“An experiment in reading scripturally”—Jared Hickman on the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar
10.28.2018 | The Maxwell Institute
In many ways, the story of my intellectual and spiritual life (and my refusal to distinguish between the two) is a story of my learning to read with the Book of Mormon. For that reason, the unique opportunity afforded by the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar to spend two weeks in intensive, collaborative study of Mosiah 4 (in Assisi, Italy, which didn’t hurt) felt like something of a personal culmination.
I learned to read with the Book of Mormon quite literally, as I am sure many Mormons of my generation did. My parents took seriously President Ezra Taft Benson’s mandate regarding Mormonism’s eponymous sacred text. They wrangled us every morning to read as a family and enjoined us to personal study as well. Consequently, the first truly challenging book I ever read—not least, phonetically—was the Book of Mormon. That standing challenge was my first inducement to intellection of a strenuous sort. I began by reading for doctrinal content during my required two hours of gospel study every Sunday afternoon in hopes of contributing to the sorts of conversations I constantly overheard around the dinner table and in the cultural hall (and impressing the grown-ups, of course). Fortuitous co-membership in Jack Welch’s ward as a teenager introduced me to a practice of reading the Book of Mormon for evidence of an ancient context. A survey course of nineteenth-century American literature in a summer school program after my junior year in high school tuned my ear to the Book of Mormon’s resonances with the time and place in which it “came forth.”
Thus I found myself in early adulthood learning to read with the Book of Mormon in a more profound sense. Because of its remarkable reception history, the Book of Mormon forces you to ask yourself methodological questions about reading. It makes you self-conscious about your reading practices: Am I reading this as an ancient or modern text? Am I reading in a “religious” or “secularist” fashion? What are the different premises of each of those reading practices? What, empirically speaking, am I doing when I read? What, normatively speaking, should I be doing when I read? What am I reading for? What am I doing when I’m reading?
I consider my pursuit of a career as a literary critic—in other words, a professional reader—to be, in many ways, the logical outcome of my lifelong engagement with the Book of Mormon. I didn’t just literally learn to read with the Book of Mormon—I learned, with the Book of Mormon, to read reflexively, to take stock of reading practices in particular ways that often mark the distinction between professional and nonprofessional readers.
Hence, the Mormon Theology Seminar felt for me like coming full circle (again, admittedly enhanced by its location in Assisi, Italy). Adam Miller, Joe Spencer, and Rosalynde Welch have brilliantly created a venue in which talented scholars of various disciplines, disposed to regard the Book of Mormon as a readily generative text, can read it every which way in eager expectation it will yield good fruit. That expectation was fulfilled every day of my sojourn among such keen fellow travelers in Assisi. Speaking as a professional reader who has notched quite a few conferences, symposia, and workshops and read oodles of literary criticism and theory, the interpretative sophistication on display in the seminar was highly impressive. And motivating! The English professor had to bring his A game to try to keep pace with the logically rigorous and boldly creative readings of everything from grammatical minutiae to overarching narrative structures—and always under the imperative to cash out that reading in a philosophically or theologically consequential way.
In sum, I learned to read with the Book of Mormon in new ways with my fellow seminarians.
My sharpest non-Mormon colleagues in literary studies would have marveled at the level of conversation cultivated by the seminar’s smartly conceived discipline (e.g., daily writing, in-depth treatment of just a few verses at a time). They would be envious of the rare intellectual opportunity the seminar provides to systematically “close read” toward revelatory insights. The quality of the experience in Assisi this summer makes me hopeful that someday soon those colleagues will cease to be unknowing bearers of an envy I have projected onto them, because they will be similarly fulfilled participants in the compelling enterprise of communally considering a text on the wager it might produce something like the value ascribed it by its most devoted readers.
More than a course in reading scripture, the Mormon Theology Seminar, it seems to me, is an experiment in reading scripturally. It is an exercise not in devotional reading (although it by no means necessarily precludes that) but in readerly devotion—the faith that collectively developing conscientious practices of attention to a text constitutes something like a sacramental act.
Hear Jared Hickman’s presentation here.
In this guest post, Jared Hickman talks about his experience at the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar at the Cittadella Ospitalità in Assisi, Italy. Hickman is associate professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery (Oxford, 2016) and co-editor of Abolitionist Places (Routledge, 2013) and the ever forthcoming Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon. See more Seminar reflections here.