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?