Maxwell Institute Series Helps Readers See the Book of Mormon through New Eyes

Contributed By Grace Carter, Church News writer

  • 15 May 2020

Shannon Harris, left, and James Faulconer participate in a planning session for the Maxwell Institute’s series The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions in April 2019. Photo by Blair Hodges.

Article Highlights

  • The ongoing series from the Maxwell Institute seeks to deepen understanding and present new perspectives about the Book of Mormon.

“I think [the Book of Mormon] is supposed to be a catalyst, a tangible artifact that allows us—like a prism—to magnify our own spiritual yearnings and intuitions and have that direct experience in the Spirit.” —Terryl Givens, researcher and author

As he contemplated Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s address at the 2018 Neal A. Maxwell Lecture, Spencer Fluhman felt prompted to ask, “What’s next?”

Fluhman, the executive director of Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, said he pondered the Apostle’s call for the institute’s scholars to “consecrate their academic work for the broader body of Latter-day Saints.”

The Maxwell Institute’s mission is to “gather and nurture disciple-scholars,” integrating academic research and faith to enrich study of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

With these responsibilities in mind and Churchwide study of the Book of Mormon only a year away, Fluhman envisioned a series that could enhance Latter-day Saints’ engagement with the 2020 Come, Follow Me curriculum.

He and a team of fellow editors invited 12 scholars to write a series called The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions, comprising a dozen volumes of about 150 pages or less that would examine what the institute’s namesake—the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—called the Book of Mormon’s “divine architecture.”

“There is so much more in the Book of Mormon than we have yet discovered,” Elder Maxwell had declared. “All the rooms in this mansion need to be explored” (“The Children of Christ” [Brigham Young University devotional address, Feb. 4, 1990],

The Church News spoke with five authors from the first half of the Brief Theological Introductions series, who shared some insights they hope will help readers see the Book of Mormon through new eyes. 

“That term can scare some people off, but all we mean by ‘theology’ is a more considered and reflective meditation on the scriptures and their implications,” said Terryl Givens, a senior research fellow at the Maxwell Institute and author of Second Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.

Theology just means ‘God talk,’ ‘God discourse,’” he said. “So theology is a way of trying to be more introspective and contemplative about our faith in rigorous ways. . . . Rigor is one of the hallmarks of this series; it’s not about erudition or sophistication or academic training or language. It’s just about thinking harder about gospel things.”

Diedre Green, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and author of Jacob: A Brief Theological Introduction, speaks about her forthcoming volume at an event held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, on October 13, 2019. Photo by Blair Hodges.

The Significance of Structure

“The structure suggests that it is prophecy first and foremost that’s at the heart of 1 Nephi,” said Joseph Spencer, an assistant professor in BYU’s Department of Ancient Scripture and author of the volume on 1 Nephi.

Readers sometimes approach 1 Nephi as though it reflects a daily journal Nephi kept during his experiences, Spencer said. But in 2 Nephi 5 the original author reveals that he started writing the record—known as the “small plates” of Nephi—no earlier than 30 years after his family left Jerusalem.

In light of this information, 1 Nephi can be understood as a thoughtfully crafted narrative, shaped by decades of reflection. In his book, Spencer lays out 1 Nephi’s structure, including the original chapter breaks found on the gold plates translated by Joseph Smith. Nephi chose this structure, he asserts, to emphasize his family’s two “prophetic resources”: the brass plates and the vision of the tree of life.

Spencer also noted that “1 Nephi is the most women-saturated book in the Book of Mormon,” citing references to Sariah, the daughters of Ishmael, and Christ’s mother, Mary, along with feminine imagery in passages from Isaiah.

Authors and editors of the Maxwell Institute’s series The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions meet for a planning session in April 2019. Photo by Blair Hodges.

“There are two stories about women in situations of complaint or resistance in 1 Nephi,” he said. In 1 Nephi 5, Sariah complains against Lehi and they reconcile and offer sacrifice together. In 1 Nephi 16, the daughters of Ishmael murmur against Lehi because of the death of their father, but their voices are silenced by an ensuing conflict between men.

Spencer said these parallel stories suggest the beginning of a pattern that underlies the hundreds of years of strife between Nephites and Lamanites.

James Faulconer, a professor of philosophy at BYU and author of the volume on Mosiah, pointed out how Mormon chose to arrange parts of the Nephite history nonsequentially.

During the editing process, he could have compiled historical records in chronological order—but he placed King Benjamin’s sermons before events that predated them, like Abinadi’s martyrdom and Alma’s preaching at the waters of Mormon.

“Mormon, by the way that he edits the book, is saying to us, ‘These sermons are really important for us to understand the rest of what happens,’” Faulconer said.

While scholars conclude the beginning of Mosiah was lost with the 116 pages that Joseph Smith gave to Martin Harris during translation, King Benjamin’s sermons remain. Faulconer doesn’t see this as a coincidence. “The Lord made sure that we got King Benjamin,” he said. The leader’s sermons “challenge our way of thinking about the world.”

“He says that we have to remember our nothingness . . . and God’s greatness. And he says that if we don’t do that, we can’t retain a remission of our sins,” Faulconer said. The order of Mormon’s record suggests that this truth is critical to understanding later prophets’ testimonies of the Savior’s mission.

Rethinking Vocabulary

Givens challenged the continued use of “borrowed concepts and understandings of . . . key terms” such as sin, salvation, grace, and Atonement.

“I think we live in an era of unprecedented woundedness,” he said. “Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 13 refers to ‘the state of awful woundedness’ of the world. That word was used in the 1830 edition. . . . It seems to me that woundedness is a concept that resonates with particular power among today’s rising generations.” 

Terryl Givens, a senior research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and author of Second Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, speaks about his forthcoming volume at an event held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, on July 14, 2019. Photo by Blair Hodges.

Referencing high rates of depression, suicide, divorce, and mental health struggles, he explained: “The language of sin and salvation isn’t the most effective language to reach the people today. . . . We can speak language that is both more resonant and more scripturally accurate if we shift away from the language of the past. And I think the Book of Mormon is one of the best resources to do that.”

Comparing the Book of Mormon to a sort of Urim and Thummim for every individual, he said, “I think it is supposed to be a catalyst, a tangible artifact that allows us—like a prism—to magnify our own spiritual yearnings and intuitions and have that direct experience in the Spirit.”

As with the emblems of the sacrament, “we require something to focus our faith and serve as a tangible conduit of that faith,” Givens continued. “And I think that’s what the Book of Mormon does.”

Questioning Assumptions

In her book on Alma 1–29, Kylie Turley, a faculty member of the BYU English Department, calls into question a basic assumption about Alma, the son of Alma: his age.

Though he is often referred to as “Alma the Younger,” she said, the Book of Mormon never calls him by that title. It’s possible that this name contributes to a false impression that he was a very young man when he experienced a miraculous conversion.

Having examined dates and ages specified in the books of Mosiah and Alma, Turley concludes it’s likely Alma was much older than a teenager—perhaps in his 30s or 40s. “To me, this changes the story,” Turley said.

Artist Brian Kershisnik creates a woodcut for the Maxwell Institutes series The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions. Photo by Blair Hodges.

The possibility that Alma was well into his adulthood means the people he ruled over as chief judge knew him—potentially for years—as someone who led others away from the gospel, she explained. Considering the potential depth and duration of Alma’s wickedness, which he describes as “the darkest abyss” (Mosiah 27:29), magnifies the poignancy of his testimony of the Savior.

“He has needed the Atonement to an excruciating degree—to an exquisite degree,” Turley said. 

Artist Brian Kershisnik depicts the Book of Mormon figure Abish in this sketch for a series of woodcuts he produced for the Maxwell Institute’s series The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions. Photo by Blair Hodges.

“You put that in context with Christ going forth ‘suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind’ (Alma 7:11)—there’s a reason we get these doctrines from this man.”

Sharon Harris, an assistant professor of English at BYU and author of a volume about what she affectionately calls “the itty-bitty books”—Enos, Jarom, and Omni—learned to rethink assumptions she had made about the Book of Mormon’s authors. 

Because Jarom’s eponymous book is so short, Harris said she had thought of him as a “spiritual slacker”—someone who didn’t bother to keep a detailed record. But after careful study, she sees Jarom following the example of his father, Enos, who discovered the healing power of “self-emptying” through prayer. 

Jarom, Harris suggested, could be understood by what he chose not to include in his record as well as by its contents.

“We can see this very committed, righteous person, but that comes through what he doesn’t include in the record. It comes through his willingness to self-empty and not worry about his reputation—not worry about how he’s going to look. And it comes from him refusing to carry on some of the more derogatory stances toward the Lamanites.”

The brief books of Enos, Jarom, and Omni also offer a lesson about genealogy, Harris said. “These books span hundreds of years in just a few short pages, and we get to see the process of passing this record . . . from a bird’s-eye view.” 

Central to the Book of Mormon’s covenant is the promise that the record will be preserved and delivered to the descendants of the Lamanites, she added. “The descendants of the Lamanites will in turn return to the covenant, . . . and that is how the Nephites will be redeemed.”

Artist Brian Kershisnik uses woodcuts to create the illustrations for the Maxwell Institute’s series The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions. Photo by Blair Hodges.

When Mormon compiled his record, he placed the “small plates” of Nephi last, so Omni would have been the final book that Joseph Smith translated, Harris noted. The significance of genealogy and family ties may be part of why Mormon chose to place these records, which demonstrate the passing of the plates from one person to another, at the end. “The destiny of the book is in the fulfillment of this covenant. . . . That’s how Lehi and Sariah’s family will be preserved.”

Seeking Christ in Scripture

When asked about the message Enos, Jarom, and Omni have for today’s readers, Harris said, “I think they are telling us that we need our entire family. And family has a much broader definition than we might be prepared to recognize.”

“We need to ask the question, What do families have to do with Jesus?” she added. Enos receives personal forgiveness through faith in the Savior, but that experience is quickly followed by a larger call to salvation for all.

1 Nephi, too, expresses a call to gather all people in Christ, Spencer said: “He is saying, ‘Wake up to the Abrahamic covenant, to the gathering of Israel. This is the center of the Restoration.’”

The first page of each installment in the series denotes that its purpose is to “[seek] Christ in scripture.” Each author’s contribution offers a unique perspective on how the Book of Mormon draws its readers to the Redeemer.

Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, speaks about the forthcoming series The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions at an event held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, on October 13, 2019. Photo by Blair Hodges.

Faulconer noted that Abinadi’s central message to King Noah and the wicked priests was that God Himself would be embodied and live on earth. The ancient prophet’s teachings remind readers “that Jesus Christ came as a human being, just like us, and He lived life just like us. . . . He knows what it means to be human. And then He died just like us.”

The book of Alma, which covers a time period mere decades before the Savior’s birth, offers a parallel to today, when Latter-day Saints look forward to His Second Coming, Turley said. 

Referring to the Book of Mormon’s current importance, Givens said: “‘Faith crisis’ is a term that’s on the lips of all Christians everywhere. I think that until we manage to center Christ more emphatically in our own faith individually, as well as collectively, we’re not going to weather this storm successfully. And there’s no book better qualified to help us recenter the gospel in Christ.”

By coordinating 12 different authors, the series models a multitude of approaches to learning about the Savior, Fluhman said. The project’s quest to help readers see a familiar volume of scripture through new eyes is an “ironic challenge,” he admits. “The more familiar it is, it can be harder to see other levels of meaning and insight. Sometimes it takes a new conversation partner to jar us into new angles of vision. 

This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book Mosiah: A Brief Theological Introduction, by James Faulconer. Photo by Maxwell Institute.

“That’s what we hope our authors can be for Latter-day Saints—a new conversation partner that can jar us into new insights.”

“If it had been just an intellectual exercise, we would not have done it,” he added. “To know more about Him is to be transformed by Him. That knowledge of God is transformative—that’s the case the series makes. That knowledge of God is transformative knowledge, that you can’t know these things without becoming something new.”

The volumes on 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi were published in March and April, respectively, and the institute plans to publish the remaining 10 books throughout summer 2020.