The Book of Mormon in Religious Studies
3) The Book of Mormon as scripture. Studies could be done of how Latter-day Saint usage of the Book of Mormon has changed over time. How has it been incorporated into formal worship, missionary work, religious education, or personal study? What role does the book play in the lives of South American Mormons as opposed to those in Europe? How have translations influenced the way the text is understood? How has it been perceived by its critics? Grant Underwood has done important work on how the first generation of Latter-day Saints used their scripture, and Terryl Givens' By the Hand of Mormon is a masterful study of the Book of Mormon in American culture. Just this month, an extensive database of all published references to the Book of Mormon in Joseph Smith's lifetime has been put online by BYU. Cross-cultural comparisons could be especially useful here, in investigations of the relationship between believers and their sacred texts in Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. How do new scriptures coordinate with older versions or compare with other sources of religious authority?
4) The Book of Mormon as literature. Narrative is integral to both history and fiction, and the Book of Mormon's literary structure can be analyzed without necessarily taking a stand one way or the other on its historicity. It turns out that there are three major narrators -- Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni -- and whether one regards them as actual ancient prophets or as characters created by Joseph Smith, they have distinctive ways of telling their stories and interacting with their source materials. My own recent book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, looks at these issues in much more detail than any previous studies. Reading the Book of Mormon in line with its own organizing structure will yield more accurate, nuanced insights than simply taking verses out of context and proof texting -- something that Latter-day Saints, their critics, and historians have all done occasionally.
The Book of Mormon is a remarkable text, and as one of the preeminent examples of recent world scripture, it offers considerable opportunities for comparative studies. Whether it can capture the attention of non-LDS scholars will depend, to some extent, on whether its adherents learn to speak the language of contemporary religious studies -- a language that does not, in my opinion, require them to forgo their faith.
Grant Hardy is Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He has authored Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History; The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China; and Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide (Oxford University Press); as well as the Introduction for Royal Skousen's recent Yale edition of the Book of Mormon. He has also edited The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition; Enduring Ties: Poems of Family Relationships; and the Oxford History of Historical Writing, Vol. 1 (also forthcoming). Hardy is currently working on a 36-lecture DVD/CD course for The Teaching Company entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition.