Scripture and Unreliable Narrators
John Larsen recently released a podcast on violence and Mormonism. Larsen’s productions are always entertaining, and I think he is onto something in his discussion of the difficulty of identifying a distinctly “Mormon culture” from the background Western culture in which it was spawned. In the podcast, he and the panel discuss violence — especially violence that is sanctioned or even “caused by” God. While this is one reading of the text, I think it misses something important about the nature of scripture and one of the most important meta-narratives in the Book of Mormon.
I’m no literary theorist, but I’ve read enough to have some understanding of the concept of an “unreliable” narrator. Wikipedia tells me that it is a literary device that goes back at least to ancient Greece, and it probably has earlier origins. For the uninitiated, I think it is easiest to understand the concept when it is juxtaposed against its opposite. Most of us are familiar with traditional novels written from the perspective of an unbiased (usually unnamed) and, for all intents and purposes, omniscient third person. The narrator has privileged information about the inner states of the various characters of the novel and is able to relay to us the story as it happened.
When the reliable narrator speaks, we have no reason to doubt her. She is giving us the story as it happened, and she generally just fades into the background. Most of the time when we read a book, we don’t have any reason to question the reliability of the story-teller, and we often don’t even give him or her a second thought. There is a willing suspension of disbelief and we go along for the ride.
Unreliable narrators, on the other hand, are more interesting. When the reader is given clues in the text that the narrator of the story is perhaps not telling the whole story, or we have good reason to doubt his credibility, we can engage with the text in a different way (but we’ll return to this idea later). A good example of an unreliable narrator is Yann Martel’s Piscine Molitor Patel from The Life of Pi or the unnamed narrator from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. In each of these novels, the reader gradually comes to question the reliability of the story-teller and the story itself gains a new depth that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Unreliable Prophets, Seers, and Revelators?
But what does any of this have to do with scripture?
I think we too often approach scripture from a reliable narrator perspective. Indeed, when we cite quotes like “The Book of Mormon [is] the most correct of any book on earth” or hear any of the thousands of injunctions to study the scriptures, it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that we can therefore depend on the reliability of the accounts found therein.
As Mormons, this is kind of an odd position to take with respect to scripture. We of all people should appreciate the messiness of the revelatory process. Given our direct contact with prophets, seers, and revelators, we have plenty of reason — indeed, we have plenty of commands — to question their reliability.
Our latter-day scriptures themselves repeatedly testify of their own incompleteness and proneness to error. God speaks to us according to our understanding — the prophets are fallible and limited — only when moved upon by the holy ghost — etc… We believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things.
The Futility of Violence in the Book of Mormon
Let’s come back to Larsen’s claim early on in the podcast that the Book of Mormon is the “most blood-soaked” (or something to that effect) book of scripture in existence. He is certainly right on some level — the Book of Mormon leads with an incredibly grisly story of Nephi killing Laban and concludes with an epic war that wipes out hundreds of thousands of people, but to imply that the violence in the Book of Mormon is an endorsement of killing or evidence of a vengeful god who uses bloodshed as a tool to chasten humanity is, I think, a misreading of one of the underlying messages of the Book of Mormon.
Let’s talk for a moment about that infamous confrontation between Nephi and the unconscious Laban. The primary song version of this story (and I shudder when I see primary choirs sing this song) makes it all about obedience. Nephi “went and did” what the Lord commanded and the people were blessed with the Brass Plates containing the scriptures as a result. This is the reliable narrator approach to the text.
But engaging with the story at a deeper level — one in which we don’t assume that Nephi is the Fribergian superman we have created in our collective imagination — reveals a potentially different story. I’m not totally convinced of the actual historicity of any of these characters, but if we suspend disbelief about the provenance of the scripture for the moment, Nephi tells us that he is making his account decades after the fact. It isn’t as if he pulls out his gold plates and chisel every night before he goes to bed. The account we have comes years after the murder of Laban. Are we willing to consider the possibility that Nephi is rationalizing his actions?
And what about all those wars in the rest of the book? One way to read the Book of Mormon is to see it as a renunciation of war. Over and over, the Nephites return violence for violence. This leads to an ever-escalating struggle between themselves and their former kinsmen that culminates in their destruction. The one moment in the scriptural narrative where this cycle of violence is broken is when the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s refuse to defend themselves (see this fascinating talk on the same subject).
Larsen objects to the idea that God would use the Lamanites to punish the wayward Nephites (and he cites the parallel idea in Mormon thought that the Civil War was punishment for Joseph Smith’s murder). Indeed, the text of the Book of Mormon endorses this idea at several points. Perhaps again, this is a post-hoc rationalization (spiritualization?) of the facts confronting the peoples of the Book of Mormon (and the Mormons of the 19th century). Needing to explain the violence perpetrated against them, the authors of the text construct a narrative that is palatable to them but untrue.
The reader, the text, and the unreliable narrator
Stories with unreliable narrators require and added level of engagement from the reader. They call upon us to make independent moral judgements about the things we are reading. We can’t passively assume that everything we read should be taken at face value. Everything becomes a lot more contingent and interesting.