A Deep Dive into the “Flyover Books”

On page 72 of the Maxwell Institute’s newest Brief Theological Introductions book, Sharon Harris writes a passage that will forever change the way I read the “itty-bitty books” of Enos, Jerom, and Omni. Speaking of the common charge that Jarom just wasn’t as invested in keeping the record as his ancestors were, Harris counters:

Rather than seeing them as a lag or a slowdown in the narrative of spirituality among Lehi and Sariah’s descendants, perhaps we have more in common with them than we realize. It has now been over a century since a revelation was received that was added to the Doctrine and Covenants. Would we say of our day, however, that revelation has ceased? Of course not. In many ways it feels as though revelation continues to increase within the church. But if people 2,500 years from now were to look back, with one narrow selection of records with which to draw their conclusions, would it look as though revelation was booming in the early twenty-first century? Perhaps not (72-73).

Though I have never considered it before, she is absolutely correct. Around 98% of the revelations that constitute the canonized scripture of the Restoration were generated between 1830 and 1845. The last 175 years, not so much. And this holds true across the board. Most of the Old Testament comes from the two sets of prophets–those of the 8th century and those of the 6th century–and from the post-exilic community in Babylon. And the entire New Testament was written in the last 50 or so years of the First Century AD. Scripture, like evolution, seems to follow a path of punctuated equilibrium in which most of us live in the unpunctuated parts.

This insight, I think, is crucial to understanding the three books that Harris treats in this study– Enos, Jarom, and Omni, which she calls “the flyover books” (2). Having grown up in Oklahoma, and having moved fairly recently from Kansas to Indiana, I know a bit about the things that people fly over, and I think that Harris’s approach is exactly right. Rather than working to invest these books with the earth-shaking theological significance of, say, First Nephi or Alma, she revels in their ordinariness—because ordinariness, or the conditions born of a well-ordered life and society, has a theological significance of its own.

A key insight that Harris introduces in the beginning and carries through her study is that, in all likelihood, Enos, Jerom, and Omni were the last books that Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery during the BOM’s translation process (7-11). Assuming that this was Mormon’s sequence too, it gives the books a timelessness that should affect how we read them. In the reading order, the destruction of the Nephites that is prophesied in Enos, has already happened, and the future record that the authors of Jerom and Omni struggle to understand has already been compiled. If we already know the end, we can better understand how the small acts recorded in these small books helped to bring it about. And we can pick out themes and patterns connecting their works that may well have been invisible to the authors themselves. Understanding these themes patterns constitutes the bulk of Harris’s project in this brief study.

And she succeeds magnificently. The opening chapter on Enos sets the analysis in motion by offering multiple lenses to use in viewing the main character’s “wrestle” with the Lord. To help, she makes us familiar with the Greek term kenosis, or a complete emptying of one’s self. The term frequently appears in traditional descriptions of Christ’s absolute surrender to God’s will. But Harris investigates the concept much further, as she examines the spiritual path that Enos traveled to get from asking God to forgive his sins to securing God’s promise to spare the Lamanites if the Nephites are ever completely destroyed:

The process goes like this: being whole generates self-emptying, and self-emptying catalyzes focused, complete commitment to the life and welfare of specific people for whom we pour ourselves out. This is no theoretical idea of love, so undefined that we can hide behind its abstraction. This is loving real people with real consequences and costs, even if we do not know these real people right now. (30)

This is a marvelous understanding of how conversion changes us, and of how we become a Zion people by rejecting the inherent selfishness of natural humanity and becoming capable of loving other people the way that Christ loves them.

But Enos, as Harris deftly illustrates, still holds on to plenty of unfair stereotypes of the Lamanite people (41-44). His love for them in the future, which is absolutely sincere, does not prevent him from holding judgmental, ethnocentric views of them in the present—seeing them as creatures “led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness” (42). It is crucial here that Enos can love at least the descendants of these people even though he holds these views about them. But it is also crucial that he retains these bias views about them even after he spiritually commits to loving them. In the first thing, Enos is an example to us; in the second thing, he is a cautionary tale. In both, he provides us with a lesson well worth remembering.

The relationship between Nephites and Lamanites also becomes important to Jarom, who, Harris argues, is able to describe them without judgment—in a sign that the covenant between God and the Lamanites becomes increasingly important to the Book of Mormon even as the relationship between Nephites and Lamanites worsens. This is just one example of how Jarom embodies kenosis in a different sense. He is not lazy or unmotivated, she suggests, he just doesn’t see the need to keep up with the page counts of earlier writers, who have said all that needs to be said. He realizes that the book he is safeguarding is not all about him.

Like most of us, Jarom lives in a middle period between great revelations. His job is not to add to the perfectly adequate theological teachings that have already been written, but to safeguard these teachings for future generations by participating in an unbroken custodial chain. This is his role in the great covenant between God and his people. He is quite happy to observe it throughout his life and pass it on to his heirs, beginning with Omni, the first of five custodial platekeepers who live through turbulent times but never write more than a few paragraphs—and sometimes just a few sentences—on the plates.

Though they comprise only a few pages of text, the books of Enos, Jarom and Omni cover about 300 years of history—more time than the United States has been a country. If we think of how much has changed in our nation between 1720 and today, we can get a sense of how the world of Jarom different from the world of Nephi and Lehi.  The brief information that we have points to wars, migrations, the formation of a new nation, and, well, a lot more wars.

But the way that the text came down to us affirms that these are not the things that mattered, spiritually, to the people. What did matter was that God made a covenant with the nation, that that covenant included both Nephites and Lamanites, and that, for that covenant to be fulfilled, generations of record keepers had to perform their ordinary duties faithfully. That we have the Book of Mormon today is evidence that they succeeded. And we owe a great debt to Sharon Harris for showing us why, and how much, these itty-bitty books matter.  

Comments

  1. I remember a comment my dad made years ago about how he saw the “flyover books” as lost opportunity. Do the authors of these books look back at their works and think “Oh, the missed opportunity!”? Personally, I can see myself being Jarom and thinking “I’ve got nothing better to add.”
    It also gets into a tension we have as individuals. We talk about receiving revelation, we read scriptures of people receiving revelation, and yet it seems like most of our life is spent asking for revelation and not receiving it!
    If we were to right scriptures of our lives, it might look very similar. Lots of pages based off of a few key days in our lives, and then “flyover books” of the decades spent as Primary instructors, Young Men/Womens advisors or clerk callings.

  2. I have loved these brief theological introductions from the Maxwell Institute. Like you, the authors bring out perspectives I have never seen before. I especially enjoyed the insights of Sharon Harris. I listened to the podcast with Mark Warthall. I did not learn as much from his thoughts as I did the others. These books are exceptional! Thanks, Michael for this post.

  3. Kristine says:

    I’ve always loved the fact that the liturgical calendar has many weeks of “Ordinary Time,” between holy days. Sharon helps us see that it’s true of dispensations, too. There are so many things to love about her reading of these books, and especially the way the ordinary turns poignant at the end. (Everyone–you have to read it to find out what I mean!!)

  4. Geoff - Aus says:

    Do you really think if RMN recieved a revelation from above we would not hear about it? He has claimed so many things, including the pox were.

  5. Not a Cougar says:

    I must say I find the Book of Omni fascinating. First, it “yada yada yadas” the nearly complete destruction of the Nephite civilization bu the Lamanites. Then, it describes how God picks same “rando” named Mosiah and has him warn others of the coming destruction, and then they flee into the wilderness until they seemingly accidentally bump into the people of Zarahemla who apparently are this thriving civilization that the Nephites had no idea existed even though they’re close enough that future generations will have regular contact with one another. Then these Zarahemla-ites collectively decide to not only adopt the refugee language but also put this “rando” refugee Mosiah on the throne. Oh yeah, and they forsake their heritage amd start calling themselves Nephites. Call me cynical, but it sounds more like Mosiah and friends invaded Zarahemla and took over (and that subsequent histories softened events exceedingly)

    On a related note, the book doesn’t specifically mention it, but I’ve long suspected (and I’m sure I’m late to the party on this one) that the religion of Nehor which pops up out of nowhere in Alma chapter 1 has some very close ties to whatever it was that the Zarahemla-ites were practicing before the Nephites showed up.

  6. Michael Austin says:

    Not a Cougar, I think you are definitely correct. The idea that a roving band of Nephites stumbled on to a fully formed city-state and walked in to be greeted as heroes and universally proclaimed the leaders goes against everything we know about how human cultures work. But it is exactly the sort of thing that conquerors and colonialists tell themselves and their descendants when they control who writes the history. The Nehorites and the two major wars that they fought with the Nephites strongly suggest that the Nephites were more conquerors than invited guests.

    It is kind of interesting to compare this story, backwards, to see it as a rewriting of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and then to play it forwards to see it as a foreshadowing of how the Mormon settlers saw themselves when they colonized Native American lands in the Great Basin. In many cases, the Mormons literally saw themselves in relation to the Native Americans in exactly the same way that the Nephites saw themselves in relation to the Mulekites–the wise, long-lost cousins who brought the locals the plates, the gospel, and a knowledge of their original covenant with God. Yet the settlers acted more like the Israelites in relation to the Canaanites: clearing out the unbelievers so that the Chosen People could inherit the Promised Land.

  7. Bob Lloyd says:

    I appreciate these commentaries that are coming out, I think how we see these books is a bit similar to how we read over the minor prophets in the old Testament, where we might share a scripture or two from them but focus more on the meatier books.

  8. Nate GT says:

    I’ve done a fair amount of history writing. I frequently run into the problem of how to address span a few decades in a short amount of space. Sometimes you want to tie an earlier period to a later period but come to realize that there is a lot of stuff in between and struggle to wade through the in-between stuff while doing justice to the fine details. As Joseph Smith gets constructing the Book of Mormon he realizes just how caught up he gets with the 500s BCE and knows he has to speed things up in order to connect it all to the coming of Jesus to the Americas. So he puts in these filler chapters to speed us up to the 100s BCE. Consider Omni 3-5:

    [3] And it came to pass that two hundred and seventy and six years had passed away, and we had many seasons of peace; and we had many seasons of serious war and bloodshed. Yea, and in fine, two hundred and eighty and two years had passed away, and I had kept these plates according to the commandments of my fathers; and I conferred them upon my son Amaron. And I make an end.

    [4] And now I, Amaron, write the things whatsoever I write, which are few, in the book of my father.

    [5] Behold, it came to pass that three hundred and twenty years had passed away, and the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed.

    Subsequent verses move through generations really rapidly. Joseph Smith is really trying hard to speed things along. Come Mosiah, he feels a little guilty for not covering earlier stuff, so he throws in a couple of chapters about Zeniff.