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November 19, 2008

Yes, I Have Read the Book of Mormon

Mormon missionaries often ask, “Have you read the Book of Mormon?” I personally get the feeling this question implies you cannot criticize a book you have not read. Since few have actually read all of the Book of Mormon, the question opens the way to a presentation by undermining anyone’s grounds for rejection. Sometimes I respond simply by asking, “Have you read the Koran?” But in all fairness, it is true you can’t comment intelligently on a book you haven’t read, so I determined to read the Book of Mormon this year just as I had read the Koran last year.

The Book of Mormon, like the Koran, is rather painful to read. I handle books like these by reading them only five or ten pages per day. Since the Book of Mormon is slightly over 500 pages, it took me about 100 days to read it. One other advantage to this approach is that, by reading slowly, you can take better notes and ruminate more on what you read.

In chapter 16 of his book Roughing It, Mark Twain gives an excellent account of the Book of Mormon, which he describes as “chloroform in print,” a descriptive phrase that has yet to be excelled. As Twain notes, the Book of Mormon is composed of 15 shorter “books,” the longest of which is the Book of Alma (150+ pages). If you had to identify favorite passages among Mormons, I think most of them would come in the last third of the work. This means you have to slog through a lot to get to the “good part.”

While I cannot improve on Twain’s trenchant comments about the Book of Mormon, I want to make my own independent observations that reiterate, document, and expand on some of his thoughts.

1. The Book of Mormon is plagiarism gone amuck. It is a shameless pastiche of the Bible. Countless words, phrases, and whole passages are lifted verbatim from the King James Version of both Old and New Testaments (2 Nephi 12-24 = Isaiah 2-14; Mosiah 13: 12-24 = Exodus 20:5-17; Mosiah 14 = Isaiah 53; 3 Nephi 12:3-14:27 = Matthew 5-7). The minor borrowings are simply too many to enumerate. Ether 12:6-22 is a pastiche of Hebrews 11. Ether 8:8-11 derives from the story of Herod’s daughter’s dance in Matthew 14:1-10. Helaman 10:4-11 reprises Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:13-20.

2. The Book of Mormon is relentlessly dull because it is so wordy, tedious, and repetitive. Sometimes the wordiness is downright comical. In Jacob 4:1, for example, the writer says, “I cannot write but a little of my words because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates.” Then he proceeds to repeat the phrase “and it came to pass” 28 times in chapter 5 alone, one of the most confused examples of English prose imaginable. If writing on brass plates is so difficult, why so much repetition and useless verbiage? The Book of Mormon began recycling long before it became trendy. Instead of recycling plastic, however, it recycles the same names, ideas, and phrases over and over and over (4 Nephi, for example, just rehashes all that has gone before).

3. The Book of Mormon is badly written. It seems to admit that fact to itself. Ether 12:23 notes that criticism will arise because of “our weakness in writing.” He rightly remarks, “I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words” (Ether 12:25). Consider this sentence: “And it came to pass that Moroni felt to rejoice exceedingly at this request, for he desired the provisions which were imparted for the support of the Lamanite prisoners for the support of his own people; and he also desired his own people for the strengthening of his army” (Alma 54:2). Such confused prose and confused narrative abounds in the Book of Mormon (see, for example, Alma 23-25). I personally feel sorry for highly educated Mormon English teachers who feel compelled to defend this book.

4. The Book of Mormon strikes you as somewhat surreal. Most of it is predicated on a detailed belief in something that supposedly has not yet happened—the advent of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the book is chock full of anachronisms. Mosiah, for example, purports to be written in 124 B.C., yet it mentions “Mary” the mother of “Jesus Christ” (3:8), the resurrection of Christ (16:7-8), and the ascension of Christ into heaven (18:2). Other naïve anachronisms include “the twelve apostles” (1 Nephi 13:40), “Bible” (2 Nephi 29:3), “churches“ (2 Nephi 26:21), the “baptism” of Christ along with the descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of dove, “the atoning blood of Jesus Christ” (Helaman 5:9), Jesus in the tomb for “three days” before rising (Helaman 14:20), and speaking in the “tongue of angels” (2 Nephi 31:5-14).

5. The Book of Mormon is obsessed with the spirit of revelation and prophecy (3 Nephi 3:19; 6:20; 29:6). It is, of course, this inspiration from heaven that permits such detailed looks into the future. Prophecy is the device by which absurd anachronisms become legitimate and writers can mix quotes from the Old and New Testaments in the same breath (for example, 2 Nephi 30:12-17 which uses language from Isaiah 11:6-9, Matthew 10:26, and Luke 8:17). It is interesting to see Jesus himself in 2 Nephi 26:3 borrowing language from 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelation 6:14, books yet to be written.

6. The Book of Mormon is preoccupied with themes of the early American republic: the “cause of our freedom” (Alma 60:30), “rights”, “privileges,” “their freedom and their liberty” (3 Nephi 2:12), doing “your business by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:26), a “land of liberty” (Mosiah 29:32), “free government” (Alma 46:35). Representative government is instituted (Mosiah 29:25), monarchist traitors denounced (Alma 51:5-6; 60:17-18; 3 Nephi 6:30), and conspiracies to overthrow political freedom detected (3 Nephi 7:6; Ether 8:18-26). The Book of Mormon is a thoroughly nineteenth-century American book, not a book of antiquity.

7. The Book of Mormon sets out to clarify and improve upon Christian doctrine as set forth in the Bible. It carefully clarifies issues that nineteenth-century Protestants longed to have clarified. Has the age of miracles ceased? See Moroni 7:27-29. Do young children need to be baptized? See Moroni 8:5-24. What is the significance of baptism? See 3 Nephi 7:25. How should a baptism be performed? See 3 Nephi 23-27. What should be the name of the church? See 3 Nephi 26:3-10. What exactly is the gospel? See 3 Nephi 27:20-21. What is true faith? See Alma 32:17-21. Numerous doctrinal sermons, evangelistic sermons, and hortatory sermons sprinkled throughout the text explain all the essential beliefs a true Christian must have.

8. The Book of Mormon is strangely fatalistic. Despite all the preaching and teaching, despite all the missionary activity and conversions that take place, righteousness never seems to last very long. The Book of Mormon has a bloodthirsty view of humanity (Mormon 4:11; Ether 14:21; 15:2). The Holy Spirit, the blessings of prophecy, and good Christian living don’t seem to count for much over time. People always return to their sinful ways and eventually self-destruct.

9. The Book of Mormon is full of prophets who talk like nineteenth-century protestant preachers. They speak of “the plan of salvation” (Jarom 2). They extend “invitations” to be saved (Alma 5:62). They call on people to “repent and be born again” (Alma 7:14). They speak of life as “a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). They explain archaisms in King James English that nineteenth-century readers might misunderstand (e.g., the word “charity” in 2 Nephi 26:30 and Ether 12:34) and clarify that, despite what you might gather from the Bible, the earth moves, not the sun (Helaman 12:15). The book seems not only to contain anachronisms but to be itself one long, sustained anachronism.

10. The Book of Mormon is not that controversial from the standpoint of Christian doctrine. I think conservative, charismatic Christians of the twenty-first century would object to little or nothing professed in the book. Virtually all of what is controversial and heretical about Mormonism (e.g., baptism for the dead, multiple gods, temple ceremonies, polygamy) does not appear in the pages of the Book of Mormon. This gives support to the contention that the Book of Mormon was originally an early nineteenth-century novel stolen before it was ever published, then revised and adapted by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon for their own purposes. The Book of Mormon is badly written, but it is clearly within the bounds of standard Christian doctrine. It was written by someone intimately familiar with the Bible and with nineteenth-century biblical theology.

I close with a few specific observations.

1. Unlike in the Bible, there are no important female characters in the Book of Mormon. It is entirely male-dominated. In the entire book, I noticed only one woman mentioned by name (Sariah in 1 Nephi 5:1). All women seem to do is produce male babies who eventually become fodder for slaughter in battle.

2. Unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon is skin-color conscious. God curses the Lamanites by making their skin turn black (2 Nephi 5:21). Six hundred years later, God blesses the Lamanites by turning them white again (3 Nephi 2:15). Black is not beautiful in the Book of Mormon.

3. Some stories in the Book of Mormon would make great Monty Python sketches. Check out Alma 17-18 (Heroic Arm Slicing); Alma 44:8-20 (Get Scalped and Come Back Fighting); Ether 3:6 (The Finger of the Lord); Ether 15:23-32 (Last Man Standing Falls); Helaman 16:1-8 (The Leaping Prophet); 3 Nephi 28:7-40 (The Three Immortal Missionaries).

4. If you ever wonder where Mormons get their zeal for door-to-door evangelism, read Alma 26:23-29 to learn about some of the first Mormon missionaries.

5. According to Ether 15:2, in the final conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites one side alone lost two million people "slain by the sword." That's a lot of sword fighting. Two million is nearly five times the number of American soldiers killed in World War II.

What happens when a work of fiction is presented as truth? Some people in the eighteenth century objected to the rise of novels because they were “lies” foisted upon the public as truth. Over time, thoughtful people came to realize that fiction is not really a lie but potentially a form of imaginative truth. Fiction could be “true” insofar as it was “true to life” and provided insightful aesthetic pleasure. In my view, the Book of Mormon is inferior fiction that is neither true to life nor aesthetically pleasing. Is it a lie? I prefer to think of it as influential fiction. And yes, I have read the Book of Mormon, but I never plan to read it again.

About November 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in November 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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