than a year before Brother Nibley died. I didn’t get to know him well. I helped the young men take the sacrament to him after church when it was my turn. My wife and I made dinner for him and Sister Nibley once. When we joined up with another couple and caroled at Christmastime to some of the older folks in the ward, we sat by his bed while he showed us the Hubble photographs in the astronomy journals he was reading (of course he asked us—there were only four of us—to sing the Hallelujah Chorus when we had finished a song or two). But I didn’t really get to know Nibley, not in anything like a personal way. (I did get to know his son Tom a little, since Tom sat in on my Sunday School classes. I won’t forget Tom’s comment after the last lesson I taught in that ward: “I have only one complaint: That lesson should have been shouted, not spoken.”)

But though I didn’t get to know Nibley personally, I can say how shocked I was when I first met him. Perhaps I was a bit over-intimidated, or perhaps I was just not enough acquainted with academics, or perhaps I just didn’t know what to expect, but I was taken quite by surprise by his humility. There was nothing of the pretentious about him, nothing at all.

I was saddened to learn of his death—and heartbroken to learn of his daughter’s book—a year after we left the ward.

I was born to late to attend any of Nibley’s classes (though you can bet I’ve watched the DVDs); I was almost born to late to have the chance to meet him at all; at times I wonder if I’m from the generation that was born to late to realize his importance—though I think I was lucky enough not to miss that myself; I worry that the next generation coming up will have been born to late even to know his name.

But it seems to me—as I now will have to argue—that Nibley might never have been more important than he is now.

The “Nibley Legacy”

A word or two more about my story will pave the way to the discussion I’d like to wager about the so-called “Nibley Legacy.”

About the time I discovered that Nibley was in my ward, I began to move on from Ancient Studies. A class on Hegel from Jim F. (of Sunday School notes fame), followed a year later by a class on contemporary French theology from Jim (during which I definitively discovered Heidegger), distracted me from my Nibley-inspired obsession with all things ancient. The more time I spent studying Continental philosophy—particularly hermeneutics—the more I found that I was more philosopher than historian, and certainly more theologian than apologist. By the time I left BYU (in 2004), I had little to do with Ancient Studies.

Importantly for me, however, this did not mean that I left Nibley behind. As each volume of his Collected Works has come out, I’ve read it voraciously. I’ve read him and re-read him, recommended him and defended him, cited him and hoped his importance wouldn’t fade. There was an important sense in which my discovery of strictly hermeneutic approaches to scripture was in part my discovery of what it was in Nibley that I so much enjoyed—about what it was that was crucial in Nibley. I began, as it were, to subtract Nibley from his cultural encasing. And that is, in part, why I want to talk about the “Nibley Legacy.”

In Faith of an Observer, a wonderful documentary on Nibley put together by FARMS in the 1980s, Truman Madsen tells a fantastic story about the volume Nibley on the Timely and Timelessness. Madsen had originally titled the volume The Nibley Legacy, and had everything mocked up so he could present it to Nibley. And so soon as Nibley saw it, he was terribly upset: “For one, it sounds like I’m dead, and I’m not, and for two, ‘Legacy,’ ‘Legacy,’ what does that even mean?” Madsen tried, the next day, to corner him with figures about how much it would cost to change the title this late in the game. Nibley’s response: “Change it and take it out my royalties.” Madsen: “Hugh, do you care that much about a title?” Nibley: “No, I care that little about royalties.” *Click*

The story is beautiful for so many reasons, but what might too easily be missed in it is Nibley’s own disgust for the very idea of a “Nibley Legacy.” I think the point is crucial: Nibley seems to have hoped he would leave nothing behind, leave no inheritance for us heirs to squabble over. (I find it ironic that Louis Midgley titled his review of An Eloquent Witness, in which Madsen’s story about “The Nibley Legacy” is printed, “The Nibley Legacy.” Did Midgley recognize this irony?) Unfortunately, I think Nibley had become, even before his death, something to squabble over. That is, it seems to me that there have come to be two Nibleys talked about in Mormon studies, even two irreconcilable Nibleys.

On the one hand, there is the Nibley claimed by conservatives, the Nibley who defended the faith against detractors and refused to take reductionistic dismissals of the Book of Mormon without an argument. On the other hand, there is the Nibley claimed by liberals, the Nibley who expressed his anti-war sentiments, his environmental concerns, his distaste for capitalism, etc. Both sides of a long-standing and ridiculously tired debate have tried to make Nibley their own. But to say that there is no Nibley legacy is to say that neither Nibley quite exists, that nothing has been left to us. Nibley has left us neither so much evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, nor so much precedence for embracing liberalism within a generally conservative community.

But what does it mean to say that Nibley has left us—or at least meant to leave us—nothing? It means, I think, that he hoped he would disappear into oblivion. That, in other words, his work would be surpassed. Nibley’s hope, it seems to me, was that he was only starting a conversation, and that whatever of his work would remain would be recognized to be universal in scope, not the inheritance of some party or faction.

This is what I mean when I say that Nibley might never have been more important than he is now. Now: by “now” I mean this moment in Mormon studies, the moment of the emergence of Mormon studies as such, as a field of study that is no longer polarized by “conservatives” and “liberals.” I find it fascinating, for instance, that the two figures who are the most obvious movers and shakers in the emergent field of Mormon studies both point to Nibley as being crucial. On the one hand, Richard Bushman has not only said several times that he sees himself as doing something apologetic in the sense that Nibley did something apologetic, but he has recently claimed that Nibley is the only genuine cultural critic the Church has produced in the past hundred years or so. On the other hand, Terryl Givens has nothing but praise for Nibley’s work, particularly because he was unafraid to embrace what is most unique about Mormonism and to address that uniqueness in full rigor.

Nibley’s writings, subtracted from both conservative apologetics and liberal activism, may well be the (methodological) training ground for what is just now becoming Mormon studies.

Of course, I should clarify that I don’t mean by that to suggest that our attention should be turned now to ancient studies, nor to comparative religion, nor again to philology—though all of these disciplines should also be pursued. What one is to learn in reading Nibley is the basic shape of unmistakable fidelity, the fundamental meaning of what it is to take Mormonism seriously. It is to recognize that scholarship is indeed the clown of the professions, and yet that it is something to give oneself to without reserve. It is to recognize that truth is not a question of knowledge, but of faith. It is to recognize that Mormonism must not be dismissed out of hand, that everything in Mormonism is more surprising than we generally see, that there is an infinite amount of work to do on Mormonism still.

Most of all, it is to recognize that scripture study, serious engagement of what is or is not at work in canonized texts, is the core of Mormon studies. Nibley was, from the 1946 publication of No Ma’am, That’s Not History to the publication a couple weeks ago of One Eternal Round, the antidote to the new Mormon history, to all the versions of Mormon “intellectualism” that have attempted to tell scripture what it should say instead of listening to scripture with more finely attuned ears.

I hope, at any rate, that Nibley will help us realize that scripture remains the task of Mormon thought today.

One Eternal Round

I’d like, for reasons that must be obvious by now, to offer a brief book review as a kind of conclusion to these birthday greetings. Only a couple of weeks ago, Nibley’s long awaited last book—he worked on it for the last fifteen or twenty years of his life, and didn’t finish it before his death—entitled One Eternal Round. It is, of course, his study of the hypocephalus—that is, Facsimile no. 2 from the Book of Abraham. And it is, I think, a beautiful book.

The introduction explains that Nibley left thirty boxes of notes behind when he died, as well as many widely differing drafts of each chapter for the book. The day before Nibley passed away, Michael Rhodes committed to taking on the project of bringing the book to publication. Five years saw the process of publication through, and so many editorial decisions had to be made that Rhodes is listed as the co-author of the book. Even so, relatively little of it seems to be Rhodes’ actual writing—Nibley’s voice is unmistakable throughout the book.

The book is roughly dividable into three major parts:

(1) Chapters 1-5, summarizing Nibley’s work quite generally and funneling it all into the current project
(2) Chapters 6-8, providing Nibley’s figure-by-figure commentary on the hypocephalus
(3) Chapters 9-15, working through a larger contextualization of the hypoceaphalus as such

I’ll summarize each of these parts in turn.

Chapters 1-5

The first five chapters of the book are not terribly new. In large part, they summarize the work that Nibley has done elsewhere on the Book of Abraham (the kind of work that can be found in Abraham in Egypt, The Egyptian Endowment, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, etc.). The first chapter deals summarily with three periods of heavy criticism of the Prophet’s interpretations of the facsimiles. The second chapter outlines the resurrection concerns of the Egyptians and situates them with respect to the larger project of the book. The third chapter deals with the notion of dispensations and axial periods, comparing other traditions with the Egyptian. The fourth chapter deals with the complex relationship between myth, ritual, and history, suggesting in advance what will become Nibley’s most consistent—though often implicit—thesis in the book, namely, that Abraham’s experience in Egypt was actual history, but that every other tradition mythologized and ritualized what had, at least in this instance, been actual history. The fifth chapter summarizes Nibley’s work on year-rites and recounts the Abrahamic connections to the theme.

Chapters 6-8

These three chapters form the real substance of the study. A first chapter (chapter 6) entitled “What Is a Hypocephalus?” works first through heavily Egyptological discussion of hypocephali, attempting to make sense of what it is we find in Facsimile no. 2 in the broadest sense. This chapter is a must-read for anyone interested in what that weird circular drawing actually is, whether in Mormon terms or in non-Mormon terms. This introductory chapter is summarized by a figure-by-figure commentary (chapters 7-8), complete with full translations, comparisons with other discovered hypocephali, extended Egyptological commentary, etc. These two chapters are the closest we are likely to come to having a commentary on Facsimile no. 2 for a long time.

Chapters 9-15

The last chapters of the book, as I’ve already indicated, attempt to contextualize the hypocephalus in a much larger framework. Chapter 9 does this by taking up stories of ascension from across the ancient world, arguing that there are striking continuities across all of them, continuities that make much more sense of the Egyptian idea of the hypocephalus. Chapter 10 takes up the theme of the hypocephalus as a diadem, connecting it with all kinds of sacred green gems. Chapter 11 turns to the hermetic tradition, and chapter 12 in turn takes up Kabbalistic traditions. Chapter 13 is a singular discussion of the connection between Facsimile no. 2 (with the unique name of Sheshonq inscribed on it) and Alexander the Great, an academically speculative discussion, but fascinating. This is followed in chapter 14 by a closely connected discussion of the Nimrod stories. Finally, the most curious and striking discussion in the book is found in chapter 15 simply entitled “Geometry.” Here Nibley deals with the mathematical and geometrical properties of the hypocephalus found in the Book of Abraham, most of which mark it as remarkably unique, and all of which call for a revision of the standard scholarly opinion of the status of mathematics and geometry in Egypt.

In short, this is Nibley at his best, though his work is so narrowly focused—the entire book is on Facsimile no. 2. It is, like so much of his work, a perfect illustration of rigorously faith focused on scripture: all this work—twenty years of research!—in order just to get the discussion started on a single page of Mormon scripture.

May we all take Joseph’s revelations so seriously!

8 Responses to “Happy One-Hundredth to Hugh Nibley: A Story, Some Reflections, and a Book Review”

  1. Robert C. said

    Beautiful, Joe—thanks!

  2. R. Gary said

    I’ve had a high opinion of Hugh Nibley ever since, on my mission, I discovered his “No, Ma’am, That’s Not History.” Forty five years later, two of his statements are my most memorable: The last paragraph in “Of Science,” and the paragraph that includes a little gem I’ll call “But did the little scholars really know?

  3. Jared T. said

    Thanks for this, Joe.

  4. Ben said

    Of course, some of us are both apologetics-oriented AND environmentalist. I claim both Nibleys.

  5. RobF said

    Thanks Joe, and Happy Birthday Hugh! I’m sure he’s spending a great day in Paradise!

    I can’t remember not knowing about Hugh Nibley, though obviously there must have been such a time. I read his old New Era pieces on the Book of Abraham and was collecting his books by some time in high school. I read his Egyptian Endowment book while sitting on the floor of the Times & Seasons Bookstore in Portland, Oregon before my mission. On my mission, I was pleased to hear from one of our area presidency that when the Brethren had gospel questions they would call up Hugh Nibley. He shared with us some mind blowing stuff that he claimed he heard from Hugh, so I hoped to someday get to hear some of those things from him myself.

    After my mission, I did get to meet Hugh Nibley at BYU. A friend of mine had three tickets to a play in the Harris Fine Arts Center and invited me to go see it with him and Hugh Nibley. I don’t know what possessed Hugh to go along with two young undergraduates to see a play that he didn’t much care for, but I was impressed that he was game for such an outing. Any time I heard that he was speaking on campus–usually about the Book of Abraham facsimiles–I would make a point to attend, trying to glean wisdom from his expressive mumblings!

    The next year (1992) I was able to fit his Pearl of Great Price class into my schedule, and it was one of the wildest academic rides I got to take at BYU. A couple of us would regularly wait at the bottom of Maeser hill to intercept Hugh on his way up to our class in the morning, and walk with him. I loved it when one day after we watched some young robins in the bushes, he commented that this is a multi-purpose earth, created for all of God’s creatures.

    I was just one of hundreds of unmemorable students that sat through Hugh’s classes through the years. Even when we were walking with him, I’m pretty sure I only registered with him only once, briefly, when he commented on my Scotch Irish surname while mumbling through the class roll.

    When it came time for the final grade, we all got the assignment to write a term paper about the Pearl of Great Price. I thought I would be cute and wrote an extended commentary (with gospel parallels) to the Anasazi/Pueblo Water Jar Boy myth. I was shocked to get an F. According to Hugh, I hadn’t done the assignment. But he gave me another chance. So I wrote another unmemorable piece of drivel and got the requisite C. The only C I ever got at BYU, but one I deserved and wear with honor.

    So, I barely knew the living Hugh Nibley. But his words and works continue to nourish me. I can’t count how many times I’ve read Approaching Zion, and still find myself challenged by its message. I could only wish I were as dedicated to gospel scholarship–and the gospel–as Hugh Nibley was. When I’m wrestling with a scripture, or attending the temple, he’s never far from my thoughts.

    While fiddling around here and on the wiki, I know I’m just splashing in the shallow end of a deep pool that Hugh loved with all his heart. It’s pretty audacious to think that I’d even consider splashing around in that sacred pool of living water. But if I can’t dive as deeply, or move as gracefully, I can at least love it as he did, with all my heart.

  6. J. Madson said

    Some of my fondest memories are seeing Nibley in the Ancient Studies room at BYU working on One Eternal Round. He even showed up for a few of our Egyptology classes, very small class that met in the ancient studies room, and I was amazed at how easily he translated.

    His writings truly changed my own life and opened up a new world to me intellectually, politically, and religiously.

  7. kirkcaudle said

    Rob, I didn’t know you were from Portland, that is where I am from.

    Like many here, Hugh Nibley is one of the biggest reasons I study what I study. He has influenced me more then any other thinker. I started watching his Book of Mormon lectures (all of them) and went from there.

    I never met him, but he is one of the first people I hope meet in the next life. I can honestly say I am envious of those of you who have had the opportunity to sit and listen and/or talk with him face to face.

    I am continually amazed that his name is not better known in religious circles. I am yet to have a professor that has heard of him. Although, I have recommended him to almost of them! His work is truly underappreciated by non-LDS scholars and, dare I say, most LDS members.

    For my money he is one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

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