Salt and Seed
A Landmark Achievement
But if Hardy has an ambitious exegetical aim—and that bell rings on every page—he also has an important social objective. He offers not only a new reading of the Book of Mormon, but a new way of reading the Book of Mormon; that is, he offers a new discourse that he hopes will charter a new kind of inquiry undertaken by readers of all tribes. As Hardy puts it, he seeks to demonstrate "a mode of literary analysis by which all readers, regardless of their prior religious commitments . . . can discuss the book in useful and accurate ways" (xvii). He seeks, in short, to establish a new interpretive community, blessedly free from the entrenched allegiances that distort other discussions of the Book of Mormon.
For Hardy's bracketing of the historical question is neither caprice nor cowardice, as it often is in defensive treatments of the Book of Mormon, but rather a legitimate sequel to his hermeneutic approach. Hardy enters the text by way of the motivations, personalities, and perceptions of its narrators, and therein lies his justification for avoiding, at least temporarily, the historical questions and the epistemological commitments they entail. Whether one regards the Book of Mormon as 19th-century folk pulp or as the authentic translation of an ancient document, one can attend to the text's self-presentation as the work of three narrators—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni or "Nephi," "Mormon," and "Moroni"—and thus read the text narratologically. "After all," Hardy reminds us, "narrative is a mode of communication employed by both historians and novelists" (xvi).
In Hardy's discursive theory, then, the subjectivity of the narrators offers a kind of haven from historicity. Whereas archaeological or rhetorical readings of the Book of Mormon lead directly into a thicket of assumptions—none of them externally verifiable, and thus none available to non-believers—about the book's historical context, Hardy sees the question of narrative subjectivity as a route around those thorny patches. "Imagining [Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni] as having life experiences and independent minds does not necessarily mean that one accepts their historicity," he argues (xvii). One can engage with the substance of the text on its own terms by accepting the book's narrative device, whether one sees that device as a tool of fiction or of historiography.
I'm sympathetic to Hardy's desire to defer the ultimate questions in order to create an epistemological space for encountering the Book of Mormon on its own terms. And he's hit upon an innovative and absorbing method for doing so. But in the final analysis, I'm not persuaded that the category of narrative subjectivity can do the work he asks of it. The narrative mind can work as a neutral rendezvous for devout and skeptical readers only if one holds human subjectivity constant over time, assuming that narrators of all times and places share the same foundations of consciousness and perception.
It has been the work of nearly a century of continental philosophy to vex precisely this notion of the autonomous, self-contained, transhistorical subject; but one need not quote Nietzsche, Althusser, and Bourdieu to recognize that two narrative minds separated by twenty-five centuries will bring to the text a different set of perspectives, concerns, sensibilities, motivations, personalities, and perceptions. Thus even a narratological analysis implies some assumption of historicity. Indeed, to the extent that "Nephi," "Mormon," and "Moroni" speak to contemporary readers as legible, coherent personalities, and Hardy brilliantly demonstrates that they do, one must reluctantly (or triumphantly) recognize a modern context at some level. One need only compare the laconic narrative voice of the Hebrew Bible with the over-determined narrative personalities at work in the Book of Mormon to sense the difference.
This is not to say that Hardy's exegetical project is illegitimate, but rather that his social project will probably fail. Narrative subjectivity will probably not be the analytical charter for a tolerant new interpretive community around the Book of Mormon. But Hardy's work remains a landmark achievement, one that I salute and from which I have personally learned much. For my part, I continue to find Hardy's Reader's Edition of the Book of Mormon to be his most significant work, which is to take nothing away from the intelligence of his readings in Understanding the Book of Mormon. But the lucidity and openness of the page in the Reader's Edition has opened the text to me in little short of a revelation. Thank you, Brother Hardy.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.