Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tips on Reading the Book of Mormon Effectively

Hello, all! I'm getting close to the end of my sixth read-through of the Book of Mormon, and I feel compelled to write another blog post singing the work's praises. But this entry will be a bit different. In this post, I intend to submit another entry in the "how-to" genre, and tell you all some strategies that have really helped me get the most out of that amazing work of scripture. There are seven "tips" below--read them, ponder them, and (if you like) tell me what you think.

1. Don't let yourself get attached to any one interpretation of the book, even if it's an orthodox one: This first one might seem a little counter-intuitive. One might ask: aren't there definitive, true ways of understanding the Book of Mormon? To that I say: well, yes and no. The Book of Mormon is most definitely true, quite possibly more so than any other text on earth. But "truth" here is something more than anything you can put it words. Reading the Book of Mormon as an ancient text (i.e. what the Church teaches) is a very fruitful method for understanding the text, but it actually falls short in a lot of places. With that interpretation in mind, any and all anachronisms (i.e. things like elephants and horses--elements of the book's text that don't make sense in its historical context) will catch you off guard. Quite a few people have fallen away from the Church because of these contradictions, and it's quite a shame. You see, instead of using an interpretation as they should have, they let it break free from its reins and trample them.

However, I'm not saying that you should regard the Book of Mormon as a positively a-historical. Reading the text as a fiction or as an allegory also constitute interpretations, and they will endanger your testimony even more surely than the one above. In one sense the Book of Mormon is neither history nor allegory, and in another sense it is both. Likewise, the Book of Mormon is both a simple text and a profound one, and it contains the voice of both the human and the divine. 

Quite simply put, the Book of Mormon is alive. Like any creature (animal or human), it resists being put in boxes, and so its spiritual sense will flee if you try to encapsulate it in any category. To really get to know the Book of Mormon, you must respect its autonomy as a being with vitality and boundless life. Let it dance in front of you--don't tell yourself that it should be doing one thing and not another, but simply enjoy the parade of images, connections, and emotions that it brings before you.

I didn't always follow this advice. For a long time I was committed to understanding the work symbolically, and I would comb the work for ways I could understand its stories as allegories for spiritual or physical realities. It's true that you can understand the work this way in many places, but there are also many places in which that interpretation does not work. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I was trying to put a leash on the text's indwelling life, and as such it distrusted me. It only gifted me with superficial spiritual pleasures, and I thus missed out on its deep-dwelling inner riches.

To know the Book of Mormon as it is, you have to trust that it means something independent of any one point of view. Put away your leash, your bridle, and let the book approach you on its own terms. So doing you will find something remarkable--instead of encountering the buzzing, booming confusion you expected, you realize that the Book of Mormon's power and grace is simply too grand to be contained by any category. It is expansive, full, transcendent, and any attempt to reduce it through description will be met by the work's distrust of you.

If you encounter the book in the way I describe, you will find something even more remarkable: by meeting and getting to know each other, you and the Book of Mormon transform each other. In the first sense, you will come to know the book as something that means something specific to your life and interests. Though you can never describe that "something" in its fullness, by continuing to read the book you discover that it is essentially a "personal seer stone" (to use a phrase from Adam S. Miller) that gives you insight into yourself, your world, and your relationship with God. 

But more powerfully, the Book of Mormon will transform you. As you read the book more and more, you'll find that its spirit pervades your day-to-day life. Its principles (more often the unspoken ones than those deliberately mentioned) will creep into your mind and start affecting the way you think and act. Instead of viewing things while in the midst of them, you'll suddenly start seeing them from a more divine point of view. But then you realize that this is just the book lending you a bit of its transcendent vitality. The  Book of Mormon stands above all categories and distinctions, and by reading it you slowly climb the ladder to share in its eternal perspective. 

2. Beware of your anticipation for climaxes: When I read the Book of Mormon for the first time back in 2012, I looked forward to 3 Nephi with eager anticipation. It seems to be everyone's favorite part of the book, and I wondered to myself what it was that was so powerful about it. When I got to 3 Nephi 11, I was pleasantly surprised by the story of the still, small voice proclaiming Christ's coming, as well as his invitation for the masses to come and feel his wounds for themselves. But to my annoyance, Jesus followed this well-known incident by giving a repetitive, didactic exposition on baptism. Now, there's nothing wrong with teachings on baptism. It just seemed to me at the time that it was poorly placed, for its irrelevance to the situation interrupted the flow of literary power I was expecting.

There are other places like this, too. The beginning and end of 2 Nephi are some of the deepest parts in the entire book, but they are separated from each other by the difficult Isaiah chapters. Moreover, the end of the book is interrupted by a sudden treatise on infant baptism, frustrating hopes that it would end on an organic climax. And finally, the book doesn't end with 3 Nephi--after Christ comes, everything (eventually) goes very, very wrong. 

But this perspective misses something incredibly important about the Book of Mormon. If what I said in the previous entry is true--that the Book of Mormon is a living, breathing reality that resists encapsulation in categories--then do you expect it to submit to any one thread of "literary flow" (for lack of a better word)? For the Book of Mormon doesn't fit fully into any interpretation, and this includes temporal ones.

I said above that the Book of Mormon sees the world from an eternal perspective, but by "eternal" I don't mean with an eye to "everlasting time". Instead, I mean that the Book of Mormon is essentially timeless. The spiritual sense of the book stands outside the chronology of the text, and as such its appearance in the text isn't inhibited by restraints of causation and temporal succession. It will, so to speak, peek through the text in multiple places at once. By this I mean that certain parts of the Book of Mormon are far more connected with each other than with the bits that chronologically surround them.

Take the death and destruction in 3 Nephi, for instance--something very similar (down to specifics) happens in Helaman 5, where a group of Nephite and Lamanite prisoners pray to have a mist of darkness be lifted from over them. Moreover, when they eventually dispel the darkness through their faith, the fire that surrounds them is very similar to the harmless fire and glory that surrounds the children later in 3 Nephi. On a different note, there are at least three separate instances in the book of prisoners escaping captivity by getting their captors drunk, and at many points (especially in Alma), newly converted people fall to the ground as if they were dead, only to leap upon their feet a while later.

You could interpret these repetitions to mean that Joseph Smith composed the book himself and was just too lazy to come up with new stories. However, this perspective doesn't reflect the effect that these repetitions have had on me as a reader. As I read and re-read the Book of Mormon, I eventually found myself thinking less in terms of time, and more in terms of state. I choose the word "state"  for the lack of a better term, but by it I mean a perspective with an eye toward the state things are in, as opposed to the place or time in which they are located. Not only does the Book of Mormon explicitly reference past or future events within the text, but the aforementioned repetition in the text constantly calls us to see elements in the story in connection with other elements. And when the reader becomes acclimatized to the book's perspective, they find what I found: that the Book of Mormon shows you how to see things in a way independent of space and time (see this post for a deeper exploration into the relationship between place/time and state).

At least in this respect, the Book of Mormon is very much like a dream. I quote from the Neo-Jungian psychologist James Hillman in his book The Dream and the Underworld (link):

"The image [dream] approach to 'then' is quite different. This approach always puts 'then' into relation with 'when,' rather than into a series of other 'thens.' The events that occur in a dream are imagined to be taking place without concern for time, as if all at the same time, where their temporal succession doesn't matter, rather than in the straight linear connection of a story. [...] From the imagistic perspective that reads the dream as a statement of essence, neither chicken nor egg comes first. For we are not in a story-time but in an image-space, where chicken and egg mutually require each other and are simultaneous correlatives.  Notions of origin and of causality are also invalid constructs in an underworld [dream] perspective, for which time does not enter and the image presents an eternal (always going on, repetitious) state of soul."

According to Hillman, the dream's purpose is to move you away from the concrete, literalistic perspective of day-to-day life and toward the elastically imagistic perspective that he believes lies beyond death. We are not supposed to hold on to absolute nature of day-to-day truth, he says, but instead view the world in terms of autonomous images or archetypes that peek out at us from behind the curtain of daylight. And like the dream, the Book of Mormon does just this. By presenting an inwardly disjointed tale full of repetition, internal prophecy, and recollection, the reader starts loosening her grip on the apparently absolute character of time and space in the world. Just as the events of prophecy are causally ambiguous (i.e. did the prophecy ensure a future event, or did the future event "reach back" and create the prophecy?), you start seeing the world not in terms of causation, but in terms of timeless meaning. And just as various Book of Mormon characters share names with other Book of Mormon characters, you start seeing your life (at least in part) as a repetition or extension of people with whom you have a connection.

But this will only happen if you're willing to adopt such a timeless perspective. If you read the book hoping for a gripping or moving story, you'll be disappointed (except on a very small scale, perhaps). If you really want the Book of Mormon to change your perspective on life, you'll have to read it in terms of depth, and give up anything more than the most basic sense of forward momentum. Ponder how events of the Book of Mormon connect to each other (both explicitly and subtly), and reflect on how these events connect with the events of your life. So doing, you'll find that your willingness to "liken the scriptures" will bring you into a perspective above all accidents of space and time.

3. Don't speed-read: Some of you may have developed the ability to read books very quickly, and if you have, you'll know that certain books can be very exhilarating when read that way. I struggled for many years to develop my capacity for speed-reading, and when I finally achieved it, I used it on as many books as I could. I read fun books, non-fiction books, and even serious works of literature and scripture at top speeds, but I didn't realize until later that (at least with the latter two) I was missing out on a lot.

You see, I didn't realize that speed-reading is inherently opposed to a reading that understands a text's deeper meaning. In that respect, speed reading is like a motorboat skimming the surface of the water--it can go quickly, sure, but it knows nothing of what lies beneath the surface. On the contrary, the reading I have found helpful for scripture goes deep, plunging beneath the surface to find the mysteries that lie hidden in the depths of meaning.

More specifically, if you speed-read the Book of Mormon you will only discover the outward, exoteric text, while the inward, esoteric text will remain hidden (see this post for an exposition on the "internal" and "external" Books of Mormon). You'll read about wars and voyages and sermons, but if you read too quickly, those events will simply remain events, devoid of the spiritual light that shines through them when they are read thoughtfully.

Of course, you shouldn't read too slowly either--read just quickly enough that you get a sense of what's happening, but slowly enough that you let it sink in to your faculty of understanding. Doing this becomes meditative after a while (see this post for a further explanation of how reading the Book of Mormon is a form of meditation), and you'll eventually find yourself getting lost in the book--not just in the external text, but also in the internal well of emotions and connections--so that you feel at one with it.

4. Don't let anything objectionable stop you from reading it: It's unavoidable--there are parts of the Book of Mormon that will offend many people. The most obvious example of people taking offense has to do with how God cursed the Lamanites (supposedly the future Native Americans) with "a skin of blackness" for their incorrect traditions, so as to separate them from their more righteous brethren. People could also take offense at how harshly Nephi speaks of the Jews at times (though at other times, like 2 Nephi 29, he goes extra lengths to sing their praises) or at how readily God and the prophets condemn the unrighteous. These issues are a valid concern, but it's worth noting that they're only problems with certain interpretations of the text, mainly the historical one. If you interpret the text symbolically, you could interpret the curse of dark skin as an allegorical correspondence to unrighteousness itself (indeed, the parts of the text that associate white skin with purity support such a symbolic interpretation). While many people would say that one can only believe the Book of Mormon to be true historically, it's far better to read the text symbolically than to stop reading it altogether.

But as I said, one best reads the Book of Mormon by leaving interpretation out altogether. Doing this, you simply experience what the text brings before you, neither judging nor condemning it. You have faith that it has value, and even though that faith may at first appear fruitless, the time will come when it will pay off. You'll start seeing the unsavory parts of the Book of Mormon in new ways; though it may appear as something one day and as something else the next, gradually you'll find that the Book of Mormon becomes more palatable to your spiritual sensibilities. I'm not saying how this will happen--and it probably happens in a different way for each person--but the continued process of reading the book will inevitably result in your acclimatization to its unique brand of truth.

A metaphor to explain this point: God is like the sun, and all of us who orbit Him have a light side and a dark side. This is not due to any fault on our part, but simply because part of us faces Him, while part of us faces away. Now as a result of our elliptical orbits, you may see another person as any instance of a spectrum of phases--they may seem completely bright to you, meaning that you hold them as a paragon  of virtue and goodness. But on the other hand, a person may appear as nothing more than a black eclipse, meaning that they strike you as an abominable waste of humanity. In fact, this doesn't only work with people, but also with ideas, works of art, and even scripture. But what's important is this: even though something may seem like nothing but darkness, on the opposite side from the one facing you it shines with all the glory of divinity.

I believe that the process of understanding something (or someone) involves turning yourself around enough so as to see its "good side". With the objectionable parts of the Book of Mormon, that good side may very well lie hidden from your sight, but know that it is most certainly there. To see it, you have to enter into a dance with the book itself, turning your perspective around enough for you to see it for what it is: a manifestation of God's light and glory.

So essentially, keep on reading the Book of Mormon, even if it strikes you as offensive. You can take my word for it--the more you read the book, the better it gets.

5. Read it with an eye for connections: I vaguely recall someone telling me that the Book of Mormon is a keystone--the top piece of an archway that allows it to all fit together. To be honest, truer words have never been spoken. Because the Book of Mormon exists, is true, and has unique properties (which I'll discuss), reading it effectively lets you see and accept the good in all things. In that sense, the Book of Mormon's truth ensures that everything else is true, for it shows us the illuminated side of all things.

The reason this occurs has to do with the Book of Mormon's overwhelmingly inclusive nature. Not only does the book explicitly state this inclusivity (in verses like Moroni 7:12, which state that all good things come from God), but its very essence resonates with a desire to "come to terms" with everything else. While this may initially sound obscure, I will demonstrate what I mean by way of example. The Book of Mormon is intended for both the simple and the intellectual, and parts of the book exist to serve them both. And as I said before, many parts of the book lend themselves to any number of interpretations (though none completely encapsulate it). Both of these observations point to the idea that the Book of Mormon wants to be read. Whenever it was composed, the living spiritual reality that guided the pen did whatever was in its power to adapt itself to the minds of whoever would end up reading it. And this doesn't just happen in the text--the Book of Mormon will reach out to you invisibly, doing whatever it can to get you to read and understand its teachings.

In that sense, the Book of Mormon has a mission, and that mission includes reaching as many souls as possible with its saving message. However, I would hazard to say that this missionary work is only part of the book's spiritual drive. That missionary work falls under a larger umbrella, and this overarching mission is exactly what I described above: to adapt itself to, unite itself with, and come to terms with everything else. This manifests in many ways, including its desire to be heard. For in that case, it desires to shine into your mind, find what lies there, and return to itself greater than it was before. Of course I'm using metaphor (as I have been doing this entire time), and as such the Book never really travels anywhere. What I mean is that, through you and your reading of it, the Book of Mormon becomes something greater than it was before.

But it doesn't only do this with people. The Book of Mormon wants you to approach it with any number of foreign ideas, and by prayerfully reading it, the book adapts itself to those ideas and enriches your reading. So doing, the Book of Mormon gets what it wants (i.e. ever-increasing inclusivity) and you get a more intellectually and emotionally potent reading of its text. Though other books do this to an extent, nothing else I have read has rewarded me with quite as many and quite as deep of connections as has the Book of Mormon (this is generally true, although to a lesser extent, with works that come from an inspired or archetypal place--I'm thinking of other scripture, the Red Book, the Divine Comedy, and even the Little Prince. I've heard that Goethe's Faust is that way as well).

So, give the Book of Mormon what it wants! When you read it, always do it with an eye for connections, whether those connections concern other places within the text, other scripture, non-Mormon or non-Christian religious texts, philosophical texts, novels, or what have you.  By doing this you'll find that the Book of Mormon really grows into its fullness, for the Book of Mormon becomes more completely itself the more you feed it with foreign good and  truth.

6. Read as many other books as you can, both scripture and non-scripture, fiction and  non-fiction: On that note, you should be reading everything that is in your power to read. Read popular fiction, literary fiction, surreal fiction, works of philosophy, postmodernism, other religions, or even atheism. Read far and wide, from as many different authors and genres as you can, and the Book of Mormon will only become richer and dearer to you.

With the exception of pornography, you should never be afraid to read anything. It's true that many books will disagree with the Book of Mormon's tenets, but  if you reject the work on those grounds, you betray the Book of Mormon's ultimate purpose and reason to be. If you encounter books like The God Delusion or something as equally critical of your faith, your duty is just what it was for the Book of Mormon's objectionable parts--turn it around enough for you to see the part of it illuminated by divine light. With books this often involves seeing where the author is coming from; more often than not, what they write is an expression of genuine human emotions and desires, ones that you have often shared. As an example, I feel this way about Nietzsche. Nietzsche's writings express a deep respect for humanity and the things of the human world, and though he and I may differ in the way we express that respect, the fact remains that it shines through his works, ready to be discerned by the thoughtful reader.

For me, one of most unfortunate faults of modern society is its tendency to reject things based on their appearance. Many people will readily dismiss a person, a text,  or a work of art as worthless, but they should know better. For if you look hard enough, you can use anything at all as a lens through which you see divinity. What's more, reading the Book of Mormon will help you look for this good. It will instill a desire in you to seek out truth wherever it lies, and as mentioned above, it will actively compel you to bring it new ideas and stories with which to become grander. So, read as much as you can, and look for the good in everything that you read. So doing, perhaps "the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the the foundation of the world" will be revealed to you, as they have been to many (each in their own way).

7. Never stop reading it: All the blessings I have listed in this blog post are conditioned upon one thing above all else: that you regularly read it. Without this condition, the spiritual sense in the Book of Mormon will pack up and leave, hoping that the absence of blessings will jar you into paying attention to the book again. But unfortunately, many people do not make this connection, and as such they grow to forget the sweet taste of the Spirit lying within. Do not do this, I implore you. As you read the book again and again, it won't ever get boring. More so than any other book I have read, the Book of Mormon will stay alive and renew itself for each separate reading. Why is this? Simply because of its mystery, the ambiguity that acts as living space and protection for the spiritual life lying within its pages.

So in summary, do whatever you can to preserve that mystery. Don't kill it with interpretation, but let it present itself in all its obscure fullness to you. Don't read it like a page-turner, but read it with an eye both to depth and to the meaning that transcends context. If you're offended by anything, keep reading, and you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the text. Moreover, let the book act as a garden from which you harvest insights and connections with other things--so doing, you'll grow to understand more of the hidden meaning underlying the text with each reading. And finally, don't let anything persuade you to stop reading it. As you do all this, you'll begin to suspect something remarkable: that what you encounter within the text of the Book of Mormon is God Himself, showing Himself to you in a way that brings you, and everything else, together in its fullness.

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