How 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.
You 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.