My Study and Teaching of American
Literature and the Book of Mormon
Professor of English, University of North Carolina
|—Articles of Faith 1:13|
Faith added to study is like "seeing" a three-dimensional stereogram for the first time. When one of my sons-in-law first showed me a stereogram, all I could see initially was a flat surface with meaningless small patterns. Through his coaching, though, I eventually learned to see a third dimension in the stereogram, and what at first appeared random took on meaning as I could identify the objects in the picture. The exhilarating feeling I had in finally "seeing" the stereogram immediately reminded me of the spiritual dimension to life. The movement into this deeper dimension is like the revelatory breakthroughs I have received after applying my best thoughts or talents to a matter. In this, I have followed models of others who, like my son-in-law with the stereogram, have shown that their kind of spiritual experience is verifiable by one who is guided to "see" the same way.
Here is an instance of one of my spiritual three-dimensional experiences: One evening I was admiring the beautiful sunset-touched clouds in the sky, when in a way I had not emotionally realized before, I saw the hand of God in this glorious scene before me. Intellectually, I had known since I was a child that Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ created the world, and I was well familiar with Alma's affirmation to Korihor that "all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it" (Alma 30:44), but at that moment there was something more. An inner voice spoke to my soul, confirming that the Creator acknowledged his artistry. I had a similar experience on an airline flight to Puerto Rico during which I viewed in awe and appreciation the beauty of the variegated clouds, including a brilliant phoenix-like shape, knowing that this was a manifestation of God's handiwork. Another time, I was stunned by the emotional and spiritual feeling I had in viewing bare trees silhouetted against a brilliant sunset. The trees were all different, just as each person on earth is different, and in their similarities yet differences of pattern they testified of conscious creation by a higher being.
These are just a few of the many experiences that confirm to me the reality of Deity. While with Nephi, "I do not know the meaning of all things" (1 Nephi 11:17), I do know with a certainty that there is a God, that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer, and that Joseph Smith, like Jeremiah, was chosen before he was born to be a prophet.
In the spirit of the thirteenth Article of Faith, I love to learn about and to experience the true, the good, and the beautiful. My chosen profession of literary studies has helped facilitate my seeking after that which is lovely and of good report, and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ has provided a sure framework for my understanding.
With Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have found that literature
is the record of the best thoughts. Every attainment and discipline which increases a man's acquaintance with the invisible world lifts his being. Everything that gives him a new perception of beauty multiplies his pure enjoyments. A river of thought is always running out of the invisible world into the mind of man. Shall not they who received the largest streams spread abroad the healing waters?
. . . Now if you can kindle the imagination by a new thought, by heroic histories, by uplifting poetry, instantly you expand,—are cheered, inspired, and become wise, and even prophetic.1
There is much truth in the world of literature. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of great writers is that they often get closer to the truth through fiction than they could through direct expression of reality. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant," Emily Dickinson wrote.2 The word "fiction" derives from the same word as "fictive," referring to the shaping imagination. A similar fictive process is used in great literature as in great portraiture. It comes from the qualities Nathaniel Hawthorne defines in a character whom Herman Melville identified as a self-portrait of Hawthorne. As Hawthorne described him, the man has a face "full of sturdy vigor, with some finer and keener attribute beneath; though harsh at first, it was tempered with the glow of a large, warm heart, which had force enough to heat his powerful intellect through and through." His bold declaration was "I seek for Truth."3 A truth seeker himself, Melville loved "all men who dive," and believed that "all truth is profound."4 Another truth seeker, Emily Dickinson, wrote: "Truth—is as old as God—/ His Twin identity / And will endure as long as He / A Co‑Eternity."5 Henry David Thoreau said, "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."6
Yet with all the truth and beauty they provide, great writers are better at asking questions than finding answers. Who are we? they ask. How should we live? What is the purpose of life? Are we free to act, and if so, to what extent? What is man's place in the universe? Why is there evil, and why must people experience sorrow and suffering? What is beyond this life? In Melville's words through Ishmael, "Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?"7
The answers authors do provide may be limited or contradictory. For example, Emerson on the one hand says, "Is not prayer also a study of truth,—a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite?"8 Another time, however, he says, "As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."9 For his part, Melville was like Hawthorne in being "a seeker, not a finder yet."10 He mused about "time and eternity, things of this world and of the next."11 Yet he despaired of definitive answers. As Hawthorne reported about Melville's visit with him near Liverpool in 1856, Melville,
as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. . . . He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.12
While the reasoning of Melville and others like him "of Providence and futurity" may not bring them fully satisfying answers, my study of these writers has strengthened my testimony. How? They stir me into exploring avenues of thought and feeling. As just one example, they have led me into a decades-long study of the initiation theme in literature—which in turn has further enlightened, and been enlightened by, my understanding of the temple. Most of all, my testimony has been strengthened by revelation that comes in seeking answers to the hard questions these authors ask and also in confirming the answers they get.
It is as though writers of great literature give widening circles of response to truths about man and God, and the gospel provides the circumference. Put another way, the gospel provides a center for my life and allows means for proving all things and holding fast that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). These answers, found through study and faith, have been confirmed to me by the power of the Holy Ghost. It is possible, as Jacob says, to know by means of the Spirit "of things as they really are" (Jacob 4:13). The gospel, in T. S. Eliot's words, places me "at the still point of the turning world."13 Especially through temple ordinances, I am enabled (in Eliot's words) "to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time."14 With the aid of the temple experience, "the end of all our exploring," again in Eliot's words, "Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."15
My practice of feasting daily from the Book of Mormon in conjunction with the other scriptures is a great help to me in orienting my life to eternal truths. Following the principles contained in the Book of Mormon helps me see "life steadily, and [see] it whole."16 With revelatory guidance, the book answers in a deeply satisfying way many of life's most challenging questions. This was reinforced for me by an experience I had speaking about the Book of Mormon with forty‑five seminarians, most of them ministers, from the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. While I had spoken to similar groups in previous years and had prepared for my part many weeks in advance, this time the approach I was to take was made clear to me only the day before I was to meet the group. This is what I was impressed to do: After describing the basic nature of the Book of Mormon (a copy of which I had put in each person's hands), I asked the seminarians to assume that the lost ten tribes had received God's word by way of prophets and to imagine that the ten tribes had now returned with scriptures. What fundamental questions of mankind, I asked, would be addressed in those scriptures? Rather than present the questions myself, I wanted the seminarians to formulate them. The questions, which I listed on the chalkboard, were profound, and I sensed they were ones that concerned these ministers personally. During the next twenty-five minutes, I called up each question in turn, and then we read together answers found in the Book of Mormon. As these answers were given me in the very moment when I needed them (see D&C 24:6), I marveled at how incisive, convincing, and penetrating they were. I could tell the seminarians were touched as well.
Here are the seven questions the seminarians came up with, together with parenthetical references to some of the scriptures we read together:
What is God like? (3 Nephi 11)
What evidence is there of the existence of God? (Alma 30, especially verse 44)
What is the purpose of life? (2 Nephi 2; Mosiah 2–3)
Why is there suffering and evil in the world? (2 Nephi 2:11; Alma 20:29)
What is the relationship of man to God? (Mosiah 2–3)
What happens after death? (Alma 40–42, especially 40:11–14)
What are the proofs of a true prophet? (Jacob 4, especially verse 6)
Just as the Book of Mormon contributes to my understanding of life's challenging questions found in literature and elsewhere, so my literary studies contribute to my understanding of the Book of Mormon. A number of years ago, I was approached by a colleague who proposed that we join together in writing a book about the Book of Mormon as literature. When he first mentioned this, it had not occurred to me to look at the Book of Mormon in those terms. While the collaboration did not continue beyond sending out a prospectus to a couple of major New York publishers, I pursued the project with increasing enthusiasm. The words of the Primary song, "search, ponder, and pray," described my daily involvement in engaging the Book of Mormon rigorously.
Learning from American Puritan and other treatments of typology, I recognized typology in the Book of Mormon.17 Years of study of poetry, including Hebraic poetry in translation, helped open up to me the poetic nature of many passages in the Book of Mormon. This is likewise true for my studies of imagery in the book. Overall, my appreciation of literature and my testimony of the saving principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ converged in my seeing the Book of Mormon as a literary testimony of Christ. Almost on a daily basis, my inquiries into the book, enriched by writings of others and aided by the Holy Ghost, helped me to admire its varied styles and to discover in the book complex poetry, epic elements, vivid imagery, and memorable sermons and narratives.18 I came to see how the impact of what the Book of Mormon says is often created through how it is said. Its interconnection of beauty, truth, and goodness woos us to Christ. In its literary richness, it is like what Ezekiel called "a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument. . . . And when this cometh to pass, . . . then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them" (Ezekiel 33:32–33).
In my study of the Book of Mormon's literary aspects, I have been amazed at how beautifully designed the book is. As closer scrutiny of a rose or a butterfly wing shows even more its complexity and beauty, so with the Book of Mormon. Through aid of the Spirit, I am constantly finding new and remarkable aspects about the book the more intensely I look at it. And the Book of Mormon invites such scrutiny. "Ask, inquire, knock, pray, question, seek," the book says (see the Book of Mormon index under these words). Questioning can be an active affirmation of faith. The critical point is to ask like a humbled Zeezrom who "began to inquire of them diligently, that he might know more concerning the kingdom of God" and then was open to the evidence of spiritual feelings, and not like an Antionah who asked questions only to be able to trap Alma (Alma 12:8, 20–21).
As my scholarship contributes to my faith, so my faith contributes to my teaching and scholarship. One of my favorite scriptural thoughts is "it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). I have some private variations of this, including "It is by grace that a kind Heavenly Father helps us along, after all we can do." This has been true many times in my professional life when I have met what seemed a dead end. Through prayer and humility (after I had done what I could do), and seemingly just at the point when I saw no way out, I have been given a solution.
For example, a decade ago I was presented with what seemed an insurmountable problem. The publisher of The Complete Works of Washington Irving, of which I was the general editor, decided to call in at once all the remaining manuscripts of volumes for the Irving edition. No doubt the publisher was expecting that a number of the volumes would not be completed in the two or three months they gave us, and if we missed their deadline, we would be providing them with the justification to close out a costly endeavor. Yet through immediate hard work on everyone's part, including that of a couple of scholars who had been involved with their volume for ten years, and through my prayers (and most likely through others' prayers as well), the manuscripts were delivered on schedule.
All except one volume, that is—Irving's Tales of a Traveller. It was so far from completion that we saw no way it could meet the new deadline. I earnestly sought help for this from my Heavenly Father, since I believed I should "let all [my] doings be unto the Lord" and should not "perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place [I should] pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he [would] consecrate [my] performance" (Alma 37:36, 2 Nephi 32:9). The inspired solution that came from my thought and prayer was to find a cost-effective way to use computer technology to supply machine-readable text to the publisher. The volume editor and I consequently learned to use a mainframe computer and, later, personal computers to do this, and were successful in persuading the editor-in-chief to publish the volume. (The Complete Works of Washington Irving, I should add, now justifies its title.)
As for my teaching, I have made it a habit over the years to pray before every class I teach. My classes are my flocks and fields (see Alma 34:20); with Nephi, "I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people" (2 Nephi 33:4). In each class I receive some evidence of divine help, often in the form of being guided to turn to the very passage I need in order to respond effectively to a question or to make a point.
The essence of my experience and conviction concerning the relationship of study and faith can be summed up in this scripture, which speaks both of diligently seeking and of learning the mysteries of God through the power of the Holy Ghost: "For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round" (1 Nephi 10:19; also see Alma 12:9–12). In the "eternal round" of the Lord, "to be learned is good" if one hearkens to the counsels of God and despises not the revelations of God (2 Nephi 9:29, Jacob 4:8; see also Jacob 4:10). While I am continually humbled by a recognition of what I do not yet know, my confidence in God is constantly growing. I know through experience that the integration of the spiritual and the intellectual is the most expansive way to learn "of things both in heaven and in the earth" (D&C 88:79).
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Address at the Opening of the Concord Free Public Library," in Miscellanies, vol. 11 of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 501–3.
2. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), J:1129.
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Intelligence Office," in Mosses from an Old Manse, vol. 10 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude M. Simpson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962), 335.
4. Herman Melville, Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth, vol. 14 of The Writings of Herman Melville, ed. Harrison Hayford et al. (Evanston and Chicago, Illinois: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1993), 121 (italics in original); Moby-Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, vol. 6 of The Writings of Herman Melville (1988), 185.
5. Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, J:836.
6. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 330.
7. Melville, Moby-Dick, 492.
8. Emerson, Nature, in The Portable Emerson, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Viking Penguin, 1981), 49.
9. Emerson, "Self-Reliance," in Portable Emerson, 158. Still, Emerson allowed himself the latitude that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (145).
10. Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses," in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839–1860, ed. Harrison Hayford et al., vol. 9 of The Writings of Herman Melville (1987), 250.
11. Hawthorne, journal entry, August 1, 1851, The American Notebooks, ed. Claude M. Simpson, vol. 8 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthornre (1972), 448.
12. Hawthorne, journal entry, November 20, 1856, English Notebooks, in The Portable Hawthorne, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Viking Press, 1948), 588–89.
13. T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton" from Four Quarters (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943), 3–8
14. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" from Four Quarters, 21–28.
15. Eliot, "Little Gidding" from Four Quarters, 31–39.
16. Matthew Arnold, "To a Friend," Matthew Arnold, ed. Miriam Allott and Robert H. Super, The Oxford Authors Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 53.
17. See Richard Dilworth Rust, " 'All Things Which Have Been Given of God . . . Are the Typifying of Him': Typology in the Book of Mormon," in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1981), 233–43.
18. Essays I have writen on these topics that appear in expanded form in my forthcoming book are "Poetry in the Book of Mormon" and "Book of Mormon Imagery," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 100–13, 132–39; and "Book of Mormon Literature," with Donald W. Parry, in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:181–85.