How to Read the Book of Mormon . . . S-L-O-W-L-Y

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Jacob 7 Flier

(courtesy of Jenny Webb)

Seminar discussion UTS NYCHow would you like to spend eight hours a day studying and talking about a single chapter of the Book of Mormon?

Because that’s what I’m doing for two weeks in the Mormon Theology Seminar, which began last Monday at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. (You may have noticed that last Monday was also the last day I posted anything on this blog . . . .)

That’s how intense this experience is. Every day, all eight scholars research and write a five-page paper about a few verses of Jacob 7, this summer’s chosen text. Then we gather for four or five hours to read our papers aloud and talk about them.

It has been absolutely exhilarating so far, and not just because New York in June is every bit as likeable as the old song says.

Jacob 7 FlierYou might think that mining the same territory so closely so many times would result in eight people saying the same thing every day in our papers, but it doesn’t at all. Every day, when the other seminar participants present their findings, I think, “Wow. How could I have missed that connection?”

That’s how rich the text is.

If you haven’t read it (or if you have but can’t immediately place it, as I couldn’t a few months ago), Jacob 7 is the final good-bye of the priest Jacob, Nephi’s younger brother who inherited responsibility for keeping the sacred records.

In this chapter, he puts down the heresy of Sherem, an outsider who repents of his false teaching, which privileged keeping the Mosaic law over believing in a future Messiah. Sherem eventually converts to the truth of Christ but is struck down anyway.

So many questions have arisen in our analysis of this chapter. Here are a few:

  • Why does Sherem, unlike other unbelievers in the Book of Mormon who repent and change their ways, have to die?
  • Why is Jacob still so depressed, anxious, and fixated on death after his public triumph over heresy restores his people to righteous living and orthodox belief?
  • Why does the Book of Jacob have as many endings as a Peter Jackson movie?
  • In what ways is this chapter a game-changer, since the word “faith” becomes more important in the Book of Mormon going forward, and the subsequent teachings after the small plates show a greater emphasis on belief in Christ?

All of this work is in preparation for a public conference on Saturday, June 20, when the eight of us will present papers and invite some conversation about what this chapter means. The conference, which will be held in the “Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Niebuhr ate here!” refectory at Union Theological Seminary, is free and open to the public.

Throughout this past week, I’ve experienced a deep sense of gratitude that I can be part of this experience — not only for the whip-smart, kind and funny people who are here, but because what we’re doing needs to be done. At the beginning of our discussions someone mentioned that it was safe to say that no group in the history of the world has ever dug so deeply into this particular chapter of the Book of Mormon before.

That’s likely true but startling, because this kind of close scripture study happens in every upper-level grad school Bible course, yeshiva, and seminary, with people comparing how a single verb is used in one passage with other ways it appears in ancient texts, or debating the possible reasons for a tense switch or clause construction.

Meanwhile it still seems, nearly two centuries after its publication, that all Mormons have to say to the outside world about the Book of Mormon is to reiterate again and again that Joseph Smith didn’t make it up. Many Latter-day Saints are still more concerned about proving the book’s divine origins than we are in decoding its meaning.

The irony of this to me is that every time I have engaged in the hard work of burrowing deeply in the Book of Mormon, the center has always held: The book stands up to close scrutiny.

But proofs and apologetics are not the point of close readings; improved understanding is. And that’s what this seminar is about.

I don’t think this seminar’s unique methodology is adoptable by most people who want to get to know the Book of Mormon. Who has eight hours a day to read scripture? I don’t, at least not in my “real” life.

But I do know that marvelous realizations about scripture tend to occur not when we fly through the text in a checklisty attempt to “read the Book of Mormon in a year,” but when we return to the same passage again and again to think and pray about it.

Maybe instead of setting a reading goal of getting through the entire Book of Mormon, we should focus on two or three chapters . . . and then read them again. And again. And again.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Uugh.

    The word nugatory comes to mind.

  • Ken Dahl

    Rhymes with purgatory.

  • Jonathan Felt

    Learning after the manner of the Jews is an excellent way to understand the precious gift we have in the Book of Mormon! If we didn’t always assume we “have all the truth” we would begin to learn again the peaceable things of the Kingdom. The irony of believing “the Church is True” results in less diligent examination and a built-in disdain for other methods of learning by faith and by study.

  • SGoodman

    This is the first time I’ve ever had anything nice to say about one of your blog posts. This one was fantastic. I’m one of those who fly through the Book of Mormon, read it many times, get less and less new or revelatory out of it. This is going to change my personal study habits for ever. Thank you.

  • Sharon

    Great description! One consequence I’ve noticed from studying scripture is that I find and feel a greater love for others. I absolutely think the people here are fabulous just as they are, but as I’ve been blown away by the generosity of spirit I’ve felt from people during this seminar, I wonder if we’re feeling an even greater bump in goodness from extra time in the scriptures.

  • And somewhere there are Scientologists going over just a few paragraphs a day of L Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. LMAO. Cultmembers are so silly.

  • Daryl Jensen

    Yes, Joseph Smith did make it all up. There are numerous inconsistencies around the story of its creation; and plenty of historical anachronisms in the text itself. It’s sad that so many otherwise smart people allow themselves to be duped by this nonsense.

  • close reader

    To those commenters who’ve scoffed at Jana’s close engagement with this text this week as “nugatory” or “nonsense” I say this: if you really see no value in a group of people gathering together to look closely at a text, to assess its narrative, acknowledge its contradictions, and articulate the ways in which it makes meaning, then probably the sophistication and nuance of an online comments section *is* your most suited reading environment. Texts offer valuable insight into how we understand meaningfulness and into our shared human investments, whether the text under examination represents historical events or fictions (though the line between those positions is pretty nebulous). Your scornful dismissals put you in the same camp as those black-or-white fundamentalists you purport to decry.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    A person may spend hours deep in meditation, examining the lint in their belly button, as they imagine a deeper insight into the universe. They may feel a sort of spiritual awakening as they marvel at the intricate ways the fibers in the lint are interconnected and woven together. They may remove the lint and turn it over in their fingers, even trying to untangle the tiny fibers. They may get a shiver in their spine as they contemplate the unimaginably small probability that the lint took this exact shape and form and that it came to rest in this particular belly button. They may extract all sorts of life lessons from the way the lint blows about in the smallest breeze, catches the light, and evaporates into smoke at the slightest touch of a match.

    But it’s still just lint in a belly button.

    Never mistake the simple act of study (fast or slow) with the acquisition of actual knowledge.

  • close reader

    Nowhere in this post does Jana assert a proof about the text she’s engaging, but rather describes a willingness to consider how meaning gets produced from different perspectives, which strikes me as an utterly humane, civil, and necessary skill to cultivate. We might all practice that approach more than we do.

  • Vman455

    “The irony of this to me is that every time I have engaged in the hard work of burrowing deeply in the Book of Mormon, the center has always held: The book stands up to close scrutiny.”

    That is “assert[ion of] a proof about the text she’s engaging.”

  • close reader

    But “stands up” in what way? She doesn’t say, “Aha! It’s historical fact and my reading has proved it!” The phrasing might just as easily mean “It rewards close attention through expanded insight, and inspires one to contemplate more ethical action.” I can say the same thing about _Paradise Lost_. It categorically does not assert a proof–at least, not the one you’re claiming it does.

  • Nate

    Thanks for this post, Jana. Sounds like a fantastic week. I agree that reading the Book of Mormon closely rather than spending all our time defending or defaming it is a more meaningful activity. I recently read James Faulconer’s excellent book “Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions” (http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/book/scripture-study-tools-and-suggestions/), and it seems to be written in the same vein as your weeklong study. It certainly changed the way I approach the Book of Mormon.

  • Fred M

    From your POV it’s lint in a belly button, Debbie. From other POVs it may be something else. I’d be careful about a certainty that yours is the only POV that’s correct–it’s a dangerous quality in both Mormons and their critics.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    I have a mass spectrometer, a camera, and other scientific instruments in my laboratory. I can use them to quantitatively describe the elemental composition/distribution of the lint and compare the results with a statistical sampling from a wide range of lint from other belly buttons. I can do the same thing with photographs and chemical analysis of body oils found on the lint. There are dozens of scientific tests that can be used to show the fuzz is belly button lint.

    That’s the power of science.

    It’s dangerous to confuse contemplation and “reading slowly” with learning, or to think that all points of view are equal. There is no egalitarianism for hypothesis; some are right, some are wrong, and science is the great decider.

  • Kent Larsen

    Seems like you are really suggesting that anything that can’t be investigated in a quantifiable way, or with whatever you define as “science” isn’t worth anything. Your criticism of this close reading can just as easily be applied to study of Shakespeare, or of the philosophical arguments of Dawkins, for that matter.

    My wife is a scientist. I have a very healthy respect for science. It has brought the world tremendous benefits.

    But the idea that only science has value is narrow and tremendously short sighted.

  • Why is Jacob still so depressed, anxious, and fixated on death after his public triumph over heresy restores his people to righteous living and orthodox belief?

    Good question Jana. I applied to the course but wasn’t accepted. (Given the quality of participants its no surprise.) My answer had to do with Jacob’s account of military conflict. I borrowed from the Mencian view of Chinese thought which believed that a ruler’s righteous should order his realm. If the ruler was righteous enough then all power would flow unto him. Thus fighting in the first place, regardless of his victory, represented a tragic moral failing. If we build upon Grant Hardy’s assertion that Nephi’s command was to keep the family together, warfare against the Lamanites would have been particularly tragic in a number of ways. You can read more about it here: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/futile-victory-in-jacob-726.html

    Thanks for posting this and I hope to read your thoughts soon!

  • Dave Broadbent

    What an incredible experience. I applaud you and your efforts… and the example you put forward of a better way to experience and understand the scriptures. Indeed, real life rarely affords us 8 hours daily for scripture study, but the notion of moving away from check lists and toward deeper study and exploration is one I deeply appreciate.

  • False teaching and heresy are exactly what the Book of Mormon and Mormon doctrine is all about:

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2015/03/progressive-revelation-or-making-god-of.html

  • Noel

    Maybe you should invite Hamblin and Dr Phil Jenkins to discuss their debate they have been having on Patheos.com on the lack of evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have thought. He was shocked at some of the students attitudes towards the Bible and spent his Sundays teaching sunday school in a black church in Harlem.

  • Val Larsen

    Why was Jacob so depressed at the end of his life? Well, apart from constitutional anhedonia, prophetic foreknowledge that his views would ultimately be rejected and those of Sherem accepted by his people may have played a role. Apart from Jacob’s son Enos (whose position in the community is much less exalted than that of Jacob as is that of all subsequent scribes in the family tree), no one specifically mentions Christ during the hundreds of years of land of Nephi history that follows. Judging from the beliefs of Noah and his priests and from the fact that knowledge of Christ had to be restored to Benjamin, it is quite apparent that Sherem’s views, not those of Jacob, ultimately prevailed in the land of Nephi. This probably occurred because Sherem theology didn’t challenge the rule of the kings the way Jacob’s did. After Jacob died, the kings had power to appoint priests who would not challenge his authority and behavior the way Jacob did.

  • Ken Schleede

    I was in the Mormon Church for 15 years. The breathless, amazed tone of the discussion of the Book of Mormon is typical of the cult members. The organization constantly pushes heavy study of the BOM. So much so that the people who really want to study God, have no time for studying the Bible.
    Then too, the LDS indexes and lessons carefully avoid the Bible scriptures that don’t exactly follow along the LDS view of things.
    I was lucky, I listened to a Christian radio station and learned so much about the Bible. When I challenged my Christian friends to learn about the “One True Church” they had answers for me and gave me things to think about. I went back to the Bible to study and show them their errors. Over and over God showed me the truth. He opened my eyes.
    I miss my friends who are still afraid to look beyond the “approved” teachings. Studying intensely like this article discusses is good.
    Apply it to the Bible and the truth will set you free.
    May God Bless…

  • Bill

    You are essentially comparing the reading of an instruction manual with the reading of a poem. I think you have missed the point.

  • THE RED

    Nice comment/rebuttal Close Reader. I was initially put off by the subject, the process, and the actors. By the end of J.R’s blog I saw the picture and got the spirit of her, and her group’s, effort…which you tied up neatly.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    “There is no egalitarianism for hypothesis; some are right, some are wrong, and science is the great decider.” It’s a pity that someone who so badly misunderstands the philosophy of science purports to lecture others on it.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I was in evangelical churches for 20 years, and don’t imagine that the average evangelical understands the Bible much at all. There is certainly a whole lot over which they are prepared to pass very lightly, for no better reason than it fails to fit their preconceptions. My own sense is that serious students of Mormonism understand the Bible better than their so-called Christian brethren.

  • cwandrews

    Yes, hopefully we can all someday obtain Daryl-Esque intelligence and finally reach a higher plane of existence.

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