Grant Shreve: “The Book of Mormon” Has Won My Heart

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Editor’s note: Grant Shreve has written this review as a part of new series of opinions belonging to Desert News dedicated to the issues on the crossing of “Faith and Thought”.

I was about to use “The Book of Mormon” as a great example of the religious literature for my dissertation, where I have undertaken the study of both religion and peculiarities of American novel’s development. Before reading it, I haven’t got any expectations whether I will like it or not. But the way it turned out, I have fallen in love with this book. However, it couldn’t affect my view of religion – I have not become a member of a church.

I found this masterpiece very aesthetic and was interested much less in its religious component. “The Book of Mormon” sends a contradictory message to the reader, and I’m a big fan of such novels. It has got something in common with Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Dred” which I read a few years before. I was amazed by the way how the author is showing an everyday life of people in both nowadays and antebellum America having recourse to unusual parallels. It is strange and bold for that times and makes to ask ourselves: “How it could appear and why is it so popular?” In my opinion, “Mormon” is a lot deeper than we realized, get tickets for Book of Mormon musical and see it yourself.

The situation that has just happened is quite a rare thing. “The Book of Mormon” is positioned as a sort of printed “teacher” of spirituality. It is more intended for mentorship than for being assessed as a piece of art. While being fundamentally attached to the ecclesiastical fellowship, it can be barely balanced with the liberal arts in an academic sense.

English scientists decided to pretend that this book doesn’t exist at all and have never considered “The Book of Mormon” as an object of the literary research. It seemed that such a study may offend its religious status but it’s not. Only recently American literature’s scholars have started reviewing this book and classifying it as a decent example of literary heritage that it truly is. Nowadays the perception of it is rapidly becoming borderless and the literature value of the work is going to be fully recognized.

As I noted before in my essay for Religion & Politics, representatives of humanity’s sciences were omitting the fact of “The Book of Mormon” significance for a long time. It is hard to imagine, but it was cut from all the major history’s studies right up to 2009, although the book was included into “Popular Bibles” category by Cambridge University first edition released in 1921. In 2009, it has appeared in A New Literary History of America”. As for scholarly publications, we can hear just nothing from there. And that is why this change is a crucial one for both a book and for science.

The critics have automatically ignored “Mormon” since the art studies in America became really serious. Scientists named it a sort of biblical parody (for instance, Van Wyck Brooks called it a “solemn parody of the Bible.” in 1932) and underestimated the book without making any research. Even after three decades passed, another critic Leslie Fiedler told almost the same thing and has designated “Mormon” as a “Bible’s caricature”. Such attitude to the work is being currently experiencing by many distinguished authors both in a press and on the web. Some of these speakers have never tried to read it.

Its historical background underlines the contrast between where things stand now and then. At the moment, professors from the American universities are giving the assignments connected with “The Book of Mormon” under the same conditions as the popular pieces. Many journals have been taken over by a multitude of essays dedicated to this book. The America has been covered of a buzz of the topical discussions. This situation seems surprising to me who had witnessed exactly the opposite.

So, what has drastically changed an opinion of the scientific community? There are two crucial factors: the revival of the interest among critics about religion in literature and the publishing of the book by the reputable companies in the industry.

Worth noting, there is no standardized method of teaching this in American educational establishments because of the lengthy duration of its exile. The majority of professors accepted it but not going to present in such a way as illustrations of classical literature.

“The Book of Mormon” seeps not only into the course programs in the universities and colleges but also takes its place on syllabi for specialized courses which constitute a vanguard of contemporary literature history. It has been included in the many lists of required reading for those who would like to get acquainted with scriptural works and aspirations.
At the number of American universities, professors are teaching this book within the context of modern theories. The University of Vermont proposed its students even more: they should allocate as many dimensions of “The Book of Mormon” as it seems to be possible. In turn, the Oxford University Press is about to release an essays’ compilation fully dedicated to the topic of our dispute.

My interest in this piece of literary art is entirely detached from any religious impact. I truly appreciate the cultural importance of this book, so for me, the recent events are all for the best. However, new understandings of “The Book of Mormon” are ultimately unhelpful to the LDS Church. Previously this organization was the only institution which regulates possible interpretation of the book but now everything changed and various opinions are being disclosed out loud. Now in XXI century, many issues connected with its origins are being skipped. “Mormon’s” narrative format, rhetorical power and historical value are on the table today. More and more people become keen on this work, but highly unlikely they embraced its initial idea and are about to join the church.

I remember those times when I was sitting at my dinner’s table and vehemently opposed my relatives and close friends in the point of view of “The Book of Mormon”. I have argued for its artistic merits and blamed them for being so prejudicial. To my mind, it is the foolish position to stay implacable without any investigation and obtaining personal experience instead of repeating the words of masses. I told Parley Pratt that I ran into one of the strangest books in my life but definitely not the one of the worst.

I used to defend this book by all means but my true wish is to have such conversations more often around the seminar table or in the lecture room. Now they become more widespread and happen everywhere in the USA. The truth is, great books stand the test of time and end up in the hall of fame, sooner or later.

Grant Shreve received a PhD degree and works in American Literature from Johns Hopkins University. He is going to publish a book dedicated to issues connected with the history of American novel and secular and religious diversity in it.

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