Book Review: Theological Introduction to First Nephi, by Joseph Spencer

Joseph Spencer is a theologian. He does theology. What exactly, though, does that mean and what does that mean for the average reader?

Theology is the study of God and his works. When I joined the Church at the age of 16 in 1975, I became enamored with the Book of Mormon. However, after a few years of studying it, I got stuck. The stories and teachings all seemed to be the same.

Then, as Spencer notes in his conclusion concerning his own experience, I discovered Hugh Nibley. In his Conclusion, Spencer notes,

“The Latter-day Saint scholar I hold in highest esteem is–and i think always will be–Hugh Nibley.”

Nibley was a scholar focused on history of the Ancient Near East. As I initially read his books, I felt I was drinking from a fire hose. I didn’t literally have blood coming out of my ears and eyes, but sometimes it felt that way. However, I knew that Nibley gave me keys to better understanding the Book of Mormon in new ways.

Spencer admits he is no historian. However, a theologian helps us in other ways to understand and appreciate the text. Spencer’s strength, as I’ve found from reading his other books, is the skill to break down a reading into its simplest parts and then suggest a theory or two on what it possibly means. Thankfully, he also has the keen sense and ability to make such theories understandable and accessible to the average reader.

So it is with this initial venture by Maxwell Institute on discussing the Book of Mormon. The “Theological Introduction to First Nephi” gives us some very new ways to read and consider what we are reading in 1st Nephi.

In his introduction, Spencer notes that many do not get very far in the Book of Mormon, because, as C.S. Lewis once noted, we spend too much time like hurried tourists that only enter the entry hall, then leave, as we study scripture. For Spencer, many Latter-day Saints treat 1st Nephi as that entry hall. There’s a tendency to read and re-read the book, only to be stymied by Isaiah in 2nd Nephi, and so the rest of the book is left unread.

Worse, 1st Nephi is rushed through continually, without really slowing down and breaking it down. While Spencer’s book does not cover much history or certain topics, the topics he does cover give us perfect insight on valuable tools we can use in studying all of the Book of Mormon.

For example, Spencer shows that Nephi did not write a pristine record about himself. He did not make himself out to be a perfect hero. Instead, 1 Nephi doesn’t hide Nephi’s complicated relationships nor his weaknesses. Rather, Spencer shows us how Nephi matures through his experiences. At the end of 1 Nephi 1, Nephi noted that his story would show forth God’s grace, and in fact Nephi is letting us know that such grace applied directly to him. First Nephi becomes an “astonishing textual embodiment of grace.”

As Nephi encouraged us and his brethren to “liken” scripture to ourselves, Spencer suggests there is perhaps another interpretation of this term that is equally important as the normal method most readers use, which is to take scripture and apply it to their daily lives. “Likeness” is a form of the term “likening” and suggests that we should compare the events occurring in the times the prophecy was made to our own day. So, Nephi quotes Isaiah, and then compares the likeness of Isaiah’s day to his own. We, too, can and ought to dig deep enough into scripture and the background history of it, to see how it might apply to our circumstances.

As Spencer explains, “The stories provide context, while we’re meant to look for the book’s prophetic message.” In the case of First Nephi, it is the final destiny of Lehi’s descendants and those Gentiles who join with them in the gospel covenant. “Nephi wishes us to see that ancient and modern prophecy, so to speak, are to be trusted together.”

In discussing the slaying of Laban, we learn how Nephi matured in his understanding of his calling as a ruler and leader over his brethren. Nephi must have assumed after Laman’s failure at getting the plates, that his idea to bribe Laban would succeed. Spencer ponders aloud how Nephi must have felt when his plan failed, especially as Laman beat him with a rod. It is only after Nephi humbled himself and followed the Spirit without a plan of his own that things turn out for the better. As Nephi discovered the drunken Laban, Spencer notes, “the Spirit proves more livelier and perhaps more dangerous” than Laban ever could be.

We learn that “Nephi is human-wonderfully human.” It is this understanding that allows sinners like me to realize that if God can use imperfect men like Nephi and Joseph Smith, he can use me too. And Spencer also understands this implicitly: “We follow the prophets precisely because of what God does through them, not because of what or who they are on their own.”

Several other topics are discussed in this book: The Vision of the Tree of Life, Women in the Book of Mormon, etc. In each of these topics, Spencer will challenge your current understanding and encourage you to take another step further into discovering what the text of 1st Nephi is really trying to speak to us.

One thing I’ve realized from reading this and other books by Joseph Spencer, is that the depth of theology is so profound that there’s no way a young man with a third grade education could ever have written such a book. I think that is one of his goals for this book. If an imperfect and historical Nephi can learn and grow and admit his faults and weaknesses, so could Joseph Smith and all the prophets following.

I hope you’ll give this book a close reading. As with me, you won’t quite look at 1st Nephi in the same light again, and you won’t be standing briefly on the threshold of the entry hall any longer.

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