Thursday, July 1, 2010

Exegesis in the Book of Mormon

On November 28, 1841 Joseph Smith met in the council with the Twelve Apostles and afterword wrote the following: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (DHC 4:461)  This quote is now found in the introduction of latest edition of the Book of Mormon, a reminder of the book’s importance to our faith.

One of the most detailed scholarly works on the Book of Mormon is written by Terryl Givens, titled By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.  Givens’ book follows the history of the Book of Mormon’s importance in the church and its impact on the religious world.  One theme Givens repeats throughout is that the presence of the book itself has often been more important to believers than the actual content of the book.  He proposed that “the book’s primary claim to the reader’s attention will be as a pointer to meaning, rather than an embodiment of meaning.”

“This fact is made clear in the rhetoric of conversion as expressed by virtually every convert to Mormonism.  The typical conversion account would seldom include a statement such as, ‘I studied the Book of Mormon and found the doctrinal exposition of the atonement as recorded in Alma 42 especially compelling.’  The near-universal formula would read more like Mormon luminary Parley P. Pratt’s: ‘As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true.’” [1]

Reading Givens’ book made me to consider how the practice of exegesis is applied or can be applied to the Book of Mormon the way it is done using the Bible.  Exegesis, defined broadly, is the explanation or interpretation of a text.  There is a rich history of exegesis applied to Biblical texts and his been responsible for most major developments in Christian theology.  Biblical exegesis can be said to have had a tremendous impact on Mormon theology in particular as well considering that many of the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants were revelatory responses to Joseph Smith’s new translation of the Bible.

I will borrow an idea from Terryl Givens here, hopefully in a way he would approve, and say that Book of Mormon exegesis falls into two categories:

1.  Examination of the text of the book to understand its meaning
2.  Using the text as a means to receive revelation from God

Granted, both of these methods can and have been used in Biblical exegesis but I think the first has been used more especially.  The strength of the Book of Mormon exegesis has usually been of the second kind.  It is not bad that the Bible and Book of Mormon have been used in these ways, but there is also opportunity to develop spirituality further by trying both exegetical approaches to both works of scripture.  For example, the Bible can be read in a way to feel the power of God.  Readers can pray about the Bible to know by the power of the Holy Ghost if its words are true (Moroni 10:4-5).  Historically, this has been seen in the practice of lectio divina.  The Book of Mormon can also be read to develop a deeper understanding of atonement, agency, grace, the godhead, and the first principles of the Gospel.

These two approaches are by no means mutually exclusive and can in fact be mutually fulfilling.  The Book of Mormon has been and remains the most powerful tool for conversion experience in the Mormon faith.  There is a power in it that turns its readers to Christ.  The Book of Mormon also contains some of the most profound lessons of any work of scripture.  These lessons can be explicit in the form of sermons and doctrinal explanations.  The lessons can also be woven into the stories of the lives of these ancient people, from which the deeper meaning must be deciphered.  Undertaking this work of theological, literary exploration is a challenging but ultimately rewarding effort that further deepens the revelatory encounter with God just as in the first instance of conversion.

1.  Givens, Terryl. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. Oxford. 2002. p. 235

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