‘Brief Theological Introductions’: How the Book of Mormon teaches community, faith, forgiveness and more

This article discusses the forthcoming second half of the series “The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions,” to be published by BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Read about the first part of the series here

In writing about the book of Ether in the Book of Mormon, Rosalynde Frandsen Welch noticed a contrast between the ancient people known as Jaredites and the primary Book of Mormon civilization, the Nephites.

The Jaredites, who believed their language was perfectly preserved by God at the Tower of Babel, “never mention studying scripture,” she said. “We don’t hear very much about the keeping of the records.”

By contrast, Nephite culture is preoccupied with scripture and preserving records — but Nephite writers frequently reference the flaws and weaknesses of their language as it develops across generations.

A lack of scriptural culture may have contributed to the tragic destruction of the Jaredite civilization, said Welch, an independent scholar of Latter-day Saint literature and theology and one of the authors of the series “The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions.” Her volume on Ether will be published by BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship later this year.

Perhaps the imperfections of human language — the need to translate, reinterpret and wrestle with words — is what keeps scripture alive, she said. 

“We shouldn’t be afraid of doing what Moroni did, which is having to retranslate — whether literally or figuratively — and bring a book back to life again. … We do it with as great respect and sensitivity as we can. But we have to grapple with it. Otherwise, it just sits behind glass and gets dusty.”

Following Christ as a community

David F. Holland, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, wanted to humanize the prophet Moroni in his volume “Moroni: A Brief Theological Introduction.” 

Sometimes, he said, “we see these Book of Mormon prophets as almost superhuman, and I think the book reads more powerfully and more clearly when we understand them as human vessels who are in tough circumstances.”

Considering the circumstances of Moroni — who lived in hiding as the lone survivor of a people destroyed in war — can illuminate why he chose to emphasize certain themes in his record. 

In the first part of the book, Moroni recorded the ordinances of the Nephite church instituted by the Savior. “He’s living in chaos and disorder and is accordingly preoccupied with order,” Holland said, suggesting that the prophet yearned to remember how people worshiped in more stable times.

Artist Brian Kershisnik uses woodcuts to create the illustrations for the Maxwell Institute's series "The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions."
Artist Brian Kershisnik uses woodcuts to create the illustrations for the Maxwell Institute’s series “The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions.” Credit: Blair Hodges, Maxwell Institute

Moroni then wrote about “the church community that coalesces around these ordinances,” Holland continued. Building a “community of caring that is defined by these ordinances” leads to the gift of divine love — the subject of Moroni’s final meditations.

Moroni includes letters from his father that convey the importance of both structure and community in the church. For example, chapter 8 condemns infant baptism, alluding to the limitations of ordinances. 

“The ordinances without the love are not going to save anybody,” Holland said. “And then the next letter is about what happens when all order breaks down. You’ve got to have the order and structure of the ordinances of the church, or else the community will break down.

“That’s sort of a balancing act of discipleship.”

In his volume on Third and Fourth Nephi, Daniel Becerra also wrote about community as a vital part of following Christ. 

“In modern discourse, when we think of authenticity, we tend to think of me being me, me doing my thing,” he said.

Read more: Maxwell Institute series helps readers see the Book of Mormon through new eyes

But in Third Nephi, Jesus offers a different vision of the authentic disciple, said Becerra, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

“When He talks about righteous people, He talks about them overlapping with others. … They’re of one mind or one heart. They’re one in Christ, or Christ dwells in them and the Father dwells in all of them. So there’s overlapping of people.”

When the Savior teaches about authenticity, Becerra continued, He teaches that “we can’t be truly authentic unless we’re reflecting Christ, who is supposed to be within us.”

Daniel Becerra, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, speaks about his forthcoming volume "Third, Fourth Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction" at an event held at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Oct. 13, 2019.
Daniel Becerra, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, speaks about his forthcoming volume “Third, Fourth Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction” at an event held at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Oct. 13, 2019.

A disciple of Christ is called to put off selfish desires in order to align with the higher will of deity. This requires not only comforting those who mourn, but feeling their sadness, Becerra said. “We’re connected to other people in the sense that what happens to them happens to us in some way. …

“Christlikeness finds its fullest expression in community and collaboration. It’s intended to point us outward.”

Reframing forgiveness

Mark Wrathall, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford who wrote on Alma 30-63, spoke about the tension between justice and mercy as expressed by Alma and the sons of Mosiah. These Book of Mormon missionaries reference their guilt for persecuting the church even after years of changed behavior, Wrathall said — and they are also moved to testify of the “bowels of mercy, a visceral, immediate, deeply felt recognition of the mercy we’ve received and of a desire to be merciful to other people.”

The apparent incongruity of experiencing both guilt and forgiveness at once characterizes the ministry of Alma, who counsels his son Corianton to let both God’s justice and mercy “have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). 

“There’s something really powerful about realizing that we’ve broken the law — that we’re guilty before each other and before God, and in some way we’re powerless to do anything about that,” Wrathall said. “And then at the very same time to experience forgiveness and mercy and grace. And it’s that extreme tension between both our susceptibility to the law and our being freed from the law that powers Alma in his ministry.”

The purpose of the law, he added, is to teach mercy. So when mercy “overpowereth justice,” that doesn’t mean it has robbed justice (see Alma 34:15). 

“If you have learned to be merciful, even if you’ve broken the law along the way, then you’ve achieved what the law set out to do in the first place. So it wouldn’t be robbing justice to show mercy to you.”

Similarly, Adam Miller spoke about reframing the work of forgiveness in his volume on Mormon. For the Christian disciple, he explained, the point of life — the motivation for going to church, praying and keeping the commandments — should not be to seek God’s forgiveness.

Jesus demonstrates a higher way, said Miller, a professor of philosophy at Collin College. “Jesus worked the whole problem of forgiveness from the other end.” That is, to live like Jesus Christ means “you live your life as someone who takes it as their fundamental task to forgive — not to find a way to be forgiven.”

Faith as a ‘practical stance’

Welch spoke about the parallel that Mormon’s son, Moroni, constructs among the Jaredites, Nephites and the modern people he calls “gentiles” in the book of Ether. [CE1] 

As a man who lived alone, without community, Moroni looked to the past — in the ancient Jaredite record and his own people’s story — and drew out lessons for future readers who would eventually receive his record, Welch said.

As a Nephite, Moroni would have understood the Abrahamic covenant as central to the Savior’s mission. In the book of Ether, he addresses the question of how people outside the house of Israel — specifically the Jaredites and latter-day gentiles — can be saved through Jesus Christ.

“There’s another way for the brother of Jared and, by extension for the modern gentiles, to come into the presence of Christ — and that is on the basis of faith,” she said.

In Ether 12, Moroni cites examples of people across Nephite history who exercised great faith, teaching that no matter when an individual lives on the earth, “Christ’s presence is actually available in every moment of time,” Welch said.

This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book “Alma: A Brief Theological Introduction,” by Mark A. Wrathall, with artwork by Brian Kershisnik.
This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book “Alma: A Brief Theological Introduction,” by Mark A. Wrathall, with artwork by Brian Kershisnik.

In his book, Wrathall asserts that Alma conceives of faith and belief as different. While belief and knowledge are components of an “intellectual understanding of the world,” faith is a noncognitive attitude or “practical stance,” he said.

“Just like when you slide behind the wheel of your car, you get into a driver’s stance, and then you start seeing the world around you in terms of what’s relevant for driving a car and your bodily skills are activated — skills for steering and for accelerating and braking and shifting gears, and so on. All of that’s a way of being poised and ready to experience and respond to the world. 

“And I think that’s the way Alma understands faith as well. … Faith itself is a way of … being poised to respond to things.”

The skills for riding a bike could be considered a “practical stance” that is independent from belief, Wrathall continued. “You don’t need to think about it. And it doesn’t really matter what you believe. You don’t have to understand the physics of objects in motion maintaining balance and so on. In fact, you could believe all kinds of false things about what it takes to ride a bike and still be able to ride a bike perfectly well.”

Similarly, an individual can have some false beliefs about the nature of God, human existence or the world and still respond correctly if they have adopted the “practical stance of faith.”

While correct beliefs are important, it’s not necessary to understand every truth before beginning a life of faith, he said. “Make room for the word … in your heart, and then see how that changes your practical stance.”

‘How do we see ourselves?’

While Wrathall focused on a handful of chapters in a large book, Kim Berkey was able to write a comprehensive volume on the shorter book of Helaman, examining each of its five original chapters from the 1830 edition.

For Berkey, a doctoral student in theology at Loyola University Chicago, the major theme of Helaman is sight, or visibility. 

At this point in Nephite history, “the government is falling apart, there are secret combinations on the rise, they’re in the middle of a war with the Lamanites,” she said. “And with all of that going on, you would think that this would be a real wake-up call for the people. But it’s not. They just keep careening toward destruction. So, for that reason the theme that I draw out of the book is the question, how do we see ourselves?” she said.

“Helaman is a story about a people who fail to be self-critical at a time of intense political unrest.”

This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book “Helaman: A Brief Theological Introduction,” by Kimberly Matheson Berkey, with artwork by Brian Kershisnik.
This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book “Helaman: A Brief Theological Introduction,” by Kimberly Matheson Berkey, with artwork by Brian Kershisnik.

In part, the theme of visibility becomes apparent through the repetition of the verb “saw” in Helaman 4. There, the Nephites begin to see their own weakness and wickedness, and “the judgments of God did stare them in the face” — but they fail to change their ways (Helaman 4:23).

Conversely, in chapter 5, Lamanites are converted by coming to see rightly, Berkey said. “The thing that converts the Lamanites is watching Nephi and Lehi look toward heaven, and then they turn their faces and learn to see things in the right way.”

She also pointed out aspects of invisibility in the book of Helaman, such as “secret combinations,” which are insidious and difficult to track.

Rather than viewing secret combinations as a political enemy or outside force, Berkey suggested turning a self-critical eye on one’s own self and society: “The message is not to split your people in half and go find all the bad ones. The point is that the Nephites are the secret combinations, and they failed to see themselves.”

Different ways to envision discipleship

By bringing together a team of authors with various backgrounds and training, the Maxwell Institute hopes to model a range of ways to find the Savior in scripture.

Holland said that in writing his book he noticed for the first time how deftly Moroni navigates the seeming paradoxes of a disciple’s life.

“This is one of the challenges of discipleship — we live at the convergence of justice and mercy and grace and works and family and church and now and forever. So we’re always living at the meeting point of these complementary doctrines, which sometimes feel like they’re pulling us in in multiple directions,” he said.

Moroni articulates how “we can benefit from the complexity of the gospel — in ways that others might see as contradictory, he sees as empowering.”

Miller similarly considered a type of convergence: “Christian discipleship is … at the crossroads of a religion that requires the sacrifice of all things in a world in which you will inevitably lose all things.”

For him, Mormon models the disciple’s quest to “sacrifice all things intentionally rather than inevitably.” As a witness to the end of his world — of his people and culture — Mormon chooses to observe the destruction rather than pretend it isn’t happening.

This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book “Third, Fourth Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction,” by Daniel Becerra, with artwork by Brian Kershisnik.
This image depicts the cover of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming book “Third, Fourth Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction,” by Daniel Becerra, with artwork by Brian Kershisnik.

In his volume, Becerra wrote about the importance of both knowing the Savior and “unknowing” Him. That is, “to not allow what we think we know about Christ to limit what we can know. … No one way of describing Christ is intended to be comprehensive, and we need to be open to being surprised by other ways of looking at Him.”

Having humility to recognize the limitations of one’s knowledge can lead to new insights and a deeper relationship with the Savior, he said.

When asked about how she seeks Christ in scripture, Berkey said: “I assume that if I read these words closely enough, I can’t help but find Christ there, because these are the words that He Himself gave to me. 

“So my method is to slow down and weigh every single word, as if it were a heaven-sent gift — which it is. And then my sense is that if I consider that gift closely enough, it’s going to point me to the person who gave it.”