March 24, 2010

Review: Grant Hardy, "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 

In one corner Skeptical-Critic shuffles his feet as he knocks 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 timeout 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 altogether.

Hardy appreciates the difficulty of speaking to such disparate groups, sensing that many believers and non 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 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, depicting 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 Book of Mormon's complexity, (considering the apparent circumstances of its production with Joseph Smith dictating the text to scribes one time through) may give a little more weight to Smith’s claims of angels and divine assistance. At the very least, Hardy argues, its 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 charges to three different sons (Alma 36-42). The sermons and charges 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, Hardy’s 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 (258-60).3

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. (I wished for a more extended discussion of King Benjamin's sermon and its impact on the remaining record.)

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.

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 a physical book can wield: “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 Mormon. I hope do do some blog posts on more specific points than can be addressed in a short review, this book is stuffed full of insight.

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).

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).

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.


See the limited Google preview here.


Introduction, xi
Abbreviations, xxi

1.    A Brief Overview (Narrator-based Reading), 3

Part I: Nephi
2.    Sons and Brothers (Characterization), 31
3.    Prophets of Old (Scriptural Interpretation), 58

Part II: Mormon
4.    Mormon’s Dilemma (Competing Agendas), 89
5.    Other Voices (Embedded Documents), 121
6.    Providential Recurrence (Parallel Narratives), 152
7.    The Day of the Lord’s Coming (Prophecy and Fulfillment), 180

Part III: Moroni
8.    Weakness in Writing (A Sense of Audience), 217
9.    Strategies of Conclusion (allusion), 248

Afterward, 268
Index, 328
Scripture Index, 338