The Book of Mormon: a Biography

One of my favorite books of Bible scholarship, and a terrific dip-your-toes-in-the-water first book for people interested in the subject is Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography.  It was part of a series called Books That Changed the World, and led me to a livelong fascination with that area of scholarship.  Now comes a similar book: Paul Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: a Biography.  It’s a slim volume, 280 pages in a quarto hardback edition, and a very easy read for a scholarly work.

Okay, look, I don’t want to compare Gutjahr to Karen Armstrong.  She’s one of the most important figures in religious scholarship working today; she’s amazing. He’s good, too, is what I’m saying.  Just that The Book of Mormon has to be way easier to write about than the Bible.  We know who wrote/translated The Book of Mormon, and when.  We know exactly when and how and where it was canonized.  We may believe that Alma and Mormon and Moroni and Nephi, the principle authors of the Book, were real people who really lived in an actual ancient world, but we have only one source of information about any of them; it really does all come back to Joseph Smith in Palmyra in 1830. The Bible: heck, for every one of its 66 books, you run into massive issues of transmission and authorship and editorial interpolation and translation and canonization.  Sorting those out is a massive task, which Armstrong is sort of miraculously up to.  Gutjahr’s task is comparatively easy.

There are lots of books about the Book of Mormon, from E.B. Howe to Terryl Givens.  What sets Gutjahr’s book apart, I think, is its even-handedness, its sure-footed reasonableness. I mean it as a compliment to say that at the end of the book, I had no idea whether Paul Gutjahr was LDS or not.  His intent is accurately to describe the current state of both Mormon apologetics, and attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon, but not to contribute to either side.  He describes what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, past and present, understood the Book of Mormon to mean, but also how the Community of Christ understands it, and atheists, and evangelicals; folks for us, against us, and on the fence. (Positing an ‘us’ consisting of believing Mormons, which I consider myself to be, however idiosyncratically).

So when discussing the Book of Mormon‘s origin story–the Angel, the plates, the Urim and Thummim, the translation process–Gutjahr just tells it.  Straight-forward narrative, no editorializing or commentary.  Mormonism Unveiled, E. B. Howe, the Spaulding theory?  Same thing.  Just straightforward, here’s what Howe wrote, plus some folks who agreed with him.  I respect that tremendously, and also learned a lot; I didn’t know much about the many variants on the ‘fraudulent Book’ theory, nor the history of the Strangites (boy is there a play there!) or Rigdonites.  A book like this one should introduce you to ten other books you want to read–I’m working my way now through Gutjahr’s bibliography.

The guy’s prose style is clear, jargon-free, smart, calm, dispassionate.  Makes for an easy read.  And while he doesn’t really get into any one issue of Book of Mormon scholarship in much depth, I don’t think that was his intent.  I think his project is to write more a short, one-volume reference book than an exhaustive treatment of any one subject.  So, for example, he talks about FARMS and the Maxwell Institute; he offers a short history of Book of Mormon studies since Hugh Nibley.  That happens to be a history I know pretty well; Jack Welch is a friend of mine, I worked at BYU Studies for awhile, and Boyd Peterson, author of the definitive Hugh Nibley biography is a very close friend indeed. I’m barely orbiting on the periphery of that world, but hey, even Pluto’s a planet. Gutjahr’s discussion of FARMS and Nibley and Welch isn’t long or extensive, but I didn’t catch any mistakes either.  And he at least touches on all the major figures, on John Sorenson and Royal Skousen, on Orson Pratt and Ezra Taft Benson, on John Welch and Terryl Givens.

He includes a final chapter on the Book of Mormon in theatre, film, and other media, which I found disappointingly sparse.  He does touch on some high points: Lester Parks Corianton movie, but does not so much as mention the Orestes Bean play that it’s based on, for example.  He spends more time on the Book of Mormon: The Journey movie than it probably deserves, but not a word about the Living Scriptures animated series, which in my opinion was immensely significant in introducing children to Mormon scripture.  The Book of Mormon Broadway musical is adequately covered, I suppose, but not other plays and musicals based on our sacred Book. Nothing on Leroy Robertson and his Book of Mormon oratorio?  For shame!  He does discuss the Hill Cumorah pageant in some detail, but not the other Church pageants, and he seems to think that pageants themselves are an outdated and vanishing art form, which is hardly the case: the Institute of Outdoor Drama website–http://outdoordrama.unc.edu/–lists hundreds of them performed annually in the US alone.

Still, it’s a darn good book, and a needed one.  If you wanted a one volume introduction of our scripture for someone whose interest was primarily academic, you could hardly do better.

Plus Gutjahr’s a Hoosier.  He teaches at Indiana University, lives in my old home town of Bloomington.  He gets a few hundred coolness points just for that.

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2 Responses to The Book of Mormon: a Biography

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Eric,

    Thanks for this review. It sounds like an interesting book.

    From what you’ve said, it appears that Gutjahr’s project isn’t so much original research as a review of the research that’s out there. That being the case, I wonder if the reason for the sparseness of the chapter on the Book of Mormon in various media is that there isn’t a body of comparative criticism out there to draw on. Sure, we have reviews and essays about different specific treatments of the Book of Mormon (though I don’t know of any that tackles the Living Scriptures animated series in depth; something really needs to write that!) — but have there been any comprehensive treatments of the Book of Mormon’s depictions in media? If so, I’d love to hear about them. If not — well, that’s one more project for Mormon literary scholars to undertake one of these times…

    And yes, even Pluto is a planet. Or *was* a planet. Ha!

  2. “…but hey, even Pluto’s a planet.”

    Was that an ironic aside or an argument about naming authority? ;)

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