Maxwell Institute Podcast #151: The Book of Mormon and Literature Studies, with Rosalynde Frandsen Welch
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Latter-day Saints recognize the Book of Mormon as the “keystone of our religion,” a book that will bring a person closer to Christ than by any other book. How do non-Latter-day Saints read the Book of Mormon, though, especially in their academic work? To answer that question, we’ll speak to Dr. Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, about an article she wrote called “The Secular Syllabus and the Sacred Book: Literary Scholars Approach the Book of Mormon.” As always, we ask you to share the podcast with a friend by word of mouth, sending a link to our YouTube page, or to one of our social media handles @byumaxwell. Without any further ado, let’s speak to Dr. Rosalynde Frandsen Welch.
Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Joseph Stuart. Latter-day Saints recognize the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, a book that will bring a person closer to Jesus Christ than any other. How do non Latter-day Saints read the Book of Mormon though, especially in their academic research? To answer that question, we’ll speak to Dr. Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU about an article she wrote entitled “The Secular Syllabus and The Sacred Book: Literary Scholars Approach the Book of Mormon”. As always, we asked you to share the podcast with a friend by word of mouth sending a link to our YouTube page or to one of our social media handles @byumaxwell. Thank you for considering doing that. And without any further ado, let’s speak to Dr. Rosalynde Frandsen Welch.
Joseph Stuart: Rosalynde Welch, welcome to the Maxwell Institute podcast.
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Thanks, Joey. I’m so excited to be here in the hot seat.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, we are thrilled to have you here. We are going to be discussing your article and the most recent issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, “The Secular Syllabus and The Sacred Book: Literary Scholars Approach the Book of Mormon”. And your article looks at how scholars have studied the Book of Mormon as literature, but think that we should probably start with the basics here. Why call the Book of Mormon literature? Doesn’t its status as scripture make it different from something like reading Their Eyes Were Watching God or The Great Gatsby or something like that?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Yeah, that’s a great question. And as a former English major, who read both of those and loves them, it’s important to me. I love literature, and certain books can kind of achieve something like a personal elevated status in my own soul, right? Where I will return to them again and again. But yes, literature and scripture are different in important ways. So scripture is a sacred text that has been canonized. And by that we just mean it’s been accepted by the body of Christ, received by the body of Christ as holding a kind of spiritual power over the believer. So now that underlying text that’s been canonized or accepted, it can take lots of different forms, right? It can be history, it can be personal history like we see in First Nephi, right? “I, Nephi.” It can be poetry, it can be parable. It can be aphorisms, like we see in something like Proverbs. It can be epistles, letters that we see in the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament, of course. It can be visions. So scripture is a kind of umbrella term that indicates the sacred and authoritative status of the text. Whereas literature is a descriptive term that indicates what kind of writing the text is. So the Book of Mormon is scripture for Latter-day Saints because it has been canonized and it defines the boundaries of our faith tradition. And, it’s also literature because the text itself takes these literary forms at times like poetry, parable, right? Alma’s parable of the seed in Alma 32, epistles, we see these literary forms at work in the underlying text.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s so helpful to think about literature as different forms of genre rather than something that’s authoritative or binding on a group. And I think along those lines, the Bible has also been examined as literature. What does that look like in practice, in a class or in a scholarly article or book?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Yeah, so this idea of the Bible as literature has a really long academic history. In fact, it’s a whole discipline in and of itself, Bible as literature. I took a Bible as literature class in the English department from Steve Walker many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate here at BYU. So in practice, when we read the Bible as literature, what we’re doing is we’re shifting our focus away from two other very common ways of reading the Bible. One common way of reading the Bible, or any kind of Scripture, is to search for what we might call proof texts of doctrines. So we have a doctrinal idea in our mind, for example, that Jesus is the Christ, right? The central and most important and beautiful doctrinal idea, then we would go to the scripture and we would say, okay, well, what are the verses that we can find that support this doctrine? We call that proof texting. There’s another way to read the Bible and that might be reading for historical context. We might say, well, what time period was this part of the Bible written? What can we learn from reconstructing its cultural time and place? And how can that help us to better understand what the Bible is saying? Both of these ways of reading the Bible are important, they’re legitimate. And actually both of them can play a role in a literary view of the Bible as well. But, when we read the Bible as literature, we’re really kind of plunging our hands in, up to the elbows, in the words, the images, the themes, the illusions, the connotations that kind of make up the fabric of scripture itself. We’re getting right down looking under a microscope at the actual fabric and texture of scripture. We tend to read very slowly. We’re tracking, we’re tracing, images, themes. So for a believing reader, reading the Bible as literature changes our questions a little bit, just as you indicated. Instead of asking how does scripture kind of correlate with sacred history? Instead we might ask, how is the image of Christ revealed in the language and the patterns and the forms of the Bible?
Joseph Stuart: I really like that. So speaking as a historian I think, well maybe I shouldn’t say this as a historian, but I’m not sure that understanding the Old Testament context for the book of Jeremiah has actually had a difference in my life, or how I approach the text. But in reading the texts that Kristian and the students are reading on Abide, it’s important to see how it’s fitting into form and genre and really is revealing in many ways that human beings are constantly in trouble and God is constantly delivering us from that trouble. How might studying sacred texts as literature help us to understand them better? So as you said, it’s not just necessarily memorizing the words, it’s thinking about maybe a bigger picture or in scholarly terms, thinking about the arguments that you can create from the words that are on the page? How can that help us to understand them better? Or perhaps even going beyond understanding them better, help them to implement them better in our lives?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Yeah, what a good question. Because ultimately, that’s what we’re after. Right? What we’re after is bringing scripture alive, making it live within ourselves. And any set of reading tools that we can bring to it, that does that, that wakes us up to scripture is worth our time. For me, approaching sacred texts as literature adds one crucial ingredient, and that is pleasure. Anything that tastes good, we’re going to want to eat more of it. And things that feel good, we want to engage in. So when you read scripture as literature, you’re reading for pleasure. You’re reading to enjoy the art of it, and the technique of it, and to appreciate the literary skill, be able to really savor those textures and images that are there in front of us. So we tend to read very slowly, we’re not trying to check a box, and we’re not trying to digest huge amounts of information. On the contrary, we’re reading slowly, the way that you would kind of hold a piece of dark chocolate in your mouth to let it slowly melt. We try to be guided by the text itself. And for a moment, we try to hold off on imposing some outside frameworks. For example, historical chronology. As important as that is, as incredibly useful as it can be to understand the historical context of Jeremiah, or doctrinal frameworks. As centrally important as our doctrines are, for a moment we’ll say, okay, let’s set those aside and let’s just dive into what the text itself says. Let’s see if we can get inside that perspective. Let’s see if we can get it inside of us and see it from the inside out. Then we come to feel the pleasure of reading scripture. And then those other frameworks can be really useful in adding additional lenses. But because we’re guided by the text itself first, I think that can help us see the text from the inside out.
Joseph Stuart: So when you say from the inside out, might we think about that as trying to gain the perspective of the writer? Or are there other things that play there?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: I do think that the perspective of the writer is relevant. There’s a wonderful book that we’ll talk about a little bit later. It’s called Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy. And he takes what we call in literary studies a narratological approach, a big word that just means let’s see this from the point of view of the narrator. Let’s do our best to reconstruct the narrator’s perspective and try to understand their intent and their meaning. Understanding the Book of Mormon as a landmark book is incredibly important, but it doesn’t exhaust the ways of trying to understand literary meanings of the Book of Mormon. So the fact is that when something is written down, that writing leaves my presence. That’s the whole reason I would want to write it down, right? So that it can depart from me and it can circulate out in the world, apart from my intentions. And I won’t be there all the time as somebody’s reading what I’ve written to say, well, what I really meant was this and no, you’re not quite getting it, it’s that. You might see it as a drawback, but I see it as a huge potential mine of richness in written text like scripture, is that it does exist independently of the author’s intention. And so we can read it also, apart from the author’s intention. And we might say, you know, Nephi probably wasn’t even aware that this was happening in his vision. But as a reader now in a different context, I’m able to see even more richness that emerges independently from Nephi’s intentions.
Joseph Staurt: Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s so crucial to remember that once something is created, it’s not only the creator’s anymore. In your article which is entitled, “The Secular Syllabus and The Sacred Book: Literary Scholars Approach the Book of Mormon”, you mark a turn in the study of the Book of Mormon as literature by the publication of Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman co-edited collection: Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon. So what’s so significant about its publication?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: This is such a fun and exciting book. And it was really fun to dive into it and write about it in this article. So I just mentioned Grant Hardy’s book, Understanding the Book of Mormon and that’s a really important precursor. That was published in 2010 by Oxford University Press, and Hardy is a Latter-day Saint. But he was writing in that volume for an audience of both Latter-day Saints and non Latter-day Saints. So that was a really important first step, that book was a success. It sold. It was well received, and became a really important foundation for what would come next. So then in 2019, that same press, OUP, published this volume that we’re talking about now, Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon. And this volume kind of marks another step in the Book of Mormon’s acceptance as a legitimate object of study by a wide range of literary scholars. So it’s a collection of essays by different authors. There are 17 essays in total. Authors are both Latter-day Saints, but most of them are non Latter-day Saints. Most of them have their home base in literature departments or in literary studies in some way. So the fact that it was published by a high profile press, that the authors themselves are well respected and central scholars in their discipline, and that the breadth of the approach is represented within the covers of this volume. They all signal to other members of the field that the Book of Mormon is a significant text, and that it can support sophisticated, cutting-edge, state of the art literary examination.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, just for an example, I have a friend who teaches English on the East Coast. And when she told us about this volume she said, “Now I have something to give my colleagues when they come to me with Mark Twain’s quote that the Book of Mormon is chloroform and print.” There are now more literary sources and also models of literary engagement with the Book of Mormon, that others can study. And I think that that points to Book of Mormon studies becoming more accepted or viable as a field of academic study. Why is it important? Or why is it at least interesting for Latter-day Saints to know that the Book of Mormon is being accepted as something worthy of study in the secular academy?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Well, it feels good, right? It feels good to know that this book that we love, that we know has testified to us with the voice of God, and that to our eyes is full of rich treasures. It just feels good to know that other readers are able to come to it and to sample some of its riches as well. For so long, there have been kind of blinders, or there have been dividing lines between readers that have prevented some readers from approaching it simply as a book and being open to what it can do. So it’s exciting to see that happen. And it’s been kind of a fascinating journey to get to this point. About 20 years ago, right around the turn of the century, Terryl Givens, our colleague here at the Maxwell Institute, published a very important book called By the Hand of Mormon, which kind of synthesized and built on the crucially important literary and exegetical work done by the Farms Project in the 80s and 90s. So that was a very important first step. Then came Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. About the same time, we saw a huge and exciting rise of what’s called Mormon Studies in the secular academy. With these three developments, we’re able to now lift the Book of Mormon out of the religious wars between evangelical anti-Mormons and debunkers of the Book of Mormon, and its Latter-day Saint defenders. Now we’re able to set the Book of Mormon down in a kind of demilitarized space where readers of any background would be willing to come to the Book of Mormon, and simply read it, open it, read its pages without a lot of baggage of religious conflict. So that’s one important development that got us to where we are. And there’s another really interesting one that happened more within the discipline of literary studies itself. And that is through the 80s and 90s, there was a kind of growing openness to what we might call outsider texts. These are books that are outside the familiar literary canon of the classics. There was this growing interest in books that don’t fit conventional modes of artistic literary achievement. That maybe don’t have flowery language and don’t make all sorts of classical allusions and aren’t based in that tradition of high literature. And especially, there was an interest in books that fall outside that kind of charmed circle of political, cultural, academic, or cultural power. We might call them underdog texts.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I think it’s also an important way of seeing the way that the field of literary studies was reckoning with differences and different advantages that people have in terms of race, class, and gender. Is that accurate?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Absolutely, absolutely. So in opening our mind to works that fall out of the conventional literary canon, we’re going to be considering works by women, works by people of color, works by sort of renegade religious traditions of which of course our own for many years was considered. So that’s exactly what this opening of the literary canon accomplished. And that was a really important precursor to literary scholars being open to the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Stuart: One of the other turns that you mark as well is the development of post secular critique. Which I understand the words post and secular and critique, but how do those three work together when a scholar is engaging the Book of Mormon?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Okay, what a good question. And what a fun, fun topic here. I’ll try and break it down for you. So post secular critique is a project that criticizes secularism. So it comes after secularism, it’s post secular in that sense, but it reflects back on the project of secularism and kind of questions it, turns it inside out and says, what is it really doing? So what is secularism? Well, we might sort of feel like we have a vague sense of what secularism is, but what is it really? And it’s been defined in 100 different ways. Maybe the most common is the sense that secularism is the rise of science that kind of forces this retreat of religion. So secularism puts religion on the run. We might understand secularism as a kind of transformational process of Christianity itself that kind of results in this profound change in the way that humans understand themselves as human beings. It changes the human condition. This is based on the work of a scholar named Charles Taylor, who’s been very, very important in understanding secularism. Some other scholars approach secularism as a kind of epistemological earthquake. So epistemology is knowledge. What counts as knowledge? So an epistemological earthquake that happened when Europeans encountered native peoples in the 15th century. And that encounter, it’s argued, kind of profoundly disrupted and relativized, the very concept of knowledge. So these are all different ways of understanding what secularism is, and they all play a role. Another definition, and the one that these literary scholars build on most, is the idea that secularism at root is a vehicle for state economic and cultural power to decide what is legitimate in the modern world, and what has to be thrown out as primitive. So it’s a kind of sorting process for deciding what gets to be modern, what doesn’t. In some senses, then certain kinds of religion can be very acceptable to secularisms, right? There are certain kinds of “good religion” in quotation marks there that don’t necessarily challenge or disrupt the secular regime. And so it’s allowed, it’s allowed to coexist with secularism. Whereas there are other kinds of “bad religion” that do challenge modern economies, modern politics, modern cultures, and so they’re expelled. So the same kind of sorting process is turned and trained not only on different religions, but on different things like family and kinship forms. What kinds of families are allowed in the modern world? What kinds of art are allowed in the modern world? What kinds of racialized bodies are allowed to be modern? And what are primitive and old fashioned? So if that’s what secularism is, then post secular critique says hang on a second, is that really fair? Secularism sees itself as enlightened, as liberating, as throwing off the chains of superstition and primitivism. But hang on, in practice, we see that it can be just as exclusionary, just as parochial in certain ways, and just as interest bound as other kinds of power structures. So post secular critique then tries to see things from the point of view of those religions, families, cultures, racialized bodies, that the secular regime has expelled from the modern world. So a scholar working on a project of post secular critique would be disposed to view the Book of Mormon very sympathetically. Because the Book of Mormon in a lot of ways is the example par excellence of the kind of thing that enlightened secular regimes see as ridiculous, as unacceptable, as not fit for polite society. In our own history, we can see exactly how that process played out as our people were, indeed expelled from the United States, from this kind of incipiently secularizing regime in the United States. So post secular critique is interested in taking the Book of Mormon on its own terms and exploring how the Book of Mormon in fact, challenges and resists the secular exercise of power, and how it kind of works in modernity to subvert and transform the paradigms that underlie so much of our modern life.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, so two things with that. First is, if you’re interested in learning more about secularism and the post secular critique, you can look at Maxwell Institute podcast #45 called “How Not to be Secular” with James K. A. Smith that was released several years ago, but is a very helpful interview, and Jamie is a friend to many Latter-day Saints. But I’m also thinking about a famous article that was written by Jared Hickman, one of the editors of Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon, where he is taking this post secular critique to say, what if we looked at the Book of Mormon as a way of resisting colonial regimes, or resisting powers that are oppressing other people. So seeing both Nephites and Lamanites as people who are pressed down by other empires, or other concerns. And I remember teaching in 2018, having a student tell me that their family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nicaragua because they were Sandinistas who encountered the Book of Mormon and said, this is the story of a people finding God coming together as one and that’s a part of a project that we want to be a part of. And so just as soon as you said, taking seriously the idea, this is something that isn’t just happening in the ivory tower, this is something that is reaching those across the world. And while that may not be representative, it surely represents a way that Latter-day Saints can appreciate we just want people reading the Book of Mormon.
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And in so many ways, what you say is inspiring. I think that is the spirit of Jared’s article. I think even more important than that, that is such an important theme. And more than a theme, it’s an action of the Book of Mormon itself, is to give agency to the readers, give agency to the remnant, to say the world is yours to build the New Jerusalem. And that is an important kind of ethos, or let’s say value, of these scholars who write from a project of post secular critique is to say, actually, let’s give the agency to the people who have been excluded. Scholars for the most part, tend to have a certain amount of privilege. So there’s a kind of important theme in this writing that says, okay, maybe we’re able to identify some things by virtue of our position and our skills. But really, let’s give the agency to the readers and to the users of the book itself.
Joseph Stuart: Well, thank you so much for sharing that. But in studying the Book of Mormon, I can hear some of my former students or board members saying in this sort of post secular critique or reading the Book of Mormon as literature, it’s taking away important questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. So for those who may not be familiar, what does it mean to think about the historicity of the Book of Mormon? And how does that fit into current scholarship on the Book of Mormon?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: Yeah, this is a really good question. It’s an important one. And my answer is going to be a little bit long, but I want to do justice to it. Historicity is just the idea that something has a historical origin, and that it developed over time. So it’s really a very simple idea. A historicist reading of scripture then would attempt to identify the historical origin of a book of scripture. Sometimes a book of scripture will give us, will tell us outright what its historical origin is. And sometimes we have to do a little bit of investigative sleuthing work to determine when it originated, and then to track its development over time. So in theory, the literary study of scripture is compatible with any view on its historicity. So our listeners are probably aware with one of the most important literary readings of the Book of Mormon, and that is the identification of patterns of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Chiasmus is a literary pattern. It’s a kind of repetition and reversal that are put together, and we can find these patterns expressed throughout the Book of Mormon and we can marshal that literary evidence to support the ancient historical origin of the Book of Mormon. And that is the view that I hold. Other literary readings could be used in theory to claim another historical origin. So literary tools are simply a kind of interpretive toolbox that can be put to work for any number of different historical projects. So for a long time, these historicist debates about whether the Book of Mormon originated in the ancient world or the modern world completely dominated all Book of Mormon scholarship. And ultimately, that work was important. But what we found is that for as productive as the question was, it couldn’t bring scholars together across the confessional divide, across the religious divide. Ultimately, it wasn’t able to unite scholars of different perspectives. Let me say it once again, it was important and an energizing question for the Farms Project which accomplished such an important foundational work for the work that I do and other scholars as well. But what we’re finding is that a literary approach, as evidenced in Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon, this volume we’re talking about, is able to bring scholars of all stripes to the table together to dive in and try to plumb the riches of this book in front of us. Now, sometimes this kind of unifying project can happen by what we call bracketing the question of historicity. Saying, okay, at the end of the day, we’re going to have different opinions about the historical origin of the Book of Mormon, but we’re going to temporarily set aside those differences. We’re just going to focus on the text itself. So that is one way to solve the problem. And it can be a productive way. It’s typically the approach that’s used in history and “Mormon studies”. Again, in quotation marks there. But the problem with bracketing is that it’s deeply against the spirit of the Book of Mormon itself. Because the Book of Mormon insists that it is woven into history in these super complex and beautiful ways. So you can’t really just say, well, we’re gonna set aside the question of historicity because it runs through everything in the Book of Mormon. So what’s exciting to me about this new literary project is that it doesn’t require us to bracket Book of Mormon historicity. And that’s, you know, to close our eyes to a big part of the books on work. Instead, it says, okay, let’s double down on the Book of Mormon’s own account of its historicity. This debate between is it modern or is it ancient, it’s actually a very modern debate in and of itself. It’s something that we’ve imposed on the text for good reasons, often, but when we’re willing to temporarily set those aside and actually look at what the Book of Mormon says about its own historicity, we find that it’s much more exciting than a question of just ancient or modern. The Book of Mormon says that it itself is something like a prism. P, R, I, S, M, a prism for time. And this is a beautiful image that Jared Hickman, one of the editors of the volume, invented. It, as a prism, recovers the voices of the past and it brings them into the present. And it does that in order to bring to pass the future, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. So it weaves together past, present, and future in this kind of beautiful dance. Now, that is something that is fascinating for literary scholars and it is moving and compelling for believers. And so it can bring us together as scholars of different perspectives, we can come together, and we can work together on the same interpretive project. I think that’s the most important new development, new step forward, that’s represented in this volume.
Joseph Stuart: So I really love what you’re saying here. And in reading your article, I can definitely see how productive it is to approach the Book of Mormon in new ways. But is this something that the average Latter-day Saint needs to do to appreciate the Book of Mormon? And I don’t mean this as, as a straw person argument, I mean this as is this a really productive way for someone to get more out of the Book of Mormon, potentially?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: So for sure, you don’t need to have a sophisticated understanding of post secular critique. You don’t need to have a sophisticated understanding of how modernity has manipulated our understanding of time. None of those things are necessary background to come to the Book of Mormon and have read it and appreciate it. And that’s because the Book of Mormon itself teaches us how to do it, organically in the process of reading it. So as I said before, you know, one important ethos of post secular critique is saying let’s give the agency back to the people who really stand to benefit and gain from reading the text. So in that way, I would want to say that a person who comes to the Book of Mormon sort of, quote-on-quote, “innocent” of any academic paradigms, is maybe actually the book’s best reader. For those of us on the contrary, who have read the Book of Mormon our whole lives, and maybe we’re ready for something new. We’re ready for a new lens. We want a new set of ideas for interpreting it. Yes, I think this can be exciting. You can follow this research, you can dive into the book. And you can bring that lens in a more self conscious way to the Book of Mormon and find it to be deeply rewarding. Is it absolutely necessary? No.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you so much for making that clear for us. You also note in your article that it’s not just scholars and publications that make a field, but institutions. What do you mean by that?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: So we might have this image of a scholar as like an individual person who’s like squirreled away doing their work, you know, they’re doing their special, amazing scholarship. Maybe that’s an image that scholars themselves sometimes like to perpetuate. The reality is that scholars never work in a vacuum. And even if we’re not deliberately co-authoring or co-publishing, we’re still working in a social environment. And our ideas and our minds and our intellectual passions are fueled by other people that we encounter. So institutions are important to bring scholars together. That’s what the Maxwell Institute does, we’re interdisciplinary. So we bring scholars of different backgrounds together so that our backgrounds can inform each other’s thinking. This is how new ideas come into the world. It’s just sort of new combinations of existing ideas. So institutions bring scholars together. Importantly, they provide resources for scholars to do their work. And then the mission statement or the mission or purpose of institutions can shape the work that scholars do. So we have a wonderful mission statement here at the Maxwell Institute, where what we’re interested in doing is providing resources for disciple scholars to understand and explore religion from the inside out, from the point of view of the believer. So that mission statement then is going to inform and inflect the work that we do as scholars here and the work that we support outside of the Institute as well.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that. How does the Maxwell Institute in particular contribute to the field of Book Mormon studies?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: So here at the Maxwell Institute, we are the stewards for the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon studies. I don’t know how well known that name is to our listeners. It may not be very well known at all. And that’s a shame because it’s really central to what we do here at the Institute. The Willes Center was established in 2007 and its purpose is to sponsor, just as I said, interdisciplinary research and publications specifically focused on the Book of Mormon. Everything from historical, religious, political, social, economic, theological, and just basic textual concerns of the Book of Mormon. All of that falls within the purview of Willes Center Research. The Willes Center sponsors and publishes the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, which is one of the institute’s flagship publications. The most recent issue of the journal contains the article that I wrote that we’re discussing today. It’s part of a three part series in the Journal Book of Mormon Studies, one exploring the past of Book of Mormon studies, this current issue exploring the present, what’s happening presently in Book of Mormon studies, and then the next one most exciting of all, is what the future might look like for Book of Mormon Studies. So the Willes Center aside from what we call JBMS, also sponsors conferences, workshops, lectures, symposia with other major universities. Another project of the Willes Center that’s especially close to my heart was our 2020 series of Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon. I authored one of those volumes, the volume on Ether, but there are 12 volumes in the series. I hope our readers are familiar with it by now. They’re short, accessible introductions to the Book of Mormon as theology. And it’s a wonderful fruit of the Willes Center’s resources.
Joseph Stuart: One final question. In following with the revelation given to Joseph Smith, in Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants, “to learn out of the best books,” what three pieces of scholarship that might you recommend to non scholars, if they’re interested in learning more about approaching sacred texts as literature?
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: I love this question. Actually, I like it because I had to really give it some thought and dive in a little bit. So one that I would recommend is a book called How to Read the Bible. It’s by a scholar, James L. Kugel, K, U, G, E, L. This volume isn’t necessarily a literary approach to the Bible, but it’s a really important first step because it helps us to disentangle the kind of historicist mindset. If you come to the Bible, with your perspective fully informed by historical questions, you’re going to miss what’s happening at the literary level. Ironically, the historicist mindset is a product of secularism. So How to Read the Bible will kind of help to set the stage and allow you to approach the Bible and all scripture from other ways. The next one I would recommend is called Feasting On The Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon by a Latter-day Saint scholar Richard Dilworth Rust. I love this book. It’s older, I think it was published in the early 90s. And it is just a lovely introduction to the Book of Mormon in literary categories. And I think it really— I was talking earlier about when you read scripture as literature, you read it for pleasure, right? And it really kind of savers the pleasures, the literary pleasures of the Book of Mormon. And finally, the last one I would recommend is one of the volumes in that brief theological Introduction series. It’s the volume on Enos, Jarom, and Omni written by Sharon Harris. Now, Sharon is a member of the English department here at BYU. And I think her book is a wonderful example of the interpretive skills of a literary reader at work on a scriptural text. Now, Sharon isn’t, you know, working with conventional literary categories, but she’s looking for patterns. She’s spinning meaning out of what seems like maybe the banal and kind of ordinary nature of these extra short books in the Book of Mormon. I think it’s a wonderful example of the way that a literary lens can kind of spin gold out of the draw of a text.
Joseph Stuart: Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, thanks for stopping by the Maxwell Institute podcast.
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch: It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Joey.
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“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)