I am a big fan of the Book of Mormon. It’s one of the reasons that I stuck with Community of Christ when transitioning out of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know the book is problematic, and I doubt its historicity, but I’m still an advocate for making some religious meaning out of it.
There are diverse opinions about the Book of Mormon in Community of Christ, and while there’s plenty of room to believe lots of different things, the default institutional view tends to be either indifferent or suspicious of the text. There are some good reasons for that—not least the increasingly international focus of Community of Christ—but I still sometimes feel like I’m not sure why people don’t embrace the Book of Mormon more.
A few weeks ago, though, I heard an uncharacteristically fundamentalist sermon in a Community of Christ congregation that rang alarm bells for me. Besides voiced concern for the impending persecution of Christians in the United States, one thing that bugged me was the almost throwaway comment that “with the Book of Mormon, you don’t have to worry about problems with translation.” As I’ve been wrestling with in my rereading the Book of Mormon project, though, that simply isn’t the case. As much as I love this text, it isn’t the kind of silver bullet proof of Joseph Smith Jr.’s divine call that many want it to be.
So, why stick with it? I’ve long thought of this in terms of the fantastic podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which is hosted by two divinity school students/grads with the idea that you could treat any important text as sacred by approaching it in the same way believers treat scripture. This is made particularly interesting by the fact that at least one of the hosts is a Jewish atheist with a healthy respect for religion but no inclination to treat it literally. If a Jewish atheist can treat the beloved but problematic Harry Potter series as problematic but inspiring, surely I (a quasi-Mormon quasi-believer) could approach my beloved but problematic Book of Mormon in the same way.
With this in mind, I was delighted to hear Vanessa Zoltan (the Jewish atheist in question) on the most recent episode of Fireside with Blair Hodges, one of the best Mormon podcasts out there. Zoltan spoke about her recent book Praying with Jane Eyre, which expands the central idea of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text to encompass books in general, including Jane Eyre. While listening to the episode today, this conversation in particular stood out to me:
BLAIR HODGES: Me too. But this is Jane Eyre, and you’re asking that question about this text and what do you think? What do we do with a text like Jane Eyre that as—you know, you’ve mentioned colonialism, sexism, now we would see the relationship between her and Rochester—her boss who she ends up being with in the end—as being hugely problematic.
So is it better to maybe just leave it in the past and say, “Maybe we can find some better books to read here”?
VANESSA ZOLTAN: I mean, I do not think everyone should read Jane Eyre. If it doesn’t interest you, I don’t think you should read it. I think reading should be pleasurable. But I do think it should stay alive and be read. And we just need to read it critically, you know, in conversation with one another.
And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t tear through its pages and get swept up in it. And we should also wonder about it. You know, we were lucky enough to have the incredible author, Marlon James, on our podcast, and he is a Caribbean writer who—he’s a Caribbean, queer, Black writer. So he would have every reason to be deeply offended by this novel. And he loves it. And what he said is, you know, “If I didn’t read novels that offended me, I would have nothing left.”
And I actually think that there’s something really special about old books. When you feel connected to them it feels like God’s love. It’s like Charlotte Brontë wrote this for me, even though she would never be able to imagine a Jewish atheist going to divinity school, like that would blow her mind. And yet there are moments where I feel so seen by the book, and the fact that it was two hundred years ago makes me feel less alone. And so, I think that the power of that is so important.
BLAIR HODGES: I think it also gives you the opportunity to propose oppositional readings to the text. I’m thinking of the character, Bertha. So here’s another spoiler section people so go ahead and skip forward if you’re—
VANESSA ZOLTAN: It is an almost two-hundred-year-old book. So don’t feel bad about spoiling it.
BLAIR HODGES: [laughs] Yeah! So Bertha, she’s the wife of Rochester who he married earlier on in life, and then she was called mad and crazy, and he ends up bringing her to different country, locking her up in the attic, and basically just keeping her alive, but trying to move on with his life. And then instead of seeing her get taken care of, we actually see her exact revenge and burn the whole house down. And you know, Rochester is injured by her because of her actions, but she’s also just kind of a tool in the plot, to sort of maybe exact a little bit of vengeance on him, but she’s a tool in that way, and is certainly erased.
You address this on a chapter on women’s anger, and you say, “Jane Eyre, like all sacred things, does not sufficiently account for the suffering of the most marginalized and the most vulnerable among us. But maybe it’s not up to the things we treat as sacred to do that work, but up to us to try to do it. Or maybe that is the purpose of sacred texts—to be insufficient and leave us to do our work in the real world.”
So you actually give us an oppositional reading in your book, where Bertha becomes a more fleshed out character, and you say “Well, what if it was this, what if it was this?” So you actually can play with the text a little bit, even, to redeem a character that was otherwise, frankly, abused and used as a tool.
VANESSA ZOLTAN: Yeah. First of all, I think there are a lot of hints within Jane Eyre that Bertha is more complicated than meets the eye.
Second of all, I will give Charlotte Brontë some credit. She was criticized for this in her lifetime, and she wrote a letter—kinda of apology—to a friend of hers being like, “Yeah, I went too far. I did not think enough about Bertha and I should have.”
But you know, Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, and it is Bertha’s story. And that is a beautiful thing. And I think, part of why I think Jane Eyre should keep going is because if you measure something by what it generates—like people just keep writing brilliant and beautiful things, making this novel more and more complicated, you know? Re Jane by Patricia Park, and The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Lipsy, and Wide Sargasso Sea, right? Like, this just keeps getting retold in fascinating ways. And Bertha, I think, is getting her revenge for hundreds of years! Women keep talking about her.
So much of this explains why I stick with the Book of Mormon. The special sacredness of old books: I don’t always know what I believe about God, but I know that often, the Book of Mormon feels like God’s love to me. The offering of oppositional readings: Carol Lynn Pearson’s Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites has inspired a number of arguments that the misogyny of the Book of Mormon is subtly condemned by the narrative of the text. The unexpectedly complicated nuance: Whatever the source of the Book of Mormon, there is a narrative that is rich in details for learning important lessons.
Even the fact that I don’t think everyone needs to read it! This is a book that works for me, and I want to spend time with the book and with other people for whom the book works. At the end of the day, though, I appreciate that Community of Christ allows for that without mandating it.
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