Friday, February 10, 2012

Skylight Illuminations

Skylight Illuminations is an imprint of Jewish Lights, and its mission is to bring radically abridged versions of holy texts to a wide audience, along with commentary by religious experts.  (I often wonder at the “orthodoxy” of such experts having mainly read Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s wonderful contributions to this series).

Jana Riess took on the daunting task of taking The Book of Mormon and reducing it by a tenth of its size.  She overwhelming chose portions that show key concepts in Mormonism, mainly long homilies by prophets.  She purposely left out the violence and war.  This seems like a bad choice.  If we are going to get a true slice of the Book of Mormon, then there should be representative portions of many styles.  To leave out the narrative aspects gives us a skewed look at the work.  Yet Riess did an admirable job presenting a difficult book to a general audience, and stuck to the mandate of Skylight Illuminations.  If you want to read portions of the Book of Mormon, get a feel for the text, this is a good place to go.

On a content note, I see the Book of Mormon as a curious mix of fantasy and wish-fulfillment.  First there is what I would call the historical problems of the book.  Certainly, events in the Hebrew bible are not true in a modern historical sense.  But there are a few places outside the bible where we can go to see that the religious and historical context of the book isn’t pure fantasy (like the Mesha Stone, the inscriptions at Tel Dan, the Baalam, Deir Alla oracles, and other places).  The stories told in the Hebrew bible have some grounding in a culture of a people called Israel.  Scholars will debate all aspects of what this people where and what their written record mean, but there is  hard evidence of their existence.  The Book of Mormon does not enjoy this grounding.  Not a single mainstream scholar has provided proof that the New World Hebrew culture chronicled in The Book of Mormon existed.  Not a single piece of archeological evidence from non-Mormon sources has come to light.  I see this as a major problem.

Next, there is the question of language.  The Book of Mormon was supposedly translated by Joseph Smith from an Egyptian language (if these were Israelite peoples, why this language?) and when he was finished, the gold plates were returned to the angel Moroni.  So, there goes the possibility examining the original text.   As we know from other books, works of translation are full of problems.  The suspect state of the translation, and the lack of an original, does not give The Book of Mormon the solid grounding that the Hebrew Bible has.  We can’t see the seams of the book, the layers of authorship, and the changes in the flow of language over the centuries.  All we have is Joseph Smith’s somewhat tedious version of King James  English.

So, respectfully, this book is a hard sell for me.  Certainly, people can and should believe what they want, and be left alone.  Mormonism is interesting to study as an American event, and as a part of a set of ideas about the lost tribes of Israel that was common in the 19th century. 

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