Review: Joseph M. Spencer, “An Other Testament: On Typology”

May 21, 2012

Title: An Other Testament: On Typology
Author: Joseph M. Spencer
Publisher: Salt Press
Genre: Scriptural Exegesis
Year: 2012
Pages: 193
Binding: Cloth (or .pdf)
ISBN13: 978-0-9839636-2-2
Price: $18.95 (or free, but the clothbound volume really is quite handsome! And if that ain’t the coolest looking cover I’ve seen in a while…)
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
What’s that you say, Joseph M. Spencer, graduate student of philosophy at San Jose State? You’re just out offering a radical new textually-based interpretation of the entire Book of Mormon in your spare time, hmm? Radical and new. Sounds like a nice little project you got there, yes. Wait, what?!
We’ve had the BoM for over a century now, what can we possibly have missed in all this time? Keep in mind that the assumptions which we readers bring to the text help determine the meaning we receive from the text. Spencer’s two broad guiding assumptions to his new approach to the BoM are (1) That the theological ideas of the BoM have been carefully arranged by the prophets within larger narrative textual structures. Thus, “Embedded in these larger structures, many of the Book of Mormon’s ideas draw meaning and especially nuance from their context” (xi). (2) That “ideas change with time and circumstance.” And because the BoM’s ideas are “woven into a real—and therefore anything but tidy—history,” readers may mistakenly gloss over some of the complexity of ideas within the text, missing out on the complexity within the book (xii). He seems to be saying “we need to quit reading the BoM in such a univocal fashion.” Spencer assumes we have a book sort of like the Bible—an edited compilation with a variety of voices. With this in mind, very interesting things begin to emerge from the text. Not a voice, but voices from the dust.
An angel didn’t appear at Spencer’s bedside to instruct him about how to interpret the BoM, but he does take cues straight from Alma by calling his approach “typology” (xii, see Alma 37:45). –the way we can read our personal stories into the framework of scripture (xii). In his first chapter he draws out the intricate parallels between Alma’s conversion story and Lehi’s vision at the outset of the BoM. Spencer demonstrates how Alma is able to repent by re-membering his sinful past by drawing on Lehi’s words and embracing Christ’s grace. His conversion takes place as he reads himself into Lehi’s story—a story, you’ll recall, which began with the reading of a book sent from heaven (see 1 Nephi 1:11). As Spencer concludes:

“Alma’s instantaneous and once-in-a-lifetime gift of spiritual renewal during his three days of torment opens onto the constant, lifelong work of spiritually resurrecting scriptural texts—of living through and giving life to the scriptures” (26).

But Spencer’s just getting warmed up. To put his approach another way, one of the more audaciously interesting moves Spencer makes is the way he attributes his method of reading directly to the Book of Mormon itself. “Put simply,” Spencer casually offers in his preface, “this book is about how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon” (xi). Spencer argues that the BoM complexly introduces readers to a series of scripture writers who pay attention to scripture writing, so we ought to likewise pay attention. He takes a microscopic look at how BoM writers like Nephi and Abinadi read and interpret other writers like Isaiah and finds intriguing differences which cast a new light on the reason the resurrected Christ told the Nephites to cut out all the contention specifically about “doctrine.”
To massively over-simplify the main argument of the book (you’ll need to read the thing to see all the charts, illustrations, quotes, arguments, and footnotes), Spencer argues that two distinct interpretations of Isaiah arise within the Book of Mormon, the first from Nephi, the second through Abinadi. Nephi’s “likening” approach to Isaiah seems to be that Isaiah’s prophecies provide a House of Israel covenant framework within which Nephite historical experience can be situated. Nephi is constantly referring to his seed, the covenant, the future of his people. Abinadi, on the other hand, was “focused less on the singular history of Israel than on the event of Christ’s mortal ministry” and its impact on individual salvation (xiii). Thus, by the time the resurrected Christ appears to the Nephites, he must reconcile two interpretations of Isaiah, each with its own merit, but not to be grasped without the other. I leave it to you to decide if he pulls this feat off. It absolutely deserves further discussion. This kind of close textual reading of the BoM is just what we need to revitalize interest in the book. Sounds like a nice little project he’s got here, yes.
One quick example of the implications his reading has for BoM interpretation involves the so-called Small Plates of Nephi. I find Brant Gardner’s arguments regarding Mormon’s original plan for the BoM quite persuasive. Essentially, Gardner sees the small plates as dandy, but they don’t do exactly the same thing that Mormon’s original edited book of Lehi might have done. But on Spencer’s reading, it seems the small plates are no mere post hoc inclusion, but play a more integral role in what Spencer sees as the more important theological thrust of the BoM—the covenant more than the individual salvation aspect of things, Nephi over Abinadi (see, for example, 164). This wouldn’t necessarily overturn Spencer’s theory, only complicate it.
This deceptively skinny volume (clocking in at under 200 pages) is thickly layered with an intensely close reading of a few key segments of the BoM. At times I simply marveled at a connection he discovered which I’d never seen before (“very cool! return to this” I’ve scribbled in the margin of page 43, next to his discussion of Creation/ Fall/ Atonement/ Veil in 1 Nephi). But there were also times when Spencer’s pace got a little fast for me, when he would just say “we must now do such-and-such” without leading me through his reasoning as to why (my marginal note to this effect appears on 106, so this happened a few times before I got that far). A quick word on his complexity. For you philosophy nerds out there, you might love when Spencer identifies and defines two different kinds of knowing—“historical” and “evental”—in order to pry our minds away from Descartes by way of Badiou (15). And I guarantee this is the first BoM commentary to note distinctions between the “normative” and “dative” case (16). For non-philosophy nerds, Spencer does a fair job of not letting the jargon overtake the main thrust of his arguments, although you’ll have to meet him half way sometimes in order for his conclusions to hold water. But I’m no specialist and I was able to play along fairly well, so hop in!
Spencer also includes a tip of the cap to “my friends in (the justifiably secularized field of) Mormon studies” who might object to his assuming the historicity of the BoM. His main goal is to speak to “the average Latter-day Saint” who likewise accept the book’s historicity and he hopes they will yet appreciate the work of a careful and believing Mormon theologian (xiv). (Oh yeah, then on page 28 he offers a reinterpretation of what “historicity” ought to refer to—that the BoM is neither historical or unhistorical, but “non-historical,” that is, while it reflects historical events the book is constructed so as to transcend that dichotomy by calling “the historicity of the individual into question”—that is, inviting readers into the typology. For a clearer explanation see p. 28, emphasis in original).
Throughout his investigation Spencer reflects on the problems of history, memory, time, and conversion, in order to discover what it might mean to believe that a written book is a tool through which a god would seek to change a person like you, or a world like ours. And Spencer by no means believes he’s at last solved the puzzle of the BoM for all time, he’s just getting started! “Indeed,” one footnote understates, “there is a good deal of textual work that would have to be done before any definitive interpretation of these questions [from chapter 4] could be offered. My treatment here has skimmed over the surface of the difficulties at best” (138).
Skimmed indeed. Just as my little review has skimmed over the surface of Spencer’s excellent new book, at best. Sounds like a nice little project we got here, yes.