Last week I recommended the Givens two-volume treatment of Mormon thought for your Christmas list. I picked up another on my recent visit to Benchmark Books in Salt Lake: The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts (Greg Kofford Books, 2018). The book includes fourteen essays by noted scholars in the Mormon Studies field and an introduction by the editors, Brian D. Birch, Boyd J. Peterson, and Blair G. Van Dyke, all affiliated with UVU. [Each also authored an article in the volume.] I assume many or all of the articles came out of the UVU Conference of the same name in 2013.
The meatiest of the articles is Chapter 7, “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates,” by Ann Taves, Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB. Right up front, she sets up and rejects the simple dichotomy that has ruled apologetic and some scholarly discussion of the golden plates: “If they existed, then Smith was who he claimed to be. If they did not and Smith knew it, then he must have consciously deceived his followers …. Alternatively, if Smith believed there were plates when in fact there were not, then he was deluded” (p. 95). Taves lays out the historical sources that emphasize the spiritual nature of the reported observations of the plates and highlights the curiously spotty record of the plates as a material artefact (angel delivers plates; no one can look at them directly, with natural eyes; strangely ambivalent accounts of those who claim to have seen the plates; angel reclaims plates and they are gone for good). It is a complex but productive discussion of the plates.
Chapter 3, James E. Faulconer’s “On the Literal Interpretation of Scripture,” I found particularly frustrating. First sentence: “My thesis is that all scripture … should be read literally, perhaps only literally” (p. 47). I can see many Latter-day Saints stopping right there, secure in the standard LDS approach to scriptural interpretation: maximal superficial literalism. By the end of the article, it becomes clear Faulconer is advocating deep, contextual reading of scriptural books and passages, which will often turn out to be anything but a literal reading, as that term in conventionally used. I wish he had titled the article something like: “Literal interpretation: that term does not mean what you think it means.”
Some other notable mentions from the first half of the book (hey, I’ve only had it for five days): Chapter 6, Richard Bushman on “Reading From the Golden Plates.” A nice, somewhat more traditional discussion of the golden plates that is a nice if rather brief complement to the Taves paper. Here’s a nice aside he throws in after noting how the Book of Mormon has displaced the Bible in recent LDS devotional reading: “If we [Mormons] are ever going to restore the Bible to its former position, we will have to supplement the King James Version with the New Revised Standard or some other modern translation” (p. 85).
Also, Chapter 5, Grant Hardy on “The Book of Mormon as Post-Canonical Scripture.” Hardy has published several book on the Book of Mormon as well as on non-Western religion, so his discussion comparing it to other new scriptural texts like the Quran and the Adi Granath (of the Baha’i) is very informed. Hardy notes, for example, that both the Quran and the Book of Mormon are very self-referential, containing a discussion of the entire text itself at several points within that very text. His conclusion: “Why does the Book of Mormon talk this way? Because it is post-canonical canon” (p. 82). Here is one of his observations that should make you think a little harder about your own view of things: “What we see in the Book of Mormon depends, to some extent, on what we compare it to and on the questions that we bring to the text” (p. 83).
If you need other Christmas book ideas, go read J. Stapley’s post at BCC that will give you a dozen suggested titles. ‘Tis the season to buy good books, and read them.