Sponsored by BYU Studies — Daniel Becerra is the author of 3rd, 4th Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.
How did Daniel Becerra become involved with the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions?
Daniel Becerra: I was invited to be on the project by Spencer Fluhman, the director of the Maxwell Institute. I consider myself to be an aspiring rather than accomplished scholar of the Book of Mormon, so I was very humbled to be considered as a contributor to the series. I was also pleased that Spencer wanted each author to approach their work authentically, drawing upon their unique body of skills and interests.
My training is in early Christian literature and my research focuses on moral formation, so I am very interested in how Christians understand perfection as well as in how they conform themselves to this ideal. I think the shape of my volume reflects this.
What did Daniel Becerra do to prepare to write 3rd, 4th Nephi?
Daniel Becerra: The first thing I did, as one might imagine, was to read through these books several times. I looked for prominent themes and wrote down questions and concerns that arose in my mind.
Most importantly, however, I tried to slow down and allow the text to speak to me. It was incredibly important to me to hear the text to speak for itself. For this reason, I didn’t consult any secondary literature until after I had outlined the book and made notes about what I wanted to say, or rather, what I believed the text was saying.
The whole experience of writing really felt like having a dialogue with the Book of Mormon. It would present questions and I would try to answer them. I would pose questions and it would reveal answers in its pages.
What most surprised Daniel Becerra while working on the book?
Daniel Becerra: Part of my purpose in writing the book was not only to examine what 3–4 Nephi say but also to use them as a starting point in pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness. In other words, I didn’t just want to think about these texts, I wanted to think with and beyond them in pursuit of a larger goal.
I also tried to situate the teachings of 3–4 Nephi within the larger tradition of Christian theological thought. I was pleasantly surprised at how much more I was able to get out the Book of Mormon when I started reading it in conversation with other Christian theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, Ammonas, and Narsai. I began to see how the Book of Mormon is similar to and distinct from other theological writings, as well as how it might also be further illuminated by them.
What are some of the blessings promised to covenant Israel in 3rd and 4th Nephi?
Daniel Becerra: Speaking generally, a consistent theme in these books is that Christ never abandons his people. There are times in 3 Nephi, for example, when disciples feel that Christ is absent or not invested in their lives as much they would like. In some cases, the faithful thought he would arrive sooner than he did and stay longer than he was able. In other cases, the Savior was present among them in spirit but the faithful didn’t know it.
Mormon, however, frames such absences, perceived or real, as pedagogical. He writes that Christ periodically withdraws and withholds from his people in order to “try their faith” or to allow them time to “ponder” and “prepare” themselves for his return (3 Ne. 17:3; 26:9). In such cases, the cavity quarried by Christ’s absence creates more space for his indwelling; it allows him to bless his followers with “greater things” (3 Ne. 26:9).
In the same way that eyes in darkness are most sensitive to light, so periods of distance from the Savior help his covenant people to better discern, know, and appreciate him.
What does Daniel Becerra mean when he says “coming unto Christ involves both knowing and unknowing him”?
Daniel Becerra: 3–4 Nephi present to us a Savior who resists easy categorization. He blurs the boundaries between humanity and divinity, between father and son, between male and female, and between individuality and relationality. By focusing too much on one aspect of Christ’s nature, I think we can risk ignoring or blinding ourselves to other aspects.
We might ask ourselves: Does my current understanding of the Savior ever prevent me from seeing the bigger picture? Or, put a slightly different way, Does what I already “know” ever limit what God can teach me?
So, by being willing “unknow” the Savior, I am referring to a kind of epistemic humility. To unknow Christ is to be willing to accommodate new knowledge and understanding, even if it disrupts what we previously assumed.
If there is always more to know of Christ, and I believe there is, then discipleship must at times be coupled with a suspension of certainty. Certainty, I would argue, can be just as unproductive as unbelief if it stifles our openness to being surprised by Christ.
Why are motivations so critical in our journey to become like Christ?
Daniel Becerra: The gospel of Jesus is more than a system of belief or code of conduct. It is a system of becoming intended transform us into more Christlike persons through obedience to God’s commandments and with the aid of his grace. Our motivations and the sincerity with which we do things are crucial for unlocking the transformative power of obedience.
Jesus explains in 3 Nephi that improper motivations and lack of sincerity can disqualify one from receiving God’s intended blessings (3 Ne. 13:1–18). I think the underlying principle here is that God reserves his highest blessings for those who do the right things for the right reasons. And the highest blessing he has to offer us is making us like himself.
How does feminine imagery of the Savior help us know Him better?
Daniel Becerra: Feminine imagery serves in 3–4 Nephi as a bridge to understanding Christ’s nature. Mormon’s description of Christ mirrors most closely the Gospel of Matthew, in which the Savior is described as a mother hen who gathers her chicks.
Within the context of this metaphor, Mormon also records Christ’s words to Israel. Christ is portrayed as a kind of impassioned mother, intervening to try to help her wayward child. The image conveys the depth of the Savior’s love, sadness, and unwavering commitment to Israel. It also demonstrates that Christ’s love is not predicated on reciprocation.
I would add that the image of the feminine Christ in 3 Nephi also invites us to see Christ in women, invites women to see Christ in themselves, and encourages reflection on the ways in which womanhood is akin to and anticipates godhood.
How can we know if we’re progressing in our journey to become more like Christ?
Daniel Becerra: Mormon talks about moral growth in different ways and sometimes he focuses on how righteousness is reflected psychologically, meaning how it is manifested in the human faculties of cognition, emotion, and volition. With respect to cognition, righteous persons are portrayed as believing in Jesus, his teachings, his coming and the signs associated with it, and that he is God’s son; they are also portrayed as believing in Jesus’s disciples’ preaching, in the Father and the Holy Ghost, and that God answers prayers. Mormon also frames the act of remembering as an expression of spiritual maturity. Good persons remember Christ, his body, and his teachings.
With respect to emotion, sorrow for the sins of others is the most common emotional expression of spiritual maturity in 3–4 Nephi. For example, in 3 Ne. 1, Mormon writes that when Nephi saw the wickedness of his people, “his heart was exceedingly sorrowful” (3 Ne. 1:10).
Correspondingly, Mormon also portrays joy in others’ spiritual welfare as a sign of moral maturity, as when Jesus, observing the faith of the righteous Nephites, weeps and says, “now behold, my joy is full” (3 Ne. 17:20).
With respect to volition, the most noble volitional expression represented in 3–4 Nephi is the desire to bring souls to Christ. Other laudable desires include the desire to dwell with God, to come unto Christ, to know his works, to be baptized, and to receive the Holy Ghost. These may be contrasted with the desires of the wicked, who seek after power, authority, riches, and the vain things of the world.
These cognitive, emotional, and volitional expressions might be collectively seen as signs that one is becoming more Christlike.
What does Daniel Becerra think is the fullest expression of “Christlikeness”?
Daniel Becerra: I believe that Christlikeness finds its fullest expression in community, collaboration, and collectivity; this is a clear unifying theme of 3–4 Nephi. If we were to look at how Christ describes himself in these books, we would see that he frequently “overlaps” with other persons, making it difficult to discern where he ends and another person begins.
In other words, he describes himself as like, or one with, or in other members of the Godhead. So put simply, he is not uniquely himself.
Because Christ cannot be fully understood independent of his relation to others, discipleship must also be understood in relational terms. If we are to become like Christ, we must mirror his relationality.
Almost every commandment given by Jesus in 3–4 Nephi relates directly or indirectly to how humans view and interact with each other. I think that one reason for this is that Christ intends us to govern our thoughts and behavior in such a way that we are outward oriented and other-centered, just like he is.
What do 3rd and 4th Nephi teach us about how to take steps today to become a Zion people?
Daniel Becerra: In practical terms, 3–4 Nephi provides a sense for what living like a Zion people looks like: mutual forgiveness, social equality, care for the needy, love, fidelity, honesty, generosity, mercy, and suspension of judgement.
I believe that Mormon would have us understand that the path to the Savior is more circuitous and scenic than one might expect. In 3–4 Nephi, coming to Christ is what happens when the disciple focuses on other things. We make progress on the road not by speeding as quickly and efficiently as we can to our destination but by stopping to help others who have broken down along the way and by taking detours to search for those who are lost or stranded.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”