Mormon Lit: Mormon Scripture as Literature

The Mormon canon, our scriptures, are either the bedrock of the Mormon literary canon (assuming there is such a thing) or something else–texts that stand apart and serve as both sources and standards for the rest. We are commanded to read the scriptures. In doing so, there is a temptation (I know it well) to read the scriptures as if they were merely divine instruction manuals. To move from the knowledge that scriptures contain important information to reading scriptures as if mere information is all that they contain.

The opposite, I think, is reading scripture as literature. Even as I type that, part of me is skeptical. Sometimes scriptures seem dry, the presentation simply too straight-forward and didactic, to qualify. And perhaps this is right. I love good literature, but hopefully not to the point of empty fastidiousness. Certainly sometimes making a record of a certain doctrine or getting the genealogy scratched into the plates or sending a crucial message to future generations (repent or die!) takes precedence over fine composition.

Still, scriptures manifest the will of God, not only in the doctrine taught, but also in the means of expression. And scriptures come to us as stories, collections of characters and themes, written in a variety of genres (history, sermons, poetry, letters, commentaries). And they exhibit remarkable narrative complexity–meaning seems to accumulate over time like layers of sediment deposited by original speakers and actors, their contemporaneous reporters, later compilers, and finally translators. There is both beauty and substance–some of it readily apparent, some of it waiting to be discovered–in much of this. Beauty put in the service of substance (making the message “repent or die” even more unforgettable) and also beauty as substance (indicating God as the origin of beauty; beauty as Divine reassurance).

The scriptures unique to Mormonism contain discrete sections of unquestionable literary merit: sacred poetry, great sermons, and sublime descriptions of encounters with Divinity. But, I have been wondering, what about the larger narratives, say, of the Book of Mormon? Do they bear treatment as literature? Certainly one challenge for me is the seemingly one-dimensional portrayal of most characters. I know there are exceptions. Laman and Lemuel behaved themselves on a few occasions and Lehi himself, hungry, wilderness-bound, murmured about the broken bow. But most of the time, the good characters all wear white hats while the rest laugh wickedly having left damsels in distress bound to the railroad tracks.

One dimensional characterization is a problem to the extent that humanity makes characters compelling. I take the Book of Mormon as historical; there was a man named Nephi, and despite the impression his record gives of himself, I expect that he was very human. Indeed, contrast the institutional church’s conventions of speaking about Joseph Smith and the picture of Joseph Smith that emerges from Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. Both accounts discuss a great prophet. But one account is substantially more compelling (and rich from a literary standpoint) because Joseph emerges as a great prophet who survived and overcame not only harrowing trials, but also significant personal shortcomings. This key to rich characterization applies even to the essential story: the ministry and atonement of Jesus Christ. His humanity: his decision to live among us in mortal flesh and everything that entailed–his decision to permit that body to be tortured and murdered for us–lies at the core of His appropriately overpowering personality.

Given this background, I have been mulling over possible strategies for appreciating the Book of Mormon’s towering characters, its collection of prophet-kings and prophet-warriors. One approach: read them as heroes, their selective accounts of their good deeds and revelations as a sort of holy heroic literature, like stories of great knights slaying dragons, but historical, true. A second approach: read them understanding that although not textually explicit, their humanity is implied. Perhaps it lies just below the surface of the text; read them closely and consider what the text reveals about their humanity.

Ultimately, however, perhaps the most promising way of appreciating the Book of Mormon’s larger narratives as literature requires reconsideration of who the book’s main characters truly are. Who are they? The peoples: the Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, Jaredites, and so forth. The peoples of the Book of Mormon are portrayed as human. There is always a great deal at stake when they act. Many of these peoples were Christians before and after the mortal ministry of Jesus; the linchpin of the drama they enact is not only whether they will survive, but whether the gospel will survive among them. Of course we know how this story ends. It is redemptive tragedy: the Christians go extinct, but first plant in the ground the seeds of the restored church.

6 thoughts on “Mormon Lit: Mormon Scripture as Literature”

  1. Nice post. I think there could be a couple explanations for the lack of dimensionality in BoM characters. Outside of 1 Nephi, it usually doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on any individual characters and doesn’t seem particularly interested in characterization for its own sake. I also tend to think that in order to be remarkable enough to get into its pages, you kind of have to be an extreme character in the first place.

    And that’s a really good point about the peoples. I think I’ve always thought about BoM peoples in terms of peoples as a whole and not a single person, but I think that provides for a great reading, and one that is all the more personally applicable.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  2. Very nice post.

    I’ve always thought that LDS scripture as literature is an interesting topic that far too under-valued in “mormon studies”

    There was an article  in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies back in 1999 on this subject. 

    Posted by Mike

  3. One of the reasons I think the Book of Mormon characters seem thin is because they are representatives. They stand as examples of ideals that Mormon is trying to teach. This is common in heroic literature, minus the usual fatal flaw. What is interesting, as eric russell pointed out, is how the fatal flaw is writ large and bold in the family and society these characters live in.

    I do think each major person in the Book of Mormon has individual traits. For instance, you cannot easily confuse the bold and yet sensitive Nephi with the straight talking Captain Moroni. Where Mormon pretty much wants to let the history teach lessons with small imput, his son Moroni has more to say about his own thoughts and theological understanding.

    I think the last two paragraphs of the essay are wonderful approaches. They do, perhaps, miss a technique that is good for any Scripture; literature as meaning. That takes asking questions of the text that go beyond the characters and story. Related to my idea of characters as representatives, what kind of lesson are we to learn from these lives? Why did the author decide to include this story or that sermon? What came before and what came after, and are they related? We must understand Mormon Scripture as literature and history first, and then can we understand it as literature. 

    Posted by Jettboy

  4. No doubt we should read scripture for meaning—always asking what did this prophet intend, what would God have me understand, and so forth. The thought underlying my post was not that reading “for meaning” and reading “as literature” are somehow exclusive. On the contrary, my thought was that looking closely at characters, narratives, themes—and all the other components authors use to structure the world in words—should contribute to reading for meaning. 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  5. That may be so, as all good literary evaluation has that purpose. However, the way I understood it was asking if we could develop some kind of Mormon Scripture literary theory. I was just saying we have to start with the theology and history and work our way from there. Your last paragraph was going in this direction. Two books, “The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon” by James Duke, and another “Feast Upon the Word” by an author I can’t remember the name of, try to evaluate the literary quality of the Book of Mormon. It seems to be a question hard to answer.

    Posted by Jettboy

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