Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon (as literature)



The Bay Area Mormon Studies Council has, over the last few years, provided its namesake area with scintillating presentations from such varied speakers as Amiee Flynn-Curran (on her 16 months of anthropological fieldwork in the Oakland First Ward), Warner Woodworth (on “Building Zion: One Family, One Village at a Time”), Adam Miller (something to do with his books—I was bummed to miss this one), Kristine Haglund (mostly about Dialogue, as I recall), and more. It’s been a good run.

A few times they’ve cobranded with the Oakland Stake, for instance inviting the Givens to speak, and having Richard O. Cowan help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Oakland Temple.

Sunday night another BAMSC event held at a church building: Bob Rees speaking on subjecting the Book of Mormon to literary analysis.

Bob, of course, is well qualified to the task, having made a career of analyzing lit of all sorts, including essays comparing the Book of Mormon to contemporary publications and Milton (forthcoming).

We arrived a bit late, just in time for Bob to win me over to his side by declaring Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon the most important book on the Book of Mormon since Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. This is not hyperbole, Bob insisted. He compared his reading of Hardy to Keats’s reading of Chapman.

He also gave space to the Book of Mormon’s critics including Mark Twain’s “tired witticisms” which always get a chuckle when delivered by a friendly party.

The wisest decision made in his presentation was to hand out a printout of 1 Nephi 1. He had made red each of Nephi’s references to himself and blue every reference to his father. That adds up to 42 red words in 20 verses (15 blue), all intertwined, twisting Nephi’s identity with that of his prophet father. And nary a mention of his brothers.

Bob reminded his audience that Nephi isn’t writing this as it happens, but from decades later, deep into everlasting war with his brethren. He’s making a rhetorical stand from that opening phrase and he’s not going to let up. He analyzed the heck out of those pronouns. I hope the nonEnglish majors were as thrilled as I was.

Some other points Bob made I’ll sum up here and leave for you to ponder:

• Repetition is a signal from the author to pay attention!

• Note Nephi’s understated irony, being the child without geography named after him, but the child who, unlike Laman, continually runs into the fountain of all righteousness, and unlike Lemuel, is firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord (cf). Ergo, the passing of the birthright.

• (Joseph Smith, best we can tell, didn’t have any capacity as an ironist. Unlike, say, Hebrew writers.)

• Some things Bob said made me wonder: is Nephi’s utter annoyingness in 1 Nephi a deliberate choice by the writer Nephi to emphasize his youth and the impossibility of his situation?

• Immediately after slaying Laban, Nephi’s description of himself changes from “exceedingly young, nevertheless … large in stature” to “a man large in stature“—that horrible event has made him a man.

• Repetition is a signal from the author to pay attention!

• Bob, incidentally, says Zeeezrom. So if you, like missionary me, felt self-conscious after discovering the pronunciation guide promotes Zee-ehzrom, you have an ally in Bob.

• For my last point, instead of citing Bob again, I’m going to mention something my own family discovered last night in our reading, using the tools Bob promoted. You’ll recall that Nephi believed God “shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” Well, when they make their successful return, Sariah notes that God “[gave] them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them.” Nephi is demonstrating that his faith was justified—one might even say prophetic.

• Repetition is a signal from the author to pay attention!

3 thoughts on “Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon (as literature)”

  1. Thanks for the great writeup, Eric. I was amazed at the turnout for this event — I would guess there were about 300 people there. I have my own ideas, but curious as to your take on why this drew such a bigger audience than our usual speakers (even big name speakers co-sponsored with the Stake, like the Givenses).

  2. .

    I think 300 is a low estimate. I don’t attend Church there like you so your estimate should be trusted, but people filled the gym!

    As to why the draw, I’m not sure. I don’t think Bob is that well known, but there might be enough people who do know him that each ward has a booster.

    In Berkeley, the bishop had scheduled a youth fireside, but decided instead to just invite them to this instead with the promise of creampuffs afterward. I’m not sure how many youth actually showed up, but I saw a lot of our YM/YW leadership in attendance.

    Ultimately, my real theory is that we as a people are hungry to read scripture more deeply and we are only kept from such readings because we know not where to find them. We want a guide. I hope people left the fireside empowered to ask questions of the text they hadn’t thought to ask before.

    And seriously: I would love it if we made Hardy’s book the course of study next year….

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