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The Problem of Decontextualization

Note: this blog post first appeared at this link.

Joseph Spencer gave two interesting papers at the Mysticism conference of the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities meeting last week.  In them he proposed (if I understood him correctly) that there is a “way forward” in studying the Book of Mormon that can transcend or bypass the ongoing debate over modern or ancient origins for the Book of Mormon.  A second aspect of this type of proposal is often described as “bracketing” truth-claims about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.  Of course, in reality, neither of these is a new approach.  Furthermore, this type of approach does not actually bracket truth-claims about the Book of Mormon.  In reality it brackets certain types of truth claims–is the book an ancient record of a historical people; was Joseph an authentic prophet; is Jesus really the Christ–in order to try to more easily deal with other truth-claims about the book.  This “bracketing” approach is simply a rhetorical means of privileging certain truth claims over other truth claims.  The assumption here is that if we ignore the question of historicity, and if we bracket religious truth-claims of authenticity, we can better: 1- answer certain types of questions about the Book of Mormon (e.g. literary), and 2- engage in fruitful exchanges of ideas about the Book of Mormon with non-Mormons.

I should emphasize here that if one group of scholars approaches the Book of Mormon with questions about historicity, archaeology, or authenticity, it in no way prevents other scholars from bracketing those truth claims or asking other types of questions.  It always perplexes me when someone objects that debates over historicity somehow prevent them from asking all sorts of other non-historical questions about the Book of Mormon.  The subtext of these objections often seems to me to be that if people would just stop debating historicity and authenticity, then we could at last study the the really important issues of the Book of Mormon, like how many literary voices we find in the book.  The reality is, if scholar A debates scholar B about historicity, it in no way prevents scholar C from studying the Book of Mormon as literature, or examining its theological or thematic issues.  Historicity debates in no way prevent people from ignoring those debates, and using different approaches to the text.

There are, of course, many different legitimate ways to approach any sacred text, including the Book of Mormon.  In addition to the historical, one can examine the allegorical, mystical, textual, higher critical, archaeology, philosophical, esoteric, literary, theological, linguistic, geographic, social, etc.  None of these approaches is wrong or right.  Rather, these approaches are methodologies designed to answer certain types of questions one brings to the text.  A scholar poses a question, then chooses a methodology (or several methodologies) that best help answer that question.  An archaeological question, for example, cannot be answered by literary methods.  No one I know objects or tries to hinder approaches to the Book of Mormon that fail to engage issues about historicity or authenticity of the text.

The problem of contextualization, however, is not a method that one can choose or not choose to employ.  Rather, contextualization is meta-method that is necessary for every methodological approach one employs.  A text is not intelligible without contextualizing assumptions.  At the most basic level, one must assume the Book of Mormon is in English in order to understand it.  Of course no one disagrees with this, or even considers any alternative, but it is still a necessary though hidden contextualizing assumption that cannot be avoided, even if unreflectively, when one approaches the text.

As an example of this issue, Spencer posed an interesting argument that the figure of the brother of Jared is presented in the Book of Mormon as the ideal gentile.  Setting aside the issue that the book of Ether never calls him a gentile, a contextualizing problem arises.  If we contextualize the Book of Mormon only within the world explicitly expressed in its own text, then Spencer can make his argument.  But if we begin to further contextualize the Book of Mormon, the theory runs into problems.  First, gentile (goy) is a Hebrew term meaning “nations/peoples/ethnic groups” (The same meaning as the Greek ethnos.)  Technically speaking, the Israelites themselves are a nation/goy/ethnos, just like the others (e.g. Gen. 17:4 where Abraham will be a father of a multitude of goyim.)  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the term goy/goyim is often used in contrast to Israel.  The point being, if there is no Israel, there can be no gentiles in theological apposition to Israel.  In a theological sense, the brother of Jared, as a pre-Israelite, can’t be a goy.  The other problem is that the Book of Ether implies the brother of Jared was a Sethite by alluding to the biblical genealogies (Ether 1:3-5), and by having his brother named Jared, who is the Sethite father of Enoch.  Thus, if one contextualizes the text historically, then the brother of Jared is a Sethite, not a gentile.  Only if one decontextualizes the text, as Spencer does, can one argue that the brother of Jared is a gentile.  In this case, the assumed context of the Book of Mormon determines meaning.  Meaning cannot be severed from context.

(I might addd here parenthetically, that the appearance of Christ to the brother of Jared would be considered an avatāra (descent) of deity in Hindu conceptualization.)

Another example can be found in the Book of Moses.  The term “temple” never occurs in the Book of Moses.  If one assumes a nineteenth century contextualization of the Book of Moses, the absence of temple in the text is because Joseph had not yet invented his temple theology, which only develops later.  On the other hand, if one assumes an ancient origin of the text, then the city of Enoch is not a communitarian social and economic organization   Ancient cities were, in fact, communities gathered together by shared worship at a central temple.  All ancient cities were temple cities.  If the city of Enoch was a real ancient city, then it was necessarily a temple city.  In that case, language of “high place” (Moses 7:17), Zion (Moses 7:18), City of Holiness (Moses 7:19), and the city as “mine [God’s] abode forever” (Moses 7:21) are all examples of clear temple-language, demonstrating that the city of Enoch was a temple-city.  Trying to decontextualize or transcend context in this case does not make the text more clear, it makes it unintelligible.

Thus, I maintain that if a scholar claims that he can approach the Book of Mormon without contextualizing assumptions, he is deluding himself.  He is simply unreflectively privileging his own unexpressed or unrecognized contextualizing assumptions.  Good scholarship requires that we understand what our contextualizing assumptions are, and that we present them clearly and precisely to our readers.

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