The Book of Mormon as Literature

One can read the Book of Mormon as canonized scripture, to guide the Church and its members in doctrine and practice, or as a sign of Joseph Smith’s calling to bring forth new scripture and establish a restored church. Then there is the possibility of reading the Book of Mormon as literature, to enlighten, uplift, and inspire the reader. So, how literary is it? How exactly does one read the Book of Mormon as literature?

Others have weighed in on this topic, of course. Alter and Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible (1990) shows how this is done with the Bible. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry “Book of Mormon Literature” observes that the book “is both coherent and polished (although not obtrusively so)” and notes the use of chiasmus, allegory, metaphor, typology, and other literary forms. Mark D. Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Signature Books, 1999) uses biblical type-scenes to illuminate similar type-scenes in the Book of Mormon. Terryl Givens has a short chapter on the Book of Mormon as literature in The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2009). Most recently, in Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (OUP, 2010), Grant Hardy explores in detail how the three primary narrators Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni each shape the text in subtle and unexpected ways.

I found Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature (Yale Univ. Press, 2013) helpful. I am less interested in literature per se than in using the views of literary critics as a perspective from which to read and evaluate the Book of Mormon and other scriptural narratives. Both history and fiction offer realistic narrative. Historical narrative is subject to constraints that don’t apply to fictional narrative, of course. Yet scriptural texts are often reworked and edited in the course of their transmission in such a way that they become as much like realist fiction as like history. And realist fiction is itself written to be eminently plausible in a real-world sense. So the distinction between historical and imaginative narrative is not always very clear (think of the narrative in Jonah and Job, for example). This is one reason a literary approach to scripture can be so productive, as illustrated by the sources referenced in the prior paragraph.

So here are a few points discussed by Eagleton in his chapters on narrative and interpretation.

  1. Some narrators in fiction are known as omniscient, meaning that they are assumed to know everything about the story they tell and the reader is not expected to question what they say” (p. 80). In fiction, we grant the writer liberty to narrate omnisciently, but it raises questions for any historical narrative. It is everywhere in the Bible (“In the beginning was the Word,” but whoever wrote this was not an observer; the words of Jesus in Gethsamane are quoted verbatim; etc.) and in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 6:1-6, for example). It’s not clear why we grant scriptural writers the same license, the same authority over their narrative that we grant novelists.
  2. [A]uthors quite often rig their narratives to suit their fictional purposes” (p. 101). Isaac Asimov famously coined the term “pocket franistan” to describe the frequent appearance in science fiction stories of some gizmo or gadget that would save the beseiged city or ship just in the nick of time (think of one of Wesley Crusher’s science projects saving the imperiled USS Enterprise). But this happens in all fiction, even realist novels. And it is frequently encountered in the Bible (Acts 7, where Paul is conveniently present at the stoning of Stephen) and the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4, where Nephi, stumbling along in the dark alleys of Jerusalem, happens upon a drunk and prostrate Laban). Of course, implausible things do happen in history. Brigham Young really did meet and talk with Jim Bridger on the trail in western Wyoming as the first company of Mormons journeyed to Utah.
  3. All literary works are orphaned at birth” (p. 117). Both novels and scripture take on an interpretive life of their own once published. The particular conditions that gave rise to the text, including the author’s intent (if any), may influence but don’t control future reception and interpretation.
  4. Fiction does not primarily mean a piece of writing which is not true” (p. 121). As Eagleton notes, “Works of fiction can be full of factual information.” Furthermore, characters and events that are embellished (or simply made up) can convey truths on the human condition (or at least views about it) as easily as (and perhaps more easily than) perfectly accurate factual narratives. There is no particular controversy in applying this idea to scripture. No one thinks the value of the parable of the Good Samaritan turns on whether there was an actual Samaritan that helped an actual Jew in distress on the road to Jericho.

So what is your favorite passage in the Book of Mormon from a literary perspective? What verse moves you every time you read it? Here’s mine (hey, I’m a simple guy):

And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.

9 comments for “The Book of Mormon as Literature

  1. Enjoyed the post, Dave. Regarding a literary perspective of the Book of Mormon, I must say that I’m fond of Mormon’s recurring use of “And thus we see,…” Usually it is pretty clear what the moral of each story is, but Mormon makes extra sure that “we see” it.

  2. Great post. And while we’re giving titles, don’t forget Richard Dilworth’s “Feasting on the Word” – a faith promoting literary analysis of the Book of Mormon.

    Today the conversion of Alma the Elder comes to mind:

    But he fled from before them and hid himself that they found him not. And he being concealed for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken.

  3. I’m a fan of reading scriptures as literature, to the extent they allow (e.g. not D&C). It’s particularly helpful with the Old Testament, which doesn’t teach literal truth so much as “truths” about us and our relationship with God, like the truths Eagleton points to in literature. Reading the Old Testament as a piece (actually several piece) of literature helps to suss out those truths.

    I find the Book of Mormon less amenable to this approach than the Old Testament though. The Book of Mormon is not as…oh, what’s the word…deep? It’s not as layered with meaning. There are fewer lacunae for a reader to fill. But that may be by design. It says itself that it is meant to be plain, and I think it largely accomplishes that goal.

  4. Both Lehi’s dream and the olive tree allegory (Jacob 5) lend themselves to literary readings, and spectacularly so, if you ask me, with deep intertextual roots in the world of the brass plates (in both cases) and Old World history and culture (the FARMS book on the olive tree, esp the last chapter, is exceptional commentary). As an aside, not only are these, the two sole figurative pieces of discourse in the BoM, rooted in the Old World but they also originate there–the dream occurs in an old world desert and Zenos is an old world figure. I can’t think of any figurative or imaginative text in the BoM that originates in the New World. It’s all derivative–Isaiah’s prophecies, Alma 32, Christ’s parables–of the Old World. No allegories, symbols, mythologies, or other discourses that are marked by figurative language arise with the New World as a clear point of origins. Mormon the military genius doesn’t strike me as very interested in visionary, figurative language anyway, so perhaps this was an editorial thing. But he is interested in narrative and the BoM abounds in this. Mormon (Nephi too) appears to be more of the “tell, don’t show” variety rather than the “show don’t tell” type of narrators, which may account for their “plain telling.” But even so-called plain talk has rhetorical and ideological caverns to be mined, if only we had access to more material from the same tradition.

    Other texts that have helped me think about literary reading are Culler’s Literary Theory and J Hillis Miller’s On Literature.

  5. Your afforementioned Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon mentions a great deal of literary artistry that I had overlooked. Some that he simply does not have the time to flesh out. One of the most interesting to me was contrasting Lehi’s dream of the tree with Nephi’s vision. Not how Nephi’s vision completes and defines what Lehi saw, but how they saw things differently. Nephi’s vision is a more universal and covenant take whereas Lehi’s is based on what he and his family were currently experiencing.

  6. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add it to the growing list of things to read.

  7. Dave, prosaic writing in no way excludes the factual or truthful. I have long enjoyed literary contributions from historic figures in various disciplines, from Aristotle to Einstein.

    In the Book of Mormon, my favorite literary passage:

    Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.

    Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.

    I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.

    And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

  8. One of the strong literary features of the Book of Mormon is its artful intertextuality. This aspect of the book has been treated in some interesting articles. Here is a link to an article that shows how the story of Nephi getting the plates quite explicitly and consciously recapitulates the David and Goliath narrative and the Moses slaying the Egyptian narrative. The article also shows how Nephi’s dealings with Zoram are typological.

    Those David and Goliath echoes are also discussed in this article:

    Both these Journal of Book of Mormon Studies articles approach the Book of Mormon primarily as literature.

    Here is a link to an article in The Interpreter that talks about the strong literary parallels between the story of Ammon1 and Ammon2 in the Book of Mormon. The article also discusses how Ammon’s adventure at the Waters of Sebus is an allegory of the atonement.

Comments are closed.