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Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Book's Life: A Review of Paul C. Gutjahr's "The Book of Mormon: A Biography"

by Scott Hales (bio)

If this book review were a sacrament meeting talk, I would start by saying that Webster defines “biography” as "a usually written history of a person's life." Pulpit deconstructionist that I am, though, I would then challenge that definition with another—likewise provided by Webster—and suggest that a biography can also be "an account of the life of something (as an animal, a coin, or a building)," which would segue nicely into my assigned topic, Paul C. Gutjahr's fascinating new book The "Book of Mormon": A Biography, which is—and here's the connection—a biography of a book.

The rest of the review would be smooth sailing. I'd borrow freely from the latest conference talk about the book, solicit polite laughter by recycling that joke about Nephi's horse,1 and end with a semi-related mission story about the time my companion wouldn't let me use his Book of Mormon during a street contact.

Sadly, though, this review is not a sacrament meeting talk. Both of Webster's definitions still stand, of course, but no conference talk has yet been given about Gutjahr's book,2 so I've got nothing to plagiarize except, perhaps, another review.3 And let's face it: that joke about Nephi's horse is ready for the glue factory.4

Published recently by Princeton University Press, The Book of Mormon: A Biography is exactly what its title suggests: the story5 of the 181 years between the Book of Mormon's first printing in 1830 to the debut of the hit Broadway musical that bears its name, but not its plot. At 255 pages (55 of which are notes, bibliography, and index), the book is like a good home teacher. Smart, insightful, and concise, it offers a new perspective on an old topic without overstaying its welcome. It may not be able to fix your sink or change your oil, but it gets you thinking differently about the Book of Mormon and its place in American history and culture.

That was my experience with it, at least. Like many Mormons, I've read the Book of Mormon many times. I know the stories, the sermons, the prophets and antichrists. I’ve taught it in Sunday school and early-morning seminary classes. I’ve even played with Book of Mormon action figures and watched Book of Mormon cartoons. Blindfold me, stuff me in a trunk, and dump me anywhere in the Book of Mormon, and I can find my way out. With or without the blindfold.

But Gutjahr goes beyond the usual Book of Mormon stories. Devoting surprisingly few pages to the doctrine and narrative of the Book of Mormon, he looks instead at the way Mormons and other Restoration groups have used (or not used) the book in their gospel teaching, missionary work, scholarship, and art. He also explores the Book of Mormon’s fascinating—and little known—publication history, providing overviews of various LDS and non-LDS editions of the book and the significant revisions made to them by Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, and the Community of Christ (RLDS). In doing so, Gutjahr nicely clarifies the positions these groups have taken towards the Book of Mormon over the years.6

Among the more interesting sections in The Book of Mormon: A Biography is Gutjahr’s look at the complex process of translating the Book of Mormon into foreign languages. He writes, for example, about the LDS Church's commitment to "formally equivalent translations" of the Book of Mormon, or translations that "seek to produce a word-for-word translation of a given work," rather than functionally equivalent translations, which attempt "a thought-for-thought process of translation" aimed at "capturing the original text's meaning." For Gutjahr, this commitment to the Book of Mormon's original language and formal structure reflects the Church's devotion to preserving as much as possible the "inspired word selection" of Joseph Smith's translations of the gold plates (126-127).7 The care they take to translate the work—which generally takes 4.8 years, but sometimes much longer—reflects how central the book has become for the Church and its missionary efforts today (130).

Because The Book of Mormon: A Biography is a thorough and highly readable history of the keystone of Mormonism, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about the Book of Mormon or the LDS Church. Gutjahr shoots for summary, however, not analysis, so serious students of Mormonism will need to look elsewhere for new insight into the Book of Mormon’s many controversies, like the dark skin curse and the absence of DNA evidence linking Native Americans to the Middle East. Think of it as a layperson's alternative to something like Terry L. Givens' By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion or Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide. If you don't have time or stamina for these heady books, give The Book of Mormon: A Biography a try.

That's not saying that Gutjahr's book brings nothing new to the proverbial table, however. While it may not draw any cutting-edge or controversial conclusions, it ends with two chapters on pop culture adaptations of the Book of Mormon, which neither Givens' nor Hardy's books bother to do. Particularly astute, I think, is Gutjahr contrast of artist Minerva Teichert's lesser-known Book of Mormon paintings, which are unique in their "firm commitment to bringing forward the female elements of the book," to Arnold Friberg's popular hyper-masculinist paintings, which have defined Book of Mormon imagery for half a century (162, 170-171). Also interesting is his overview of a century's worth of Book of Mormon film adaptations, including the now-lost silent film The Life of Nephi (1915) and the scandalously sexy Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love (1931),8 showing readers that the campy Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1: The Journey was hardly the first attempt to bring the sacred text to the big screen.

As I note earlier, Gutjahr ends his book with a reference to Broadway's The Book of Mormon. For him, the musical is a reminder that the Book of Mormon has not only gained a more pronounced place in the broader American milieu, but also taken on a life of its own apart from the LDS Church and its membership (200). This, perhaps, is the most valuable insight Gutjahr offers in The Book of Mormon: A Biography. It suggests that the Book of Mormon is on the brink of an exciting and unpredictable future.

This review, of course, is not a sacrament meeting talk. But if it were, I would conclude not with a testimony, but with an enthusiastic recommendation of Gutjahr's always intriguing glimpse into the life of the Book of Mormon. Like its subject, it's a worthy addition to anyone's library.

I would be ungrateful if I said anything less.

[1] Q: What's the name of Nephi's horse? A: Beuntoyou, as in "Wo, Beuntoyou!"
[2] A few conferences ago, however, Elder Jeffery R. Holland gave a powerful talk on the Book of Mormon itself.
[3] Like BHodges’ review for By Common Consent, which I haven't yet read for fear of being influenced by it.
[4] I prefer the more sophisticated joke about the time Mark Twain walked a mile with Brigham Young.
[5] Moroni would say "an account" …
[6] It might surprise some readers that the LDS Church has not always been as committed to using the Book of Mormon as it is today. Missionary efforts, for example, did not emphasize the importance of the Book of Mormon until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Also, until President Ezra Taft Benson's challenge to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon came in 1986, Book of Mormon scriptures made up only 12% of the scriptures quoted in General Conference between 1942 and 1986 (107).
[7] During translation, steps are even taken to retain not only "redundant expressions and awkward sentence structure," but also the "literary idiosyncrasies and style of each author" (128). That means clunky Nephite sentences stay clunky. (As they should, in my opinion.)
[8] The images Gutjahr includes from this film are almost shocking by today's standards. Almost. And who else thinks Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love is the best movie title ever?

NOTE: Modern Mormon Men received a complimentary review copy of The Book of Mormon: A Biography from its publisher.

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