Reading Nephi – Series Introduction


I’ve been reading Nephi all my life. I remember traveling with my Dad to speak at a small branch in our stake when I was a boy in primary. What can a young boy say to a congregation for a full five minutes? I decided it ought to be scriptural, so I picked what I was most familiar with and inspired by—the story of Nephi and his brothers going back to get the plates. When I was a teenager, I began to passionately engage Isaiah. But the whole motivation was Nephi—if Nephi loved the words of Isaiah, then (a priori) I loved the words of Isaiah too. Of course as I’ve grown older, my relationship with Nephi has grown more complicated. I’ve come to see the ambiguous, sometimes disappointing Nephi; just as I’ve come to see how prodigious he is in ways I couldn’t imagine as a child. This is no different, of course, than my relationship with any other human with whom I’ve been privileged to grow intimate.

And I hope I really have grown intimate with Nephi—I feel as though I have. I’m blessed enough at any rate to look forward to the renewal of our ties each time I pick up his book to give it a serious read. My life has been just as potently shaped by this man’s life and record, as my reading of that record has been shaped by my ever-evolving life. This is scripture.

I kept a journal during my most recent time through, and doing so was a wonderful experience—dynamically adding to my conversation with him. Now I’ve decided to share it. Why in the world would I do that? I don’t have a definitive answer, but here are some thoughts:

  1. I’ll start by being self-critical and acknowledge upfront a worry that we all might share: maybe I’m just arrogant—appointing myself as someone whose experience benefits others. I can in good conscience deny this as a motive—at least as the driving motive. But of course motivations are complicated, composite things, with intricacies to which we’re not always privy—and maybe my arrogance is solidly a part of it.
  2. But the primary reason that I feel motivated is dialogic. My relationship with Nephi really is a conversation. He presents me with his narrative, and I talk to him about each part as I go, listening to his various responses, and quite often arguing with him. Our conversation has lasted three decades. Occasionally Moroni or a later Nephi jumps in, and occasionally others in my life join our conversation as well. Each time they do it adds tremendously. Scripture was originally a public, communal affair[1], and it never gets entirely away from this essential aspect. But giving everyone a personal copy of the scriptures (in fulfillment of Lehi’s prophesy in I Nephi 5) risks the danger of making scripture study a merely individual, closeted affair. I love the idea of more voices joining our conversation. At least, that’s how I feel this time through.
  3. I’ve mostly lost my ability to read without reading critically. And critical readings are a natural fit for the bloggernacle—it seems natural to share mine here. But criticism is more than negative critique—and the bloggernacle as a whole too often misses that point. I’ve been inspired by others round these parts whose critical readings are immensely constructive, and I want to try my own hand at it.
  4. And at any rate, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world, right? There are lots of approaches to reading the scriptures; I hope this adds something new and worthwhile[2].
  5. Finally, I’ll confess that I simply feel compelled to it. Too often in our culture we say that with a sort of wink in order to insinuate that God has given us revelation—and so appoint ourselves a prophet, just as Lehi did but with rather less justification or result. I don’t mean to do this. I mean more to insinuate neurosis than spiritual inspiration. Can I do so and still claim this as an undeniably spiritual experience for myself? We’ll see.

Mostly, I hope you’ll join in. I hope you will read Nephi with us, gather together with us, and add your own voice to our conversation. My reading this time through is as different as my last time through, as it will be from my next time through. There are some sticking points, some older arguments Nephi and I are still hashing through, but most of our conversation here is new. And I’m eager for the newness that you might add.

But on that note, I want to be perfectly explicit upfront. I’m going beyond Times and Season’s comment policy—or perhaps giving it a hardline reading. If you want to debate historicity, the validity or legitimacy of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the church or faith in general, I invite you to seek out other posts or venues where various of these are the theme. Here, in this series, I will only allow that which contributes to our conversation with Nephi. You’re welcome to dislike him and dislike me and to comment candidly on that fact. But your comments need to be grounded in the text and contribute to the conversation we’re having, rather than an attempt to hijack that conversation.

I look forward to hearing from you.


* * * *

1. This is an oft-cited fact in many commentaries. Note that the scriptures themselves reference the public reading of the scriptures; for example, Nehemiah 8, Colossians 4:16, I Thessalonians 5:27, and I Timothy 4:13.

2. Being a little more specific: Jim Faulconer’s unflinching interrogation of each line of scripture has been tremendously influential on me. But it’s also hard to sustain an extended reading—which is (I think) part of why Jim’s published interrogations[1] moved along with Correlation’s Sunday School lesson liturgy. I want a critical reading that’s more narrative and less tied to our Sunday School assignments.

Grant Hardy has inspired us all with his commitment to the text itself. He’s helped teach us to read “against the grain.” But to date he gives us mostly overview with the occasional dive down into a specific story here and there. Again, I want to move slower and not focus simply on Nephi’s words, but even more so on my conversation with Nephi. (While I’m specifically referring to Grant’s A Reader’s Guide. I’ll note here too that I’ve been using his A Reader’s Edition this time through, which has been immensely enjoyable. I highly encourage others to do the same—a change in form brings a change in substance as well.)

Perhaps more than any other, I’ve been inspired by Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, which I highly recommend. I’ll frankly admit that I’m not the writer she is, nor am I exploring the relevance of ancient practices for modern life. I’m merely recording (mostly) my thoughts and my side of the conversation—but it’s a conversation with Nephi, which Norris (I think) has never had.

Finally, I’ll acknowledge my similar debt to Julie M. Smith’s Sunday School notes and Kent Larson’s Literary Gospel Doctrine; their works were inspiring, but again with a different (and more scholarly) approach than my own.

Goodness, compared to all of these folks, my approach is profoundly normal. It’s not paradigm shifting or erudite; it’s literally just my thoughts.

19 comments for “Reading Nephi – Series Introduction

  1. Looking forward to this. I think the Book of Mormon opens itself up quite well to this sort of close narrative reading. After all what’s presented as the case on a superficial level in the text is often undermined by the text later. A great example is in the later sections of Alma or Hellman where how the narrative describes the Gadianton warriors as disappearing seems most likely false and they simply went into hiding but were still present undermining things.

    Likewise reading 1 Nephi while recognizing that Nephi is writing potentially decades later allows us to question his presentation of events. Clearly he’s fitting events into a certain sort of narrative. (The Exodus pattern if nothing else) Knowing that raises questions in how we read the text.

  2. Is this going to be a bash on Lehi and company? I stand here to defend ancient prophets- men of God and very humble reasoning.

  3. Rob, I can’t speak for anyone but myself but the fact someone is attempting to faithfully serve God doesn’t mean that their assumptions, aims and goals with a text don’t affect how they write about events. That’s true of me, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith or anyone else.

    As I said, the Book of Mormon’s narrative is quite complex. To me that’s a sign of its truth as opposed to many fictions. (Not a sufficient sign, mind you, but an important one to my reasoning) Reading closely is taking the narrative seriously.

    To notice that Nephi after his brothers have separated themselves might have a different view of his early life than he did at the time seems a perfectly fair question to ask. I probably wouldn’t use hyperbole like “megalomaniac” but I do think Nephi’s place matters for understanding the text. In the same way I find comparing and contrasting Nephi and Jacob’s quite different experiences to be illuminating. The author who wrote Jacob 7:26 at first glance is quite different from the more optimistic Nephi. Yet there are connections and more hope in Jacob than it appears at first. (See this reading for instance)

    I think asking these questions is important in order to understand how the Lord worked through fallible people.

  4. “My relationship with Nephi really is a conversation”. I have a friend who reads in this way. Some years ago, we were driving and conducting a long conversation about 2 Nephi 2. At one point in the conversation, he said, “And here’s where Lehi is wrong.” Immediately there was that kind of silence between us as if something heavy is sitting in the air and then we both burst out laughing. I definitely know my friend doesn’t lack a traditional testimony, but it was a sign that he and Lehi have apparently had this argument before.

  5. Rob: I don’t have much to say beyond Clark’s comments. Except that I find the text itself immensely rich, and immensely susceptible to multiple (legitimate) and complex readings. For me, this is faith promoting. My experience in keeping this journal is just one reading—hopefully one that I anchor in the text, but certainly one that’s infused with my own life experience. I’m certainly frank, but I hope you don’t find it prophet-bashing. Taking it seriously is, I believe, an act of faith.

    Anon: sounds like a great conversation. One of the great things about scripture is the way that in reading it, our own sense of things doesn’t magically melt away (at least not if we’re being serious). And yet part of having scripture is treating it as scripture; which means the prophets speak back — they don’t role over and accept our reading. Consequently they serve as a check on our beliefs/reasons/prejudices/assumptions/worldviews/etc.

  6. Clark,

    I think that some try to fictionalize Nephi and the BoM because they imagine too much or insert dialogue and opinion in where none should exist. How did Nephi see his brethren? Was Nephi biased or narrowsighted in his record of the Lamanites? Honestly, I believe Nephi nailed it exactly on the center on what the Lamanites had become and why they were that way. I tend to believe Nephi was inspired with his wording to convey the exact disposition of his brothers and family and civilization. Was Nephi that good? You bet!

  7. That’s fine, but I don’t think it’s “fictionalizing” to ask the questions even if you think Nephi had no biases in how he compiled his record. We should always be wary of the answers we hypothesize unless we have firm reasons to believe them. However I think looking at the range of interpretations of the text is important rather than just assuming one of the many ways of reading the text is correct. To put it an other way, to assume Nephi nailed everything and wasn’t like typical humans writing in such circumstances with bias is itself an unsupportable assumption as much as the other readings. And, I’d hasten to add, being biased or fallible is not a sin, is not a sign of weakness nor is a reason to condemn Nephi. Far from it. Again I think of Moroni in Ether 12 and I’d simply ask why should we expect Nephi to be different from Moroni?

  8. James, I like the approach you’re suggesting, and I look forward to reading what you have to write. However, I am always leery when someone says from the outset that they’ll be specifically moderating out views they don’t like. One of the things I love about Times and Seasons is how it is generally tolerant of all viewpoints, and this seems like a major step backward. I understand you’re worried about your threads being overrun with negative comments, but honestly, I would be more worried about getting few or no comments. I have never seen Julie’s awesome Sunday School lessons, which you mention as inspiration, get more than 50 posts, and occasionally they get none. The only posts that ever get more than 100 responses are on hot-button issues like women and the priesthood or gay marriage.

    So with that said, the concern you use as justification for your intended censorship seems a non-issue.

    Just my two cents.

  9. Clark,

    Nephi was human, but then so too is Thomas S. Monson. I just don’t like when we try to reduce greatness because we think everyone is only as good as ourselves.

  10. Rob, you do realize, don’t you, that the same argument you are making about reducing “greatness” is the same argument others have with our belief that God has a body, right. I’m that’s what’s being said here. It doesn’t reduce them, it makes the atonement and the plan even cooler, because it shows how much God can take broken people (which we all are) and make amazing things happen. Did no Moses or Noah or Abraham have questionable behavior at times? Does that make them less of a prophet?

  11. Rob,

    I know President Monson. The President Monson I know is a good human being. He has never been never preachy or condescending to people who disagreed with him. I’ve loved and looked up to the man since I was a child. He has done much good for the Church and a great many people. Does he possess human flaws and biases? Yes, of course. I do not believe that Latter-day Saints are so weak-minded that they can’t perceive the greatness of spirit and the human element at the same time in the same person. In fact, can we truly recognize the greatness of any human being without also recognizing the human element? The struggle against weaknesses? The lapses in judgment? The various types of cultural training and biases we all possess? I don’t think so.

  12. Problem is though that too often we make Nephi, or any old prophet to be some sort of imbecile. For instance- the trend now with Noah is to say that the whole earth, as far as he could see, was flooded but that not that the entire earth was flooded. Prophets weren’t idiots and when they wrote in scripture it was and is profound. Nephi is no different, he had divine communication with God, was highly favored of God and as such prophesied about our very day of the which has proven exactly true. When was the last time you made prophecy about nations thousands of years in advance?

  13. “When was the last time you made prophecy about nations thousands of years in advance?” Indeed. When is the last time President Monson did this? I believe and sustain the man as a prophet, but predicting the future is not the primary function or purpose of prophesy.

    It’s also not “imbecility” or “idiocy” when you can only see to the horizon and don’t know that earth is a massive globe; it’s just humanity and the limits of ancient knowledge. I haven’t seen anyone arguing for a limited flood who uses those kinds of derogatory terms, it’s a straw man on your part. Limited flood is not my position, but what you’re arguing borders heavily on imputing infallibility and omniscience to prophets while simultaneously removing their humanity.

    Prophethood does not negate humanity.

  14. What a your argument Ben? Scripture is special written by special people in special circumstances.

  15. Mirrorrorrim: I quite appreciate your concern, and while our views on this might still diverge, I think you’ve misunderstood my comment policy. Whether or not this is the case, I’m happy for the occasion to clarify. I’m quite willing to allow negativity—whether this is in the form of calling into question my testimony or church activity (as has already occurred on this thread) or calling into question the morality or efficacy of Nephi’s actions/words (which has already happened on the second post). What I won’t allow, however, is either comments that directly violate T&S’s comment policy, or that threadjack the discussion. So long as comments stay rooted to the topics at hand, you’ll find me quite liberal—as is clear from my very earliest posts on, I’m an avid proponent of “big tent Mormonism” in dialogue. All perspectives on Nephi are welcome—so long as they’re textually supported (er, at least marginally so) and on topic. Also, I’ll candidly acknowledge that I don’t expect a large readership/commentship on this series (though I’d love to be pleasantly surprised!). But even if I were aiming at this, I’d still want to encourage quality over quantity.

    Rob (#9): That’s a good point. Neither, however, do I like it when we reduce greatness because the character/action/figure in question doesn’t fit into our preconceived molds or restrictions on what greatness is. That said, I hope you don’t feel dog-piled here. It’s a forum where everything any of us say is up for challenge. But I hope you don’t feel personally attacked. Clear cases of such attacks are one of those things that I was trying to say in my comment comment that I’ll not allow!

  16. Rob, pointing out Nephi’s character flaws seems perfectly justified, especially in light of 2 Nephi 4:17: “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.” You seem to be of the opinion that we should treat LDS leaders as if they were infallible. Such a position doesn’t seem consistent with how they present themselves.

  17. Rob, but how do we understand the limits of what is special or unique unless the text gives that to us? You’re assuming a high degree of divine involvement that the text doesn’t seem to support. That’s fine. I think we can assume that’s possible. I’m not sure we should read all the texts as if that were the case given a lot of evidence that its not the case.

    If we’re appealing to the text I think we have to ask what the evidence is. Assuming a de facto infallibility to ancient prophets we don’t see in our contemporary prophets seems a dubious assumption. It’s just that with figures like Joseph Smith or Brigham Young we have a lot more information about so it’s easier to see their mistakes, biases and the like. Yet almost certainly the Book of Mormon prophets are not so different from those prophets. (And I’d say Joseph Smith is among the greatest of the prophets in history – so I suspect most others are “less special” to use your terminology)

  18. Thanks for the clarification, James. In theory, your method sounds great. I have just seen problems in the past from others with the application. I look forward to you proving my worries to be groundless.

    A quick comment on being able to see leaders as fallible. How to handle people still living is debatable, and is an entirely different issue I won’t bring up here. I don’t want my post deleted for hijacking the thread. :P

    When it comes to ancient prophets, though, The Book of Mormon itself contains advice. First, we are encouraged not to condemn them for their shortcomings. I think that is good advice: we should not judge others generally, I feel. I also feel we should judge ideas and teachings based on their own merits, not on those of the person presenting them. I feel a lot of very flawed people have taught essential truths: that is the entirety of the scriptures. I also feel some very good people have taught things that are false.

    Then, though, the book goes further. “[G]ive thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” (Mormon 9:31) We are actively encouraged to recognize the imperfections of the writers, and are told that approach, too, can be a method for us to learn from them.

    Incidentally, Paul said something similar, if you want a second witness from a second book of scripture, something I personally value, since I feel it is easy for me, and all of us, to misunderstand what the scriptures are saying. In 1 Corinthians 10, the readers are told about how Israel entered God’s covenant during the Exodus. Paul then mentions how they afterward came up short, and says we should benefit from their story: “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. . . . Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (verses 6 and 11).

    Sometimes God’s covenant people, including his prophets, make mistakes. We, as their successors, should use those examples to learn to live better than they did. At least, that’s how I read these two passages.

  19. Clark,
    Of all the records the Nephites kept, Mormon chose a select few to abridge the record with. The Nephites had very large set of records, not even a hundredth part make up the Book of Mormon. Written by various prophets over a thousand years and abridged by the hands of Mormon, we are left with what can best be described as very special words hand selected by one of the greatest ancient prophets of all time. I tend to believe that because of their unique circumstances and encounters with God and heavenly messengers, it places the Book of Mormon to a very high status with very special attention required to properly understand.

    This is what makes the BoM unique, special, and profound. This isn’t just a few musings of random people’s in ancient times. It is a record made for the very purpose to convince both Jew and Gentile alike that Christ lives. This is more profound than General Conference, more profound than the D&C, more profound than the Ensign, even more profound than all of our latter day church history. This is the record built by Holy men in very special circumstances for the very purpose of causing all of ancient prophecies to be fulfilled regarding God’s kingdom in our day to prepare the earth before Christ returns. It is thus not to be taken lightly, or out of its proper context. This thus places Nephi himself in a very special position because the entire record and prophecies to be fulfilled rest upon his diligence. Think about it- Nephis very actions would be the cause of bringing hundreds of millions, perhaps more, to the light of the gospel. Nephi is special, strong, loving, careful, and above all he is extremely smart and wise, fearless and humble all at the same time. Nephi was raised in heaven for this great task to set in motion the very cause to thwart Satan in our day. That is especially important.

    If this is beginning to sound like I am making Nephi into a larger than life superhero then believe me when I say that Nephi was no ordinary man nor was he an ordinary prophet. My entire testimony of Christ is built upon the words of Nephi and his record he himself was commanded to write. There is nothing for me to trivialize or make light of. Nephi is special.

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