The “Value” of the Book of Mormon

As part of a project I’m currently at work on, I’ve been reading as systematically as possible through the literature on the Book of Mormon that has been produced by adherents to the Community of Christ movement (formerly, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). It’s been a remarkably instructive experience for me, and I hope that the written result of my studies will be available in published form at some point. In the meanwhile, I thought I’d offer a few reflections on just one very-current Community of Christ reader of the Book of Mormon: Alan Tyree. What interests me in particular in Tyree’s treatment of the Book of Mormon—as found in his 2013 book, Millions Call It Scripture—is his use of William James. Let me generate a bit of a review of Tyree’s book here for a few paragraphs, and then I’ll raise some questions about the hermeneutical stakes of the sort of approach to the Book of Mormon Tyree recommends in James’s name.

Alan Tyree’s Millions Call It Scripture is one of two rather major interventions on the Book of Mormon issuing recently from Community of Christ. It appeared in 2013 alongside Dale Luffman’s The Book of Mormon’s Witness to Its First Readers, both published by Community of Christ Seminary Press. Both books take as their aim to get Community of Christ to “remove the Book of Mormon from the shelf and place it once more in the lap of the church so it might again responsibly inform the church,” as Luffman puts it (Witness, 200). Both books make their plea, crucially, while nonetheless explicitly rejecting the (ancient) historicity of the Book of Mormon. Together, then, Tyree’s and Luffman’s books mean to reclaim the Book of Mormon for their tradition precisely by determining what it means to read it as an inspired but unhistorical word directed specifically to a nineteenth-century American audience.

What is perhaps most interesting about putting Tyree’s and Luffman’s books side by side is the stark difference between their respective methods for accomplishing their shared aim. The titles themselves suggest the difference: The Book of Mormon’s Witness to Its First Readers is the title of Luffman’s book; the subtitle of Tyree’s book is The Book of Mormon in the Twenty-First Century. Where the one emphasizes fixing the meaning of the text (“the Book of Mormon’s witness”) by placing it firmly in a nineteenth century context (“to its first readers”), the other emphasizes the openness of the text’s meaning (no possessive construction: just “the Book of Mormon”) by exploring its relevance to contemporary Christian living (“in the twenty-first century”). The methodological rigor of Luffman’s approach can exhaust itself in doing history (it’s necessary just to see the book’s “original” message, and then one can determine the relevance of the book for today rather readily), but the methodological rigor of Tyree’s approach has to draw on specifically philosophical resources, theories of use and relevance, in order to see how the book might serve the Church.

It’s thus that Tyree gives his attention to William James. Hoping to ask about the relevance of the text apart from or regardless of or even in addition to its historical determinations, he needs someone who can give him a framework for thinking about relevance. How does he go about using James? He first brings James up when he tries to take the measure of religious experiences like dreams and visions: “James looks at human spirituality and the mystical side of our nature through the lens of pragmatism, taking the position that the only real test of the value of such happenings is to be found in whatever results in the life experiences of the recipients of them. If good is the result, that is ultimately the only genuine authentication necessary for the benefit of the recipient and his or her associates and believers” (p. 38). He draws some further consequences a few pages later: “This implies that a religion is not under the obligation of ‘proving’ the truthfulness of its beliefs and faith, but rather ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating,’ to employ an old adage. . . . Indeed, faith could be (and often in the past has been) based on untruth or myth, and yet the results in human life are worthwhile” (p. 40).

What has all this to do with the Book of Mormon? Perhaps that’s obvious, but Tyree summarizes: “As William James has made clear, whatever process by which a translator is associated with artifacts does not necessarily require the resulting translation to be a factual history of actual peoples, but only that the translator received his impetus to produce divinely inspired scripture from association with such artifacts. James would suggest it is either authenticated or proven not to be authentic by the practical results that follow” (p. 46). Or, as Tyree puts much the same point later in the book (interestingly, just after claiming that James was much the better psychologist to study Joseph Smith than have been any of his psychobiographers): “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is whether or not the Old and New Testaments are scriptures to us, functioning as scripture in guiding our lives. And that is where the real test of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon rests as well” (p. 96).

Now, I should be clear from the outset of my assessment of this approach that I’m no committed scholar of James’s philosophy. That said, I’ve got a few worries about whether Tyree has got James quite right. I’m nervous about taking James’s point to be, for instance, that “untruth” can lie at the heart of pragmatically valuable religion. As I’ve understood James, he means not to say that truth is immaterial, but rather to say that the very notion of truth needs drastic rethinking, precisely so that truth can be recognized to be as fully material as anything in the world. I’m also nervous about trapping James’s emphasis on the concrete and the material within the category of the practical, and especially the personally or privately practical (“to us,” Tyree says). As I’ve understood James, he means not to lend credence to a certain “results are all that matters” mentality, especially where this might be coupled with a too-subjective conception of what results should be pursued, but rather to press for a recognition that it’s only differences that make a difference that deserve to be called differences, whatever their abstract logical force.

So I’m not sure whether Tyree’s James has much to do with James’s James. I’d say that points of interpretation aren’t terribly important here except that I’m largely inclined to agree with James as I’ve understood him, while I’m not much inclined to agree with Tyree. But let me bracket such points of disagreement nonetheless, giving myself just to the claims laid out by Tyree in James’s name. Is this a viable way to approach the Book of Mormon, to determine its use and relevance?

How is the Book of Mormon’s “value” or “authenticity” to be decided? I’m certain that some of my readers will insist at this point that what’s so clearly wrong with both Tyree’s and Luffman’s positions is that they believe that “value” and “authenticity” can be fixed apart from questions of historicity. In a certain way, I agree. I’m myself convinced of the ancient historicity of the Book of Mormon, and I take historicity as a given in my reading of the book. Yet I don’t think historicity is enough to determine either value or authenticity here. Indeed, firmly establishing the ancient historicity of the book can very easily lead to a certain devaluing or deauthenticating of the book, to a certain historicization of its claims and teachings that either renders them irrelevant to modern concerns or makes them into predictable consequences of problematic ancient ideologies. (A quick example, just to make sure I’m clear: Reading the Book of Mormon as ancient history, I might well trace a certain Deuteronomistic theology in Nephi’s discussion of the conquest of the Holy Land in 1 Nephi 17—1 Nephi 5 in the Community of Christ editions. That’s fine, but today we’re not terribly persuaded by that sort of thinking about lands and peoples, and especially by the associated sort of thinking about God’s nature. We tend to look to other, arguably rival conceptions of God and humanity from the Hebrew Bible. To the extent that Nephi becomes a product of the ancient world, is there a chance that I find it much more possible than otherwise to devalue or to deauthenticate his teachings?) Another way of putting this: securing the ancient historicity of the Book of Mormon only determines that the Book of Mormon is valuable and authentic; it doesn’t at all decide what the book’s value is or what the authenticity of the book consists in.

So, again, how is the Book of Mormon’s “value” or “authenticity” to be decided? I’ve just argued that historicity isn’t enough to decide these, but are practical results enough either? I’m just as unconvinced that that sort of thing can get us there. Now, let me be clear: I’m just as fully convinced that the Book of Mormon yields positive practical fruit as I am that the Book of Mormon is historical. Nonetheless, I think we ought to be a bit skeptical about whether we have anything like an idea of how to determine whether any practical results we might examine are “good.” We’d have to fix some notion of the Good in order to decide that sort of question, and that’s a much larger task than we’re usually willing to admit. The result is that measuring the Book of Mormon’s value or authenticity in terms of its practical consequences in the lives of its adherents will simply throw us back on our current ideologies, leaving us unchanged. We might congratulate the Book of Mormon where it confirms our worldview, and we might criticize the Book of Mormon wherever it contradicts our worldview, but we’re unlikely to find in the book anything genuinely transformative. (A quick example, just to make sure I’m clear: Reading the Book of Mormon as what should be measured by its practical results, I might well decide that King Benjamin’s sermon is valuable because it inspires me to pursue social justice, but I might well decide that the story of Captain Moroni is inauthentic due to the way it’s used to justify violence. It’s not clear how the book could teach me if I’m always deciding on its value by comparing what it inspires in me to what I already believe I ought to be doing.) Another way of putting this: taking the measure of the Book of Mormon with the yardstick of practical results can only produce an uneven reading of the book, a self-justifying investigation of what in scripture agrees with what I already otherwise “know” to be true.

Neither a certain approach to historicity nor an insistence on pragmatic consequences can adequately decide the value or the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. And I think both of these approaches fail for much the same reason: they refuse to regard the scripture as scripture. Scripture, as scripture, isn’t (merely) historical, and it isn’t (merely) useful. What makes scripture scripture is a certain gathering of a community around a text, a certain collaborative decision that a text is valuable and authentic. Even where strictly historical considerations have been troubled by the process of producing scripture (consider the state of the Doctrine and Covenants, for instance), and even where strictly practical considerations must be troubled by the content of scripture (consider the pastoral epistles of Paul, for instance), the community takes the text as canon, that is, as the measuring rod for determining a way forward for pursuing the sort of life God enjoins on human beings.

It’s in that sense that the Book of Mormon is valuable and authentic, I think. It’s only in that sense that the book can bring me up short, ask me whether I’m not too wedded to fashionable ideologies or to crystallized traditions, speak to me from a world that’s productively foreign to me, and provide me with a gathering place where I might meet with the faithful. Of course, I think the book is ancient—I can’t shake that conviction, and I fully believe it arrived in the modern world through divine intervention. Those were and are part of my motivation for confessing it as scripture in the first place. And of course, I think the book produces positive practical consequences—I’ve experienced that a good many times in my life, and I fully believe it can have deeper and longer lasting effects still. Those were and are part of my motivation for confessing it as scripture also. But the ongoing and richest value and authenticity of the book, it seems to me, are found in its continuing status as scripture. Only there do I find that the book calls me to repentance. And if the book doesn’t call me to repentance, I’m not sure I’d return to it as I do.

Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 3
Post-Civil War Communalism and the Lamoni Order
Doubting at Zion’s Gate
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Guest

    But even when you view it as scripture, don’t you still have to negotiate the biases of the authors which can lead to the same kind of dismal readings of certain parts?

  • Robert C.

    Nice, Joe. (I’m inclined to read you as nicely articulating a fundamental point Ricoeur seems to be aiming at in his article, “The Canon Between the Text and the Community,” although perhaps that is unfair to both you and Riceour….)

  • UWIR

    Christians keep accusing secularists of rejecting objective truth and promoting post-modernism, but stuff like this makes such accusations rather hypocritical.

  • David Tiffany

    Since the Bible claims to have the Gospel in its fullness, and since in 1 Nephi chapter 13 we are told that precious truths of the Gospel were extracted from the Gospel by a devilish Gentile church, it is imperative to determine the historicity of the Book of Mormon. If, in fact, precious truths were not extracted from the Gospel, then Mormonism is teaching a Gospel that is different from the Gospel that Paul the Apostle taught, and Paul says those who teach a different Gospel will be eternally cursed.

    • john smith

      But isn’t God the Word? The world is written to the human mind in language and letters, even to the point of G’s, A’s, C’s, and T’s. Wasn’t Jesus learned? Didn’t he use the accepted Hebrew Scripture of his own time to make his positions known? I’m not making any claims about the historicity or even the spiritual legitimacy of the Mormon scriptures,I’ve found at least one simple English grammar mistake in the LDS Canonical books I’ve read (as I have in Gideon New Testament pocket editions), but I don’t know enough to judge them entirely, but to dismiss them out-of-hand seems not especially Christ-like. If nothing else, you’re unable to witness to those who do believe in their divine origin or historical legitimacy.

    • laverl09

      David, as I already pointed out above, the Bible leaves out the marriage of Jesus. If it’s a commandment to multiply and replenish the earth, then why did Jesus disobey that commandment? The Dead Sea scrolls point out that he didn’t disobey that commandment.

      A better question is why modern Christians don’t even follow what Paul soplainly teaches in his writings?

      In Ephesians 2:20, Paul says that the Church should be built on a foundation of Apostles and Prophets with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone. And in Ephesians 4:11-14 Paul says that we need these apostles and prophets in the Church until we all come to a “unity” of the faith. As we are a far cry from that condition, we still need apostles and prophets with revelation coming down from Jesus as the chief cornerstone.

      In I Corinthians 15, Paul is teaching the truths of the resurrection and says that in the resurrection there will be differences in our individual
      resurrected glory and divides these differences into three groups that he
      compares to the glory of the sun, the moon and the stars. He then names two of these categories as celestial and terrestrial, but omits the name of the third. Modern revelation tells us that the third group is called telestial. He also, in verse 29, uses the early Christian practice of proxy baptism for the dead to prove to them that they believed in an after life repentance and conversion or they wouldn’t be doing it vicariously.

      Peter validates this point when he says (I Peter 3:18-19) that after Jesus died and before he resurrected he went into the spirit world and preached to the spirits there so that (I Peter 4:6) they might also have the opportunity to accept him as their Saviour.

      The Book of Mormon is also said to have the fulness of the Gospel in its
      teachings which is defined therein as faith, repentance, baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
      In the Bible, Peter tells the congregation in Acts 2 as they showed their faith that they should repent, be baptized for the remission of their sins and receive the Holy Ghost. However, he doesn’t explain the function of the Holy Ghost.
      After Jesus was resurrected and visited the people in America he told the believers (III Nephi 27:20) to “repent and be baptized in my name, that ye may be SANCTIFIED by the reception of the Holy Ghost.”In John 14:15, the Lord emphasizes this point when he says, “If ye love
      me, keep my commandments.” Then he goes on to say that He will give unto us “another Comforter that He may abide with you forever”. “For
      He dwelleth with you and shall be in you.”

      These three scriptures work in concert to help us with the most basic doctrines of the Gospel. Baptism is for the remission of sins and the Holy Ghost is to help us become more Christlike. As we show our love and appreciation to the Saviour for forgiving our sins (by keeping the commandments) He blesses us with the Spirit and in the process our weaknesses are lessened and we are made better (sanctified).

      The “good news” then is that by grace, the sin of Adam is forgiven and we are given a resurrection. And by grace, for believing in Christ, repenting and being baptized we are forgiven of our personal sins. And as we keep the commandments in appreciation for what we have already received, by grace, we are given the companionship of the Holy Ghost that works in us as a sanctifier so that we become better and
      better until we can “inherit all things” and become His son. (Revelations
      In I John 2:2-3 it says that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him”. “And every man that hath this hope in him PURIFIETH himself, even as He is pure.”

      If we use the Bible as our base and add to it with inspired
      extra-biblical references, we get a corroborated understanding of the
      “fulness of the Gospel” that we would not get otherwise.

  • laverl09

    To Joe Spencer, I offer my approbation for his well thought out defense of “canon” and how a people go about accepting a writing as such. Once it is accomplished, many people who adhere to that canon are enlarged in that direction. This approach can even help us in our appreciation of the Quran.

    To David Tiffany, I offer my condolences for being satisfied with a canon that has left out a multitude of valuable literature over the millennia. Both the Torah and the New Testament canon editors have documented why they left out certain books as not essential. Yet much valuable information is still contained in the Pseudepygrapha.
    And today, as we become acquainted with the translations of the discovery of new texts from the Mediterranean area written before and during the Christian era, we find valuable information that was omitted from the Bible.
    Just one small example, is the controversy of whether Jesus was married and if so, to whom. It is a historical fact that a man had to be 30 years old and married to qualify to become a Rabbi and it is a Biblical fact that Jesus was a Rabbi. The Bible gives us no information on whether Jesus was married, but the Dead Sea Scrolls give us strong implications that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
    When John hesitated to baptize Jesus, Jesus said it was “necessary to fulfill all righteousness”. And we as Christians say that we want to follow Jesus’ example and also be baptized.
    So, if we want to follow Jesus’ example regarding marriage, do we remain celibate or do we marry? The answer in the Bible is to remain celibate. The answer in extra-biblical texts and facts is that we should marry. If we follow the Bible implication of celibacy, then what of the commandment “to multiply and replenish the earth”?

    • David Tiffany

      In those books that have been left out, is there any mention of the things Mormonism has added to the gospel as presented in the Bible? If in fact precious truths were extracted from the Gospel, there would be mention of these in the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscripts that have been discovered. But these archaeological discoveries have proven that the Gospel as preached by Paul the Apostle that was around in Joseph Smith’s day was in fact correct.
      And there are no archaeological findings to validate the Book of Mormon.