I just finished reading Terryl Givens' The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, a recent addition to Oxford University Press's wildly successful VSI series. It gives 125 informative pages on the content, structure, origin, and reception of the Book of Mormon. The book does a fair job of balancing competing views, no easy task for such a controversial subject.
In a break from the standard approach, Givens starts out with a lengthy study of the content and structure of the book in Part I, "The Book of Mormon speaks for itself." He puts off a brief discussion of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon until the latter part of the book. With misgivings, he provides the following short synopsis of the Book of Mormon on the first page:
The Book of Mormon tells the story of an Israelite clan under the patriarch Lehi that flees Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity (ca. 600 BCE), sails to the Western Hemisphere, and establishes a colony. The clan immediately fractures into two opposing parties of the generally peaceful Nephites and the generally aggressive Lamanites. There follow one thousand years of fratricidal wars, missionary efforts going in both directions, and cycles of prosperity and spiritual decline.
Givens identifies five themes that first appear in one of the several vision encountered in the opening chapters of the book and then reappear repeatedly throughout the text. If asked, would you have chosen these five themes for your list? They are:
- Personal revelation, which Givens describes not as the theologians' self-revelation of God but as "dialogic revelation," which he defines as "radically individualistic and literalistic conceptions of divine communication to mortals" (p. 21).
- Focus on Jesus Christ.
- Wilderness and varieties of Zion and what Givens refers to as the "portability of Zion" (p. 33).
- New configurations of scripture, with a view of scripture as "something that is generated, assimilated, transformed, and transmitted in endless ways and in ever new contexts" (p. 38).
- Centrality of family.
In Part II, Givens addresses the Book of Mormon and its audiences, with an interesting discussion of how the idea of audience expands as the text moves forward. Nephi was writing to his own descendents; Enos was addressing future Lamanites as well; by the end, Mormon is addressing latter-day Gentiles and "the remnant of the house of Jacob" (4 Ne. 1:49).
Part III treats the modern reception of the Book of Mormon, including a chapter titled "Book of Mormon wars" that tries to objectively summarize (in ten pages) both sides of a voluminous and messy apologetic literature. For example, he notes, "The Book of Mormon addressed a number of issues that struck some observers as suspiciously relevant to contemporary religious debates" (p. 113). But he responds, "Most critics find the Book of Mormon's parallels to books like View of the Hebrews less than persuasive of borrowing ..." (p. 114). I liked his refreshingly straightforward description (p. 116) of how B.H. Roberts attempted the first serious response to critics:
The year 1921 marked a turning point, when the leading church intellectual B.H. Roberts accepted the task of resonding to an outside query about historical implausibilities in the Book of Mormon, and he discovered that these presented genuine challenges to Mormon apologetics. The list of difficulties consisted of apparent anachronisms like steel, silk, scimitars, and horses, along with the immense variety of Indian languages that seemed to belie a single, Hebraic origin.
The latter difficulty, and many kindred problems, is obviated when Mormon scholars embrace an interpretation that sees the Nephies and Lamanites as one immigrant group among many, and inhabiting a greatly restricted geographical area; these assumptions are now the norm.
I highly recommend the book for any reader, from Book of Mormon novice to lifelong reader. I think reading a commentary or two can greatly enhance the regular reading of the Book of Mormon that many Mormons practice; this one is both short and insightful. For those unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, whether scholars, seekers, or the merely curious, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction will be a helpful guide to what is often, on first reading, a confusing and puzzling book.