For many, many years, Latter-day Saints tended to use the Book of Mormon as a symbol and a demonstration of Joseph Smith’s status as a prophet, but apparently didn’t read it very much. (There have been a number of studies demonstrating this. Perhaps I’ll provide a few references someday, when I have the time.)
Things have gotten much better since then — and particularly since President Ezra Taft Benson’s summons for us to repent of our neglect of the Book of Mormon — but we still tend to use it (and the Bible, for that matter) as a source of proof texts, rather than reading it carefully on its own terms.
Or we argue about its historical authenticity — an effort that I, not surprisingly to those who know me, think to be entirely worthwhile, but which can itself get in the way of considering what the book actually says. It may be very important to demonstrate that Prophet X employs genuinely ancient rhetorical tools, or seems to be speaking from a town located on the Rio Grijalva (or wherever), but we should always be most focused on what Prophet X is trying to tell us.
With that prologue, I’m delighted at the establishment of Salt Press, which is specifically dedicated to publishing work that carefully engages Mormon texts. And I’m particularly pleased to mention its first two books:
1) Adam S. Miller, ed., An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32
“An Experiment on the Word: Introduction” (Adam S. Miller)
“Desiring to Believe: Wisdom and Political Power” (James E. Faulconer)
“You Must Needs Say that the Word is Good” (Adam S. Miller)
“It is Well that Ye are Cast Out: Alma 32 and Eden” (Jenny Webb)
“Faith, Hope, and Charity: Alma and Joseph Smith” (Joseph M. Spencer)
“So Shall My Word Be: Reading Alma 32 through Isaiah 55″ (Julie M. Smith)
“Faith and Commodification” (Robert Couch)
2) Joseph M. Spencer and Jenny Webb, eds., Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27
“Nephi, Isaiah, and Europe” (Joseph M. Spencer)
“How Nephi Shapes His Readers’ Perceptions of Isaiah” (Heather and Grant Hardy)
“Slumbering Voices: Death and Textuality in Second Nephi” (Jenny Webb)
“Seals, Symbols, and Sacred Texts: Sealing and the Book of Mormon” (Julie A. P. Frederick)
“On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture” (George Handley)
“Works of Darkness: Secret Combinations and Covenant Displacement in the Book of Mormon” (Kimberly M. Berkey)
(With five appendices.)
Beyond question, the Book of Mormon is a symbol and illustration of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. And it is a source of excellent proof texts on numerous important topics.
But there are other and very rich ways of reading it that we, as a people, have long neglected. And — I’m quite aware that I’m coming full circle by saying this — in beginning to recognize the richness of the Book of Mormon itself, we will see yet more reason to accept Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. It’s an impressive book.