REVIEW: Alma 1-29: A Brief Theological Introduction, Kylie Turley
Kylie Nielson Turley’s Alma 1-29: a brief theological introduction is brilliant. Her insights have radically altered how I understand Alma’s own story and the spiritual significance that his story and teachings has for my own life. The entire book is fantastic, but for brevity’s sake, here are three core ideas I find particularly enlightening.
I. Alma’s Late (Re)Conversion
The first insight may not feel that significant, but ripples throughout the rest of Kylie’s analysis and productively challenged my assumptions. Kylie’s close reading of the text suggests that Alma was likely middle-aged, or at least grown to full adulthood, by the time the angel appears to him and the sons of Mosiah. Rather than reading his narrative as one of teenage rebellion, Kylie suggests that his life as an unbeliever was significant and lengthy, far more deliberate than I had usually thought of it.
This strikes me as far more difficult to accept. Alma, in Kylie’s reading, wasn’t some young guy caught up in the age-old rejection of his parents, but a deliberate, intentional antagonist to the faith. Alma worked throughout much of his adult life to destroy the very Church and community that he comes to love and serve faithfully for the rest of his days.
This simple alteration to the story, supported by a careful reading of the scriptures, ripples throughout the rest of the book and is still causing me to re-evaluate the full spectrum of implications and possible meanings for Alma’s experience in my own life (I've even been thinking about how this insight fits into Joseph Smith's advocacy for prison abolition).
II. Alma’s Wrestling with His Own Legacy
Building on his late conversion, Kylie tracks the many ways that Alma spends his entire ministry wrestling with and reckoning with his own time as an unbeliever. This begins with Nehor, who in Kylie’s telling seems to be taunting Alma, almost daring him to prove that he has truly converted and left behind the way of the unbelievers (37-41).
This continues throughout the book of Alma, where Alma is forced to reckon with the legacy of his labors to destroy the church. He continues to interact with people that believe the very things that he used to believe, and in some cases he may have taught. This lends a personal touch to his missionary efforts that I find quite compelling AND transforms the entire book of Alma into an example of what true repentance looks like—truly devoting yourself for the remainder of your life to undo the precise harms and damage that you have done in the past.
The most striking and horrifying example of this is Alma’s interactions with the people of Ammonihah, which culminate in women and children being burned alive. Alma had preached to the people of Ammonihah about a ‘lake of fire and brimstone’. Then, Kylie notes that “after people burn women and children alive in a lake of fire and brimstone, the words lake of fire and brimstone are never spoken again by anyone in the Book of Mormon” (92).
That small insight lends a gravity to this tragedy that I had never fully comprehended before and I have been unable to shake the corresponding weight of it, pondering and sitting with the implications of this textual decision.
III. Alma 29 as a Psalm of Lament
This culminates in the last insight I want to dwell on from Kylie’s work—that Alma 29 should be read as a psalm of lament.
I have long puzzled over what exactly is going on here. I remember reading this chapter on my mission in Lithuania, wondering why Alma did sin in his wish. The insight that Kylie brings to this section unlocks the chapter in ways that I had never dreamed of.
In Kylie’s reading, Alma 29 is Alma’s lament for his failures at Ammonihah, sorrowing for his failure to save the women and children, destroyed by his failure to transform the hearts of those who believe as he once believed (and may in some part have been influenced by his own past actions).
I loved this book and will never read or think about Alma the same again. I want to re-read the Book of Alma with my heart and mind opened by Kylie’s insights to find new depths to Alma’s story and teachings. Alma will never be the same and for that, I am forever in Kylie’s debt. A challenging and uplifting book that I hope everyone can find their way to.