“The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon or any other ancient text is, never oversimplify. For all its simple and straightforward narrative style, this history is packed as few others are with a staggering wealth of detail that completely escapes the casual reader. The whole Book of Mormon is a condensation, and a masterly one; it will take years simply to unravel the thousands of cunning inferences and implications that are wound around its most matter-of-fact statements. Only laziness and vanity lead the student to the early conviction that he has the final answers on what the Book of Mormon contains.”
– Hugh Nibley, 1952 (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 5: Lehi in the Desert / The World of the Jaredites / There Were Jaredites [Deseret Book/FARMS, 1988] p. 237.)
Some months back, I had a lengthy back-and-forth discussion in the comments to a posting I made over at Mormon Mentality. The starting point was Dan (of The Good Democrat) taking issue with a comment I made about the Book of Mormon’s applicability to current world situations. Dan’s contention (see comment #8) was that the Book of Mormon dealt strictly with a bipolar situation (Nephites v. Lamanite), which had little bearing on today’s multi-polar world. I strongly disagreed with Dan’s bipolar characterization of the religious-political situation described in the Book of Mormon and expressed my opinion that a careful reading showed a very complex, multipolar situation instead. The argument went back and forth for several postings, with neither of us convincing the other.
However, it did trigger my desire to do a series of postings discussing the religious-political (REPO) “atlas” (if you will) of the Book of Mormon. I’m not breaking any new ground with this; real Book of Mormon scholars (starting, as always, with Nibley) have been doing this for years.
But I think it’s worth taking the time to see what the Book of Mormon has to say about the very complex religious and political elements of the peoples it discusses. As Nibley and others have noted, the Book of Mormon record is far from simple or simplistic. We tend to read it that way because Nephi and Mormon — who account for the vast majority of the Book of Mormon text — both followed the theme of the ultimately doomed Nephites vs. the ultimately redeemed Lamanites. (See this article by Steven L. Olsen for an interesting discussion on whether Mormon consciously patterned his abridgment of Nephite records after Nephi’s small-plates writing.) But in spite of that, the Book of Mormon text itself reveals and suggests a far more complex religious, political, and social milieu. The goal of these postings will be to point out some of that.
Some of my observations may be original, but I tend to doubt it. 🙂 I own and have read over three dozen volumes dealing with the Book of Mormon; I also have read just about every issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Most of my insights are likely ones that I have gained elsewhere. Where I can and am willing to dig back in, I will offer specific cites (such as the Olsen article above), but my intent at this point is not a scholarly work; it is merely to suggest complexities that may be easily overlooked in a normal reading of the Book of Mormon.
I’m going to start with the Jaredites for three reasons. First, they predate the Lehite arrival and set up a context for it. It’s pretty clear that there were Jaredite/Lehite interactions well before Coriantumr staggered into Zarahemla, given some 400 years of geographical coexistence and the occasional Jaradite name showing up in Lehite circumstances. Second, the Jaredites represent something unique in the scriptural canon: God’s dealings over a few thousand years with a post-deluvian, pre-Abrahamic (and pre-Melchizedek) people. Third, we (as members and even as LDS scholars) really tend to ignore the Jaredites, so it’s good for them to get a little more attention.
Now to go write that Jaredite posting. ..bruce..