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.

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