The Book of Mormon as Literature - Grant Hardy
Grant Hardy became intrigued with world religions, especially those of East Asia, as a young missionary. He has reasearched and written widely on various topics, but his study of the Book of Mormon led him to publish two landmark books that share important insights.
In his brief overview to Understanding the Book of Mormon, Hardy gives us ten observations about the Book of Mormon:
- It is a long book.
- It is written in a somewhat awkward, repetitious form of English.
- It imitates the style of the King James Version.
- It claims to be history.
- It presents a complicated narrative.
- It is a religious text.
- It is basically a tragedy.
- It is very didactic.
- It is a human artifact.
- Its basic structure is derived from the three narrators.
It is this last observation that forms the thesis for the majority of his work. Hardy contends that “If you’re not seeing the narrators at every turn, you’re not really reading the Book of Mormon–because that’s how the book is constructed, regardless of who the author(s) may have been.”
The three main narrators (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) each had distinct approaches as they presented history and revelation in their writings.
Join Laura Harris Hales as she has an enjoyable back-and-forth with an outstanding Book of Mormon scholar.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 19: The Book of Mormon as Literature with Grant Hardy
Laura Hales: Hello. I’m Laura Harris Hales, your host for this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast. Today I’m here with Grant Hardy, author of Understanding the Book of Mormon. We will be talking about another strategy to enhance our study of the Book of Mormon. Grant Hardy is professor of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina in Asheville.
He has a bachelor’s in Ancient Greek from Brigham Young University and a PhD in Chinese language and literature from Yale. He has authored books on diverse topics such as Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo and Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. He’s also edited The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, Enduring Ties: Poems of Family Relationships, and the Oxford History of Historical Writing, Voume 1. Grant’s “Sacred Texts of the World,” a 36-lecture course for the Teaching Company was released in 2015 and follows his earlier course “Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition.” Grant and his wife, Heather, have two children. Welcome, Grant.
Grant Hardy: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Laura Hales: I have a stepson who is fluent in Chinese. How did you get interested in the Chinese language?
Grant Hardy: I went on a mission to Taiwan and learned Chinese there and became very interested in Chinese literature and history and philosophy. So the family joke is I went there as a missionary, and they sort of converted me a little bit. I think it happens fairly often.
Laura Hales: I think so, too. I have a lot of friends who went to Chinese-speaking missions, and they loved the people and loved the culture. From your bio, it appears that you are intrigued by world religions and those of the Far East, of course, because of China in particular. Can you pinpoint where that interest first developed?
Grant Hardy: Sure. It came from the mission. As you know, missionaries are pretty restricted in what they’re allowed to read and study because they’re focusing on missionary work. But in our mission, the mission president said that anything having to do with Chinese culture might be appropriate to help us be better missionaries. I found that Chinese culture was a vast, rich, sort of treasure trove of ideas and heritage and history. I used to get up an hour earlier than the mission rule, so I would have some time to read some Chinese literature and materials. That’s when it all started, I think.
Laura Hales: That’s great. Outside of Christian religious texts, which text seems to resonate with you most?
Grant Hardy: I really like Confucianism and the Analects of Confucius. I like what he says about community and how people are shaped by relationships that they have and the kind of harmony that can come in relationships from ritualized or customary sort of negotiations of giving and taking. Yeah, I think it helps me be a better Mormon in some ways.
I like Buddhism. I’m intrigued by the notions of there not being a self, which is kind of diametrically opposite to what we think of because we think of eternal selves, but that critique of selfhood is something that I find interesting and provocative. Then probably Jewish texts. I know it’s part of the Christian Bible, but I think as Christians, as Latter-day Saints, sometimes we don’t spend as much time as we could in the prophets. I like Deuteronomy. I like ideas of social justice and God’s holiness. I find those themes to be fascinating.
Laura Hales: I think you’re the first person I’ve interviewed who has listed Deuteronomy as their favorite book.
Grant Hardy: It’s an awesome book.
Laura Hales: Yeah. We often think Mosaic law codes.
Grant Hardy: Right. There’s that in there, and those are interesting to look at as well sort of the sensibilities that come from ideas of justice and about how we treat those who are vulnerable. Those seem really important in Christian morality because they come out of Jewish morality.
Laura Hales: You teach religion as a professor of comparative religions. Am I correct?
Grant Hardy: Yes, sometimes I do. I have a joint appointment in the history department and in religious studies. Mostly I teach Asian history. Every so often I get to teach courses on comparative religions. One of the courses that I teach with some regularity is world scripture. That gives me a chance to delve into some of those different groups or traditions.
Laura Hales: I wonder if you even touch on the Book of Mormon in that class.
Grant Hardy: I do. We have room for a couple of days on the Book of Mormon. Something that I have come to appreciate is how well the Book of Mormon kind of stacks up against other world scriptures. I think sometimes as Latter-day Saints we tend to be so focused on our own tradition that we don’t get a sense of how we might fit into wider traditions or conversations. The Book of Mormon is an impressive scripture.
Laura Hales: Which brings us to our topic of today: how we can study the Book of Mormon and get more out of it? You have written quite a bit about taking a narrative approach to studying the Book of Mormon. When I first heard that, I thought, of course, every child takes a narrative approach to the Book of Mormon. If you sit a 10 year old down, you can get the whole story in about five minutes. Okay, Nephi and his family left their home; Nephi broke his bow; they built a ship; they came to the Americas. I think sometimes the narrative element gets in the way of us seeing the book as scripture. Do you think that’s ever a problem?
Grant Hardy: I like stories, and the Book of Mormon has lots of stories. Oftentimes when we think of narrative, we’re thinking of those stories. I meant something a little bit different. Which, I think, we need to look at the Book of Mormon as stories that are told by somebody for a particular audience. When I talk about a narrative approach, I mean let’s look at the narrators, and let’s think about the process of how those stories come into our hands.
Stories are shaped by the inclinations or by the agendas of the people who are telling those stories. Sometimes I use an example of comparing the Book of Mormon to the Odyssey. We know some of the stories from there. You may remember about the Sirens or the Scylla and those were kind of exciting stories. When you read Homer’s Odyssey, those stories are not told directly. Those stories are told in a flashback. Odysseus is telling those stories to a very particular audience for a particular purpose and that adds another layer of meaning and interpretation.
I think that’s what we get in the Book of Mormon. Mormon is telling us stories, or we could start with Nephi who is telling us stories, but he’s telling the stories for a particular reason. He has some idea of who his audience is, and he wants to evoke a particular kind of response and that makes it interesting to read for me. It makes it interesting to read in that way.
Laura Hales: In our manuals and how we’ve been taught, often we don’t view the Book of Mormon in the traditional Israelite-type of religious history where history was used in a fluid manner. Are you saying with these stories that the narrators Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni are not just trying to tell us the history of their civilization but actually give us a message in the way they are forming their stories and how they are putting the facts together. What they choose to share and what they choose not to share.
Grant Hardy: What a nice way of putting things. That’s exactly what I mean. That’s also true with the Gospels in the New Testament. We have four different Gospels, and they share some stories, but they’re not really biographies of Jesus. In fact, they leave out most of his life, but the authors of those Gospels want to share a theological message through the history. That’s what Mormon, Moroni, and Nephi do.
I think they want to share a theological message. They testify of Christ and tell us how we can come to Christ and be converted. To do that, they share some stories from their life. But the point isn’t here’s my life or here’s the history of the Nephites. The point is here’s what you need to know to encourage you to come to God and some ideas for how that can happen that conversion process.
Laura Hales: Before we get into how these different narrators were presenting their story and what their primary message was, I want to go to your beginning of your book Understanding the Book of Mormon. You called it “a brief overview.”
Grant Hardy: Right.
Laura Hales: I felt the brief overview had enough ideas in it for at least a volume or two, which goes to something I heard you say once. You wanted the idea- to-page ratio to be high for this book. What did you mean by that?
Grant Hardy: I meant sometimes I’m frustrated when I read church books about scripture where most of what’s happening is paraphrased. They’re retelling the stories, and I wanted to present something that gave a lot of analysis, a lot of ideas, a lot of interpretation because I assume that most Mormons already know the stories pretty well. They’re things that we’ve read since we were in primary or heard in Family Home Evening or Sunday School. I wanted to try to give sort of new approaches, new insights or observations, new ways of looking at them. That was my goal in doing that.
One of the reasons that perhaps that was possible is because this book comes out of the earlier book that I did when I edited The Book of Mormon the Reader’s Edition of The Book of Mormon and in trying to figure out the different components of the text and how they fit together. The narrators came through pretty well or pretty obviously. Then Heather my wife, and I have been talking about the Book of Mormon for many years, so what you see and understand in Understanding the Book of Mormon is kind of a condensed version of a decade worth of conversations.
Laura Hales: Some of our listeners may not be aware of the Reader’s Edition. I just became aware of it about eight months ago when my family decided we were going to read the Book of Mormon together. It was part of a challenge in our ward. I picked it up just for something new. I love it because it’s big. It has big pages. We could scribble all over it and make notes. Explain a little bit what you did with the Reader’s Edition.
Grant Hardy: It’s not a particularly revolutionary idea. I took the text of the Book of Mormon, actually the 1920 text, which is in public domain, and then I reformatted it so that it looks like modern translations of the Bible. I put it into paragraphs. I put in quotation marks. I put the poetry in poetic form. The words are all the same, but it just looks a little different when you look at it on the page. I added some subject headings as well as some topical headings, so that when you flip the pages you can pretty much tell how the story is developing and who is speaking and what the context is.
For me it makes it a lot easier not just to read it through but also to keep in mind the narrative context of how the different parts fit together. It was a lot of fun to put together. It actually took me a long time to put together because I tried to do a good job. Then it’s the version that I read most of the time now. It’s actually hard for me to find things in the blue Book of Mormon because I’m used to seeing things sort of on the page and remembering, “Oh yeah this comes in this sermon that was said by this prophet or this person at this particular time when he was speaking to these people.” I think that’s a good way to read the Book of Mormon.
Laura Hales: Yeah. I can’t recall the answer to this question, so I’ll ask you to see if you know it. I know there wasn’t a lot of punctuations or any or verses in the original copy of the Book of Mormon.
Grant Hardy: That’s correct.
Laura Hales: Were there chapter headings?
Grant Hardy: There were chapter divisions in the original manuscript. Those first chapters that were longer than the chapters that we have now. Those were shortened in 1876. From Royal Skousen’s work, it appears that those original chapter divisions were on the gold plates, so that’s sometimes fun to see which stories Mormon put in the same chapters. The punctuation and the paragraphing was all added by the non-Mormon typesetter for the 1830 edition. Mostly we’ve kept that punctuation. He did a pretty good job with it, but there are places that it could be changed, that it could be improved a little bit.
The Book of Mormon was first published in paragraphs, but those were long paragraphs. I think he used “And it came to pass” as a paragraph marker. Sometimes the paragraphs are short, and then sometimes they go on for a couple of pages. Then those went away when it was divided into verses that’s again in 1876.
Laura Hales: I noticed you can see the poetry better.
Grant Hardy: Right.
Laura Hales: You can see the “woe, woe, woe” better.
Grant Hardy: Yeah, it helps bring out some of the structure that I think is in the text. When I first started working on the Reader’s Edition of The Book of Mormon, I just took a regular Book of Mormon, and I put some lines in where I thought the paragraphs should go, and I wasn’t sure that it would even go into paragraphs, but it actually goes pretty well.
The sermons have arguments that are developed over time. The narrative sort of flows, and it seems like they were fairly logical places where there was a shift in topic, or the narrative would take a change. There’s a reason why every other book you read is divided into paragraphs because it just makes it easier to follow what’s going on. It gives some coherence to the work.
Laura Hales: I think you were successful because I thought I would read this book and then as we’re reading the Book of Mormon I would be able to interject as we went along these little ideas very subtly, and I realized very quickly that you have enough material in this book for me to do that for the next twenty years. I had to stop after this section and say, “Okay, now we can read. Now let’s stop. Let’s go on.”
Grant Hardy: Is that the Reader’s Edition or Understanding the Book of Mormon?
Laura Hales: In Understanding the Book of Mormon you put so many ideas in there where you say, “Think about this think or about that.” Just going back to the “brief overview,” you listed ten things that made the Book of Mormon interesting but not interesting enough to study deeply. Well, I must be simple because I’ve been thinking about just these little ideas since I read them. Number one is “it’s a long book.” Just think about that. Why would he translate so much?
Grant Hardy: I’m glad to hear that it gave you lots of ideas because part of the point of this book is I was hoping that it would start conversations because there’s so much more to say and so much more to see in the Book of Mormon. Starting with the first observation. It is interesting that it’s a long book, and that’s a little bit unexpected because if the point of the book is it’s another testimony of Jesus Christ, and it represents revelation that came to Joseph Smith.
An angel brought it, and it shows that there’s a God, and he’s intervening in human history, and he’s called a prophet. You could do all of that with just 1 Nephi. You don’t need this sort of long complicated book that we have. So that makes me think, “Well, maybe there is something to this long complicated book.” What is God trying to communicate by giving us a scripture that’s this long that has these many moving parts in it?
Laura Hales: Plus at the end it’s kind of ragtag. I think, a little bit, not as tight as 1 Nephi. You could disagree. We’ll talk about the different narrators and their talents. He was out of food — Joseph was — had to go live with the Whitmers — was a little tense a little crowded there. He could have quit at page 300 if he really wanted to.
Grant Hardy: No, I don’t think he could have. I think the Book of Mormon came in a—
Laura Hales: No, I meant if he were just doing it to do it. Yeah.
Grant Hardy: Sure.
Laura Hales: Let’s stop after Christ arrives on the continent.
Grant Hardy: Yeah. One of the odd things about the Book of Mormon is it’s not written in chronological detail because the Jaredite stuff comes at the end, even though it’s before Nephi, but it wasn’t translated in chronological detail, either. It looks like from our best studies that after the loss of the 116 pages that Joseph and Oliver continued with Mosiah and went to the end of the book and then came back to 1 Nephi and did the small plates. I guess he could have quit at the end of Moroni, but it would have left a huge hole.
Laura Hales: True. Another thing I picked out from your overview was that it’s very didactic, and I thought, “Yeah, we know the good guys and the bad guys. There’s no question. It’s black and white.” You said, “You know I find it very interesting that there’s no stories of good men gone bad.”
Grant Hardy: Yeah. I remember when I realized that, it just seemed like a strange kind of thing. Because we’ve got stories in the Book of Mormon about bad people who became good like Alma the Younger or Zeezrom but none going the opposite direction. I don’t know why that is. Part of the fun of being at this point in Book of Mormon studies is that I think there’s still lots of observations to make just about the text as a whole, or the kinds of themes, or the way they handle various theological points.
Laura Hales: I’m starting to enjoy more and more of the type of books that don’t tell me answers but say, “Think about this.”
Grant Hardy: That’s because you’re getting older and wiser probably.
Laura Hales: Probably, and I’m seeing gray more in my life than black and white, I guess. The last thing I want to talk about —
Grant Hardy: No, no, no. Before you leave that …
Laura Hales: Okay.
Grant Hardy: Seeing gray more in your life is exactly what I hope to convey in Understanding the Book of Mormon because the Book of Mormon works on multiple levels. The narratives, and I just mean the stories, are pretty didactic. As you say, it’s not hard to tell who are the good guys and the bad guys or what we’re supposed to think about all this. But when you add another level of detail where you think about the narrators and what they’re trying to convey by telling these stories in these ways then things get more interesting.
Perhaps Laman and Lemuel weren’t quite as bad as we sometimes assume in primary or perhaps Nephi had difficulties of his own that we see kind of get worked out in the text. It’s interesting that 1 Nephi seems to talk about physical deliverance. Second Nephi, that’s hardly anybody’s favorite book, has started to become more of my favorite book as I’ve become older, as I see more gray in my life because I see Nephi is struggling with some issues of spiritual deliverance.
He’s trying to understand his own life that I’m not sure turned out quite the way that he had hoped and finds some reconciliation and finds some understanding about the ways of God in his own life. I’ll give you just an example of the kinds of things. When Heather sent me to do this interview, she sent me with some notes as well. No wonder I love that woman.
Laura Hales: I love that.
Grant Hardy: Let me see if I can find what she had said. She even typed them out, so I could read them, which is so nice. Let’s see. Oh, here she pointed out Mormons get excited about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, which is a way of structuring some material, and it’s kind of exciting and happens in a few places. Something that happens much more commonly is something called the inclusio where you’ll see a phrase kind of at the beginning of a passage, and then you’ll see the same phrase or a combination of phrases at the end of a passage. It tends to sort of mark it off and give it a kind of coherence.
This is evidence, I suppose, that the Book of Mormon was very carefully constructed. It’s a literary device. You teach English right? You probably know all about this. Heather had pointed out that at the end of 2 Nephi — the Reader’s Edition is too big for me to carry around on the airplane so I took this one out of the Marriott Hotel this morning, but I’m going to return it back to them — 2 Nephi 33:6, see how fast I can turn to this.
Laura Hales: Chase.
Grant Hardy: Yeah. You are a seminary teacher as well. All right, 2 Nephi 33:6, Nephi says,“I glory in plainness; I glory in the truth; I glory in my Jesus for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.” Heather said, “Did you ever notice that that happens in 2 Nephi 1:15?” In that case, it’s Lehi who is saying it who says, “Behold the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.”
Okay, we’ve talked about the Book of Mormon lots of times. When I saw her notes here, I said, “Didn’t we ever talk about that? I don’t remember that. That seems like a new thing.” But it means that 2 Nephi is beginning with the same phrase or near the beginning and that phrase is picked up again at the end, which gives it some parenthesis around it or it gives some cohesion. It also shows that Lehi is at a place at the beginning of 2 Nephi where Nephi doesn’t really get until the end of 2 Nephi.
There’s a lot that happens in between before he is able to make that same affirmation that his father made. That’s a story that’s not told on the surface, but that’s a story that’s interesting to me. How does Nephi come to the same kind of testimony that his father had? Apparently through a process of many years and a lot of thoughtful reflection and a lot of reflection about Isaiah as well thinking about how the scriptures might illuminate his own experience and his own life.
Okay, those are the sorts of things that you start noticing — patterns and word plays and repetitions that start to come forth. When you think about who wrote this and how did they structure that material in ways that make sense? That’s an example maybe of how narrative reading can add something to just reading the narratives.
Laura Hales: The trick here is you don’t just pick up the book and start reading to the end. You have to read it in sections. You tell the story of how Heather has bound little sections of your book together, so you can read it over and over and over again. I found as a Gospel Doctrine teacher I finally had to delve deep into the scriptures because anyone who has taught that class suddenly you’re like, “Okay, this is prime time now. I’ve got to know what I’m talking about.” I didn’t understand 3 Nephi 11 until I’d read it like ten times. Then it finally came together. Let’s start our discussion —
Grant Hardy: No, I’m going to pick that up because to read the Book of Mormon well you need to read it in different sorts of ways.
Laura Hales: Yeah.
Grant Hardy: Sometimes reading the same chapter over and over and over can sort of help you understand that with more depth. But sometimes it’s really great to read the whole Book of Mormon in just a couple of months or something to get a nice sweep of things because you look at the parts and then you want to look at how the parts fit together. Both of those perspectives bring out the richness of the text.
Laura Hales: I have to diagram it because I’m an English teacher, “Okay, this is the introduction.”
Grant Hardy: That’s a great way to do it, right?
Laura Hales: This is argument one, argument two, argument three.
Grant Hardy: See, but it’s marvelous that you can do that with sermons in the Book of Mormon. There are logical arguments that you can follow.
Laura Hales: Moroni definitely did that.
Grant Hardy: Yeah, and then you think about so why did Moroni think that this particular argument would make sense to whoever he thought he was writing for and what kind of points does he emphasize and what kinds does he slide over? Mormon does a lot of emphasizing and sliding over when he gives us nearly a thousand years of Nephite history.
Laura Hales: You have stated, “if you’re not seeing the narrators at every turn, then you’re not really reading the Book of Mormon.” You label three narrators.
Grant Hardy: Right.
Laura Hales: Chemish is not one of them.
Grant Hardy: No, actually the other person who is not one of them is Jacob, which I feel a little bit bad about because there are things to say about Jacob, but I focused on the three major narrators.
Laura Hales: You would say he is a sub-narrator maybe.
Grant Hardy: Yeah. We could say that. There’s a part where he’s speaking in his own voice. Sure. But the narrators, that’s the way the Book of Mormon is structured, but it’s not immediately obvious when you start reading it. Nephi starts talking about different sets of plates, I think, in 2 Nephi 6–2 Nephi 9, but it’s not until you get to 2 Nephi 5 that we realize that what we’ve been reading is actually a second attempt at an autobiography that God had asked Nephi to do.
You’ve got this complicated backstory or structure of plates and records that were written by different people at different times and then they were compiled and abridged and edited, and that’s all there in the background. But unless you sort of keep that in mind, it’s easy to slide over the top of the Book of Mormon. That’s what I mean —unless you’re seeing and thinking about the narrators, you’re not really following the logic of the text itself.
Laura Hales: Before I get into the narrators, I have a question. I heard from another very respected scholar — respected by me — that Nephi makes it very clear that the small plates are for the Nephites rather than the large plates that were meant for the remnant of the house of Israel, the gentiles, and the Lamanites. How do you feel about that? Do you agree or disagree?
Grant Hardy: I think that Nephi is figuring out who he is writing for as he’s writing those. I think in the end Nephi thinks he’s writing for his posterity for Nephites, though I think by the end he has a sense that he’s writing for a larger audience. I think it becomes clear to him, but then the small plates I think later authors in the Book of Mormon think that the small plates are mostly written for the Lamanites, that it’s for their brethren. Those are the kinds of questions that are worth asking and talking about.
Laura Hales: Well, because Nephi doesn’t give us any clues to, “Hey, we arrived on the continent, and guess what? There were people here, and we joined with those people.” Little clues, but not the detailed ones we would like.
Grant Hardy: Yeah. If he were writing straight history, he should be writing all about like the people who were there if there were people there or what their customs were and how they interacted with the new immigrants who have come. It doesn’t give us much at all about that.
Laura Hales: Yeah, but also if you’re writing for people who already know that you don’t put that kind of detail in there.
Grant Hardy: Oh, I see.
Laura Hales: The Lamanites already knew what kind of people were there when they arrived. They already knew about the cultures. They knew what had happened. For me that was kind of a reason why we don’t have those kind of details in 1 Nephi, but again that’s just another theory that I digress on.
Grant Hardy: But unless you’re reading fairly closely thinking about narrators in 1 Nephi 1:18, Nephi says, “Therefore I would that ye should know that after the Lord had shown so many marvelous things unto my father,” etc. He says, “I would that ye should know,” who is the “ye”? That’s second person stuff he’s writing to someone. Who does he think that is? That’s a really important question, and it helps us maybe understand or imagine why he might be leaving out some things that we wish that he had said or maybe putting in some things that seem maybe extraneous to us or not so interesting. Actually, I think it’s all pretty interesting.
Laura Hales: Exactly. The audience dictates how you write.
Grant Hardy: Sure.
Laura Hales: That “ye” is extremely important.
Grant Hardy: And it’s easy to miss.
Laura Hales: It takes a little guesswork, too, I believe.
Grant Hardy: Sure.
Laura Hales: That’s a silent and deep study as well. I want to point out some things that you mentioned in your book about Nephi as a narrator that you had noticed.
Grant Hardy: Okay.
Laura Hales: We earlier talked about Laman and Lemuel and the rather one-dimensional figures who are always complaining, “Murmur, murmur, murmur, murmur, murmur.” He seems to be using them and to some extent the rest of his family to write a story that resembles the Exodus story in Genesis in 1 Nephi.
Grant Hardy: Sure. Other people before have looked at some parallels with that. It just seems parallel right? They’re going to a new promised land, and they’re being led by God and not everybody in the family is sort of on board with what’s happening.
Laura Hales: Laman and Lemuel would not be Moses. They would be the Israelites who were complaining for forty years in the wilderness.
Grant Hardy: I think murmuring … I think that word even is sort of a King James kind of word that reminds us of the Exodus story. I think that’s one of the ways that he kind of characterizes his brothers perhaps a little bit unfairly. You notice that Laman and Lemuel don’t really seem to be individualized. They’re always together. They always sort of say the same thing at the same time. I have a number of brothers, and they are not interchangeable but Laman and Lemuel seem to play kind of a role in Nephi’s telling of the story.
Laura Hales: But there is a pattern you identified of resentment, rebellion, rebuke, and repentance in their behavior.
Grant Hardy: Yeah.
Laura Hales: What does that tie to do you think? I don’t know … speculate on the spot … no pressure.
Grant Hardy: It probably has lessons for us about ways that we react to hardships or difficult challenges and perhaps a warning about don’t be like my brothers. If the Book of Mormon was written for us even if Nephi was writing for his own posterity I think those are perhaps universal kinds of lessons, but Nephi does tend to and Mormon as well. They tend to tell stories in patterns that are repeated. Maybe that’s part of human nature, but those are worth paying attention to in trying to articulate, trying to come up with what those patterns are.
Laura Hales: One more fascinating thing you found that I’d like to bring up is the narrative gaps in Nephi’s stories. We’re traveling along, and we have a story you expect one thing, and something else comes in as some kind of distraction. He never talks about that very important issue. What are one or two of the narrative gaps you noticed in Nephi’s writing?
Grant Hardy: I started out Understanding the Book of Mormon with what I thought was a pretty good example, which is when Nephi and his brothers come back with the brass plates and then also with a story about how they retrieved the brass plates, which involves some violence and difficulties. Nephi never tells us what his father’s reaction was to this story.
Instead he substitutes some other things that may be a little bit distracting. I think he talks about his father and his mother’s interactions, and we hear Sariah’s voice, and women’s voices are really rare in that. Another example is when Lehi is giving blessings apparently on his death bed to his children, to his grandchildren, Nephi doesn’t have a blessing which seems like a strange omission.
Laura Hales: It was extremely odd considering he was the leader.
Grant Hardy: You would think.
Laura Hales: Yes.
Grant Hardy: Of course, that makes me think, “So why?” We can make guesses, and they may or may not be right, but they might help us understand Nephi a little more or imagine him a little more fully. Lehi would have given a blessing to Nephi — I’m pretty sure about that — but perhaps part of that blessing is I’m depending on you to keep the family together. Whatever it was, it was apparently painful to Nephi in retrospect, and so he doesn’t give that, but instead he gives his psalm. He writes this beautiful psalm, which is so lovely that it kind of distracts us from the fact that something is missing in this story.
Laura Hales: Nephi was not on the list of blessings.
Grant Hardy: Yeah, I can’t imagine that his father forgot to give him a blessing. There must be some other explanation for that.
Laura Hales: Okay, now Mormon. When you talk about Mormon as a narrator, every red-blooded teenage boy says, “The war chapters.”
Grant Hardy: Or it could be the missionary chapters about Ammon and cutting off the arms.
Laura Hales: My son loves that one, too. Not because of the missionary part, but the arms being cut off.
Grant Hardy: I’m not sure what that says about our culture that that has attracted so much of our attention.
Laura Hales: Okay. Careful readers must constantly ask, you say, why would Mormon choose to include this? Why do you think that’s an important concept to keep in mind as we’re reading Mormon’s narration portion?
Grant Hardy: If Mormon were doing straight history, I would expect a more even coverage of all of the time period that he is describing. Instead we get a few years that get a lot of attention and that includes the war chapters that are only about a dozen years or so, and then we get long stretches where we don’t hear much at all.
It’s particularly noticeable in 4 Nephi. I would like to know a whole lot more about a society that lived in peace and harmony and when the kingdom of God seemed to be there on earth, but either Mormon isn’t particularly interested or he doesn’t know much about it or he doesn’t think that’s what we need to hear as Latter-day readers. Mormon has a much clearer idea of who his audience is than Nephi did.
Laura Hales: He does. He even turns to us and speaks to us directly.
Grant Hardy: Yeah, though I think he refers to us as gentiles. We’d like to think of ourselves as the house of Israel, but I think when Mormon is talking about gentiles and the Latter-days, he’s talking about modern Americans and Europeans.
Laura Hales: Yes. I had a Jewish friend once, and I would call him a gentile, and he would just laugh so much because he knew the joke behind it because we’re really the Gentiles.
Grant Hardy: I think that’s the Book of Mormon’s perspective is we should claim the gentile label probably.
Laura Hales: Okay. Here is another quote. Mormon’s fascination is not so much reading himself into past revelations like Nephi did as using prophesies and their fulfillments to persuade his readers that God is directing history. Can you give us one example of where he does this?
Grant Hardy: I think we see this pattern of prophesies and then fulfillments pretty clearly in Mosiah where like with Abinadi you see these political things that happen. There are wars that happened, and then it turns out that those were foreseen by a prophet. There are lots of examples of that sort of all the way through the Book of Mormon. I guess even Christ coming to the Nephites was something that had been prophesied beforehand.
When Mormon gives us examples of that, I think what he intends us to see is that God has a design for history that He’s intervening in lives and that prophesies are fulfilled, and for Latter-day readers we also are aware of prophesies that haven’t been fulfilled yet. Particularly prophesies about the last days about the second coming of Christ.
I think that Mormon hopes that by seeing examples of where this was fulfilled in the past that will give us faith to believe in the promises that are yet to be fulfilled. He shows us history, I think, to show us God working in history. He writes very providential history, right? God and miracles happen all the time, and he hopes that by showing us that it will give evidence that there is a God who cares and who has a plan for us.
Laura Hales: Do you see that Nephi and Moroni wrote in similar ways that was quite different than the way that Mormon wrote?
Grant Hardy: I see them as having pretty distinctive styles.
Laura Hales: All three.
Grant Hardy: They have a similar message, but I think Nephi is much more scholarly. He’s much more introspective. Mormon, as we said, is trying to present a lot of history in kind of an agenda-driven way, but his agenda is to try to help his readers understand God and come to Christ. Moroni does much less with history, and Moroni is somebody who it seems to me has come to a realization that you understand God not by reading history but through the spirit.
He talks much more about a spiritual witness, and I think both of those are important. I actually like history. I like scriptures like Nephi. I like history like Mormon. I like the idea of learning through the spirit as well. Those can work together. I guess in the Book of Mormon, those all sort of work together pretty well, but they do seem to me to be distinctive approaches to religion.
Laura Hales: You pointed out that when Moroni includes some of Mormon’s speeches in the Book of Mormon, we see a very different Mormon as a religious leader than we see Mormon as a narrator. I love Mormon as a religious leader. He’s very humanized. I’m so glad Moroni put them in there.
Grant Hardy: A sermon and some letters as well.
Laura Hales: Yes.
Grant Hardy: This is what we started out by talking about what a difference a sense of audience makes. Mormon sounds different when he’s writing a letter to his son than he does when he’s writing a history for the Latter-days or when he’s speaking to what I assume is a local congregation or a group of his fellow believers. This is in the sermon.
I think he’s a single person. I don’t think he’s conflicted, but he is speaking in different ways to different audiences, in different circumstances, and that does humanize him a little bit because I think we’re all aware of that in our own lives and we’ve seen that in other people’s lives. It makes him a fuller figure probably.
Laura Hales: I like that in a book that doesn’t have a lot of full-rounded characters in it. Mormon, we get to know a little bit better because his son gave us this gift.
Grant Hardy: Yeah.
Laura Hales: Let’s move on to Moroni. Do you think Moroni was as weak of a writer as he thought himself to be? I think I know the answer to this because before when I said the Book of Mormon was a little ragtag at the end, listeners you weren’t able to see this, but I got the dirtiest look.
Grant Hardy: It was not a dirty look. It was a puzzled look. Moroni has the problem of having a very famous, very accomplished father. I think that’s always a challenge. He also has been given a task by his father that his father wasn’t able to do, which is he says, “Here’s the records. You finish it.” It’s sort of like he’s been asked to land the plane probably after it’s been in flight for a while. Unlike airplanes, Moroni has a few chances to get it right.
He actually ends up writing three different endings to the book before he gets one that I assume that he’s satisfied with. So ragtag isn’t quite right, but he’s not particularly sure of himself or perhaps from what we can gather he had quite a bit of time to think about this. So maybe that was part of it is he wrote an ending and then after a few years of reflection thought, “You know I could do better or maybe I should bring this part in.” It comes to sort of a gradual bumpy ending I guess rather than a smooth full stop, but that makes Moroni an interesting writer to me and an interesting thinker.
Laura Hales: As authors we can be a little bit jealous. Have you ever written a book and three years later wanted to bring it back and change it a little bit, and it’s too late? It’s on the shelves.
Grant Hardy: That’s what sequels are for.
Laura Hales: Okay.
Grant Hardy: But I’ve been thinking about all the things that I should have said in Understanding the Book of Mormon that I would still like to explore, so hopefully I will.
Laura Hales: I have a sequel idea for you just in case you’re wondering. I’ll tell you at the end, just in case you leave the room and slam the door, okay? I just have one more idea to throw at you. You write that you think Moroni is trying to bind the history of the Jaredites who were pre-Abrahamic people—
Grant Hardy: Oh, yeah, they’re definitely.
Laura Hales: With the Nephites. They’re really quite diverse backgrounds, and he’s trying to put them together. I actually one year read the part of the book of Ether. Believe it or not there’s something between Ether 4 and Ether 12.
Grant Hardy: Right.
Laura Hales: They don’t put that in the manual. It’s quite amazing. There’s elephants. There’s intrigue. There’s kings. There’s dynasties. It’s quite wonderful. How do you think Moroni is able to do that in that book?
Grant Hardy: For a long time, Ether was my least favorite book in the Book of Mormon partly because of that history that you’re talking about that seems very choppy. It seems like a very different kind of writing than we get Mormon doing. But then the more time I spent with Ether, the more I appreciated it — the way it’s structured and setup but also trying to imagine what Moroni is trying to do with Ether. I think that it’s exactly right that he wants us to see the Jaredites as a precedent for the Nephites.
Both stories end up in similar ways. They don’t have happy endings, but they’re distinct as well. Whereas the Nephites start with a family, but of course, you’re kind of stuck with your family, right? You don’t have much control over that, but what if we could do it and this time you could pick your friends to go with you?
Laura Hales: Awesome.
Grant Hardy: It seems like it’s awesome, and that’s what the Jaredites do, but it doesn’t work out very well for them either. I think it’s a cautionary tale, and they tend to broaden the Book of Mormon to say, “This isn’t just the story of one particular people who have emigrated from Jerusalem — people who are a branch of the house of Israel. We’re not going to give you another story of people who are not Israelites who have different experiences, but still find their own tragedy.”
It means that the kinds of problems that the Nephites had are not exclusive to Nephites. That perhaps suggests that the kinds of problems that we see in the Book of Mormon might be found in many different cultures in many different times and perhaps in our own culture in our own time. The Jaredites really broaden the whole scope of the message of the Book of Mormon.
Laura Hales: It’s so different from the rest of the Book of Mormon. It’s just a unique piece in the middle, well, no, at the end.
Grant Hardy: At the end, right?
Laura Hales: In five sentences or less can you sum up what you hope the listeners gained from reading the Book of Mormon through the eyes of the narrators?
Grant Hardy: Sure. Let me try to do this. I hope you’re going to give me five minutes rather than five sentences.
Laura Hales: Nobody makes five sentences. It’s a challenge.
Grant Hardy: First, before I start on the challenge for readers who are looking at Understanding the Book of Mormon who maybe haven’t read it before. It’s written not particularly for Mormons. I anticipated that Mormons would find it interesting because we care about the Book of Mormon, but I was hoping as well that non-Mormons would find it interesting. It’s published by an academic press, by Oxford.
Non-Mormons are not going to think that Nephi and Mormon and Moroni were actual people because if they believe that then they’d be Mormon. They’re going to think that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph, Smith — that it’s religious fiction, and that’s okay. I’m happy to talk about the Book of Mormon with anybody. Having outsiders read it from their own perspective can help us see new things in that.
I don’t find that particularly threatening, but the thesis of the book is that the Book of Mormon is more impressive than you might assume. It’s a fairly modest thesis. I think that applies for Mormons who grew up with these stories and sort of take them for granted and to say there’s more to that than you might have seen. But for outsiders as well who may be tempted to kind of dismiss the Book of Mormon out of hand because it is kind of hard to read. The language is a little bit strange, and it’s a very complicated story and such, but to say even if you think that it’s religious fiction it’s actually kind of awesome religious fiction partly because of their narrators. It’s a carefully constructed composed text.
I’m hoping that by reading the Book of Mormon through this nuanced manner of seeing the narrators is something that might help Mormons and non-Mormons have things in common that they can see in the Book of Mormon and that they can talk about it in similar kinds of ways. Even if you think that Joseph Smith was the author of it, it’s still really clever like the flashbacks, and the way that the years go by, and the different kind of components, and you have narrators that if Joseph Smith created narrators and then told the story through them, that’s still pretty amazing.
I hope that other people — outsiders — would read the Book of Mormon in kind of sympathetic ways similar to how Latter-day Saints might read other sacred texts from the world. Like we might read a Buddhist text or Hindu epics or something as outsiders but trying to find some meaning in that, some literary value, and some religious value as well. Those are conversations that are worth having. Okay, now can I start my …
Laura Hales: Those didn’t count. I see a cheater in our midst. I can tell. I was just going to comment that in the beginning of the book, you said, “Let’s put historicity aside because sometimes that hampers our discussion.” That’s just what you were speaking to now.
Grant Hardy: It hampers our discussions with outsiders certainly.
Laura Hales: That’s what I meant.
Grant Hardy: With Latter-day Saints we sort of assume historicity, and that’s fine as well. Historicity makes a difference in how we read these texts. As you say, when we imagine that Nephi had more of a life than we see here that we see in these few pages that affects how we understand him certainly. But we can also talk about the Book of Mormon in ways that sort of put that aside for a little bit. I think that’s appropriate in some circumstances, and it’s very useful in many circumstances.
Laura Hales: Okay, you are free to go now.
Grant Hardy: I hope that by reading the Book of Mormon through the lens of narrators that we’re able to find more nuanced readings. That we’re able to see the Book of Mormon as literature in the sense that it’s beautiful, that it’s well constructed, that it’s crafted, that it has a kind of complexity that can hold our interest and can reward continued readings. But also reading it through the narrators helps us understand it more as scripture, too.
It takes us into the minds of the narrators. They’re not perfect, but I think that Nephi and Mormon and Moroni are probably some of the most wise and impressive voices in our religious tradition. These are people that I would like to talk to, that I would like to listen to, also because all three of them share at some point or other that their literary efforts were guided to some extent by Jesus himself. He sort of tells them, “Put in this,” or He tells Nephi, “Take another stab at what you’re doing like what you did before is okay, but it’s not really what we need to happen here.”
As people who had a direct relationship with God, that also means they’re people who I would like to listen to, that I would like to try to understand the world through their eyes. By reading the Book of Mormon carefully, it helps us see the world and our religion and God through the eyes of people who spoke to him directly in revelatory ways, and that’s impressive to me. That was more than five sentences sorry.
Laura Hales: That’s okay. Thank you, Grant. We’ll take them. Okay, here’s your suggestion for your next book.
Grant Hardy: Okay.
Laura Hales: Just because you need a list of things to do, right?
Grant Hardy: That’s right.
Laura Hales: Are you ready for this?
Grant Hardy: Sure.
Laura Hales: Grant Hardy’s Annotated Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon, so you take Understanding the Book of Mormon, and you just put it in the footnotes. So as I’m reading along I can say, “Hey, boys let’s think about this today,” and I don’t have to remember all those 500 ideas you put in the book.
Grant Hardy: That sounds like a great idea. That’s something that I would like to read and would like to have access to. It reminds me a little bit of when I was very small. I thought that my dad was really smart. When we would go to the zoo, when we would go to like museums, he would know about all of the animals and about the artifacts and things. Then I grew up a little bit more and I said, “He’s just reading the cards like on the placards on there.” Like what a great thing. So, yeah, we’ll try to … It would be great to come up with an edition that will make it easier to impress your kids or your seminary students by having all sorts of observations.
Laura Hales: I don’t even want to really impress them. I want to learn. It would just help to not go back and forth between the books, so I’m glad. That was a kind-of, maybe-sort-of, sometime-I-think kind of answer.
Grant Hardy: That is something that I would love to do at some point when I’m smarter. When I know more about what’s important and what I really want to say. Perhaps the most important book for me in learning to read scriptures has been the New Oxford Annotated Edition of the Bible. It’s not a commentary because you can get book where there are lots of comments, and there are lots of great commentaries, but it’s easy to get bogged down in those.
The Oxford edition has the text in the New Revised Standard Version, which is a great version of the Bible, and then it just has a few footnotes at the end. The focus is still on the text, but it just gives you some things. Some little hints about look at this or did you notice this, or they add a little bit of cultural background or information, and it really helps at least it helps me to understand the text.
I’m teaching early-morning seminary now. When I prepare my lessons, I use the manuals and the materials, and we do those in class, but I always actually start with the New Oxford Annotated Edition, and it gives me these like really bright things to say about all of these obscure stories in the Old Testament or in the letters of Paul, and then I feel like my dad at the zoo, right? I say these brilliant observations, and my students think I’m terribly erudite. Someday they’ll buy a copy themselves, and then they’ll get to my sources, but that would be a great day, too.
Laura Hales: That’s funny. We’re using that edition as well in our family scriptures study, and my husband said, “I feel like I’m cheating.”
Grant Hardy: No, you’re learning.
Laura Hales: Exactly. He meant that. He really meant that, but he said it makes it so much easier to learn and to understand when you get those little hints, “Hey, this word is translated a certain way.”
Grant Hardy: But they do it so well because long commentaries end up being a distraction, but a few little hints just as you’re reading can really open up the materials to you. They also give some hints about structure, too. When you read Romans, which is an argument, a theological argument, it’s easier to follow what Paul has in mind and sort of the maneuvers that he’s making in trying to explain his points whereas sometimes we read it and sort of a fog comes in, and we’re able to see our favorite verses that sound a little bit familiar, and we lose sight of what Paul was actually trying to communicate.
I think that’s true with the Book of Mormon as well. There’s sort of this overarching narrative in the structure, and these larger themes that sometimes get lost when we reduce it to this doctrinal mastery scriptures that we know and love so well. There’s more to the Book of Mormon than that.
Laura Hales: Yeah, it’s a good beginning point though.
Grant Hardy: Absolutely.
Laura Hales: Thank you. I appreciate you visiting with me, Grant.
Grant Hardy: It’s been a pleasure, Laura. Thank you for having me.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings they in no way reflect criticism of LDS church leaders, policies, or practices.