Review: Salt Press, “Experimenting on the Word” and “Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah”

May 16, 2012

Review: Salt Press, “Experimenting on the Word” and “Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah”
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
Adam S. Miller, ed., An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Salem: Salt Press, 2011) ISBN: 978-0-9839636-0-8; Paperback; $12.95; 99 pages, and Joseph M. Spencer and Jenny Webb, eds., Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27 (Salem: Salt Press, 2011) ISBN: 978-0-9839636-1-5; Paperback; $12.95; 158 pages.

At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.…[And] I kept asking myself how a book could be infinite.” –Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 96-7.

The Book of Mormon is a curiously self-referential book. Perhaps its greatest conceit is the fact that it just can’t quit talking about itself. OK, books don’t talk, but the scribes who kept the original records from which the BoM was constructed seem unable to avoid writing about their project in their project. How many books have you read that focus so intently on their own production? So here we have a book that contains scattered pieces of its own interpretive instruction manual—a manual which has largely been overlooked in the hundred-and-eighty-plus years since its original publication. [The cheerful reader asks, “Overlooked?”]
Yes. For decades, various commentaries on the BoM have cropped up, some better than others, most of which interpreting the text in a literal fashion, many promising to make the admittedly-difficult text “Easier.” But many of these commentaries suffer from a fatal flaw best-described in a review by the irascible Louis Midgley:

“The flaws in [this commentary] are ones common to much of Mormon scholarship. The tendency is to divert attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, and back towards what we already know.”

Instead of grappling anew with the text, we often read it through the inherited lens of 180-plus years of Mormon exegesis. We already know its depiction of the Fall, we recall the destruction of the Nephite civilization, or the visit of Christ to the New World. We end up saying: “An interpretation! An interpretation! We have an interpretation and there cannot be any more interpretation!” So to speak. Of course, I don’t believe any commentary is irredeemable, so long as each reader avoids concluding they’ve discovered the One True Commentary. (A fun exercise would be to read the prefaces to BoM commentaries to see how mightily they all pronounce upon the uselessness of their actual projects! “Go read the actual book, this will never replace it!” they all say, before proceeding with their task anyway.)
Whatever flaws our commentaries contain, I personally think the past few years have produced some of the finest BoM commentary we’ve seen to date. My own favorite full commentary is the massive 6-volume work by Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness. It’s a natural extension, though refined, of the sort of approach initiated by Hugh Nibley back in the 60s. Nibley set out to find Old World echoes in the text, while Gardner extends that project to the New World, drawing on 40-plus subsequent years of BoM scholarship.1 My second favorite commentary is the comparatively-slim Grant Hardy book called Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. In contrast to Gardner, Hardy’s task is specifically the literary: he pays close attention to patterns, themes, literary elements, which helps flesh out the text and demonstrates its intricate and oft-overlooked meanings.2 I believe both of these approaches—one largely cultural the other largely literary—are legitimate, fun ways to re-read the BoM. The real benefit of such commentaries is their introducing to the reader not merely new ideas, but new possible ways of reading. These ways of reading become worthwhile by incidentally casting light on historical and/or devotional elements of the BoM.
I’ve given you the long wind-up, now here comes the pitch.
There’s a new series of short commentaries on excerpts of the BoM in town. But this new series of books on the Book are, from the very beginning, said to be guided by interpretive strategies found within the BoM itself. Recall at the outset of this review I mentioned that the BoM contains scattered pieces of its own interpretive instruction manual. The editors and contributors to this collaborative new series excavate some of these instructions from Alma 32 (An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32, ed. Adam S. Miller) and from 2 Nephi (Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27, ed. Joseph M. Spencer and Jenny Webb).3
According to the series introduction, the books are produced by “The Mormon Theology Seminar,” an “unofficial and independent” scholarly collaboration. “Theology” is somewhat of a foreign word to many Mormons. (We have doctrine, we don’t have professional theologians, some might say.) But the series proposes and enacts a theological reading of the BoM. What does it mean to “read Mormon scripture theologically”? For this review I decided describe what Miller & co. mean by “Theology” in order to give you an idea if their approach is something you’d find worthwhile.4 Miller’s definition of theology rests upon four key assumptions:
First, Mormon theology is charitable—above all it is an exercise in charity. It can include investigating the historical, devotional and other elements of scripture, but it does so in order to extend love and alleviate suffering (Miller, 2).
Second: Mormon theology is scriptural, or “shaped by the centrality of scripture” (Miller, 2). It is created through attentive negotiation with the patterns and details of sacred texts. Close reading of Mormon scripture is the main mechanism.
Third: Mormon theology is hypothetical. This isn’t merely to say it is changeable or tentative, but that we bring hypotheses to the table when we read. “Texts are not static recordings,” Miller writes, but are like meaning-making machines which “can produce a variety of meanings depending on the questions brought to bear by its reader.” Texts are thus “responsive to our engagement with them” (Miller, 3). Or, as in Alma’s parable which is the focus of the series’ first volume, the word is like a seed that must be planted and nurtured by each recipient. Again as with Alma’s parable, the output of the machine can be judged according to how good the fruit, the product, tastes (Miller, 5).
Fourth and finally, Mormon theology is collaborative. Because charity is the founding principle, theological work requires multiple participants (Miller, 6). “Doing theology” is the main focus of the Mormon Theology Seminar, “short-term, seminar-style” discussions out of which grew the papers presented in the two volumes (Miller, vii). Thus far, their meetings have engaged a variety of women and men with a variety of backgrounds. Their discussions are viewable online and the results have been published in free .pdf form or as inexpensive, thin paperback books. And the fruit is good.
The “Summary Report” of the Alma 32 volume briefly answers four main questions that grew out of the seminar’s collaboration: “What does Alma 32 teach us about exercising faith?” “What does Alma mean by ‘the word,’ and why is it so central to faith?” What is meant by ‘experiment’ in Alma 32:27?” and “How might paying close attention to the textual, historical, and political contexts of Alma 32 shape or re-shape our understanding of Alma’s treatment of faith?” If these questions seem somewhat pedestrian, the in-depth suggestions found in the six subsequent seminar papers will exceed expectations. Perhaps most importantly, they will almost certainly spur you to bring your own unique questions to bear on the text, resulting in a multiplicity of new fruitful readings. The book is intended to be germinative!
As for Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah, it’s even more focused on locating the BoM’s internal instructions on interpretation. The volume’s intro argues that 2 Nephi 26-27 (of the dreaded Nephi/Isaiah chapters) “both performs and comments on what it means to read scripture” (Spencer and Webb, 2). In a most stunning and clarifying analysis, papers in this volume describe Nephi’s “multi-faceted process [which] involves copying, interpreting, contextualizing, repurposing, recontextualizing, and prophesying—often all at once” (Spencer and Webb, 2). The essays here “arguably complicate Isaiah” in the BoM, but in a way which paradoxically clarifies Isaiah’s place in the text (Spencer and Webb, 3). Nephi’s editorializing and repurposing of Isaiah (sometimes even out of what modern readers might call Isaiah’s “original context”) sheds light on how we might better “liken” scriptures unto ourselves (see esp. pp. 10, 34, 64, 103-4).
Again, the questions listed in the “Summary Report” offer the best glimpse at the worth of this compilation: “How does Nephi adapt Isaiah’s text, and what do his methods tell us about what it means to read a scriptural text?” “What does 2 Nephi 26-7 tell us about the nature of prophecy and scriptural application?” “How do these chapters provide a clearer understanding of what Nephi is trying to accomplish in his small plates?” “What does 2 Nephi 26-7 teach us about the nature, role, and place of the Book of Mormon?”
In regards to these questions and more, this slim volume provides some startlingly fresh insights. And since I’m out of space I’ll just add that George Handley’s contribution, “On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture,” may be the finest short essay on Mormon scripture reading I’ve ever read. The volume also includes four handy appendices visually depicting Nephi’s use of Isaiah in chapters 26-27, as well as a full list of cross references and a bibliography for further suggested reading.
* * *
Remarkably, the editors and contributors to these volumes are serious enough about their project that they offer their contents without money and without price! (I personally prefer to read and annotate on actual paper, so the physical books are my preferred venue.) It deserves repeating here that the seminar discussions are also viewable online, demonstrating an impressive openness into the process of negotiating their final products. This seems to be an unusual level of vulnerable exposure. And the fruit is good.
The fact of the matter is, we all come to the text with various preconceptions, hopes, fears, and experiences which help determine what we get out of our reading. These particular (peculiar?) volumes encourage us as readers, above all, to pay close attention to what we bring to the text. The process and product of this method of theological reading is highlighted well in the specifics of these excellent volumes which I’ve largely gone without describing. But I sense that the real hope here is to inspire such work on the part of ever more readers. Rather than merely telling us what to think, or simply repeating what we already think we know, these books charitably invite us to explore the infinite possibilities of our sacred scripture. Numberless, perhaps, as the sands of the seashore, at once book and labyrinth. Salt Press’s books are representative of a bright future of thoughtful Mormon engagement with the BoM and the rest of the LDS canon.
<1. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake: Kofford Books, 2007-2011). The series was recently issued in a Kindle version as well. A few years back I did a series with Brant on his book at my old blog.
2. Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). While Gardner’s is a more traditionally-structured commentary in that it engages every last verse of the BoM, Hardy’s (and the books presently being reviewed) focus on selected excerpts of the text. See my review of Hardy’s book here.
3. We can expect the series itself to go beyond the BoM to encompass “Mormon scripture” generally, the whole canon. The Seminar’s website also has conference results from Abraham, D&C 42 and Revelation 21-22.
4. The extent to which Miller’s own theology about what constitutes “Theology” is of course, contestable. The series intro is clear enough about his own definition that readers should easily be able to understand the rules in order to play along at will. Miller’s description is clearly weighted with institutional concerns—a subject which I wish to discuss in a separate post. In the meantime, check out Lynette’s excellent review of the Alma 32 volume over at Zelophehadsdaughters, as it draws important distinctions between various ways of “doing” theology.