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

By: Ben P - September 04, 2009

Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford’s Very Short Introduction Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 125 pp + appendixes and index.

If you are looking for a book that focuses on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, what it tells us about antebellum religious culture, or even how it shaped (or was shaped by) Joseph Smith’s mind, then this is not the book for you. Instead, Terryl Givens argues that such questions have made us overlook the actual text. Echoing Thomas Odea’s statement half a century ago that the Book of Mormon has been considered one of those texts that one does not have to read in order to form an opinion, Givens claims that arguments over the Book’s origins have resulted in the text’s “pages…[being] rendered largely silent” (5). Instead, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction is designed to focus primarily on what has been overlooked: the book itself. And Givens means it; besides a few passing references (pages 4, 34, 39, and 70), the reader is not even introduced to the book’s translator until page 90. In essence, Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church, and even the book’s reception are at most an afterthought in Givens’s volume, with the majority devoted to allowing “the record tell its own story” (5).

By temporarily shelving Joseph Smith and focusing on the text within the Book of Mormon’s covers, Givens accomplishes several things. First, he is most likely introducing the Book’s intricate makeup, narrative, and overall theology to many readers for the first time; by removing the text from the throes of Mormon history, unacquainted readers may be able to view the purported scripture with fresh eyes. Instead of just using the Book of Mormon as a proof text to try and map early Mormon theology, we are forced to consider the text on its own terms. And second, Givens introduces the readers to the many intricacies, themes, and insights that we have come to expect from his writings—indeed, intricacies, themes, and insights we often forget are even in the Book of Mormon as a result of our general scholarly neglect of what it actually says.

In Givens’s portrayal, the Book of Mormon is a text centered on the individual. Nephi’s insistence, to the point of redundancy, that the text is a literal record of his own hand demonstrates the personal nature of the volume (7); the writers’ obsession over provenance and an unbroken chain of commission reveals the intimate nature of the book (8-9). Indeed, Givens writes, this personal touch makes the Book of Mormon resemble more of a “sacred relic” than a mere impersonal “repository” (12). Thematically, Givens presents 6 central concepts: the pluralism of prophets and prophecy (20), Christocentrism (25), varieties of Zion (31), new (re?) configurations of scripture (34), and the centrality of the family (41). Doctrinally, Givens admits that not much is “surprising” to classic Christianity (69), but that most of it resembles the Pauline epistles (71). It’s main theological divergences, however, are its clarity of revealed Christianity in Old Testament time (25) and the concept of a “fortunate fall” (75). While the scripture’s treatment of atonement is rather “conventional” by Protestant standards, it does offer a compelling framework in which justice, mercy, and moral agency can be satisfied (78-79).

There is much to like in this volume. I especially enjoyed his argument that literary comparisons between the Book of Mormon and the Bible are largely unfair, because the former text is more of a “clan history” than the other, and thus is more focused on history than aesthetic literary writings. A more apt comparison, he claims, would be to the Books of Chronicles or Judges, which are much more similar in genre (60-61). He admits that the text is at times tough to drudge through, partly because of its “tendency to abruptly shift the ground under our feet” as it moves from one theme or story to the next (21), and partly because it suffers from “deadening formulaic repetitions.” Yet, he reminds us, “these are more than compensated for by moments of conspicuous poetry, pathos, and literary complexity” (68). I especially enjoyed Givens’s description of how the Book shifts audience, beginning first with a “clan history” that is for Nephite descendents during the writings of Nephi, to the future target audience of the displaced Lamanites during the majority of the text, and finally to Mormon and Moroni’s post-Christ’s ministry writings which are designed for the entire House of Israel—rather by birth or adoption (85-89).

Of course, there were a few things that raised my eyebrows. His depiction of how the Book of Mormon placed more emphasis on the importance scriptures than traditional Christianity (16) did not ring true to me, especially when considering sola scriptura Protestantism. He also seemed to establish a Protestant strawman when arguing for the uniqueness of Mormonism’s dialogic revelation (20-21), not engaging the religious figures or groups throughout time that also believed in some form of communicative, divine inspiration. And finally, when claiming that baptism does not play a major role in the text (73-74), he seems to ignore the importance placed on it during Christ’s ministry to the Nephites (3 Nephi 11). These and other quibbles, however, do not take away from the overall quality of Givens’s volume.

My main thought from reading the Introduction, however, does not come from the text itself, but rather from a question the book’s framework raises: beyond Latter-day Saint members who accept the claims of the Book of Mormon, who else desires this type of textual? As Givens himself mentions, a majority of scholars treat the Book of Mormon as evidence of Joseph Smith’s developing theology, as a reflection of the religious climate of the Second Great Awakening, or as a key to understanding the early Mormon movement. From Alexander Campbell in the 1830s to Dan Vogel of the 2000s, most non-believers dig in the text for Joseph Smith’s mind. While I would like to think otherwise, I’m just not sure how interested people are in the characters, narratives, and themes of the Book of Mormon once it is separated from the Joseph Smith story. Terryl Givens argues (in my opinion, persuasively) that the text’s coming forth story and background must be (temporarily) shelved in order to take the Book of Mormon on its own terms, but are historical scholars, literary critics, religious students, or even the average reader ready and willing to do that?

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20 Comments

  1. Nice review, Ben. This makes two VSI volumes directed at Mormonism, one by Bushman and one by Givens. I’m surprised they are willing to give us that much shelf space.

    Comment by Dave — September 4, 2009 @ 6:49 am

  2. The Mormon portal at Patheos will have an interview with Givens about VSI up early next week.

    Comment by Ben — September 4, 2009 @ 8:57 am

  3. Thanks, Ben. Unfortunately, I think you’re right. I imagine that even literary scholars, who I assume would be more interesting in getting into the narrative structure than historians, would want to contextualize the book within its 19th century American milieu.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2009 @ 9:23 am

  4. Nice post, Ben! I think that Givens approach could be useful, since the Book of Mormon as a text has a life apart from its author/translator, Joseph Smith. Paul Ricoeur talks about a text having a kind of “semantic autonomy” or life of its own once it proceeds forth from an author. This means that whatever the intention of the author may have been, the text is not bound by that once it leaves the author. Another way of approaching this is to think of the Book of Mormon as a “classic” text. David Tracy would suggest that a text that is a classic carries with a “surplus of meaning” that goes beyond simply authorial intent, too. Folks that study hermeneutics would have a lot more to say about this than I can.

    Comment by David Howlett — September 4, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  5. Thanks for the write up. I was worried this would be a retread of “By the Hand of Mormon.” (not that that is a bad thing. It is the best book on the Book of Mormon to date). I will definitely be picking this up.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2009 @ 9:45 am

  6. Dave, you all are keeping OUP in business, or at least profitable.

    Seriously, I agree with you, Ben, that not too many outsiders would be interested in plunging through even a 100 pages on the BOM. But count me in. I taught a graduate seminar on a variety of Mormon sources last night, including BOM selections and Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s introduction (very helpful as a brief intro). I probably wouldn’t assign the VSI to my students, but I will read it myself, and it will probably help me teach the topic more intelligently. [Along with that goes my own confession that reading the whole BOM has remained a haphazard and incomplete project on this end].

    My students, all non-LDS, had mixed reactions to the text. Several thought the BOM very reminiscent of the Bible. One in particular thought some of the passages were beautiful.

    Comment by John T. — September 4, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  7. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Another result of this tension (i.e., not knowing which cultural framework in which to place the Book of Mormon) is the problem of comparative analysis: Givens is constantly switching back and forth (perhaps unconsciously or unavoidably) between comparing the text to works of the Old Testament period and works of Joseph Smith’s period.

    Comment by Ben — September 4, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  8. Thanks for the review, Ben. I like what David Howlett gets at in his comment. I do think “outsiders” might find it interesting to read passages from the BoM to compare how LDS in the 19th century understood them and how LDS today use them. Does the narrative matter now more than then? What about authors and characters in the text?

    Comment by Christopher — September 4, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  9. Thanks for your insights, John. I have a non-LDS friend who is getting her PhD. under Wigger at MU and is writing on a Mormon topic. She forced her way through the BoM, but complained a lot about the prose and the occasional backtracking. I joked with her that non-Mormons might have found the book much easier to read if God had picked Parley Pratt to translate rather than JS, given Pratt’s abilities with the English language. When I’ve mentioned the joke to my Mormon non-academic friends, they look at me like I’ve apostatized or something.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  10. Howlett’s comment just made my head start spinning in remembrance of my class on postmodernism. :) But, it is dead-on.

    Comment by Ben — September 4, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  11. After reading some of the comments, I think I agree that scholars using reader-response and reception theories would be interested in the text itself just as much if not more than the book’s origin story and JS’s relation to the text. But even these these aspects would still play a role in that type of analysis, since whether a reader is approaching the BoM as an ancient text, a 19th century work, or some type of combination of the two, JS’s relationship with the text is still important in shaping response.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  12. I wasn’t aware of this book and will be popping over to Amazon to order a copy; thanks for a thorough and thoughtful review.

    As to its possible audience — Grant Hardy in his introduction to Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (also just published) argues that it really is time for the Book of Mormon to be give the same scholastic consideration as many other world scriptural works that are given such consideration, regardless of their respective provenances. I don’t know that this will happen, but I thought Hardy made a solid case for it. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — September 4, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  13. I remember Richard Bushman once discussing his (as yet unsuccessful ) efforts to promote the idea that the Book of Mormon should be studied as literature in universities, if not only for the book’s great impact on American religious history and the emerging cultural force of Mormons. This idea will continue to meet resistance as long as the actual content of the book is viewed as irrelevant to answering current, significant religious and/or sociological questions. Although it may be impossible, and perhaps ultimately undesirable, to study the textual merits of any significant literary text without analyzing its author and cultural context, perhaps it is possible in some cases to shift at least the preponderance of the attention toward the textual merits. This would not require an abandonment of the broader contextual analysis, but would give a fuller homage to the independence of the message. In other words, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation: either all context and no text, or all text and no context. A certain mixture of both is necessary. In certain course offerings at a variety of schools and universities, the Bible has long been studied as literature first, and as cultural artifact second. Furthermore, I would think that anyone attempting to understand the inner life of Mormons would likewise want to study the inner message of the Book of Mormon, i.e. the book’s moral and spiritual architectonics. After all, it is the book’s content, rather than its provenance, that gives the book relevance. Revelation, without content, does not stick.

    Comment by Nathan N. — September 4, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  14. Ben, thank you for this review. I think David G.’s second comment about his non-academic Mormon friends’ response to his translation suggestion raises another question, a variation on your penultimate question. In your opinion, would this book even appeal to non-academic Mormons, those who are less interested in textual analysis and more interested in simply seeing the BOM as affirming JS’s prophetic role?

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 4, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  15. Elizabeth: great question. I’ve read several books on the BoM that are designed for the non-academic Mormon audience, and I am never really satisfied (Holland’s book being the only exception). Perhaps it’s because I’m becoming an intellectual snob, but I found Given’s book much more intellectually satisfying and more reaffirming to the Book of Mormon that I know and love–there were several insights that I thought were outright brilliant. And, I know that it is not only Mormons in the academy who would appreciate these insights; my mom, for instance, really enjoyed the book. So, I do there there is a type of non-academic Mormon who would appreciate this volume. (I also liked that Givens quoted from the NRSV Bible in the text)

    However, there are some things that probably wouldn’t feel right with some members–Givens’s admission that the majority of the text is rather difficult to read, for instance (even though deep down they probably agree). And for those who just want to be fed spiritual twinkies, this book doesn’t satisfy that craving either.

    Comment by Ben — September 4, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  16. That is heartening, Ben. I appreciate that Givens makes conversation necessary in a way that is acceptable to many. I will pick up the book. Thanks again for the review! :)

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 4, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  17. Nice work, Ben. I am glad to see Givens – as a literary scholar – emphasizing a literary approach to the Book of Mormon. As many have said (and it sounds like Givens emphasizes), the text of the Book of Mormon has not been thoroughly engaged. Historical study of the book is rich but complicated and challenging for most. A literary approach is exciting for many reasons, but an important one is that makes the text more accessible to any/all.

    Comment by Ryan T — September 4, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

  18. Great review, Ben. Thanks!

    Comment by Jared T — September 6, 2009 @ 1:20 am

  19. I’m really happy to see something like this. I think what Givens has done is important and may be helpful to many people. But you are right to be concerned about people’s interest in the book itself away from Joseph Smith. I think a lot of investigators have to put the Joseph Smith story to the side until they have a testimony of the Book of Mormon. We can only hope that people will look at any and every aspect of Mormonism with open eyes.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — September 10, 2009 @ 3:15 am

  20. Q&A with Givens about A Very Short Introduction

    Comment by Ben — September 10, 2009 @ 11:28 am