Gospel Doctrine is the worst book club ever. As an English major, I think this is what hell must be like: endlessly discussing non-insights about a book of self-justifying two dimensional characters with a plot that doesn’t contain any of the subtle human dramas the Bible does. I usually can’t tell if that’s the fault of the book or the other members of the book club. I know it’s the latter. As to the former, I’ve been reading two new books released by BCC Press. One of them reminds me of how awful the Book of Mormon is in terms of character development, and the other reminds me that it has theological complexity that bears reflection. Maybe it’s not so bad after all. Maybe it’s just the reading most Church members give it (to say nothing of the terrible manuals) that’s the problem.
The Women’s Book of Mormon
Mette Harrison has written a fanfic version of the Book of Mormon from the perspective of its mostly unnamed female characters. It reminds us of two things: 1) that the Book of Mormon is a total unapologetic sausage fest, and 2) that we are really missing out on something when we never hear from women. The story is at times quite moving, particularly as we explore the life of Nephi’s unnamed sister Miri for whom there is no husband among the sons and daughters of Ishmael. She helps build the boat, but is not recognized for her work. Later, when she later tries to kill herself, Nephi shrugs because he really sees no value in her (go ahead and say that’s overstating his views on women, but I’ve read what he wrote, and you can’t convince me he is even aware women exist), but her mother Sariah performs a miracle to save her. This is a bit heavy handed, but for the love of all that is holy, there’s nothing so heavy handed as Nephi’s self-justification and self-aggrandizement in the original, and instead of seeing him as insufferable, he’s lauded like a Heisman trophy winning quarterback every time anyone at Church opens their mouth. So I get it. I totally get where Mette is coming from.
Another element of her book that is sure to have any of the old biddies clutching their pearls is that the women frequently refer to the Mother God. Their worship is centered around her as she provides the example for them as women. This is not some anachronistic invention, though. This is far more likely to have been the case (and unsurprising if the men, who were invested in the patriarchal structure, weren’t focused on it). In his book Did God Have a Wife?, archaeologist William Dever discusses his findings in ancient Hebrew cities, that within the domestic sphere, a Mother God was worshiped. His findings coincide with the timing of Lehi’s family’s exodus in the Book of Mormon. We also see this evidence in the Bible, as the male Church leaders were often warring with the women’s worship of a female deity. The female deity protected women in childbirth and helped to heal sick family members. She blessed their efforts to keep home and hearth safe. She was relatable for the women’s limited roles, but seen as being fully a God.
Because I’m generally not a fan of the Book of Mormon, I was surprised that I found this book moving at times. Mette is able to spin characters in a way wholly lacking in the book itself. I found her characters more relatable, admirable, and understandable on the whole. Which brings me to my deeper question: does the book merit fanfic? This is no Pride & Prejudice, after all. I struggle to get jazzed about the fate of these folks. Switching to a female perspective, particularly in a book that completely ignores the experience of women, goes a long way to redeeming the character problems. There’s little to constrain the writer in taking this approach since the book barely has any women in it. Even Nephi’s wife isn’t spared a name, and this is a guy who drones on forever about his Feelings and the wrongs done to him.
For those who never noticed the lack of women in the Book of Mormon, reading this may help you see why it’s problematic. If I’m honest, though, I can only imagine those who most need to read this won’t.
Michael Austen knocks it out of the park with his book Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. As the title hints, his approach is not to have the same damn discussion we’ve had every 4 years for our entire life until we want to gouge our eyes out: Nephi’s courage, Lehi’s visionary nature, Laman and Lemuel’s murmuring and sibling rivalry, Moroni’s righteousness, Alma’s repentance, the Sons of Mosiah as rock star missionaries, etc.
Michael brings a few things to the table that I seldom hear in a Gospel Doctrine class: textual criticism, an understanding of literary devices, and a willingness to engage with the text as it is (not as we say it is) and to engage with its critics at face value (not dismiss them with smug superiority). He doesn’t side with the critics, but he acknowledges the reasonableness of their criticisms, then explains additional ways to view the passages they found problematic. This is a thoughtful approach that should render the Book of Mormon freshly interesting to even the most jaded reader (even me).
Like all good literary discussions, these bite-sized chapters refer to other literature to illuminate new ways of understanding this book. Toward the end of his book, Michael makes what I assume is a veiled reference to a line from Battlestar Galactica, “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” This is in reference to the odd structural choice to include the epic of Ether toward the end of the Book of Mormon. In essence, given that the Book of Mormon is a third testament of Jesus Christ (after the Old and New), the entire book is another witness of the same story of humanity, one that contains wars, exoduses, family dysfunction, racism, socio-economic strife, anger management issues, Pauline (or Almine?) miraculous conversion stories, etc. Does that make it a Biblical rip-off or does that illustrate that all scripture is designed to show us the lather-rinse-repeat nature of being a human? Michael’s book allows for either, but believes the latter.
If you are tired of the same old discussions of the Book of Mormon, I highly recommend either of these books. If you want a narrative that shows you these threadbare stories from new eyes, Mette’s book is for you. If you love literary criticism and enjoy comparative studies in literature, Michael’s book is right up your alley. Both are available on Amazon and wherever BCC Press books are sold.
Obviously, your views on the Book of Mormon may differ from my own. I’ve seldom met anyone who dislikes it to the degree I do, but I appreciate these new perspectives on it.
- How is the discussion in your ward’s Gospel Doctrine class?
- Do you enjoy the Book of Mormon? Why or why not?
- Which of these books appeals to you more? Are you likely to read one or both of them?