The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. As readers will know, I am hopeful about the possibility of our learning across religious boundaries. I have repeatedly explained that this has nothing to do with losing Christian faith, or learning things that are wicked and harmful; it is a matter of seeking truth where it is to be found, finding God in all things, and without undue fear, welcoming wisdom where I find it. I do however also believe that this learning has to be done in small doses. Keep away from vast generalizations about the faith traditions of others, study carefully, and attend to what you learn. Reading can get you quite far in interreligious learning, respect, and wisdom — and hence in being a better Christian too.

To illustrate this point by showing how I go about learning outside my Hindu-Christian expertise, in my last blog — on Cardinal Martini and the Reverend Moon – I bravely, and more than a bit foolishly, promised a series of reflections on the Book of Mormon. I am not a scholar of the Latter Day Saints; I have previously only skimmed the Book of Mormon, and the copy I have is from a hotel room. Since this is a blog, I also cannot take vast amount of time for this series. I have also learned that much of what one might want to know about Mormons is not actually in the Book of Mormon, but in later sources, traditions about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and later figures. One cannot directly explain Mitt Romney by reading the Book of Mormon. One cannot explain everything everyone has heard about Mormons by reading the Book of Mormon. I also learned that one cannot assume that all Mormons have studied the Book carefully; it is difficult reading; it is boring, something like reading First and Second Chronicles. Somewhere I read the words of a Mormon who cheerfully confessed that many a Mormon has fallen asleep trying to reading through the Book: “If you were to take all the Mormons who have fallen asleep reading the Book of Mormon and lay them down, head to toe — they’d be more comfortable.”

But one must start somewhere. I can read, think about what I read, and so I have; and it is this minimal learning that I will share. I delved into the Book, with a bit of help from Wikipedia, online sources (I use the online version, posted by the LDS), and from the seven little volumes that comprise The Reader’s Book of Mormon (Signature Books, Salt Lake City). I decided that I would focus on the Third Book of Nephi (hereafter 3 Nephi). This is, as far as I can tell, one of the best places in the Book of Mormon for a Christian reader to begin. I encourage you to read it for yourself. If there are Mormon readers of this blog, I welcome their insights and corrections into what follows.

3 Nephi stands near the end of the Book of Mormon. If one can trust the little introductions to each chapter that one finds in the online version, the events in the book occur between the time of the birth of Christ, and just after his death and resurrection, when Jesus appears to them. The early chapters (and several later chapters) recount the fickleness, internecine violence, and eventual returns to faith of the Nephites, who are basically good, over against their dark enemies, the Lamanites. Heroes and villains come and go, bearing the most exotic names. (Nephi is a simple name, compared to Giddhianhi, Zemnarihah, and Gidgiddoni.) It seems that Nephi was a prophet, from among the Nephites, who seem to be one of the (additional) tribes of Israel. On and off they are faithful and terrible sinners, and they live and suffer through a history and lives parallel to the Israelites of the Bible. In this parallel Nephite story, they meet Jesus and hear his preaching. At this point they may not yet be in North America, but will be there not far in the future.

Nephi speaks in part of the 3 Nephi, and Mormon himself also speaks on occasion. Mormon, a witness to all that happens, begins writing down what happens, and the words of Nephi — with a devotion to Christ that seems typical of 3 Nephi: “Therefore I have made my record of these things according to the record of Nephi, which was engraven on the plates which were called the plates of Nephi. And behold, I am called Mormon, being called after the land of Mormon, the land in which Alma did establish the church among the people, yea, the first church which was established among them after their transgression. Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life. And it hath become expedient that I, according to the will of God, that the prayers of those who have gone hence, who were the holy ones, should be fulfilled according to their faith, should make a record of these things which have been done… I am Mormon, and a pure descendant of Lehi. I have reason to bless my God and my Savior Jesus Christ, that he brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem, (and no one knew it save it were himself and those whom he brought out of that land) and that he hath given me and my people so much knowledge unto the salvation of our souls.” (5.10-13, 20)

Nephi also speaks for himself: “And it came to pass that Nephi—having been visited by angels and also the voice of the Lord, therefore having seen angels, and being eye-witness, and having had power given unto him that he might know concerning the ministry of Christ, and also being eye-witness to their quick return from righteousness unto their wickedness and abominations; Therefore, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds—went forth among them in that same year, and began to testify, boldly, repentance and remission of sins through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (7.15-16)

But what to make of all this so far? First, it is very complicated and seemingly realistic about the violence and evils of human life. Second, it is a history that is parallel to the Biblical accounts; the Book of Mormon seems to strive to be a complement and parallel, rather than an alternative to either the Old or New Testaments. Too much? Think at least of the words ending John 20:"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book." Third, the drama seems designed to point to Jesus as the center of it all. By the time we reach Chapter Nine, amidst all the violence endlessly ravaging the land of Nephi, it is also known that in Jerusalem Jesus has died on the cross and, it seems, risen. It is here that Jesus begins to speak to the Nephites, in words meant at least to echo, if not to repeat, Gospel words: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. I was with the Father from the beginning. I am in the Father, and the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name. I came unto my own, and my own received me not. And the scriptures concerning my coming are fulfilled.” (9.15-16)

But I will take up at this point next time.






Mike Bennion | 10/11/2012 - 12:57am
Fr. Clooney,

I forgot to mention collophons.  Here is a link and a few quotes from the link:

"Colophons in the Book of Mormon"
1 Nephi 1:1 "I, Nephi"
"From the day the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, some readers have been struck by its distinctive modes of expression. Many of the oddities thought at first to be signs of ignorance or awkwardness turn out on closer inspection to be traces of ancient authenticity. "Colophons" in the Book of Mormon illustrate this.
"Several of the books in the Book of Mormon begin or end with a statement by the author certifying that he is the author of his work. Often he tells what is to come in the following pages or explains or marks the end of what has just been said. For example, the book of Enos begins, "I, Enos, . . . will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God" (Enos 1:1-2); and the book of Mormon begins, "I, Mormon, make a record of the things which I have both seen and heard" (Mormon 1:1). Similarly, the book of Jacob ends, "I, Jacob, . . . make an end of my writing" (Jacob 7:27). Dozens of editorial entries like these are found in the Book of Mormon. What purposes do they serve?
"Statements like these are known in ancient documents as colophons, and as Hugh Nibley pointed out several years ago, they appear in several Egyptian documents.1 For example, the Bremer-Rhind papyrus opens with a colophon that gives the date, the titles of the author, genealogical information about his parents, and a curse upon anyone who might tamper with the document (in other words, an avowal that the record is true). These textual elements functioned in antiquity somewhat like a copyright or seal of approval."
Mike Bennion

Mike Bennion | 10/11/2012 - 12:50am
Fr. Clooney,

Finally you state that when Christ appeared to the Nephites and Lamanites they "were not yet in the New World." 

This is not correct according to the internal timeline of the Book of Mormon.  If you begin at 1st Nephi you will learn that the family of Lehi arrived at the general location of the new world about 600 B.C.E.  At the bottom of each page you will find footnotes that establish the modern time correlation to the Nephite temporal reckoning.  According to this reckoning the Nephites and Lamanites had been in the New World 600 years when Christ appeared to them after his resurrection.

Mike Bennion
Mike Bennion | 10/11/2012 - 12:45am
Concerning the difficult names that you noted.  An LDS scholar of some repute, Hugh Nibley, discussed the same names at the link below:

"Another illustration of name-formation in Nephite and Egyptian may be seen in the names Zemna-ri-hah (Nephite) and Zmn-ha-re (Egyptian), where the same elements are combined in different order. The elaborate Nephite names of Gidgiddoni and Gidgiddonah may be parallels to the Egyptian Djed-djḥwti-iw-f and Died-djḥwti-iw-s; in each case the stem is the same, sounding something like "Jid-jiddo-." To this the suffix -iw-f, and iw-s are added in Egyptian with the word ankh, signifying "he shall live" "and "she shall live," respectively,15 the two names meaning "Thoth hath said he shall live" and "Thoth hath said she will live." The suffixes in the two Nephite names are different, -iw-ni and iw-nah, but they are perfectly good Egyptian and indicate "I shall live" and "we shall live" respectively. The agreements are much too neat and accurate to be accidental. Any student with six months' hieroglyphic may recognize the Nephite Gidianhi as the typical Egyptian name "Thoth is my life," Djḥwty-ankh-i."

Mike Bennion
Mike Bennion | 10/10/2012 - 10:23pm
Fr. Clooney,

I appreciate your attempts at reading and understanding the literature of faith traditions outside your own.  I just completed my M.A. in History with an emphasis on American Religions.  As a Mormon I enjoyed reading this first attempt at understanding the Book of Mormon.  I believe that you generally strive to be fair in your assessments, however, in keeping with your request for feeback I will make a few comments.

While I confess that sometimes when I am tired or distracted, the Book of Mormon may seem "boring."  However, there are also times when I have been swept up in the glory of the text, and have longed to share in the joy and love that Book of Mormon prophets expressed.  Some of my favorite passages, before the book of 3rd Nephi, include: 1st Nephi Chapters 8-14, the Vision of the Tree of Life and its explanation;  2nd Nephi 2-3.  An explanation of the necessity of opposition in all things;  Jacob 5 The allegory of the Olive Tree;  Mosiah 12-16, a witness of Chirst; Alma 5, How to be born of God;  Alma 32, how to experiment upon the word of God; and Alma 30, how to resist atheism.

This is a good start.  I will also comment in one or two subsequent posts about names in the Book of Mormon and the use of Collophons in the Book of Mormon.

Mike Bennion
Meg Stout | 10/8/2012 - 8:34pm
I applaud your willingness to venture into a book of scripture foreign to your training.

One note - you wrote ''It seems that Nephi was a prophet, from among the Nephites, who seem to be one of the (additional) tribes of Israel.'' Had you looked at the rest of the book, you might have caught the fact that the originating family whose people are described in the Book of Mormon were descendents of Joseph. In Alma 10:3 a lineage implies the Nephites identified primarily with the tribe of Manasseh.

Regarding remarks about Joseph Smith's reputed talent for treasure seeking, I recommend Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling. In summary, Joseph's mother had persuaded the family to take on debt to acquire a house. When the economy turned, the family was impoverished. All the Smith family members were doing everything honorable they could think of to earn money. Joseph was perceived to have this talent, but would often caution his employers against their hopes for hidden riches.

One of the peculiarities of Mormon history is our historic unwillingness to criticize loved ones of the faithful. So casual students of Mormon history won't be able to find the normal panoply of characters that make up any great historical drama. As time passes, I expect Mormons will be able to enrich that history so it reads like regular history, rather than the simplified hagiographic tale (or simplified villification) current available to the casual seeker of information.
LaVerl Wilhelm | 10/8/2012 - 1:39pm
FR. Clooney,
I am energized by your open minded approach to studying ancillary anciant texts.
I believe in what the VIN diagram shows us about being open minded.  The more we learn about others, the more we find we have in common.
You asked for detail commentary and so I offer a little help.  The prophet Mormon lived about 400 AD and so the Book of Mormon is a "Reader's Digest" summary of all of the records he had inherited from his ancestors starting as far back as 600 BC.
Throughout the Book, Mormon interjects his editorial comments, sometimes as if he is present in the moment, although he is hundreds of years removed. 
Grant Hardy | 9/17/2012 - 9:36pm
Fr. Clooney, you might want to take a look at the Reader's Edition of the Book of Mormon that I edited for the University of Illinois Press in 2003. It keeps the same words but reformats the text in the manner of modern biblical translations such as the New Revised Standard Version or the New Jerusalem Bible, with paragraphs, quotation marks, topical headings, multi-chapter headings, indentation of quoted documents, and minimized verse numbers. I think it makes it much easier to follow a sometimes convoluted narrative, and to determine who is speaking in what context. There is also an introduction and some appendices of background information that can help you situate Third Nephi within the book as a whole. Best wishes for your continuing series of cross-religious explorations.
Dr. Hardy: Indeed! I had ordered your book already, and it arrived just yesterday! It does make things so much easier, and I will be using it for the subsequent blogs. FXC
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 9/16/2012 - 4:48pm
Agree, David, that the Post's religion stories avoid controversy.  The once-great liberal paper has fallen on hard times.  At least Tim Townsend works for the paper.  His stuff, unlike much of the paper's content, is produced locally and not obtained from other papers, syndicates, etc.  

His stories on the closing of the local Legion of Christ school were very good, but also depended on quotations from students and parents rather than on the teachings/practices of  Maciel.

 Agree, also, that everyone's beliefs seem strange to others.  (If I were a political candidate, I wouldn't try to explain why I find novenas useful/efficacious.)
Stanley Kopacz | 9/15/2012 - 2:02pm
Sorry, David, for pluralizing your last name.
David Smith | 9/16/2012 - 4:12pm
Thanks, Gerelyn.  That paper seems to be doing a lot of little stories on Mormons this year.  Click on the ''Mormons'' tag at the bottom of either piece.

Very little, though, about beliefs.  At least in those two pieces, they're interested almost entirely in color and quotes.

Interesting AP story today or yesterday saying that some black preachers have been advising their congregations to sit out this election, since Obama's preaching gay marriage and Mormonism is a ''cult'':

Everyone's beliefs probably seem strange to outsiders.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, animism, probably just about any belief that has a supernatural dimension looks pretty screwy from the point of view of the unsympathetic unbeliever.

Luisa Navarro | 9/14/2012 - 9:59pm
Next week: Reading Green Eggs and Ham.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 9/16/2012 - 10:37am

Two good articles in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Tim Townsend.  The first one is about the new temple in Kansas City. (Interesting comments follow the article.)

 The second one is about "Adam-ondi-Ah-man," in Daviess County, MO,  (the "Valley of God, where Adam dwelt").  The article gives some insight into the notions Mormons have about their founder and his teachings.
Luisa Navarro | 9/16/2012 - 3:02am
Thank-you, Mr. McCrea.
Wrong, Mr. Power.
Humanitarian Guyana | 9/22/2012 - 10:31am
Some people are afraid to accept a free Book of Mormon from the Missionaries, thinking they will be pressured into a baptismal date. This link is an inexpensive way for them to be able to read the book of mormon, whether by Kindle, eBook, Softcover, or Hardcover. There are softcovers starting as low as $3.37 please share this link with them so they have a chance to read and study it for themselves.
Stanley Kopacz | 9/15/2012 - 12:05pm
I admire and thank Fr. Clooney for doing his job thoroughly to the extent of studying Mormonism and Scientology, mining for wisdom.  To be frank, I find his exploration of Mormonism to be less interesting for the reasons David Powers refers to above.  For my part, I find Mormonism too explanatory and complete.  I suppose we Catholics do the same thing to some extent, but mystery is crowded out.  I have Mormon relatives and they are nice enough people,  but I don't share their mode of thinking.  I suppose that's true to some extent of some of my co-religionists.
david power | 9/15/2012 - 4:25am

Your catholicism seems to be tainted with a very protestant vision.
No doubt you were raised in America.
Thanks to William Taylor for the skinny on some of the background and thanks to David Smith for his views on where Mormonism fits into the overall Religious landscape.I have Hindu friends and from what I gleam it seems far more advanced in terms of spiritualism and asceticism than Mormonism which seems to be more tied to revelation.
Bill Taylor | 9/15/2012 - 1:33am
It would also be interesting if Fr. Clooney shared the way Joseph Smith found and translated the Gold Plates, publishing the translation as the Book of Mormon. He was a "peeper" for a group of treasure diggers, convinced that just under the surface of the earth was a vast underworld filled with buried gold, silver, jewels, and on and on. He searched for these treasures with the help of a divining rod and a "peepstone." While he directed many a dig, he found nothing because mysterious guardian spirits would move the treasures away, out of reach.

After an unsuccessful dig, one of these spirits appeared to Smith and revealed to him the location of a buried book or Bible inscribed on gold plates. He found the plates with the help of his seer stone and translated it with the same stone. He did it in this way: He would put the stone into a tall hat, put his face over the hat, and discover the translation.  He never examined or studied the plates, and some of the translation went on when the plates were miles away, hidden in the woods.

I do not think the telling of this story shows any disrespect for the Mormons. It is simply the way it happened and has to be considered part of the story.

But Joseph Smith moved his church away from Christianity through a later series of revelations which are contained in the Doctrin and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, a sermon preached at the funeral of a man named King Follett, and during a final, climactic sermon he preached shortly before his death.
David Smith | 9/15/2012 - 2:27am
I've been reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion. Mormonism is one of many creeds connected to Jesus that seem designed to fill emotional needs or to articulate feelings that people want to explore intellectually. Humans will probably never be completely satisfied with the empirical sciences as sources of self-understanding. Our feelings may be determined largely if not entirely by physical causes, but because of how our brains work, we need to build explanations of life that have both rational and irrational components, elements both open and hidden.  Some mystery is indispensible.  I can imagine that Hindu mysticism might have had its origins in the story of Mormon had Hindu mysticism had its roots in pioneer America. It's all very intricate and muddled and confusing - but that's religion.
Jim McCrea | 9/15/2012 - 12:24am
Luisa:  your arrogance and lack of discovery is so palpable.  Don't forget that the LDS are running circles around Catholics when it comes to evangelization (1) efforts and (2) success, particulary among Catholics.
Bill Taylor | 9/15/2012 - 1:19am
I don't know why Fr. Clooney jumps us into Third Nephi, which occurs near the end of the book. The Mormons themselves call the Book of Mormon "another testament of Christ." The premise of the book is this: Lehi, an contemporary of Jeremiah, and his sons Nephi and Laman escaped from Jerusalem just before its destruction and fled to America, where they established two warring nations. The issue at hand was the future coming of Christ. First Lehi and then Nephi received a series of astonishing prophecies about the coming Christ not found in the Old Testament, including the name of his mother, John the Baptist, his founding of a church, and his crucifixion and resurrection. The sons of Nephi (Nephites) and the sons of Laman (Lamanites) divided over whether or not they believed in the coming of Christ or not. The Lamanites were cursed with red skins and became the ancestors of the American Indians. The Nephites live on as a noble race, in constant war with the Lamanites.

And so the Book of Mormon is about counting down the years until the coming of Christ. In the course of the story, we get a very Protestant exposition of the Christian faith. The book answers every theological question of the day, including a comparison of the Universalist perspective on salvation and the goodness of man with a much more pessimistic Calvinist view, coming down in favor of the Calvinists. Hence, the endless series of wars, and the endless repeated apostasy of people who seem incapable of remaining faithful for a generation.

When Christ comes in Third Nephi, it is after he has blasted the entire population, killing millions-for which he takes full credit. As soon as he appears, he organizes his church in America with its beliefs and authority structure. (which is Protestant and not at all like the modern Mormon authority structure). He returns to heaven and, inevitably, the people fall away again. The Lamanites kill the Nephites. Moroni, the son of Mormon who wrote the whole story on golden plates, buries them for the time when they will be rediscovered by Joseph Smith in New York State.