Exploring the Book of Mormon with Givens, Hardy, and Skousen
As we embark on the next iteration of the 4-year curriculum rotation for Sunday school curriculum, I find myself grateful that I live in an age where Book of Mormon scholarship has produced many fine choices for the student of the Book.
The way I see it, every generation seems to have individuals who long nostalgically for a prior age where, it would seem, we were better off economically, spiritually, or culturally. While perhaps none of us can escape those thoughts from time to time, the present looks mighty good in terms works on the Book of Mormon.
In our age, who is shaping our discourse on the Book of Mormon? Every voice shapes our discourse, yet there are three scholars in particular whose work seems unavoidable today (not that you would want to avoid them!) and who seem to be instrumental in advancing our discourse in new and fruitful directions.
Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Terryl Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009)
I still remember first reading By the Hand of Mormon. During lunch with a friend of mine I remember sharing Givens’ argument that early Mormons understood the Book of Mormon’s importance for what it signifies, rather than important for the message it contains. Living in a Post-Benson Latter-day world, my friend was skeptical of such an argument and was not persuaded. I, on the other hand, was intrigued by the claim and didn’t need much argument to be convinced.
A couple of nights ago, I looked over the introductory Book of Mormon lesson for Sunday School titled The Keystone of Our Religion and found myself seeing more evidence for Givens’ argument because here we have a whole lesson devoted not to what the Book of Mormon says but what it enacts. Givens’ recent work, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, is a fun read not only because of Givens’ elegant writing (see Blair’s review), but because the Book of Mormon as narrative has been placed first in the book, and the “Book of Mormon wars”—debates about its historicity— placed last. The mere order Givens places these topics is an invitation to begin with the text itself.
Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2005).
If Book of Mormon as narrative is what you want, Grant Hardy does not disappoint. Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide is a tour-de-force look at the narrative of the text itself. While Hardy fights against an engrained Mormon culture steeped in a century of seeing the Book of Mormon only for what it is and not for what it contains or says, this book is a touchstone of sorts. Latter-day Saint scholars have been fond of pointing out Thomas O’Dea’s statement “The Book of Mormon has not been universally considered by its critics one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.” However, Hardy’s book is a marvelous work and wonder that convinces individuals that O’Dea’s statement is perhaps equally well-suited towards believers of the Book of Mormon. And if you missed that subtle message, Terryl Givens already said it bluntly.
Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press, 2009).
Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, 6 parts (FARMS, BYU 2004-9).
Looming large in the background is the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. If you have never heard of the project I think Grant Hardy probably sums it up best:
Royal Skousen, building on the foundation of his definitive work on the original and printer’s manuscripts, called O and P, has begun to publish a commentary on the text of the Book of Mormon that will forever change the way Latter-day Saints approach modern scripture. Two hundred years from now—long after people have stopped reading anything on the Book of Mormon now in print—students of the Book of Mormon will still be poring over Skousen’s work. What he has accomplished is nothing short of phenomenal.
Reviewing Skousen’s Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Hardy continues: “Scholars will want to consult these books to make sure that their own analyses of particular passages are not based on copying errors or later editorial changes.”
It is clear that Hardy has taken his own advice and made good use of Skousen’s work. He takes advantage of Skousen’s painstaking efforts to reconstruct the original Book of Mormon text, providing readers with a fresh and insightful approach to the Book of Mormon.
Of Skousen’s work Terryl Givens writes:
One may disagree with individual conclusions. But one cannot come away less than profoundly impressed by the efforts to which Skousen goes to analyze each and every disputed reading. He has provided us all with a model of the best textual scholarship we have seen, and it comes at a fortuitous juncture, when the Joseph Smith Papers Project is about to add further to the critical mass of scholarship that does not just make our sacred texts available to the world, but will testify to the world, by the way we hold them, that they are not accounted by us a light thing.
So there you have it. Even if you never read one book by any of these scholars, your understanding of the Book of Mormon at one point is going to be shaped by something they have written.
 Terryl L. Givens, By The Hand of Mormon, 64.
 Terryl L. Givens, “‘Common-Sense’ Meets the Book of Mormon: Source, Substance, and Prophetic Disruption,” FARMS Review 20.1 (2008):33-55. (off-site). He also makes this point in By the Hand of Mormon, pp. 235-236.
 Grant Hardy, “Scholarship for the Ages,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006): 50—51. (off site).
 Terryl L. Givens, “The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006): 35. (off-site). I recommend the entire issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15.1 (2006) reviewing Skousen’s work.