The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction

By Patheos Staff         

Terryl Givens is a professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and wrote the recently-published The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction(hereafter abbreviated VSI) by Oxford University Press. Patheos interviewed Givens about his reasons for writing and about the larger perspective on the publishing world's approach to the Book of Mormon.

Oxford Press has published several books on Mormon topics, by you as well as Richard Bushman and Phillip Barlow.  Given your work in By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, you seem like the natural choice to write this book. How did it come about?

I had an invitation to write a volume on the Book of Mormon for another press.  Oxford asked if instead I would fill their need for a book on the subject for their Very Short Introduction series. I already knew the series and had high regard for it, so was happy to comply.

Why should someone read this book?

Some years ago, a friend and fellow academic remarked to me that he had been asked to recommend a book to introduce the Book of Mormon to a non-Mormon reader. He realized, to his chagrin, that no such book existed. Even By the Hand of Mormon is more of a reception study than an examination of the Book of Mormon per se. I tried to write this book for those who want to know what the Book of Mormon itself is -- not whether it is true, plausible, or good history -- but who are unwilling or unprepared to yet read the text itself.

By the Hand of Mormon, which treats the coming forth, interpretation, and reception of the Book of Mormon, takes up over 300 pages. What were some of the difficulties in deciding what to include and what to leave out in a book intended to cover those topics as well as the content of the Book of Mormon? What would you have liked to include that was not for space, editorial, or other reasons?

It was not difficult avoiding repetition with Hand, since that work has very little to say about the actual content of the Book of Mormon, its structure, themes, or teachings. Given time and space, more could have been said in answer to the question of how one accounts for the successful reception and influence of such a patently implausible book, both in the context of 19th-century culture, and continuing into a secular age.

How much of VSI was written from scratch, given your previous work in By the Hand of Mormon?

Virtually all of the book is my attempt to ask questions of the text I hadn't treated before. Some are rather unremarkable: what principles and teachings does the book survey? Others were, for me at least, fresh and illuminating: why such an emphasis on the record's own provenance?  How do Lehi's experiences foreshadow and structure the entirety of the work?

Daniel W. Howe calls VSI a "complex, reverent analysis."  How did you tackle the insider/outsider challenge while writing this book?

I established with the Oxford editors very early on the kind of voice that would be appropriate. They pointed to the VSI of the Koran as a model, and in that book, the sacred status of the scripture is an a priori. No one would expect an introduction to the Koran to begin by calling into question the authenticity of Mohammed's account of how he received the scripture. It would not have a chapter on alternative explanations or environmental hypotheses. One would expect a "complex, reverent analysis" of the Koran as scripture, and that is what one gets. So, against the tide, I determined to treat the Book of Mormon primarily as scripture, with a section on the "Book of Mormon wars" at least deferred if not entirely ignored.[1]

Talk about your scholarship and apologetics, as you have been called by some a "mere" apologist. What is the role of scholarship and apologetics and how do these things inform your work, particularly in VSI?

Martin Marty defined the word "cult" as any religious group I don't like. There is a more sociologically valid definition, but negative connotations in the word's contemporary deployment have usurped its place. The same is true of the word "apologist." Today it generally means that you write with respectful consideration or appraisal of a group or ideology I don't value or respect. So to call someone an apologist often has about as much intellectual currency as to call a group a cult.