A new article up at First Things recounts a Catholic professor’s experience reading the Book of Mormon. Although he does not have a spiritual experience with it, he finds much to praise in its insistent focus on Christ, and some to criticize in its drabness. I rejoice whenever anyone recognizes the former, and frankly have no argument with the latter. Though any Mormon would quibble with a few things in the piece, he brings up some terrific points–I especially like the whole “grandfather’s funeral” analogy–and the whole thing is definitely worth reading. The money quote:
Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him. It adds to the plural but coherent portrait of Jesus that emerges from the four gospels in a way, I am convinced, that does not significantly damage or deface that portrait.
I came to this conclusion when I read through the Book of Mormon for the first time. I already knew the basic outline: that it recounts the journey of a people God led from Jerusalem to the Americas six hundred years before the birth of Christ. In America, they split into two groups, the good guys (the Nephites) and the bad guys (the Lamanites), who battled each other until there were no good guys left—except for Moroni (Mormon’s son), who buried the chronicles of their wars and then, in 1823, told a farm boy from upstate New York where to find them.
When I actually read this book, however, I was utterly surprised. I was not moved, mind you. The Book of Mormon has to be one of the most lackluster of all the great works of literature that have inspired enduring religious movements. Yet it is dull precisely because it is all about Jesus. There are many characters in this book, but they change as little as the plot. Nobody stands out but him. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
The best thing here for believers in the Book of Mormon is that we’re not only aware of the plain-Jane nature of our keystone text, we actually find that to be a strength–an outright evidence of ancient authenticity. From Hugh Nibley’s “New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study” (1953):
Since the author [of the Book of Mormon] must in view of all this be something of a genius, the lonely critic begins to study his work as creative writing. Here it breaks down dismally. The style is not that of anyone trying to write well. There is skill of a sort, but even the unscholarly would know that the frequent use of “it came to pass” does not delight the reader, and it is not biblical. Never was writing less “creative” as judged by present standards: there is no central episode, no artistic development of a plot, one event follows another with equal emphasis in the even flow of a chronicle; the author does not “milk” dramatic situations, as every creative writer must, he takes no advantage of any of his artistic opportunities; he has no favorite characters; there is no gain in confidence or skill as the work progresses, nor on the other hand does he show any sign of getting tired or of becoming bored, as every creative writer does in a long composition: the first and last books of the Book of Mormon are among the best, and the author is going just as strong at the end as at the beginning. The claim of the “translator” is that this book is no literary creation, and the internal evidence bears out the claim. Our critic looks at the date of the book again—1830. Where are the rich sentimentality, the incurable romanticism, and the lush but mealy rhetoric of “fine writing” in the early 1800s? Where are the fantastic imagery, the romantic descriptions, and the unfailing exaggerations that everyone expected in the literature of the time? Here is a book with all the elements of an intensely romantic adventure tale of far away and long ago, and the author turns down innumerable chances to please his public!