The Book of Mormon in Religious Studies
The Book of Mormon, of course, has a long and bright future with the millions who accept it as scripture, as a sign of God's work in the latter days and of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling, and as a source of doctrine and moral teachings. Its invitation to readers to have a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit still stands. But academic Book of Mormon studies -- of the non-proselytizing sort -- will likely find its most fertile ground in the field of religious studies, where scholars regularly put aside questions of ultimate truth in order to try to understand religious traditions from a sympathetic point of view. Let me suggest four possible approaches to the Book of Mormon that would be useful for all interested readers, regardless of their faith commitments or lack thereof (and each could be applied in equivalent ways to the Quran or Lotus Sutra).
1) Textual Criticism. Over the past decade, Royal Skousen of Brigham Young University has been publishing a series of monumental volumes analyzing the textual history of the Book of Mormon from the two handwritten manuscripts of 1829-1830 through twenty significant printed editions. His astonishingly detailed examination is obviously a labor of love, something that probably only a believer would undertake, but his criteria for judgment are scholarly, secular, and transparent. A non-Mormon might very well reach the same conclusions, using the same methods and evidence. In the The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, recently published by Yale University Press, Skousen has created the Mormon equivalent of the Biblia Hebraica or the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament. It will be the foundation for all serious studies of the Book of Mormon for years to come.
2) Book of Mormon theology. The careful analysis of themes and theological concepts in the Book of Mormon has yet to be done. Terryl Givens, the distinguished LDS scholar, recently published an Oxford Very Short Introduction in which he identified five primary themes: personal revelation, Christ, Zion, scripture, and family. (Read Patheos' interview with Givens). The limitations of the series meant that Givens did not have space to explore or defend any of his assertions in detail, and I hope that they will be taken as a starting point for a conversation that both Mormons and non-Mormons can join. The subject, after all, concerns what is in the Book of Mormon, not where it comes from. (To my mind, Givens' themes of Zion and family seemed more attuned to the concerns of modern Latter-day Saints; perhaps "deliverance" is a theme that better fits the text). Once we have ascertained what the book actually says, we can compare its message to that of the Bible and Joseph Smith's contemporaries. Whether one sees similarities as the result of prophetic insight or of plagiarism, and whether one views differences as restorations of lost truths or examples of religious creativity, insiders and outsiders should at least be referring to the same set of contrasts.