Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy

I've read the Book of Mormon literally dozens of times over my life and while I always find value in the practice, I'll freely admit to falling into a rut occasionally, too.  It's refreshing and exciting to discover a new way of look at the stories that are so familiar.  Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide offers just that, a fresh perspective on this sacred text.

First of all, Hardy explains that while he is a faithful Latter-day Saint, he wanted to write a book that would be readable by both believers and those who don't accept the Book of Mormon as scripture. His approach, which began to take shape in his mind while he was working on The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition, is one that analyzes the Book of Mormon as literature, specifically through the lens of the three main narrators: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni.  When the Book of Mormon is read and analyzed from the inside out - as a narrative on its own terms - instead of from the outside in - whether as a nineteenth-century text written by Joseph Smith or as a scripture to be mined for religious aphorisms - we can gain new insights on this significant book.

It seems that Hardy expects both believers and nonbelievers to be somewhat skeptical of his unique and novel approach, so he repeatedly offers assurances throughout the book, bolstering his point of view with examples from both historical and fictional texts.  "An approach suitable for fiction is not necessarily inappropriate for history.  Both genres are representations of reality, and consequently, readers come to know all of the characters they meet in books in much the same way."  He urges nonbelievers to adopt a "willing suspension of disbelief" but also suggests that believers will benefit from a "willing suspension of belief", allowing them to "becom[e] more aware of how the book appears to outsiders."  "For both insiders and outsiders, reading the Book of Mormon from the perspective of the narrators will reveal that there is more to this engaging book than first meets the eye."

I heartily agree with Hardy that the Book of Mormon is a thoroughly human book.  He explains: "Strangely enough, both believers and nonbelievers agree on this point.  Outsiders generally view the Book of Mormon as a product of Joseph Smith's imagination, while Mormons hold that it is the work of inspired, but quite human, ancient American prophets.  In either scenario, choices were made by someone as to what to include and what to omit, and how to represent characters and situations."  Using the same tools of literary analysis that you learned in your high school English class makes this all the more apparent:
The Book of Mormon draws on the same set of narrative tools used by both novelists and historians, including direct and indirect speech, digressions, framing narratives, quoted documents, metaphors, allusions, juxtapositions, explicit commentary, variations in duration, chronological disruptions, repetitions, contrasts, motifs, and themes.  Causation can be specified or implied, details can be revealed or withheld at critical junctures, and some time periods receive much more attention than others...the word of God is articulated by very human narrators who continually draw attention to the editorial choices they have made.
Looking at the narrators, Hardy of course starts with Nephi.  Hardy describes how Nephi wrote his record as a middle-aged man, looking back over his life, which was "one of general disappointment."  In many ways, "the mature Nephi is something of a tragic figure, cut off from his culture, despairing of his descendants, and alienated from his own society (even though he is the king)."
Imagine, for a moment, his situation. He was educated in Jerusalem and literate at a time when such training was rare.  He seems to have been fascinated by books and records.  And then in his teenage years he was suddenly taken from the culturally rich and intellectually stimulating environment of Judah's capital to live in a distant land, in the company of only his relatives, with a single text (the Brass Plates) to read for the rest of his life. No one else in Nephi's family seems much interested in close reading and creative interpretations.  Lehi and Jacob receive revelations, but they appear to be primarily oral prophets rather than reading-and-writing prophets.  In fact, Jacob was born after the family left Jerusalem; he had no firsthand knowledge whatsoever about the traditions and culture of the Jews.
Hardy also presents Laman and Lemuel as far more sympathetic characters than we Mormons are used to seeing them portrayed.
Imagine the scene again.  Lehi dreams of a death threat and quickly packs up his family, who assume that they will be away just long enough for things to cool down.  God had commanded Lehi to take nothing other than the most basic provisions, and indeed it would not have made sense to leave money behind if they knew they were embarking on a lengthy, one-way trip; after all, provisions are quickly depleted, and as long as there is any chance of contact with other people, gold is worth its weight.  After a breathless flight, the family sets up camp and various members start thinking and questioning.
...suddenly the brothers find themselves refugees in the wilderness, cut off from all property, resources, friends, and whatever personal or business dealings had been occupying them. But the anger of one's neighbors is not the same thing as an impending murder attempt, and Lehi believed his life was in immediate danger only because of a dream.  That was perhaps the first problem. Although dreams could be a legitimate means of divine communications, they were also subject to considerable skepticism and in Lehi's time they were regarded as the least reliable form of prophecy...
Whatever else they may have been, Laman and Lemuel appear to have been orthodox, observant Jews.  Nephi--who has a vested interest in revealing their moral shortcomings--never accuses them of idolatry, false swearing, Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, adultery, or ritual uncleanness...
And I have to admit that in some of Nephi's interactions with his older brothers, my sympathies have always been with Laman and Lemuel.  I know from personal experience just how insufferable younger brothers can be, particularly when they are pointing out how right they are and how wrong I am, or how they know sooo much better than I do.  (Not that that has happened at all recently.  Love you, Richard! :) )  Not saying that older siblings are always perfect or in the right, but it certainly can put a strain on relationships.  Hardy acknowledges in an understated way, "Laman and Lemuel's rough treatment of their younger brother is difficult to justify, but it is understandable.  Nephi apparently had a speaking style that was less than diplomatic..."

Similarly, Hardy shows the text reveals Mormon and Moroni to be individual characters as well, with their own messages to convey and distinct methods and skills.

Grant Hardy succeeds in making these narrators, as well as other characters in the Book of Mormon, far more real to me than they had been previously.  He never asserts that his ideas or interpretations are the only correct ones, just that they are possibilities, and that it is worth looking deeper into the text for what we may be missing.

Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide
by Grant Hardy
ISBN: 9780199731701
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).


  1. Great book isn't it! One subject that Hardy addressed that I have wondered about for years, was the conspicuous absence of Nephi's patriarchal blessing, which Hardy provides a plausible explanation for. My only gripe with the book is its title - it doesn't really describe, in my opinion, what his book is really about. It would have been better titled, Understanding Book of Mormon Editorship, or something to that effect. Anyways, this was a really interesting book.

  2. I had always wondered about that omission, too, Tim. And Nephi's gloss over Lehi's reaction when the brothers returned with the Brass Plates, Zoram, and their tale of chopping off Laban's head. Hardy actually brought Mormon and Moroni to life for me, even more than Nephi. I really liked the way Hardy's approach used common, time-honored literary analysis tools to reveal so much more than we see at first glance.

    And I get what you mean about the title. "Narrators in the BoM - Revealed!" or something like that would have been more accurately descriptive. :)