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.