If a University of Utah student wanted to discuss the Book of Mormon, it’s safe to say they’d find no shortage of opportunities in the college’s hometown of Salt Lake City.
But for the first time this fall, they’ll have a chance to look at the text for a whole semester from an academic standpoint — where the goal is understanding, not conversion.
They’ll gain “an appreciation for the complexity and beauty of this text that’s had an impact on millions of people,” said David Bokovoy, professor of the course, which will be offered to graduate, undergraduate and continuing studies students. “It doesn’t matter whether the person considers the claims for ancient authenticity are legitimate.”
The class won’t get into some of the thorny issues that generally occupy the growing field of Mormon studies — including questions about authorship and translation. And it won’t take the devotional standpoint of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself.
What it will examine are the literary techniques that largely mimic the style of the King James Bible.
Students will explore, for example, why the story of a man named Enos include details about the character going into the woods and notes that he was hunting beasts when he had a conversion experience.
They’ll look at how the text attempts to provide answers to some of the religious debates swirling around the time of the book’s publication in 1830, such as infant baptism.
Bokovoy — a practicing Mormon with a doctorate in Hebrew Bible — acknowledges the Book of Mormon is no page-turning romance novel. Mark Twain famously panned it as “chloroform in print” — likening it to the drug used to put patients to sleep.
But Bokovoy said students can learn to appreciate it as part of the genre of religious and folk literature.
It might also help increase general knowledge of the religion. A Pew study released in December found that only 29 percent of Americans could correctly answer two basic factual questions about Mormonism. That survey also found 61 percent of the non-Mormon public called Mormonism “very different” from their own faith.
Taking a secular look at religion, Bokovoy said, “can tear down tribalism and create greater understanding.”