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The Reader's Book of Mormon (seven vol. boxed set) Paperback – May 15, 2008
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About the Author
Eugene England, the late Professor of English at Brigham Young University, died in 2001 before completing the Reader’s Book of Mormon project, which he initiated. He was a co-founder of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, author of six books (see Making Peace), editor of seven anthologies, and a contributor to sixteen volumes. He published some 150 articles in professional journals and magazines during his lifetime. He received his Ph.D. at Stanford University and taught at St. Olaf College in Minnesota before joining the faculty at Brigham Young University. At BYU, where he taught for two decades, he was alternately chair of the Department of English, director of the Honors Program, and director of the Theater Study Abroad program. After retiring from BYU in 1998, he joined the faculty at Utah Valley State in Orem, Utah, as a Writer-in-Residence, where he helped initiate a Mormon Studies program. In 2001 he was diagnosed with brain cancer and died August 17.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A note about The Reader’s Book of Mormon
There are many ways to read scripture. At times we search the sacred narratives for doctrinal understanding or theological insights. Other times we might be interested in historical, cultural, and linguistic issues. Another, more common, approach is to see ourselves in the narrative stories and interpret them based on our own personal journeys and intellectual and spiritual background—to draw lessons for our own lives. With this in mind, literature and Mormon Studies scholars Robert A. Rees (UCLA) and the late Eugene England (BYU) asked prominent LDS writers to offer their own personal views on the Book of Mormon, followed by the scriptural text itself. Their insights should enhance the enjoyment and understanding of all readers. The text reprinted in this series comes from the first edition (1830) and retains its nineteenth-century usage; although a few glaring typesetting flaws have been corrected, no attempt has been made to regularize grammar and spelling. This should make reading the Book of Mormon a new adventure, hopefully full of possibilities for deeper insights into the layers of meanings and messages contained therein.
Introduction to The Reader’s Book of Mormon
Robert A. Rees
Eugene England conceived of this collection of essays several years before the illness that ended in his premature death in 2001. Originally, he wanted it patterned after the Pocket Canon edition of the Bible in which individual books or groups of books of the Old and New Testaments were introduced and commented on by, as he wrote to the contributors on June 1, 2000, “good writers like Peter Ackroyd and P. D. James.” His instruction to those chosen to write the introductory essays was “to focus on the literary and religious qualities … rather than matters like historicity or technical theology and doctrine.” He added, “I expect your introductions will be personal, compelling, even moving, thought provoking but not argumentative (‘critical’ in the best sense).” In order to make the reading of the text fresh for readers, Gene proposed that the contributors use the original 1830 text as the basis for their commentary. In a letter to contributors dated October 30, 2000, he said, “I’ve been rereading the Book of Mormon in the original edition over the summer, and it has been enlightening and very moving.”
When it became clear to Gene that the progression of his illness was not going to allow him to see the project to completion, he asked me to take it over. I have done so respectful of Gene’s vision of the project and with an eye attuned to what I imagine were his editorial sensitivities. Nevertheless, I take full responsibility for final editorial decisions and revisions, some of which may be different from what Gene would have made had he lived to complete the project. He was able to do an initial edit of all of the essays except those by Bert Wilson, who was on a mission in Finland and had not completed his essay by the time of Gene’s passing, and Susan Howe, who was chosen to write on 1 Nephi-2 Nephi 4 when Louise Plummer withdrew from the project.
Gene loved the Book of Mormon. It was to him concrete evidence of the reality of the Restoration as well as a specific example of the fact that God reveals himself in ways that challenge our hearts, minds, and spirits. It was with his open heart, keen mind, and alert spirit that Gene approached this New World scripture. As with all things that engaged him, Gene encountered the Book of Mormon with intellectual curiosity, spiritual passion, and complete integrity. Over the years we had many discussions about the book—its origins, its theology, its beauty, and its perplexity. Like me, Gene was challenged by issues raised by new critical perspectives that questioned the book’s authenticity and raised issues about its ancient origins. He entertained these challenges thoughtfully and yet remained convinced that the record of Lehi’s people was both historically true and theologically profound.
In a letter to Claudia Bushman in the folder on this project which he turned over to me, Gene wrote, “I think I understand the book better and am more convinced of two paradoxical things, that it is based on genuine ancient peoples and manuscripts and that there is a lot of Joseph Smith in it, and one marvelous thing, that it is a remarkably important and helpful book spiritually.”
It was that “one marvelous thing” that bound his heart to the Book of Mormon. He was drawn to many of the Book of Mormon’s most refreshing and revolutionary teachings, especially those like King Benjamin’s address which call us to fundamental Christian service. At the time of his illness, Gene was planning to write an essay on what he called “the Spirit of Amos,” after the Old Testament prophet who condemned those who “swallow up the needy,” who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 8:4, 6). King Benjamin’s address in the Book of Mormon was an inspiration to all of Gene’s writing, as well as to his living, as were many other salient passages in the Book of Mormon.
In commenting on the contributors’ essays, Gene wrote that he was pleased to find them “all quite different from each other” but each one “well done” and useful” and that, taken together, he found them to be “interesting in their variety.” As his comment suggests, the essays are highly individualistic, which is the real strength of the collection. Hopefully they are also, as Gene anticipated they would be, “useful” and “interesting.” In a real sense, any reading of a text is personal since readers bring to their engagement with the narrative their own unique cultural background, intellectual gifts, spiritual sensitivities, and experiences in understanding the language, images, styles, and symbols. In fact, Gene chose the contributors based on his knowledge of each writer’s sensitivities. He knew Doug Thayer’s life-long interest in military history would be useful in considering the battles, military conflicts, and wars in Alma and Helaman. He chose his boyhood friend, Bert Wilson, for the text Gene considered the most important because, I suspect, he trusted Wilson’s understanding of King Benjamin’s sermon on serving the poor. It had been a subject of conversation between them and part of their own lived religion for decades. Knowing how much of my own church service has been devoted to missionary endeavors, Gene asked me to write about the preaching of Alma, the sons of Mosiah, and other missionaries.
Similarly, for her “Long Consequential Journey,” Susan Howe drew on her experiences in a London suburb where her LDS ward was composed of many Saints from the developing world. Their physical journeys and spiritual quests are comparable in many ways to Lehi’s family’s difficult voyage from Jerusalem to the “promised land.” Howe’s ear is also attuned to the all-too-human conflicts in the Book of Mormon. Already in the first pages, sibling rivalry erupts, leading to the disintegration of Lehi’s family and parallels to our own culture. Lehi’s vision of a tree of white fruit offers hope for healing and unifying through the love of Christ.
In her “Big Lessons from Little Books” about the connecting narratives found in 2 Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, and the Words of Mormon, Claudia Bushman comments on the difficulty of keeping an historical record, the problems and challenges of abridging a people’s entire history, the perplexity of Isaiah, and the dramatic contrast that develops between the Nephites and Lamanites. As a close reader, she rejoices in the beauty of certain passages while at the same time noting the paucity of narrative detail, with the occasional exception such as the revelation that Nephi has a pillow!
As noted above, Bert Wilson chose from the book of Mosiah the challenge King Benjamin presents to us in the affluent, privileged church of the twenty-first century. In his essay, “In the Service of Your Fellow Beings,” Wilson confronts us with the core of Christian ethics—giving to others and service through sacrifice—in short, consecration of our means to God and following the Golden Rule. In doing so, he draws upon the model of his own father who lived these principles with generosity and grace, as well as some sterling examples of these principles from Saints he met in Finland during his mission as a young man and more recently on another mission with his wife, and of the difficulty he and others in the contemporary church face in meeting such a high standard of discipleship.
In my “To Sing the Song of Redeeming Love,” I discuss Christ’s great commission to take his gospel message to others and how the narrative of the book of Alma has influenced my own missionary impulse. I take an interest in the conflict between those who build up the church and those who seek to undermine it, especially in the ways the builders and detractors use certain rhetorical skills to achieve their respective ends. I consider “the traditions of the fathers,” in particular how the enmities that develop between the four sons of Lehi in the first pages of the Book of Mormon are kept alive throughout much of the Nephite thousand-year history.
As mentioned earlier, Douglas Thayer’s “Nephites at War” concentrates on the martial conflict that infuses much of the Book of Mormon. He uses his own adolescent idealization of war and his service in occupied Germany just after World War II to discuss the persistent conflict between the Nephites and Lamanites. Thayer’s knowledge of military strategy illuminates our understanding of warfare in the Nephite narrative. He is particularly interested in the young Ammonite warriors who take up arms after their parents covenant not to war against their enemies. He likens these young, untried Book of Mormon soldiers to the young men he has known in Provo who have grown up with his own four sons and then asks whether our idealization of these “stripling warriors” is not misplaced. He wonders what they really felt as they killed others in hand-to-hand combat. He also examines the life of Moroni, the great Book of Mormon warrior, to consider the internal conflict set up by his roles as spiritual teacher and chief captain.
In her essay, “The Coming of Christ,” Linda Hoffman Kimball concentrates on what many consider the crowning episode in the Book of Mormon—Christ’s visit to the New World as told in Helaman 13 through 3 Nephi. Kimball begins with Samuel’s warning prophesy about the birth of Christ, then continues with the three days of light signifying Christ’s coming in the flesh at Bethlehem, the repentance of “the more part” of the people, the eventual persecution of those who believe, the rise and defeat of the Gadianton Robbers, the quick turning to wickedness by the majority of the people, and the eventual three days of darkness marking the crucifixion of Christ and its attendant death and destruction. She then recounts the glorious appearance of Christ, his ministry, and the acceptance of him as savior. Throughout her narrative, Kimball speaks of her own spiritual struggles, including her wrestling with questions about the Book of Mormon and with a declaration by a church authority that it was inappropriate for members to have a personal relationship with Christ.
This collection of personal perspectives on the Book of Mormon ends with Steven Walker’s “Last Words.” Walker bemoans the lack of seriousness and attentiveness among contemporary Mormon readers and feels that these last books, 4 Nephi through Moroni, offer a sobering warning about our spiritual acedia: “There is a weightiness to the last Book of Mormon words, a lasting significance that we attend to as we would the final declarations of a dying person.” In these last words,Walker sees the dramatic denouement of the Book of Mormon epics (Nephite and Jaredite) as well as a possible foreshadowing of the end of our own civilization at the “dawning of the Age of Terrorism,” where there is a danger that we will become like the Nephite nation, “without civilization.” Walker concludes his commentary by noting that in spite of the doom and gloom of these last pages, “hope…shines through” in Moroni’s invitation to “become holy, without spot” through Christ.
It was Gene England’s hope that each of these personal perspectives on the Book of Mormon would inspire others to read the book more deeply and more personally, to let their experience and inspiration enlighten their own and others’ readings of the text, to keep the book alive in the minds and hearts of all who come to it openly. The mark of a great book is that it continues to reveal itself, to yield its treasures to sensitive and attentive readers, to unfold new meanings both from the text and from the reader’s experience. Hopefully, in keeping with Gene’s original vision, this set of volumes will inspire many new readings.