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The Book of Mormon, Without the Mormon Part

The Lost Book of Mormon makes a compelling case for including the religious text in the larger American literary canon, but somehow dances around a discussion of what the book actually means to Mormons.
(Photo: zoovroo/Flickr)

(Photo: zoovroo/Flickr)

Avi Steinberg has a theory about The Book of Mormon. It’s not a theological theory, but a literary one. When he was writing his first book, Steinberg became interested in Joseph Smith’s experience not as a prophet, but as a writer: “As a youngish, still struggling writer,” Steinberg says, “I was enthralled by Joseph’s stories, and particularly by his impressive run as an underdog, an underground American writer.”

After publishing his first book, Steinberg began to think of Smith again, only this time in terms of sequels: He thought often of the audacity it took for Smith to write a sequel to the Bible. The curse of the second book sent Steinberg looking for successful sequel writers, and he became obsessed with the intersection of Smith’s life with the biblical narrative.

The Book of Mormon,” he writes in his new memoir, “can be read as a story within a story: the ancient saga of the Nephite people framed by the modern drama of Joseph becoming that saga’s author and proprietor. I read those two narratives as one interlinked story, which together form a modern American novel.” That’s Steinberg’s theory: “the discovery of the gold plates at the hill in 1823 can be seen as a founding myth for American letters.” The Book of Mormon, Steinberg argues, should be considered not only as a piece of Mormon history but also as a staple of the American literary canon.

Steinberg’s personal pursuit of the settings that appear in The Book of Mormon and his consideration of the identity of Joseph Smith as a storyteller are useful ways into a text that might otherwise feel inaccessible.

The most fascinating bits of Steinberg’s The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, & Kansas City, Missouri pursue the argument that Joseph Smith wrote an “American Don Quixote” long before Herman Melville (who loved The Book of Mormon, featuring it in one novel and borrowing one of its heroes for another) or Mark Twain (who hated it, calling it “chloroform in print”).

But Steinberg’s book isn’t only literary criticism, it’s also a pilgrimage of sorts through the geography of The Book of Mormon. He begins his journey in Jerusalem, then follows the ancient Hebrews as they sail to the Americas, taking a tour of Mormon sites in Guatemala and Mexico, and finally returns to the United States, where he participates in the Hill Cumorah Pageant in New York and goes looking for the Garden of Eden in Missouri. It’s hard to make a book from another book since readers will inevitably compare yours to the original, but Steinberg isn’t trying to eclipse The Book of Mormon, only understand and enliven it. He rightly points out that even while there are 150 million copies of the text circulating, not nearly as many have actually read it.

In that way, Steinberg’s personal pursuit of the settings that appear in The Book of Mormon and his consideration of the identity of Joseph Smith as a storyteller are useful ways into a text that might otherwise feel inaccessible. But they do have their limits, and treating the work as a literary artifact requires ignoring much of what has made it so influential. Whatever else it is, The Book of Mormon is a sacred scripture for around 15 million believers around the globe. There is some debate among religious scholars about the place of faith in scholarship, but surely such a subjective book could find more space for the contemporary religious experiences of others. While the reverence of the faithful and the zeal of the convert might not make for the best prose, their beliefs and practices are almost absent from Steinberg’s account.

We learn only a tiny bit about the devotional practices of the Australian and American families on his 16-day Mesoamerican tour. And even at the Hill Cumorah Pageant, surrounded by hundreds of actors and thousands of viewers (many of whom are practicing Mormons), Steinberg seems not to have been very interested in their relationship to The Book of Mormon. He writes meaningfully about his own experiences as a lapsed Orthodox Jew who went as far as seminary, but he doesn’t give nearly as much consideration to those whose faith has been actively and consistently shaped by his central text. We learn almost nothing, for instance, about how The Book of Mormon is used in contemporary worship.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of what happened in the 2012 presidential election, when despite near constant coverage of Governor Mitt Romney’s faith, Pew’s Research & Public Life Project reported that 82 percent of Americans felt they learned little or nothing about Mormonism during the campaign. Somehow it is possible to talk extensively about Mormons without ever really talking about their beliefs or how they understand scripture.

“To be a fan of The Book of Mormon,” Steinberg writes, “is to walk a lonesome road,” except of course for all the devout Mormons walking that same road, most of whom, I suspect, would have been willing to talk about their sacred scriptures. But Steinberg did not set out to write a treatise on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In his own words: “I would rewrite The Book of Mormon by rereading it, and reread it by retracing its physical trail, following the book where it would lead me.” Which is exactly what he does, with real humor and honest self-reflection, all the way from Nephi to Zarahemla.