Catholic Scholar at First Things Gives Book of Mormon Backhanded Praise

A new article up at First Things recounts a Catholic professor’s experience reading the Book of Mormon.  Although he does not have a spiritual experience with it, he finds much to praise in its insistent focus on Christ, and some to criticize in its drabness.  I rejoice whenever anyone recognizes the former, and frankly have no argument with the latter.  Though any Mormon would quibble with a few things in the piece, he brings up some terrific points–I especially like the whole “grandfather’s funeral” analogy–and the whole thing is definitely worth reading.  The money quote:

Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him. It adds to the plural but coherent portrait of Jesus that emerges from the four gospels in a way, I am convinced, that does not significantly damage or deface that portrait.

I came to this conclusion when I read through the Book of Mormon for the first time. I already knew the basic outline: that it recounts the journey of a people God led from Jerusalem to the Americas six hundred years before the birth of Christ. In America, they split into two groups, the good guys (the Nephites) and the bad guys (the Lamanites), who battled each other until there were no good guys left—except for Moroni (Mormon’s son), who buried the chronicles of their wars and then, in 1823, told a farm boy from upstate New York where to find them.

When I actually read this book, however, I was utterly surprised. I was not moved, mind you. The Book of Mormon has to be one of the most lackluster of all the great works of literature that have inspired enduring religious movements. Yet it is dull precisely because it is all about Jesus. There are many characters in this book, but they change as little as the plot. Nobody stands out but him. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).

The best thing here for believers in the Book of Mormon is that we’re not only aware of the plain-Jane nature of our keystone text, we actually find that to be a strength–an outright evidence of ancient authenticity.  From Hugh Nibley’s “New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study” (1953):

Since the author [of the Book of Mormon] must in view of all this be something of a genius, the lonely critic begins to study his work as creative writing.  Here it breaks down dismally. The style is not that of anyone trying to write well. There is skill of a sort, but even the unscholarly would know that the frequent use of “it came to pass” does not delight the reader, and it is not biblical. Never was writing less “creative” as judged by present standards: there is no central episode, no artistic development of a plot, one event follows another with equal emphasis in the even flow of a chronicle; the author does not “milk” dramatic situations, as every creative writer must, he takes no advantage of any of his artistic opportunities; he has no favorite characters; there is no gain in confidence or skill as the work progresses, nor on the other hand does he show any sign of getting tired or of becoming bored, as every creative writer does in a long composition: the first and last books of the Book of Mormon are among the best, and the author is going just as strong at the end as at the beginning. The claim of the “translator” is that this book is no literary creation, and the internal evidence bears out the claim. Our critic looks at the date of the book again—1830. Where are the rich sentimentality, the incurable romanticism, and the lush but mealy rhetoric of “fine writing” in the early 1800s? Where are the fantastic imagery, the romantic descriptions, and the unfailing exaggerations that everyone expected in the literature of the time? Here is a book with all the elements of an intensely romantic adventure tale of far away and long ago, and the author turns down innumerable chances to please his public!

2 comments on “Catholic Scholar at First Things Gives Book of Mormon Backhanded Praise

  1. I likewise enjoyed the funeral of grandfather -analogy. However, to me the most favourite whole paragraph was the one you started your quote with. For one thing, the last sentence of this paragraph was especially significant in that it underlines how little the picture differs from that presented in the New Testament.

    Furthermore, as he says, like early Christians, who saw the centre of their “between the lines”, BofM makes Christ the centrepiece of all of human history. And is his role in it is as central and powerful as New Testament writers that wrote, say, John, Luke, Apocalypse, Hebrews and Pauline epistles (which have the strongest evidence of having been written by whoever’s name stands at the main heading), it hardly does injustice to the Saviour.

    Thus, my overall favourite quote would be,

    Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato.

    Just as it seems in the writings of Early Church Fathers that Hellenistic philosophy gets infused into new religion, it is removed in LDS teachings in one grand strike, if not completely, I would say, in the BofM.

    Having said that, it may not be surprising, that I also was impressed by his wording in

    The body of Jesus Christ is the eternal image of all bodies, spiritual and physical alike.

    Just today in Sunday School someone’s comeback to my input, “I think we can go too far in anthropomorphising God, lest we think him just a Great Man” was “all we need to know about God we know when we look at Jesus”. It may be needless to say that I wanted to ask him, whether he’d ever had a visitation, because I’d like to know more about that “in the image of God” thing; I sometimes wonder whether skin colour comes into it at all. (I decided against it, because he tends to get exercised by the notion that someone doesn’t think like him–my wife would probably say the same thing about me. ;) )

    The above hankering was spurred by my being beside a tall, handsome, almost charismatic black brother (me being a foot shorter, perhaps on the chubby side). He stood out, because he happened to be one of two blacks present, as our area is almost lily-white, or, I should say, piggy-pink. I haven’t to date seen a human whose skin was actually white. And as further explanation to the chapter above I might say that the description in D&C 76 doesn’t use images that impress me as very human.

    A couple of things I would like to point out was that, while he said

    Isn’t the whole point of affirming his divinity the idea that one can never say enough about him?

    he also said that LDS teaching takes away from Christianity by adding the BofM to the Bible (has he not studied enough to know that we not only have that, but other stuff, too, with the idea that even further sacred writings are to be expected). Also, he reiterated the old “Jerusalem” bit vis-á-vis Messiah’s birthplace. While the text says, “land of Jerusalem” more often than not when mentioning the name, I still think that it should be included, if not for anything else, just because that fact. It seems that the whole book never gives any other name to the Land of Promise, which is specifically given the appellative “land of Jerusalem”.

    All in all, the whole essay strikes me as a reasonably open-minded one, and I’ll be finding more writings by him right after this epistle.

    As a last word, I’d like to put in that I certainly agree with your author Stephen H. Webb and Hugh Nibley as to BofM’s literary monotone. There are some pages, where one reads, “and it came to pass” quite often, but then it also seems almost like something that would have been used in a culture where actual literacy was scarce, so teachers had to help their assistants memorise their text, which is what the whole long catechesis tradition is about. (If memory serves, “it came to pass” is one word in the Hebrew Bible, and occurs more than once to a page occasionally, as printed in a book vs. a scroll.)

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