Friday, December 27, 2013

Observations on the Book of Mormon, Part 1

Hello there! As you can probably tell, I've taken another extended leave of absence from this blog, and I am only just now returning to it. But that's OK, because I'll make up for it by giving you guys some really interesting tidbits about the Book of Mormon.

I'm currently beginning my fourth read-through of this piece of scripture. While the text is still didactic and awkwardly-worded, it becomes more and more clear to me with each reading that it is an amazing piece of work. To quote a phrase by Grant Hardy, I would go as far as to say that the book is "better than it sounds", as it contains many wonderful elements which only become clear upon repeated readings. I intend to explore some of these elements in the next few blog posts. By going through some less-than-obvious facets of the Book of Mormon text and its reading experience, I hope to more fully convince the reader that it is as amazing as I know it to be.
Also, I expect this post to be spread over three parts or so. Just a heads up.

1. Reading the Book of Mormon is a form of meditation 

This observation will almost certainly strike you as counterintuitive, or else downright silly. However, because I have recently spent a great deal of time both meditating and reading the Book of Mormon, I have noticed some remarkable similarities between the two processes. For instance, both activities require that the participant  be non-judgmental. In the case of meditation, (specifically mindfulness meditation) the practitioner is supposed to silently observe the various sensations arising in their body and their surroundings, all while gently avoiding thought or other forms of mental categorization. Similarly, a reader cannot get much out of the Book of Mormon if they have constantly-running interior criticism. In addition to the lack of enjoyment that naturally comes with a less accepting mind, they will get hung up on the awkward language, the anachronisms, or the sometimes-condemning tone inherent in the text. However, the Book of Mormon itself can actually assist the reader in becoming less judgmental. In similitude to meditation's emphasis on breathing, the Book of Mormon's sincere plainness and simplicity acts as a focus for the mind, a sort of "mantra" by which the intellect learns to both wander less and find value in the here and now. I myself am a testament to the effectiveness of the Book of Mormon in this regard. As I learned to accept the Book of Mormon for what it is, I have become far less critical of everything else I encounter in the world. This means that I tend to enjoy things much more than I have in the past, for I am more willing to experience things as they are, rather than bemoan what they are not.  My life is thus a clear example that, even within our minds, "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass".

2. The Book of Mormon is a psychological text

If you were brought up in the Church, you are probably very familiar with the two figures named Laman and Lemuel. These prideful and hard-hearted older brothers act as Nephi's foil, resisting the progress of righteousness every time he wishes to "choose the right". But I have noticed something extremely interesting about these two, something which will require the examination of a few Book of Mormon excerpts. For example,

"And now when they saw that I began to be sorrowful they were glad in their hearts, insomuch that they did rejoice over me, saying: We knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment; wherefore, thou canst not accomplish so great a work. [...] Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy." (1 Nephi 17:19-22)

Does this sound familiar to you? Barring your memory of the passage itself, I find it highly likely that you have experienced criticism like this in the past. I don't mean to say that you have all had mean older brothers, but rather that each of you has an annoying voice in your head whose sole motivation is to make you think less of yourself and your efforts. You know the one. When you have just finished a recital or a presentation, it's the nagging thought that you did horribly or that you shouldn't even have participated. It's what tells you that you're stupid, ugly, or any other negative adjective, and it is often what dissuades you from trying to do the right or most important thing.

Next, take this discourse spoken by a young Nephi:

"How is it that ye have forgotten that ye have seen an angel of the Lord? Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten what great things the Lord hath done for us, in delivering us out of the hands of Laban, and also that we should obtain the record? Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him. And if it so be that we are faithful to him, we shall obtain the land of promise [...]" (1 Nephi 7: 10-13)

In an attitude which is almost directly opposed to that of Laman and Lemuel, Nephi encourages his brothers to remember the many blessings which they have experienced in their lives. I would argue that you are familiar with this kind of voice, as well. Whenever you are about to do something that violates your normal code of ethics, there is a voice in your head which tells you to stop and correct your course of action to something more virtuous

My point is this: in many places 1 Nephi uncannily resembles a battle between the mind's inner voices. Naturally Nephi corresponds to the conscience, the part of a person which encourages them to do the right thing even when it's hard. On the other hand, Laman and Lemuel seem to represent the parts of the psyche which both criticize the person and encourage them to be ethically lazy - in short, everything opposed to the "still, small voice". This observation would of no particular significance if it were not also true that people can and do identify with these mental dialogues. Because everyone experiences this kind of psychological conflict, I speculate that the beginning chapters of the Book of Mormon will often strike the reader as a reflection of their own spiritual journey, and thus come across as particularly powerful and emotionally potent. In other words, 1 Nephi offers a written model of how a person can overcome temptation and internal criticism, a roadmap which a person can follow to reach the promised land of inner peace.

It is not only 1 Nephi which bears this kind of psychological watermark. Take this passage from 3 Nephi, for instance:

"And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away. And it was in the morning, and the darkness dispersed from off the face of the land, and the earth did cease to tremble, and the rocks did cease to rend, and the dreadful groanings did cease, and all the tumultuous noises did pass away. And the earth did cleave together again, that it stood; and the mourning, and the weeping, and the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer." (3 Nephi 10:9-10)

The three days of darkness before Christ's resurrection almost immediately remind one of the times in our lives when all hope seems lost, when the knowledge and peace that one had before has fled, to be replaced with only obscurity and doubt. I would wager that most people who seriously strive after spiritual light have experienced such "dark nights of the soul", and so 3 Nephi too can capture the heart with its symbolic resemblance to the reader's life. The amazing thing, however, is what comes next. As in the above quotation, those who persist with faith inevitably come out of this "spiritual dryness" into the love of God, meaning that the passages about Christ's coming to the Americas give hope and comfort to those still in the midst of darkness. If you allow me to speak mystically, Christ does not only appear to the Nephites, but forever appears to us through the hope offered by the Book of Mormon itself.

Other parts of the Book of Mormon have psychological aspects, as well. You might think of the Jaredite barges as an example, for we too are on a journey to a promised land, (i.e. the peace of God's love) and we have a tiny bit of God's light to illuminate us while we are beat upon by the storms of life. The famous "pride cycle" is also a psychological correspondence, for it is human behavior to become spiritually lazy when one has forgotten the taste of the Spirit.

To clarify, I am not saying that the Book of Mormon is exclusively psychological, and I don't want you to think that the Book of Mormon is not the historical record which it claims to be. While it is true that this work of scripture has many correspondences with psychological experiences, these could be attributed to either the inspiration of God or to the book's actual authors, (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) and thus do not mean that that Joseph Smith wrote it on his own.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about these psychological aspects of the Book of Mormon is what it says about the religion which holds it to be sacred. This book gives a roadmap for the soul hidden in historical images and stories, and so acts as an examplar of the participative form of spirituality which is the Mormon religion. Like the LDS church's lay clergy and its monthly institution of fast and testimony meeting, the Book of Mormon forever declares that you are a part of its story, for your life is forever reflected in its pages. In other words, there is nothing which makes you less important than those Nephite or Lamanite prophets, for their story and yours are the same.
That's that for this post. Thanks for reading, and see you for part two!