If the Book of Mormon is dull, the New Testament is duller

One recent, sympathetic critic called the Book of Mormon “dull.”  This is not a new accusation.  Mark Twain famously called it “chloroform in print,” and I don’t deny the charge.  Trust me, I’m quite aware of the boringness of the Book of Mormon. Mormons are aware that the Book of Mormon can be difficult reading, and often make jokes about it.  It’s characters are one-dimensional, there isn’t much plot to speak of, only some of the content is occasionally moving, and even many of the theological debates just seem not particularly pressing anymore.  But is an aesthetic appraisal the best way to evaluate sacred literature?  Is dullness really relevant at all?  

Mormons generally counter the charge that the Book of Mormon is dull with their perfectly valid experiences that it has transformed their lives. These narratives need to be taken seriously, but not as evidence of the fundamental unboringness of the Book of Mormon. Rather, these narratives suggest the ways that the book is not read for its redeeming literary qualities, but for some other reason. I will return to these experiences, but I want to suggest that they should come after pointing out just what terrible literature the NT Gospels are as an example of my point.

Seriously. Talk about no plot; there is barely even a narrative in the NT gospels. It is just pericope after pericope strung together with a kai nun, the BoM equivalent of “and it came to pass.” There are no interesting characters to speak of (including the main character). There is almost no drama at all.  Scholars can’t even agree on a recognizable genre for the gospels as a whole, and have instead spent much of the last century on form, source, redaction, and rhetorical criticism, dividing the text into smaller bits and sources that might finally reveal some coherence. Even the literary criticism of the gospels is boring.

And I’m not the first person to think so. Mark was so bad that the ending had to be rewritten. Several times. In fact, Matthew and Luke rewrote the whole thing so you would never have to read Mark again (unlucky you).  St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, was famously a bit embarrassed by the low literature of the NT texts. He once promised God to never read Cicero again and only focus on Christian literature, but later reneged. Cicero is just better reading.  And ancient Christian intellectuals all knew it.

Does the boringness of the gospels mean that they have no worth?  Clearly these have been incredibly influential texts, sustaining not only ecclesiastical and pious excitement, but a rich scholarly field.  How can such poor literature have had such a profound effect on so many people throughout time? These are important questions, and the profound meaning of these texts in the lives of so many people must be accounted for.  What are people seeing of worth here?

For the NT gospels (and the Book of Mormon), the value of these works is not found in their literarary worth. These texts are not read because they have mastered plot, narrative, drama, suspense, comedy, tragedy, or even sophisticated philosophical or theological reflection.  Rather, these texts are read for a distinctive set of reasons, as sacred literature.  They are oracular. They are revelatory. They contain occasional clarity of instruction, and the occasionally vagaries that leads one to want to know more. They provoke thought and reflection about some big questions, like sin, death, righteousness, salvation, community, the kingdom of God.  They speak to converts and believers because such readers have categorized the text as sacred, and their reading practices.

To understand the meaning of a sacred text to its adherents, we must approach the texts as they do.  This doesn’t mean that we must accept the claims to being sacred, only that we understand the practices of a community for reading it as sacred.  This helps us to understand then the standards by which they judge it. Far be it from me to pass aesthetic judgment on the sacred texts of others, without seeking to understand how and why the text appeals to those who call them sacred.

  • http://ldsanarchy.wordpress.com/ LDS Anarchist

    First of all, I don’t find the Book of Mormon to be boring. In fact, the very first time I read it, as a young man, it became my absolute favorite book. This despite being kind of a book worm that enjoyed reading great literature. Later, I came across even better literature to read, but still I found my mind fixated on the Book of Mormon. It has continued to remain my all time favorite book.

    I believe one of the reasons why people may find the Book of Mormon boring is because it is formatted as if it were a man-made book. It should have been published like this. Then the text would have easily flowed, and even the Isaiah chapters would have been exceedingly easy to read. Also, it would have been much more apparent that this is a God-made work, not something conceived by man.

    But even if you put it into the above hyper-linked format, the Book of Mormon was still designed by God to be weak literature, fulfilling the scripture which says:

    the weak things of the world shall come forth
    and break down the mighty and strong ones

    The Book of Mormon is the link between all the scriptures of previous dispensations, the scriptures that came forth during Joseph Smith’s time, and all the future scriptures which are prophesied to come forth in the next, or Second Act of Mercy towards the Gentiles. It is a weak link by design, in order to fulfill this scripture, for the time will come that no one will believe the scriptures which are to come forth (or which have already come forth) unless they also believe the Book of Mormon. This is why the Lord has said that:

    those who receive it in faith and work righteousness
    shall receive a crown of eternal life
    but those who harden their hearts in unbelief and reject it
    it shall turn to their own condemnation

    If you reject the Book of Mormon, you will also reject the next tomes to be revealed, and thus will lose your salvation.

    The Book of Mormon needed to be weak in order to humble us and also to show forth God’s power, by using a little thing to do a great and marvelous work. It is the same principle as the healing of Naaman.

    You can think of the Book of Mormon as the book binding glue that the Lord will use to gather all of His word in one, as is prophesied. He will do it using the Book of Mormon for a two-fold reason: 1st, to fulfill that prophecy above about the weak things, and 2nd, because the faith of the Nephite prophets was exceeding strong, stronger than any other branch of Israel. So, although they were weakest in writing, they were strongest in faith. Therefore, the Lord Himself would turn their weak words into strong faith, because of the powerful faith of their prayers, to all those who hearken unto it.

    Now, this is, of course, a miracle meant to show forth marvelous works by small means. This is why they were put under a restriction to limit what they wrote about their proceedings to less than one hundredth part of their history. It was supposed to be but a drop, written poorly. But the words are pure faith, even the seed of faith, and specifically, the seed of these ancient Nephites’ faith, meaning that it was an exceedingly vibrant seed of faith, which if planted in our Gentile hearts and acted upon, would produce the very same fruit they produced, even all the miraculous works of the Father.

    Anyway, I will end my preaching. Suffice it to say that the Book of Mormon is the key to eveything, including prophecy. All of my theological understandings, meaning all of the revelations, prophecies, visions, dreams, and other manifestations of the Spirit which I have had, have come from following the precepts of this one book. I think if the church put all the other books of scripture in their closets for five years and studied only the Book of Mormon, striving to live its teachings, we’d finally get the works of the Father back in the church.

  • http://trevorprice.net Trevor

    But doesn’t the historical backdrop we can place underneath the NT give it substantially more appeal? I think that is a game changer.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ Chris H.

    Trevor,

    I am not quite sure what you mean by that. Could you explain? Thanks.

    Chris. H

  • http://trevorprice.net Trevor

    Well we know plenty about the history, culture, and geography surrounding the NT, so we can give substantially more background to the characters, ideas, and places. That makes it more interesting and allows for a deeply analysis in many case.

    For instance, compare the Gadianton robbers to the Saducees… If we didn’t have information about the Saducees beyond what was explicitly written in the NT canon, our discussions about them would be far more limited.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ Chris H.

    Ah, I see. Thanks.

    I tend to find the Book of Mormon more interesting if I treat it as a 19th Century text…but I will not get too much into that can of worms.

  • http://trevorprice.net Trevor

    I’ll bet that would make for some interesting Sunday School discussions Chris ;)

    I’m not familiar enough with 19th century culture to draw out much by using that as a context, but I’m somewhat familiar with the 19th century Christology and theological answers that the BoM poses.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ Chris H.

    I do not dare bring such things at church. ;)

    I think that part of why I find the 19th century angle is because I am much better versed in 19th century American Thought.


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