As we study the Book of Mormon next year, there will be suggestions to read between the lines, to resist the surface or official or dominant reading, to see through the authoritative narrative to the unvarnished reality behind it – like the standard works, these suggestions too come around every four years. The instinct is understandable, as that’s how scholars are trained to read, and a lot of us have different varieties of scholarly training – but attempts at historical revisionism are misguided.
There is, first of all, the dubious chain of logic that holds that
- God lives, and
- he speaks today to living prophets
- to translate the records of ancient prophets who knew Jesus and saw our day –
- so that people with graduate degrees can, on the basis of scant historical evidence, overturn the teachings of those ancient prophets as the ideology of the oppressors.
As a way for God to reveal his will to his children, that seems counterintuitive, and the importance of the first three points would seem to far outstrip that of the last in any case. If God lives and talks to living prophets to reveal the writings of ancient prophets who knew Jesus, that seems like something that should be brought to people’s attention with great urgency, rather than scouring the text for reasons to resist the ancient prophets’ message. (If you prefer an “inspired fiction” account of the Book of Mormon, the whole exercise seems impossible, as there would be no historical reality for the skillful reader to uncover, and the importance of the first two points would still be overwhelming in any case.)
I think the Book of Mormon does emerge from an actual historical environment with all the complexity and contradictions of real life, and sometimes we catch glimpses of them in the text (why are the Zoramites’ prayer towers bad while Nephi’s prayer tower is good, and what’s everyone doing with a prayer tower anyway?) – but the number of possible histories that might create the text and explain its contradictions is limitless, and the one correct version is beyond our ability to reconstruct. We may as well speculate about a painting’s use of line and color based on the shadow the canvas casts on the wall behind it. (To be fair, I also think that efforts to precisely situate the Book of Mormon in pre-Columbian geography and history are similarly doomed to remain interesting speculation at best; on the other hand, those efforts generally don’t attempt to overturn the teachings of the Nephite prophets.)
One might protest that the Nephites were flawed and we need to uncover these flaws, but the Book of Mormon openly states as much and is quite clear about the mistakes we should avoid repeating: lying, deceit, whoredoms, secret abominations, idolatry, murder, priestcraft, envying, strife, etc.
The methods available in the toolkit of scholarly inquiry are numerous and powerful, and it’s certainly possible to construct a revisionist account of Nephite history. And a sweeping reinterpretation of Nephite history based on limited evidence has its attractions – I quite like the idea that “Mulekite” is a category that allowed indigenous people to be brought within the Nephite-Lamanite narrative. But we can’t use unverifiable speculation to undermine the emphatic and repeated teachings of numerous prophets.
Laman and Lemuel undoubtedly had good reasons for their grievances, and every perspective is legitimate to those who share it, and isn’t it possible that Laman and Lemuel were more fun to hang out with than a dour stick-in-the-mud like Nephi? The problem with counter-normative readings of scripture is that at the end of the process, one may no longer a Latter-day Saint in any meaningful sense.