One recent, sympathetic critic called the Book of Mormon “dull.” This is not a new accusation. Mark Twain famously called it “chloroform in print,” and I don’t deny the charge. Trust me, I’m quite aware of the boringness of the Book of Mormon. Mormons are aware that the Book of Mormon can be difficult reading, and often make jokes about it. It’s characters are one-dimensional, there isn’t much plot to speak of, only some of the content is occasionally moving, and even many of the theological debates just seem not particularly pressing anymore. But is an aesthetic appraisal the best way to evaluate sacred literature? Is dullness really relevant at all?
Mormons generally counter the charge that the Book of Mormon is dull with their perfectly valid experiences that it has transformed their lives. These narratives need to be taken seriously, but not as evidence of the fundamental unboringness of the Book of Mormon. Rather, these narratives suggest the ways that the book is not read for its redeeming literary qualities, but for some other reason. I will return to these experiences, but I want to suggest that they should come after pointing out just what terrible literature the NT Gospels are as an example of my point.
Seriously. Talk about no plot; there is barely even a narrative in the NT gospels. It is just pericope after pericope strung together with a kai nun, the BoM equivalent of “and it came to pass.” There are no interesting characters to speak of (including the main character). There is almost no drama at all. Scholars can’t even agree on a recognizable genre for the gospels as a whole, and have instead spent much of the last century on form, source, redaction, and rhetorical criticism, dividing the text into smaller bits and sources that might finally reveal some coherence. Even the literary criticism of the gospels is boring.
And I’m not the first person to think so. Mark was so bad that the ending had to be rewritten. Several times. In fact, Matthew and Luke rewrote the whole thing so you would never have to read Mark again (unlucky you). St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, was famously a bit embarrassed by the low literature of the NT texts. He once promised God to never read Cicero again and only focus on Christian literature, but later reneged. Cicero is just better reading. And ancient Christian intellectuals all knew it.
Does the boringness of the gospels mean that they have no worth? Clearly these have been incredibly influential texts, sustaining not only ecclesiastical and pious excitement, but a rich scholarly field. How can such poor literature have had such a profound effect on so many people throughout time? These are important questions, and the profound meaning of these texts in the lives of so many people must be accounted for. What are people seeing of worth here?
For the NT gospels (and the Book of Mormon), the value of these works is not found in their literarary worth. These texts are not read because they have mastered plot, narrative, drama, suspense, comedy, tragedy, or even sophisticated philosophical or theological reflection. Rather, these texts are read for a distinctive set of reasons, as sacred literature. They are oracular. They are revelatory. They contain occasional clarity of instruction, and the occasionally vagaries that leads one to want to know more. They provoke thought and reflection about some big questions, like sin, death, righteousness, salvation, community, the kingdom of God. They speak to converts and believers because such readers have categorized the text as sacred, and their reading practices.
To understand the meaning of a sacred text to its adherents, we must approach the texts as they do. This doesn’t mean that we must accept the claims to being sacred, only that we understand the practices of a community for reading it as sacred. This helps us to understand then the standards by which they judge it. Far be it from me to pass aesthetic judgment on the sacred texts of others, without seeking to understand how and why the text appeals to those who call them sacred.