Briefly Helaman, with Kimberly Matheson Berkey [MIPodcast #116]
Author Kimberly Matheson Berkey says book of Helaman is one of the best-kept secrets in the Book of Mormon. It marks a dramatic reversal in the history of Book of Mormon peoples. The spiritual tables turn. While the Lamanites righteously cast their eyes toward heaven, the Nephites take their first steps toward a surprising precipice where final destruction awaits.
Kimberly Matheson Berkey is a doctoral student in theology at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies the philosophy of religion. She serves on the boards of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar and the Book of Mormon Studies Association and has contributed several articles to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Kimberly Matheson Berkey joins us to talk about her book, Helaman: a brief theological introduction. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series. Berkey says, “The book of Helaman is one of the best kept secrets of the Book of Mormon. Sometimes overlooked but a pivotal moment of the history of the book’s peoples.”
Berkey is a doctoral student of theology at Loyola University Chicago where she studies the philosophy of religion. She also serves on the boards of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar and The Book of Mormon Studies Association.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Alright let’s get into another brief theological introduction. We’re looking at the book of Helaman.
HODGES: Kimberly Matheson Berkey, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
KIMBERLY MATHESON BERKEY: Thank you, it’s a delight to be here.
HODGES: And we’re joining each other via Skype, which is the most effective method of physical distancing during the pandemic!
HODGES: Where are you joining us from?
BERKEY: I am sitting in my kitchen in Chicago, Illinois.
HODGES: And I’m down here in my basement in Salt Lake City just hanging out with my microphone and my laptop. And we’re talking today about your new book, Helaman. It’s part of the brief theological introduction series to the Book of Mormon.
I think that every author in the series that I’ve talked to so far—they came to see their own book as central to the Book of Mormon itself, shockingly. [laughs] When you spend so much time with one particular book in the scripture you tend to recognize its importance in a new way, or at least that’s the impression that I’ve gotten from other authors. Do you feel like that’s the case with you as well?
BERKEY: That’s a really good question. I don’t know that I would say that. I’ve certainly come to see its importance in new ways, but I don’t know I walked away thinking it was the most central book. But faced with that provocation, I think I do see newly that the book of Helaman represents so many themes and threads from the Book of Mormon that come to a head in a new way.
So, we see the Nephites reaching a kind of more precipitous collapse than they do anywhere else in the Book of Mormon prior to their own actual destruction at the end of the book. We are setting up the climatic arrival of Christ in the next book in a new way. There is a unique kind of urgency to Helaman that is maybe worth thinking through.
HODGES: Your introduction says that you believe Helaman “is easily one of the best kept secrets in the Book of Mormon.” What did you mean by that—secret?
BERKEY: So that’s the good flipside of your question. Instead of coming to see the way that the book of Helaman is more central than I thought, I think I came to see how it’s more easily overlooked. What I meant by that statement was that there are so many gems in this book that we often overlook. I mention a couple of reasons there in the introduction.
One is that the book of Helaman is so short. It is a surprisingly small little book and it is overlooked, I think, in part because of the prestige of the books on either side of it. So the book of Alma that comes right before is very long. It is full of wars, lots of exciting events happening there at the end of the book—the kind of thing my seven year old son gets very excited about.
The book of Alma also has these long gorgeous theological sermons. Alma is a real sermonic genius. For those reasons, the book of Helaman can feel a little bit underwhelming compared to the length and the richness of Alma.
Then on the other side you have the book of Third Nephi, which hardly needs any description—that’s where Jesus shows up. And so it’s easy to feel like the book of Helaman is just an afterword to Alma or a kind of preamble to Third Nephi, and we rarely ever take a minute to look at Helaman in its own right.
HODGES: I think another thing that makes things difficult, as you point out in the first chapter of your book, is that Helaman opens up on a scene that looks very familiar to Book of Mormon readers. Set the stage for us. What’s happening as the book of Helaman opens, how is it similar to other moments of the Book of Mormon?
BERKEY: Right, it looks like exactly the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the book of Alma. We have a chief judge who has recently died and there’s some contention over who is going to occupy that office next. We’re very familiar with that after the book of Alma.
And we also have, out of this conflict, some dissenters heading across into Lamanite territory to stir up some armies there to come back and fight. And so soon enough we have a Lamanite army on the Nephites’ doorstep again. That should feel very familiar.
We even have many of the same characters. So, the general Moronihah who figured at the end of the book of Alma, he is the general who leads the Nephites to victory here in the opening chapter.
At first it looks like this is all just more of the same.
HODGES: I notice that you’ve said, “it looks like more of the same.” So why is it not more of the same?
BERKEY: It’s not more of the same because I think Mormon has editorialized this book to show us that it’s not. So he, for instance, has started a new book here. If this were more of the same, he might have kept it in the previous book—in the book of Alma.
The other thing that seems to me really significant is that when the Nephites start to fight over who is going to be the next chief judge there in Helaman 1, there are three options, three contenders for the judgement seat, three brothers who are fighting. And that has never happened before in the Book of Mormon. Usually when there’s a civic conflict of this sort it’s a split that runs in two directions only. We have two brothers or two contenders. And this goes all the way back to the very beginning of the Book of Mormon.
Nephi had more than one other brother certainly, but it’s very clear that that was divided into just two camps. It’s Nephi pitted against Laman and Lemuel treated as a unit, even though there are three brothers in that conflict it splits just two ways. At the opening of Helaman 1 that’s not the case anymore. We have three brothers and the conflict splits three ways, and to me that seems like a sign that conflict is ramping up among the Nephites. Things are not as stable as they had once been.
HODGES: You also notice there’s a pretty extreme moment of violence that we haven’t seen previously in the text as well, with the murder of the chief judge. That’s a first too, right?
BERKEY: Yeah, and it’s a first that’s going to be repeated several times in the book of
Helaman. The book of Helaman has more murdered chief judges per capita than any other book in the Book of Mormon. [laughter]
HODGES: The other thing that I noticed at the outset here, at the beginning of the book of Helaman, in chapter 2 where Mormon just throws out an outright spoiler. What’s he doing there?
BERKEY: So what you’re referring to is that this is the first time Mormon himself, in his own voice, has told us the Nephites will be destroyed at the end of the book. I think it’s significant that he doesn’t tell us this until we reach the book of Helaman. He could have told us this at any number of moments—that things look pretty dire for the Nephites—but he saves it for Helaman. I think because it’s in the book of Helaman that we as readers can finally see how bad things are for the Nephites. The trajectory that will ultimately land them in total destruction—that becomes visible to us for the first time in Helaman. And I think that’s part of what Mormon wants to show. So not only is he writing the story that reveals that to us readers, but he’s going to point it out to us explicitly as well.
HODGES: In your book you take time to dig into the actual threats that the Nephites are facing here. There are two different threats that the text focuses on: Coriantumr’s army and Kishkumen’s band. Kish-cue-min, is that how you’ve been pronouncing it?
BERKEY: That’s how I say it, but I was not there so I can’t verify that. [laughter]
HODGES: Yes. Well let’s talk about that—Coriantumr’s army and Kishkumen’s band, these are two threats that the Nephites are facing. I really liked your comparison of these two groups.
BERKEY: Well thank you, let’s dig it out. I think it’s very interesting that not only does the book of Helaman open on this conflict between three brothers. With a more-of-the-same kind of thing we’ve seen since the book of Alma, but now with new intensity. We also get this really interesting comparison between the two main threats that show up on the stage here. And as you say that’s Coriantumr’s army—he’s the guy leading this angry Lamanite group that comes into Zarahemla. And then also Kishkumen’s band that’s like the proto secret combination, the first instance.
And it seems me that Mormon is capitalizing on what we might call a kind of historical happenstance. That these two groups show up on the scene together, and so Mormon’s going to turn it into a teaching moment. What he does is he seems to want us to compare them. What’s noticeable to me at least is that Coriantumr’s army is very overt; it’s very obvious in its aims, in its direction. They just march right onto center stage. They march straight into the capital of Zarahemla. We know where they come from, we know where they are going. They come dressed in armor. Coriantumr is very interested in the spectacle of his own victory.
Meanwhile, we have Kishkumen’s band. He’s started to form his secret combination which is, not surprisingly, a band focused on secrecy. And they are not brazen, they are all about being invisible, being hidden, sneaking away where no one can see them. They don’t want anyone to know their name, their identity. And so it’s for this reason I think that Mormon emphasizes the use of disguise in Helaman 2, where Coriantumr’s army comes wearing armor, something that you have to recognize visually in order for it to function. Helaman’s servant infiltrates this secret band with the use of disguise. Disguise is something you can’t recognize as a disguise or else it has failed.
So I think Mormon is setting up the themes of visibility and invisibility in this opening chapter in the way that he compares a very visible army with a secret combination more bent on staying invisible and hidden.
HODGES: I think it also bears repeating that the record keeper himself is a military minded person, and so he’s sort of assessing these military threats and he’s going to draw moral lessons out of them. This is a pretty basic way of summing up Mormon as record keeper. Did you find that to hold true through the book of Helaman?
BERKEY: I did. I hinted just a moment ago that for me this seems to be the moral lesson that I understand Mormon to be giving us out of his analysis of this portion of Nephite history. What’s really plaguing the Nephites at this time, on Mormon’s telling, is that they are not attending to the kind of invisible moral undercurrents of their nation at this moment. They are distracted and focused on things that catch their eye. Things like, say, Lamanite armies that march right into your capital city but also things like wealth and economy. And they’re very very attentive to the Lamanites, their enemies at this period. They’re just so focused on looking everywhere but at themselves and evaluating their own moral failings in this period. They are so focused on everyone else and on visual markers of success that they have failed to attend to the secret things that threaten them most keenly.
HODGES: Yes, here’s a quote from you, you write, “What takes place in secret is often far more consequential than what takes place in the open. In a tragic illustration of human nature, the Nephites model our natural eagerness to prioritize the visible over the invisible.”
This comes out in a discussion about hearts. I had never noticed this in the text, you find the metaphor of hearts or Mormon is using heart in multiple ways here. Talk about that.
BERKEY: Yeah, this was a genuine surprise to me. In the first two chapters—so these very chapters where Mormon is comparing Coriantumr’s army and Kishkumen’s band—it’s easy for us as readers to get distracted by that conflict or by the movements of these two groups. They’re very interesting. But there’s also a subtler theme of hearts that runs through these two chapters.
Mormon repeats the word heart several times. We have Coriantumr marching into the heart of Nephite lands—the literal center, their capital city. We have Kishkumen telling all of his heart to Helaman’s servant. This is how he ends up getting killed. And then in this beautiful narrative irony, Kishkumen is actually stabbed right in the heart by that same servant. The degree to which he has disclosed himself is the degree to which he himself winds up threatened.
And the same is true of the Nephites. Not only has Coriantumr marched right into the heart of their lands, it’s a heart that they left unguarded. It said, “They had not kept sufficient guards,” here in the heart of their land. There’s a kind of false sense of security that has led the Nephites to leave unguarded the things that are nearest to them that are actually, in some ways, the most threatened.
HODGES: Right, you write here that “The Nephites are vulnerable at their core not just in terms of their geography and military strategy, but also in terms of their souls.”
Mormon is operating on these multiple levels in ways that I had never noticed until you pointed it out here. That’s something that I can tell is going to stick with me when I return to the book of Mormon in the future. So thank you for that.
BERKEY: You bet, precisely. It’s stuck with me as well.
HODGES: We’re speaking today with Kim Matheson Berkey—Kimberly Matheson Berkey, but she goes by Kim. She’s a doctoral student in theology at Loyola University Chicago where she studies the philosophy of religion.
Let’s take a minute to talk a little bit about your background before we move onto chapter two. How did you become the one to write the Helaman volume?
BERKEY: That’s a great question. I’ve been interested in the book of Helaman for many years. I would say this is the book where I got my first bit of training in theological readings of scripture. A friend and I decided that we wanted to give sustained close reading to a passage in the Book of Mormon that usually doesn’t get a lot of attention. One of the best candidates for that is the book of Helaman which, as I said, just gets overlooked unfortunately, and so that’s where I cut my teeth.
I spent several months just going very slowly and carefully through the book of Helaman and what I’ve found there I’ve stuck away in notes and it’s continued to fund my research for many years since. And then people, having heard me express my love of the book of Helaman, I guess I did that loudly enough that when it was time for authors to be selected I was invited to write this volume specifically.
HODGES: Have you found that your training in the philosophy of religion impacted writing the book at all? Because in this book you’re writing specifically to believers, to people who accept the text as scripture. Philosophy of religion looks at a lot of different faiths and is a bit more theoretical. Did you see overlap there between your academic work and the scholarship that’s sort of more dedicated to faith building?
BERKEY: I did. For me, that overlap comes in the way that philosophy teaches you to look at religion or at a religious text. Philosophy as a discipline is famously abstract. But I’ve found that really helpful because sometimes it’s necessary to be able to see more abstract patterns in the details of scripture.
So for instance, when Mormon has two armies showing up in Zarahemla in the same year, it’s useful to be able to take a step back and ask, “How do these groups operate? Can we compare them? What general patterns do I see in the way that these details are being presented?” That search for general patterns in textual particulars is something that I learned from philosophy specifically.
HODGES: Several of the people I’ve spoken with have talked about how their academic training hasn’t necessarily just been some sort of challenge to faith, but it’s been a supplement in something that has even enriched faith. Have you found that to be the case?
BERKEY: I have for sure. Again, academic training in my experience, my academic training has been an education in different perspectives. And it’s so useful to be able to come at questions from multiple angles, precisely because when I have a question that I feel stuck on, just as often as not I’m stuck because I’m stuck within a single framework. I am coming at it from just one angle and not finding the way through. And so I need to pause and take a different angle of approach, and once I do that I can usually find my way through. So in my case, yes, academic training has been an excellent resource for navigating the difficult kinds of questions that inevitably arise in the life of faith.
HODGES: Alright, let’s move on to chapter two now, Kim. The book of Helaman keeps an eye focused on economic matters, an important consideration in times of trouble obviously. I think we’re experiencing that right now, that when there’s unrest and uncertainty that affects livelihoods and that affects life. What’s happening economically in the text here?
BERKEY: When Mormon picks up in what is Helaman 3, this is the start of his original chapter 2 according to 1830 chapter breaks, but we know it as Helaman chapter 3. When that text opens, the Nephites are experiencing an incredible economic expansion. We have so much talk of them expanding their territory outwards, they’re building new cities, there’s talk of developing a shipping industry. So much mention of population growth, technological advancement, territorial expansion.
What’s curious about this is that Mormon doesn’t spend much time on it, this seems to be almost a decade of unprecedented growth for the Nephites and Mormon dispatches it pretty quickly, he wants to zoom straight past this. He does seem to want to mention it, it’s going to be important to the story, but he moves through it very quickly.
HODGES: And as he’s moving through it, you pick up the themes that he’s laying out here in terms of an individualistic approach to economic matters versus a kind of a covenant approach to different matters. Let’s talk about that.
BERKEY: Right, so the other thing he does here in this next stretch of chapters, is once again Mormon gives us a comparison, right alongside all of this economic expansion among Nephites that trains them to think in terms of individuals and individual success and acquisition. His comparison for that is the family of Helaman.
Helaman is chief judge at this point, but Mormon decides to give us a view into his family. And Helaman is described as a man who walks in the ways of his father, he keeps the commandments of God. And that to me is a really striking juxtaposition with the economic expansion of the Nephites, because Helaman is not concerned with personal success. He’s more interested in ancestral tradition. He wants to follow the path cut for him by his father.
We get mention here of his sons, and he gives them the names Nephi and Lehi. And that I think is significant because in this moment when it’s every man for himself and what can I acquire financially, and where am I going to build my new cities, Helaman has his eye on the past. That seems to me very reminiscent of the covenant. He’s not just walking in the path of his father, he’s thinking all the way back to the beginning of the Book of Mormon, to the fathers, Nephi and Lehi, and he names his sons for them.
There in that portion of the book I try to draw out a covenant story into which Helaman is trying to write his family. He wants his sons to grow up focused on their covenants, on their fathers, on the religious traditions that he himself is trying to walk in.
HODGES: And do you see some negative side-effects to that as well. As you point out in your book that the Book of Mormon spends a lot of time comparing Nephites and Lamanites and most of the time in negative ways. Holding up the Lamanites as a foil to the Nephites righteousness. Here’s a quote from you:
“Readers might well be suspicious in how persistently the Lamanites come to play in the Nephites self-reflection.” What about that?
BERKEY: Great. This is another moment, this comes in Helaman 4 where, as you say, Mormon shows us that comparison, although he is using comparison in this editorial way to teach us moral lessons. He also is aware that the Nephites at this time are incredibly comparative people and he wants to be clear that editorial comparison for moral lessons is very different from a kind of other-focused, judgmental kind of comparison.
And that’s what we see with the Nephites, this shows up in Helaman 4 when the Nephites are at war with the Lamanites. And it’s going pretty badly for them and you would think that at this moment the Nephites might finally wake up to their wickedness, finally repent, turn things around, and it looks like they start to.
HODGES: And by the way, take a second to explain what that wickedness looks like. What are they actually doing?
BERKEY: Okay so, problems the Nephites are having, there are so, so many. They start certainly, we can see the symptoms of them in the incredible violence and political polarization of that period, which should sound a little familiar to us. The Nephites, again as I said, this is the first time that chief judges have ever been murdered in history. There’s a whole lot of political conflict. We know that following the economic expansion, there’s a rise of economic inequality in new ways with the Nephites. They have become increasingly callous, it seems, towards the less well-off members of their society. And all of these things have now spun up into a situation of such pride that the Nephites find themselves on the bad end of what we know colloquially as the “pride cycle.”
HODGES: Okay, good.
BERKEY: So here, the Nephites are once again at war with Lamanites and it’s not going well for them. They’ve reached a point where they can’t regain anymore territorial holdings and you would think that this would be the perfect moment to stop and self-reflect and maybe ask, why are things going so badly? What’s happened to the kind of divine fortune that we can usually trust in from God? And it looks like they start to.
In Helaman 4 there’s this moment where the Nephites start to think about their past and they do see some sins there, some wickedness that they might want to change. But running right alongside that past reflection, there’s this regular switch in verb tense, in the verbs in chapter 4, and all of the sudden they jump into the present. And what they do in the present is they compare themselves to the Lamanites, and it looks something like this: they see that they had been wicked even like the Lamanites right now.
And this happens so repeatedly that I began to wonder in reading it if maybe there’s something symptomatic going on. Which is a way of saying, it looks like there’s something a little fishy happening here. The Nephites seem willing to recognize their past sins, but only if they’re given the opportunity to compare themselves with the Lamanites.
This is not so honest a self-assessment as it first appears. They seem willing to introspect but every time they get close to really seeing something about themselves that needs to change, they take a hard left turn and start vilifying the Lamanites for being wicked and for being corrupt. Their own moral feelings can’t hold their attention. What does hold their attention is how much they hate the other guy. And into this, Mormon weaves an editorial reflection to describe the ways that God’s spirit cannot be with them because they’re not focused on themselves and their own moral improvement, they’re focused on what’s wrong with everyone else.
HODGES: With all of this in mind, you talk a lot about how the text is focusing specifically on where the Nephites are looking. The visual is a theme of your book that comes up again and again. So maybe just one more word about that, that the text is actually specific about where they’re looking.
BERKEY: Yes, the Nephites—in the book of Helaman, Mormon diagnoses the Nephites as a people who are consistently focused outward. They are focused on others, they’re focused on Lamanites, they’re focused on wealth, they’re focused on economic expansion. They are constantly looking elsewhere, anywhere, other than themselves.
They are not focused on the threats in their own families, the kind of conflict between brothers with which the book opens. They are not focused on themselves enough to notice the secret combinations taking root in their midst. If I had to name one theme for the book of Helaman it would be this, this is why it comes up so often: Mormon seems to be diagnosing the problem with the Nephites as a problem of sight. They are looking in the wrong places and as a result they are setting themselves up for destruction.
HODGES: We’re coming up on Helaman chapter 5 now, which you say is the most intertextual chapter in the Book of Mormon. Let’s talk about intertextuality as a way to read scripture. What it is, what it means, and how you saw it here in Helaman chapter 5.
BERKEY: Right, so intertextuality is a kind of fancy word that academics use to describe texts that refer to other texts. They’re making allusions, they’re echoing, they’re calling back earlier vocabulary or themes, and that’s a really useful way to set up a conversation between two texts. The reason to pull that term up in Helaman 5 is because the Book of Helaman does this extensively.
The book of Helaman is constantly referring back to characters who appear earlier in the book of Mormon. We have references to Alma, Amulek, Zeezrom, King Benjamin, Nephi and Lehi of course. We also have a number of themes and images that only appear one other place in the Book of Mormon. But to my mind the most significant series of parallels in this chapter is back to the vision of the tree of life that Lehi has in 1 Nephi 8.
Here too we have kind of a misty cloud of darkness that overshadows the people in the prison. We have an architectural structure that seems to be shaken to its foundations. This is the great and spacious building for Lehi but shows up as a prison in Helaman chapter five. We even have this vertical, bright and shiny structure—for Lehi that was his tree of life, for the people of Helaman five that’s the pillars of fire that come down and surround the Lamanites. It seems to me that it’s a classic case of intertextuality. Part of what Helaman five is doing is drawing together images that should make us think back to Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, that’s the conversation that Mormon wants to stage at this point in Nephite history.
HODGES: Let’s talk about how Nephi enters the scene here. This is in the third chapter of your book. Nephi, the son of Helaman, he’s been gone from the capital city for six years. What do you see happening here?
BERKEY: Right, Nephi has been on a mission, up in the northward territory with his brother and some new Lamanite converts. And he hasn’t had much success. Everywhere he goes among the Lamanites he seems to find some success, but anywhere he’s going in Nephite territory turns out badly. So after six years he heads home. Home for him is the city of Zarahemla and it seems as though as soon as he sets foot in his home city after six years he is absolutely, absolutely shocked at the degree of depravity that he finds among these people.
In just six years, things have gone so far downhill, he’s kind of overcome and we get this interesting emotional outburst. He decides to climb up on a tower in his garden, apparently, and he starts just baring his soul, crying with a loud voice, lamenting how much wickedness has come upon his people in this short period. It’s not clear to me whether it’s accidentally or by design that one way or another this draws a crowd, and there follows Nephi’s intervention among the people.
HODGES: And Nephi is really focused on getting the people to look. Looking is another theme here.
BERKEY: Yes, so once again Mormon wants us to keep focus on where the Nephites eyes are. And in this case, first of all, it’s interesting to notice that they are very focused on Nephi. And you can kind of—the basic tenor of the conversation they have with Nephi is that he can see everything that is wrong with them but they can’t seem to see it. They’re all gathered around his tower kind of bewildered, wondering how on earth a prophet could be lamenting like this. Everything seems to be going great, what could possibly be wrong? So in that moment, what Nephi can see, they cannot. They have completely failed to see themselves and the status of their own hearts.
The other thing, once again, that they’ve failed to see is the way that secret combinations with their focus on wealth and violence have taken root among the people, and this is what Nephi then condemns in the speech that follows.
HODGES: And Nephi’s granted a unique power here, this is a sealing power, that we don’t really see in other scriptures in exactly the same way. I don’t think it’s what Latter-day Saints often think of today when they think of “sealing” power. Talk about that a little bit.
BERKEY: Right, this comes in Helaman chapter 11. Nephi tries to get the Nephites to repent, as prophets do, and Nephi fails, the Nephites are just not having it. And so he kind of turns tail and heads home, and the Lord stops him and grants him the sealing power, and this again, as you mention, this is not the sealing power as Latter-day Saints know it. The Lord doesn’t want Nephi to form a new church, he doesn’t want Nephi to seal families for eternal life so they can live together forever. What he seems to want Nephi to do is to seal the heavens, to institute a famine. And so this I think is a new kind of way of thinking about sealing.
What the Lord seems to want Nephi to do, he says there that the sealing power will amount to whatever Nephi says it will be done. Whatever word Nephi gives, it will immediately become in action and this I think is important because this is what the Nephites are lacking.
They are not—their words are unstable. This is a time of secret oaths and political intrigue and duplicity and people are not saying what they mean, in a way that has now resulted in a lot of moral depravity for the people. And so part of what Nephi is being given is a way to tie words down to actions, to deeds, in a way that he hopes, and the Lord hopes, will help them face up to their situation.
HODGES: And how are the people reacting to that? He’s lamenting, he’s giving these prophetic declarations about things that they’ve been doing wrong. What’s the reaction of the people?
BERKEY: There are a number of reactions, interestingly. First, primary among them seems to be outrage, complete outrage that anyone would dare to say that things were not going great among the Nephites. They’re quite pleased with their economic expansion, and with secret combinations as a technique for gaining more money and more power, so there’s a lot of outrage among the Nephites. That outrage comes from those in power.
And from everybody else I read just a lot of bewilderment. They cannot seem to understand why Nephi is saying the things that he is. Interestingly, after Nephi institutes a famine and then successfully repeals the famine everybody loves Nephi. As soon as it becomes a question of getting their rainfall back and not starving to death, they’re really fond of him.
HODGES: Let’s talk more about secret combinations, because this is something from the text that’s really generated a lot of discussion over the years. I think a lot of readers are eager to identify who today are these secret combinations and we see a rise in conspiracy theory thinking. So how did you handle this part of the text?
BERKEY: Great question. I think the fascination with secret combinations has been around for basically as long as the Book of Mormon has been around. And it’s a really natural fascination, this phenomenon is just so interesting. We have secret intrigue, we have murders in the streets by night, it’s just a great story, it really just captures our attention and our imagination.
But what I see Mormon doing here with secret combinations is, once again, asking readers to learn how to look for things that are hidden, not among others, but among themselves in their own hearts. Because the crucial thing about the secret combinations that I think readers constantly miss, is that the secret combinations are not the enemy of the Nephites, the secret combinations are the Nephites. Nephites are secret combinations, the people who join these bands are Nephites, these bands overtake the people until they’ve completely saturated the government. There is no difference between the Nephites at large and the secret combinations by the end of the book.
And so I think a real danger in reading the book of Helaman is that we might too sharply differentiate these groups. The lesson is not that the Nephites should have been more hypervigilant against secret combinations, the lesson is that they are the secret combinations and they’ve failed to see the way that their own hearts gave rise to this kind of wickedness.
HODGES: Do you think it would be easy still to take those secret combinations and map them onto a current political ideology? Is this text focused on secret combinations as a political ideology or more as a political tactic?
BERKEY: I certainly don’t think that it’s a political ideology, but it’s often been taken that way. But secret combinations do get caught up in our own political discourse both left and right. What I see is most crucial about secret combinations or most revealing in their role among the Nephites is that they show how interested the Nephites themselves are in power. And this I think is a lesson that we often miss. So what makes secret combinations so attractive to the Nephites is that they look like a technique for gaining power. Gaining power over one’s enemies, political or military. They seem like a really good way to get power.
The problem when we then use secret combinations to identify other people in our political landscape today is that we sometimes miss the way we ourselves fall into this same trap of playing power games. I’ve seen this as I’ve been working on a book on Helaman people ask me this question often, “What are secret combinations? Where do you think secret combinations are?” I’ve heard this from people of all political persuasions. And what everyone uniquely seems to miss is that in that question we ourselves risk thirsting for power, we ourselves are looking for a way to gain power over those with whom we disagree. The lesson of secret combinations, I think, is not to find ways to gain more power over people, it’s to notice the ways that you’re thirsty for power. The reason secret combinations took root among the Nephites unnoticed was because there was a market for power and money among the Nephites, that’s where secret combinations got their start.
HODGES: And you also point out that the people that were doing the secret combinations also were spreading their own secret combination theories about other people. They had a propaganda campaign against leaders of the church for example. Saying for example, “Oh don’t listen to Nephi and these people, they’re just setting themselves to have power over you.” So they’re almost telling on themselves in the accusations that they’re making about their opposition.
BERKEY: Exactly. So this comes in the very last chapter in the book of Helaman, chapter 16, there’s this fascinating moment, I think, where after Samuel the Lamanite has come to preach, again the people reject him as well. And they explain why they reject him and his signs. It’s the unbelievers in Helaman 16 who are the real conspiracy theorists of this text. They are so concerned that religion is just a ploy to get power over them and their lives that in fact they are the conspiracy theorists.
So if we come away from the Book of Helaman thinking that this is license to then ferret out the power games with others with whom we disagree, there is a risk that we have become exactly like the unbelievers of the text, not the people that Mormon most wants us to emulate.
HODGES: That’s Kimberly Matheson Berkey, she’s a doctoral student at Loyola University Chicago. She also serves on the board of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar and the Book of Mormon Studies Association. You can find some of her previous work in articles she’s published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. She joins us today from Chicago. We’re talking via Skype, safe and distant from each other on a computer screen, and it’s stranger than being in person.
Kim, I’m going to skip over chapter 4, people who want to find out more about what you do with Helaman chapter 12 you cover that in your fourth chapter, I’m going to refer them to the book, it’s a fascinating chapter. But for lack of time let’s scoot forward to your chapter 5 where we’re introduced to another first in the text. It’s the first time that we’re introduced to a Lamanite prophet. You say this remarkable figure, Samuel the Lamanite, is presented in the text as a foil to Nephi. Tell us about that.
BERKEY: The way the book of Helaman is structured, Nephi and Samuel are set up in parallel. So the book ends with a Nephite prophet and a Lamanite prophet and they become kind of partners in illustrating Nephite wickedness at this period of the story. And we can see that in a number of textual details that set them alongside one another.
One is a Nephite and one is a Lamanite, certainly. But both are interrupted on the way home, they are commissioned while they are headed someplace else. They both use similar language, certainly they also both leave the story together, our last mention of Nephi comes right after Samuel exits the story. They both use this curious double phrase, “repent ye, repent ye.” Usually that’s never said twice in a row but both of them use that phrase. They’re both very good at scripting the language of the people they are trying to diagnose.
Most interestingly, they both issue curses. Nephi curses the land—this is how we get a famine and just a few chapters later Samuel talks about a curse on the land in the form of riches that will slip away once buried. I think whatever we’re going to learn from Nephi and Samuel, Mormon wants us to read them together as partners in this ministry
HODGES: Right, so you’ve laid out the comparison. Now let’s take a look at the contrast. What’s the difference between these two?
BERKEY: The differences between the two, well it starts in one further similarity, both of them issue two signs to the people. Nephi gives signs of his own prophetic ability when he tells the people that their chief judge has been murdered and what the murderer will say when confronted. These are his two signs. Samuel’s two signs are very different. He gives two signs of the Messiah’s coming: three days of light, three days of darkness, these are his two signs. This seems to me an indication of the kind of scope of their respective prophecies.
Nephi is very focused on local political concerns among the Nephites, that is the level of his intervention. But then we also get Samuel’s, an excellent partner for Nephi, because his scope is grander, it’s more cosmic, he can see four hundred years into the future not just four hours. So, I think together between them I use the example of a wide angle lens and a fine zoom for Samuel and Nephi respectively. And once again we see Mormon using every kind of visual apparatus at his disposal to help us see the Nephites more clearly.
HODGES: And for Samuel, he gives them the signs to watch for, do you think these signs are supposed to lead to faith? Is he giving them things to say, “I’m going to prove it to you that this is going to happen, you watch and this is going to happen”? What’s happening here in terms of how signs and faith work together?
BERKEY: I’m glad you ask because Samuel does something very surprising, theologically. Usually in scripture when a prophet talks about the relationship between signs and faith he usually says that faith comes first. Signs don’t cause faith, faith comes first and then if you prove faithful you will receive signs.
Samuel flips that on his head, he says, “I’m giving you these signs so that you might believe, so that there will be no cause for unbelief.” And that should shock us all, because that’s not how prophets usually talk. Samuel is doing something interesting. Samuel is doing something interesting in the relationship between signs and faith, and it seems that what he wants to do, the way he lays this out, he says that signs are a way of unsettling the Nephites’ knowledge, their confidence. And we see this in the way that the signs operate.
For instance, in the three days of miraculous light, he says, “you will watch the sun rise and the sun set, you will know of a surety that the sun has gone down and it is now nighttime. Nevertheless it will still be bright.” In other words, you know something, nevertheless what you thought was the case is no longer proving to be true.
And so for him the signs are a way of unsettling the Nephites’ knowledge, the things they think they know, the things they think they are so confident in. The signs are a way of showing them that their knowledge is not sufficient to understand what’s happening, and this he says will unsettle them enough that maybe hopefully they will turn to faith, they will find cause for belief and no cause for unbelief in the unsettling of their knowledge.
HODGES: Did the Nephites notice the irony in a Lamanite coming to them? I mean they’ve been comparing themselves to the Lamanites the whole time, and of course we see later in the Book of Mormon they don’t even want to record it, when Jesus comes he says, “where’s the prophecy of Samuel?”
BERKEY: Right, Jesus comes and specifically asks, “This prophecy is fulfilled, why haven’t you recorded the fulfillment of it?” The Nephites don’t seem to see the irony, tragically. Mormon wants to make sure that we do, but the Nephites don’t seem to see it.
In fact, in the middle of his sermon Samuel says, “You’re not listening because I’m a Lamanite, because I’m a Lamanite, one of these people you hate so much, you’re not proving receptive to my message.”
It seems that rather than seeing the irony and that being a wakeup call they continue to hate the Lamanites so much that they will refuse even this messenger with his divine commission and his impressive signs.
HODGES: I’d like to hear one more explanation of something you wrote here in the book that I underlined:
“For Samuel, faith is neither a steppingstone on the way to certainty or the starting line of our spiritual race.”
So if it’s neither the stepping stone on the way to certainty, like, faith exists until you get certain, or you must have faith to begin on your race to certainty?
BERKEY: Right, I think faith comes in the middle, it’s part of the process. It’s not just a starting place, and it’s not just an ending place. Faith is something we carry with us along the way to help temper our knowledge.
So I think the place we start, as the whole plan of salvation starts, is with knowledge. That’s where Adam and Eve began, they take fruit from the tree of knowledge and we know this, we’ve been growing up ever since we were kids. We’ve been learning and gaining knowledge about how the world works.
The trick is to make sure that that knowledge is always held carefully and paired with faith. That we never grow too hardened in the things we think we know because that is a recipe for disaster. You don’t learn, you can’t progress that way. To my mind, Samuel is giving us a picture of faith as a necessary accompaniment to knowledge. Something we carry with us on our journey.
HODGES: That’s Kimberly Berkey and we’re talking to her about Helaman: a brief theological introduction. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction series to the Book of Mormon. A series of books where we invited individual scholars to write individual books about individual books in the Book of Mormon and Helaman is the one we’re talking about today. If you want to learn more about that series you can go to the Maxwell Institute’s website mi.byu.edu/brief you can learn all about the volumes that have already come out. You can order those books and you can learn about the books that have yet to come out. And preorder them when they’re available.
Alright, Kim here’s a quote here from the conclusion to your book: “One reading of the book of Helaman leaves us with an inescapable conclusion. You and I are wrong.” What did you mean by that?
BERKEY: It seems to me that the Book of Helaman is so insistent that we learn to look at ourselves, to investigate ourselves, not to get distracted by all the many things that want to catch our eye. Other people, political intrigue, wealth—all of these things are distractions from the real moral task, which is one of self-investigation and self-improvement. To my mind, the gospel is one of the best tools we have for improving ourselves and guarding against dangerous spiritual impulses. But to make it work we have to look at ourselves honestly and assess the ways we fall short. And when we do that we will find, without fail, that we are wrong about a lot of things. We believe things that aren’t true, we behave contrary to what we know is right, we fall short in so many ways.
So what I meant with that line is that I hope when we read the book of Helaman we come away feeling spurred to greater self-reflection and more humility, rather than galvanized to being distracted by so many of the things that often want to catch our eye. The message of the book of Helaman is that if we are to avoid the fate of the Nephites, we need to be far more self-critical and honest in our self-assessments. This is precisely what they failed to do.
HODGES: Before we go, I’d also like to talk just a little bit about theology and how you define it. It’s interesting to hear from the different authors, because I think different authors have different definitions of what doing theology even is. And by the way, I think that’s by design in this series, we wanted to get a variety of voices. The editors, Spencer Fluhman and Phil Barlow, really made a point to get a variety of perspectives.
So let’s talk about your understanding of theology. What it means to do theology and think theologically and those type of things.
BERKEY: Well somewhat kind of, in the kind of classic cliché, it’s an etymological view, which is that theology is the word of God, words about God, words spoken by God.
HODGES: Is this what Webster says about that word? [laughs]
BERKEY: Right. But I think maybe a more lively way to put that is that theology is the conversation sparked by God and what we have with God as disciples. And so theology is a way of entering into that conversation. You read the words from God—scripture—that are words about God and you speak to and about God in response.
HODGES: So you’re sure to put God into that mix as well. We often hear people say that theology is people talking about God. But you point out specifically that it also includes talking with God.
BERKEY: Yes, and for me I think that’s because scripture plays a central role in how I conceive of the task of theology. Theology is not just talking about God, it’s talking about God in conjunction with the words that he has given us, in the form of scripture. So I see scripture as kind of the opening bid in a conversation from heaven to earth, and my job as a disciple is to then take very seriously the words he’s given, to find new readings to dig into them, to see the patterns that are there. And then, by wagering my interpretations on these words, I can join the conversation.
HODGES: Do you find difficulty sometimes in reading a text that was written so long ago? The Book of Mormon is an ancient record where people are thinking about God and interacting with God and presenting their ideas about God in ways that don’t always line up with contemporary Latter-day Saint thought.
Like for example, Latter-day Saints today would talk about the afterlife and three degrees of glory and not a strict heaven or hell dichotomy like what we find in the Book of Mormon. Sometimes we encounter things in the text that don’t align as well with where we are at today. How do you reckon with those type of things?
BERKEY: This can be a challenge. In my Sunday School class and with many people I’ve spoken with, this is a real challenge to reading the Book of Mormon today. A lot of people struggle to make contemporary sense of a book that reads so differently than so many of our own modern values. My own approach to this has been that whenever the text presents these sticking points, these places that are hard to make sense of, usually that’s a sign that I have not dug in enough.
So an easy metaphor to use is driving a car, when you hit a speed bump your two worst options are to speed up or to shut the car down. Speed bumps are not an invitation to just abandon the journey all together, they’re an invitation to slow down. I think reading scripture functions much the same way, when we encounter challenges in the text that’s not an occasion to toss the book aside, or to just plow straight through, these are the moments that God has put there to arrest us sometimes. To ask us to slow down and wrestle and to join him in the conversation.
HODGES: And that’s what theology can help us do, it’s that ongoing engagement that willingness to slow down and to keep driving.
HODGES: That’s Kimberly Matheson Berkey. She’s a doctoral student in theology at Loyola University in Chicago. How much time do you have left by the way?
BERKEY: That’s a good question, because all that’s standing between me and then end is a dissertation. So, however long a dissertation takes, that’s however long it takes.
HODGES: Do you have a topic on that yet?
BERKEY: I’m writing on prayer, actually.
HODGES: How did you arrive at that as the topic?
BERKEY: I’ve always been interested in prayer, I knew it was a topic that I could sustain long term attention on. And for me, prayer is where the rubber hits the road of my own devotional life. Sometimes we treat prayer as just the pragmatic side, there’s nothing really interesting or theologically or theoretically at stake in prayer. And so part of what I want to do is think through the philosophical side of that, what is happening when I get down on my knees when I offer a prayer to heaven.
HODGES: Thank you for talking to us today. I should also let people know, again as a reminder, that Kim serves on the boards of the Latter-day Saint theology Seminar and the Book of Mormon Studies Association. And is the conference for that happening this year?
BERKEY: It is, yes.
HODGES: And do they know if it’s going to be in person?
BERKEY: We’re waiting to hear from USU up in Logan, so we’re going to follow their guidelines. So whatever form we do the conference in, it is happening, and it will be socially distanced in one form or another, but we’re waiting to hear back from them.
HODGES: And where can people learn more about that?
BERKEY: On our website, that’s BOMSA.org
HODGES: Alright, great. And you’re the author of Helaman: a brief theological introduction, it’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series.
Kim I really appreciate you taking the time today, joining me via skype to talk about your book.
BERKEY: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
HODGES: Thank you for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’re three quarters of the way through the Book of Mormon now, can you believe that? We still have to cover Third and Fourth Nephi, that’s by Daniel Becerra, and Mormon which is Adam Miller, and Ether from Roslyn Welch, and the book of Moroni from David Holland.
And I’ve been hearing from a few more completists of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, these are people who have made it through every episode to date. We’re preparing a little bonus gift for those who’ve made the entire journey. You can send me an email if you’re a completist and we’ll get you on the list, the email is email@example.com.
I can’t remember if I’ve sent greetings to Ben and Katie Stanley, Tony Brown, and David Hoggan, but they’re completists. Once things get settled down in the world we’ll be sending something special their way.
Alright, well our featured podcast review today comes from Holly CSC, she gave us five stars and she writes:
“I’ve truly enjoyed how this podcast has helped me see gospel principles from new angles. After each episode I have a lot to ponder, I often find myself going back to listen again in order to gain more clarity and perspective. I’ve especially enjoyed the interviews with authors of the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. The latest one with Kylie Nelson Turley about Alma was eye opening. Each time a new episode pops up I’m thrilled to find a new corner of the house to clean so I can spend my time filling my mind with deep thought while doing monotonous work of life.”
Alright well thank you Holly, I also enjoy listening to podcasts while doing the monotonous work of life, doing work around the house as well. Thank you for that review.
I hope to see more reviews. You can leave reviews at Apple podcasts, you can leave a comment on Facebook or YouTube, where we also post audio-only episodes.
I’m Blair Hodges for the Maxwell Institute and I’ll talk to 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)