Alan Goff: Likening in the Book of Mormon: A Look at Joseph M. Spencer’s An Other Testament: On Typology
BCC: Tell us about yourself, Alan.
Goff: I grew up in Nampa, Idaho in a firmly committed LDS family, in the middle of 10 children my parents raised to adulthood. My father supported our family by working as a custom farmer (applying commercial fertilizer on cropland); summer jobs were almost always spent working on farms: moving pipe, topping corn, etc. I performed well academically, played varsity football and baseball, skied, and otherwise did what most teenagers do. I graduated from high school in 1978. I attended one year at BYU before serving a mission to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Troubles, as the Irish refer to the political violence, were still a persistent feature of life in Northern Ireland. But most Irish not only love Americans (it was common for Irish people to introduce themselves and ask, “Me cousin Paddy O’Brien lives in Chicago/Boston/New York, do ye know him?”) but also viewed Mormons as neither Protestant nor Catholic, so the sectarian tensions largely bypassed the Latter-day Saints there. My ancestors are all either English or Scottish; both my grandmothers were Campbells. When I first arrived in Kilmarnock, I didn’t know that the Campbells were widely despised in Scotland for their treachery against the McDonald clan and for throwing the clan’s considerable weight early in history on the side of English control and Scottish subordination (which lead to extraordinary influence for the clan and hereditary dukedom for the clan’s leader), so I would announce my filiations to the Scots and couldn’t understand the cool response I often got. But my first teaching and baptizing experience was with a Sister McDonald from Ayrshire.
I returned from my mission in 1981 to BYU. I was a political science major (pre-law) until I decided that practicing law was my father’s dream for me, not mine. After completing an introductory literature class and loving the subject matter, I became a double major in English and political philosophy. I also completed two masters’ degrees in those subject areas at BYU.
Hugh Nibley was still alive and publishing when I was an undergraduate, and I began to hunt down photocopies of obscure Nibley writings and addresses that are now easily accessible in the CWHN. So my interests remained closely connected to religion and Mormon history and scripture as a result of the Nibley influence. In 1986 I married Helga Ludwig of Mesa, Arizona in the Salt Lake temple. In 1989 I finished my academic work at BYU. Helga and I were both applying to graduate programs and matching universities with geographies that would permit us both to do graduate work. We moved to just upstate New York, Helga to attend SUNY Purchase (studying costume design for the stage) while I attended an interdisciplinary program at the University at Albany; we lived in the Poughkeepsie area so Helga could commute south and I commuted the 90 miles north to the capital district (fortunately, the three winters I made that drive were very mild and my old Ford Escort was mostly reliable). My curriculum there (in the Doctor of Arts Program in Humanistic Studies) permitted me to study literary theory and philosophy. I completed my dissertation almost before finishing my coursework and graduated with the doctorate in 1993. I made a living in the Hudson River area by teaching: at Duchess Community College, Mount Saint Mary College, and the University at Albany. I continued my research in New York by haunting the libraries of colleges and universities in the Hudson River Valley: from SUNY Albany in the north to Vassar; SUNY New Paltz; and Bard in mid-Hudson, to NYU; the New York Public Library; and Pace University in Westchester County and the city.
My English master’s degree thesis at BYU took up typological elements in the Book of Mormon as well as interpretations of that scripture by New Mormon Historians, in particular focusing on the positivism that dominated then (and still does) readings of Mormon history from within the historical profession. My doctoral dissertation never mentioned Mormon considerations (while such concerns were never far from the surface) but took up the differences of interpretation between (usually secularized) Jews and Christians that in the literary theory of the time emerged as Christian typological and Jewish midrashic readings of literature, literary theory, and philosophy (the 1980s and early 1990s were the period of high theory).
We gave birth to our first child, Morgan, while we were still in New York, but moved back to Mesa, Arizona within a month (March 1994). I found work teaching at DeVry University and have taught there since. I teach mostly humanities courses (literature, ethics, logic & critical thinking, composition, history) and because of that political science MA a few social science courses. In Arizona we brought our two sons into the world—Addison and Ethan. Morgan was a freshman at BYU when the church lowered the mission age for young women, so she was immediately affected and is serving in the Dominican Republic. Addison is a senior and Ethan a junior in high school.
I have found a publishing niche focused on Mormon scripture and history. It is a particular emphasis of mine to heal Mormon history of the positivism that continues to dominate the sub-discipline, so I have read thoroughly in historiography to discern how writing history has changed in the past 50 years in the discipline at large; narrative theory (historians are storytellers, after all) has emerged as an important juncture where historical theory and literary theory merge. Positivism holds hegemony in all humanities and social science disciplines, but its effects in Mormon studies have been and continue to be particularly pernicious despite the fact that one can’t find a single positivist who acknowledges the influence of the philosophy. I also take a literary approach to Mormon scripture (especially the Book of Mormon) to demonstrate how complex the work of scripture is and how its readers (both believers and skeptics) have vastly under performed as readers of the text. We still don’t adequately appreciate the literary qualities of the book, and little more do we recognize that it accomplishes its theological, spiritual, and historical work through its literary elements (modernity—not premodern thought—attempts to cordon off the literary from the historical, the literary from the religious; in antiquity these features were all inextricably bound together). The Book of Mormon carries on Hebraic interpretive features (especially typology) characteristic of the Hebrew Bible; in fact, one never really understands Book of Mormon narrative without accounting for the constant allusion the book uses to make intertextual connections to biblical narrative. I made a decision early in my career to focus at all cost on Mormon topics instead of pushing ahead with secular concerns.
BCC: How did you come to be interested in Spencer’s work? Can you tell our readers why they should be interested in Spencer too?
Goff: When I attended the meetings of the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities at Southern Virginia University (2008), Joe pulled me aside and said that a group of scholars interested in theory and Mormon texts were on a list-serv together. Joe had founded the LDS-Herm group (“Herm” is short for hermeneutics) and thought I would fit well. I tend not to contribute much to the LDS-Herm conversations, finding that the in-depth discussions of contemporary continental philosophers soon passes beyond the range of my interests or capabilities, but I enjoy reading what others have to say (of course, not all the threads delve into Derrida, Zizek, Badiou, and Marion). As one of the few online social networking sites that I belong to, the LDS-Herm discussion group continues such conversations. The ideas published by members of LDS-Herm often begin as ideas thrown out to the group and are then refined in commentary and conversation, occasionally sharp but almost always respectful. We hope we improve the ideas on the list-serv, getting rid of the nonsense before the concepts are finalized for a journal or book. Joe and I still get together occasionally at conferences or when Joe is travelling to and from a conference he stays at my house (in the Phoenix area the Goffs are about halfway between Albuquerque where Joe and his family are and Southern California where many conferences are held). The LDS-Herm group maintains personal cohesion by being the core element of a group at MSH conferences gathering for cream soda and hilarity that started as an informal party and has formalized to become a social gathering larger than the LDS-Herm group. Strong scholarly associations turn into personal bonds at such symposia.
Probably more important for your question than the personal friendship, Joe and I have overlapping interests in philosophy, textuality, and Mormon scripture that are not rare in themselves but unusual in the depth of commitment and narrowness of focus we share. Both Joe and I are willing to make professional sacrifices to publish about the Book of Mormon. Most university departments regard an interest in Mormon topics to be parochial and misguided (a pursuit to be indulged in only after achieving tenure, so Joe is taking great professional risk as he finishes graduate school and looks for academic jobs). Even BYU, in a bizarre turn of events resulting in a misguided policy, punishes its faculty members if they spend “too much time” on Mormon topics, viewing it as an in-house subject and not sufficiently respectable and expansive academically. As a consequence of that policy and other factors, the best scholarly readings of the Book of Mormon are not produced by BYU faculty but by academics located elsewhere (Terryl Givens, Joe Spencer, Grant Hardy, to name a few); it takes sustained practice and experience to produce high-quality close readings of the text, and the BYU faculty policy doesn’t do enough to support such persistent professional risk (BYU does excellent work elsewhere in providing publishing outlets for such work). So Joe and I cover a lot of the same territory, especially a focus on the typological textuality of the Book of Mormon, Joe from a more philosophical perspective and I from a literary point of view. Both Joe and I maintain that the Book of Mormon is an extremely complex text theologically and literarily that we believers have neglected to our shame and blame, speaking of the church as a whole and not individually; both critics and believers have read the scripture too superficially. It is long past time for Latter-day Saints to produce an exegetical tradition of Mormon scripture equivalent to the rabbinic tradition, Catholic commentary, and Protestant higher criticism. A commitment to continuing revelation ought not inhibit development of devotion to and exegesis of revelatory texts give to us by the past. I maintain that contemporary prophecy should gain added impetus from the analysis of scripture; the canon should be open at both ends and all the way in between. Making scripture relevant to today’s concerns is an eternal necessity and itself trigger the receipt of more scripture. Of course, when I first met Joe he hadn’t published much of his work (he was still a master’s student in library science at San Jose State then and is now finishing up his Ph.D. work at the University of New Mexico), but he had read many of my publications and saw an affinity.
When BYU Studies Quarterly asked me to write a review of Joe’s book, I readily agreed, having previously read the book and extensively marked it up and cross referenced it. Of course, I had to go back and read it again in order to compose the review essay. It also helps that I had cultivated great personal and professional respect for Joe as not just one of the smartest academics in the church but of all the people I know or read. Joe, in this book, gives readings of Book of Mormon passages that should solve longstanding puzzlement about the text, such as why did the priests of Noah pose the particular question based on Isaiah when they interrogated Abinadi? Joe’s readings take into account biblical scholarship and the biblical text while answering these questions with a sharp eye for the Book of Mormon text itself.
Joe addresses the most important exegetical issue in Book of Mormon textuality: the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the biblical text which is one of constant allusion (that we in literary criticism use the term “intertextuality” to analyze). One doesn’t understand the Book of Mormon adequately without grasping the relationship between the Old Testament and the Nephite scripture, without understanding the allusion from one Book of Mormon passage to a specific biblical passage. Joe understands the importance of connecting the Nephi portions, Jacob citations, Abinadi references, resurrected-Jesus passages, and other sections to relevant passages in Isaiah. Your readers should be interested in Joe’s book because he understands the most important theological element of the Book of Mormon (always, always, the book points us to Christ) and the essential textual element (the orientation toward Christ is accomplished incessantly through intertextual relationships).