Anything Good in the Book of Mormon

I’m going to ask a strange question of a bunch of exMos, but I hope you can help me out. I don’t know where I could ask this question on the Bloggernacle without it ending badly.

I was reading James Kugel’s essay on biblical criticism’s strange relationship to apologetics (highly recommended), and it led me to wonder about the Book of Mormon.

Biblical scholars have long ago abandoned many naive beliefs about Bible authorship. There is strong evidence that—far from being an inerrant, monolithic work of divine authorship—it is a hodgepodge of preexisting scraps of human stories and myth floating around the ancient Middle East which were later collected and repurposed by redactors. I’m sure this claim won’t be terribly controversial around these parts (at least it shouldn’t be given the weight of scholarship behind it). Yet, there are many biblical scholars who continue to practice a Bible-based religion. James Kugel, as an orthodox Jew, is one example.

I’ve been reexamining the Book of Mormon with a more scholarly eye lately, and for many reasons, it seems that the most reasonable explanation is that it is the work of human imagination (surprise!). So for the sake of discussion, let’s say that because of the information available on the internet, more and more Mormons begin to view the Book of Mormon like religious scholars see the Bible: as a work of religious fiction.

My question is this: is there something valuable in the Book of Mormon despite it being fiction? Any inspiring stories? Any advice on how to live a good life? In other words, is there anything that makes it worthwhile aside from its claims to historicity?

I’m encountering something of a stupor of thought here. I’m drawing a complete blank, but there’s got to be something, right? What am I forgetting?

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41 Responses

  1. Leah says:

    I’ve always liked, “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” (Though I’d like it better if it said “men and women” or “people,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

    I also like the passage in Mosiah (I think chapter 4; too lazy to look it up right now) where it says not to let the beggar put up his petition to you in vain. Though this passage makes the stingy conservatism that permeates much of Mormondom a head-scratcher to me.

    There are other passages, like building on the rock of Christ that I think have some symbolic, psychological value, even though they aren’t literally true.

    But, man, you gotta dig through a lotta wars and rumors or wars a sore bloodshed to find even the hundredth part that’s worthwhile in the BofM.

  2. Urban Koda says:

    I’ve always liked some of the teachings attributed to King Benjamin – Leah touched on them as well. But the idea that even a king should labor to support himself, and the idea that we should serve and help one another.

    Wise words even if they are just from someones imagination.

  3. kuri says:

    I agree with Leah and Koda: the part of “King Benjamin’s sermon” where he talks about helping the poor is good.

    However, the ethics of dealing with the poor that it describes are based on our supposed relationship with God, so they’re not necessarily universal in application. Still, I think they’re admirable. (Although, ime, they’re impossible for many American Mormons to accept without inventing caveats. But maybe that just shows how powerful those ethics are.)

    I also think that “Moroni’s promise” is empowering in its context. It says you don’t have to depend on a preacher or a book; you can go straight to the God’s mouth. (Though we mustn’t overlook its manipulative nature in practice, i.e., if you get the “wrong” answer, it must be your own fault.)

  4. Jonathan says:

    I used to take great comfort in “(wo)men are that they might have joy” until I realized that because of this and similar scriptures I’d been pursuing happiness for its own sake and consequently making myself unhappy. This would have been one of my first picks otherwise. I’m sure the scripture isn’t tainted by personal history for others like you. 🙂

    I had forgotten about King Benjamin’s address. You’re right, kuri, that the motivation isn’t universally applicable, but I guess religious folk might find it useful.

    Y’all have reminded me of Mosiah 18:8-9 where Alma preaches about baptism. I like the “bear one anothers burdens, that they may be light; […] mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”. But then he wrecks it by giving a completely self-serving reason to have compassion, “that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life”.

  5. BrinkleyBoy says:

    What would be the point of trying to find useful things to live one’s life by in the BofM or Bible versus any other work of fiction? Both books are super self-contradictory and contain endorsements of morally wrong, as well as morally right actions. I feel like we’d be better of living our lives according to The Lord of the Rings or something.

  6. Jonathan says:


    I agree. I was just curious what everyone thought the high points of the BoM are. I’d been focusing on the negative enough, that I couldn’t remember any. Have any favorites? 🙂

  7. BrinkleyBoy says:

    I would probably say King Benjamin’s speech also, because that is one of the things I would show to investigators to prove there was actually some good advice to live by in the book. I have always remembered the thing about the “beggars petition” and how its our responsibility to help those in need, but their responsibility what they do with that help. Not sure I totally agree with it, but it’s better than most of the stuff in there.

    That said, I think a lot of that advice is pretty basic and some if it seems to be plagiarized from the Sermon on the Mount.

    A lot of the stuff about Nephi’s determination is also inspiring, once you get past the God-telling-him-to-chop-off-Laban’s-head thing.

  8. Steven B says:

    Thanks for linking to the James Kugel article. I have long admired his work.

  9. Andrew S says:

    I dont know where I could ask this question on the Bloggernacle without it ending badly.

    well, there was this discussion:

    and then this one:

  10. Jonathan says:

    BrinkleBoy, the BoM isn’t much of an inspirational book, not more so than the Bible anyway. I look back and the reason that I didn’t read the BoM regularly was it is boring and doesn’t really inspire me. Like Leah said, a lot o’ wars and rumors of wars.

    Steven B, that article is the only thing that I’ve read of his, but I admire his ability to do the scholarship dispassionately without letting his religion color the interpretation. His How To Read the Bible looks very interesting.

    Andrew, I really did mean to plead ignorance. 🙂 I was never active in the bloggernacle. My first introduction to the Mormon blogging scene was to Outer Blogness, so I have no idea where this question would be received well.

  11. Chino Blanco says:

    Am I the only one who can’t tell if Joseph Smidt is kidding?

    Whether he is or not, whatever, here goes my admission …

    During the past twenty years since my disaffection, I’ve had random clients whose habits would expose me to their beliefs … a Bible opened on the desk for morning study in a hotel room, a rush to finish up meetings before Sabbath, one memorable experience in an out-of-the-way kosher Hong Kong dining hall … and I’d invariably wind up stung (lightly, but anyways) with nostalgia at the attempt at meaning, or holding on, or balance, or whatever it was, that reminded me of having the Book of Mormon read at our family table growing up.

    Of course, the BofM is bunkum. But I’m not entirely convinced that the absence of a central text comes without cost.

  12. chanson says:

    when I and many others I know read the Book of Mormon we find that we are kinder, happier, harder working, more helpful to others, . then we often otherwise would be.

    Maybe some are happier, more helpful, etc., with the BoM, maybe some are less. How “many others” are you talking about? How do you know they’re “kinder, happier, harder working, more helpful to others” than they would have been without it? Maybe they’d be even better if they put the book down. After all, (just as easily as you), I can cite myself and “many others” who are better off without it.

    insanity, divinity, or something special

    Actually, there are a whole lot more possible explanations. For example, it may be that reading the BoM makes you feel better because you associate positive memories and/or a sense of righteous achievement with it. It could also be that you’re inverting the cause and effect (eg. when you’re going through a positive/successful phase in your life, you’re more likely to feel inspired to read the BoM). etc., etc.

    as I suggested with the statistics, something is working and so I will be the last person to throw away the book.

    Wha…? What “statistics”? You haven’t provided any statistics or any kind of hard evidence to back your claims about the effects of reading the BoM.

  13. chanson says:

    Sorry about the error in my previous comment (about not providing any statistics) — I didn’t notice that the point about Utah being the happiest state had a link. That said, it doesn’t follow that that is the result of the BoM or that your three possible choices are the only interpretations.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Joseph Schmidt, What parts of the BoM make you the happiest? Or is it just whenever you read it regardless of which passage you’re reading that somehow makes you feel happier?

    I’m not denying that some people will be happier reading the BoM. I’m just curious if this is because of something inherent to the text itself aside from the claims of historicity.

    Chino Blanco, I’ll admit that a sense of nostalgia for a central text that I can look to for answers to the big questions, to surrender myself to the wisdom of another. Trying to figure things out is hard work, so I sometimes look fondly at the time when I felt like I had all the answers at my fingers.

    Chanson, I agree that Joseph Schmidt’s trilemma is too limited. People seem to feel happier when they read the Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad-Gita, Dianetics (!), etc. There seems to be something else at play aside from the actual content of the books.

    FWIW, I felt happier when I read the BoM because I felt like I was living up to LDS standards, doing my duty. It relieved my conscience. Now that I don’t feel that sense of duty, reading the BoM is alternately boring, perplexing, or frustrating. Rarely or never inspiring.

  15. chanson says:

    I agree that Joseph Schmidts trilemma is too limited.

    It seems like a variant of the popular claim about Jesus that he was either a liar, crazy, or the son of God. The first two claims are so shocking (about Jesus!) that it distracts you from the fact that those are certainly not the only three possibilities.

    JS is using the same trick to distract. If you disagree with my position, you’re saying I’m insane! But nobody is claiming that he or other Mormons are insane — there are plenty of other explanations for why some people might act (or feel) better after reading any given book.

  16. Chino Blanco says:

    For what it’s worth, I appreciate Smidt bringing his trilemma here because it provides the opportunity to talk about one of the dark truths of the current and Mormon TV campaigns: the appeal only works on an audience that has never experienced the joys of “normal”.

    And by “normal” I mean Smidt’s ideal of being kind, happy, and hard-working.

    An ideal that I suspect most of us here manage to embody without appending “And I’m a Mormon” to our identities.

    In no small part because we’re equipped to process information in useful ways.

    Not everyone has that ability, especially not the target demographic for current Mormon outreach.

    It’s not a question of whether the LDS are insane, or whether their book possesses divine power, or even whether the BofM can do for Mormons what the Torah did for Topol … of course it can, as long as Mormons and the potential target audience for Mormonism remain as illiterate as they’ve always been.

  17. aerin says:

    Correlation doesn’t equal causation.

    I guess the knife cuts both ways. When we talk (here on MSP) about the rising rates of plastic surgery or bankruptcies, many are quick to point out that there are lots of people in Utah who are not LDS. When the statistics show something good, like Utah is one of the happiest states, then most residents are mormon.

    Also, other religions (sects) of mormonism do believe in the book of mormon, but not necessarily in the D&C or other works. I’m curious where they figure into the interpretations….

  18. Joseph Smidt says:

    Sorry, the links were broken. Here are where I get the statistics:

    This helps answer the “How many others are you talking about?” question. Enough that Utah has the happiest people in the US.

    Other statistics come from here:

  19. Joseph Smidt says:

    And I should add, as people will say “how do I get that the Book of Mormon influences these statistics?” and I will say: I don’t!

    But, on my second link you will find multiple statistics improve if you look at the more active Mormons in the church. So, something the more active Mormons are doing is making things better and I would guess reading the Book of Mormon is one thing the more active members are doing.

    Example: more active members are less likely to commit suicide, temple marriages are very unlikely to end end divorce, more likely to be well educated, etc…

    Higher activity == better statistics, and therefore I think the Book of Mormon *could* be related, especially given my own experience of it making my life better.

  20. chanson says:

    JS — Right, I admit that I missed that the first time around. Sorry to admit that I skimmed your comment and dashed out a response while I was at work (oops!), and only later read it more carefully.

    But as Aerin points out, correlation != causation, and it cuts both ways. We’ve seen stats that Utah is also the winner in anti-depressant and porn consumption. (Hey, maybe it’s the anti-depressants and porn making them happy! 😉 jk)

    But, IMHO, the bigger logical fallacy is the interpretation, as I discussed @16.

  21. Joseph Smidt says:

    Also if you look at the well-being plot you will see Utah (mostly Mormons) is a huge outlier. They find happiness does correlate slightly with wealth and Utah has an *incredible* level of well being given how much wealth they have. (Look how far above the line they are).

    So to me, the Mormon’s well being is being sources by something besides wealth and I would guess it has something to do with activity in the Church and perhaps…. reading the Book of Mormon.

  22. Joseph Smidt says:


    Well maybe it is the anti-depressants and porn. 🙂

  23. chanson says:

    Who knows? 😉

  24. Bob says:

    This is why they bring you a salad first when you go out to a good dinner. It makes you feel ” Good”____ before your Prime Rib gets there. Follow the Church and only eat only the salad____you will feel happier.

  25. Andrew S says:

    re 10,

    actually jonathan, the real answer is that Times & Seasons is a dirty apostate site too. 😀

    I’m really not doing a great job keeping up with this (dis)cussion (but I’ll avoid the urge to get on my email comment notification soapbox), but I will say…

    I’m too lazy to start sprinkling SERIOUS links throughout here, but positive psychologists describe happiness in three parts…one way of phrasing it has been to differentiate “the pleasant life” from “the good life” (or the engaged life), and to differentiate these two from “the meaningful life.” Tony Hsieh, in his nonpsychology book about his businesses and his life, (dis)tills these down to three things: pleasure, passion, and purpose (or, for businesses: profits, passion, and purpose.)

    The idea is that we often seek the lowest level, but this is the most fleeting. We really should be going for the higher ones.

    An interesting thing on the organizational side of things is that value statements — if they are committable — can help in finding a overarching purpose or meaning. BUT the values themselves are *not* as important as the fact that the organization has an eye on the values and shares in those values.

    …I think that religions do well in setting up values and cultures, and so the church and the Book of Mormon are no different.

    Another thing is this: what the church does in particular is it gives us a “meaning” or “purpose” that clashes against the mainstream. It causes (or has caused) all of us to doubt whether we should just “go along with” the dominant culture, zeitgeist, etc., Even if we end up rejecting the Mormon paradigm, what the idea of the Book of Mormon does is it gives us the IDEA that maybe the future isn’t always better than the past. Maybe we need to grapple with something whether it is from antiquity or from 1800s.

    I think most religions do that in some way, shape, or fashion.

  26. Parker says:

    I thought Mormons are happier because they don’t drink coffee. Or, does it have to do with the anti-depressants? Or maybe they are the happiest people in the world, because they think they are the happiest people in the world (you know how surveys work). Or maybe they are ecstatic because they have made their way through what many consider a torpid book. Ah,conditioned relief.

  27. Jonathan says:

    For the sake of counterexample, there was that list of the happiest countries where the top ten skews heavily non-religious.

  28. Lisa says:

    I’m with Parker. When you’re told you’re happy enough, you tend to believe it.

    Also, when you’ve no other experiences–those born in the church tend to not know any better.

    Or in my case, when life before you joined sucked and life just when you join is awesome, even when it all evens out or even goes to crap you tend to be petrified of ever going back. In part because you remember not being happy without the church and in part because you’ve spent the last ten years being told how happy you are.

    But this isn’t to say some or even many members aren’t genuinely happy–but sometimes I do wonder. A lot.

  29. Parker says:

    Happiness aside, if you really want to know how important the Keystone of the LDS religion is, consider this: Since 1942 the Bible has been quoted 57,650 times in General Conference. The Book of Mormon–15,441.

  30. Parker, that’s an interesting statistic. I went looking for a source on that statistic, and you’ve led me to pay dirt: the LDS Scripture Citation Index. This is an interesting view into what parts of the LDS canon are valuable in the mind of the average GA. (BTW, the numbers you cite also include references in “Journal of Discourses speeches, and writings in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”.)

    The KJV Bible has 783,137 words. The BoM has 268,163. So the Bible is cited 0.074 times per word. The BoM is cited 0.058 times per word. So word-for-word, the BoM is only 78% as valuable as the Bible in Mormonism.


  31. Parker says:

    Jonathan, the question you asked is, I think an important one. In fact I have written an essay around that very question that I always intended to present at Sunstone, but something else always grabs my attention that seems more urgent, and the BofM things stays on the back burner. The book lies there on the table–forget the story of how it came to be and speak to me about the content of the book. What does it do for you (that is, whoever reads it). My notion is not very much. I actually think if the Church did not have the Book of Mormon, and it should suddenly surface the Church would reject it, because it teaches doctrine, as I read it, pretty foreign to the theology of the Church today. I won’t continue with this–maybe next year at Sunstone.

  32. I’ve been thinking a lot along those same lines recently. The BoM is not a very LDS book. I’ve recently been reminded of the Sealed Portion as imagined by a modern author. It’s much more LDS and mimics the style of the BoM pretty well. And yes, the church rejects it not least because the author admits that it’s a work of fiction.

    Setting that aside, what little I’ve read of it shows how LDS the BoM could have been but isn’t.

  33. BTW, I doubt I’ll make it to Sunstone any time in the near future, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  34. hjhj says:

    There’s plenty of good stuff in the Book of Mormon. You don’t have to run with all the blood and thunder, and warfare, and you can leave behind Laban’s execution or the stuff about skin color.

    I do like sections like “Adam fell that men might be”, the Psalm of Nephi, the bit about planting a seed and so on. I even enjoy one or two of the stories.

    I disagree about it being a “hundredth part”. I’ve no problem with the old fashioned language, in fact I prefer the KJV…. but I have and do derive a lot of inspiration and pleasure from the Book of Mormon, even when I’ve not been in the church. It has helped me out when I was depressed and I don’t really understand how that worked, but it did…

  35. Jonathan says:

    hjhj, I find the diversity of experience with the BoM interesting. I wonder why you find inspiration and pleasure while I don’t. Is it all in the mindset, or is there something more to it?

  36. Carla says:

    I think I want to re-read it. I remember when I read it 2 years ago that I kept thinking, “this story sounds like something I’ve read/heard before …” and I’d love to go book by book matching the stories to their mythological/biblical origins.

  37. Carla, that sounds like a very interesting project. I would love to read what you come up with.

  38. Carla says:

    Mosiah 4:19 – For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

    I thought that was a really neat way of saying you should be charitable, kind of a slap in the face to the WASP glorification of working to earn your keep.

    Alma 37:44 – For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.

    Just thought that was neat imagery, God’s word is like a compass.

    Helaman 5:30-32 – And it came to pass when they heard this voice, and beheld that it was not a voice of thunder, neither was it a voice of a great tumultuous noise, but behold, it was a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it did pierce even to the very soul And notwithstanding the mildness of the voice, behold the earth shook exceedingly, and the walls of the prison trembled again, as if it were about to tumble to the earth; and behold the cloud of darkness, which had overshadowed them, did not disperse And behold the voice came again, saying: aRepent ye, repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; and seek no more to destroy my servants. And it came to pass that the earth shook again, and the walls trembled.

    A neat mix of several Bible passages – the “still, small voice” of 1 Kings 19, the shaking earth of Matthew 27, the prison walls shaking of Acts 16, the darkness of Matthew 27 and Exodus 10, and the voice condemning the persecution of Christians of Acts 22. I was seriously impressed by these 3 verses putting all that together, even if some of it was only incidental.

    3 Nephi 27: 14-15, 22 – And my Father sent me that I might be alifted up upon the bcross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the ccross, that I might ddraw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be ejudged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil And for this cause have I been alifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works … Therefore, if ye do these things blessed are ye, for ye shall be lifted up at the last day.

    The association of being “lifted up” – on a cross, the ascension, and the final resurrection of all believers I thought was a really neat connection.

    I think there are some really moving stories and, even in spite of all the awkward parts and the Bible copy/pasting, I still enjoyed reading it.

  39. Thanks, Carla. I can see where there would be value for a Christian in the BoM. I guess most of the passages ring hollow in my ears because they rely on a belief in Jesus’ divinity. 🙂

  1. August 19, 2010

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