September 3, 2008

Introduction to "Second Witness" with Brant Gardner

Likening With Care, Part 1 
 

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon by Brant Gardner is the most comprehensive commentary on the Book of Mormon to date. True, there are many commentaries  available from such authors as Sidney Sperry, George Reynolds and Janne Sj√∂dahl, Hugh Nibley, Daniel Ludlow, David Ridges, Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert Millett, Ed Pinegar, Monte S. Nyman and others. In addition, articles and publications on the Book of Mormon are legion, perhaps the most extensive being the work published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. What justified another commentary?

Gardner has taken the best aspects of nearly all previous commentary attempts into account, incorporating an impressive amount of former studies with his own insights as a scholar of early Mesoamerica and believer in the Book of Mormon. He sees Book of Mormon commentaries as falling in two "rough" categories of approach:

Those that concentrate on the devotional aspects of religion (and which tend to be ahistorical) and those that attempt to deal with the text in its historical context. Most LDS commentaries have been necessarily heavy on the devotional and light on the historical because there is no official geography of the Book of Mormon. I wanted to brave the wilds and use the best current description of where the Book of Mormon took place to see if that cultural background and time could increase our understanding of the events in the text.1
He is quick to point out at the outset of volume one that he accepts the Book of Mormon "as a translation of an ancient text" and that he intended "to inquire into the process of Joseph Smith's translation or how the text fits into the ancient Old and New Worlds. I do not attempt to prove or disprove it but to understand it."2 Thus, not only does Gardner utilize much former scholarship, he is not averse to challenging former scholarship at times, even from those whom he sees as pioneers or experts in the field such as John Sorenson and Hugh Nibley, or even LDS leaders such as Joseph Fielding Smith.3 He is also not shy about challenging common LDS assumptions about the text, or admitting problematic aspects; all done in an overall tone which shouldn't threaten the reader, but rather invite personal reflection. Gardner's is a comprehensive look at the spiritual, theological, cultural and historical context of the book.

I call Gardner's overall approach "likening with care," in reference to Nephi's assertion, "I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (1 Nephi 19:23). Latter-day Saints have had a tendency to read the Book of Mormon through a modern lens, noting Mormon's statement "I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing" (Mormon 8:35). Most Book of Mormon commentaries attempt to help readers better understand how the text can apply in everyday gospel living today. This approach is beneficial and important, and Gardner does not avoid it. However, he explained in the Introduction to volume 1:
The people of the Book of Mormon lived in two different worlds. The first was the Old World. For a short time, the text is anchored in both space and time by a known location (Jerusalem) and known events...When the story moves to the New World, the Book of Mormon becomes a text without a context...Without the human context provided by continuity of place and time, we increase the interpretive disjunction with which we frequently misread the Bible, even with its rich context...
We tend to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon as though people just like us wrote them. We assume that their concerns were our concerns and that the things that we care about most were precisely the things that they also cared about most. This reading backward of our world into theirs does not diminish our ability to discern spiritual value in the Bible or the Book of Mormon...
One of this commentary's goals is to recontextualize the Book of Mormon so that it is easier to understand that it is about real people and real places...4
In focusing more in a New World setting (especially after the book of Mosiah5), Gardner is able to illuminate cultural aspects previously unseen in print. Rather than finding the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica, he sought to discover Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon, and isn't afraid to challenge long-held opinions on various issues. Remarkably, he is able to do this with what Jeff Needle from the Association For Mormon Letters rightly called "generosity." Needle pinpointed Gardner's charitable tone:
...his commentary offers the reader something that other commentaries may not: a wide generosity in how one can understand the message of the Book of Mormon. Such generosity is rare on both sides of the debate -- either you're for it, or you're against it. Gardner stands in the gap and offers both sides a way approach the book in a constructive manner.6 
With six full-sized volumes the set stands at a formidable $199, but readers can also opt to buy volumes individually, the first priced at about $32 at the FAIR bookstore. Second Witness is the touchstone for all contemporary scholarship on the Book of Mormon. What Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling is to Joseph Smith, Gardner's Second Witness is to the Book of Mormon; a watershed event in scholarly LDS publication history.


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Next in the "Likening With Care" we'll discuss the origin and destiny of the series, including the logistics of  writing, designing, and publishing such a complex work.  


FOOTNOTES

[1]
Other than when noted, Gardner's comments in this series are from personal e-mails from Gardner in my possession.

[2]
Gardner, Second Witness, Vol. 1, p. vii.

[3]
The book is full of goodies from other scholars. For example, Gardner closely follows Royal Skousen's important Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon and other such studies to carefully note interesting, important, or problematic word variants among different editions of the Book of Mormon, in addition to noting the original format of the book, which wasn't divided into our current chapter/verse configuration until 1879.

[4]
ibid. 2-3.

[5]
As a specialist in studies of Mesoamerica, Gardner said the first two volumes were the most daunting of the series, "with 2 Nephi [as] a petrifying hurdle before I actually started":
1 Nephi and the Isaiah texts are Old World stuff, and I an a New World guy. I think that I represented others' scholarship in 1 and 2 Nephi, but there was more of their work and less original work. Starting in vol. 3 we get serious into the New World, and I think there are more places where I offer a new perspective rather than a rehash of previous scholarship. Both are useful, but I am always more interested in the new stuff.
[6]
Jeffery Needle, "Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon. Volume 1: First Nephi- Review," Association For Mormon Letters Discussion Board, March 30, 2008.

September 1, 2008

Coming Up: Short Series with Brant Gardner

This week Life On Gold Plates will feature a short series "Likening With Care" with Book of Mormon scholar Brant Gardner as my guest. Gardner, who holds an M.A. in Anthropology, describes himself as a "slightly used Anthropologist," who enjoys studying the ethnohistory of Mesoamerica. Last year his 6-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, was published by Kofford Books. I am currently reading vol. 3, and have found Gardner's series capable of intelligently bringing the Book of Mormon to life without avoiding difficult issues or attempting to subordinate faith to scholarship alone. I believe the series is the most important full-scale commentary on the Book of Mormon to be published in decades.

Drawing on his understanding of ancient Mesoamerica and utilizing hundreds of other studies, books and articles on the Book of Mormon, Second Witness is the touchstone for all contemporary scholarship on the Book of Mormon. What Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling is to Joseph Smith, Gardner's Second Witness is to the Book of Mormon; a watershed event in scholarly LDS publication history.

Today, check out his post on the FAIR blog, "Joseph the Geographer?" on the prophet and Book of Mormon geography.