REVIEW: Ether: a brief theological introduction, Rosalynde Frandsen Welch
The book of Ether strikes me as a microcosm of The Book of Mormon as a whole, detailing the rise and fall of a civilization in one short book in a way that echoes and mirrors the tragedy of the Nephites that concerns the entire text. Rosalynde Frandsen Welch’s Ether: a brief theological introduction illuminates some of the complexity of the book of Ether, shedding light on how it may help us better read the Book of Mormon as a whole.
Rosalynde describes the experience of reading Ether beautifully, writing:
“Reading the book of Ether is more like hiking into a desert gorge, where band upon band of earth shows its own shade and texture beneath the high desert floor, whispering of massive dislocations in the past and future. The deeper we descend into book and canyon, the better we see how each successive layer—of rocky soil or of prophetic mind—refashions what came before and supports what comes next. We learn to read history’s changes on the stone walls” (56-57).
I love this image! Rosalynde does great work throughout the book to dig into this image and the implications of it (doing work that has strong resonances with Sam Brown’s In Heaven as It is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death). Rosalynde helps push one way that we can read and think about this image by arguing that “In the Nephite tradition that Moroni inherits, this image of a layered landscape littered with ruined remains is linked with scripture” (57).
Thinking about scripture as a “layered landscape littered with ruined remains” is powerful and transformative. To engage with scripture responsibly then, we must do some sort of archeological work, building worlds and contexts for the ruins that we encountered, constantly confronted with the incompleteness of what we have. I think that this recognition can help us read far more charitably and productively, approaching scripture with an eye towards curiosity and collaboration.
This seems to be where Rosalynde takes her thinking too. She notes that “Indeed, Moroni’s imperfections may be redeemed if his readers learn from his shortcomings and resolve to treat people across ethnic lines, and their sacred texts, with respect and care” (63). For Rosalynde, the imperfections that Moroni has, and perhaps introduces to the text, are a way to learn and grow personally. We are not meant to simply accept as divine truth every word in the Book of Mormon—we are supposed to recognize that what we read is “a layered landscape littered with ruined remains” and that to understand those remains we may need to correct some wrong ideas that the authors had.
Rosalynde essentially argues for something like this when she points out that:
“Moroni’s theology of scripture looks more toward readership to establish scriptural authority than it does toward authorship: the author’s work is merely to nurture the scriptural embryo into written form, while the reader completes its final transformation into scripture in the moment of sincere encounter” (77).
I love this. I love the idea that scriptural authority is created primarily by the community of readers rather than authors. This gives the vast majority of us far more to do—a much weightier, greater power (and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility). We need to sincerely encounter the words of the past, to humbly, generously, and with curiosity approach the ruined remains that we find scattered throughout our scriptural texts. This is what Rosalynde sees in the book of Ether (and I think serves as a powerful model for approaching the Book of Mormon in its entirety). With provocative images, fantastic insights, and clear prose, Rosalynde Frandsen Welch’s Ether: a brief theological introduction provides a helpful gateway to the book of Ether, unlocking some of the many mysteries and treasures buried among its “ruined remains”.