Advent: Hope (A Surprise)

Advent catches me off guard every year. Today, I found it in the Book of Mormon.

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Advent catches me off guard every year. Maybe because it is a solitary sort of observance for me, as neither my son nor husband are particularly interested in it (they have other, less formal, ways of keeping their focus on Christ this time of year), or maybe because I expect it to start later than it does, or maybe because I’m always a little unaware of myself in relation to the passage of time. Regardless, right about the time of year I start thinking, “Gosh, is it dark already?” Advent arrives. Appropriate, no?

A few friends of mine posted their Advent lighting on Sunday. I thought, “Ah, it’s that time of year, of course.” I had forgotten, as usual. It was a pleasant surprise. My friends are observing “hope” this week. They’ve all had pretty difficult things happen this year (2016, you are the worst), and seeing them reflect on the virtue of Hope this week was inspiring. So I gave their posts a little thumbs up and moved on.

Today, I was surprised by advent during my scripture reading. I thought it might be nice to study some accounts of the Savior’s birth, and I encountered hope there. I don’t know why I was surprised by it. It’s right there in the song: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” I mean, it’s not scripture, but it’s close, right? But I had forgotten, as one does. Majesty and humility, I remembered, glory, joy, and salvation, but hope slipped my mind entirely. As it does.

Anyway, today I read the account of Christ’s birth as related in the Book of Mormon, in the first chapter of 3 Nephi. The Christians are having a rough time. The people around them think they’re bonkers. A while back, a prophet went around saying Christ would be born by a certain time, and here were all these signs that he was going to be born. The signs appeared, but not THE sign. So the unbelievers mocked, which would be bad enough, except then they decided that if THE sign had not appeared by a certain date, they were just going to kill all the followers of Christ. Na na na na boo boo, I guess.

So their leader, Nephi, is distressed. Things are looking grim. He pours out his soul in prayer. We aren’t given his words, but I’m sure you can imagine what they might be like. I’m sure we’ve all had similar prayers. I’m guessing it was something along the lines of “Please oh please oh please help,” maybe mixed with, “I don’t understand,” and “Why is this happening to us when we have done everything you said?” I’ve prayed all of those prayers.

And Christ comes to him, as He always does, and offers Nephi hope. “Lift up your head and be of good cheer,” He says, “for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world.” Which, now that I think about it, is basically what He always says: “Don’t worry, I’m coming.”

And guys, get this: THE sign? Is a night with no darkness. How perfect is that? How appropriate and fitting, that the Light of the World should be signified by literal light? In addition to the new star in the heavens, this light brightens the whole Nephite city. “For behold, at the going down of the sun, there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came.”

And this is the promise and the hope Christ leaves with us, that when our Night comes, we can be filled with Light instead of Darkness. Even though the people in the Book of Mormon had been told what to expect, when the sign came, many of them fell to earth, just dropped dead (but not actually dead) from the shock of it. Hope surprises us. It surprises us by showing that the Lord keeps His promises. It surprises us by keeping watch with us all night long. It surprises us simply by showing up, an unexpected friend at a rather dull and uncomfortable party.

Hope isn’t going to sneak up on me again this year, though. I know it’s there now. Shepherds, wise men, Nephites all watched. I’m watching now, too.

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.