Chloroform or Art? A Third-Hand Critical Response

(A small note: This post is really really long. It’s a response to someone responding to someone else’s interpretation of The Book of Mormon. If you’re still interested in reading this post, I suggest you get a snack first.)

Alan Wolfe’s review (read it here) of Grant Hardy’s new book addressing The Book of Mormon is, for the most part, a fair-minded attempt to approach this particular text on its own terms in order to understand what it says. Aside from the usual flippant or ignorant bits of misinformation that are always repeated by journalists too lazy to find credible sources, Wolfe tries to keep his tone respectful even when he disagrees with or is disappointed by The Book of Mormon. He deserves praise for this, since many writers at Slate.com (and elsewhere) are barely able to maintain even a veneer of politeness in discussing this work that is considered sacred by over 13 million people worldwide. Overall, I think this is a pretty good article. Wolfe genuinely explores both Grant Hardy’s book and, as he tries to perform Hardy’s thought-experiment himself, The Book of Mormon. Wolfe clearly identifies many problems that novice readers have with this text and outlines Hardy’s solutions. He then applies these solutions to himself as a reader, with some very interesting results. I really appreciated his willingness to share his thoughts. That said, I have two main objections (and many minor ones) to some assertions embedded in Wolfe’s article. The first is Wolfe’s (and Hardy’s) assertion that Christ’s appearance in 3 Nephi is sudden and not foreshadowed elsewhere in the text. The second is Wolfe’s implication that there is no artistic merit in The Book of Mormon. I would like to clarify some things that perhaps Wolfe has overlooked in regard to these two items.

First, Wolfe claims that the appearance of Christ on the American continent, as recounted in 3 Nephi, is a “sudden appearance” that is “not foreshadowed in other portions of the text [meaning The Book of Mormon].” He further claims that the portions that 3 Nephi shares with the New Testament (with the Sermon on the Mount, for example) are included because Joseph Smith “had let the story run away from him. Long after he began writing, he suddenly realized the need to insert Jesus into the picture and so simple wedged him in.” Wolfe goes on to explain Hardy’s rebuttal to this point of view (which, according to Wolfe, is that the scene bridges the Old and New Testament worlds as well as Christianity and “this new faith founded by Joseph Smith”), but he remains unconvinced. He says “Hardy is really stretching here.”

Perhaps it is Wolfe’s summary of Hardy’s argument that is at fault, but I have to say that I don’t find that argument particularly compelling myself. I do, however, find it utterly ridiculous to claim that Christ’s physical appearance in 3 Nephi is sudden, unexpected, and “wedged in.” Perhaps this is because I have actually read The Book of Mormon— you know, like, the entire thing. Christ is referred to throughout the text—by name (Jesus Christ), by epithet (Messiah, Savior, Son of Man, Lord), and by symbol (as master of the vineyard, in one example). The subtitle of The Book of Mormon is “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Did Wolfe (and others like him) think that was just marketing? Just a suggestion? A quick keyword search reveals that in this 535 page book (not including the pronounciation guide, and depending on which edition; some have fewer pages), the word “Christ” is used 99 times, “Jesus” 64 times, “Messiah” 13 times, “Savior” 12 times, and “Lord” 214 times (n.b.—in LDS parlance, “Lord” = “Jehovah” = “Jesus Christ”).  That isn’t including symbolic or poetic references to Christ, which, if included, would obviously increase the total number of references.  Looking at just words alone, we’re looking at a reference to Christ every 1 1/3 pages at minimum. Is Wolfe honestly suggesting that Christ’s physical presence is the only presence that counts?

Perhaps this is too simplistic of me. Maybe it isn’t that Wolfe and others find Christ’s overall presence in The Book of Mormon lacking, but instead find just His appearance in 3 Nephi to be startling. Perhaps it’s just this part that they think is not foreshadowed. Again, having read the entire book many times, I can point out that this is just plain wrong. This specific event is first referred to in The Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 12, a mere 22 pages into the text, and again in Alma 16, just to name two of the most obvious examples. Ignoring these references causes the reader to miss not only the central scene of the book, but also the tragic irony of the unbelievers in Helaman 16 who question “why will he not show himself in this land as well as in the land of Jerusalem?” and with it the repeated notion that when people fall into apostasy, they also fall into ignorance.

A more thorough analysis of the presence of Christ in The Book of Mormon, as well as the significance of His appearance in the Americas is, I’m afraid, rather beyond the scope of any single blog post. If any readers (or journalists looking to make comments) are interested in the question of Christ in either The Book of Mormon, the New World, or 3 Nephi, I refer them to Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon by Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America by Blaine M. Yorganson, Bruce W. Warren, & Harold Brown, anything by Terryl L. Givens, or anything published on those topics by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. I am sure there are other well-researched and well-argued publications out there as well.

I should point out that Wolfe does not specifically claim that he himself finds Christ’s appearance in 3 Nephi unusual; he puts that claim in the mouths of “skeptics.” While he does admit that he is skeptical in the first paragraph, he does not blatantly include himself in their number during his mention of 3 Nephi. However, he doesn’t bother to properly refute the argument of skeptics, either. It can be argued that Wolfe’s purpose is to summarize Hardy’s argument, not to make his own, but since he feels free to share his own opinions elsewhere in the piece, I feel it is fair to say that if he had an idea that would refute the arguments of skeptics, he would have done so. I also feel that it is fair to take him to task for not doing any thorough research on the matter himself.

My second objection is Wolfe’s implication that there’s just not much art to The Book of Mormon. Wolfe says, “The Book of Mormon, [Hardy] wants us to believe, is better than it reads.” He goes on to say that “Hardy’s heroic efforts to prove that there is literature somewhere buried in all those passages starting with ‘Behold’ or ‘And so it came to pass’ leave me, like Twain, gasping for air. . . .  [Hardy] has not convinced me that what was written qualifies as great, or even good.”  Finally, he concludes in this manner:

Mormonism’s success suggests that a religion can flourish in spite of rather than because of its founding texts. I do not doubt that Mormons are inspired by the words associated with Joseph Smith. But if another reference to music is permitted, I simply cannot imagine anyone setting those words to music the Handel did with the Bible in his oratorios. The Book of Mormon has a structure. It does not sing.

I can believe that The Book of Mormon does not “sing” for Wolfe, if only because he has so egregiously misunderstood its central message, image, and event. More kindly, I can believe that the text does not move him simply because he finds it inaccessible for whatever reason. He does admit that as a non-Mormon, he may be missing something. In this, Wolfe sounds rather like my sophomore lit students who read Emily Dickinson and shrug, mistaking the apparent simplicity of her language and her idiosyncratic punctuation for lack of depth or meaning. Like Wolfe, my students often assume that because they are not moved or they do not perceive any great meaning in a work, there is nothing to be moved by, no meaning to perceive at all. While Wolfe is certainly an authority in his field (sociology), it is apparent throughout this article that he a stranger to the study of ancient texts (possibly textual analysis generally), scripture, and Mormon culture (because otherwise he would have known that he needed to do his research). When it comes to this particular topic, Wolfe’s assumes the ethos of an authority—an explorer certainly, but a well-equipped one—when in actuality he is woefully uninformed. The poetic structures throughout The Book of Mormon are discussed—or at least mentioned—in nearly every Seminary and Institute class. That means there are eighteen year olds who understand more clearly than Wolfe that, while it may not be their favorite beach reading, there is art to this text as well as truth. (Note: There are articles and books discussing the literary elements of The Book of Mormon for readers interested in such things, but you’ll have to do more than look at Google’s top five hits.)

Ignoring for a moment the facts that thousands of people decide to become Mormons as a direct response to reading The Book of Mormon (thus showing that the text does, in fact, “sing” for some non-Mormons), there are some really interesting literary elements in The Book of Mormon.  Chiasmus, a Hebrew poetic structure also found in the Old Testament, appears throughout the text. John Welch notably first discussed the presence of chiasmus in this work in 1969. Alma’s account of his conversion in Alma 36 follows this pattern well. The so-called “Psalm of Nephi” found in 2 Nephi 4:16-35 follows a poetic pattern specific to psalms that is also found in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. The “Allegory of the Olive Tree” found in Jacob 5 is, well, an allegory, which is a widely recognized literary form. “Lehi’s Dream” found in 1 Nephi 8 and again in chapter 11 is replete with symbolism—as are many other parts of The Book of Mormon. And these specific literary elements are nothing compared to the genuine human drama contained in the pages of the book: the emotional drama of the conflict between Lehi’s children and their descendents, Nephi’s genuine love for his brothers and their understandable need for stability and control, King Benjamin’s love for his people, various coup d’états, the machinations and sad end of Korihor, Mormon’s battle-hardened life yet gentle demeanor, Moroni’s genuine loneliness, and the realization of people truly living together in perfect harmony, followed closely by the great tragedy of the decline and destruction of this civilization. Aren’t these the subjects of capital- L Literature? I can understand if a reader just doesn’t like a work (I often don’t like things I read), but to claim that because one reader doesn’t like a work, that work has no art is both arrogant and naïve.  (And FYI, “The Psalm of Nephi” has been set to music in a number of different arrangements, so The Book of Mormon, or at least a portion of it, does sing for some people, apparently.)

While anyone can get something out of a cursory reading of The Book of Mormon, and while it is widely praised within the Mormon community for its simplicity and accessibility, I think it’s worth noting that there are people who devote their entire lives and academic careers to its study. In fact, all Latter-day Saints who can read, specialist and non-specialist alike, are encouraged to read The Book of Mormon daily throughout their lives. People do this not because, as a cynic might suggest, it’s a good way to brainwash sheeple (though I suppose it might be) and Mormons are people who crave authority and brainwashing (as some people—people who know me!—actually think), but because each time a person reads it, something new can be discovered. The “re-readability” of a text is part of what makes great Literature, I think. Please introduce me to the person who “gets” Ulysses entirely on the first go-round (or ever). Even more accessible works, like The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird or, again, the poems of Emily Dickinson, reward re-readers. T.S. Eliot and Nathaniel Hawthorne haven’t earned their place in various Norton Anthologies just by being obtuse or using multi-syllabic words, but, among other things, by giving a reader something new to look at or think about each time that reader returns to one of their texts. The Book of Mormon is the same in that regard—for believers and non-believers alike, I would suggest—and deserves to treated with the same kind of critical respect. I don’t mean to say that no one can criticize The Book of Mormon or disagree with it at all; I mean that if a critic is going to do so, that critic should know what he or she is talking about. The field of Book of Mormon studies and analysis isn’t Bingo Night at the VFW.

As I said earlier (remember earlier? When you had just started reading this post and still had some of your day left?), Wolfe’s treatment of The Book of Mormon and of Hardy’s assertions about it brings up a lot of good points and a lot of ideas worth considering. It has certainly encouraged me to look up Hardy’s book to see what he actually wrote.  That said, Wolfe overlooks some pretty important things. These errors could’ve been easily avoided simply by taking a little extra time to research things a little more fully.

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2 thoughts on “Chloroform or Art? A Third-Hand Critical Response

  1. Yours is one of the more thoughtful responses to the Slate article, so I thought I’d put in a word for Mr. Wolfe. His review was of my book rather than the Book of Mormon itself, so it’s rather unfair to expect him to do a lot of outside research. I included discussions of most of the literary elements that you mentioned, and a great many more besides (I think you might enjoy _Understanding the Book of Mormon_), but in the end he did not find my arguments convincing. Fair enough. Authors who put forward controversial theses hope to be taken seriously; they don’t usually expect to win over everyone.

    One point in the Slate review that seems to trip up many Latter-day Saints, however, is the business about foreshadowing. Mr. Wolfe was echoing my own interpretation, which is quite a bit more careful than he was able to convey in his brief article. Here is what he had read on pages 180 and 182 of my book:

    “It seems obvious that the climax of the Book of Mormon is Christ’s three day visit to the Nephites. Jesus is the central figure of the book’s theology, and his earthly ministry and redemptive sacrifice had been prophesied, discussed, and anticipated among the Nephites since the time of Lehi. . . .

    “Although the Book of Mormon contains some three dozen prophecies of Christ’s coming, the vast majority concern his life in Palestine—that he would be born, receive baptism, work miracles, be slain for the sins of the world, and then rise from the dead. Only five passages indicate that his ministry would include a post-resurrection visit to the New World. Nephi had spoken plainly on the subject (1 Ne. 12:4–7; 2 Ne. 26:1–9, 32:6), but these prophecies apparently did not have wide distribution. As late as 83 BC Alma explicitly states that he does not know whether Jesus will come to the Nephites (Alma 7:8), though he later receives a revelation that this would be the case (Alma 45:10), and Mormon reports that other prophets at the time “taught that he [Christ] would appear unto them after his resurrection” (Alma 16:20). Some have seen in this disjunction evidence that Joseph Smith was inventing the story as he went along, with Nephi’s predictions being so much clearer because his words were dictated after Third Nephi had already been written. In any case, there was not a strong expectation of Christ’s coming to the New World on anyone’s part, even after the time of Alma.

    “Just before the book of Third Nephi begins, Samuel the Lamanite offers very specific prophecies about signs in the Americas of Jesus’ birth and death (with the former being predicted to occur in only five years’ time), yet he never mentions Christ’s visit. In fact, some of his listeners complain that they are being asked to believe in a figure who will live “in a land which is far distant,” and they wonder, “Why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?” (Hel. 16:18, 20). Forty years later, as righteous survivors gather in Bountiful, they too are caught by surprise—when they hear a voice proclaim “Behold my Beloved Son” and see a celestial being descending from heaven, they “wist not what it meant, for they thought it was an angel that had appeared unto them.” Only after this personage proclaims, “I am Jesus Christ,” do they remember that “it had been prophesied among them that Christ should show himself unto them after his ascension into heaven” (3 Ne. 11:8–12). In short, the Book of Mormon story is not structured around a straightforward expectation of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance among the Nephites that is satisfied and brought to an unambiguous conclusion; the workings of prophecy and God’s providence are portrayed as being a bit more enigmatic.”

    All the best,

    Grant

    1. Thanks for your comments. You make an excellent point that Wolfe is responding to your interpretation, and is therefore less responsible for doing any outside research. However, since Wolfe offers his own response to The Book of Mormon in addition to a response to your book, I think his own response should be better informed. I did like his article overall, though, and I guess I didn’t emphasize that enough. Perhaps “lazy” is somewhat harsh.

      Thanks for clarifying that bit about foreshadowing. That makes better sense to me. As I’m thinking about it, I’m inclined to agree with you that most of the everyday people in The Book of Mormon didn’t seem to realize what would be happening. It does seem like they were unaware of previous predictions of Christ’s appearance for whatever reason. That said, readers of The Book of Mormon, most of whom I’m guessing are re-readers, do know that it’s coming. In fact, discussions of the text in church frequently revolve around how chapter X relates to Christ or his coming or something along those lines, but now that you point it out, it’s possible that these are culturally constructed connections rather than connections embedded in the text. I will have to think more about that as I’m rereading.

      Thanks for the clarification. I am definitely looking forward to reading your book. Thanks for dropping by my blog!

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