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Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Grant Hardy, The Beginning of Wisdom

By: admin - May 02, 2014

scrollToday’s contribution to our “Mormon Studies in the Classroom” series comes from Grant Hardy. Perhaps the foremost scholar on the content of the Book of Mormon, Grant is well known in Mormon studies circles with his Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide and The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition. He is a professor of history and religious studies at UNC-Ashville.

I’ve taught this course a couple of times. It was designed as a freshmen orientation class, which at UNC-Asheville means that it should be of general interest, it can’t count toward a major, and it has to incorporate a number of components on study skills, advising, time management, campus resources, etc. But it is supposed to focus on an academic topic that can engage both the professor and the students. In this case, the topic is a comparative study of world scripture, with readings primarily taken from the opening chapters of sacred texts. (The title “Beginning of Wisdom” is a nod toward Leon Kass’s marvelous book on Genesis.)

Primary Sources:

Genesis (students chose their own translations)
The Daodejing (Philip Ivanhoe’s translation),
The first four parvas of the Mahabharata (in Chakravarthi Narasimhan’s much abbreviated version)
The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels (though not the first of the NT writings)
The first four chapters of the Lotus Sutra (Burton Watson’s translation)
Some of the Meccan suras from the Qur’an (M. A. S. Abdel Haleem’s translation)
First Nephi (I put the pages from my Reader’s Edition on Moodle)

Secondary Sources:

I used the Oxford Very Short Introductions on the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible. The first two were good, the third was not quite as strong and I won’t use it again. I also had students read Michael Sells’s Approaching the Qu’ran, which is extraordinary in its presentation of the lyric qualities of the Qur’an for non-Arabic speakers.

Most of these texts were new to my students, who were in their first semester of college, and even in the South they didn’t know as much as I had hoped they would about the Bible. The opening chapters of each sacred text were enough to give them a sense of their style, themes, insights, and overarching concerns. One of the purposes of the course, appropriate for an general introduction to university studies, was to encourage close reading and demonstrate some of the ways—historical, literary, philological, cultural, moral, sociological—that one might approach rich, complex texts that have motivated, consoled, and enlightened much of humanity.

The outlier, of course, was the Book of Mormon, which I introduced as a relatively recent addition to the library of world scripture. Giving it one week out of the fifteen was probably generous (by contrast, in my recent course for the Teaching Company, I was only able to devote one lecture of thirty-six to LDS scripture). Yet First Nephi worked well; it has a fair amount of action, at least by Book of Mormon standards, plus prophecy, allegory, an apocalyptic vision, doctrinal exposition, and scriptural commentary.

I enjoyed the course, and I think that my students did as well, but I would someday like to teach sacred texts as an upper-division class, especially to religious studies students who had already taken introductory courses on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. That would allow me time to assign larger blocks of primary texts from less familiar religious traditions. In addition to a comprehensive textbook, undoubtedly Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s What Is Scripture? A Comparative Approach, I would divide students into groups that could read and report on commentarial monographs, such as Hans-Georg Moeller’s Philosophy of the Daodejing, Gucharan Dass’s The Difficulty of Being Good, Stephen Teiser and Jacqueline Stone’s Readings of the Lotus Sutra, Ingrid Mattson’s Story of the Qur’an, and who knows, maybe even Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Alternatively, I would love to offer a course on post-canonical scripture, that is, new revelation that seeks to take a place among or over long-established, closed canons. We would start with the Qur’an and then look at more recent examples, including the Zohar, the Adi Granth, the Book of Mormon, and the Baha’i Sacred Writings. These all easily qualify as examples of world scripture, which I would define as sacred texts that have been revered by millions of adherents over several generations and translated into multiple languages. We could contrast these very successful new scriptures with others that are still in the process of emerging (the sacred texts of Tenrikyo and Cao Dai), and revelations that never attracted much of a following. The Book of Mormon is rather unusual in presenting a coherent, integrated, history-like narrative. The Doctrine and Covenants, on the other hand, is much more typical of the writings of recent religious founders. The strengths and weaknesses of LDS scripture, the ways in which they shape and present their message, how they interpret and elaborate earlier canon, and their power in creating a faith community are all much more evident when they are read in a comparative context. There are, of course, many more elements to religion than scripture, but because new sacred texts are at the heart of Mormonism, and because they are so readily comparable across diverse religions, scriptural studies offer a particularly valuable way to understand the Latter-day Saint movement, and for Latter-day Saints to contribute to the field of religious studies.

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12 Comments

  1. What a great topic!

    Grant, if you have a chance, could you talk more about the assignments you give for this class and these readings?

    Comment by g.wesley — May 2, 2014 @ 9:05 am

  2. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Hardy. This sounds like a wonderful class!

    Comment by Christopher — May 2, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

  3. Dr. Hardy, what was the response of students to individual texts? Were they more willing to accept the beauty of some texts than of others? I have always found myself willing to credence to the beauty of the Qu’ran but find similar claims about other spiritual texts baffling.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 2, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

  4. Dr. Hardy, thanks for posting! How do you teach your students to read scriptural texts? Are there different techniques? I have found teaching non-Mormons to read the Book of Mormon presents unique challenges, but they are also generally familiar with the King James-esque prose.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 2, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  5. Dr Hardy, thanks for the post! I’ll echo Joey’s question and add that when I had my students read (parts of) the Book of Mormon, I tried to get them to read it as a devotional text or at the very least with that in mind. Half of my students had no experience at all with sacred texts of any kind, and it was really slow going for a while there. I’ll definitely have to rethink that part if I teach that course again and I’m curious to how others do it.

    Comment by Saskia — May 2, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

  6. Great post. I’d be interested in hearing a little bit more about your experience with The Teaching Company, Professor Hardy. I bought one of the courses for a road trip a while ago (Allen Guelzo’s The American Mind) and was unexpectedly impressed. Also, I’m at Chicago and just met Michael Sells the other day. I don’t know much about his scholarship, but a delightful guy.

    Comment by Ryan T. — May 2, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

  7. For anyone interested, Grant’s course for the Teaching Company on “Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition” is not to be missed, and more than worth the price. It’s THAT good.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 2, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

  8. Just FYI: Grant has limited access to the internet for the next few days, so he may be a tad slow in response to questions.

    Comment by Ben P — May 2, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

  9. Thanks for posting Grant. Those Oxford Very Short Introductions are pretty great.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — May 2, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

  10. This is terrific. A comparative look at scripture, sacred texts is a PERFECT first year seminar for lots of reasons. (Inclusion of the Book of Mormon makes a lot of sense in this way, since it is a text which is sacred both because it reads like other scriptures but also because of its overlaid divine origins narrative, itself as a representation of what Catherine Albanese calls extraordinary religion exemplified).

    I have thought a lot about first year seminars – they are their own genre of teaching – as I teach one every year for honors students. They have to be both broad and narrow, and the skills students should emerge from them possessing lay a critical foundation for the rest of their academic life. At least on our campus, the ideal is: ability to contribute meaningfully to discussion in a seminar setting and to present one’s scholarly work in a public forum or presentation, information literacy with regard to both online and written sources (which includes learning to actually enter & use the library), critical thinking, general successful transition from HS learning to college learning, and (though this is a bit vague, I think it’s the unspoken assumption) broadening students’ horizons in some highly disruptive way by forcing them to encounter difference & grapple with it.

    What strikes me about your seminar (which hits on all those pistons), is that it also fosters something I consider totally essential to first-year seminar pedagogy, and that’s helping students develop strategic and careful reading skills for approaching the wide variety of texts they will encounter both in their college years and in their adult life. This is a critically important concept: that different kinds of texts require different ways of reading, interpreting, and if students encounter it in their first semester of college you are doing them a giant favor.

    Comment by Tona H — May 3, 2014 @ 8:14 am

  11. Thanks for commenting, everyone. Remember that these were first-year students. World scriptures can often be unfammiliar, challenging texts and my goal was often just to get students to look at and appreciate what made these sacred writings so compelling to insiders.

    As for the Book of Mormon, the KJV-like language was definitely a struggle for them (even though my students at UNCA are fairly strong), but Lehi’s Dream of the Tree provided a useful entry. Allegory is easier to understand and connect with than many other scritpural genres.

    Tona H.- We’re thinking the same ways about the purposes of these sorts of class.

    Comment by Grant Hardy — May 4, 2014 @ 11:54 pm

  12. love it, Grant. Wish I could take your class.

    Comment by BHodges — May 8, 2014 @ 5:14 pm