Introducing The Book of Mormon for the Least of These

Today, BCC Press is tickled pinkish to be launching The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, by Fatimah Salleh with Margaret Olsen Hemming. This is a downright remarkable book of learned theology, active reading, social justice, and, above all, deep fatih. The following post is by the authors.

The strength and beauty of a holy text is that it can be read again and again, with different and new understandings and insights revealed every time. A holy text is not exhausted by a single interpretation; it compels readers to return and review, reexamine, and reinterpret. The Bible has withstood millenia of innumberable methods of understanding: orthodox, liberal, academic, literary, feminist, etc. The Book of Mormon has certainly experienced readers examining it from various points of view, including through history, literature, and orthodoxy. But a close reading of the complete book as scripture that has messages about oppression, inequality, and other issues of social justice has not been available until now. This book, the first in a trilogy, is a social justice exegesis of the first third of the Book of Mormon, from 1 Nephi to the Words of Mormon.

All forms of exegesis, or the critical interpretation of holy text, use some kind of personal interpretation, even if that personal lens goes unrecognized or unacknowledged. Unlike some other scriptural commentary, we don’t pretend to be lacking bias. We wrote this book intentionally looking for messages about issues related to social justice. As we worked on this book, we specifically asked the questions: Who is present but unheard? Who is suffering and why? What kind of violence is in the background of this story? How does this call us to relieve affliction? How are these actions informed by trauma? What are the diverse ways that God is showing up in this person’s life? What are the assumptions this person is making? Is there another way to understand this story? We would never claim that this is a definitive way of reading this text, simply that it is one that has been vastly underutilized in mainstream Mormonism. 

Why do we believe that this kind of interpretation—a hermeneutics of social justice—is an important missing piece to read the Book of Mormon? Simply, there is a tragic history of scripture being weaponized against populations that are already marginalized. When this happens, the radical message of the gospel, that God loves each person completely and unreservedly and calls us to do the same, is lost. Deliberately reading scripture while looking for themes of social justice provides believers with the tools to counteract that tendency. For those who experience oppression because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or immigration status, this book provides messages of liberation. The Book of Mormon is a book of abundance. There is a richness to the text that is exciting and transformative. The narrowing of scripture so that there is one single message, one way of reading, leaves a banquet of God’s word lying untouched on the table.

Critical thinkers engaging with the Book of Mormon have a great deal to struggle with: Nephi’s racist epithets against his brothers, a theology of prosperity gospel, claims of God choosing sides in war, a disturbing lack of female voices or characters, and more. The exegesis provided in this book attempts to uncover some of the deeper messages that require an intense wrestle with the text. Wisdom about what a journey with God looks like is there, but sometimes goes unseen. The purpose of this book is to make the effort of seeing a little bit easier for others. More than anything, we hope that readers will feel empowered to explore the Book of Mormon in new and revolutionary ways. 

As Latter-day Saints we are empowered to read and ponder the scriptures. Part of the power of sinking into scripture is that we get to let the text call to us, speak into our lives, and inspire us to be brave in our discipleship. This book is one way we have allowed the scriptures to speak. We hope our offering of this social justice lens will embolden its readers to search, ponder and pray about the many ways this holy text can transform their lives. We hope this work emboldens readers to reach for a God that calls all of us to see the oppressed and engage in the work of liberation.

For this first third of the Book of Mormon, we primarily examine the origin story of the Nephites and the Lamanites. The most important theme is that this is a story of refugees who, because of their obedience to God, lost everything and journeyed into the wilderness. This section is about a family schism that will divide a nation. It includes familial abuse, violence, and fleeing into the unknown multiple times. This is a cruel, ugly, sometimes heartbreaking story. As readers, we witness it. And we also witness how God reaches out to this family, again and again. 

As you read this book, we hope that you will see how the Book of Mormon calls all of us toward lives of justice work; that you will offer the people in the book and in your lives more compassion; and that you will ponder the ways in which you can liberate the oppressed. If this book helps at all in your efforts to understand your journey with God, it will have fulfilled its purpose.

Comments

  1. I’ve really enjoyed digging into the first volume of this series so far; the work the authors have done is eye-opening and valuable.

  2. I just ordered my copy. I’m really looking forward to it!