For this section of the class we mostly focused on the Book of Mormon. We did spend one day going through the D&C, but in retrospect I think that was a bit of a mistake. I think it would have been better to do the D&C concurrently with Joseph Smith, at least partially, instead of treating it as its own topic. Part of that is because we did that with the next portion of the class, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our guide to the text of the Book of Mormon itself was . . . the Book of Mormon itself. I had dithered about whether or not to use Grant Hardy’s amazing Understanding the Book of Mormon, but in the end decided to let the book of scripture speak for itself. Instead, we used Teryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon as our more academic book. It was nice to just delve into the text itself and use Givens as kind of a meta-discussion about what the book itself means, and how it’s been used.
However, even though we didn’t use Grant’s book, I found that the way I taught the class and the way I lectured about the Book of Mormon was heavily influenced by it. I think this was for two reasons. First, it was the most recent book-length treatment on the Book of Mormon that I had read, so it was fresh in my mind. Second, I do think that Grant’s approach is good for teaching the Book of Mormon to a non-Mormon audience. (I think it’s fabulous for a Mormon audience, too, for the record.) It also helped us sidestep the historicity issue for what was, in my opinion, more fruitful dialogue about the text itself. I made sure that we covered some basics in reading unfamiliar texts, like asking questions such as: “Who wrote this?” “When are they writing?” “What are their objectives in writing?” etc. Answering those questions and others like them definitely helped the students get a better handle on the text. I also had them read the chapter headings of the chapters we didn’t read, and that helped keep them in context as we leapt from Nephi to Mosiah to the reign of the judges to Jesus Christ’s visit to Mormon, skipping about half of the book itself.
The class, overall, responded positively to the text. Since we didn’t talk about the issue of historicity that much (Givens does talk about it for one chapter, so we didn’t ignore it either) we could talk about the moral lessons learned from the book, different approaches to reading scripture that isn’t from our tradition, how those different approaches apply to reading scripture that is from our tradition, and in general what the category of “scripture” means to Latter-day Saints in particular, and to the rest of the world in general. They were, rightly, disturbed by the ending of the book, and I think that day was the most fruitful discussion of the entire unit—a robust discussion on turning to wickedness (as framed by Mormon and Moroni), and the consequences of doing so. Regarding historicity, we did have an interesting moment when I explained that, for most LDS, finding a stone monument somewhere in South America signed by Nephi and his party would basically prove the church true, and they would wonder why the rest of the world didn’t convert on the spot. That led to a good discussion of the LDS emphasis on capital-T Truth.
Oddly enough, my students all seemed much more skeptical of the Doctrine and Covenants. Part of me wonders if that was just because the D&C is such a different book of scripture than the Book of Mormon. At the very least, the Book of Mormon feels in some ways more like the Bible—stories, history, sermons, etc. whereas the D&C is generally a list of very historical-contex-specific revelations, many speaking in the first-person voice of Jesus Christ Himself.
For their papers, they could either analyze a block of text from the Book of Mormon, or they could write an entry for an Encyclopedia of World Scripture on the Book of Mormon. Most of them picked the former, and the papers I think showed the struggle of trying to really dig into another faith’s scriptures, though there were a few absolutely outstanding papers. Unsurprisingly, the students who had taken Georgetown’s Introduction to Biblical Literature wrote some very good papers. I hope in some small way this quick run-through of the Book of Mormon helped serve as such an introduction to the other students so that they can, in the future, be more well equipped to read other scripture, whether their own or from another tradition.