Briefly Mosiah, with James E. Faulconer [MIPodcast #106]
This episode continues our special series of episodes on the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. In his book on Mosiah, philosopher and theologian James E. Faulconer untangles a complicated narrative—a fragmentary history about a fragmented people, written by a record keeper obsessed with unity. Faulconer unpacks what King Benjamin had in mind in speaking of the “mysteries of God.”
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. How’s everybody doing? I hope everyone’s staying safe and healthy as COVID-19 continues its global disruption.
For this episode, I travelled down to Provo to talk with James E. Faulconer about his book, Mosiah: a brief theological introduction. I just finished recording the episode, then editing it on the same day. Now I’m putting on the finishing touches alone here in BYU’s Clyde Building—the Institute’s temporary, but extremely empty home.
This episode continues our series featuring authors of the Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series. You can learn more on our website, mi.byu.edu/brief.
It’s philosophy professor James E. Faulconer talking about Mosiah. You can send me your questions and comments, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
HODGES: You can hear a truck passing by right now! That’s because me and James E. Faulconer are outside today in Provo. We’re gonna let the truck pass. I think we’ll keep this in, give people a sense of what we’re dealing with here. [laughter]
But we’re here on campus at Brigham Young University staying socially distanced, for the most part, away from each other, wiping down the equipment with disinfectant and things like that. Jim, thanks for taking the time to do this today.
JAMES E. FAULCONER: Glad to do it.
HODGES: We’re going to talk about Mosiah, and this is the eighth book in the Book of Mormon, but as we were reminded in our discussion with Sharon Harris about Enos, Jarom, and Omni, the original beginning to the Book of Mormon has been lost. And so, here’s how you put it in your book—you say, “Joseph Smith actually read Mosiah to his scribes before anything else in the Book of Mormon as we know it.” That’s what you say. And you say it’s a remarkable book. It contains a lot of drama in a good sense.
What do you think makes Mosiah memorable for most Latter-day Saints?
FAULCONER: I think it’s probably a combination of, first of all, King Benjamin’s sermons, and then Abinadi’s sermons after that. One of the really interesting things about the book is the way it shows the kind of fragmentation that keep occurring within Nephite society and the way the prophets try to overcome those fragmentations. At the same time, you have political leaders who are trying to deal with the fragmentation politically and prophets who are trying to deal with this fragmentation in a religious way. And so, it’s an interesting book to see the comparison between those two ways of dealing with the problem.
HODGES: You also say the book of Mosiah can be a challenge, particularly for first time readers. What do you think makes the book challenging?
FAULCONER: Well, I think that there are several things that make it challenging. One is, I think that King Benjamin’s sermons, they really don’t say what we want them to say. They don’t focus on obedience in the way that we would like them to. They focus on our “nothingness” in a way that we don’t want them to. They really challenge our understanding of the gospel.
I think that this challenge is not that difficult to resolve, actually, but I still think when we read it people find it quite challenging.
And then, I think there’s also the challenge of trying to understand, just from a narrative point of view, what in the world is going on here. Because the narrative bounces around from one time period to another.
HODGES: Like a good philosopher, you bring up Aristotle. You say, “The book of Mosiah breaks Aristotle’s rules.” What are those rules?
FAULCONER: Oh, the rules are that you always have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it doesn’t have a beginning, that’s been broken off—it’s fragmented. The middle is twisted over on top of itself so that the King Benjamin sermons, which occurred later, are given to us first. And then the ending is just kind of a—it just kind of trails off. It doesn’t really have a definite narrative ending. It doesn’t come to some kind of final conclusion.
HODGES: There’s been a lot of ink spilled looking at the sources of the book of Mosiah, Jim. This is the first part of the Book of Mormon that we see through the redactor. Through Mormon. Let’s spend a minute talking about what biblical scholars call “source criticism” and how that might apply to this text, how people have dealt with Mosiah through that kind of approach.
FAULCONER: Well, I guess it’s an interesting question because my own view is that source criticism is interesting historically, but not interesting textually. I just don’t care very much about, you know, who edited it, or which documents it came from.
I think there may be things to be learned from it, and I’m not criticizing people who do that kind of study, particularly. But what I’m saying is that we’re given a book and we’re a given in a book in a form that we’re intended to have it. And so, we ought to be reading it first of all and most fundamentally, as the book that we have. Instead of worrying about who’s the editor at this point, or what’s the source of this quotation or that discussion, what we’re interested in is, why is it that we have the book as we have it?
HODGES: You’re kind of looking at it at that finished-product stage. This is what your book does. And as you said, there are other approaches. People can try to analyze the sources that Mormon was using or try to separate his voice out from other voices and try to get at how he’s affecting the sources and these type of things. They raise interesting questions. For your theological approach, you decided to take it as the book that we have it and approach it as a whole.
FAULCONER: Right, right. Because it seems to me that we could try to say, “So what was going on in Mormon’s mind as he was trying to produce this book?” or in the original documents, are the redactors of those documents trying to re-produce what the writers originally produced?
Those can be interesting questions, but the more interesting question is, “What does the final product say? What is that supposed to do?”
HODGES: In your introduction, you suggest that readers can notice certain phrases in scripture that can kind of get to the core of the book’s theology. What kind of phrases pop out to you and come to mind when you think of the book of Mosiah?
FAULCONER: Well, there are a couple places where you see those bits of language. One of them, of course, is King Benjamin’s sermon where he talks about our nothingness and about the majesty of God and the way in which it’s important for us to recognize that majesty.
Another that occurs with some regularity is this reference to Christ in a variety of different ways, but the importance for Abinadi is that there is a Christ figure who’s coming—a Christ who’s coming, not just a Christ figure, but a Christ who’s coming—and who’s going to save people from their sins. So, there’s this notion of the necessity of there being some kind of salvation that occurs both in Benjamin and in Abinadi.
HODGES: What readers will see in your book is that you’ll find these phrases and then you’ll expand on them. Rather than giving an overview of every chapter in the book narratively, you’re looking theologically at what these themes are, and then how the different prophets and people are talking about them.
Also, in your introduction you say you see a difference between theology and doctrine. You say your focus isn’t doctrinal, but theological. Unpack the differences there between doctrine and theology as you see it.
FAULCONER: Well the word “doctrine” literally means teaching. And there are the teachings of the church and those things are whatever they are. And I’m not going to try any particular mode to decide what’s doctrine and what’s not. But the doctrine is those things that the church teaches with some kind of authority.
Theology by comparison is a reflection on the doctrines, upon the scriptures, upon Latter-day Saint life. There are a variety of ways that one can do theology. One can do a theology of art by reflecting on Latter-day Saint art. So, theology is this reflective move where we step back and look at our doctrines or our practices of various kinds and we ask ourselves, “So, what are the ways that we can understand those? And what are the ways that those can have meaning?”
HODGES: Do you think theology can lead to doctrine? What’s the relationship between the two? Because someone might ask, “Well, why don’t you talk about doctrine then, if Latter-day Saints believe in doctrine? Why not share more doctrine?”
FAULCONER: Well, the doctrine, it seems to me, is already given in one way or another by our scriptures and by the church. And my job isn’t to decide what’s doctrinal and what’s not or to declare doctrine. My job is to say—as a philosopher, as a theologian, as an academic—these things have been given to us, now what does what we’ve been given mean? What are the ways in which we can understand that? And that’s a very different kind of question than what is or isn’t doctrinal.
HODGES: There are two big words you pull out here in this introduction—exegesis and eisegesis. Let’s talk about those for a minute and how they relate to theology.
FAULCONER: So, “exegesis” means reading what the scriptures say—taking it out of, exe. Exegetical means to take it out of the text. “Eisegesis” means you read it into the text. And in principle, I mean at least theoretically, we often think, “Oh, this is really easy to tell the difference. If I’m doing exegesis, I just tell you, ‘This is what the Book of Mormon or this particular scripture says.’ If I’m doing eisegesis, I tell you, ‘Oh, well this is what I thought of when I read that particular scripture.'”
In practice, I think it’s a lot harder to distinguish the two than we sometimes think. It’s almost impossible for me to do exegesis without already having some notion of what I think it means and any notion of what I think it means—well, I shouldn’t say any because I guess there are people who have very fanciful ideas of what scripture means. But even if you’re reading responsibly—what you think the text means comes from an interaction with the text.
So, eisegesis and the exegesis, in a way, when you’re being careful, play back off of one another. “I think it means this, I read this text and it says, ‘No, not quite.'” And so that reconfigures what I’ve been thinking. And then I come back to the text with what I’ve been thinking and there’s this interplay between the two ways of thinking about texts.
HODGES: One way to think of it, as you said, is exegesis is receiving something from the text. Maybe being taught by the text. Eisegesis would be trying to teach the text or try to manipulate the text and have it say something that it doesn’t necessarily say?
FAULCONER: It can do that, yeah.
HODGES: But I think, as you said, the problem that all readers face is that we all bring something to the text to begin with.
FAULCONER: Right. I’m very influenced by a German philosopher by the name of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer was in important but often overlooked figure in the twentieth century, who lived to be 102 and was doing philosophy until two years before he died. I mean, just an incredible man. Anyway, that’s an irrelevant footnote.
Gadamer argues—in his master work—he argues that it’s important for us to recognize that when we come to a text, we always come to it with presuppositions. And the text can question those presuppositions.
Now if I don’t allow the text to question my presuppositions, then I’m doing that kind of eisegesis that we condemn. I’m already saying, “I already know what this means, and so now that I’m reading it, I’m gonna make it mean what I think it means.” But the opposite of that would be, I suppose, just getting from the text purely what it means. But Gadamer argues that’s not possible.
HODGES: Because of how language works.
FAULCONER: Yes. You have ideas when you come to it. If you didn’t have ideas when you came to it, you wouldn’t even be able to read the text. You wouldn’t know what the words mean. You wouldn’t have any background. So, you come to it with the background.
The responsible way to do exegesis is to come to it with your presuppositions. He uses the word “prejudice,” but he’s using it very literally as a pre-judgement. You come with these judgements you already have, and you say, “In what ways does the text that I’m reading question the judgements that I’ve brought to it?” And if I allow it to question them, then I can be shaped by it, and there’s this interplay between what we’re calling eisegesis and exegesis that can produce a fruitful reading of the text.
HODGES: It seems to me this is where Latter-day Saints could think of the idea of revelation happening during scripture study. So, letting the text speak to you, but also recognizing that you have thing to bring to that conversation as well. It can become an exchange rather than just downloading information.
FAULCONER: Yeah. And realizing that if you didn’t have things to bring to the text, then it would be more difficult for you to receive the revelation, if not impossible. I mean, if you don’t have something that you bring to the conversation with God, it’s going to be hard for God to talk to you.
HODGES: Okay, so that’s exegesis and eisegesis, something that you cover in the introduction—the idea of what the text beings to us and what we bring to the text.
We’re talking today with James E. Faulconer. He’s a professor of philosophy here at Brigham Young University. He’s also recently been named a Senior Research Fellow at the Maxwell Institute. His area of expertise is twentieth century and contemporary European philosophy, especially the philosophy of religion.
Another thing you do in the introduction that’s related to what we were just talking about, Jim, is you alert readers to your own prior assumptions as you approach the Book of Mormon as a text. So, what are some of the things that you bring to the Book of Mormon in particular that you want readers to know about upfront?
FAULCONER: Well, you mentioned my background in contemporary European philosophy and that’s probably the biggest thing that I need to tell people about, that this influences the way I see things. Another is that I am a convert to the Church. And I’m not even sure how these are all related to each other, but they’re there. I’m a convert to the Church and I’m a convert as a result of a fairly profound and to me, quite surprising religious experience that I had as a teenager. So, those are probably the two biggest things that bring me to the text in a way that is related to, but not the same as some other people.
HODGES: Are you comfortable talking about that?
HODGES: Let’s hear about what happened.
FAULCONER: So, I had been with my family, I had been studying with the missionaries for about a year. And my mother and father decided to be baptized and I said, “Sure, I’ll be baptized too.” I mean, I was sixteen—I guess I was fifteen. I liked the missionaries. I didn’t want to offend anybody. So, like lots of people, I said, “Yeah, I’ll be baptized,” without any particular reason to be.
HODGES: It wasn’t about the state of your soul kind of thing?
FAULCONER: It certainly was not about the state of my soul. I was a kid, right? A typical teenage boy. And so, we had never been to church because we were very active in another church—we just had never been. The missionaries said, “Well, you can’t be baptized if you’ve never been to church.” Which seemed reasonable! [laughter]
So, we went to church one Sunday with them. And I had been raised in the Disciples of Christ church. It’s a Protestant denomination, a Campbellite denomination. And one of the things they’re very adamant about is that they perform communion each week and that everyone in the congregation is supposed to take communion.
So, I got to the Latter-day Saint church and sat there, and at the time the church was more insistent than it is now about prohibiting non-members and others from taking the sacrament. And so, nobody told me that I—well, the missionaries told my parents, but nobody told me that I wasn’t supposed to take it. So, when the bread tray came by, my parents skipped over it, but I thought, “I don’t know why they did they. We do this every Sunday, right?” And so, I took the bread and I put it in my mouth, and I had this absolutely overwhelming experience of knowing that I should be a Mormon and that I was—I suppose I should say “I should be a Latter-day Saint,” right?
HODGES: Yeah. We’ll leave them both in, Jim. [laughter]
FAULCONER: Right. And I mean, I didn’t even know how to say what I felt. I just knew that this was the right thing to do. And I knew I had not read the Book of Mormon. I had not prayed about it. I had not prayed whether the Church was true. I had not done any of the things that everybody was supposed to do. In fact, I had lied on a weekly basis when the missionaries asked me, “Did you read the Book of Mormon this week?” I would say yes because—
HODGES: They probably knew! [laughter]
FAULCONER: They probably knew! It probably was easy for them to tell. In any case, in spite of that, I knew with the fullness of my soul that this is where I belonged and that I belonged there not because of doctrine or in spite of doctrine or anything else. It had nothing to do with doctrine. It had to do with a knowledge that this is what God wanted me to do.
HODGES: And then you had a lot of work to do after that, including reading the Book of Mormon. When did you get around to that part of things?
FAULCONER: When I went on a mission, like lots of other people. I went on a mission a couple of years later—three or four years later. I read the Book of Mormon then. But at that point, I could say I already knew the Book of Mormon was true. I never prayed and asked whether it was true because it seemed to me I had already had this confirmation that this is where I was supposed to be, this is what I was supposed to do, and this is what was true, so I didn’t need to ask anymore.
HODGES: What does it mean to you then, to say the Book of Mormon is “true”? And what did it mean to you back then? And has that changed?
FAULCONER: It means that God has something to say to me through the Book of Mormon. That’s the reason, to be honest, that I’m not very interested in source criticism. Because I want to know, what is it the Book of Mormon has to say to me? It is the word of God and so what’s the word of God to me?
And I think that that word changes over my lifetime. I don’t think the Book of Mormon says the same thing to me that it says now; that it said to me when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, whatever. But I do think that since it is the word of God, my duty is to find out what it says to me.
HODGES: I hesitate to take this little side road here, but I can’t resist. I have to say, one of the reasons I thought source criticism would be more of interest to you is because if you think about source criticism theologically, it seems to get at what you describe as being revelation. Which is to say, here we have a person, Mormon, who brings his own assumptions and beliefs as a prophet to other sources and other voices and other people. And then he makes sense out of those and he seeks revelation and creates revelation in a relationship, in a negotiation with the text. So, we see Mormon himself, in scripture, doing the kind of things Latter-day Saints are then invited to do as readers of scripture. Does that make sense?
FAULCONER: Yeah it does. And I have to say, I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I guess what I would say is it seems to me then the question would still be: What is it that Mormon discovered or thought? And I’m more interested in what it is God is revealing than in what Mormon thought.
HODGES: Right. So, then it becomes an exercise in whether you can find something that’s nourishing or relevant or interesting out of doing source criticism, rather than just source criticism in and of itself.
FAULCONER: Yeah, I’m not opposed to source criticism.
HODGES: It’s just not your interest.
FAULCONER: I find it more fruitful to me and more interesting to me to just say, “Well, what does this text, as a text, say?”
HODGES: I like this—this is similar to what Robert Alter does. He’s familiar with source criticism, he’s very familiar with it. But he also likes to view the Hebrew Bible as a completed project, as a whole. And analyze it that way and see what he can find and see what the text says in its finished product, and other people can do that work of source criticism.
FAULCONER: And it’s probably not coincidence that Alter has been an important influence on my career.
HODGES: People can check out the Maxwell Institute Podcast interview with Robert Alter—it will be coming out after this one. But his lecture that he delivered at the Maxwell Institute is already available on our YouTube page. We’re talking right now with James Faulconer. He’s a professor of philosophy here at Brigham Young University and we’re outside, as I mentioned earlier. A blue bird just flew right past us. Did you see that?
FAULCONER: I didn’t see it.
HODGES: It was very beautiful. It flew right behind you.
FAULCONER: I’m sorry I missed it.
HODGES: Yeah, it was nice. So, it is a beautiful day. But we’re here to stay safe and to practice physical distancing as best as we can as everyone is dealing with the coronavirus.
Alright Jim, why were you chosen for Mosiah? Or, did you choose it? Because you’re part of the editorial group for the overall brief theological introduction series.
FAULCONER: Well, the answer to this is embarrassing. There was discussion of, “Who should we ask to do this volume and who should we ask to do that volume?” And someone said, “What would you like to do?” And I listed two or three books in the Book of Mormon that I would like to do, including Mosiah. And when it came around to it, Mosiah was what was left over. And so, they said, “Well, do you still want to do it?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I really like the book! I’ll do it.”
HODGES: That surprises me because Mosiah is great.
HODGES: Mosiah 18 is one of my favorite chapters in all of scripture.
FAULCONER: I love the book. But I think that, you know, people have lots of different favorites. And part of what was happening too is, as we were making these decisions, we were asking the question, looking at some of the ones that might be more difficult, like the shorter books or, you know. Who could we get to do those? And so, we got some very good scholars to do those and once we had had those assigned, then the question was, well, what’s Faulconer going to do? “Well, let’s let him do Mosiah.”
HODGES: [laughter] Nice. And you picked five main themes to cover. This is kind of how you treated it. You decided that rather than trying to cover the book comprehensively, that you would pick a particular set of themes and cover those.
Really quickly, if you were to write a book that was comprehensive about the book of Mosiah, how long do you think it would have to be?
FAULCONER: Oh my goodness! Well, I would say at least four or five times longer than this one and this one is what, 80,000 words? So, four or five times that.
HODGES: It is a rich book.
FAULCONER: There’s so much going on and that was the biggest problem I faced when I looked at it. I thought, “I need to write a short book, and this is a really complicated book to talk about.”
HODGES: And you talk about that complication in your first chapter about structure. Let’s talk about it. So, first you look at the book’s structure. And what you say is that the first thing the readers are going to notice, as you mentioned earlier, is that it’s fragmentary.
You say it’s “a remnant of a book telling the story of a remnant of the Nephite people who are, themselves, a remnant of the people of Lehi, who were a remnant of Israel.”
FAULCONER: Right. It’s parts of parts of parts.
HODGES: And Mormon doesn’t give us chronological history here. What do you see happening?
FAULCONER: Well, I really wish we knew what happened in the lost part. That would be, I think, incredibly interesting because it might change the character of the book as we have it. But as we have it, I see him starting off with the sermons of King Benjamin as a way of setting us up for the sermon of Mosiah. So that even though the sermon of Mosiah almost certainly happened chronologically before the sermons of King Benjamin, there is something about those sermons of King Benjamin that he wants us to see, that will help us to understand what Abinadi is doing better. And so, he flips the order.
HODGES: And what do you see is the main problem of the book of Mosiah? Problem in terms of what is it addressing? What is the thing that it’s trying to get at? Do you see a core to this book that it’s trying to speak to?
FAULCONER: I guess it’s trying—in a way it’s trying to do what the major books in the Book of Mormon are trying to do and that is, one, teach us that Jesus is the Christ and that he is the Messiah who is to come. And two, it’s also to convert us to Christ. And so, that may be, I think, why he starts with Benjamin.
Benjamin says you have to be converted, and here’s how, and here’s what it means, and here’s why. I mean, Benjamin’s preaching to a people who are obedient. He’s very clear about that. And yet, these are people who—they’re obedient but need to be converted.
HODGES: And you separate those, you say obedience isn’t conversion.
FAULCONER: Yeah, so he’s explicit in chapter three—I think it is, two or three. He very explicitly says that they’d been obedient in keeping the law and they’re doing everything they’re supposed to and yet, it’s clear in chapter four, they need to be converted and they have been converted. So, I think that if we’re talking about Mormon’s intentions here with the structure, he wants us to understand conversion first. Why conversion is necessary.
And then, once he does, we’re converted, but what are we converted to? Well, we’re converted to the fact that there is a Messiah who is to come. There is a God who will descend and live among us. Which I think that for many of us, it’s not as shocking a doctrine as perhaps it ought to be. The Nephites, over and over again, find it impossible to believe this. The prophets teach it and the Nephites just can’t believe it.
HODGES: That’s why it keeps coming back up again.
FAULCONER: Yeah, it seems impossible. And for us, it just seems—I think that because we’ve been Christians for two-thousand years, we find it, “Oh yeah, sure that’s what we believe.” But if you think about the incomprehensibility of a divine being becoming a human beings and dying—this was an impossible idea. And so, this is why we move from one to the other for Mormon, I think, it’s to remind us that this is an important thing for us to understand. That this is the core doctrine of Christianity.
HODGES: And with all of that going on, there’s also practical things that these kings are trying to deal with in terms of people and fragmentation. And that’s another theme you unpack in this book.
HODGES: A very timely message.
FAULCONER: Yeah. The younger Mosiah is trying to solve this political problem. So he institutes the reign of the judges—he wants to solve this political problem of fragmentation. But I think part of the lesson of the book is that there is no political solution to fragmentation. The only solution is a spiritual one. That if you don’t have a spiritual conversion of the people, not just of the individual, but of the people, then no particular political solution will solve it.
There may be better solutions than others—I think that’s clearly the case. Some political systems are better than others. But even if there are, there is still going to be fragmentation and division, and that those divisions will cause breakdown unless there is spiritual conversion.
HODGES: And at the end of the book of Mosiah, that’s where we see the king, Mosiah, proposing some substantial changes in Nephite government. What led to that? What do you see in the text that would make someone say, “We’ve got to upend the entire political system”?
FAULCONER: Oh, well there’s the—it’s the Noah problem. I mean, Benjamin has already set this up by talking about kings and why you need good kings and so on. And so, Mosiah the second comes along and he says, “I’ve got kids and if I make one of them the king, and the other one gets angry about it, then we’ve got the possibility of revolution and regicide, and we’ve already seen with Noah what can happen with a wicked king cause we’ve got all these people who are refugees for Noah’s kingdom coming back into our people.”
He has to be clearly aware that this is a huge problem for him. “How do I deal with this?” And his solution is a reasonable one. The appointment of local administrators of some kind, that he calls judges, with less power and less authority than a king would have. But as I said, it’s a political solution to an obvious problem. But it won’t work and we’re going to see that it doesn’t work unless you are able to have a converted people.
HODGES: And you point out that Benjamin himself says they need something more than a political system. He talks about the importance of records. They have these records the he says have kept the people from “dwindling in unbelief,” that’s the phrase he uses. It’s because the records contain the mysteries of God.
That’s an interesting phrase. And you unpack that. Are we talking about some esoteric, strange doctrines that people don’t know about? The “mysteries of God.” What are we talking about? What could Benjamin be referring to here?
FAULCONER: The mysteries of God, it seems to me, the only way you could make sense of that phrase in the scriptures is to understand it to mean these are the things that people who don’t know God don’t understand. Mysteries are secrets or things not revealed, but you could say “mysteries of God” is a kind of pleonasm. If you don’t know God, then anything about God is a mystery. And to have the mysteries of God revealed is to have God revealed and to know about him and what it is that he desires. I mean, these are things—
HODGES: And it’s that simple. It’s not like where—
FAULCONER: No, it’s things like baptism and the needs for the gift of the Holy Ghost. There’s nothing mysterious in our usual sense of the term.
HODGES: And you talk about two mysteries in particular—service and the Atonement. Let’s unpack that first one: service. Because when he’s talking about the mysteries of God, suddenly he’s talking about service.
FAULCONER: Right, yes. For King Benjamin, it’s quite clear that if you’re not in the service of other people, then you have not retained a remission of your sins, or maybe you never received it in the first place. I mean, in order to understand God, you have to imitate God, you have to be like him. And he serves, so you have to serve as well. In a way, that is a mystery, in that if you say to most people, “What is it that makes God God?” I think they’re going to talk about power or something like that. But what he talks about is service. What he does is he serves. So, service is at the very heart of what it means to have committed oneself to God.
HODGES: Yes, it’s as though you can’t know God without knowing other people. And knowing other people through acts of service, which is an imitation of what God does. And this is the reason it’s a mystery, you suggest that Benjamin is saying, is because you have to actually do it to know it. Otherwise, it is mysterious to you!
FAULCONER: Yeah. If you’re not doing it, then you don’t understand what it is that God teaches by serving.
HODGES: Now King Benjamin uses some forceful language here, he says, “people should be willing to submit to all things that the Lord sees fit to inflict upon [us].” That sounds almost like a threat. That God is going to be inflicting things upon people.
FAULCONER: Yeah, and I think that sometimes it feels that way if we aren’t understanding it as a matter of service. It does feel like pain. I mean, I think about when I had children at home and tried to teach my children to do things like serve another, go to the neighbors and do something. They saw this as really just horrible, a punishment, and “you’re being mean to me.”
And so, it can feel like God is inflicting something on us, but I think, on the other hand, when we submit to him and do His will, all of the sudden it turns out that it wasn’t painful, and he wasn’t inflicting anything. He wasn’t punishing. He wasn’t harming us.
HODGES: You also suggest that King Benjamin isn’t telling the people, “Here are all the things you need to do to have your sins remitted. If you check off all these things, this will get you a remission of sins.” It’s something else?
FAULCONER: The thing about service is that—and I guess King Benjamin’s way of putting it makes this clear. If you have received salvation from your Heavenly Father, then how do you know you are still a person who has received it? Because you are doing what a person who has received salvation does. Now what that means is that doing those things isn’t what got you the salvation. It’s the product, it’s the result. It’s what you do because you have received it, not what you do in order to get it.
HODGES: And then you end this chapter with something we’ve mentioned already, that political arrangements themselves can’t cut it when it comes to human flourishing. But you also say that the ultimate futility of political systems doesn’t mean that we should avoid political engagement either. How do you thread that needle?
FAULCONER: Well, it seems to me to say, if someone says there is ultimately no political solution human evil, it would be a mistake to turn around then and say—and this would have to be a religious person to make this observation—if I believe there is no political solution to end human evil, it doesn’t mean therefore I should do nothing at all, because that would be to increase human evil. So, just because the gospel doesn’t tell us that there is a political solution, it doesn’t mean that we ought not to be involved in politics. We should.
HODGES: And what principles do you think are suggested here in the Book of Mormon about how to go about doing that? Because they are dealing with political systems. Do you see things in the text that can be relevant today? Our system is not like theirs. In the United States, in other countries—the political systems are pretty radically different from what we’re facing in the book of Mormon. But do you see other underlying principles that can still be applied today?
FAULCONER: Yeah, I think it’s the principle of humble service. And that principle will look different in different political systems, perhaps. But the principle of humble service that King Benjamin teaches us, a humble service that is oriented toward bringing salvation to other people. That kind of service can work in any political system, it seems to me.
HODGES: That’s Jim Faulconer. We’re talking about his new book, Mosiah: a brief theological introduction. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series. You can learn more about that series at our website, mi.byu.edu/brief.
Your third chapter is about salvation as creation from nothing, Jim. And you start this chapter out—I actually laughed out loud when I read this line. You say, “In my experience, few things in scripture produce as much anxiety in Sunday school class as do the things King Benjamin says about conversion.”
So, you see King Benjamin’s sermon as an anxiety-inducing moment for a lot of readers.
FAULCONER: Yeah, I think it is. When he says, “You have to know your nothingness and God’s greatness,” people start to parse that in strange ways. “Well, he didn’t really mean nothingness.” I mean, we go on and on about all the things he couldn’t really have meant trying to avoid the plain sense of the text when often we’re the very people who would also say, “No, no, no you have to just tell us what the scripture says and that’s what it means.” When we get to King Benjamin’s sermon, we want to say, “No, it must mean something else!”
HODGES: “Because we’re not nothing, we’re children of God! We’re spectacular!”
And that can be burdensome, that can be burdensome to read something in scripture—and you encourage readers to lean into that when you’re reading a scriptural text and you encounter something that cuts to the quick or that is uncomfortable. You encourage people to lean into that.
FAULCONER: Yeah, I think so. If we read in the sermon of King Benjamin, that “I am nothing,” then instead of saying, “No, that’s can’t be true,” I have it to say, “In what ways could that be true?” And if I am already plagued by feelings of nothingness, maybe I should ask myself, “In what ways could that be true that I didn’t expect? In what ways could this mean nothingness that I haven’t thought about?”
HODGES: Because some readers might encounter that “you’re nothing—” they might already be dealing with a sense of deep inadequacy or depression and things, and telling them, “Well, you’re nothing,” could seem really unhelpful.
FAULCONER: Yes. And so, suppose I’m that particular reader who is feeling really deeply inadequate. Then, the question I should ask is, “What could this be saying that I am not thinking? What could this be saying that is other than what I expect?”
And in fact, I think I would say that’s true of both kinds of readers. Both those who are already full of themselves in some way or another, and those who are completely at sea trying to figure out, “How in the world can I possibly be anything at all?” Both of them should be saying, “What could this mean that I don’t think it means?”
HODGES: And this is what you do in the book, is you look at “no thing.” You actually dissect that word. What are you pulling out of it?
FAULCONER: Well, a couple of things. One is that I think it’s important for us to remember that in the beginning I was an intelligence or whatever—I mean I don’t know all about what was going on in those days, but I wasn’t yet the being that I am. I wasn’t yet a child of God until I was made a child of God. And so, at that stage I was not yet a “thing,” I was no-thing. I had not yet become into existence as what we might be able to say is a “nameable entity”—the person that can later be identified as Jim Faulconer.
So, in that way, I have to recognize that whatever it is that I am, it isn’t because I made myself that, it’s because it became possible for me to be that given what God did for me. He made me into a child of God.
Now, I have agency, I have responsibility. This is not some kind of deterministic idea, but it is an idea that I have to recognize that I did not ever make myself. That I come from the actions through which God brought me about.
HODGES: And you go as far as to suggest that creation from nothingness is at the heart of the gospel, which is a stunning phrase for Latter-day Saints, especially as Latter-day Saints don’t believe in “creation from nothing” in the sense of eternal matter. So, there’s something else going on there.
FAULCONER: Well, I would say two things. One is that the things I was just saying—that we are made out of something, but that something was more or less chaotic material to start with. Just stuff, right? And God made us out of stuff. But the most important thing is—and this even goes to what we were talking about earlier about the person who feels inadequate—that when I am in sin, which unfortunately is more often than I would like to admit, but when I am separated from God, then I am nothing. I am not what he intended to be. I am not what I was created to be in the beginning. I have lost the being that I had. And the only way that I can get that back again is for Him to take the nothingness that I am now and for Him to make that into something. In other words, the only way for me to get out of that is to be converted.
HODGES: And then from that, you also point out—and I can’t help but think of this right now as we’re dealing with this pandemic and really experiencing just how interconnected all of us are—that it’s also not just about you in your relationship to God, but that you exist within this family, this network, this system, that actually reaches beyond you. And so, in your chapter four called “Are We Not All Beggars?” You expand on the relational aspect of salvation.
FAULCONER: Well, one of the thing that Benjamin is really clear about, it seems to me, is that—I mean, I think it would’ve been hard for him to preach against individualism, since there probably wasn’t any individualism. Or at least, not much of it anyway. It wasn’t a cultural thing, like it is today.
HODGES: Because they were very interconnected already?
FAULCONER: They were interconnected already.
HODGES: Probably saw their interdependency more obviously than people today.
FAULCONER: Yeah, if you live in an agricultural, or even a pre-agrarian society, I mean I’m not sure what kind of society they had. But whatever it was, there was much more obvious interdependence between producers and users and all of the different parts of the society. You couldn’t avoid knowing about these things. And so, he’s not preaching against individualism in the sense that we might today.
And yet, what he does preach is against individualism because he says, “We are a part of one another. Our God has created us as a family, and we are not saved as just individuals.” His preaching there in chapter four, when he says that you have to take care of your children and you have to take care of the beggar, all of these are ways of saying, “You are a part of a whole, and salvation comes in that whole and not just if you somehow or other feel good about yourself now and you pass muster and you’ve done these different things.” So that means that everything is good with you and not necessarily with everyone else. If it’s not good with everyone else, then it’s not yet good with you either.
HODGES: And then in Mosiah 4:12, I think it’s one of the most rich verses in the Latter-day Saint canon of scripture—King Benjamin provides a list of things that happen to a person when they recognize their nothingness. What stands out to you in that list? What did you notice? As a matter of fact, let me—I think it would be good to read this so that people have a sense here. This is from Mosiah 4:12 on through here.
It says, “And behold, I say unto you that if [you recognize your nothingness] you’ll always rejoice, and you’ll be filled with the love of God, and you’ll always retain a remission of sins; and you shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true. And you’ll not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every person according to that which is their due. And you’ll not suffer your children to go hungry, or naked; neither will you suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel with one another, and serve the devil…but you’ll teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness, to love one another, and to serve one another. And you yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; you’ll administer of your substance to those that stand in need; you’ll not suffer the beggar but up their petition to you in vain and turn them out to perish.”
And he goes on. This is significant. Let’s—
FAULCONER: Yes, well what’s significant for me there is that he doesn’t say, at least as I read this, Benjamin doesn’t say, “This is good advice.” Or, he doesn’t say, “This is how you will earn something.” He says, “This will be what happens to those who have received a remission of your sins.” I guess you could say, if you wanna check your soul, you could ask yourself, “Are these the things that I’m doing?”
And the answer, if you aren’t doing those things, then evidently, you are not in a state of remission of sin. You’re not in this relationship with God that he has called you to. Now, you could turn that around and say, “Well, okay so if I’m doing them, does that mean I’m in that state?” And the answer is no. It doesn’t mean it that way. He’s not saying, “If you do these, then you will have a remission of sins.”
HODGES: It’s not a quarter into the vending machine and pushing the button and the treat comes out.
FAULCONER: Yeah. If you have a remission of sins, these are the things that will follow from having that remission. This is the kind of life that a person who has had their sins remitted lives.
HODGES: And people can read about that here in chapter four, “Are We Not All Beggars?”
Jim, we don’t have time to go through the rest of the book, but you also spend a lot of time with Abinadi’s words, unpacking the relationship between the Father and the Son, which is kind of a confusing part of the Book of Mormon. Why focus on that part?
FAULCONER: Well, I suppose the reason that I chose to focus on that particular section is because, in fact, it is confusing. It’s maybe the toughest two or three verses in the Book of Mormon, given other Latter-day Saint revelations.
You look at that and think, “I don’t see how this can mean what it seems to mean.” And so, I wanted to say, “Let’s see what it does mean. Let’s try to unpack it in the context of Abinadi’s sermon and lay out the various possible ways of making sense of it.” And I think, in fact, in the end, you have to go very slowly through it. It can be difficult, but if you go through it slowly, it turns out to not be as confusing as it seemed to be at first glance.
HODGES: That’s Jim Faulconer. We’re talking about his new book, Mosiah: a brief theological introduction. It’s forthcoming in the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction series.
I wish I could be more specific about exactly when it would be forthcoming, but as we’re dealing with all sorts of unexpected things in the world right now, we don’t exactly know. But people can follow us on social media to receive the latest updates. You can also subscribe to our newsletter. Whenever a book goes up for pre-sale, we always alert people there first.
Before we go Jim, I wanted to ask if there was anything new in the text this time. As you wrote a book about the book of Mosiah, did you come across anything that hit you in a new way?
FAULCONER: I suppose that for me, this was the first time I had the Book of Mormon and really understood the importance of the structure of the book of Mosiah—with the kind of folded narrative that we find there. I’m not sure I’d even noticed it before. It probably ought not to have been, but it was genuine news to me that this was not in chronological order.
HODGES: Yeah, and as you say in your introduction, noticing things like that can change how you interpret the entire text or how you see the relationship between things.
FAULCONER: Oh yeah. As soon as I noticed that, it made me really rethink, what’s the point of these sermons? And I saw connections between the sermons of Benjamin and the sermons of Abinadi that I’d never seen before.
HODGES: People can read more about that when the book comes out. It’s Mosiah: a brief theological introduction.
Jim, I appreciate you taking the time, especially right now, to do this. A little bit on the fly as again, we’re here outside. I apologize to listeners for the ambient noise. Maybe they liked it. We had vehicles passing and maybe they could hear a few birds chirping—
FAULCONER: People on the phone— [laughter]
HODGES: Yes, people on the phone. It’ll be fun to try to edit this one. This might be a little choppier than normal just because there’s so much background noise. But anyway, thanks for doing this Jim. We really appreciate it.
FAULCONER: Thank you for inviting me.
HODGES: That’s James E. Faulconer on the book of Mosiah. Up next in our brief theological introductions series we’ll hear from Kylie Nelson Turley of Brigham Young University. She recently put the finishing touches on her book covering Alma chapters 1 through 29. Alma was large enough that the series editors broke it in two!
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Thanks for listening to another episode. I’m Blair Hodges. Next time we’ll have Kylie Nelson Turley talk to us about Alma.
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.
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