In 1957 Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon appeared on the scene, the Melchizedek Priesthood manual for that year (cue the sighs of bittersweet longing for the manuals of yesteryear). In retrospect the book was an earthquake, shattering the intellectual and religious landscapes on which the Book of Mormon had been erected and creating new vistas and pinnacles from which to see and receive the book anew. It inarguably helped to shape the entire Mormon academic enterprise, a catalyst in spawning an industry of textual Mormon comparative/historical scholarship. The book signaled the beginning of a new era of academic inquiry and interest in Mormon scripture–one that is still largely with us–and scholarly investigations of Mormon texts will always be indebted to it.
Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On Typology (reviewed here at BCC by Blair) is, after 55 years, the followup aftershock, a seismic event in and of itself, and one that should, if it is given its due, once again change the landscape of investigations into Mormon scripture. Blair’s review of the book is solid, and I’m not interested in breaking it down and textually reviewing it myself here. Instead, I’d like to discuss the potential location of the book in the Mormon scholarly constellation and suggest why I think it might be one of the most productive and important works on the Book of Mormon ever written (on par with Nibley’s An Approach). Lest the title of this essay lead one to suspect that I am comparing Spencer to Nibley, of course Spencer himself cannot be compared to Nibley and his vast intellectual and popular influence (as I’m sure Joe himself would insist on attesting!) What I am claiming here, though, is that his book has the potential to unlock an entirely new and productive way of reading the Book of Mormon, much as Nibley’s book launched an entire industry based on his methods. 
The burden of the book is to show how the Book of Mormon itself suggests it might be read. Where Nibley wanted to demonstrate the historical complexity of the book (a priority of exteriority), Spencer aims to reveal its internal theological complexity (a priority of interiority), and here is why the book is a watershed in studies of Mormonism. Spencer wagers (more implicitly than explicitly) that there is much we miss when we focus too intently on externally situating the book in an ancient setting. In fact, he simply assumes the book’s antiquity in order to treat it as an actual (hi)story, one that, in Baroque fashion, is untidy, non-linear, and complex. This makes theological ideas in the Book of Mormon anything but “doctrinally clear” and immaculate, and consequently their appearance in the history of ideas alone is trivial; we must uncover the stories, connections, and interpretations behind the ideas as they manifest and re-manifest themselves in various epochs. Spencer’s work, therefore, is to reveal the interwoven complexity of theological teachings in the book–prophets in the Book of Mormon were aware of each others’ teachings and therefore interpreted each other in specific ways. In other words, they read one another. The end result is to show how the Book of Mormon itself suggests that it be read typologically–the theologies of the prophets consist in elaborations of new ways of reading those who have come before: Alma read Nephi in particular ways, virtually everyone from Nephi to Abinadi to Christ himself (with varying interpretations) read Isaiah, etc. Typological reading is essentially a hermeneutics of reading/writing; unpredictable but highly influential events–experiences with the divine that in essence radically alter one’s worldview–can change how memory about the past is structured in order to allow for new and redemptive ways of seeing the past. In other words, the Book of Mormon makes two major, mutually reinforcing moves: 1) it suggests both how we might conceive of and reorder the past itself around a particular mechanism or event–in this case the Israelite covenant–and 2) it shows how this might be done by suggesting throughout the book how the Book of Mormon itself is an instance or “how-to” of this grand project of restructuring memory in such a way that new ways of seeing past events become possible.
So much for a brief specific elaboration of Spencer’s project. What makes this project potentially a Game-changer is the method that is deployed and out of which the book was generated in the first place. Spencer is a co-founder of and an active participant in the Mormon Theology Seminar. The Seminar is itself a revolutionary project in scriptural exploration/scholarship. Consisting of online “seminars” staffed by a small number of participants (each group will be a mix of the core founders of the MTS and various other participants–a group that in theory is meant to be as diverse as possible), a relatively short passage of scripture is chosen (often just one chapter) and smaller chunks of it are divided up among the participants for analysis and presentation, followed by extensive group discussion. A symposium consisting of many or all the participants expanding and refining their comments in the form of academic papers often concludes each seminar.
The seminar has been compared to a similar method employed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan but I would suggest that its methodology (and the methodology of Spencer’s book) has more in common with Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Here, Ranciere tells the story of Joseph Jacotot, a French professor in the early 19th century who discovered, quite by accident, that he could teach that which he did not have explicit, detailed knowledge of. Jacotot wagered that all people have equal intelligence; many of them simply do not have the will to exercise it, and in fact we are all teachers–there is much that we have taught ourselves, and perhaps our most important skills and truths were self-taught. Ranciere shows how anyone can be taught anything through an “emancipatory method” of teaching. All that is needed is an emancipated teacher, one who has recognized that he or she has stultified her students by demanding that they conform to her knowledge, to a received and uniform way of pursuing truth. Instead, the emancipated teacher ceases using her own intelligence as an obstacle to the student expressing and exercising her intelligence and how works only to ensure that the student does not become distracted from creatively imagining new possibilities, engaging and struggling with texts and concepts. There is no inherent, pre-given, solitary meaning within the life of an idea, within the world of a text. The emancipated master simply keeps the student on track in bringing the student’s intelligent gifts to bear on the task or text before her. The emancipated student learns that it is what she brings to a text with her own intelligence that decides the truth(s) of a text.
Spencer’s book–intimately similar in its methods though not simply identical to the work of the Mormon Theology Seminar–establishes a corresponding method to Ranciere’s–a hermeneutic methodology that anyone with a serious interest in the text can adopt in order to unveil untold theological and literary possibilities. As such, his book–not un-coincidentally like the Book of Mormon itself–is both a manual on how this might be done as well as a case example of the kind of work that can be produced when the manual is followed. The book has the potential to be a work as groundbreaking as Nibley’s because its methodology is radically egalitarian and therefore theoretically universally accessible–there’s no need to have a degree in a field in ancient studies, to be able to read Hebrew or Greek or see signs of Mesoamerica or the Middle East in the text in order to bring something to the text from the outside. Instead, careful, meticulous attention to the text can reveal internal theological possibilities that are not directly on the order of historical, linguistic, or even purely exegetical products. As Adam Miller said in a recent Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference, the truth of the Book of Mormon that is most relevant is a truth that is not a pre-packaged given. We must do the work of making the Book of Mormon true. As such, Spencer’s book is a book that is explicitly concerned with the question of truth, and how truth is actually produced (the real work of agents), instead of simply recognized. The meanings and intricate connections he pulls out of the Book of Mormon are decidedly there; but they are his, for he has, in crucial sense, made them and given birth to them.
This is a definitely different method from the one Nibley first advocated, and yet it doesn’t replace Nibley and his progeny. In fact, it stands on the shoulders of Nibley and those who have come before, those who first took the Book of Mormon seriously, and it would be unnecessary to conclude that the “historical approach” is now simply irrelevant. On the contrary, it is thanks to all the work on the Book of Mormon that has already been done that a book like this was allowed to think in precisely this fashion. In a very real sense there is only a Joseph Spencer and the Mormon Theology Seminar because there was a Hugh Nibley.
But make no mistake. My adventurous and maybe reckless prediction (only time will tell) is that this particular earthquake (whose initial effects may be only a distant rumbling for some time) is the future of Mormon scriptural scholarship. The traditional way of approaching the Book of Mormon through the path of exteriority has had a crucial place in Mormon textual studies, but Spencer’s book of interiority reveals a path with the potential for untold numbers of both Mormons and non-Mormons to access Mormon scripture in such a way that does not require them to haggle over its origins but to be able to find real truths in its pages, because anyone, through this method of radical equality, can derive meaning and uncover the heretofore unseen. In the Preface to An Approach to the Book of Mormon Nibley in fact remarked that the Book of Mormon, among other things, is unique because it is the only major world scripture that has come down to us entirely in English, with no original to compare it to. As Spencer has further shown, it is also likely the only sacred writing that suggests so exhaustively how its readers might read it, and therefore the only scripture that is so intensely and uncompromisingly reader-focused. The Book of Mormon was written and compiled more conscientiously with readers in mind than perhaps any other work of scripture. It practically demands a radical egalitarian methodology such as Spencer’s in order to bring as many serious readers to the book as possible and therefore make it a work of untold truths and possibilities, as any sacred text should be.
 I should note that Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon is both a precursor to Spencer’s volume and an important companion to it. In fact, it should quite productively be read in conjunction with Spencer’s book.