Although The Book of Mormon is considered a sacred text or scripture by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it should still be analyzed as a piece of literature. Whether you are a believer or not in the historicity of The Book of Mormon, it was written by somebody, and thus analyzing it through an academic lens is helpful and insightful.
Recently I have read Richard Lyman Bushman’s excellent biography on the prophet Joseph Smith entitled Rough Stone Rolling. While discussing The Book of Mormon, Bushman mentions briefly that The Book of Mormon can be thought of as an example of postmodern literature.
That intrigued me, since some of my favorite authors are Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace; all postmodernists. I would like to briefly look at some of the postmodern aspects of The Book of Mormon. Brief definitions of the terms that I will be using can be found here.
First, two brief explanations are needed to make this discussion flow easier:
- Postmodern literature: This is a genre of literature that became popular after World War II. It is noted for dense prose and breaking down standard literary convention. A postmodern author will use many different styles in their writing and the text will have a sense of self-awareness, i.e. the author will make it very clear that he is writing a book. A postmodernist will also tackle complex or disturbing material but have a level of detachment that enables them to poke fun or criticize the society that they live in. Since The Book of Mormon was written well before the rise of postmodernism, it was obviously not intended to be postmodern.. But we can still analyze it using our current characterizations of postmodern literature.
- The Book of Mormon: Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints view this book as divine scripture comparable to the Bible. The book itself is a collection of sacred writings and history from a group of Hebrews who settled on the American continent around 600 BC. One thousand years later, the prophet-historian Mormon compiled and abridged the record of his people and wrote it on gold plates. After a war wiped out most of the population, Mormon’s son Moroni hid the record until it was found and translated with the power of God by Joseph Smith in the late 1820’s.
With those explanations out-of-the-way, let us dive into the text itself and look at the postmodern characteristics that can be found in the text itself.
1. Pastiche Elements
Postmodernism is well known for its tendency to combine forms and styles. Because of that, a postmodern text is hard to pin down as belonging to one genre. This technique is known as “pastiche”, which translated means pasted. The Book of Mormon incorporates many examples of the pastiche style, most notably the inclusion of sizable sections from the Old Testament book of Isaiah and a repeat of the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the text, the style also shifts dramatically from prophesy and teaching to war and intrigue. Near the end of the book, a whole history of another immigrant group is pasted into the text in a style not too far removed from Thomas Pynchon’s historical digressions in V. Beyond the content, the mere fact that The Book of Mormon was purported to be written by different authors means that it has dramatic stylistic shifts in true pastiche fashion.
Many of the postmodern authors were very aware of the literature that had gone before them and spent time examining how that literature shaped the society that they were living in. In a similar way, The Book of Mormon spends time commenting about the Biblical texts and providing means by which we should interpret them. Because of this, The Book of Mormon acts as an intertextual analysis of the Bible as much as it does a story in its own right.
In this discussion, metafiction refers to the habit of postmodern authors to write about writing. Many postmodern works acknowledge that the text is a book, and the author is always present. One example of this is Breakfast of Champions where Kurt Vonnegut (the author) appears near the end to reason with one of the characters. Another is Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius where Egger discusses the process of composing the book within the text. In The Book of Mormon, the compiler Mormon is always present over the text. He introduces himself early in the book:
And now I Mormon… speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.
And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass—
Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people. (Words of Mormon 1:1,3-5)
Much like the authors in postmodern tradition, Mormon wants the reader to know that he compiled the record and often breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader.
4. Temporal Distortion
Near the end of The Book of Mormon, after the death of Mormon, the narrative is taken over by Mormon’s son Moroni. To close out the book, Moroni includes a summary of the Jaredite people, an immigrant group that came to America earlier than Moroni’s people.
And now I, Moroni, proceed to give an account of those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country.
And I take mine account from the twenty and four plates which were found by the people of Limhi, which is called the Book of Ether. (Ether 1:1-2)
The temporal jump is huge, bringing the reader from 400 AD all the way back to the tower of Babel. All of the characters are different. The only thing that holds the narrative together is the recurring themes of Christian religion. Moroni’s temporal distortion fits right along with other temporally distorted books such as Slaughterhouse Five, Gravity’s Rainbow, Cloud Atlas and Catch-22.
A postmodern author will usually produce a maximalist book in his or her life time. Some of the best examples are David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. These works are chalked full of details. The author gives the free range to his or her thoughts and ideas, creating long and sprawling works. Maximalist books usually have huge casts and are huge in scope. The Book of Mormon is a perfect example of maximalism. The cast and scope of the book is huge. Throughout it, most major topics of Christian religion are touched on, and the history of a people is written.
Usually a postmodern novel will have some amount of participation in it. This is accomplished by breaking the fourth wall and using the second person tense. While doing this, a postmodern author will usually ask the reader to imagine something or to put themselves into the narrative. In other cases, the author will give the reader instructions about what to do with the book (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius being a prime example) while they read it.
In The Book of Mormon, the authors frequent ask readers to pray or otherwise take part in gaining an understanding of the text. Alma gives a lengthy recipe for understanding the significance of The Book of Mormon in the 32nd chapter of his book. The most famous example of participation comes from Moroni who challenges the readers to learn about the validity of the book for themselves.
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Of course, The Book of Mormon was not intended to be a postmodern text, but in hindsight we can point out the very interesting aspects of the writings found within the book. By looking at The Book of Mormon as a piece of literature, believers can gain a better understand of what makes the book so special. Non-believers can also benefit from an analysis of The Book of Mormon. Even if they do not believe in the historicity of the book, they can still learn to appreciate its complexity and power.
Whatever the case, The Book of Mormon remains one of the most fascinating books ever written.