Reading the Book of Mormon, Part I
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.