Alma and the Poetics of Conversion #BOM2016

CoverOne of the twentieth century’s greatest works of Dante criticism is John Freccero’s remarkable Dante and the Poetics of Conversion. Freccero makes two crucial points in this book: 1) that the primary objective of the Divine Comedy is to cause readers to experience conversion; and 2) that everything about the text—its subject matter, narrative style, linguistic manner, rhyme scheme, etc.—serves this greater objective. The purpose of Dante’s work is to help readers both see and feel the experience of conversion.

I believe that we can say much the same thing about the Book of Mormon. On its very first page, it announces its own purpose as “to shew unto the remnant of the House of Israel how great things that Lord hath done for their fathers” and “to convince[e] the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” This work of conversion proceeds throughout the book until the very last chapter, which exhorts readers “to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true” (Moroni 10:4). It asks us, in other words, to both understand and experienced conversion.

The stories of of Alma and his descendants are central to the Book of Mormon’s poetics of conversion. The story begins with Alma’s dramatic conversion by Abinadi in the court of King Noah, and it moves through the next two generations of Alma’s prophetic line, to encompass almost every aspect of the conversion experience. And along the way, Mormon takes a number of unprecedented poetic steps to enhance this experience.

Alma’s initial conversion is described in the sparsest of prose. After presenting the prophecies of Abinadi in great detail, without a hint that anybody is paying attention, Mormon tells us that “there was one among them whose name was Alma, he also being a descendant of Nephi. The rest of Mosiah largely shows tells the story of Alma’s actions after being converted. He starts teaching other people, baptizes them, creates the first Nephite Church, and eventually relocates to Zarahemla to be the head of the Church in all the land.

I suspect that Mormon spends so little time describing the actual conversion, and so much time showing us what being converted looks like, because of the kind of conversion that Alma experiences. Like Saul in the New Testament, he is already a devoted follower of the truth as he understands it. His conversion, therefore, is primarily intellectual: Abinadi convinces him that the truth he understands is incorrect, or at least incomplete. Once he understands this, he places his existing spiritual passion in the service of his new knowledge. It is the heavy lifting after conversion that we really need to see.

But this is not what conversion looks like for Alma’s son. Alma the Younger grows up in his father’s Church, and he makes a conscious decision to oppose it. The strong suggestion of the narrative is that Alma (like Nehor and Korihor, whose stories are interspersed with Alma the Younger’s) actively chooses evil for evil’s sake and intentionally opposes the Church that he knows to be true:

Now the sons of Mosiah were numbered among the unbelievers; and also one of the sons of Alma was numbered among them, he being called Alma, after his father; nevertheless, he became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities.

And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them. (Mosiah 27: 8-9)

As Mormon narrates Alma the Younger’s conversion–once again invokes the New Testament account of Saul/Paul–he uses the plain and direct language of the historian to tell of angels, divine communication, paternal prayers, and some serious smiting—all of which Mormon describes with his typical historian’s detachment. But then—in a remarkable moment of narrative conversion, Mormon pulls back and let’s Alma take the mic:

My soul hath been redeemed
     from the gall of bitterness
     and bonds of iniquity.
I was in the darkest abyss;
     but now I behold the marvelous light of God.
My soul was racked with eternal torment;
     but I am snatched,
     and my soul is pained no more. (Mosiah 29)

I follow Grant Hardy here in printing these lines in verse to emphasize that they are, in fact, poetry, complete with metaphor, elevated diction, formal parallelism.[1] The switch from prose to poetry, like the shift from the third- to the first-person point of view, highlights conversion, or change. This is precisely the sort of thing that Freccero meant by “the poetics of conversion.”

But Mormon is not done with this conversion story. In one of very few examples of straight repetition in the BOM narrative, Mormon has Alma the Younger retell the story of his conversion to his son, Helaman, whom he is preparing to take over as the head of the Church. This time, the entire conversion narrative shifts to the first-person, and the brief poem at the end is expanded into a full-scale philosophical reflection on the nature of repentance:

I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.

And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. (Alma 36: 12-19)

Here, Alma uses some of the most intense poetic language in the entire Book of Mormon to describe the internal journey of conversion. After experiencing irresistible and downright intrusive grace, that saves him from the fate of Nehor and Korihor (both of whose stories occur in between the two conversion accounts), Alma experiences profound existential despair. He actively wants to stop existing–to “be banished and become extinct both soul and body.” The final act of grace—and the culmination of Alma the Younger’s conversion—consists of converting despair to hope. So important is the story this conversion that Mormon makes the unprecedented narrative decision to tell it twice.

For the first Alma, conversion is a relatively simple affair. He changes his mind, and all of the heavy lifted comes in living a converted life. For his son, conversion is much more difficult because it requires a change of heart and a painful process of reconciliation with God. Like Dante, Mormon uses every literary and narrative device at his disposal to let the reader see, feel, and experience Alma the Younger’s journey from deliberate sin, through existential despair, to a state of divine hope in which he, like Dante (and like the readers of both) can behold, once again, the stars.

[1] Hardy, Grant. The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003), p. 241.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post.

    I’m fascinated by the use of the word “snatched” in Mosiah 27:29 that you quote. The active verb “snatch” appears in Isaiah 9:20 (which is then quoted in 2 Nephi 19;20):

    20 And he shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry;
    and he shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied:
    they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm:

    There the verb snatch is a rendering of Hebrew gazar, which means “to cut, divide” (here in the sense of cutting and therefore devouring food). In the passive it has a negative sense, “to be cut off.” The BoM is clearly using the word in its English sense, not its Hebrew sense.

    The preceding verse, Mosiah 27:28, uses “snatch” as an active verb:

    28 Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation,
    repenting nigh unto death,
    the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning,
    and I am born of God.

    This is then followed by the passive “but I am snatched” of v. 29.

    The English meaning is “to lay hold of suddenly” (English “snack” seems to be a related concept.) The imagery is very powerful; the Lord doesn’t just save him, he “snatches” him (grabs him suddenly, dramatically, at the very last moment) and saves him from everlasting burning. A really colorful word that brings the passage to life.

  2. Kevin, I followed up on your line of the use “snatched” by way of Spanish, my mother tongue, and found that two different words are used in Mos 27: 28 and 29. In v28 the Spanish version uses “arrebatar” roughly the equivalent word (to be suddenly grabbed up is the best way I can describe it). But then in v29 it uses the phrase: “mas he sido rescatado” a passive use of “rescue”, roughly “but I have been rescued”. It does not evoke the same type of imagery as the English does.

    Then again, the anglophone world perhaps has not had to deal with kidnappings as much as the Spanish speaking folks, so there’s that tender mercy… :-)

  3. Jared Cook says:

    This is a great post. Alma’s two conversion stories bookend not only Nehor’s and Korihor’s non-conversions, but also the conversions of Lamoni & his wife & father and the anti Nephi Lehis, and these insights apply in a similar way to those conversion stories.

  4. Jared–great point. And also, the conversion of his son, Corianton, whose father’s blessing is is one of the most interesting things in the whole book–half exhortation to repentance for his sexual behavior, and half clarification of profoundly difficult existential questions.