An Interview with the Editors of The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Spencer Fluhman and Philip Barlow are co-editors of the groundbreaking Maxwell Institute series, Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon.

What is The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?

Spencer Fluhman: The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions series seeks Christ in scripture by combining intellectual rigor and the disciple’s yearning for holiness.

Picture of Spencer Fluhman
Spencer Fluhman is the director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. Photo by Aaron Cornia/BYU Copyright BYU Photo 2016 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322

It features twelve volumes, roughly one per book in the Book of Mormon, written by twelve gifted Latter-day Saint scholars. Each scholar is an expert in the modern academic fields of philosophy, theology, literature, or history, but each also works from a position of deep personal faith.

The series invites Latter-day Saints to slow down, dive deeper, and read scripture more transformatively.

Philip Barlow: If you allow them to, the series may change your relationship to the Book of Mormon. They will certainly lead you back to the scriptural texts with widened, more intent eyes.

What is the backstory for The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?

Spencer Fluhman: The series grew out of our mission at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute to support religious scholarship that inspires the Saints. Apostolic vision helps chart our course, too.

Some of that vision comes from the Church leaders comprising BYU’s Board of Trustees. Other inspiration comes from our namesake’s apostolic counsel on gospel learning.

More recently, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s address to the Maxwell Institute in 2018 provided profound encouragement for our work. In our wrestle with the question of what kinds of religious scholarship matter most for modern Latter-day Saints, the idea for the series was born.

Philip Barlow: Against the backdrop sketched above, Spencer had an inspired brainstorm one morning while taking a shower. He subsequently ran the idea by me and several others.

The idea caught fire.

This series seemed needed and would differ from anything previously available.

What is theology?

Spencer Fluhman: At its most basic level theology is, literally, reasoned “God talk.” So we “do” theology all the time as believers, whether we realize it or not. We do it at Church and in conversations with friends and families.

It’s also a longstanding academic field with its own jargon and technicalities, but it’s that more basic sense that our series is hoping to engage with Latter-day Saint readers.

Philip Barlow: That “logy” in theology comes from a Greek word with rich connotations. It can mean, for example, word, talk, idea, expression, reason, mind, or even meaning.

Picture of Philip Barlow
Philip Barlow is the outgoing Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University and the new Associate Director of the Maxwell Institute. Photo provided by Philip Barlow.

By “theology” we do not mean official doctrine as lodged in scripture itself and proclaimed by prophets. Nor do we mean preoccupation with other worthy realms, such as historicity, textual history, literary quality, archaeology, and others.

Instead, we mean thinking about, reasoning with, teasing out meaning and implications from the scriptures–likening them unto ourselves, discerning God’s work in the world.

Each of our authors goes about it in their own ways.

How were scholars chosen for this series?

Spencer Fluhman: We chose scholars based on their training and experience in relevant fields but, importantly, also based on their commitment to connecting with non-academic Latter-day Saint audiences.

Philip Barlow: We asked ourselves: What would a group look like if we assembled a sampling of gifted disciple-scholars to train their exceptional minds and hearts on each respective book of the Book of Mormon, asking them to write about it in ways that were brief, theological, and readable to thoughtful people outside the academy?

We consulted with faithful colleagues and generated an impressive list of possible participants. We considered several aspects of desirable balance as we envisioned the series as a whole, seeking in particular the perspectives of a range of academic disciplines.

We dearly wanted to invite additional scholars, but 12 of the first 13 people we asked accepted our request to write one of the 12 envisioned volumes.

Who are the contributors to The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?

Philip Barlow: It’s an extraordinary group of Saints. Half of them are formal theologians and philosophers, such as Kimberly Berkey, James Faulconer, Deidre Green, Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, and Mark Wrathall.

Some are literary scholars, such as Terryl Givens, Sharon Harris, Kylie Turley, and Rosalynde Welch. Daniel Becerra is a scholar of early Christianity. David Holland a historian of American religion.

A number of them are stationed at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute or in other departments at Brigham Young University. Other institutional homes include Collin College (Texas), Loyola University, Oxford University, and the Harvard Divinity School.

How long are the books in the series?

Spencer Fluhman: The twelve volumes are each shorter than 200 pages in printed form.

Philip Barlow: Most of them are even briefer: around 150 pages.

Spencer Fluhman: They are designed to be beautiful, but to be “handy,” too. They are slim, lightweight, and inviting. We suspect that readers can devour them in an afternoon or savor them slowly over weeks or months.

Ideally, the volumes are intended to push people back to the scriptural text with new energy and new questions and new motivation.

Do you have to be an academic to benefit from The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?

Spencer Fluhman: No! In fact, we intend these for any reader who wants fresh perspectives on scripture or who wants to more thoughtfully engage it. I think of these authors as valued fellow travelers … like a friend with specialized training that provides new angles of vision!

Philip Barlow: Although we recruited authors who were among the most probing and accomplished Latter-day Saints dealing with religion in the academy, the series is designed to reach any thoughtful person who cares to further tap into the riches of the Book of Mormon.

How can the series complement Come, Follow Me?

Spencer Fluhman: The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions series is not a commentary or a replacement for the Come, Follow Me curriculum. Instead, it’s a supplement for those who want a more academically-informed dive into the text.

Not all Saints are interested in the kinds of questions our authors are pursuing but, for those who are, these volumes provide a range of questions and perspectives intended to help readers slow down and consider scripture in fresh ways.

Philip Barlow: Having read the series, I find I address the questions posed by the Come Follow Me manual with fresh angles of vision, searching, and appreciation.

What are three of the most important theological contributions of the Book of Mormon?

Spencer Fluhman: I think that, taken together, our authors’ work shouts that the Book of Mormon’s witness of redemption through Christ stands preeminent above all other theological considerations. Volumes offer a wide variety of other themes, but that one shines brightest.

Readers will also be drawn into memorable discussions of covenant, suffering, faith, ordinances, holy community, and family . . . but always in the service of that overarching witness of Christ’s work of redemption.

Philip Barlow: Familiarity breeds complacency, too often, as others have observed.

It is one thing to mention Christ or covenant or suffering. It is another matter to be provoked into a widening exploration and apprehension of their meanings and implications.

I find those three themes in particular to be marvelously illuminated and entwined in the series.

What insights have you gained from editing The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?

Spencer Fluhman: I’m struck, again, by both the complexity of the Book of Mormon and its profundity. Passages I’ve read many times burst with new meanings and insights upon closer inspection.

I find my motivation for further exploration renewed as I see what these authors have done. Some show how reading with original chapter divisions in mind offer new insights into authors’ intent. Others show how close readings of passages and careful comparisons with others illuminate larger themes.

Readers might be surprised, as I was, to see Dr. Sharon Harris’s volume so compellingly engage with the very short books (Enos, Jarom, Omni) that many readers only breeze through. Hers perhaps most dramatically shows the potential of slowing to read more carefully and thoroughly.

Mark Twain famously found the Book of Mormon flat, preachy, and tedious: “Chloroform in print.” I can sympathize with readers who find it so.

The most important dimensions of the Book of Mormon records are not about plot or character development in a literary sense, like one of Twain’s novels. Nor does the text consistently sparkle with rhetorical agility, like Emerson’s essays.

Yet “it takes deep to know deep” and it takes time and a sympathetic perspective to sense what kind of “deep” one is looking for. The brief theological introductions series demonstrates compellingly that the Book of Mormon is astonishing, complex beneath the surface, and rich with insight into some things that matter most.

How has your faith grown from working on The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?

Spencer Fluhman: Working on the series over the past year has reinforced, again, the inexhaustibility of the both the Book of Mormon and the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how far we’ve come spiritually, how much knowledge we’ve gained, there is always more light and love waiting for dedicated disciples.

Recommended resources

Learn more about theology, and the Book of Mormon:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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