Home > Uncategorized > The Tragic Book of Mormon: A Tree and a Gate

The Tragic Book of Mormon: A Tree and a Gate

I’ve been thinking lately about the Book of Mormon as tragedy. I’ll try to string together a few posts on that topic to make you uber-depressed. Here’s Uber-Depressed Part #1.

The ending of the Book of Mormon, with the violent destruction of the Nephites, certainly strikes us as the most tragic moment of the Book of Mormon, but it’s important to remember that the reader foresees these events early on in the book, when Nephi receives a vision of this ending in 1 Ne. 12. Grant Hardy, in Understanding the Book of Mormon, astutely points out how troubling this vision is for Nephi, who emerges from his tent depressed, especially when he finds us brothers quarreling. His despair is two-fold: not only are his descendants headed for destruction, but his own actions take on a whole new meaning–or rather, they lose a whole new meaning. Nephi, who imagines his family’s flight from Jerusalem as akin to Moses’s exodus from Egypt (like Moses, he even killed a man for his people), has clung tightly to Lord’s assurance of a promised land. Now, this promised land appears inevitably bleak, its ruin a foregone conclusion.

Nephi is trapped in a paradox of prophecy, fate, and agency that is often at the heart of tragic literature. Like Macbeth, for example, Nephi’s future is clouded with foreboding prophecy, but he cannot ignore the fact that he is–or at least feels he is–free to choose. Prophecy would appear to negate any chance of his altering future events, but he strives and preaches anyways. Yet unlike tragic drama, Nephi’s paradox is not revealed in a single dramatic moment–instead, the Book of Mormon plays more like a tragic novel, whose dour ending is often predictable but we–the characters and reader–march onward nonetheless of our own choosing. In tragic novels and the Book of Mormon, the tragic irony hovers over the narrative like storm clouds for long periods rather than striking and disappearing in an instant like lightening. Nephi is not allowed a moment of dramatic climax, but must bear the prophecy as his burden for many years, his preaching and exhorting always overshadowed by this moment.

Google Images has a severe shortage of good gate pictures, but this is nice

This paradox is not debilitating, however–in fact, I believe that it inspires Nephi’s doctrinal thinking and helps him expound on the key archetype of 1 Nephi and the Book of Mormon: the Tree of Life. Our account of Lehi’s vision in 1 Nephi 8 leaves much unexplained (as 1 Ne. 11-14 show us) but perhaps most importantly it does not explain, and even Nephi’s interpretation cannot answer, a few key questions. For instance, if the fruit is so delicious, so sweet above all else, why would anyone fall away after eating it? How can the mocking of others be that persuasive? This type of apostasy is certainly represented by the future Nephite people, as Nephi sees in 1 Ne. 12, but many Book of Mormon readers are often puzzled that a Zion society organized by Christ would ultimately fall away. The tree seemingly represents the end of a journey, the final destination for those searching in mists of darkness, but in 1 Ne. 12, Nephi sees that life never seems to reach a final resting point, even after tasting the sweetness of the gospel’s fruits.

In this light, 2 Ne. 31 is an important contribution by Nephi to clarify and supplement the Tree of Life symbolism by transposing onto the symbol of the tree that of the gate: “For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.” Nephi’s teaching here is delicately balanced. On the one hand, he wants to affirm that baptism by water and fire brings salvation, but he doesn’t want you to assume it’s the climatic moment of one’s life (as reaching the Tree of Life would suggest). Nephi retains much of the imagery of the Tree of Life vision in his writings here but offers the symbol of the gate and the teaching to “endure to the end” as a way to explain that baptism is a climax in the process of conversion, but it is also the beginning of the rest of your spiritual life. We must “press forward” like those searching for the tree of life, but now we are “feasting on the word of Christ”–in a sense, we are taking the fruit with us onto the new path of discipleship (see 2 Ne. 31:20; compare with 1 Ne. 8:24, 30). This dual-path helps Nephi reconcile the trajectory his people are headed on as well as his own paradoxical agency: life is not determined by climatic moments, but continues inexorably onward, with the same rewards and perils still possible during the journey.

By bringing together these two archetypes, the tree and the gate, Nephi suggests that the religious life is a series of journeys, that climatic moments are often leveled over time while on the strait and narrow, and that discipleship often requires steady dedication rather than bursts of zeal. We can sense that by the end of his record, Nephi is reflecting on the youthful fervor of his youth that led to a series bold actions (retrieving the brass plates, building a ship) which never managed to keep the family together. Instead, he has found that his discipleship has become defined by his willingness to endure, to remain faithful to God and his people even with the burden of foreknowledge. The promised land was never the Tree of Life he was expecting, but only another gate onto a long, brutal journey.


Categories: Uncategorized
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  1. February 13, 2012 at 12:13 am

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