Today’s contribution to our “Mormon Studies in the Classroom” series comes from Grant Hardy. Perhaps the foremost scholar on the content of the Book of Mormon, Grant is well known in Mormon studies circles with his Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide and The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition. He is a professor of history and religious studies at UNC-Ashville.
I?ve taught this course a couple of times. It was designed as a freshmen orientation class, which at UNC-Asheville means that it should be of general interest, it can?t count toward a major, and it has to incorporate a number of components on study skills, advising, time management, campus resources, etc. But it is supposed to focus on an academic topic that can engage both the professor and the students. In this case, the topic is a comparative study of world scripture, with readings primarily taken from the opening chapters of sacred texts. (The title ?Beginning of Wisdom? is a nod toward Leon Kass?s marvelous book on Genesis.)
Genesis (students chose their own translations)
The Daodejing (Philip Ivanhoe?s translation),
The first four parvas of the Mahabharata (in Chakravarthi Narasimhan?s much abbreviated version)
The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels (though not the first of the NT writings)
The first four chapters of the Lotus Sutra (Burton Watson?s translation)
Some of the Meccan suras from the Qur?an (M. A. S. Abdel Haleem?s translation)
First Nephi (I put the pages from my Reader?s Edition on Moodle)
I used the Oxford Very Short Introductions on the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible. The first two were good, the third was not quite as strong and I won?t use it again. I also had students read Michael Sells?s Approaching the Qu?ran, which is extraordinary in its presentation of the lyric qualities of the Qur?an for non-Arabic speakers.
Most of these texts were new to my students, who were in their first semester of college, and even in the South they didn?t know as much as I had hoped they would about the Bible. The opening chapters of each sacred text were enough to give them a sense of their style, themes, insights, and overarching concerns. One of the purposes of the course, appropriate for an general introduction to university studies, was to encourage close reading and demonstrate some of the ways?historical, literary, philological, cultural, moral, sociological?that one might approach rich, complex texts that have motivated, consoled, and enlightened much of humanity.
The outlier, of course, was the Book of Mormon, which I introduced as a relatively recent addition to the library of world scripture. Giving it one week out of the fifteen was probably generous (by contrast, in my recent course for the Teaching Company, I was only able to devote one lecture of thirty-six to LDS scripture). Yet First Nephi worked well; it has a fair amount of action, at least by Book of Mormon standards, plus prophecy, allegory, an apocalyptic vision, doctrinal exposition, and scriptural commentary.
I enjoyed the course, and I think that my students did as well, but I would someday like to teach sacred texts as an upper-division class, especially to religious studies students who had already taken introductory courses on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. That would allow me time to assign larger blocks of primary texts from less familiar religious traditions. In addition to a comprehensive textbook, undoubtedly Wilfred Cantwell Smith?s What Is Scripture? A Comparative Approach, I would divide students into groups that could read and report on commentarial monographs, such as Hans-Georg Moeller?s Philosophy of the Daodejing, Gucharan Dass?s The Difficulty of Being Good, Stephen Teiser and Jacqueline Stone?s Readings of the Lotus Sutra, Ingrid Mattson?s Story of the Qur?an, and who knows, maybe even Understanding the Book of Mormon.
Alternatively, I would love to offer a course on post-canonical scripture, that is, new revelation that seeks to take a place among or over long-established, closed canons. We would start with the Qur?an and then look at more recent examples, including the Zohar, the Adi Granth, the Book of Mormon, and the Baha?i Sacred Writings. These all easily qualify as examples of world scripture, which I would define as sacred texts that have been revered by millions of adherents over several generations and translated into multiple languages. We could contrast these very successful new scriptures with others that are still in the process of emerging (the sacred texts of Tenrikyo and Cao Dai), and revelations that never attracted much of a following. The Book of Mormon is rather unusual in presenting a coherent, integrated, history-like narrative. The Doctrine and Covenants, on the other hand, is much more typical of the writings of recent religious founders. The strengths and weaknesses of LDS scripture, the ways in which they shape and present their message, how they interpret and elaborate earlier canon, and their power in creating a faith community are all much more evident when they are read in a comparative context. There are, of course, many more elements to religion than scripture, but because new sacred texts are at the heart of Mormonism, and because they are so readily comparable across diverse religions, scriptural studies offer a particularly valuable way to understand the Latter-day Saint movement, and for Latter-day Saints to contribute to the field of religious studies.