MIPodcast #118—Briefly 3rd and 4th Nephi, with Daniel Becerra
Daniel Becerra joins us to talk about his book 3rd, 4th Nephi: a brief theological introduction. Becerra says these pivotal books, depicting Christ’s visit to ancient peoples on the American continent, serve as a guidebook in the disciple’s pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness. What do they reveal about the nature of God, about human nature, and how the gap between the two might be bridged?
For more about the brief theological introductions series, see mi.byu.edu/brief.
Daniel Becerra is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and a scholar of early Christianity.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Daniel Becerra joins us in this episode to talk about his book, 3rd, 4th Nephi: a brief theological introduction. These two books are the linchpin of the Book of Mormon, depicting Christ’s visit to ancient peoples on the American continent. Becerra’s brief theological introduction treats them as guidebooks in the disciple’s pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness. He asks, what do these books reveal about the nature of God, about human nature, and how the gap between the two might be bridged?
Becerra is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and a scholar of early Christianity. You can learn more about the brief theological introduction book series at mi.byu.edu/brief. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com. Today we’re briefly looking at scripture that offers a lifetime worth of truth—Third and Fourth Nephi.
HODGES: Daniel Becerra joins us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Daniel, welcome.
BECERRA: Thanks, it’s good to be here.
HODGES: It’s good to be here, too! I’m actually on campus today with you here at Brigham Young University. And it’s nice to be doing this in person at a distance across the table here rather than at a distance through Zoom. So thanks for meeting me here. How’s your summer been?
BECERRA: Good, productive. I haven’t had to teach this summer because I’m a new faculty member here and they typically give us the first Spring and Summer off, so I’ve been doing a lot of writing and spending time with the family and yeah, it’s been good.
HODGES: Good. Well, by the time this comes out, you’ll be knee deep in the Book of Mormon with students here at BYU so—
HODGES: Alright. Well, let’s start off here. You’re the author of one of the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. You were chosen to do 3 and 4 Nephi. They decided to put those together because 4 Nephi’s really short. What did you think about that?
BECERRA: At first I was a little hesitant, because I know 3 Nephi specifically is probably one of the most well-known chapters in the Book of Mormon—in addition to 1 Nephi. So I felt like whatever I wrote, there would be some people that might be disappointed [laughs] or some people that might want more.
I was a little hesitant as well because my training is in early Christianity. I consider myself to an aspiring, as opposed to an accomplished, Book of Mormon scholar. But I did my best and it was a really uplifting experience. Hopefully some of that can translate into the lives of the readers.
HODGES: I think your background pays off where you’re able to bring some of your understanding of early Christianity and early Christian writers into dialogue with Book of Mormon authors.
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely.
HODGES: So, let’s start off by looking at something surprising that Mormon, the record keeper of the Book of Mormon, writes in the book of 3 Nephi. It’s a statement that comes quickly, it’s easy to gloss over it I think, but the implications could be huge.
He says, “There cannot be written even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach to the Nephites.”
So we’re getting a condensed record here. Did that affect how you approached this?
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. I think we typically tend to look at the Book of Mormon as the full picture. It’s something that makes up for what the Bible lacks for example, we get that in the introduction. But I think the statement suggests that 3 and 4 Nephi specifically, and the Book of Mormon generally, they gesture beyond themselves.
Which is to say, we have to approach these texts with the understanding that they never claim to be the full picture or final word on Jesus Christ. Oftentimes they serve as tools whereby we can learn greater things than are contained in the text themselves. So, when I approach this book, I ask the question, essentially, “Where does this lead me?” Not just, “What does it say?” but, “How can I think with it in a way to reach out to Christ and to cultivate Christ’s likeness?”
HODGES: Has that changed for you over time? You’ve been a reader of the Book of Mormon before you became a scholar, before you were interested in doing scholarship and teaching for a living. Has your method of reading been changed in looking at the Book of Mormon as something that doesn’t contain everything we need to know?
BECERRA: Absolutely. I think before in my younger years when I approached the Book of Mormon I would do it with the intent to get some kind of feeling out of it. I read it because I wanted to feel the spirit or wanted to have strength to resist temptation or because I wanted to know a body of knowledge—you know, what does Jesus say about that? What does Nephi say about this?
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more interested in what precisely it looks like to be a disciple of Christ and how I can cultivate those attributes. And the reason for this is—and this is all over the Book of Mormon and it’s in other standard works and the teachings of modern-day prophets and apostles as well—this idea that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just a system of belief or a code of conduct; it’s really a system of becoming. It’s intended to pattern our thoughts and behaviors in a way that facilitates the cultivation of Christ-likeness.
So, when I read the Book of Mormon, I ask the question, “What does that look like precisely? What does that look like in my emotions, in my thoughts, in my desires? And what are circumstances that are conducive to cultivating those attributes? How do I become a better person?”
HODGES: Yes, you approach the Book of Mormon as a manual of discipleship. And manuals of discipleship, I think by nature, have to be incomplete in a sense because people are individual. Because people have individual lives and they exist in different historical contexts and have a lot of different backgrounds. And so, if a manual of discipleship is too specific, it can’t fit so many different disciples.
BECERRA: Mhm. Yeah, absolutely.
HODGES: Your first chapter looks at Christ. At the outset you say that the coming of Christ is the most significant event in the entire Book of Mormon. Christ actually visiting in person the Nephites. That had been prophesied throughout the Book of Mormon. You say that it had been heralded with signs and wonders. You point out that the Nephites still didn’t recognize it when it happened, in spite of all that. What do you make of that?
BECERRA: Yeah, when I read this, I think it’s in 3 Nephi 11:8, it says that the Nephites, “wist not what it meant, for they thought it was an angel that had appeared unto them.” So here you have a people who have received revelations and teachings for the entirety of their civilization about the coming of Christ, beginning in 1 Nephi. And then he finally comes, and they don’t recognize him. So, it just raised the question in my mind, “What were they expecting?” Were they expecting somebody that was less than an angel or somebody who was more like a God? What expectations did they have?
And by extension, what expectations do we have of Christ and how can sometimes our frustrated expectations damage our relationship with him or with one another?
HODGES: So you recognize the Nephites’ surprise here and their lack of immediate understanding as something that disciples can appreciate. Discipleship, you say, kind of requires a blend of confidence, but also humility.
BECERRA: Yeah, I think sometimes that we have to recognize that God requires us not just to know him, but sometimes to be willing to un-know him. Which is to say, we have to be willing to make course corrections, we have to be willing to be humble enough to not let what we believe—what we know about God and Christ and the plan of salvation—to stop what we can learn about him.
And I think that’s one of the lessons here and this is something that is necessary because if you look at the ways in which Christ is described in the Book of Mormon, he is so multifaceted. He’s described as a man, as a God, as a father, as a mother. Just a lot of different terms and metaphors used to describe him. So you have to be open, we have to be open to the idea that he’s bigger than sometimes we assume. We have to be open to being surprised by Christ.
HODGES: There’s a quote here I underlined that says, “The character of our discipleship emerges from our understanding of Christ.” My impulse is to then define Christ as clearly and specifically as I possibly can, and then follow and pattern myself after that. And you’re suggesting that all of these different metaphors and names and titles in the Book of Mormon itself suggest that we have to find a way to be both confident and sure, but also flexible and open to further light and knowledge, so to speak.
BECERRA: Absolutely. And open to the fact that sometimes the attributes Christ wants us to cultivate, by merely cultivating those attributes we get a broader sense for what those attributes entail.
So, for example, the idea of perfection—“Be ye therefore perfect as I am and as my father am.” Being able to define what perfection is isn’t the same thing as possessing the attribute. And one of the things I’ve learned is that the more Christlike I become, the more I realize how Christlike I’m not. I guess what I’m trying to say is we have to be open to the idea that there’s always something more to learn.
I have a quote from Gregory of Nyssa, who was an early Christian theologian and he wrote this about knowledge of God. He says that “Our current understanding”—and this is paraphrasing— “should not set limits to the object of our search, but should be the starting point of a search after more exalted things.”
So, this idea that we shouldn’t see our current understanding of Christ, our current degree of spiritual maturity as the end goal; we should see it as a stepping-stone to something greater. Each stair we walk up, we are able to see that there are more stairs ahead of us.
HODGES: It’s helpful in this chapter where you point out that Jesus is referred to in 3 and 4 Nephi by over thirty different titles. And that speaks to the kind of flexibility and that kind of–
BECERRA: –complexity, really, of his character.
HODGES: Right, that we’re supposed to continually seek after. So, what images predominate? What titles for Christ do you see here in 3 and 4 Nephi?
BECERRA: Yeah, so one of the most prominent, not just in 3–4 Nephi but in Mormon’s writings more generally, is the title “Father.” Sometimes Mormon refers to Jesus by the title “Father” saying he’s the Father of Heaven and Earth, or the very Eternal Father. Other times he compares him to the Father, saying he’s like a father or that He shares attributes with God the Father.
But “Father” is one of the most prominent titles in 3–4 Nephi and this is interesting because I think a lot of times when we think of Christ as a father, we tend to think, “Okay, what does a perfect father look like and how is Christ like that?” But the reality is not all of us—really none of us—have perfect fathers. The fathers we are familiar with aside from God are imperfect. So, I started asking myself like, is there something there? I am most familiar with imperfect fathers, can I use that as a vehicle or a tool to better understand Christ? And what kind of spiritual fruit can that bear?
HODGES: What kind of spiritual fruit did it bear for you as you thought about it?
BECERRA: That’s a great question. I think it would be theologically problematic to say that Christ is imperfect in the same way that our earthly fathers are. But I think our relationships with our earthly fathers can provide tools for navigating those times in which our relationship with Christ fails to live up to our expectations. And I think in my own life, one of the times I’ve felt most distant from Christ is when I expected him or God to do things that they didn’t do. They didn’t understand, I felt, the urgency of my prayers, or they didn’t answer them in time, or I didn’t receive a blessing that I thought was promised to me, or they didn’t give me an answer to this question I had in the time that I wanted it.
So, this is one of the paragraphs in the book I like the most, and it relates to this question of: how can our relationships with our imperfect fathers, our earthly fathers, help us understand our relationship with our Heavenly Father. And I think, specifically, our earthly relationships are useful in the sense that they can help us accept and expect failed expectations sometimes when it comes to our relationship with Christ:
“At such times, we might imagine Christ saying to us, for example, expect that sometimes you’ll become mad or frustrated or impatient with me. Expect that sometimes you’ll feel like I’m distant or too busy for you. This is entirely normal. Sometimes it may seem like I don’t get you or that I don’t understand the urgency of your concerns and questions. Periodically, you may become tired of me or want nothing to do with me. You may feel like you just may need a little time, a little space. This too is normal. Expect that sometimes you may feel embarrassed by me or afraid to acknowledge me in public. Expect not to see all the ways that I care for and sustain you and for this to sometimes to affect our relationship negatively. You may even feel like I’ve forsaken you—I felt this way with my father too.”
So, this idea that even on the cross when Jesus felt forsaken by His father, there’s an expectation that sometimes Christ isn’t going to be as present in our lives as we would like him to be, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the plan is flawed or that he is flawed or that we’re flawed. Sometimes it’s just a reality of mortality. And I think using our relationships with our earthly fathers to understand our relationships with Heavenly Father, that can help us get there in a way that’s productive. It can help us navigate those times when we feel distant from God.
HODGES: And that’s the title of Jesus Christ as Father. Another image you talk about is Jesus as a wounded God. He appears to them and he has—he shows them his wounds.
BECERRA: Yes, so one of the interesting things about the Book of Mormon is that when it talks about resurrected beings, it talks about them as individuals who are physically perfect, which is to say, “one hair on their head should not be lost.” So, they’re whole.
HODGES: Which I appreciate very much as a bald man.
BECERRA: Exactly! Exactly. And it’s interesting that when Christ comes as a resurrected being that he’s not physically perfect. He has these wounds in his hands and the question raised in my mind is, “Well, why? Why did he do that?”
I think part of it might be this idea that Nephite teachings about the nature of Christ up to this point had focused on the idea that he’s both God and human in some sense. And now he’s this being descending from the heavens, and yet he has a physical human body, he has wounds, it’s a way for him to manifest this divine nature that he has.
Another thing that it might teach the Nephites is that if you think within the historical context of when this is happening, they had just endured days and nights of death and destruction, they themselves were probably nursing emotional and physical wounds, and then they see this God descend from heaven who has wounds too, and maybe they saw a little bit of themselves in him. Maybe they saw that what made them human was not at odds with what could make them more Godlike. And this was a way, I think, for Christ to relate to them to help them to know that “I am like you and you can be like me.”
HODGES: This is where you tie it to earlier Book of Mormon scripture as well, I think of a passage in Alma where it talks about the condescension of God. It talks about Jesus coming down so that his bowels could be filled with mercy. He had to experience weakness in humanity in order to know how to succor his people.
BECERRA: Absolutely. It might have been extremely meaningful for them at this point when they had just suffered so much affliction and pain.
HODGES: Yes, and so for disciples then, it’s not that they’re to seek out pain or affliction and suffering, but that the pain and affliction and suffering that they do encounter can be turned to something good.
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s going to happen, that’s just a reality of our lives. Yes, we’re going to suffer—
HODGES: How about Christ as mother? This is another image that we get here.
BECERRA: Right. So, several times in the Book of Mormon, Mormon or other authors refer to Christ using feminine imagery, and this isn’t something unique to the Book of Mormon, you see it in the Bible as well. Biblical authors compare God or Christ to a mother who comforts her child, a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, a nursing mother, a woman in labor, or a woman looking for a lost coin. In 3 Nephi, you get the image of Christ as a mother hen who “gathereth her chickens.” And this is something we see also in the book of Matthew, but it’s more extended in 3 Nephi.
So to set the stage, there’s a silence in all the land for the space of many hours and Mormon tells us “it came to pass that there was a voice again unto the people and they heard it” and Christ says, essentially, a few things, “How often have I gathered you and nourished you? How often would I have gathered you? How often have I gathered you and you would not?” And then he says, “How often will I gather you?”
And as I was reading this, I imagine, just like we’re sitting across the table here, like a mother sitting across the table from her son or her child, just kind of like, banging her hands on the table saying, “I’ve tried my best to do this! I’ve done this, I’ve reached out to you, and you haven’t tried to reach my hand. I’m doing everything I can.”
And then at the last iteration of this, he says, “How oft would I have gathered you and you would not?” And then he says, “How often will I gather you?”
So, I see Christ to be saying, in effect, “I’ve done everything I could, I would do more if you would let me and I will continue to do everything I can.” And in the same way that Christ as a father is a bridge to understanding—because we all have fathers or know fathers and we can use that as a kind of analogy—we have here an instance in which Christ is using the image of a mother as a kind of tool for helping us to better understand our relationship with Him.
HODGES: And I think there’s value here in the fact that men who are reading the Book of Mormon are invited to put themselves into the position of women and think through those metaphors. Women are probably more used to doing that because scripture has so many men in it.
BECERRA: Absolutely. I mean one of the things I love about the feminine images of Christ in the Book of Mormon is that it really invites the disciple to see Christ in women, it invites women to see Christ in themselves, and it encourages reflection on the ways in which womanhood is akin to and anticipates Godhood.
HODGES: I think that’s powerful for women to see that. And I think it’s also powerful for men to be able to—there’s an element of reading scripture that requires empathetic imagination and there’s an opportunity for everyone to exercise it.
BECERRA: So in 1 Nephi, Nephi quotes Isaiah, comparing the Savior to a nursing mother. And there are sometimes metaphors that are inaccessible to you and I because we are men. We can extrapolate based on our relationships with our children or just the love that we have for other people. But I think in some instances scripture is really opening up a window from Christ’s soul to mothers and to women. These embodied maternal experiences that we don’t have. We don’t know, as men, what it’s like to physically ache to nourish a child, specifically to nurse a child. But this is the image that’s being drawn upon here.
There’s something embodied in motherhood that gives them insight into the mind and heart of God and Christ that males lack sometimes.
HODGES: And some women as well, who say don’t have the opportunity to do that or are incapable for whatever reason.
BECERRA: And at the same time, just to go off that, there are also images about the feminine Christ which don’t have embodied aspects to them. Just to speak to your point of women who have physically nursed and who haven’t physically nursed children. There are metaphors accessible to all kinds of mothers in the Book of Mormon as well.
HODGES: That’s Daniel Becerra. He’s an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and a scholar of early Christianity. He’s the author of 3, 4 Nephi: a brief theological introduction from the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series.
Daniel, in chapter two you move from talking about Christ to talking about humans. And you talk about what’s called “theological anthropology.” This is a big theological term. Let’s talk about what it means.
BECERRA: Right. So, part of my goal in this volume was to kind of look at traditional theological categories. So, “Christology” is the study of the nature of Christ; “theology” with a small “t” is the study of the nature of God. “Ecclesiology,” for example, is the study of the ecclesia or the church.
Theological anthropology is the study of human beings as they relate to God. So, it would ask questions like, Are humans fundamentally flawed or are they a moral, clean slate, as it were? What is their destiny? How do they relate to one another? What does it mean to be created in the image of God? These kind of questions.
HODGES: And the thing about scripture is that it doesn’t sit down and lay all that out as a theological treatise would, right? We’re treated with a series of stories and sermons in the Book of Mormon, it’s not systematic in laying all that out. So, how do you go about looking for the theological anthropology in a scripture like that?
BECERRA: So, this is something where my training in early Christian thinking is something of an advantage to me because I can use the categories theologians tend to think of when they talk about theological anthropology.
So, for example, a lot of times when people are talking about theological anthropology, they’ll reference Genesis 1:26-27, “Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.” Now, that’s the question—what does that mean? Is that something we have at the time of creation? Is it something we gain later on in our lives as we are becoming morally formed?
So, I just looked at the way—I have a small body of knowledge about the way other theologians think about these topics and I applied that to the Book of Mormon to see what kind of bubbles to the surface.
HODGES: And what does? What does the Book of Mormon say? You kind of break it out into what it says about the inner person and the outer person. Let’s talk about the inner person first.
BECERRA: Yes, so typically in the Church we tend to understand the person as the spirit and the body together, which equal a soul. The Book of Mormon has a much more complex understanding of the human person specifically, because there are five parts of the human person.
There are the heart, the mind, the soul, the spirit, and the body and the flesh, which are essentially the same thing. And each part of the human person has different faculties. The heart, for example, has the capacity for cognition, which is thinking, imagining, remembering—you’re probably aware of statements in which authors say, “I pondered in my heart,” or, “Why do you imagine these things in your heart?” In modern parlance we don’t tend to think of the heart as responsible for thinking; it’s more emotional. “I love you with all my heart” means the heart is the center of my emotions.
The heart also is the center of emotions in the Book of Mormon. So, for example, “My heart was filled with joy,” “my heart was stirred up to anger.” Again, it’s the locus, their place of emotion.
HODGES: I think, by the way, just to interject, I think that’s a fascinating thing because since the Enlightenment, we’ve come to separate rationality and emotion. And we think that to be rational is the opposite of being emotional, but more current research—current people that look and what humans are and what we do—are finding that that separation is not true. There’s no such thing in humans as “reason” or “rationality” that’s separate from how we feel. The Book of Mormon is an ancient text that reflects something that now people are coming back around to.
BECERRA: Yeah, and it’s very much reflective of the Biblical text as well and its assumptions about human personhood.
But at the same time, just to piggyback off of that idea, what’s interesting is that the different parts of the human being in the Book of Mormon, they overlap so much. So, for example, the heart and the mind, they are both responsible for cognition, emotion, and volition—volition being desire, or intent, or sincerity.
So, in the same way—and as I was thinking through this and how this is relevant, I thought about this idea of being created in the image of God. I asked the question, “How can looking inward at human nature point us upward towards God and His nature?” And one of the things I noticed was that this overlapping of responsibilities of the human person, they reflect the kind of overlapping responsibilities and nature of the Godhead.
One of the things we see in the Book of Mormon is that Christ is a moving target in the sense that he’s hard to pin down. He is either in somebody or overlapping with somebody or like somebody. He’s in the Father, the Father’s in him, he’s one with the Father, he’s also one with his disciples. So you can’t understand Christ with respect to an individual in isolation. He’s always overlapping with other people.
HODGES: And he’s made Christ in relationship. In other words, Christhood comes in relationship with other people. It’s not an isolated person.
BECERRA: Right. There is no Christ aside from Christ in relationship with other people. Absolutely. And that’s one of the things we see mirrored in our own anthropology, in our own psychology as it were, as well.
HODGES: I see myself in that same way—that I’m not who I am without all the relationships I’ve had, even from the very beginning when I’m born as a baby. And within the Church, we look at babies as being born innocent and reaching the age of accountability and all these things while the Book of Mormon talks a lot more about being fallen, I think, than we tend to talk about today.
BECERRA: Yeah, and especially earlier on in the Book of Mormon you get this idea of human beings being born carnal, they’re born in a state contrary to the nature of God. In other places, you get little gestures toward the idea that there’s more of a moral neutrality.
But the Book of Mormon’s presentation of human beings is somewhat paradoxical in the sense that we are born fallen, but we also have some capacity to be good. Like, there’s a seed of divinity within us whereby we can become more like Christ. And I think Mormon emphasizes the idea of our fallenness because he wants to emphasize the importance of agency in becoming a better person.
When Mormon refers to both God and Jesus as the Father and Creator of humankind, the phrases “sons of God,” “children of God,” “children of your Father,” and “children of Christ” are reserved only for those who, through their own faithfulness in Christ’s intercession, have had this status bestowed upon them. Which is to say, this is different from the way we talk about it in the modern Church.
So, for example, in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” it says, “All human beings, male and female, are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son and daughter of Heavenly Parents.” This is, I would argue, is not always the case in the Book of Mormon. A person becomes a child of God by engaging, by participating in the covenant, which is to say kinship is not something inherent to our character. It’s something that we have to do by becoming more like Jesus Christ.
HODGES: And within the Church, it’s interesting that both of those things can be true. I think when I’ve approached the Book of Mormon in the past, I used to think that it had all of Latter-day Saint theology contained there, at least in embryo—that it would all accord with the modern Church’s view on things. And what I’ve found is that, instead, we have different dispensations of information.
We have the Nephites who sort of have a horizon on their understanding, so we don’t get, for example, the three degrees of glory. We don’t get a heaven with such difference. We get a heaven and a hell. And it was through Joseph Smith and later revelations that we get this broader understanding. So, the Book of Mormon is approaching the family and human theological anthropology from this sense of joining God’s family through covenant. We still believe that! But further revelation, further information has also made it clear that there’s also an underlying kinship between all people in addition to that, that the Nephites may not have had. And it’s possible that some of their difficulties and divisions they had between Nephites and Lamanites and some of the racism we see in the text, might be a product of not having that additional piece of understanding of the family of God. The covenant matters, but without that extra step of also seeing everyone as being spirit children of God, they were missing that. And maybe that informs some of the problems that we see in the text.
BECERRA: Yeah, and actually I think the argument could be made that it’s there, but it’s just not as prominent. So, for example, Mormon elsewhere talks about humans being created in the image of God, which is an illusion to Genesis, I think. But I think it can be productive to think about it in different ways, and to think about them as not necessarily mutually exclusive.
So, for example, if I were to contemplate the phrase “I am a child of God,” how might that affect me differently than contemplating the question, “Am I a child of God?” On the one hand, internalizing the notion that God is Father to all I think encourages us to see others as equals, as Gods in embryo and as dear to deity. On the other hand, internalizing the notion that God is only Father to the faithful, may have different positive effects. The knowledge that kinship is bestowed and transitory creates a productive uneasiness in the soul by calling into question whether who we are currently is who we should be. And so, it’s kind of an invitation to self-evaluation. To gaze upon the gulf separating the soul’s state and the soul’s objective in all of its terrifying profundity.
HODGES: That’s from the book, right? So, what I take away from that is this idea that our kinship with God, our being children of God, is a relationship that always already exists. But to really become kin and to really become family requires our participation too. It requires our desire; it requires our reaching back. So, God’s always reaching to us, but we also need to reach back. It requires both sides to make that relationship really a family. So, both of those things can be true.
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. And in the same way that you and I share the biological characteristics of our own parents, we share the spiritual potential of our Heavenly Father and to become his son, as it were, or his daughter, is to cultivate those attributes that he has. To let our spiritual genes, as it were, flourish and bear fruit.
HODGES: And you point out how this sometimes is resisted today with such an emphasis and culture on personal authenticity. You talk about this in the book a little bit and I thought it was interesting.
BECERRA: So, the idea that we’re to become something better can sometimes be intentioned with the idea that we are who we are. Which is to say, to what degree does God want me to be myself?
HODGES: And does he love me as myself?
BECERRA: Yes, exactly. And by “authenticity” I’m not referring to the traits of integrity or honesty or sincerity or lack of pretense—these are all encouraged in 3 Nephi. But what I mean by authenticity is the assumption that what is a natural, which is to say our inherent inclinations and desires, should be normative. Which is to say that our highest good is allegiance to my own internal feelings and impulses, independent of any external standard of conduct or character.
HODGES: Yes, and that gets tricky because really, we only have our own perspective that’s informed by revelation and things like that. So, this is where I see the tension of discipleship for me is both learning how to be adaptable and converted and becoming, the process of becoming. But that’s always experienced from my own perspective, my own limited perspective.
BECERRA: Right. And I think if we were to ask Mormon—and again, I’m putting words in his mouth but just based on what I can distill from his writings—I don’t think his writings suggest God does not want people to be themselves. I think he would argue that being true to ourselves is a viable principle for self-governance only when we’re living in Christ. Which is to say, authenticity in this sense is relational and not individualistic.
There’s this image in 3 Nephi 18 where Christ says, “Hold your light up that it may shine to the world.” So, this kind of idea of, let people see who you are, and then again, he says, “I am the light which ye should hold up.” This idea that we have to reflect Christ and that’s what it means to be authentic in a gospel sense. Authenticity is not being who I am by default. It’s being the person that Christ wants me to be; it’s being the person that—it’s him forming me in accordance with what is natural to me in the best way that he can.
HODGES: So, all of that pertains to the inner person when it comes to theological anthropology, but you also point out that the Book of Mormon has some things to say about the outer person as well. Perhaps, in a troubling way to readers today, are some of the things it has to say about skin color, which you address in this book.
BECERRA: Yes. So, as a person of color, this subject hits home for me. The argument can be made, persuasively, that such passages relating to darkness and cursedness, they don’t pair well with our modern sensibilities. But I think that merely ignoring them can be just as damaging as looking at nothing else but them.
HODGES: For example—let me just point out again—basically morality and skin color are linked there where it’s supposed that Lamanites have a darker skin and it’s connected to unrighteousness or to curses. And that kind of interpretation has led to all sorts of historical problems. It’s let to human chattel slavery and discrimination and all these types of things.
So, we can read the text through that lens and interpret skin color in that negative sense, and you’re sort of resisting that.
BECERRA: Yes and I mean, I think there are a lot of different ways that scholars have tried to reconcile that, but I think one of the most important takeaways is that the Book of Mormon, or rather Mormon’s discussion of skin color, and Nephi’s as well, they also resist reduction to mere racist ideology.
Almost as soon as skin color becomes a metric of divine favor, it fails at such. So even as early as Jacob, he commands the Nephites to “revile no more against the Lamanites because of the darkness of their skin,” explaining that they are “more righteous than you.” So, just a few chapters after skin color becomes correlated to morality, Jacob is saying, ”Hey, this does not apply here.”
Elsewhere you have Nephi, for example, saying that “Christ denieth none that come unto him both black and white, bond and free, etc.” And this idea that God’s chosen people, this is a covenant relationship, it’s not a genealogical relationship as it were. I think all of those together kind of undermine the idea that Mormon or the Book of Mormon promotes a kind of racist ideology as it’s sometimes understood in the modern age.
HODGES: I’ve seen different members of the Church read that differently. I’ve seen people reaffirm what the text says saying, “This was a literal curse that God wanted dark skin color.” I’ve seen other people point to the possibility that the Book of Mormon itself calls out its own incompleteness, it calls out its own imperfections. We have Book of Mormon authors saying, “Look, there are mistakes in here. And when you see mistakes, just please understand they are the mistakes of the people who wrote the book. Don’t use that to judge God. In fact, give thanks to God that you can see those mistakes and be wiser than we were.”
And now, how do you approach it?
BECERRA: That’s a great question. I think it’s important that we all ask the question of whether the scriptures are being prescriptive or descriptive. Which is to say, are they describing what people do without making a commentary on the morality of that, or are they prescribing what we should do? What is moral? And it might be helpful really quick to run through these.
There have been different ways in which scholars have understood the relationship between complexion and morality in the Book of Mormon. Some modern interpreters have sought to distinguish between the “curse” and the “mark,” by arguing that the curse was in fact a separation from the Lord and His people, while the mark was darker skin. Others have suggested that dark skin is merely a metaphor or that’s a remnant of nineteenth-century racist sentiments. And according to these interpretations, darkness of skin isn’t inherently bad, it’s just a sign of badness in this particular instance. Still other scholars have suggested that the Lamanites’ dark skins refer to their clothes. Like, the animal hides, the animal skin—
HODGES: There’s a Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article about that.
BECERRA: Right. The question I always ask is, assume that Nephi is saying that God punishes people with dark skin. Is our theology capacious enough to allow for what I think is a wrong assumption in scripture? Is it okay for Nephi to have made a mistake in his estimation of what skin color means? I think it is. I think, and this is something I think we’re still growing in as a church, the relationship between prophetic fallibility and inspiration; the idea that no person is perfect except Christ and as a result of that, as a result of our fallen human nature, all of us are going to make mistakes, even our leaders.
So, I mean, we have to ask ourselves again, is this prescriptive or descriptive? Is this reflecting Nephi’s situation or Mormon’s situation? Both individuals who were in situations in which they were at war or had antagonistic relationships with these different-colored groups of individuals.
So again, I don’t have a definitive answer, but what I can say is that there’s enough in the Book of Mormon to promote racist ideology and there’s enough to undermine it. And we just have to ask ourselves, where is the spirit leading us today?
HODGES: In a sense, the Book of Mormon poses a challenge to disciples today then to find out where they want to stand and what values they want to lift up in that sense. I think it’s not insignificant that the book itself explicitly, multiple times, points out that it isn’t a perfect record and invites us to engage with it in that way, with charity, right? It says to do it with charity.
The authors are talking about their vulnerability and one of them is very specific in saying he’s very anxiously about…”I think I’m messing up; I don’t think I’m very good at this. They’re going to make fun…people are going to mock this; people are going to have a problem with this.” And God just says they need to have charity. And the way to read scripture is to engage with it where you’re at.
BECERRA: Yeah. And even, oftentimes you get authors saying, for example, in the book of Alma, he’s saying, “This is my opinion, I don’t know for sure.”
HODGES: [laughs] I love that, canonized speculation! You have straight up canonized speculation.
BECERRA: Right? And I think one of the—I mean, a tip I can offer is to approach these writings with the same kind of charity and empathy that you would want somebody to approach your own writings and recognize that we’re all products of our culture. We all have our blind spots and I understand that. So, even as a person of color, I’m not particularly bothered by this because I know people are imperfect, I know God doesn’t correlate skin color and morality.
So, yeah, I think just, again, reading with compassion and empathy and recognizing that we all have our faults, we’re all products of our upbringing and that should be taken into account when we’re looking at what kind of things should be normative, should be necessary for us to emulate.
HODGES: And I think it speaks to what you mentioned at the outset, which is that the record doesn’t contain a hundredth of the things it could have and that it’s a manual of discipleship that’s supposed to point beyond itself. It’s supposed to point us to our own relationship with God and with each other. And it’s not the definitive, final word; it’s an engagement. It’s an invitation; It’s a challenge. It’s all of these things. It’s not just set in stone, once for all, declared…which doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain eternal truths. It means that the way we engage with it needs to be flexible so God can teach us just as much as the scripture does.
BECERRA: Yeah and I mean, it gestures beyond itself and one of the things it tells us sometimes is “this is exactly what you shouldn’t be doing.” You shouldn’t be looking at wealth this way; you shouldn’t be treating the poor this way. And sometimes we’re left to make those inferences by ourselves. Sometimes they’re made explicit, but scripture isn’t just what we should do, we also have to be thoughtful about what we shouldn’t feel comfortable doing in the modern age.
HODGES: That’s Daniel Becerra. He’s an assistant professor of ancient scripture here at Brigham Young University and a scholar of Early Christianity. And that covers chapter two from his brief theological introduction to 3 and 4 Nephi about theological anthropology in terms of what the inner person is like, what the outer person is like in the Book of Mormon.
Your next chapter moves on, then, to what we can become. So, you’ve talked about Christ, you’ve talked about what the Book of Mormon says we are as humans, and then you’re moving on to Christlikeness—what the Book of Mormon is inviting us to become. So, what stuck out to you about the things that 3–4 Nephi have to say about spiritual development?
BECERRA: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things is we have to keep our—as disciples, and maybe this is just reading my own imperfections and tendencies into the text, but one of the things that really stuck out to me is this idea that we have to keep our mind on the right goal. I think a lot of times as disciples we see the end goal as obedience, as follow the prophet. We hear this at every conference, and we teach our children it.
HODGES: —Keep the commandments.
BECERRA: Yeah, keep the commandments. Exactly. So, the end goal is, “Okay I’m keeping this, I’m doing this, I’m not doing this. I’m doing good.”
HODGES: “And in the end I’ll get this as a result.”
BECERRA: Yeah, exactly. But I think the Book of Mormon invites us to see commandments not as an end in themselves, but as a means to an end. As technologies for transformation, tools for transformation. So we have to ask ourselves—and you get instances of this in the New Testament as well as elsewhere in Mormon’s writings—but this idea about sincerity and motivations, which is to say there are ways to be obedient that help us become better people and there are ways to be obedient that are not recognized by God as obedience. So, we have to ask ourselves, how do we be obedient in a way that helps us become more like Christ?
HODGES: That’s a big claim. Can I give an example if anyone’s wondering about that? I’m reminded of a passage in Isaiah where God says, “Hey, you’re worshipping in the temple and you’re doing your sacrifices and you’re doing this and that and guess what? I don’t like any of it because the things that those things are supposed to symbolize aren’t happening in your society. You’re neglecting the poor; you’re casting out the foreigner and the stranger. You’re doing all of these things.
So, guess what? All of these commandments, all these ceremonies and all these things which are not bad in and of themselves can be bad if they’re not achieving what I want them to achieve, why I gave them to you to begin with.”
BECERRA: Yeah, they can be bad, or at the very least, they can be unfruitful. They can be pointless. And you see this also in Moroni 7 where you have this statement where Moroni says, and he’s mirroring Paulian language and says, “If you pray but without full intent of heart, it profiteth you not—it doesn’t matter, essentially. If you give a gift but do so grudgingly, it doesn’t count.”
And you see the distinction between the action and the disposition of the actor, and you realize that God takes both into account. And obedience works it’s magic when those two things are in harmony with one another, both the action and the intent and the disposition of the actor.
HODGES: Yes, so we get a lot of these commandments in 3 Nephi from Christ, I don’t remember how many. Am I remembering correctly that you sort of counted all of the different ones?
BECERRA: Yeah, so I had my research assistant do it actually! [laughter]
HODGES: Shout out—who was it? Who was it?
BECERRA: It was either Danny Nelson or—I think it was Danny actually. So, thanks Danny.
HODGES: Shout out to Danny, yes!
BECERRA: Yeah! But yeah, so I had him go through 3–4 Nephi and I said, “Count every commandment you see.” And one of the things I saw was that some are—I think there were about 150 or something like that, so it averaged out to about three per page. And one of the things I saw was that some commandments are addressed to specific persons and they’re not to be applied in all circumstances.
HODGES: For instance, he tells someone to go get something.
BECERRA: Yeah, so “Go get your family, bring them here…write down the words of Samuel the Lamanite,” that’s obviously not intended for us. But a lot of commandments, you do get—a lot of commandments are more universal in nature. So, you know, care for the needy, fast, pray, and so on.
HODGES: Would sincere intent—that’s also a commandment, right? Your motive and intention?
BECERRA: Yeah. And one of the things I noticed in these is like, going back to this idea of the power of obedience is you have to do these kinds of commandments with a certain sincerity and with proper motivations.
HODGES: And the Book of Mormon continually focuses on that. Christ isn’t the only one who brings that up. We see that from Mormon and Moroni as well, focusing on that.
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. So, for example, if you were to make a hierarchy of motivations based on Mormon’s writings and the Book of Mormon more broadly, it would look something like this: at the bottom would be fear. You do good because you’re afraid of what happens if you don’t. You’re afraid of going to hell; you’re afraid of the Lamanites coming and killing you or something like that. So, it’s not framed as a bad thing in the Book of Mormon, but it’s also not ideal.
Above fear is a promise of reward. You do something because you want to be blessed, you want to go to heaven, you want to prosper, whatever it is. And a lot of times, even when Christ is talking to the Nephites, he frames his commandments in terms of cause and effect. “If you do this, I’m going to give you this,” you know, “Blessed are the meek, they shall inherit the earth.” A cause and effect.
But a slightly, I think—a really telling passage in 3 Nephi is when he asks his disciples, “What do you guys want?” So, nine of them say, “We want when we die to live with you in heaven.” And Jesus says, “Okay, you’ll have this.” And then he says, “Blessed are you because you’ve desired this thing.” And then he tells the three other disciples who ask for something different, “More blessed are you.” And what they ask for is to remain on earth to follow God’s commandments and bring souls unto Christ. And it’s this idea of what their motivations were love, the desire to serve. And I think this is the ideal motivation for obedience. This is—if we are obedient with love and the intent to express love to God and one another—this is what makes obedience transformative. This is what unlocks its transformative potential.
HODGES: And you also say the Book of Mormon seems to be fighting against a kind of, what you call, “moral narcissism” that people are prone to today. What do you mean by that?
BECERRA: I define moral narcissism as an overly robust estimation of our own ability to independently affect our spiritual growth, which is to say, “I can do this all by myself. I can make myself more Christlike by myself.”
HODGES: Or blaming ourselves maybe—the flip side of that being like, if you’re failing just saying, “I’m a terrible person or something”?
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. So, that’s one part of it. And then I think another part of it is undue attention to our own spiritual development at the neglect of others. So, it’s all about me.
HODGES: And people become a tool to that too, right? Like, I’ll do my ministering, I’m not really that invested in the people I’m ministering to, but this surely is improving my life and making me a better person.
BECERRA: Exactly. “I’m going to help you move in so I can get blessings. I don’t need you; I just need the blessings!” I don’t think that this is ideal.
HODGES: Better to help, sure, sure.
BECERRA: There’s a hierarchy! Nothing’s bad, but there’s good, better, best.
BECERRA: And I mean, one of the kind of main things I’ve seen in these chapters is that the disciples’ growth and sanctity is predicated upon principles of interdependence and co-responsibility and other-centeredness. And for this reason, spiritual development often occurs as a byproduct of selflessly seeking the welfare of others. It’s not something that you—
It’s crazy because God wants you to be good obviously, so you should seek out goodness, but a lot of times moral transformation happens when you do things out of the kindness of your heart. It’s a byproduct, it’s not something you seek out for its own sake, right? So, it’s kind of a paradox—or at the very least there’s a tension there.
HODGES: Where Christ says, “Whoever loses himself for my sake will find it in that process,” kind of a thing.
BECERRA: And part of losing your life is not caring so much about yourself. Not caring so much about—yeah.
HODGES: You said this is the tension of discipleship again, right? Because I’m reminded of Deidre Green talking about the danger of too much self-emptying and too much giving, where you erase yourself and you don’t take care of yourself enough to love yourself, to be able to give of yourself in good ways too. So, it’s kind of the tightrope of discipleship here.
BECERRA: And as a father who has a full time job—and many mothers know this as well—sometimes I feel like I have to take time away from my family to be the kind of person I need to be for them so I’m not all grumpy and stressed out. I mean, that’s a kind of smaller analogy, but you’re exactly right. It takes a balance with the discernment, with the spirit, with guidance from God, you have to be able to take care of yourself to the degree that you’re more helpful for other people as well.
HODGES: And of course, no pressure, but Jesus in the Book of Mormon’s ultimate commandment here is to be perfect. Like, no pressure. Like, what do you make of that? That’s not a small thing.
BECERRA: And part of it is too, it’s not just that he commands you to be perfect, it’s that that doesn’t seem to be possible in mortality. So, no one is ever described as perfect except God and Jesus in the Book of Mormon. Sometimes perfection is used to describe the degree to which one possesses a certain attribute—so, perfect faith, perfect knowledge, perfect patience whatever. But yeah, what does it mean that God gives us a commandment that we can’t attain now?
And thinking about that, I reached a few conclusions. So, one thing is perhaps it’s the case that our failed efforts to be perfect make us more aware of our dependence on God and on one another. And maybe one effect of this would be to motivate us to participate in healthy support systems and appropriate accountability structures and empowering covenantal relationships and also to have empathy for others. I think the recognition that we are imperfect, if nothing else, helps us be more forgiving and patient and welcoming over other imperfect people.
HODGES: And patient with ourselves too, right? Because there’s this idea of “moral scrupulousness” where people can almost get OCD about having to be perfect, and that can be spiritually unhealthy and even maybe a little example of moral narcissism there too, where you’re so much focused on whether you’re good or not.
BECERRA: Absolutely. And I think at least one strategy for combating that is just recognizing or rather discerning approximate ends from ultimate ends. And what I mean by that is approximate ends are those things that we can currently achieve in our fallen state. I can achieve a certain amount of goodness now, right? And ultimate ends are our final goals for perfection, which I can’t achieve now.
HODGES: Or by yourself.
BECERRA: Yeah, exactly. And it’s just resisting the tendency to believe that we’re defined by our failures or that we have to be flawless to be worthy, that we could never do enough or that our efforts are futile. If failing to be perfect is the norm, then one of the disciple’s most useful skills is the ability to learn from failure.
HODGES: And you also point out that Christlikeness in the Book of Mormon is not a state of permanent happiness either. I think sometimes I’ve expected that. If I’ve been experiencing depression or a hard time in my life, it’s hard to feel like I’m living in the best way or I guess I haven’t felt very Christlike in my darkest moments.
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the things I learned when I was trying to kind of map out what Christlikeness looks like on a psychological level, which is to say, what do Christlike persons think? What do they feel? What do they desire? And when I was going through the emotional components of discipleship, one of the signs of spiritual maturity that frequently come up is this idea of feeling sorrow in another person’s failures.
So, for example, in 3 Nephi, Nephi is grieved for the hardness of the hearts and the blindness of the minds of his people when he sees the wickedness of his people, and his heart was exceedingly sorrowful. Elsewhere Jesus is said to have “groaned within himself for the wickedness of Israel.” Sorrow seems to be something you can’t escape, at least in mortality as you become spiritually mature.
And this is difficult because a lot of times we frame the gospel as the plan of happiness.
HODGES: And the Book of Mormon mentions that, yeah.
BECERRA: Right. But you see in the Pearl of Great Price and in the Book of Mormon that I’m not sure that it’s happiness in the way we typically understand it as euphoria and the absence of sorrow. Going back to the Three Nephites, the disciples said—Mormon tells us they were “changed that they might not taste of death” and were unable to feel all pain and sorrow that mortal humans experience, “save it were for the sins of the world.” So even in this, I don’t know, transfigured state or whatever, but definitely a morally elevated state, they could escape all pain and suffering except it were for the sins of the world.
So, to be like Christ is to not be able to help but love other people. And if you love imperfect people, sorrow is going to be a byproduct of that sometimes.
HODGES: That’s right. And that leads into your fourth chapter which is about our relationships with other people. So, you focused first on the nature of Christ, you looked at the nature of humans, you looked at the nature of discipleship, how it makes us Christlike and you tie it all together in chapter four, just like the Book of Mormon does in 4 Nephi by looking at society.
And you say that the Book of Mormon isn’t ultimately a book for individual people to work out their individual righteousness. Instead, the scriptures show that our personal righteousness only really reaches its fulfillment in community. Where are you seeing that in the text?
BECERRA: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things I did to address that is I went through and asked, what are the characteristics—so in chapter 3 I asked the question, “What does discipleship look like on an individual level?” And in chapter 4 I asked the question, “What does it look like on a communal level?” Which is to say, how is it manifested in society? And I tried to identify three characteristics of an ideal society.
The first one was that people had all things in common. So essentially, they were willing to relinquish their wealth in part or in whole to support other people. They had reached this point at which they desired to help other people so much and they loved them, and they prioritized the needs of others over their own needs. And because there was a community in which everybody felt this way, it worked. They were able to share. People weren’t holding back from others. And it didn’t last that long, but when it did, it seems to be framed as the ideal society in Mormon’s eyes.
HODGES: And you talk about the economics conditions as kind of the first one, right? You said there were three. What’s the next one?
BECERRA: Yes. So, the second thing Mormon talks about is equal access to great learning. So, Mormon says that because of the poverty of the people, some of them didn’t have access to great learning. And what he seems to be referring to here is kind of a vocational training. He mentions specifically occupations like merchant or lawyer or officer or governor or judge. So, it seems to be the case that because the poor were being disadvantaged, they also lacked opportunities to serve in a way that God would want them to serve in the community. They lacked opportunities to consecrate their gifts and talents to the betterment of a larger society. And I think there’s a lesson there. This idea that the purpose of knowledge is not to be hoarded. It’s to be shared, to lift and empower people, especially the most marginalized among us.
HODGES: So that’s the second one. And then what’s the third element?
BECERRA: Yeah, so, the third characteristic of a Christlike society is unity. Mormon says a few things about unity. The first thing he criticizes is that occupational specialization had led to his people becoming distinguished by ranks and divided into classes. He doesn’t seem to argue that there should be no hierarchies, but he does seem to suggest that people should be more separated horizontally than they are vertically. People can be different, but there shouldn’t be preferential treatment of some people over others, especially based on wealth and education. He also is critical of certain forms of tribalism. You have this famous phrase in 4 Nephi that at the apex of their righteousness, there were no more “–ites.” There were no more Nephites and Lamanites, but they were all children of God. So, they kind of divorce themselves of these categories and boundaries that separated them as people.
And finally, he talks about unity in worship. This idea that people should be, to put it very simply, worshipping together at the same time and the same place. One of the things I saw in here is that sometimes Mormon talks about the power of ritual being increased the more people who do it together.
HODGES: Which is hard right now, obviously.
BECERRA: Yeah, which is difficult. But for example, this isn’t so alien to us. When we want a special blessing from God, we’ll fast as a ward or for a missionary we’ll pray together. And Mormon seems to suggest the same thing as well. And I don’t think the lesson that Mormon wants us to learn is that God cares all that much about people doing the same thing at the same time. I think the lesson is that God is pleased with and honors the work accomplished in truly worshipping together in the sense that—so take communal prayer for example.
Communal prayer, praying together, it attunes our hearts not just to God, but to one another. I have to be discerning enough and know enough about you and care enough about you to pray with sincere intent for you to be blessed. And I think that’s what God wants us to accomplish is this unifying and melding together of individuals so that we as human individuals mirror the unity of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
HODGES: And it seems to describe a society that we might call utopian. Do you think that’s an unfair or a foreign category to bring into this? 4 Nephi kind of seems to describe a Utopia.
BECERRA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you get instances of it earlier in the Book of Mormon. So, for example, King Benjamin’s—the Nephites have seemed to really have gotten with the program here. And here they lived for several centuries like this. I’m not sure there’s a better instance in the Book of Mormon of a society working in the way that God intends it to be.
HODGES: So, this next question, I guess, is really for authors that are coming after you in the series, but I wonder if you’ve thought about it at all because 4 Nephi does not end the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon spirals again. So, it can seem discouraging. And I know Adam Miller, I’m going to ask him about this when we get to his book, but have you thought much about that? We have this wonderful time in 4 Nephi, but it doesn’t last. How you deal with that?
BECERRA: Yeah and Mormon talks about—I mean, if you were to ask the question, “What could have prevented this?” There are a few things. So, Mormon mentions specifically that their children who weren’t there when Christ came, it wasn’t that big of a deal for them. They hadn’t experienced it personally, so they didn’t have that kind of knowledge and experience to rely on, to “remember” as the Book of Mormon frequently says. I guess one of the challenges is helping inculcate that kind of testimony in our children.
Another is that with morality, in the Book of Mormon, comes prosperity frequently. So, the question arises: how do we be righteous in prosperity? Brigham Young famously said, “These Saints will go through persecution and suffering, but my worry for them is that they can’t stand wealth.” So, we have to ask ourselves, especially coming from a country in which we’re a “first world” country, we have to ask ourselves, how can we be righteous in prosperity?
HODGES: That’s kind of a downer, Daniel.
BECERRA: Yeah. It is what it is! No, I’m just kidding. [laughter]
HODGES: I appreciate that and I’m going to be interested to see what subsequent authors in the series have to say because like you say, the Book of Mormon doesn’t really have that happy ending and it serves as a warning for us to consider.
BECERRA: Yeah, and I end the book on a little bit more of a happy note. I have a quote here from Martin Luther King Jr. here who once said, “I can never be what I ought to be until what you are what ought to be, and you can never what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” And if we can just kind of capture this idea that discipleship is about collaboration and connectivity and other-centeredness, I think this is what is going to lead us to create a more Zion-like people.
HODGES: That’s Daniel Becerra. He’s an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He’s a scholar of early Christianity and he wrote the 3 and 4 Nephi volume in the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction series.
Daniel, like all the authors in the series, you aren’t coming to 3–4 Nephi for the first time. You bring a wealth of knowledge about it, you bring a background, you’ve read this text, it’s scripture that you view as scripture as a message from God, but this time you’re reading it with an eye toward writing about it for other people. And you’ve done a little bit of that because you’re a professor so you teach, but as you’re going through the book this time, was there anything that surprised you this time as you went through the text?
BECERRA: I mean, I don’t know if this should be surprising, but I think it’s something we all need to remember: discipleship is not—and I’ve said this throughout the course of our conversation—discipleship is not about us. And I think we all are inclined to fall into the trap of focusing too much on ourselves. I mean, you get so many metaphors and instructions that are intended to—not just geared towards helping us become better individuals, but just shaping our relationships with one another, and it really gives you a sense that heaven is not an individual matter, that heaven is a kinship, it’s a kind of relationship that we have with our Heavenly Father and with one another.
And I lose sight of that personally a lot because a lot of times we fall into this trap of being so concerned with what we’re doing and what we need to be doing better and goals we’re making, keeping goals, that we fail to recognize that Christlikeness finds its fullest manifestation in our relationship with one another.
So, staying focused on not myself, but on other people is a theme I saw all throughout 3–4 Nephi. It’s a theme I’ve seen throughout the Book of Mormon and it’s not surprising in the sense that I didn’t know it’s there, it’s surprising in the sense of how often I forget that.
HODGES: It’s as though discipleship can’t be about us unless it’s about us in relation to other people.
BECERRA: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah.
HODGES: I wanted to get a word too, a little bit more before we go on your idea of theology. So, this is a brief theological introduction series. How did you view that as you went into it? Different authors have different views about what constitutes theology and how to do theology. What was your guiding principle when you thought about creating a brief theological introduction, other than it had to be brief.
BECERRA: One of the things I did was try to draw traditional theological themes in the Book of Mormon. So, I approached it in kind of a systematic approach and I just allowed the text to speak for itself. As I did that, questions arose in my mind and would follow those avenues and concerns would arise and I would try to alleviate those. So, it was really kind of a personal and organic experience, but the primary assumption I had going into this book was the role of theology is not to draw a box around God; it’s to try to search him out, and in so doing to clear a path towards Him.
I think when we over-define God, we can limit our ability to learn more about him, because we think he can’t exist outside of these boundaries. So, one of the things I tried to be open to was being surprised by God, being surprised by the text. If I weren’t thinking outside of the box as it were, I probably wouldn’t have noticed God being referred to in feminine language; I probably wouldn’t have noticed morality being conceptualized more in terms of community than individuality.
So, just an openness, a humility that we don’t know everything, that even the things we know are true are also partial.
HODGES: I really appreciated that. One of the quotes that I double underlined and put brackets around and highlighted and put a star next to is, “If there’s always more to know of Christ, and I believe there is, then discipleship must, at times, be coupled with a suspension of certainty.”
BECERRA: Right, yeah, absolutely.
HODGES: That’s Daniel Becerra. He’s an assistant professor of ancient scripture here at Brigham Young University and a scholar of early Christianity. What are you working on now that you’ve finished this book and the semester’s about to begin here? Are you working on any research projects?
BECERRA: Yeah, so Book of Mormon related, I’m working on a volume with Joe Spencer who is the author of 1 Nephi. We’re writing a semantic theology of the Book of Mormon, so each chapter is dedicated to one theological category. You know, Christology, salvation, demons, angels…
HODGES: Ecclesiology? [laughs]
BECERRA: —ecclesiology. And what we do is we trace out how different authors talk about these categories and how thought in the Book of Mormon evolves over time. And one of the things that we’re seeing is that sometimes we have authors that have very different assumptions about the nature of God or about what angels do or about what demons do and we help to bring out that richness.
Another thing I’m working on is my dissertation which is on late ancient Christian monasticism and the involvement of angels and animals in the process of moral formation. So, that one’s a little more weird. [laughs]
HODGES: Monasticism meaning people who live in monasteries separate from society?
BECERRA: Yes, exactly. And I love the Christian monks because they are the scientists of spiritual formation. They are the people who read scriptures and say, “Okay, how can we create a community around the idea that we share all things in common? How can we create a community around the idea that we have to give all our things away to the poor and that we have to pray always? What does that look like practically speaking?” So, I love seeing religion lived out in the lives of these early Christian saints.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s interesting to think of those monasteries as sort of laboratories for spirituality. Well, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on, that’s great. I look forward to seeing more work from you. I really enjoyed this book Daniel.
BECERRA: Thanks, it was great to be here.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’ve really been enjoying the reviews that have come in over the past few months. Seems like we’ve been getting more than ever. We’ve got reviews from Igdub97, dproberts55, hergalybergaly333, someone called Y’s Man, and more. I can’t read them all to you, we don’t have time for that, but I can read a few.
Let’s read this one from Lizzyjones. She says, “I used to feel somewhat ashamed of my ‘intellectual’ approach to the gospel. Like somehow that meant I wasn’t ‘spiritual.’ But these podcasts have taught that, for me, the Spirit primarily speaks through engaging my mind. The conversations on the Maxwell Institute Podcast are a profound combination of mind, heart and spirit. Thank you for enriching my life and expanding my vision!
Thanks for that, Lizzy, that’s exactly what we’re going for here. We have another review from DLCardon who says “Your podcast has been such a blessing, especially during these times when I have felt cut off from other sources of inspiration.” I’ve felt the same, and seeing these reviews come in has lifted me as well. So thank you for that review.
We’ve got one more here from LGGSmith, it says, “I listen to many podcasts, but by far my favorite one is from the Maxwell Institute. I always feel enlightened and uplifted. Having listened to all the podcasts from recent years, I’m now going back to hear ones I may have missed years ago.”
Good call, LGGSmith, because if you listen to every episode that’s been released so far, you get to join the Maxwell Institute Podcast Completists Club! With people like Christopher Ballard, Kate Gilmour, and Mike Wilcox. New members of the club. Email me and let me know if you’re a member of the club, if you listen to every single episode, and we’ll send you something. Eventually. We really will. It’s in the works now. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we’ll see you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“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)