January 8, 2010

Review: Terryl L. Givens, "The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction"

Title: The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Terryl L. Givens
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2009
Pages: 140
ISBN: 9780195369311
ISBN13: 9780195369311
Price: 11.95

As my wife and I were finishing up some Christmas shopping she casually mentioned the music store where she was employed during High School. Granted, we’ve only been married a few years but this was news to me! Despite all of the time we have spent together (and the likelihood that she’s mentioned, at least in passing, things like this previously) I occasionally feel like I am meeting her, or a part of her, for the very first time. “How did I not know that?!” This same feeling continually washed over me as I read The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction by Terryl L. Givens. Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series (VSI) seeks to provide scholarly and accessible overviews of an impressive array of topics (200+ so far) printed in a concise package (the books measure about seven by four inches, .5 inches thick). The Book of Mormon VSI is number 219, the second VSI focusing on a Mormon subject.1 According to the publisher’s promotional pitch: “These books can change the way you think about the things that interest you, and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about.”2 I wondered how interesting a “very short introduction” could be for a person who has already read the Book of Mormon a few dozen times. Just in case you read no further into this overlong review, let me make it plain up front: if you have the slightest interest in the Book of Mormon for any reason you should read this book. Those unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon will find an excellent supplement here. If you are already familiar with the Book of Mormon, this re-introduction will make it seem like you’re meeting again for the first time.
Summing up the Book of Mormon and its related narratives in under 130 (undersized) pages is one curelom of a task, and one Givens has executed remarkably. He observes that the book hangs “at the center of a complex tapestry of intersecting narratives” (3). These narratives aren’t confined to its internal characters and plots—the stories of Lehi, Nephi, Alma and Moroni. The narratives extend to include 19th-century angelic visits and golden plates, a miraculous translation, seeming environmental influences, sectarian conflicts, and personal conversions. 20th-century research and criticism, alongside increasing missionary promotion of, and Mormon devotion toward, the book demonstrate continued interest in the “Mormon Bible.” Givens tackles all of these issues with careful balance.3

According to Givens, the Book of Mormon has served as a “lightening rod for both conversion and criticism.” Its claim of being the inspired translation of an ancient text by a modern boy-prophet “is so radical that the storms of controversy over its origins and authenticity have almost completely obscured the text itself” (4). Even for believers, the text has functioned more as a sign that God still lives and communicates with humans than a collection of doctrinal directives. Too little attention has been directed to what the book actually says so Givens mainly focuses on the “narrative between the covers,” while peripherally surveying its modern origins and reception. 

This VSI contains three sections. The first, “The Book of Mormon speaks for itself,” is a refreshing literary analysis of the book’s plots, themes, doctrines and structure, spanning sixty-six pages (3-68). The discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon is related in section two’s mere seventeen pages (85-101), while the eighteen page third section describes the book’s life and reception (105-122). Rather than summarizing the foregoing text, the three-page conclusion offers suggestions of how the book has retained—and will likely continue to retain—remarkable relevance for readers interested in locating Zion in the shifting and often unsettling dark and dreary wilderness of life (123-125). An appendix describing Book of Mormon manuscripts, editions, and translations includes information that may seem new to many average Latter-day Saint readers (126-128). It is followed by a simple timeline tracing the origins of the book from Joseph Smith’s first vision in the spring of 1820 to the founding of the Church in April 1830 (129-130). Because the VSI series lacks footnotes, five pages of chapter references and suggestions for further reading round out the book (131-135). It concludes with a simple index (136-140). 

The most enjoyable and unique aspect of this VSI is the way Givens coaxes the reader to see the text with new eyes by highlighting distinct themes throughout the text. A few examples should suffice to whet the appetite. Echoing a theme he has discussed elsewhere, he argues that the Book of Mormon relates—and itself enacts—“dialogic revelation,” pleading for an “openness to radically individualistic and literalistic conceptions of divine communication to mortals” (21).

In his characteristically flowing prose he argues that, in contrast to the biblical depiction of God intruding in the world once and for all with Jesus Christ’s incarnation, “we have in the Book of Mormon a proliferation of historical iterations, which collectively become the ongoing substance rather than the shadow of God’s past dealings in the universe” (31). Christ appears in a second-coming-like fashion to the New World believers and announces his intention to visit still others (28-30).

Nephi’s midrashic use of Old Testament prophecy (reusing or reinterpreting older texts) is reenacted in the current Mormon tendency to “liken the scriptures” to contemporary situations (37). The “Chinese-box structure” (35) of the Book of Mormon is unpacked, such as when Givens traces a few verses of scripture back through their line of transmission: the writings of Isaiah and the Decalogue make their way into Laban’s brass plates, which are stolen by Nephi, subsequently quoted by Abinadi, remembered and re-recorded by Alma, read by King Mosiah, abridged by Mormon, and translated by Joseph Smith (39). Givens says the line of transmission doesn’t stop there; “the boundary between…Moroni and Joseph Smith again fades…in the sense of its nineteenth-century incarnation as one more stage, one more version, of prophetic utterance that can never be permanently fixed or final” (39). In contrast to the book of Genesis’s happy ending, Givens finds that in the Book of Mormon “sibling jealousies do not find resolution but violent expansion, culminating in a tragic and genocidal finale painfully deferred until the record’s final pages” (42). But he looks closer at the book’s warfare to underscore surprising scenes of “moral ambiguity” (50). The anti-Nephi-Lehi’s become a prime example of pacifism, having sworn off bloodshed even while a war for their own protection rages around them. Their children, the young “stripling warriors,” exemplify a properly executed just war as they covenant to uphold and defend liberty, even by the sword when necessary. “The moral of this story,” Givens observes, “where righteous pacifism and righteous warfare find comfortable co-existence, would seem to be that faithfulness to covenants righteously entered into trumps both…In the Book of Mormon, covenant is the thread of safety on which the survival, spiritual safety, and very identity of the people hang” (51).

Givens admits that “[s]earching for literary wonders in the Book of Mormon is a bit like seeking lyrical inspiration in the books of Chronicles or Judges” (61). Nevertheless, “there are enough moments of lyrical beauty” to suffice, citing Nephi’s lamenting psalm, instances of unique imagery and phrasing, and complex, structural chiasmus as examples (61-65). Certainly Givens recognizes there are instances when Mark Twain’s description of the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print” is more accurate than not, which can “make for heavy going.” Nevertheless, “these are more than compensated for by moments of conspicuous poetry, pathos, and literary complexity” (68).

Givens has a gift for clothing familiar points in fresh phrases. When Nephi accurately predicts the murder of a judge, his audience quickly accuses him of being involved in the judge's death. Givens pithily describes them as “a people made obtuse by their intransigent self-justification [who] confound prophecy with complicity” (57). So much observation in so few words.

This VSI overflows with such observations. It throws open many windows for the careful reader into subjects including the justice, mercy and the atonement, memory and cultural change, the centrality of the family, the nature of scriptural writing, the difficulties of anachronism and evidence of authenticity, and the increasing importance the book has for the millions of people who testify they believe it is the word of God. In 1972 a religious history professor from Yale university observed: “A few isolated individuals can still read [the Book of Mormon] as a religious testimony,…but not even loyal Mormons can be nourished by it as they were a century ago” (110). “Today,” Givens responds, that observation is “simply dead wrong” (110). Scholarly research from different angles becomes more sophisticated. Devotional appreciation increases as Mormons spend more time in its pages. “Like Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, the Mormons are increasingly coming to be People of the Book—their book” (111). For me, this very short introduction is a very welcome re-introduction to my book, The Book of Mormon.

The other volume is Richard Lyman Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2008.

See “About This Series,” at http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/category/academic/series/general/vsi.do.

Issues surrounding the reception of the Book of Mormon from the time of its translation until recently are discussed more fully in Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, Oxford University Press (2003). Those who have already read By the Hand of Mormon will find more than enough new information in the VSI to make it worth reading. An interesting interview with Givens regarding the VSI can be found at Patheos.com.


Clean Cut said...

Great review, Blair. I recently purchased Bushmans' "Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction". Now you've convinced me I need to get this one too. Thanks for the introduction to what sounds like a great "introduction".

Ben S said...

Did you see the interview with Givens at Patheos about this?


BHodges said...

Yeah, I already included a link to it in footnote 3.
Thanks Cleancut!

Anonymous said...

If I already have 'By the Hand of Mormon' is this still worth reading?

Kent (MC) said...


Thanks for your enthusiasm! I figured the book would be old hat for me after having read all of Given's other books, but I'm going to go get it now.

Dan Ripple said...

Sounds awesome. I think I need to increase my "book money" portion of my budget in order to keep up with all these. After that review I have to go get this.

BHodges said...

I've read all of Givens's other books except which I have only read the intro so far before having to move to a different book. (I'll get back to it!) I've also read all of the published articles he has done that I could get my hands on. Even so, this book had more than enough new information to make it worthwhile for me. So yes, even if you already have By the Hand of Mormon I would still warmly recommend it. You'll notice that bulk of this intro is focused on elements of the Book of Mormon stories, characters and structure, and pretty much all of that is either new, or written from a different angle.

BHodges said...

Dan: Luckily this book is relatively cheap. I think you can get it used online for 10 bucks with shipping at Amazon, or new for 1 or 2 dollars more. And with this book I believe the cost is well worth it.

aquinas said...

Thanks for the review and links. I recently purchased the book and find in it a treasure of insight. Givens indeed has a gift to recalibrate our traditional language about the Book of Mormon and help us to see things for the first time in the process.

BHodges said...

Nice way of putting it, aquinas, that is one of his most outstanding traits IMO.

BHodges said...

I should also say thanks to Dave Banack, who originally made me aware of this series. He mentioned that the Theology volume was good so I bought it and enjoyed it. Since then I have also collected History, Postmodernism, Philosophy of Science, and Literary Theory (which my wife already owned from one of her classes). This whole series has been really fun.

Guy W. Murray said...

Thanks Blair. Great review. I love
Given's insights and intellect. I will pick this one up as well. I haven't read all his stuff yet, as you have; but, that's my goal . . .

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