Critique the preface from Spencer’s new book, “An Other Testament”

As promised, here’s the preface to Joseph Spencer’s new book, An Other Testament. The book, which offers a fresh “typological” reading of the Book of Mormon, is available for free in .pdf form here, or in hardcover here

Preface – Contexts and Contents
By Joseph Spencer

Put simply, this book is about how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon.
Such simplicity, though, is a bit misleading because my aim here is to see, in full recognition of
its complexity, how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon.

There is, moreover, a very particular kind of complexity that interests me. Hugh Nibley, in books
such as Lehi in the Desert and An Approach to the Book of Mormon, has shown the profoundly
complex historical background that is on display in the Book of Mormon. More recently, Grant
Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon has compellingly shown the immense literary
complexity of the Book of Mormon. What I am after, though, is neither historical nor literary. I
am interested in the Book of Mormon’s specifically theological complexity.

By theological complexity I do not primarily mean that the ideas presented in the Book of
Mormon are complex, though sometimes they are. Rather, I mean that it can be difficult to bring
into focus some of the Book of Mormon’s overarching theological claims, given the book’s
structural complexity.

There are two aspects of the Book of Mormon that render its theology complex. First, aspects of
the book’s theology may remain obscure if readers are not attentive to how its authors arrange
the ideas presented. At times these ideas are woven into the arrangement of carefully built
stories, at times they depend on larger textual structures that can be difficult to see. Embedded
in these larger structures, many of the Book of Mormon’s ideas draw meaning and especially
nuance from their context. Second, what the Book of Mormon has to say may be missed if
readers are not attentive to the fact that the ideas it presents are woven into a real—and therefore
anything but tidy—history. Anyone acquainted with the history of ideas knows how ideas change
with time and circumstance. Theological ideas in the Book of Mormon are no exception. Both of
these difficulties are taken into consideration—often in great detail—in this book.

Since my aim is to look at how the Book of Mormon itself teaches us to read the Book of
Mormon, I begin with an examination of Alma 36, where one Nephite prophet (Alma) reads
another Nephite prophet (Lehi). There, Alma the Younger recounts his conversion experience
to his son, Helaman, but he does so, importantly, by weaving his personal story into a reading
of 1 Nephi 1. Alma’s weaving together of a scriptural text with his own conversion experience
exemplifies how the Book of Mormon should be read.

In this same chapter, Alma even names the kind of reading he models: typology. As Alma
develops it, typology is a question of how events—singular, unpredictable experiences with the
divine—interrupt the natural flow of history and so allow for the past to be understood in new,
redemptive ways. Put in Alma’s own words, typology is a question of allowing a new thought to
rework memory, so that it becomes possible to advance in the knowledge of God.

From Alma’s own reading of Nephite scripture, I gather that the Book of Mormon should
be read typologically. But it is necessary to put a finer point on typology and for that it is
necessary to look elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. There are explicit discussions of typology
at several points in the Book of Mormon, but, if one pays attention to the structural and historical
complexities mentioned above, it becomes clear that typology is not a uniform concept in Nephite
scripture. Rather, the Book of Mormon presents two distinct understandings of typology.
One of these is worked out at the beginning of the Nephite tradition by Nephi, son of Lehi.
The other emerges centuries later in the teachings of Abinadi, the martyred prophet.

The bulk of this book is devoted to examining the textual structures and historical entanglements
that contextualize and complicate what Nephi and Abinadi have to say about typology. This
interpretive work is made even more interesting by the fact that both Nephi and Abinadi develop
their respective notions of typology in dialogue with Isaiah.

For Nephi, Isaiah was a prophet with a message about the house of Israel, for the house of Israel.
As a result, Nephi takes Isaiah’s writings as a kind of template for making sense of Israel’s
actual historical experience, wherever and whenever Israel may be. This approach to typology is
what Nephi calls “likening” Isaiah’s writings. Thus, though the children of Lehi are located in a
time and place that is drastically different from the time and place of Isaiah’s original prophecy,
they can, according to Nephi, still assume that the writings of Isaiah provide a kind of covenant
framework for making sense of their own historical experience. Fueled by this understanding
of typology, Nephi develops a near obsession with Isaiah and pays close attention even to the
theologically significant internal arrangement of materials in the Book of Isaiah.

According to Abinadi, on the other hand, Isaiah, along with all other prophets, was focused
less on the singular history of Israel than on the event of Christ’s mortal ministry. Abinadi thus
ignores, for instance, the importance of Isaiah’s internal arrangement in order to give a strictly
Christological reading of Isaiah’s writings, one that sharply diverges from Nephi’s way of
reading the prophet. For Abinadi, Isaiah’s prophecies are primarily about what would happen
in the meridian of time. Consequently, all else Isaiah appears to say must be read in light of the
coming Christ event and with an eye to the consequences of that event for each believer—even
when, on his own terms, Isaiah seems clearly to be focused on eschatological or covenantal
history.

Thus both Nephi and Abinadi formulate their respective approaches to typology in the course of
reading Isaiah. But, because they understand the task of (Isaiah’s) prophecy so distinctively, they
arrive at quite different understandings of typology. For both, typology is a question of knowing
how to read scripture in a uniquely Christian way, but what is to be read typologically is different
for each of them. This seems, in the end, to be a consequence of Nephi’s having discovered
his understanding of typology in the complexly structured writings of Isaiah, while Abinadi
apparently brought his understanding of typology to the writings of Isaiah. More explicitly,
Nephi draws from Isaiah an understanding of the relationship between the Law of Moses and
the Messiah that fits Isaiah’s heavy emphasis on the Israelite covenant, while Abinadi imposes
on Isaiah an understanding of the relationship between the Law and the Messiah that effectively
ignores Isaiah’s focus on covenantal questions.

Two models, then: one focused principally on connecting Christ to the world historical unfolding
of the Israelite covenant, the other focused principally on connecting Christ to the everyday
life of the individual believer. But how is one to decide between them—if indeed they are to be
decided between? Two clues in the Book of Mormon point the way. First, crucially, during his
visit to the Lehites in Third Nephi, Christ himself intervenes, calling for a kind of return (from
Abinadi’s) to Nephi’s approach to scripture. Second and by way of confirmation, a narrative
allusion to Exodus 32–34 in the middle of Abinadi’s own speech suggests that the Book of Mormon
as a whole is meant to elevate Nephi’s understanding of typology to a privileged place, though
without thereby disparaging Abinadi’s understanding.

In light of these indications, I then draw some final conclusions about how the Book of
Mormon—according to the Book of Mormon itself—should be read. Granted the privilege given
to Nephi’s approach to scripture over that of Abinadi, and given Nephi’s deep interest in Isaiah’s
emphasis on the Israelite covenant, the Book of Mormon asks us to privilege readings of it that
stress the centrality of Israel and its covenant. If readers of the Book of Mormon are to read
the book as the book itself suggests it should be read, they must pay close attention to what the
Book of Mormon says—and enacts—regarding the ancient covenant given to Israel. Not only are
readers to be converted by the Book of Mormon to the everyday life of a Christian, they are, in
full fidelity to what the Book of Mormon accomplishes as an event, also typologically to convert
the whole of world history so that it too is rooted in and revolves around the covenant.

Let me conclude this preface with an aside to my friends in (the justifiably secularized field
of ) Mormon studies, friends who are likely to feel a complex tension in this book. I recognize
the real need to produce serious work on the Book of Mormon that can speak as much to non-
Mormon interests as to Mormon interests, and I have produced and will continue to produce
such work. This book, however, hovers somewhere between such work and what might be
called more traditional (if not more conservative) Mormon scholarship. Thus while I here ask
a question that is of as much interest to readers of the Book of Mormon who have no Mormon
convictions as to believing Latter-day Saints, and while I believe that I ultimately provide an
answer to that question that can speak to both kinds of reader, the road I travel in moving from
question to answer is paved with commitments that mark my faith commitments. (I therefore
consistently assume the historicity of the Book of Mormon throughout the book, occasionally
speculating about authorial motives, historical circumstances behind narrated events, and the
like.) I want to assure readers who approach the book from a more secular or secularized point of
view that I express such commitments, always implicitly, not in order to alienate either the non-
Mormon or the academic, but because I mean to speak as much to the average Latter-day Saint
as to scholars, whether Mormon or not. By adding this note, I do not mean to apologize for my
faith, only to make clear what the present book does and does not attempt to do. And I hope, not
without some trepidation, that scholars of Mormonism generally have something to learn from a
believing Mormon theologian hard at work on scripture.

Comments

  1. tl;dr, but the first few paragraphs have a certain feel to them that makes me think the author was getting paid by the word, or that he needed a certain length for the preface. There are words and phrases that are repeated unnecessarily to bloat it. I mean, look at the first paragraph.

    Also, are you so pressed for blog topics that you’re opening up a critique of the _preface_ of a book? Can’t we quibble about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or how the eye of the needle was a gate in Jerusalem, or SSM or MMP, or Lot’s daughters?

  2. Kristine says:

    FHL–if you had ever met Joe, you would be impressed with how spare the prose is here.

  3. There has been so much new scholarship on understanding the Book of Mormon (first Grant Hardy, then Brant Gardner, now Spencer and his associates at Salt Press), that it is hard to keep up. But I am loving the challenge of it. I have downloaded this, and not gotten any further than this preface as of yet, but I am looking forward to it.

    I do wonder about assigning priveleged reading to the Nephi/Alma version over the Abinadi version, as different models may appeal to different folks with varying personality types and theological leanings (simplistically, like liahonas and iron rodders, or some other admittedly arbitrary division). Spencer obviously feels strongly about the Nephi/Alma version. Some may feel more affinity for Abinadi’s reading. For me, I have not yet waded in the waters, and formed an opinion.

  4. That’s a good point Kevin. I’ve not read Joe’s book yet but I think when I do I’ll keep that in mind.

  5. FHL:

    Also, are you so pressed for blog topics that you’re opening up a critique of the _preface_ of a book?

    Obviously! Would that we could all be as terse as is CyBermudaTriangle. (?)

    (Or it very well may be that I’m impressed with Salt Press’s operating procedure in terms of it being open access, as well as its providing fresh reading of LDS scripture in the hopes of generating higher-level discussion than what you might expect in Sunday School class, and am interested in the reactions of other readers. Thus, by posting the preface of a book I previously reviewed I might encourage more people to give it a shot by direct experience, and also get a feel for how the book would be received. For you it seems not very well, which is fine. If it’s not your bag there are other posts you can check out.)

    kevinf: I almost got a Hegelian sense from Joe’s argument, in the Nephi bit being the thesis, Abinadi as anti-thesis, and Christ appearing in 3 Ne. to offer a synthesis.

  6. Kevin, you’ll have to see how I argue this out through the book. I argue that the Book of Mormon itself privileges Nephi’s approach, but without dismissing Abinadi’s. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the larger argument.

    FHL, how I wish I were getting paid at all for the book! As it is, I won’t make a cent on it. In the meanwhile, I’ll stand behind Kristine’s words: I’m no poet, and I constantly worry about how my prose stands in the way of what I’m trying to say. I can only offer my apologies for my confessedly pedestrian writing.

  7. I found the original review and this preface helpful. I am grateful to have free access to the content. It is less for me that this seems important, but for some of my academic friends who aren’t LDS, I can give them a peek into LDS scholarship.

    It isn’t that I haven’t shared books or articles with them before, but the openness of this takes away the idea that LDS scholarship isn’t open to peer review or question. I think this can only help more intellectually oriented people to take the Book of Mormon, LDS history and LDS research more seriously. I have no idea if it will lead to more baptisms of intellectually focused people, but I think it gives us better places to start.

    Thanks BHodges and JoeSpencer for your contributions to the constantly changing relationships between scholars of all denominations about the religious texts used in their faith.

  8. Joe,
    I agree with you about the two trends, but I wonder about the privileging that you see. Certainly Mormon and possibly Moroni agree with Nephi over Abinadi, but I don’t know if we can take that to mean that God does.

  9. Joe,

    I want to probe a little on how you see the distinction between reading and writing scripture playing out in your analysis. You observe that in Alma 36 “Alma the Younger recounts his conversion experience to his son, Helaman, but he does so, importantly, by weaving his personal story into a reading of 1 Nephi 1. Alma’s weaving together of a scriptural text with his own conversion experience exemplifies how the Book of Mormon should be read.” Rather than being primarily about reading, this text appears to be an example of how to write scripture. There are other ways to see this passage modeling engagement with the text outside of just the process of reading (e.g. parent-child relationships). In terms of writing scripture, the method demonstrated by Alma certainly has some resonance with how Nephi also writes scripture. This approach to writing might follow a particular method but this does not necessarily imply that reading must follow the same mechanism as writing. Am I mis-reading your argument to suggest that you assume how one writes scripture is also supposed to be a model for how one reads scripture?

    I look forward to reading the book further.

  10. Julia #7 – Many thanks. I have the same hopes.

    John C. #8 – I should be careful about the word “privileging.” It’s less that I see the Book of Mormon privileging the one approach over the other than that I see the Book of Mormon establishing a complex relationship between the two approaches, with one of them having a rather broader compass. At any rate, as Blair put it, there’s a kind of synthesis of the two approaches worked out, it seems, in Third Nephi.

    Aaron R. #9 – I’m a little nervous with the idea, assuming the historicity of the Book of Mormon, that Alma would have seen himself as writing scripture in producing this text. In most cases of writing scripture, the writer can’t know that that’s what she’s doing, because what makes something scripture has much to do with the community that reveres the text. (I think there are exceptions, and Nephi is one of them.) That said, I like where you’re going with your thoughts here, and I think the question is fruitful. My aim is more modest in the book: because I’m asking how the Book of Mormon reads itself, I look at a text like Alma 36 in those terms.

  11. Joe,

    You are right to point out the generality around how I use scripture in my comment. Moreover, I agree that scripture is defined by a community as much as anything else. However, I am not sure that Nephi and Alma are all that different – again, assuming historicity – in their intentions or position. They were both in a position of religious authority in their communities and they were writing in a way which suggests that they intended their writing to be preserved by the communities in which they (and presumably their writing) were revered. If anything, Alma’s position most probably provided greater assurances for the continuity of his writing simply because the structure and hierarchy of Nephite society had stabilized and solidified a great deal more by that period. I do not want this to sound like criticism rather I am just trying to engage in reading the text in a similar way to how you set up your book. Thanks for raising these interesting questions.

  12. Aaron, first, no worries about sounding like criticism! More importantly:

    My reason for saying that Nephi is an exception is that he had a vision of the future role his writings would play in very specific historical events. Alma might well have had, as you say, reasons to expect that things would go that way for him, he didn’t have such explicitly specific knowledge. That said, the story with Nephi isn’t so simple as I’ve suggested here. He doesn’t seem to have realized that the book in his vision (in 1 Nephi 11-14) was something he’d help produce until relatively late (probably not until he was well into producing Second Nephi), so he only came to see that he was writing (what would become) scripture. But his eventual consciousness of this seems to have shaped his writing pretty drastically as he came to realize it, on my reading.

  13. Thanks for your responses Joe. I look forward to reading the book in greater detail.

  14. Blair, thanks for these posts. I’ll be anxious to hear how others’ reading of Joe’s book compares to my own, so I hope you keep this series going as a venue for discussion….

  15. Craig M. says:

    The review and this post really have piqued my interest in the book – sounds fascinating and I hope to read it! I’m surprised that no one seems to have made what seems to always be the first reply to any literary criticism or deep reading of a text – “You’re reading into it too much!/There’s no way the authors intended that!” Hearing the premise of the book I almost wanted to say that (perhaps making me a philistine), but reading this preface and quickly skimming the book it seems that Joe is really on to something. Way to go!

  16. I have finished the book and found it insightful. It did take a little time to get going, but once I caught on I enjoyed it very much. A number of items that were brought up, fit nicely with other ideas I have been studying lately.
    Thank you

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