September 8, 2008

"Putting Blood in the Veins of the Text"

Likening With Care, Part 2
Brant Gardner became interested in Mesoamerica in part due to the writings of Thomas Stewart Ferguson.1 He soon discovered that Ferguson's research left something to be desired, but his interest in Mesoamerica was already peaked and he didn't look back. In the early 70s while working as an undergraduate in the manuscripts division of the BYU library, Gardner met his new boss, friend and mentor Dennis Rowley.

[Dennis] knew of my interest in Mesoamerica and obviously the Book of Mormon. During a discussion he noted that we, as Mormons, do not have really good scholarly commentaries on the scriptures. He suggested that we really needed one of the Book of Mormon and maybe I should do it. That seed of suggestion took nearly 30 years to germinate.
In the mid-90's Gardner joined an e-mail list called Scripture-L. The owner wanted a weekly article written to flesh out the interactive conversations and asked Gardner to provide one. Gardner had recently read James Faulconer's Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, which told of Faulconer's experience with a Jewish professor at Pennsylvania State University. The Professor taught Faulconer of the need for careful, slow, and deep study of the Old Testament. Gardner, in turn, suggested a slow and deep read through the Book of Mormon. "I was fascinated with the depth in which [the professor] would examine his scripture," Gardner said, "and felt we should do the same with our unique book. It was a weekly chore for a while and after time became an addiction. It might even have been fun."2 The discussions on Scripture-L were very fruitful, and despite initially believing the discussions would become a commentary, Gardner eventually made it a solo project.

LoGP: Describe some obstacles you encountered through the proccess.

Gardner: There weren't really any obstacles, but there was an interesting wrinkle in the process. I started the commentary with the proposition that knowing the time and location could provide depth of understanding. I began writing assuming that the text should be enriched when understood inside the time and place of our understanding of the Old and New Worlds. What I didn't do was map it out so that I knew how it was going to play out. Of course, there was a lot of excellent work on the Old World portion, but that is very short and covers relatively little time. In the New World, I took the text as it came, without any effort to know how it was going to line up at different points. I began on a particular vector. If I was wrong, it was going to become very publicly apparent.
I learned that even when I did attempt to picture how future things would work out, I was invariably wrong. I only understood how the text fit into the context as I arrived at certain sections. I remember a couple where I simply had no idea why the text gave certain stories in particular ways. When I finally got to those sections, I finally understood the cultural undercurrents and it made sense--but never in advance.

LoGP: What did you hope to accomplish with the commentary?

Gardner: When I started, I just wanted to fulfill the request [on Scripture-L] for an article per week. It was a good structure. Eventually, the process drew me in. I began to understand the characters as real breathing people. It became a task of putting blood in the veins of the text, so that it became alive again and showed more of the inspired men who wrote it.

LoGP: How has it been received?

Gardner: It has been online for several years3 and published only for months. I don't know a lot about how the published version has been received except in anecdotes where people have taken the time to tell me that they have enjoyed it. One comment that I really appreciated came from a sister at the recent FAIR Conference. She told me that "after all these years, the Book of Mormon has come alive." That told me that someone else had begun to see the text as I have, the product of very real people whose ideas and motives we can understand and appreciate.
To date, I haven't heard anything negative, but I suspect that those who don't like it are also less likely to take the time to email me to say so.

LoGP: How would you compare it to other similar commentaries (like Ridges, Ludlow, etc.)?

Gardner: There are two rough categories of commentaries, those that concentrate on the devotional aspects of religion (and which tend to be ahistorical) and those that attempt to deal with the text in its historical context. The Millet and McConkie commentary is devotional, as is Monte Nyman's recent multi-volume commentary. Reynolds and Sjohdahl's commentary was an early attempt and the more historical commentary, but they suffered from a time period long before the flood of information about Mesoamerica that we have seen since then.
Ludlow's one volume commentary is pretty good, but it is highly selective. It doesn't even pretend to cover the whole text, but there is good commentary as far as it goes, though again written without a real context in mind. Ridges is more a simplification of the reading of the text and less of a commentary on the text.
Most LDS commentaries have been necessarily heavy on the devotional and light on the historical because there is no official geography of the Book of Mormon. I wanted to brave the wilds and use the best current description of where the Book of Mormon took place to see if that cultural background and time could increase our understanding of the events in the text.

A few other items of interest:
Gardner's brother, a graphic artist, helped design the content layout of the book, a more formidable task than might be imagined. Gardner had to negotiate how to include the Book of Mormon text with his interspersed commentary in a way that would not confuse the reader. Commentary notes are split up in categories like "Variant," "Culture," "Geography" etc., and Gardner carefully notes and follows the structure of the originally published text (with the generous help of Royal Skousen's work) despite showing the chapter/verse structure of the 1981 LDS edition. Lavina Fielding Anderson, who helped edit the publication, advised the Book of Mormon text retain the same font size as the commentary in order to demonstrate its prominent place in the commentary. Gardner largely follows John Sorenson's Book of Mormon "limited geography" theory, with a comparison geography by Larry Poulson included. At various points in the commentary Gardner includes an "Excursus," a detailed look at specific important aspects of the Book of Mormon. Kofford Books made a point to release the books in time for the LDS Sunday School curriculum schedule covering the Book of Mormon.

The full series is available for purchase at the FAIR bookstore at a reduced price, or readers can test the commentary out by purchasing the first volume.

For more on Ferguson, see Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," FARMS Review 16:1.

Gardner's comments are taken from personal e-mails in the author's possession and from phone conversations. See also James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, pp.2-7.This little book is a valuable tool.

For the time being, a preliminary first draft of the commentary is available at Gardner's website.


Sione said...

I really want those books! Will he consider hardship cases?

BHodges said...

I'm a hardship case, brother.

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