The topic of the 2008 conference of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities is “Interpretation: LDS Perspectives.” I wonâ€™t be there, unfortunately. But if I were to attend, I know what I would talk about.
Deciding whether or not there is such a thing as a Mormon mode of interpretation is synonymous with the question of whether or not there is or will be a distinctly Mormon variant of the Western intellectual tradition. That’s not a question that can be answered in a single conference, or in a single century. It might turn out that there is no Mormon intellectual tradition at all, that we’re just like everyone else in how we read and think (except we read some oddball texts and hold beliefs about them that no one else does). But if there are any characteristically Mormon habits of mind, they will arise from how we read the Book of Mormon.
That’s not a terribly unusual claim. Every intellectual tradition has the question of scriptural interpretation somewhere in its genealogy. How to read Shakespeare or Marx or Toni Morrison is a question whose answers are never more than a generation or two removed from how to read the Bible. The Book of Mormon is our distinctive scriptural text, and how we read it will determine if there is a Mormon way to interpret texts.
The Book of Mormon is, however, a very unusual book. First and foremost is its sheer physicality, the textual and historical demonstration of its tangibility. The text repeatedly reminds us of its physical existence, with Nephi creating plates that are handed down from one generation to the next, edited by Mormon and hidden by Moroni. In mundane history, the plates are retrieved by Joseph Smith, touched and seen by witnesses, hunted by various people and protected by others. The book flaunts its own existence as physical artifact–it’s written on gold plates, for crying out loud! Of all the issues in early Mormon history, one thing beyond dispute is that Joseph Smith had something shiny and metallic covered with marks that looked like writing.
The physical presence of the Book of Mormon is all the more surprising because the gold plates are also profoundly absent. Joseph Smith returned the plates to Moroni, the last prophet in the Book of Mormon, who has them to this day. Think about that for a bit. Books are both physical objects, composed of paper and ink in measurable quantities, and also the conveyor of text, stories, myth. Are physical objects supposed to disappear into the textual narrative written upon them? Answer: no, not usually. How do you make sense of a self-consuming book that is both assertively tangible and incontrovertibly absent? What happens to the minds of people who spend too long trying to figure it out?
The text of the Book of Mormon is also a conundrum to which the usual methods of analysis, ultimately derived from traditions of biblical interpretation, have little to offer. When skeptics read the Book of Mormon, they don’t see the mind of God or hear the voice of long-dead prophets, but instead detect only the words of Joseph Smith or some other nineteenth-century impostor. Believers see in the text God and prophetsâ€¦and Joseph Smith, inextricably connected to a translation for which there is no known Urtext. The possibilities for textual criticism, language studies, or source analysis are meager, and always clouded by uncertainty over whose authorial voice is manifesting itself at any given moment. Much of the last two millennia of Western intellectual tradition has been shaped not by skeptics, but by believers trying to make sense of the Bible. What will be the intellectual outcome of believers trying to make sense of the Book of Mormon?
In more than a few ways, the Book of Mormon is reminiscent of the body of Christ, where both its physical corporeality (the Word made flesh, God incarnate, wounds in hands and feet that can be seen and felt) and its absence (the empty tomb, the Ascension) are central and essential. Perhaps the similarities are so close that Mormons really won’t develop any new patterns of thought, or perhaps we are doomed to repeat old arguments over sacramental theology. But I suspect that growing up reading the Book of Mormon (and thinking about it, and listening to people at church talk about it) is not quite the same thing as growing up without it, perhaps in some specific and identifiable ways. I have some guesses. Whether or not they are correct, and whether or not there is a Mormon way of reading, is something that should become clear over the next several centuries.