The Problem of Decontextualization

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 (7:18), City of Holiness (7:19), and the city as “mine [God's] abode forever” (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.

11 thoughts on “The Problem of Decontextualization

  1. Hi Bill,

    First, thanks for writing this up. It’s a real compliment to be taken seriously!

    Second, a response:

    I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion: “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.” And because I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion, I find myself wondering whether that was meant—your post doesn’t quite make it clear—whether you meant to suggest that I was decontextualizing. You seem to suggest that my reading of the brother of Jared as a gentile is a decontextualizing reading, but I’m not entirely clear on whether that’s what you’re trying say.

    Why so? At the very least because I’m having trouble seeing your clarifications about the Hebrew term goy as a contextualizing-over-against-a-decontextualizing interpretation; they seem more obviously to me to be one contextualizing interpretation instead of another. The interpretation I offered wasn’t removing the brother of Jared from all context, but asking what we learn by asking about his status in Moroni’s presentation of him.

    But even before coming to that, first a quick point of clarification, one that I don’t think necessarily speaks directly to this issue: Certainly, the idea of “gentile” doesn’t make any sense outside of its difference from “Israelite,” and it therefore makes little sense to speak of a pre-Israelite like the brother of Jared as a gentile, but Moroni in his presentation of the brother of Jared is writing very explicitly in a context in which the gentile/Israelite distinction is fully formed and theologically crucial—so that it makes perfect sense for him to think about the brother of Jared in terms of his non-Abrahamic or non-Israelite relationship to God. That Moroni does think of the brother of Jared in these terms seems quite clear to me. It’s true that the Book of Ether never refers to the brother of Jared as a gentile, but it’s also true that he presents the brother of Jared as a model of faith for his (Moroni’s) gentile readers. So it’d be fairer (or at least more charitable) to say that I just overstated my case when I said that the Jaredites were gentiles rather than that the Jaredites have something (their non-covenantal status) in common with the gentiles, and that this is what drove Moroni’s presentation of the brother of Jared. But as I say, this point doesn’t seem to me to speak directly to the question contextualization/decontextualization. So let me get on to that point.

    More directly relevant to the question contextualization/decontextualization, it seems to me, is your point concerning the likelihood that the brother of Jared was a Sethite, due to the genealogical overture in Ether 1 and the fact that “Jared” was a name in the Sethite lineage. Here, though, it seems to me that we’re just dealing with two contextualizations, rather than with a contextualization (yours) and a decontextualization (mine). You contextualize the text by positioning it in its ancient Old World setting, particularly as this is inflected by the relevant biblical texts, while I contextualize the text by positioning it in the covenant theological framework presupposed by the Book of Mormon alone. There are assumptions in either contextualization, as your conclusion notes, and so each helps to shed light on the text in different ways. Were we to insist only on situating the Jaredites among the Sethites, we might miss what Moroni seems to be doing in his addresses to the gentiles. And were we to insist only on situating the brother of Jared in Moroni’s intentions, we might miss the more universal history into which the events recorded in the story might be inserted. (And I might note that on the more charitable reading of my argument, the brother of Jared, even as a Sethite, still shares something in common with the gentiles of post-Abrahamic times: extra-Abrahamic-covenantal status. To that extent, the historical contextualization and the textual contextualization aren’t at all at odds, it seems to me.)

    Okay, that was a lot. And I want to say more (though more briefly, I hope!). Deep breath, then, and here we go!

    Here I just want to clarify where I stand on the question of bracketing and related points. The opening lines of my other presentation were important for me, though too brief, I suspect. I deliberately used the word “fret” when talking about our desire to drop the question of historicity: “We’ve begun to fret about how we can talk about the Book of Mormon in ways that don’t force the question of historicity.” That image is important: I see a bit of over-desperation in the collective fretting of the Mormon studies community on this score. I worry that the fact that we fret is a bit symptomatic. I then went on to say that we might do well “to wonder whether it’s [1] our embarrassment about as-yet unexplained anachronisms or [2] the real distractions that result from historicism that we’re so intent on bracketing,” and I further expressed my suspicion that, lamentably, it’s more often the former that we intend to bracket rather than the latter. I bring all this up because I think that anyone—myself especially included—who wants to talk about the possibility of bracketing questions like that of historicity when reading the Book of Mormon have to be extremely careful not to be doing so for any other reason than to understand the book better. Since I personally have no doubts about the book’s historicity, even as I recognize the “problems” pointed out by critics, I want to be sure I’m not just taking up a certain sort of study because I don’t want to do the difficult work of answering the questions posed by what critics thus point out.

    A second point: Although I spoke of bracketing (well, I used the word once) in my presentation, that was more out of deference to Grant Hardy’s work than anything else—since I actually have some serious disagreements with Hardy about exactly what’s at stake here. For my own part, I’m not terribly interested in bracketing so as to free up the literary (that’s what I take to be Hardy’s position, roughly), but in giving my attention more to the dialectic between the world of the text and the world in front of the text than to the dialectic between the world of the text and the world behind the text. My remarks there (and, derivatively, in my experiment with the Gita), then, were primarily an attempt to think through what it means to talk about the text as having a meaning if we attempt to cut the world of the text off from both the world behind it and the world in front of it. I’m sympathetic, in a way, to that project, and I was trying to give it a charitable hearing. But I don’t think it works, in the end—or at least, not very well. Or maybe it only works in comparative scripture, but not in other forms of would-be “descriptive” work. At any rate, it seems to me that the Book of Mormon itself suggests that there are only the two “dialectical” ways of reading the text, and no world-of-the-text-only middle ground. And I’m happy to let the Book of Mormon tell me how it can or should be read. :)

    Finally, since you mention it, I’ll express again my agreement that nothing about historical work itself on texts forbids theological work on texts. There are nonetheless historians, persons, who claim that all meaning is historically determined, that the meaning of a text can only be arrived at beginning from the world behind the text. Given what you’ve said here and elsewhere, it doesn’t look to me like you’re among those historians, so don’t take my stating this here as an accusation. My intention here is only to clarify that my position isn’t at all that historical work somehow crowds out theological work in principle. And I should make clear that I don’t at all think that theological work should crowd out historical work. Anything but that, since I read a good deal more historical work on scripture than theological work! It is true, I think, that there has been more sympathy to historical work in both Mormon studies and biblical studies, and that that has resulted in a crowding out of theological work, but that’s contingent and it looks to be fading in the name of greater balance and understanding—again, both in Mormon studies and in biblical studies.

    Okay, that was far, far too long. Take it as a reciprocal gesture of taking-seriously. I very much appreciate the exchange, at any rate—as well as what little conversation we were able to have over the course of the conference. I hope it’s a promise of more to come.

  2. Joe, I conflated your two talks without clarifying the distinction of what I was discussing. Sorry. I think you are not decontextualizing in your B. of Jared/Arjuna talk, although you are perceiving the context differently than I do. You were talking about decontextualizing in your other talk. Sorry I didn’t clearly separate the two.

    The question for the B of Jared is this. From the BOM (or Israelite) point of view, would a covenant people–descendants of the Seth/Enoch lineage, who made and maintain a covenant with God and were granted a promised land–be considered gentiles or not? They are clearly not Israelites. But they are not really gentiles either. Is the essence of being a gentile genetic/tribal–descended from Israel? Or is it covenant-based–that is, those who are not under a covenant are gentiles–which could allow non-Israelites like Ruth to become Israelites through adoption? Was Abraham a gentile, since he is not a descendant of Israel?

    I think what the BOM is discussing in its broad perspective of gentile is convenant/non-covenant. Gentiles in the broad perspective are non-covenant, but can be adopted/converted into the covenant as well. But there is a pre-Abrahamic covenant lineage who would not be considered gentiles.

    Also, the BOM was written not just to gentiles, but to Israelite Lehite survivors as well.

    I hope this clarifies my point. I obviously conflated two issues unclearly in my first discussion.

    • I should be clearer: I think it’s best to say that the Book of Mormon doesn’t consider the Jaredites gentiles. Nonetheless, Moroni seems to be interested in the parallel between the Jaredites and the gentiles—specifically the gentiles he wanted to address. That parallel allows him to present the brother of Jared as embodying the model the gentiles should follow in approaching God. I don’t want to argue for any claim stronger than that. And that makes me think we’re largely in agreement here.

      And yes! The Book of Mormon was not written only to gentiles. Indeed, it was written first and foremost to the remnant of Israel! As I said in my presentation, the reason Moroni is so focused on the gentiles is because he knew they would be the ones to retrieve, translate, and deliver the Book of Mormon to its primary addressees. Moroni’s interest in the Jaredites was thus largely guided by his desire to get the gentile intermediaries out of the way for the book’s real audience.

  3. I basically agree with what you have to say here, Joe. But let me reemphasize a couple of caveats.

    1- You really can’t bracket truth claims. What actually happens is one type of truth claim is bracketed, and another type of truth claim is necessarily–though usually tacitly, and often unrecognized–privileged. Discussion then proceeds, but the believers are often left with one hand tied behind their back (which makes typing difficult). We end up not being able to discuss what we really believe the text is saying. One could just as easily ask the non-Mormons to suspend their disbelief and bracket their truth claims that it is 19th century fiction, so they can have more fruitful discussions with Mormons. (Personally, I think that would actually be a more fruitful approach. I always try to approach and understand scriptures of other groups from an insider perspective, even if I personally don’t believe the insider perspective.)

    2- I have no inherent objection to Hardy’s literary approach. But I don’t think it really does what Hardy seems to think it does. It can elucidate and clarify certain aspects of the text, but at the cost of of obscuring other important aspects and issues of the text. It is not a panacea or a solution to critical reading problems. Rather it is a useful tool for engaging a limited group of issues. When building a house, however, you need a hammer, saw, and screw-driver, not just a screw-driver.

    • I think we’re entirely in agreement here. Especially when it comes to the second half of your number 1: I never ask those committed to the historicity of the Book of Mormon to bracket that conviction without at the same time asking those committed to the nineteenth-century origins of the Book of Mormon to bracket their parallel conviction. If I ever sound a bit too brazenly anti-historiographical when I discuss interpretive methodology, it’s always meant to push those who demand that the Book of Mormon be read in its nineteenth-century setting as much as those who demand that the Book of Mormon be read in its ancient setting. If one is bracketing questions of historicity, questions of unhistoricity have to be bracketed as well.

      If. And that’s a big “if” for me.

      In the meanwhile, I’m largely agreed about Hardy’s approach. Largely. I’m still working out my exact criticisms of what Hardy’s doing. It’s unmistakably fantastic work, and yet there’s something that always leaves me thinking about what remains unsatisfying.

      But yes: hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and more!

  4. Pingback: On “Bracketing”

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