Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alternative titles for the first four books in the Book of Mormon

A good friend recently got me thinking about Book of Mormon summaries. Most summaries of the Book of Mormon focus on what happens in the book, just like summaries of novels focus on the plot. But because the Book of Mormon isn't a novel, the "plot" is both a) hopelessly complicated and b) periodically abandoned for sections of the book where nothing really happens.

So how might a person usefully describe the shapes of the Nephites' books? I've given it a shot for the first four by coming up with alternate titles:

1 Nephi: The Book of the Visionary

1 Nephi is a book with plenty of events to describe. But if you describe them according to modern sensibilities, you'll probably focus on the journeys rather than on the visions.

But the book isn't a travelogue or a simple diary. It's structured according to the visions Lehi and Nephi receive--and especially on the aftermath of each vision. Again and again, the pattern is vision, action, obstacle, action, expanded vision. It's best to read the book not as a report on how Lehi's family got to the ocean, but rather as a sort of handbook on being a visionary. A systematic record of the joy, burdens, and techniques that come with following a revelatory God.

2 Nephi: The Book of Deathbed Blessings

Most plot summaries of the Book of Mormon are 50% made out of summarized events from 1st Nephi, usually followed by a sentence or two on the war cycles of Alma-Mormon and a sentence or two on the appearance of Jesus in 3rd Nephi. Even though it's longer than 1st Nephi, 2nd Nephi doesn't contribute much because very little happens: it's a book where four prophets (Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah) just talk.

That may explain why so many people struggle to get through 2nd Nephi--if you're reading for plot, it's pretty boring.

But if you look carefully, it seems clear to me that 2nd Nephi has just as clear a structure and purpose as 1st Nephi. After the book of visions, we have a book of blessings--the blessing of two dying patriarchs.

Most people recognize Lehi's blessings and warnings easily since they only take up a few chapters and are so clearly reminiscent of Genesis 49. But it may be harder to notice that from chapter 6 on, Nephi is probably dying. And so he gives the people a new prophet (ch. 6-11), an old prophet (ch. 12-24), and his own personal blessings and warnings to conclude the book.  

Jacob: The Book of the Exile

There are far more tragic events in the Book of Mormon than the handful of incidents mentioned in Jacob, but not many sadder narrators. At the end of his book (7:26), Jacob talks directly about his feelings of exile and alienation, but indirect evidence of those feelings permeates the whole text. Jacob doesn't just write down whatever happens: his book is built around the tensions of emigration. There's evidence in the book of a significant generation gap between Jacob himself and his new-world-raised relatives, who have their own values and priorities. There's a large passage devoted to the allegory of the olive tree, which describes the quiet background relationship between Jacob's descendents and the land/people they came from. It's a book, in the end, about exile and the long (but confident) wait for redemption.

Enos: Prayer of the Native Son

Part of the structure of Enos is obvious to most readers: it's a book about a prayer. What may not be as obvious is that it's also the first book about someone who grew up in the Americas. If you look carefully at Enos, I think you'll see how that shift is also an important part of the book.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Two Weeks Left for Mormon Lit Blitz Submissions

Writers have two weeks left to submit poems, comics, very short stories or essays, or other short writing for the 2nd Annual Mormon Lit Blitz. Basically, we want works under 1,000 words and of specific interest to Mormon readers to be emailed to by April 27th. We will then choose six to twelve finalists to compete for the Grand Prize of a Kindle and a small library of Mormon literary eBooks. Read the complete Call for Submissions for more details.

Unfortunately, the Everyday Mormon Writer website, where we'd planned to post the finalists, has been infected with a difficult-to-root-out virus. In the event that we're unable to resolve the website's issues by the start of the Lit Blitz on May 13th, we'll publish the finalists on this blog instead.

Please help us spread the word about the contest. The gospel is great no matter what we do, but Mormon culture is only as good as we make it. Take the time to develop and share your talents and invite friends to do the same.

Happy writing and good luck!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Book of Mormon Girl and Robert Bly's The Sibling Society

You can now listen to an audio file of my AML Conference presentation on "Jesus in Joanna Brooks's Book of Mormon Girl." I'm ashamed to say I went two minutes over my time limit, so it's a full 17 minute commitment to hear what I have to say. (Also: I've only listened to about the first thirty seconds of the recording, so I can't make any promises about sound quality throughout. Let me know if there are any problems.)

While 17 minutes of amateur recording of a scholarly conference presentation is not exactly most people's idea of fun, I think this presentation may be worth your time because in thinking about Book of Mormon Girl, I realized that Robert Bly's commentary on a "sibling society" cultural shift in America might help explain the fuel behind many of the debates Mormons have today about the church. That is to say: the ideas in my presentation don't just apply to one book. The patterns and absences I noticed in the book are probably instances of a larger cultural rift.

If you do listen, you'll hear me reference a handout a few times during my presentation. I am including the text below, with one slight addition: after giving the presentation, it occurred to me to look up the frequency of references to Marie Osmond.

Word search:

Instances of Mormon: 100
Instances of Marie (Osmond): 72
Instances of California: 52
Instances of Orange: 43
Instances of Jesus: 29
Instances of Christ: 9
Instances of Savior: 1
Messiah: 0
Atonement: 0
Salvation: 7

Breakdown of 29 references to Jesus:
First vision: 1
Name of the church: 4
Communist fears and related apocalyptic hopes: 5
Mormon racism: 1
Excuses the Three Nephites and Bigfoot/Cain from death: 1
Mormon fixation with Marie Osmond/perfection*: 1
Rivalry with born-agains*: 10
Rejection of intellectuals*: 1
Rejected-feeling Joanna admires an Episcopal crucifix*: 2
Prop 8 overshadows Jesus: 3

*Excluding church name, 14/25 references clearly deal with rejection/acceptance dynamics

Breakdown of 9 references to Christ:

Name of church: 4
Apocalypse: 3
Rivalry with born-agains: 1
Rejection of intellectuals: 1

Breakdown of 7 references to Salvation:

Chapter name: 2
Excerpt about belonging: 2
Rivalry with born-agains: 1
Rejection of intellectuals: 1
Tempting nostalgia of childhood simplicity: 1

Brooks on Belonging/Affirmation as Salvation (p. 10):

"What was there to compare to this feeling, of belonging to one another, [...] safe from the mocking and fashionable faceless crowds, safe where no one would say your books of scripture are all made up, or the sacred undergarments you promised to wear every day are funny, or your afghan is too ugly, or old woman there is nothing in you the world loves anymore."

Brooks on Keeping Score (p. 187)

"I try to distract myself by checking my text messages, then I start keeping score. Fifteen minutes into the lesson: Stories relating to Proposition 8 or anti-Mormon sentiment resulting from Proposition 8, 5; stories relating to Jesus, 0."

Robert Bly in The Sibling Society (pp. xi-xii):

"It is hard to be as popular as we are supposed to be. The superego or interior judge has altered its requirements [...] For one who fails to become successful and well-loved, punishment is swift and thorough. Self-esteem receives a battering from the inside, everyone feels insignificant and unseen until, in desperation, we finally agree to go on a talk show and tell it all. Once that moment is over, and universal love has not poured over our heads following the program, we fall still farther."

In any case, I hope the presentation gives you something valuable to think about. I'm happy to hear your thoughts, questions, and constructive criticism (especially since I'm supposed to write a paper based on this for publication)--but please only if you listened to the whole presentation.

Thank you.  


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