[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Today, Monday, April 4, 2011, the Fox family finished reading the Book of Mormon together, a project we last began in August of 2006. Tomorrow, assuming we maintain our usual habits, we’ll be starting it once again.
This is the second time we’ve all read all of the BoM together–going around the family, each reading a verse or two or three, and helping the youngest sound out the words–and it won’t be the last. At some point over the years (I can’t remember exactly when) we started using the fancy Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saint Families for our family reading; it divides the whole book into short disposable chunks of verses, making it easy for us to get into a rhythm. (The book is almost completely trashed now, held together by duct tape, but we’re too cheap to buy another copy.) That rhythm varies through the months–reading in the evening during the school year, in the morning after breakfast in the summer–and it’s hardly absolute (we almost never manage to read on Friday or Saturday nights, and it usually doesn’t happen during vacations or when either Melissa or I are gone for any length of time either), but still, it has served us well. I figure it will continue for years to come, at least until all the children are grown and gone, even if means starting over with “I, Nephi…” a couple more times over the next decade and a half.
Why the Book of Mormon, all the way through, again and again? Several reasons: the counsel of our church leaders, the building of family traditions, the moral value of the stories and testimonies within it. But all of those, arguably, could be satisfied with choosing the read the Bible (something that one of my daughters in particular would rather we begin). So why the BoM? The best answer is, I think, the one James Faulconer recently gave: it’s a gift. Jim’s a deep thinker in matters of philosophy and scripture (I need to write something about his recent book sometime), and he’s a former teacher and friend. His description of the value of the Book of Mormon to those of us who find ourselves part of the Mormon faith community–whether because we were brought up in it, or because at some point we felt spiritually converted to its truth claims, or some combination thereof–makes as much sense to me as any I’ve ever read: “[T]he Book of Mormon isn’t one of the most important gifts in the history of world because it compares to the great literature or philosophy of the world or because it has objective historical worth. It is one of the most important gifts because it is how God has chosen in our day to testify that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior.”
The way I see it, the whole point of the Christian religion, in all its varieties, is to draw close to, to learn how to emulate, and to experience in one’s own fallen and sinful life the grace and wisdom and love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. You can get that through study and service, you can get that through devotion and prayer, and of course you ought to pursue all of those routes in your life. But whatever way you choose, whatever variety of Christianity is one’s own, getting close to Jesus means keeping the fact of His existence before one’s eyes. This isn’t just Christianity; this is all religion, from Buddhist koans to Jewish phylacteries. In a world in which our lives are, both for better and for worse, variable and complex and mobile, physical reminders, civic structures, and bodily disciplines are few and far between, and consequently are of limited help in keeping oneself in the shadow of the cross, or whatever image of the divine is one’s own or which spiritually pulls on you. For us Mormons, the Book of Mormon–this strange, unaccountable book, this text whose very existence as a supposed work of revelation, a restored holy record from a lost people, turns it into something which cannot be approached without being forced to reckon with whether or not there might not be a God who loves us and has something He wants us to know–serves as such a reminder, a discipline, a structure. It’s 500+ pages of people talking about Jesus, and about the fights and rivalries and judgments which attend the lives of those doing the talking. Who are these people, where did they come from, where did they go, what’s the backstory that led them to leave behind the many overlapping and sometimes even contradictory messages which they supposedly did? Figuring out an answer to those questions is an important and worthy task–but it is even being confronted with the questions in the first place that makes the Book of Mormon truly valuable.
The Bible is enormously valuable–as a source of theology, ethics, history, criticism, philosophy, and more. Frankly, I think it’s a much superior record to that which the Book of Mormon purports to contain. In my personal scripture reading, I’m going through the New Testament right now, and I like it a lot more than the BoM. But I live in a world whose law, politics, society, and culture were built by hundreds of generations of millions of people all shaped by the Bible, whether they embraced it or rejected it or turned it inside out. If the Bible, with all its baggage, can make you into a good Christian, I’m delighted. But the Book of Mormon is a gift, a strange, challenging, surprising gift, and it keeps the message and power and promise of Jesus Christ in front of my eyes pretty damn well, perhaps better than anything else could. I recently read through the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, the Reader’s Edition published by Signature Books, and what it put in front of my eyes was often hard to accept; truth is, probably about half the time, it was easy for me to think I was reading a hastily scribbled 19th-century fiction, betrayed by its repetition and incoherence and occasionally horrendous grammar. But then I’d run across a passage, an account of a miracle, a word of counsel, that was just so out-of-place and wise that the possibility that only a loving God, wanting His children to somehow have access to these words “out of the dust”, could have made it possible for me to be reading it in the first place made perfect sense.
I’m not convinced of the truth of everything in, or everything about, the Book of Mormon. But I’m a Christian, a Mormon Christian in particular, and–sweeping all the legitimate arguments and questions about its historicity, its language, its hermeneutics aside–dealing with this strange and out-of-place book is the way my faith community keeps Jesus before ourselves. We may collectively do other things with the book, and I don’t necessarily sign on with all of those things–but I do sign on with its bottom-line status as a reminder, a gift. Believing (though also doubting) Christian that I am, getting my children to sign on with that as well is something I want, something that Melissa and I agree is a good thing. And so for that reason–along with all the others–it’s the Book of Mormon for us. Beginning tomorrow. I’ll give you another status report when those Foxes still living at home get to the end again, sometime in 2015 or 2016. Hope the blog will still be around then.