2006 Book of Mormon Roundtable

The Book of Mormon Roundtable, held this evening at the Salt Lake public library, involved a different type of discussion of The Book of Mormon than I had anticipated, but it was still fairly interesting nonetheless. The panelists included Richard Bushman, Book of Mormon scholars Mark Thomas and Robert Rees, and two Episcopalian religious scholars, Robert Price and Phyllis Tickle.

Between the initial moderator’s questions and the audience’s question, a good deal of discussion was spent on the nature of scripture itself. Everyone gave slightly different answers as to what they felt constituted scripture. Rees said it opens us up to light and love, Tickle described it as that which produces a religious community, and Thomas described it as that which offers the experience of the holy.

I especially liked Bushman’s response. He explained that there is a difference between canon and scripture. Canon is the essential religious text of a community, but scripture is anything which is revealed from God, which means our own personal revelation is and ought to become scripture for us and our family. Although later, when a woman asked if some of the works of JD Salinger, which had inspired her greatly, could count as scripture, the panel pretty unanimously said no.

One of the more interesting questions was what they thought was the central message of The Book of Mormon. My immediate reaction is obedience. I mean, how many times are the Nephites admonished to keep the commandments and then punished for failing to? Anyway, general obedience wasn’t mentioned by the panelists, the majority of whom pointed to the concern for the poor. Mark Thomas made an interesting observation, that The Book of Mormon is not the high literature we usually take it as, but folk literature. It’s the voice of the downtrodden, the voices of whom are not usually heard.

The second half of the time was given over to audience questions which, strangely, I think were mostly from non-believers ““ which I suppose is fine, but when discussion is held up on meta-issues involving the book’s truth and historicity, I think it prevents the more interesting discussion of the text itself.

A Jewish woman mentioned that she had never been offered a copy of The Book of Mormon, except it were by someone trying to convert here, and questioned as to the motives of the panel. The reaction, of course, was insistence that they had no such designs.

Another woman, seemingly serious but evidently having a go at the panel, declared that the sealed portion of the golden plates had been translated and was available to read at thesealedplates.com. (Unless I misheard her, there is no such site.) She then admonished the panel to read the record with an open mind. Robert Price got some laughs when he quickly jotted down the website, but there was otherwise no response.

One man insisted that The Book of Mormon must have been a product of the Second Great Awakening and wanted to hear the panel’s thoughts. Bushman gave a diplomatic answer, agreeing that a reading of The Book of Mormon as such would bring some unique things out of the text, but then said that we ought not restrict the book to just that reading.

The discussion ended after and hour and forty-five minutes, which apparently was well over time, but I think most would have been happy to listen for much longer.

9 thoughts on “2006 Book of Mormon Roundtable”

  1. The Book of Mormon is “folk literature” or “the voice of the downtrodden.”

    That, as a summary of the Book of Mormon’s contents, sound a bit nutty to me.

  2. Thanks for the write-up, Eric.

    I kind of see the folk literature point — it is a mixture of of personal and local histories with the history parts being .

    It lacks the literary qualities of some of the books in the Bible — or even some of the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants (except for Jacob 5, but that’s the subject of an upcoming post from me).

    I don’t know that I’d call it the history of the downtrodden. It really isn’t a people’s history. It’s the history of the religious elite — at times the religious elite were downtrodden; at times they weren’t.

  3. I didn’t mean to come across as being critical of Eric’s post. It is a very good writeup. I’m just disagreeing with that particular point made by a specific individual being described.

    Maybe my image or feel for “folk literature” isn’t quite accurate. I’m not sure what kind of specific works we’d be comparing to the Book of Mormon, that fit into that genre.

    I’m looking forward to William’s post on comparison of the Book of Mormon as literature to the Bible or D&C. Sounds like it could be very intereresting.

  4. I still think that using terms like “folk literature” or “the voice of the downtrodden” to describe the Book of Mormon is a vivid sign of scholarly jargon bloat. These terms are rather flippant and assumptive and have so very little to do with what the Book of Mormon is or what it is about.

  5. I really wanted to go to this! So sad I missed it!
    I certainly consider the concern for the poor a defining element of The Book of Mormon. 4th Nephi (the pinnacle triumph of the Nephites’ story), Mormon and Moroni, King Benjamin, plus a myriad of other segments, all make a strong point of this. Whether that makes it “folk literature” is problematic, however, considering that it is written by high ranking religious leaders. But those leaders do, however, have populist concerns, to make it enough of a valid argument in my mind. In voice it may not be folk, but in message, I think there’s a great deal to be said for that.
    The invitation to come unto Christ, however, seems to be the pre-dominant theme of The Book of Mormon to me. That eclipses all other messages and every other message is but an outgrowth of that, considering the Book’s intent and pointed invitations.

  6. danithew, William, Mahonri, I agree. He mentioned how history is usually written by the winners and how the Book of Mormon is special because it is a people’s book. Sounds nice at first, but really, as you all point out, it’s mostly written by religious leaders. So that doesn’t really work.

    Dallas, there was no recording that I was aware of. But there could have been.

  7. I think Mahonri’s comment is pretty accurate. I may have overstated my case a bit as I certainly recognize that concern for the poor is an important Book of Mormon theme. I like Mahonri’s point that the invitation to Christ “eclipses all other messages and every other message is an outgrowth of that.”

    Well said.

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