A Review of "1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction"
The Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions series is off to a great start with Joseph Spencer’s first volume: 1st Nephi: a brief theological introduction. The book is a provocative collection of theological insights and close readings of the text of 1st Nephi in the Book of Mormon, driven by a commitment to starting conversations and sparking new thoughts. The series editors write in the series introduction that “No volume pretends to be the final word on theological reflection for its part of the Book of Mormon.” This ethos is felt throughout this first volume, with Spencer arguing humbly for the positions that he holds, but always suggesting that what he offers is only one way of interpreting and engaging with the text and that further study and attention could yield different kernels of truth and observations worth pondering.
The book is divided into two sections: The Theological Project of 1st Nephi and The Theological Problems of 1st Nephi. Each section has three chapters that focus on a particular aspect of the project and problems—occasion and structure, the remnant of Israel, the God of Israel and slaying Laban, Laman and Lemuel, and women. Each of the chapters was filled with enlightening observations that allowed me to approach and access the Book of Mormon freshly, digging through countless readings of it and decades of standard interpretations that prevent me from approaching the text anew.
Rather than a play-by-play of the book, I’m going to focus on three insights that I found particularly useful and helpful in finding spiritual truths in the text.
Spencer provides an observation about the structure of 1st Nephi in the first chapter that shifted how I viewed the text. He notes that, “The first half of the book prepares for the second by explaining how Nephi’s family came to possess the two key prophetic resources essential to Nephi’s own subsequent ministerial efforts.” Spencer draws on the original chapter breaks to sketch out the structure and relationship of the opening to the later chapters. He draws attention to the way that Nephi builds the book around the brass plates and the vision of the tree of life (the two prophetic resources in the quote). This observation brings a sense of cohesiveness to the text that adds depth to prophecy and revelations that Nephi includes throughout the rest of the text.
Perhaps the most provocative and enlightening idea from Spencer comes in the chapter about Laman and Lemuel. Spencer argues that “Nephi repeatedly invites us to see his faith as having needed maturation. Even his celebrated declaration of determined obedience (“I will go and do”) may be an expression more of self-centered and youthful zeal than of generous and mature faith.” I had long felt frustrated with Nephi when I would read these first chapters, identifying more with Laman and Lemuel. Spencer’s careful attention to how Nephi constructs the narrative to illustrate his own growth as a prophet rehabilitates Nephi for me. Not only does Spencer’s reading create a more compelling and empathetic Nephi, it also allows for a more complex interpretation of Laman and Lemuel.
The final chapter on women in 1st Nephi took a new approach to the topic, while still granting the seriousness of the questions. One piece of Spencer’s reading that I find particularly interesting is that “Through the remainder of the Book of Mormon, Lamanite society avoids the sexual problems of the Nephites.” Spencer essentially distinguishes the ways that Nephite and Lamanite society treat women, to build an argument for a way to read the relative absence of women that doesn’t ignore the reality of the text, but takes the text seriously.
Overall, Spencer’s approach to the text is compelling and refreshing. He takes the text seriously and approaches it from a place of faith. Spencer’s faith and belief in the truthfulness of the text drives him to read closely and carefully, asking hard questions of the text and being willing to interrogate the text. 1st Nephi will never be the same for me after the questions and insights that Spencer raises throughout his book. 1st Nephi: a brief theological introduction is some of the best writing on the Book of Mormon that I’ve read and if the rest of the volumes in the series are anywhere near what Spencer does here, they’ll make an essential guide to the Book of Mormon.