Briefly Alma 1–29, with Kylie Nielson Turley [MIPodcast #110]
Alma is an idolatrous man in the Book of Mormon, a wicked man according to the text—until an angel’s rebuke leads to his repentance and then two decades of righteous service in realms both political and religious. But even then, Alma’s past haunts him.
Kylie Nielson Turley talks about her brief theological introduction to the book of Alma, chapters 1 through 29, in this episode. For more about the brief theological introductions series, go to mi.byu.edu/brief.
Kylie Nielson Turley has taught writing, rhetoric, and literature classes since 1997 at Brigham Young University, where she emphasizes a literary approach to the Book of Mormon in her Literature of the LDS People course. She has published articles on Alma, LDS “home literature” fiction and poetry, and Utah and LDS women’s history. She is also the author of numerous personal essays.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges, bringing you another interview in our series on the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. Kylie Nielson Turley joins us to talk about her volume on Alma chapters 1 through 29. The series editors broke Alma in half because of its length. Turley teaches in the English department at Brigham Young University.
For more information about the brief theological introduction series go to mi.byu.edu/brief on the world wide web. You can check out all the information about the series there. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com. Let’s dig in to the first part of Alma with Kylie Nielson Turley.
BLAIR HODGES: Kylie Nielson Turley, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
KYLIE NIELSON TURLEY: Thank you.
HODGES: And welcome to my backyard.
TURLEY: It’s beautiful.
HODGES: We’re here in Salt Lake City, and we’re staying distant from each other, and we’re just enjoying the wonderful weather. You might hear some birds chirping, you might hear a little traffic going by—
TURLEY: But it’s better to be outside.
HODGES: It’s better to be outside, it feels good! Thank you for coming up.
TURLEY: Yeah, thanks.
HODGES: We’re talking about the book you just finished the manuscript for—this hasn’t even been typeset yet! It’s a brief theological introduction to Alma, chapters 1 through 29. How did you wind up with that particular section?
TURLEY: You know, they called and said, “Do you want to be part of the project?” And I’m assuming they knew that I would want to choose Alma, and that’s why they asked.
HODGES: How do you think they knew that you would want Alma?
TURLEY: Because I have a small obsession with Alma. [laughter]
HODGES: Tell us about it. That’s interesting.
TURLEY: I’ve been writing and studying him for years. And I think they were looking for someone who had a background in him, because the project was going to go so quickly. So they wanted someone who’s already been studying and had something to say.
HODGES: And what you did, as all authors in the series, was you brought your academic training along with you. You’re an adjunct professor of English at Brigham Young University. Talk a little bit about your academic background.
TURLEY: Okay, and this might be a surprise too. My undergraduate work was in political science and then I have a master’s degree in American Studies. I originally began teaching at UVU for a couple of years and then I moved up to the BYU Honors Department and taught the honors freshman first year writing.
HODGES: And I should say Utah Valley University is UVU, for the folks outside of Utah.
TURLEY: Yes. And then a while ago I moved to the English department. And for the last number of years I’ve taught the “Literature of the LDS People” course. Which has been a fantastic course. And I do a significant portion on the Book of Mormon as literature.
Things just sort of came together for me. At a certain point in time I took a summer class from Grant Hardy and started encountering and meeting some people like Joe Spencer and Adam Miller—
HODGES: And that was only a few years ago, right? Was that when Grant Hardy came to Brigham Young University and did the summer thing? He came out, for people who don’t know, he came out to sort of do a test run of a study edition of the Book of Mormon that eventually became the Maxwell Institute Study Edition, and you were part of that.
TURLEY: I was. It’s strange how it all happened. I didn’t know him, I didn’t know much about him. I just had this feeling that I really, really wanted to take that class. And I kind of nudged my way in and happily he allowed me to come sit in on that course. Which was an amazing experience. And then within a month, the English department had had someone fall through in teaching this course and asked me kind of last minute if I would do it. And here I had some great ideas—having just gone through that course and been so excited about it—to implement in my own course.
HODGES: What a good primer that was. I still think about some of those sessions we had. Grant Hardy did a fantastic job. That was a lot of fun.
TURLEY: It was so great. It was amazing. Really amazing experience. He would teach for an hour, then people would sit around and talk for another hour or two after the class was over. [laughter]
HODGES: It’s kind of what we hope these books do as well. These brief theological introductions are supposed to spark conversations. They’re supposed to get people thinking about things. It’s not supposed to be comprehensive; it’s supposed to be an introduction. Talk about the idea of an introduction, when it comes to a book of scripture.
TURLEY: People might be surprised when they pick up my introduction—if they think it’s going to be some sort of overview of Alma 1 through 29, they’ll be really surprised. Because it is, in a sense, but it’s also not, in a sense.
When I’m thinking about an introduction, I’m also thinking about how to approach scripture. If anything, this is a different approach to scripture, a different way to read scripture. So the introduction is more of a, “Let me introduce you to an approach to read, how to read Alma 1 through 29.” I’m not going to just lecture you on everything that’s in Alma 1 through 29. You can read it, you can figure that out.
HODGES: I like this in your introduction where you said, “The invitation of this book is quite simple. Read a few Book of Mormon stories that you’ve probably read before and see them in a new light. As you think about what those stories mean you’ll be thinking about God. And that, at its most basic, is theology.”
TURLEY: Yes. I’m glad you picked up on that. What it means to me is that there are a lot of people who are doing theology every day. We don’t need to be scared of that word, we don’t need to think, “Oh this is something special for really smart people.” You think about God. I think about God. Especially in some of the situations that are going on right now, with the pandemic worldwide, there are a lot of people thinking about God, probably more than they were a few months ago. And that is theology.
HODGES: And you also say that with theology, thought itself also isn’t the end goal, that’s not enough. You invite people to think about what we do with theology aside from just thought.
TURLEY: There’s an idea that’s coming about that they term practical theology. I probably lean in that direction. I’m not, kind of a pseudo-academic I guess, in a way. [laughter]
HODGES: Aren’t we all?
TURLEY: Aren’t we all! To me, just someone who wants to sit in an ivory tower and think about thinking, or think about thinking about God—that’s not going to go very far for me. I want something that applies to my real life. Something that I can actually do something with. I think that’s where a lot of readers are as well.
HODGES: The Book of Mormon invites that kind of approach, as you point out in your introduction, because the Book of Mormon is a collection of stories, it’s narratives. And we find theology through stories. What do you think the benefits of that are? Instead of just having a list of propositional claims—God is like this, this is what you do, A B C D E. We have stories about people. What do you see as beneficial about that?
TURLEY: That is a great question. Stories are different than a list of commands or a list of doctrine. They’re very natural to who we are. We tell stories to make sense of our reality. And they told stories as scripture.
It’s kind of a unique—yes there’s stories in the Bible of course, but we have a unique approach to scripture. From the first words of, “I, Nephi,” this is going to be a personal story. Our history is enmeshed, from the First Vision onward, we’ve been told to keep our stories, to keep track of them. And that is what our scripture is.
A story is different than a list of commands in that it invites the reader in. Most of us, when we read the story, identify with a character and are very dramatically changed. There are all sorts of studies, brain scans and neurological things and imaging, where they see that people actually feel emotion along with what the characters are feeling. Stories change us, and they change us deeply. Probably more deeply—well according to research, they change people more deeply and for longer than trying to force yourself to follow a list of commandments.
HODGES: In your book you also say you “strive to show respect for the text as scripture.” That word really stood out to me, showing respect. What does that mean to you?
TURLEY: I don’t want to do violence to scripture. I want to respect the story.
HODGES: How does one do violence? What would that look like?
TURLEY: Twisting it. Making the words say what you want them to mean. Pulling verses out of context and imposing a reading on them.
I don’t think that’s always wrong. I think there’s even readings that can be inspired, where Heavenly Father says, “Look at this verse in a new light. I know it doesn’t really fit the context, but this is how I need it to work for you in your life right now.”
But when I’m reading for something like this, I’m looking at the story, I’m looking at the context trying to make sense of why someone would say these words at this time in this way.
HODGES: Your approach is very attuned to the context. You’re looking at what’s happening in the stories and what’s happening around them. We’ll get into this more soon. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. People will see it when we talk about Alma chapter 29, which is a very famous chapter where Alma says, “Oh that I were an angel.” When you put that in its context there are some stunning things you pull out. I’m looking forward to talking about that with you.
One other thing about your introduction is that it concludes on a note of warning. You write, “The lessons we find in Alma 1 through 29 aren’t trite, they’re not easy,” even, you say. You invite readers to prepare to encounter some losses as they’re reading, or some challenges. I want to hear more about that.
TURLEY: That’s what I found in Alma, and I think that’s why I’m so focused on his life story and who he is. He’s become very real to me, and as we’re invited into reading his story—if we identify with him and read it deeply—we encounter, in some small way, the same losses he encountered. And that changes you. So readers need to be prepared. This isn’t a mind exercise. This is a mind and a heart exercise. And you will be changed.
HODGES: Let’s go to chapter one of your book. You talk about the common understanding of Alma’s conversion as a kind of coming-of-age story. But you say that the story is “emotionally compelling, fairly predictable, and relatively undemanding when we read it that way.”
What is this basic gist of story? What do you think the general impression is of people that read through Alma the first time? What do they get out of his narrative on a surface level?
TURLEY: On a surface level, it’s a nice story. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, it’s a compelling story. Here is the sort of—we have a stereotype of a leader’s son, a bishop’s bad boy son, you know someone that’s rebelling—
HODGES: The rebellious teenager.
TURLEY: Exactly, this rebellious teenager who sees an angel, repents, and lives a good life after this. Follows in his father’s footsteps. That’s a good story and it can be very comforting for parents that have teens rebelling in the same way or—
HODGES: Teens who are just being teens, perhaps.
TURLEY: Yeah. It seems so regular. I mean, it’s not regular when you’re living it in your own life, but it’s a story that we know.
HODGES: We’ve heard this story, sure. But you call readers attention to some possibilities in the text that challenge this reading. You call reader’s attention to how time works, for example, how the time in stories can be manipulated, it can be fast forwarded, sped up. Talk about time and how that helped you see Alma in a different way.
TURLEY: I think one thing that jumped out at me, as I’ve started reading more carefully, is realizing that Alma the Younger is never called “Alma the Younger” in the Book of Mormon.
HODGES: Where did it come from?
TURLEY: I’ve tried to track it down! I cannot figure it out!
HODGES: It’s not in the Book of Mormon. I’ve read the Book of Mormon so many times, I can’t even count how many times I’ve read it and I’m reading your manuscript and you say, “Guess what? Alma the Younger is never said in the Book of Mormon.” And I said, “That can’t be right?!” Absolutely it’s right, it’s not in there! [laughs]
TURLEY: It’s not there. And that name, in and of itself, you know, I mean someone could have called him “Alma, Jr.”
HODGES: Alma Junior didn’t sound as good maybe. And he was younger than the other Alma.
TURLEY: Yes he was. But by labeling him like that, and also by some textual, structural things, it’s easy for us to believe that he’s young, that he’s a teenager. But then you start looking at the years and the dates and the timing of things and realize, that’s kind of a stretch. It’s just as possible, in fact more possible, that he’s older. That he’s easily 20s, 30s, 40s, conceivably in his 50s when he repents and is born again. And I think that changes the story for people. It can change it dramatically. Just someone’s age.
HODGES: What did it change about it for you?
TURLEY: All of the sudden the story is not a simple one. This is not the story of a teenager who is rebelling, it’s a lot more serious. This is someone who is a man. Someone who knows what he is doing, knows what he’s thinking, and he’s doing it deliberately.
HODGES: And it will also have repercussions for his missionary work as well.
TURLEY: For years. And that’s why I feel that my theological introduction to Alma 1 through 29 has to step back and start with this story of conversion. Because if we’ve misjudged who Alma is, then all the stories for the rest of his life are different than we thought they were.
HODGES: And we don’t get to see stories of him before his conversion. This is something you point out that we’re introduced to Alma before his conversion experience, but everything we hear about him is just statements about what he was like. We don’t see any stories about what he was like.
TURLEY: No stories. And especially no first-person rhetoric. The first words we heart—this man who’s known for his rhetoric, known for speaking amazingly well—the first words that we hear him say are that he’s been born again and has changed his mind and is righteous.
So here’s this man, whose flattery is well known, who has been leading many people out of the church, and we don’t have one word of those persuasive, powerful words. We don’t know anything that he says directly, it’s just summarized briefly.
HODGES: What do you think about that? The record keeper here, the abridger, the person who’s putting these stories together, made a choice to not bring us into the scenes of pre-conversion Alma. What do you think about that?
TURLEY: I’ve wandered through different ideas and there can be multiple reasons why. Everything from space to availability of information. Maybe Alma didn’t write those words, maybe they weren’t kept. I’ve kind of settled on the idea that I’m not sure Mormon trusted us, I’m not sure he thought we could handle it. He wants, he needs us to have some these powerful sermons—Alma 5, Alma 7, I mean some of the most amazing doctrine of the atonement that we have. And he very well might have been worried we would discount it, that we wouldn’t read it as carefully if it came from someone who is was as wicked as Alma, and deliberately so.
HODGES: It gets difficult here in chapter two. You invite readers to spend more time thinking about pre-conversion Alma, and you say it “won’t be for the faint-hearted, but for the broken-hearted.” People might say, “Why should we focus on the negative past of his? We should we focus on his mistakes or his errors, look at historical warts?” Why do that?
TURLEY: In this case, because the stereotype is accurate on one thing, well on many things, but the stereotype of a teenager who is born again, the born again part is still true. It is still real. And it is more powerful if this isn’t a little teenager having a teenage moment. This little rebel without a cause kind of thing.
Can God redeem people who are dedicating themselves contrary to him? Who are convincing many other people to go contrary to him, leading them out of the Church of God? Later he calls it, he says that, “he murdered their souls.” And I think he means it. And he is devastated to learn just how wrong he was.
HODGES: You actually place Alma alongside these other Book of Mormon figures. We think of Korihor and Nehor, these type of people, these typical anti-Christs who are sort of stereotyped and a little one-dimensional, maybe. They just kind of seem like these villainous people. But with Alma, apparently he was one of those, that’s the category that he came from. I think it’s easy to overlook that.
TURLEY: It’s really easy to overlook that. I think in part it’s because of structural things, this part of the story is in the book of Mosiah and as soon as we turn the page, we’re in the book of Alma. And he is righteous there. He is consistently righteous.
HODGES: And he’s got a book. The book is named Alma! He’s got a book named after him. He’s got to be a good guy.
TURLEY: Exactly. What’s interesting is that we don’t change over, even though the record keeper, his son, takes over.
He has forty-five chapters of good, positive, amazing doctrine kind of scripture. I mean I’m joking, but I mean if you read a chapter a night you spend so much time, well over a month, with “righteous Alma.”
HODGES: But he’s called an unbeliever in the text. And you say that term, you look at it more than just saying “a person that doesn’t believe,” you see more to that term as to how it works in the Book of Mormon.
TURLEY: Yes. Because the original chaptering—and I think you’ve mentioned in other podcasts that the chapters that we have we’re done by Orson Pratt—
HODGES: Right, in 1879, he chopped it up.
TURLEY: Yeah, he chopped it up in 1879. Which is great, easier to follow in a lot of ways. Shorter chapters.
HODGES: If you want to read one chapter a day quickly, you can thank Orson Pratt.
TURLEY: He made it a lot easier. But what it does is cut into the narrative. It chops up the story that we were meant to read holistically. The end of Mosiah is one story, together, and it includes the chapter before Alma’s conversion story. And it’s in that chapter where we learn about the unbelievers.
These are the children that did not take the covenant with King Benjamin’s people. They were too young. But they are grown up now and they don’t believe. The text is actually very clear, looking at them and reading over the list of what they don’t believe. They don’t believe in the traditions of the fathers. They don’t believe in Christ. They don’t believe that we can know of things to come. They don’t want to labor with their own hands—that’s kind of an odd addition.
HODGES: I can relate to that! [laughs]
TURLEY: But it becomes meaningful. You study the Book of Mormon looking for “laboring with your own hands,” and it’s there. It’s all over.
HODGES: And it’s connected to this type of mentality?
TURLEY: Yes, to this unbeliever mentality. So from that beginning, from this group, the dynamics of Nephite society has changed. First they’re a minority, but then they convert people or un-convert people from the Church of God to this unbelief. It’s challenging. It almost becomes a religion in and of itself. I mean granted it’s an anti-religion, an anti—
HODGES: But it has a worldview, it has missionaries of sorts, it has an ideology. The Book of Mormon doesn’t get too much into it, but it probably has social codes and sort of ways of acting and maybe even dressing. All sorts of things.
TURLEY: It seems like it. It seems like it does. They are opposed to the Church of God and if the Church of God wants to wear humble clothing then they’ll wear different attire. And they’ll set up churches for themselves, like Nehor does. The interesting thing is that, what we know of anti-Christs, except for Sharom who appears in the Book of Jacob, all of the anti-Christs appear in these first years of the reign of the judges, when Alma is the chief judge.
HODGES: Yeah, we don’t see them later in the Book of Mormon. What do you make of that? They’re kind of concentrated on this moment in Nephite history.
TURLEY: I think what we can potentially see—and grant you all these things can be challenged—but I think Alma is labeled as an unbeliever, clearly. And he’s clearly teaching others and leading them astray, bringing them out of the Church on purpose. And the Book of Mormon says he’s “leading them away and trying to teach them to do after the manner of his iniquities.” There was a day when I was pondering that and realizing, “Oh his iniquities. It’s not just being an unbeliever, it’s leading others to be unbelievers.” That’s a big difference. It’s not just a passive group of people who don’t believe.
HODGES: You have to look at what they’re un-believing in, the covenant that was made back in Mosiah had to do with mourning with those that mourn, bearing one another’s burdens, seeking for equality in society, things like this. And here we have a group—When we’re talking about “unbelievers” it’s not just a stereotype of someone who says, “Oh I don’t believe God exists” or something very stereotypical. It’s very specific in the Book of Mormon, it’s almost like just not wanting to be part of social contract, it’s almost sort of a gross individualism of “I don’t need to be part of this society. I don’t want to mourn with those that mourn, I don’t want to participate in society in these ways.” It’s not this simple matter of unbelief or just not believing something.
TURLEY: Exactly. It is not. I guess in a sense the Church of God is seeking for this communal Zion kind of approach, if you will, and the unbelievers are pushing back against that at every turn.
“No. Instead of everyone participating and working, I’m not going to work with my hands. You should have a hierarchy. I shouldn’t have to work because I’m going to preach and teach you.”
And there’s differences, as it plays out, between the various anti-Christs. But at the core are these same basic unbeliever ideals, this unbeliever theology way of approaching God just playing out over and over again. It must be tragic. One of the last things Alma does—and this is outside of my section I know—
HODGES: Apologies to Mark Wrathall who does the next book, the second half of Alma.
TURLEY: —Alma talks to his own son, Coriantan. And it’s about the same thing, they don’t believe something concerning the resurrection of the dead. We’re not sure what the unbelievers don’t believe but this same concern, about the resurrection of the dead, comes up over and over. And some of our most amazing doctrine is Alma trying to explain to his own son why we believe in the resurrection of the dead.
HODGES: One of the fascinating things about that is Alma does not have all the information about it, he doesn’t have all the details either. This is one of the most obvious examples in scripture, and maybe I’ll ask Mark about this as well, this is one of the most obvious examples in scripture of canonized speculation. He says, “I’m not quite sure about this. Here’s what I think.” It’s canonized. This is scripture that is like, “I’m not sure about this.”
TURLEY: I love his careful delineation of that, “This is what I know. Now I’m going to step over the line here and tell you what I don’t know, but what I think.” Being very deliberately careful to clarify which one is which.
HODGES: And the fact that scripture can do that is something to think about. That scripture can have speculation, can have theological exploration.
TURLEY: And again, it wouldn’t be so surprising if we realized that scripture is story. This is someone’s personal writing. This is someone’s story. It’s an amazing person, with great wisdom, who’s seen angels, but it is still a story.
HODGES: That’s Kylie Nielson Turley. We’re talking to her today about her Brief Theological Introduction to the first half of Alma, Alma Chapters 1 through 29.
So far we’ve spent some time thinking about pre-conversion Alma. Then this angel comes to Alma—and he relays the story several times and some of your book is dedicated to unpacking the different versions and the different ways he retells the story. But in one of them, Alma chapter 36, the angel says a very strange sentence. And here’s the sentence he says:
“If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God.”
Okay so this is a strange grammatical construction. It seems like an incomplete sentence. I’ll do you’s instead of thou’s, it helps.
“If you will be destroyed of yourself, seek no more to destroy the church of God.”
So, wait a minute, if you want to be destroyed, stop attacking the church?
TURLEY: That one has bothered me for years. I just sat there and looked it, and I think—
HODGES: And you looked at what a bunch of scholars have said about it. This has been a point of focus.
TURLEY: Exactly. I don’t know why I had never noticed it, except that we read so casually sometimes.
HODGES: I think you solved it!
TURLEY: Oh, well thank you. [laughter]
HODGES: What’s your solution?
TURLEY: I just want to change the punctuation. Changing the punctuation solves—There’s many scholars who are probably much more knowledgeable then me who go through great contortions even, if you will, to try to solve this problem. Because that sentence as it stands now does not make sense. A surface reading of that that scripture does not make sense.
HODGES: “If you’ll be destroyed of yourself, then stop trying to destroy the church.”
TURLEY: It should go one way or the other. “If you want to be destroyed, keep destroying the church, you just go ahead and keep destroying the church of God. Or, if you don’t want to be destroyed than stop.”
But you can actually just change the punctuation a little bit and it makes sense.
HODGES: Yeah, what have you got?
TURLEY: So, really simply, you can change the punctuation to say, “If thou wilt, of thyself be destroyed. Seek no more to destroy the church of God.” So if you want to, go ahead, be destroyed, Alma. Do what you do. Do it your way. But stop.”
In fact, not even, “but, stop.” It’s just, “Seek no more.” This is a straightforward command, “Stop.” And even though this is said in many different versions, the same sort of light punctuation changes can clarify all of them. Alma chapter 36:9, 36:11. And the interesting thing is that re-doing the punctuation aligns with what the angel actually said at the beginning in Alma 27:13. The angel quotes the Lord in saying, “This is my church and I will establish it. And nothing shall overthrow it save it be the transgression of my people.” So you don’t really get this option Alma. You’re not going to overthrow my church.
HODGES: It’s not saying, “Hey, please don’t destroy our church.” It’s basically saying, “You can’t. You can’t. By doing this, you only hurt yourself. You only end up hurting yourself in the very end” basically?
TURLEY: Exactly. He’s, it just says, not even, “this is your last chance. That was your last chance. You’re done.”
HODGES: It’s a great and elegant solution. And we should remind listeners, the Book of Mormon punctuation came from the typesetter.
TURLEY: Who was a brilliant man. He did an amazing job.
HODGES: He never became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he was just a worker. He punctuated the book as he typeset it.
TURLEY: As he typeset it. Which is incredible! Just for fun sometimes in my class I pull out all the punctuation in Alma 13.
HODGES: I remember doing this with Grant Hardy. This is one of the days where he had us punctuate something.
TURLEY: And I chose Alma 13 because I think it’s probably one of the most difficult chapters. And I have yet to get to the end of that chapter and have punctuation fall in line and make sense. I cannot figure that chapter out at all, it’s very convoluted. So the fact that this employee at the Grandin Print Shop did punctuation on the fly is amazing. But I think in this case, we can alter it just a little bit and things would make sense.
HODGES: This one of the things I would recommend to listeners, in their Book of Mormon study, is take some time to try and re-punctuate things. And you might come up with some really interesting readings or notice some new things. I haven’t seen the solution that you offered for Alma 36, I haven’t seen this anywhere else. I think this is the solution, though.
TURLEY: To me, it’s the most obvious little solution. Yes, there’s possible Hebrew forms that I don’t even understand and perhaps that’s the solution. Or other types of understanding and implications and assumptions of other words that might be included, but this is an easy one. This is so easy and it makes sense.
HODGES: Alright, so many of the problems—as we mentioned before—many of the problems Alma faced during his ministry you say probably resulted from his own life and the things he did before he was converted. What does that suggest to you about repentance? I mean he could repent but there were these ongoing things he was dealing with.
TURLEY: I think that’s a difficult thing. And we don’t want to believe repentance is this way, we want to think you repent and it’s roses and happiness from here on out. And maybe it is in God’s eyes, but the problem is you wake up tomorrow, and even if you’ve repented, other people might not believe you. They might not think you really changed. You still have to live with the consequences of the choices that you made. I think an easy example for people to understand is maybe immorality. And if there was a child that came from immorality. Of course, you can repent, but you wake up tomorrow and there is still a child to take care of.
HODGES: And sometimes that can even become a wonderful thing. Repentance isn’t so black-and-white when you get down to these really specific circumstances.
TURLEY: It’s true. God can turn things. That’s one of my favorite words in the scriptures, is turning. He can turn things for our good in amazing ways—even horrible, awful experiences that happen or that we cause or that someone causes to us, God can turn them for our good.
HODGES: You also speculate that, as you mentioned before, sometimes people don’t believe you’ve repented, you speculate, based on something in Alma 45, that there were some lingering questions about who Alma really was. Even years after the fact of his conversion, because the record keeper—whose voice is uncertain, we don’t quite know who is saying this, right?
TURLEY: We’re not sure entirely, it’s probably his son.
HODGES: So Alma disappears, which is really strange, we don’t know what happens to him, and then whoever is keeping this record says, “This we know, that he was a righteous man.”
TURLEY: And this is in a whole list of what we don’t know. He’s gone, we don’t know where. We don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he did this, maybe he did that, but this we know, he was a righteous man.
HODGES: If there was any question, would you even have to make that kind of a declaration?
TURLEY: No, absolutely not. You wouldn’t have to declare it so straightforwardly. But what we forget is that even though we’ve had forty-five chapters, which in the Book of Mormon could be hundreds and hundreds of years, but in this case it’s only nineteen years—
HODGES: Time really zooms in through this section of the Book of Mormon. People who have heard the earlier episodes or read the earlier books in the series will see that. I mean Sharon Harris’s book, the little books that she did, cover such a longer period of time in so many fewer words.
TURLEY: Exactly, so time has slowed down. That’s another reason why we might misjudge Alma because this is only nineteen years from chapter one to chapter forty-five. We think we know Alma, but we only know, roughly, two decades of his life. And his father—
HODGES: And we don’t know where he went?
TURLEY: We don’t, although we have an idea. He’s last seen walking toward Melek and Melek is on the way to Ammonihah.
HODGES: Why is that significant?
TURLEY: Because Ammonihah is a critical changing moment. And it’s one of the most horrific stories of the Book of Mormon.
HODGES: Let’s talk about that. I mean your next chapter is called “The Cry of Mourning Was Heard.” You’re going to talk about mourning, you’re going to talk about difficulty and now we last see him heading towards Ammonihah. Let’s unpack that a bit.
TURLEY: Alma resigns the judgement seat and just goes off on a missionary journey to try to preach the word. He thinks he can more effectively help people, help them repent, if he tries this other route. Because he’s just been dealing, again, from day one on the judgment seat, with unbelievers, with anti-Christs.
And so he heads off to Ammonihah. And it does not go well. Not at all. He walks in, begins preaching—we don’t have his first words, but they respond very poorly. They know who he is, they make it very clear that, “We know who you are, and we have no respect for you.”
HODGES: “And who do you think you are?”
TURLEY: “And who do you think you are, and who does God think God is?”
It’s stunning to me, if you put that in context, he is was just chief judge of the whole Nephite society and he walks into this village and they say, “Get out. We don’t care who you were and who you are. And we know. So get out.” And he does. They throw him out of the city.
And he’s just upset and worried about their salvation when an angel—his angel—reappears and tells him to go back. He immediately turns around and goes back, but he goes back “by another way” into the city. I think he knows that he’s walking back into a hostile, horrible situation. But he doesn’t know how bad it’s going to be. He doesn’t realize how horrible this situation is going to turn out to be.
He meets up with Amulek. They spend some amount of time together in Amulek’s home and then they begin preaching. And the story, it just escalates. Everything he says the people respond overly much to. They’re extremely hostile. We have no words, and their first response is, “We know who you are, get out!”
HODGES: And you suggest Alma seems to escalate too?
TURLEY: He does, he escalates, but every time they overreact. Again, “Maybe we’ll throw you in prison, but let’s kill you.” I mean, it seems so overboard. I think they’re responding to something besides Alma himself. This is one of the stories that looks different if we believe Alma is the unbeliever that I think he was. They’re responding to that.
HODGES: This accounts for that seemingly over-the-top response. His history helps account for their reaction?
TURLEY: These people are not just, again, apostates who don’t believe in anything. Look at the questions they’re asking, look at what they’re discussing with him. They absolutely believe in a theology, and they think they’re doing things right. And that theology, again, aligns with those unbelievers. So did Alma know them before? Did Alma teach them before? It’s possible.
And so when he comes back, with his new Church of God, they call it, “his church.” They’re kind of accusing him of setting up his own church of God, and they don’t want anything to do with it. They are extremely hostile, extremely mad, to the point where they take his words, they take Amulek’s words, and they do exactly what Alma had said—He preached that if they wouldn’t repent their torment would be “as if it were a lake of fire and brimstone.” And Amulek said, “If you throw out the righteous from among you, God will destroy you.” So the people respond, “Amulek, here, we’ll show you how much we care about what you think, we’ll throw out the righteous. See what we can do?”
HODGES: And then the fire and brimstone thing. This is horrifying.
TURLEY: This is absolutely horrifying. In Alma 14, we have this moment where Alma and Amulek are brought before the fire and there’s a little verb tense change in there that makes it clear that they are standing before the fire as it is burning people. Most of its written in the past tense, but there are little changes that let you know they’re in front of the fire as the people are consuming in the fire. They’re seeing their converts, women and children, scriptures, be burned. We never hear of Amulek’s family again. There’s a very good chance that Amulek’s family are burned in front of him.
And they sit there stunned. Stunned and in shock. And as the fire finishes burning, the chief judge comes over and stands before Alma and Amulek and he slaps them—and there’s enough slapping that goes on in this episode that you can tell it’s a hostile, demeaning experience. He slaps them and says, “After what ye have seen, will you preach again unto this people that they should be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?” This is direct. It’s pointed, and it’s mocking Alma. Mocking his words that he preached. He was the one who said, “If you don’t repent, you will suffer as if you were in a lake of fire and brimstone.” So they say, “Look what we can do Alma.”
HODGES: “Thanks for the great idea.” Basically.
TURLEY: Exactly. “We will build a lake of fire and brimstone.”
HODGES: I wonder if he felt any blame? I mean he introduced that language.
TURLEY: Yes, that’s what’s become compelling to me. They don’t answer the chief judge then, and I don’t know if they’re stunned into silence or this an inspired choice not to answer. I kind of wonder if they are speechless after what they’ve seen.
HODGES: And you say we don’t hear them talk again for a while, five years, right? Is that the amount of time?
TURLEY: They speak a little, in the prison. But then it goes silent. Really Alma, we don’t have any public sermons or public rhetoric for five years on anything. But on the lake of fire and brimstone—and this has changed how I read the Book of Mormon, to realize that after this chief judge slaps them and says, “Will you preach again of the fire and brimstone?” The answer is, “No. Never again. Not in the rest of the Book of Mormon. We will never say those words again.”
HODGES: And they don’t.
TURLEY: No one does,]. Not just them—no one. It’s been used multiple times before, by many people—King Benjamin, Jacob, Nephi. But we’re not going to say this anymore.
HODGES: How did you feel when you found that out? I’ve never seen that pointed out before, that the phrase literally disappears. How was that when you found that?
TURLEY: I sat there weeping. And realizing how painful this experience was for him. And also realizing that others have recognized that pain.
I don’t know that you could get a whole society on board with, “Oh yeah, we don’t say that anymore.” But could a careful editor say, “We’re not going to say that anymore” and take it out of the book? Yes. Someone recognized his pain, someone recognized what the horrific—I can’t even think of the words—horrible moment this was, to watch people be burned alive because of an unfortunate metaphor. It’s horrible.
HODGES: And it scars Alma. And this is the context in which you put chapter 29, which we tend to read in isolation. We just go right to Alma 29, it’s very beautiful, inspirational, poetic—one of the most poetic parts of the Book of Mormon.
TURLEY: Even a song!
HODGES: Yes, even a song! But it happens in this context. It’s the tail-end of the silence that you say Alma undertakes for those five years, where we don’t see him preaching publicly. And then suddenly he comes out with this. So you place it in the context of perhaps being a mourning ritual, “mourning” as in sorrow.
TURLEY: Yes, mourning for death and destruction.
HODGES: Give us some more information about that, about Alma chapter 29, in this context of tragedy and trauma.
TURLEY: I think there are good reasons to believe that Alma was traumatized by what happened at Ammonihah. And things much less threatening—even the perception of threat—can cause trauma for people.
One typical reaction could be an inability to speak about the traumatic happening. It’s so beyond what you could conceive of, beyond your experience, that you literally cannot put words on the experience. And what’s interesting is that if we read Alma 29, there’s multiple phrases that suggest Ammonihah. Even from the very beginning that he says, “O, that I were an angel and could have the wish of mine heart.” There’s only one other place in scripture that someone has a “wish of their heart,” and that’s Alma at the end of his speech at Ammonihah. And this “plan of redemption,” “crying repentance,” even this idea of an angel coming and speaking to all the ends of the earth—there are multiple little phrases throughout the first part of Alma 29 that are reminiscent of Ammonihah. He’s taken back when speaking this first time, at least that we have recorded, public speaking after Ammonihah. He’s right back in that moment again.
HODGES: You see it in all these textual echoes, and you say this follows a biblical style, a Hebrew style of lament. There are several steps scholars have identified that you can find in Psalms. What are some examples of those, where you see this almost ritualized expression?
TURLEY: It is. It’s a form. We have poetry that’s very formulaic, formatted, like a sonnet, the limerick. And a psalm follows a certain form. It follows a knowable format. There’s been a lot of biblical research on Psalms. There are different ideas and different steps, but most analyses trace back to one known format with five steps by Hermann Gunkel, the biblical scholar that everyone would hark back to. And a psalm of lament usually starts with an abrupt invocation. Just quick, brief, to the point. Which is different than other types of psalms. A psalm of praise might go on and on, “Oh God, the great and glorious.” You know, something like that.
HODGES: “Wonderful are your ways.”
TURLEY: Exactly. Which is a beautiful style. But a lament is abrupt, short, it might be one word, and that’s what we have here just, “O God.” He’s just crying out. And after the invocation, they typically move into the compliant, to the lament, this is what’s wrong.
HODGES: And they’re very honest. They’re not pulling punches. This is what we find in the Bible, they don’t sugarcoat things. They speak directly and frankly to God about what the problem is.
TURLEY: Absolutely. People might be shocked if they start studying the biblical psalms carefully. “Break the teeth of the ungodly.” And, “O God, where are you?”
HODGES: Like, “Where the heck are you?” The language is very blunt like that. It’s a bold way to deal with it. And scripture is saying that this is the way that people who love and believe in God, sometimes feel like interacting with God.
TURLEY: Speaking to him. Angry, some of them are angry. Some of them are hostile, accusatory, they’re very very real. And I think we might hesitate to approach God that way, but the spirit testifies of truth, maybe even the truth of how we’re feeling.
I don’t think we have such a wimpy God as one who can’t handle your pain. Our God can. He can. And approaching him that way with pure honesty can be an important step in healing.
HODGES: Right. So we have that invocation, we have the complaint, the lament, and then you say there’s a “pivot.”
TURLEY: Yeah. There’s a couple of these changes, transitional periods. And what’s intriguing to me is that that what we have in Alma 29 follows the format of 2 Nephi 4 in these pivots.
Now, it’s hard to believe that this chapter is a lament because, “O that I were an angel,” you’re thinking, “Oh that just sounds like a nice little wish. Is this really a lament?” In this context, it is. In this context he’s saying, “Why couldn’t I have more power? Why couldn’t I bring these people to repentance?”
HODGES: As though he’s saying “The angel came to me and look what happened. And I came to Ammonihah and look what happened. I couldn’t—”
TURLEY: “Look what happened.”
HODGES: “I couldn’t. I didn’t succeed like the angel.”
TURLEY: “I not only didn’t save them, but I caused a worse—” Cause is a harsh word. “What happened was a worse horror than anything I could have imagined.”
HODGES: He might have even felt like he helped cause it. We don’t know.
TURLEY: We don’t know.
HODGES: He doesn’t say. But that’s a reasonable thing someone might feel about themselves, if they were in that kind of circumstance.
HODGES: “If only. If I was an angel, this is what I wish. If I could have done this.”
TURLEY: And he’s harking back to Ammonihah, but in context here, Alma 29 is spoken after Alma 28. And in Alma 28 we have the worst war since Lehi left Jerusalem. This war gets overshadowed because we don’t see battle scenes, we don’t have much of a discussion. It’s fairly well downplayed. But there are thousands of people who are dead. Thousands of bodies laying on the earth moldering in heaps. And it’s in this context that Alma 29 is spoken.
This is not a happy wish. When he says that he wants to declare the plan of salvation that there might not be more sorrow on the face of the earth—there is a lot of sorrow right now. And he wishes he could have done anything to change that. This is a sad statement, very much a lament.
HODGES: Kylie, people who read your forthcoming book will get to see you unpack it even more, talking about how the chapter can be read through this lens of lament psalms. It’s a helpful chapter.
We’re talking with Kylie Nielson Turley about her brief theological Introduction to Alma chapters 1 through 29.
The last chapter I want to focus on in this interview begins by discussing the different lenses people use when they read scripture. You use this metaphor of sort of putting on different glasses.
TURLEY: Glasses, and seeing things differently.
HODGES: Right. And different people kind of have different prescriptions, different prescription lenses. You might put someone’s glasses on and see something different. When we read scripture, it’s important to remember that everybody is bringing their own eyes to the text. Instead of trying to make everybody agree with my particular view, I can benefit from listening to the views of other people.
TURLEY: Because those can all be accurate, real views. So when I come to the scriptures and maybe my background or my culture or my context is something about social justice, then those are the questions I’m asking. And that will pull social justice into view from the text. And when I bring those questions, those are the answers that I start to see, that I find. Maybe moreso than someone else who brought a different question.
HODGES: You do this in the context of Abish in particular—one of the few women who are named in the Book of Mormon. Talk about Abish in view of that social justice lens, for example. You bring up several lenses in this chapter, saying “If we ask these questions, here’s what we might see in Abish. If we ask these questions, here’s what we might learn from Abish.”
TURLEY: So we have Abish, who, for all intents and purposes, has no power, she shouldn’t have any power in this society.
HODGES: She’s a servant.
TURLEY: She’s a servant—and we grant that she’s serving in the royal household, so maybe there’s a tiny bit of power there. But she’s a woman in a society that seems to clearly revolve around men.
HODGES: So much so that women are rarely even given names in the record and so on.
TURLEY: Six women are named. Three of them are not even characters in this book.
HODGES: Just references?
TURLEY: Just references to Eve, to Mary, to biblical references. And here Abish has a name, but—
HODGES: She’s also called Lamanite-ish.
TURLEY: We have no idea what that means.
HODGES: That’s the only person with that label, right?
TURLEY: Well also the servants. There are Lamanitish servants who go to watch the flocks, and Ammon becomes one of those watchers. And then Abish is Lamanitish. We don’t know exactly what that means, but what it clearly means at the least is she’s not one or the other. She’s not Lamanite, she’s not Nephite.
HODGES: She’s marginal.
TURLEY: She’s marginal, always marginal, not powerful person.
HODGES: And what would a social justice lens pull out of that? You kind you’ve been looking closely at her status in society and seeing –
TURLEY: That this is stunning, this is amazing. This is the least powerful person in society. She’s not even in society, she’s on the fringes, she’s a Lamanite-ish woman, and a servant. She should not be able to accomplish anything at all.
Yet she does. She changes things in a powerful way. I’m stunned. And clearly she deserves a name because of what she accomplishes. She changes a society. People listen to her. It’s a stunning moment.
HODGES: You suggest that she’s even a Christ figure. That she becomes a Christ figure.
TURLEY: She pulls people together. And in a significant way, she raises the queen.
We have this moment where King Lamoni has collapsed—and he’s also a Christ figure. Sometimes I think we get a little too attached to a reading that says, “This person is this. This is person is that.” But we can have multiple Christ figures in the same story, it’s okay! [laughter] But Lamoni collapses, revives and then speaks briefly to his wife, which is a lovely moment in scripture. She is the first person he turns to, reaches out for her, before he’s even up off his bed he’s reaching out towards his wife, and then they both collapse. And then the servants collapse. Ammon collapses. Everyone is down on the ground.
And Abish runs, runs to gather people thinking, “if they behold this scene, they’re going to converted.” But the opposite happens. They start fighting, bickering, one man even tries to kill Ammon, and she realizes, “This is getting out of control. This is going to turn into a mob. I need to do something.” She’s “sorrowful unto tears” about the situation that she unintentionally created with the best of intentions. And reaches out and takes the queen by the hand.
And the way this is described just stands out to me. Could it be that she’s just helping someone up from the ground? Yes, of course. That’s a literal reading, that could be a reality. But the way it’s described, and then it’s described in exactly the same words again, makes it something else. She touches the queen’s hand and the woman instantly revives, the queen rises—not just from falling to the earth. It makes it sound like she’s spiritually reborn from the fall, not from a fall. She raises someone from spiritual death, Abish does. She’s very much of a Christ figure in that context.
HODGES: Your full chapter goes on to unpack even more things about Abish. I encourage people to check that out when the book becomes available.
There’s one moment here in this chapter that I especially want to remember, that I want to keep with me. I want to keep it with me in Sunday School, I want to keep it with me in academic settings, you say: “It’s an important question to ask, what this story means. But it might even be more important to ask, what else does it mean?”
The fact that we can find these different meanings, and that we should keep asking, “What else can this mean? And what else can this mean?” It seems to me that is what makes scripture so fruitful, is that we can keep asking that. We don’t have to have these locked-in singular readings of everything. But we can ask, and perhaps should ask, “And what else?”
TURLEY: Yes. A good friend of mine, Julie Smith, was the first person who suggested that wording, and the idea I had before, but I loved that the most important question can be, “What else does it mean? How else can I see this? What other interpretation might there be that God wants me to see? What can I learn from other people? What does Blair have to say? What are his insights about the scripture?”
Ultimately, this brief theological introduction shares some of my insights about the scriptures, but that doesn’t mean they’re the one and only true answer that should be seen or even could be seen, absolutely. There are other ways to see it. Scripture is so dense, so packed with meaning. I think that’s the only reason that some of what constitutes scripture is this kind of language that God can use to mean so many things to different people in their different situations.
HODGES: And you say that, for how densely packed the Book of Mormon is, you also observe that in your experience the Book of Mormon doesn’t answer all of the questions you’d like it to answer, or all the questions that it raises, even. In some cases, it raises the hardest questions and leaves the questions to us.
TURLEY: I think that’s important to realize. I don’t know that God works with me the same that he works with other people. But in my experience, sometimes people use the Book of Mormon as if it’s a question-and-answer book, sort of an easy way to roll a dice, to say, “Is it yes? Is it no? What’s the answer that’s going to come up? I’ll quick pray about this question, open the Book of Mormon, put my finger on this scripture and voila! There will be the answer.”
That hasn’t happened for me. Is it the answer in a holistic sense? That is, does it turn me to God? Does it put me in a place where I can pray and feel the spirit and have answers? Yes. But, does it answer the specific questions of my life? Not usually, not usually.
HODGES: What are some of the questions the Book of Mormon keeps asking you?
TURLEY: I think it asks us to bring our heart to the book. Every fast and testimony meeting—when we get to have them—every time I hear people say they know the Book of Mormon is true. And to me, this book is an epic tragedy. If this book is true and you know it, it’s difficult for me to see how you could stand up and casually say, “I know the book is true.” This is a heartbreaking book. Maybe that’s just the questions I’m asking it. But it brings pain—Alma’s pain, Amulek’s pain, Ammonihah’s pain, the pain of every person in the society—to the surface. And it asks us to mourn with those people. To mourn with someone who is mourning in extreme ways. And to find that there is a God of healing.
HODGES: And so perhaps the Book of Mormon, the truthfulness of the book is in its call to us to learn how to do that work of mourning, with Christ. I think of Alma chapter 7—this is why Christ came down and why Christ took upon himself flesh, and this is what we see in Alma 7, that he could learn how to “succor his people according to their infirmities” in the flesh. And the book is inviting us to think about how we’re supposed to do that as well.
TURLEY: And it’s probably going to require heart and mind, more than we’ve allowed it to require before. It can call you think, call you to feel. Probably whichever side you err on—this is a personal theory of mine, that if you’re a thinking person, this book might call you to feel, to feel someone else’s pain, if you’re a feeling person, this book might call you to think. Think harder, think deeper. This is not just a kneejerk reaction of emotion. It asks us to become more. To feel more. To think more. To be more awake and alert to other people, in ways that we haven’t been.
HODGES: That’s Kylie Nielson Turley, she’s the author of Alma 1–29: a brief theological introduction. It’s part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series.
That series is ongoing—we’re trying to get volumes out as best we can as the pandemic continues, and people can get updates about the series on our social media accounts, also at our website, mi.byu.edu/brief. We don’t have an estimated date of when this particular volume on Alma will come out, but we’ll keep people posted online.
Kylie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today about your new book. I’m really looking forward to seeing it in print.
TURLEY: Thank you. I appreciate your time .I appreciate your backyard! It’s beautiful. [laughter as a crow can be heard loudly cawing.]
HODGES: Thanks! Thanks for being here. Especially that crow. That crow was distracting me. Crow. Okay. That’s the crow, and it flew right over us! [laughter]
TURLEY: Thank you.
HODGES: Alright, we’ll see you.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode about the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. Next up in this series of interviews, we’ll talk to Mark Wrathall from the University of Oxford. He covered the second part of Alma.
Before we go, here’s a recent review of the podcast in Apple Podcasts. This one comes from Kiwi_springs, who calls the show “Inspired and Thought Provoking.” They say, “The series on Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon has left me with 4 to 5 thought provoking and faith affirming insights each episode. One of the reasons I stay in the LDS faith is its intellectual richness, and no series (or place) has done a better job of providing that anchor and making me excited about membership than the Maxwell Institute.”
Thank you for the kind words, Kiwi_springs. I appreciate that.
We also have an old review here, this one comes from someone called “ewayne91.” Here’s the review—they gave us one star so this is why it’s so puzzling, they said, “This podcast is a great use of my time as I go about my working days and evenings. The thing I miss most about my college years has been the high-quality lectures which I would attend, but now I can enjoy that same level of thought and discussion through this podcast!”
Alright well, thanks for the review ewayne, but if you’re still out there, if you’re still listening, this was about a year ago, somehow you gave the show one star out of five! Go back in there, get back in Apple Podcasts and bump that score up! You’re bringing down the average here! [laughs]
Alright. I’m Blair Hodges, thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. And we’ll talk to you next time.
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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