Review: Joseph M. Spencer, “An Other Testament: On Typology”

Title: An Other Testament: On Typology
Author: Joseph M. Spencer
Publisher: Salt Press
Genre: Scriptural Exegesis
Year: 2012
Pages: 193
Binding: Cloth (or .pdf)
ISBN13: 978-0-9839636-2-2
Price: $18.95 (or free, but the clothbound volume really is quite handsome! And if that ain’t the coolest looking cover I’ve seen in a while…)

What’s that you say, Joseph M. Spencer, graduate student of philosophy at UNM? You’re just out offering a radical new textually-based interpretation of the entire Book of Mormon in your spare time, hmm? Radical and new. Sounds like a nice little project you got there, yes. Wait, what?!

We’ve had the BoM for over a century now, what can we possibly have missed in all this time? Keep in mind that the assumptions which we readers bring to the text help determine the meaning we receive from the text. Spencer’s two broad guiding assumptions to his new approach to the BoM are (1) That the theological ideas of the BoM have been carefully arranged by the prophets within larger narrative textual structures. Thus, “Embedded in these larger structures, many of the Book of Mormon’s ideas draw meaning and especially nuance from their context” (xi). (2) That “ideas change with time and circumstance.” And because the BoM’s ideas are “woven into a real—and therefore anything but tidy—history,” readers may mistakenly gloss over some of the complexity of ideas within the text, missing out on the complexity within the book (xii). He seems to be saying “we need to quit reading the BoM in such a univocal fashion.” Spencer assumes we have a book sort of like the Bible—an edited compilation with a variety of voices. With this in mind, very interesting things begin to emerge from the text. Not a voice, but voices from the dust.

An angel didn’t appear at Spencer’s bedside to instruct him about how to interpret the BoM, but he does take cues straight from Alma by calling his approach “typology” (xii, see Alma 37:45). –the way we can read our personal stories into the framework of scripture (xii). In his first chapter he draws out the intricate parallels between Alma’s conversion story and Lehi’s vision at the outset of the BoM. Spencer demonstrates how Alma is able to repent by re-membering his sinful past by drawing on Lehi’s words and embracing Christ’s grace. His conversion takes place as he reads himself into Lehi’s story—a story, you’ll recall, which began with the reading of a book sent from heaven (see 1 Nephi 1:11). As Spencer concludes:

“Alma’s instantaneous and once-in-a-lifetime gift of spiritual renewal during his three days of torment opens onto the constant, lifelong work of spiritually resurrecting scriptural texts—of living through and giving life to the scriptures” (26).

But Spencer’s just getting warmed up. To put his approach another way, one of the more audaciously interesting moves Spencer makes is the way he attributes his method of reading directly to the Book of Mormon itself. “Put simply,” Spencer casually offers in his preface, “this book is about how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon” (xi). Spencer argues that the BoM complexly introduces readers to a series of scripture writers who pay attention to scripture writing, so we ought to likewise pay attention. He takes a microscopic look at how BoM writers like Nephi and Abinadi read and interpret other writers like Isaiah and finds intriguing differences which cast a new light on the reason the resurrected Christ told the Nephites to cut out all the contention specifically about “doctrine.”

To massively over-simplify the main argument of the book (you’ll need to read the thing to see all the charts, illustrations, quotes, arguments, and footnotes), Spencer argues that two distinct interpretations of Isaiah arise within the Book of Mormon, the first from Nephi, the second through Abinadi. Nephi’s “likening” approach to Isaiah seems to be that Isaiah’s prophecies provide a House of Israel covenant framework within which Nephite historical experience can be situated. Nephi is constantly referring to his seed, the covenant, the future of his people. Abinadi, on the other hand, was “focused less on the singular history of Israel than on the event of Christ’s mortal ministry” and its impact on individual salvation (xiii). Thus, by the time the resurrected Christ appears to the Nephites, he must reconcile two interpretations of Isaiah, each with its own merit, but not to be grasped without the other. I leave it to you to decide if he pulls this feat off. It absolutely deserves further discussion. This kind of close textual reading of the BoM is just what we need to revitalize interest in the book. Sounds like a nice little project he’s got here, yes.

One quick example of the implications his reading has for BoM interpretation involves the so-called Small Plates of Nephi. I find Brant Gardner’s arguments regarding Mormon’s original plan for the BoM quite persuasive. Essentially, Gardner sees the small plates as dandy, but they don’t do exactly the same thing that Mormon’s original edited book of Lehi might have done. But on Spencer’s reading, it seems the small plates are no mere post hoc inclusion, but play a more integral role in what Spencer sees as the more important theological thrust of the BoM—the covenant more than the individual salvation aspect of things, Nephi over Abinadi (see, for example, 164). This wouldn’t necessarily overturn Spencer’s theory, only complicate it.

This deceptively skinny volume (clocking in at under 200 pages) is thickly layered with an intensely close reading of a few key segments of the BoM. At times I simply marveled at a connection he discovered which I’d never seen before (“very cool! return to this” I’ve scribbled in the margin of page 43, next to his discussion of Creation/ Fall/ Atonement/ Veil in 1 Nephi). But there were also times when Spencer’s pace got a little fast for me, when he would just say “we must now do such-and-such” without leading me through his reasoning as to why (my marginal note to this effect appears on 106, so this happened a few times before I got that far). A quick word on his complexity. For you philosophy nerds out there, you might love when Spencer identifies and defines two different kinds of knowing—“historical” and “evental”—in order to pry our minds away from Descartes by way of Badiou (15). And I guarantee this is the first BoM commentary to note distinctions between the “normative” and “dative” case (16). For non-philosophy nerds, Spencer does a fair job of not letting the jargon overtake the main thrust of his arguments, although you’ll have to meet him half way sometimes in order for his conclusions to hold water. But I’m no specialist and I was able to play along fairly well, so hop in!

Spencer also includes a tip of the cap to “my friends in (the justifiably secularized field of) Mormon studies” who might object to his assuming the historicity of the BoM. His main goal is to speak to “the average Latter-day Saint” who likewise accept the book’s historicity and he hopes they will yet appreciate the work of a careful and believing Mormon theologian (xiv). (Oh yeah, then on page 28 he offers a reinterpretation of what “historicity” ought to refer to—that the BoM is neither historical or unhistorical, but “non-historical,” that is, while it reflects historical events the book is constructed so as to transcend that dichotomy by calling “the historicity of the individual into question”—that is, inviting readers into the typology. For a clearer explanation see p. 28, emphasis in original).

Throughout his investigation Spencer reflects on the problems of history, memory, time, and conversion, in order to discover what it might mean to believe that a written book is a tool through which a god would seek to change a person like you, or a world like ours. And Spencer by no means believes he’s at last solved the puzzle of the BoM for all time, he’s just getting started! “Indeed,” one footnote understates, “there is a good deal of textual work that would have to be done before any definitive interpretation of these questions [from chapter 4] could be offered. My treatment here has skimmed over the surface of the difficulties at best” (138).

Skimmed indeed. Just as my little review has skimmed over the surface of Spencer’s excellent new book, at best. Sounds like a nice little project we got here, yes.

Comments

  1. As an entirely non-coerced and unsuggested aside, this is the sort of book I’d love to see featured by Deseret Book, where perhaps more members of the Church encounter the possibility of expanding their grasp of the LDS canon than any other place. Salt Press is putting out amazing work right now and it deserves our support. While DB’s facebook page has 34,000+ likes, Salt Press has under 100. This is a crime against the reading public. Go like their page, IMO, to show some support and spread some word.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Salt-Press/289945774361659

  2. I’m happy to second that comment, Blair. :)

  3. Salt Press has been putting out some simply fantastic stuff. And Joseph is one of those guys I always stop and read. He’s had some fantastic insights. I’ll be getting this one for sure.

  4. My husband has been teaching Gospel Doctrine this year and as he prepares his lessons he reads Joe’s insights on Feast Upon The Word every week. I don’t get to go to DH’s classes, I’m in Primary, but I’ve learned to ask each week what his lesson was about. He always tells me something I didn’t know or hadn’t thought of before, and probably 100% of the time those nuggets of wisdom came from Joe – and DH readily admits it. We’re both kind of in awe and are left feeling like, even though we both grew up reading the Book of Mormon, there is SO MUCH we’ve been missing. How is it possible we’ve overlooked so much for so long? We are really looking forward to getting our hands on his book. Joe, thank you for sharing your gifts with us and giving us a set of fresh eyes. You’ve made a real impact on our understanding of the Book of Mormon and our desire to put more effort (much, much more) into our personal study. Thank you.

  5. I need to take a look at this. As a church we generally read the Book of Mormon as if all the authors are 21st century members of the Church and share all our thoughts and doctrines. This contributes to a notion of a sort of monolythic Book of Mormon authorship. How different can the authors be if they all understood what we understand. I’m looking forward to reading an in depth treatment of how the authors took different approaches to authorship.

  6. Mark A. Clifford says:

    I wish that I could say something brainy about this wonderful book.
    However, since I am not that brainy, I will just say: this is a great time to be a fan of the Book of Mormon!
    First By the Hand of Mormon, The Earliest Text, the Reader’s Edition, and Understanding the Book of Mormon…
    And now this (also worth checking out the Salt Press volumes on Alma 32 and Isaiah which I think were reviewed here a while ago).
    I think that Spencer’s excavation of the tension inherent in Mormonism between individual salvation and corporate salvation,
    and the connection between Jesus as Father and Jesus as Son in each of those meditations, is astonishing.
    Not to mention breeze-by revolutionary insights like the temple themes thrown in here and there.
    A boon for Book of Mormon students everywhere, let’s hope there are some.
    PS. I could be okay with the notion of a non-historic Book of Mormon. I just can’t understand how it could be possible.
    Particularly when there is this degree of density in the text.
    However it was done, what a masterpiece. And, high time we started reading it.

  7. Haven’t read it yet, but having read Frei I’m not inclined to view typology as a valid approach to scriptural interpretation or understanding. If it doesn’t work for understanding the Bible, why should it work for understanding the Book of Mormon? Or does Joe do something different with his typology analysis.

  8. Dave: Joe’s method of “typology” is fed specifically through a Book of Mormon lens; he basically looks closely at how Nephi and other BoM authors make use of Isaiah and makes arguments concerning how such readings resurrect and reanimate stories. I think it’s well worth your time to check out Joe’s approach and see how you think it stacks up against Frei.

  9. Clark #3 and Jenw #4 – Thanks for your very kind words.

    a random john #5 – I think the univocal reading of the Book of Mormon is among the biggest obstacles to really digging into the book. I hope what I’ve done here will begin to get that obstacle out of the way productively.

    Mark A. Clifford #6 – Ack. I don’t know that my work belongs in a list with Terryl Givens’s, Royal Skousen’s, and Grant Hardy’s, but I’m flattered to see my book set alongside theirs. As for “I just can’t understand how it could be possible,” I’m right there with you.

    Dave # 7 – I’m a big fan of Frei’s work, and yet I think there’s more to be done on the question of typology. In one sense, what I argue is that the Book of Mormon distinguishes between two kinds of typological reading, one against which Frei’s work inveighs (associated with Abinadi) and one that might well bring the notion of typology into harmony with Frei’s work (associated with Nephi). At any rate, the question of typology isn’t something readers of the Book of Mormon can get around, since there are explicit affirmations of it in the text. We might want, in the end, to critique what the Book of Mormon says about typological reading, but we can’t ignore the question.

  10. Joe, I think both yours and Adam’s definitely belong in that class. It’s an amazing year for books in Mormon Studies but I think the grappling with ideas is arguably among the most important. I just hope these books get a wide enough influence.

  11. Regarding Joe’s difficulty in dumbing things down, I made two serious attempts to follow the discussion in a podcast featuring Joe Spencer and Adam Miller. The title was something like Four Discourses. I honestly had very little idea what they were talking about and I quit halfway through both times. I will buy this book though — I’m trusting you, Blair, that it is different.

  12. ricke: here’s another option. You could check out chapter one of the free .pdf, and if you think it’s going well purchase the book. (I’m assuming you’re like me and prefer to have the paper in hand, bound and ready to be annotated). If not, throw a few bucks to Salt Press by way of donation and move along to the other books they’ve put together recently. No fuss, no muss. (Still not sure what muss is.)

  13. Blair, thanks for the heads up about donating to Salt Press. I am a big fan of my Nook Color ereader, and have downloaded all three of the recent Salt Press titles you’ve reviewed. I started on this one, and I am looking forward to the rest. Now I can assuage my guilt over downloading the free pdf copies by making a donation. But if they offer them for free, doesn’t that imply that they don’t mind people downloading them?

  14. I think it means precisely that they *want* people to download them, yes! I don’t know what their operating costs, etc. are, and I’m not affiliated with them, but I do think the work they are doing deserves our support if we can help encourage more of it.

  15. Adam Miller says:

    Thanks for the generous reviews. We love for people to download the free PDFs. (Donations are a bonus.) And we love for people to buy the books. Anyway you read it, that’s the way we like it :)

    We have a book signing coming up at Pioneer Books in Provo in two weeks. Check the Salt Press Facebook page for details.

  16. I just finished this book. Wow. This is incredible stuff. While I was already in the middle of a read-through of the Book of Mormon inspired by Grant Hardy’s book, this book just made me start over again. I love it. These texts are really making the Book of Mormon come alive (and, I’d say, even more relevant) in new and exciting ways.

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