Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: "Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide"


Title: "Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide"
Author: Grant Hardy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion/Literature
Year: 2010
Pages: 346
ISBN13: 9780199731701
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $29.95

Reviewed by Blair Dee Hodges - Association for Mormon Letters

In one corner "Skeptical-Critic" shuffles his feet, knocking his
gloves together. In the other corner "Believer- Apologist" ghosts
jabs, bobbing up and down. At the back of the arena,
"Indifferent-Non-believer" and "Didactic-Believer" glance in the
direction of the main event, feeling a little out of place. Standing
at center ring is the Book of Mormon, America's most unique and
prolific scriptural production. In the middle of this epic bout Grant
Hardy calls a time-out with his new book "Understanding the Book of
Mormon: A Reader's Guide." He attempts the double-task of convincing
non-Mormons that the Book of Mormon is worth the effort of serious
analysis while convincing Mormons that searching their sacred book can
yield more than didactic homilies or proofs of ancient authenticity.
Granting the importance of the main event, he offers a different venue

Hardy appreciates the difficulty of speaking to such disparate groups,
sensing that many believers and non-believers tend to "misrepresent or
distort what the book actually says" by mining evidence from the text
to support their respective positions. Critics like Dan Vogel have
offered unique and creative readings to reveal the book as a
19th-century fiction (overlooking striking parallels for weaker
guesses. Believers like Richard Rust have pointed to its structure and
voices, showing it as inspired literature (missing much of the
awkwardness that outsiders are confronted with in the book. Hardy
believes such studies can "miss much of what makes the book both
coherent and unique" (xii-xviii). He wants to offer something new:

"There has never been a detailed guide to the contents of the Book of
Mormon that meets the needs of both Latter-day Saints and outsiders,
undoubtedly because they come to the text with such different
perspectives and expectations. In this study I suggest the Book of
Mormon can be read as literature—a genre that encompasses history,
fiction, and scripture—by anyone trying to understand this odd but
fascinating book…. [M]y goal is to help anyone interested in the Book
of Mormon, for whatever reason, become a better, more perceptive
reader" (xiv, xvi).

Audaciously titled, this reader's guide is not merely a synopsis of
the Book of Mormon's main characters, events and themes. It is an
effort to help make sense of what one very early reviewer of the Book
of Mormon called "mostly a blind mass of words, interwoven with
scriptural language and quotations, without much of a leading plan or
design" (xiv). Hardy realized the short-sightedness of such an
evaluation while editing a "reader's edition" of the Book of
Mormon.[1] Distinct patterns and styles emerged from the narrators of
the book. Now, using the tools of literary analysis, Hardy seeks to
demonstrate a method of reading that will help readers make better
sense of the intersecting plots and strategies of Nephi, Mormon, and
Moroni—the book's main editor/narrators. A close reading illuminates
key meanings in the text, and the literary identity of each narrator
is manifest not only in what they say, but how they say it (266).[2]

The complexity of the book, considering the apparent circumstances of
the production of the Book of Mormon (Joseph Smith dictating the text
to scribes, one time through) perhaps gives a little more weight to
Smith's claims of angels and divine assistance. At the very least,
Hardy argues, the complexity strongly signals deliberate design and
careful construction. But Hardy is not making the argument that
"Joseph Smith could not have written this book." He believes the
"parallels and allusions in the Book of Mormon are deliberate and
meaningful rather than coincidental," but freely acknowledges that
"literary analysis does not compel belief" (xvii).

By reading closely, Hardy guides readers through novel readings not
found in other studies of the Book of Mormon. For instance, he
observes that "Alma or Mormon (or Joseph Smith) has structured the
first two-thirds of the book of Alma according to a series of
parallels" (304). Alma 4-16 includes three sermons delivered to three
different cities. Alma 36-42 includes Alma's three detailed letters to
three different sons (Alma 36-42). The sermons and letters overlap in
theme, respective length, order, and source (primary documents are
utilized in each case). This city/son parallel is even more
interesting considering Alma preached in five cities but only three
accounts are included in the narrative. Altogether, this indicates
remarkable coincidence or deliberate construction: Zarahemla/Helaman
(morally ambiguous), Gideon/Shiblon (clearly righteous, shortest),
Ammonihah/Corianton (clearly wicked, longest).

Impressively, the book is so full of detailed analysis that this
particular discovery in Alma is actually relegated to a footnote!
Overall, the book follows the structure of the Book of Mormon itself
tracing the styles and stories of each narrator, as well as the gaps
they leave for perceptive readers to fill in. Not only does this allow
Hardy to present an overview of the entire Book of Mormon, it also
places some of his most powerful chapter parallels in the "3 Nephi 11"
spot, which Hardy argues was deliberately situated within the
structure of the Book of Mormon to properly emphasize Christ's visit
to the Nephites (267). Without calling attention to it, Hardy's book
seems to enact what it demonstrates from the Book of Mormon itself

At times Hardy moves quickly through bits of the Book of Mormon. His
tracing of its complexity may lose outsiders who aren't as familiar
with Lehi's vision of the tree, or the Nephite monetary system, or
other (relatively incidental) details. Similarly, some Latter-day
Saints may feel slightly disoriented with occasional technical jargon.
These difficulties are explained by Hardy's desire to reach a broad
audience. The book invites critics to attempt a "willing suspension of
disbelief" so they might see more fruitful readings despite doubts of
authorship. Latter-day Saints, he adds, may need a "willing suspension
of belief, that is, to think of the Book of Mormon as a work of
literature, with an emphasis on its creativity and artifice" as
opposed to proofs of ancient origin or teachings for our times
(28).[4] Latter-day Saint readers will enjoy fresh approaches to the
narrator's uses of King James phrases (255), Mormon's editorial
interruptions (97-102), Captain Moroni's apparent character flaws
(174) and many, *many* other things.

This book makes a strong case that when examined closely, the Book of
Mormon "exhibits a literary exuberance that frustrates quick judgments
and reductive analysis" (267). By shifting "attention away from Joseph
Smith and back to the Book of Mormon itself, a common discourse
becomes possible" through literary analysis (xvi). Readers who try to
play by Hardy's rules will be richly rewarded. It will change the way
you read the Book of Mormon forever. "A Reader's Guide" is a knockout
punch in ink and paper; I can't recommend it enough.


[1] Grant Hardy, "The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition," University
of Illinois Press (2005). Hardy is well-attuned to the aesthetics of
book reading. His Reader's Edition aims to make the book more
comfortable to read, using better formatting, size, new punctuation,
charts and tables, headings, and other devices to increase
readability. Right down to the layout of the print on a page, Hardy
recognizes the power of a book itself: "Perhaps because they most
often encounter the Book of Mormon in a verse-by-verse format,
[Latter-day Saints] rarely read in terms of large-scale narrative
contexts or weigh the parts against the whole" (xix). "Reader's Guide"
and "Reader's Edition" both aim to increase readability of the Book of

[2] Because Hardy adopts the "internal perspective" of the book he
"write[s] about the narrators as if they were actual people with
complex motivations and developing understandings." Non-believers "are
welcome to place virtual quotation marks around the names Nephi and
Mormon whenever they appear in the chapters that follow" (xvii-xvii).

[3] A similar point about the structure of the book has been made in
Brant Gardner's "Mormon's Editorial Method and Meta-Message," FARMS
Review, 21:1, 83-105. Hardy interacts with (and sometimes counters)
many LDS scholars, including John Welch and others, in the footnotes
(see 248, 297, 301, 303, 313 for examples). Even The Book of Mormon
Movie gets a shout-out, however unsympathetic (312).

[4] Those interested in the Book of Mormon debates aren't too far from
Hardy's mind. He includes enough information for believers and
skeptics (citing many of the most substantive positions and
publications) throughout the footnotes.

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