Monday, November 20, 2017

Thoughts about chiasmus

A few weeks ago I went to an institute class on the Book of Mormon that talked about literary forms in the Book of Mormon. They talked about parallelism and  chiasmus and how John Welch was made aware of chiasmus in the Bible and how he discovered it in the Book of Mormon too. 

I remember my first exposure to the form of chiasmus. A BYU professor taught about it in my Book of Mormon class back in 1998, and at the time I thought it was terribly far-fetched. The teacher pointed out how a whole chapter in Alma was one massive chiasmus, and my skeptical mind doubted this was a real thing and wondered how anyone would have figured it out.

Well, this institute class answered that. John Welch had been taught to see chiasmus in the Bible (see link for 10 minute Youtube video on the story) and had opened the Book of Mormon randomly and noticed repeated two repeated words, then similar ideas above and below that repetition.  He’d stumbled on the middle point of emphasis, and then found the parallelisms that spread outward from there.  The wording didn’t have to be identical; it was the theme that could be repeated.

That made more sense to me.

And then it struck me how fabulous it was that this form was used in scripture. If it is the idea or theme that is repeated, then the exact wording isn’t as important.  In contrast, take the poetic idea of rhyme. A poem that rhymes is very difficult to translate across languages because the same words in another language may not rhyme. You lose part of the cleverness and artistry in translation.  But parallel ideas and themes presented in chiastic form will remain unchanged, no matter the language.

I’ve run across an edition of the Book of Mormon that has actually worked at all kinds of places where parallelisms and chiasmuses appear, and uses indentation to make those forms more obvious.  It’s fascinating to run your eye along the page and see the form. (But it’s more difficult to read.)

And then something else occurred to me.  I remembered Moroni’s lament about weakness in writing and stumbling over word placement, worrying the gentiles would mock his writing.  Could it be possible that he assumed the gentiles would know parallelism and chiasmus and see where he couldn’t get it to work quite right? Could it be he worried the gentiles would dismiss his message because he couldn’t achieve the highest literary form as often as he wanted to?

He didn’t know we would be so much more interested in the flow of meaning than in the form. He didn’t know we’d know almost nothing about the literary structure they were trying to shoehorn their message into. After all, chiasmus is an optimization problem, as a writer tries to structure his message in a pattern of repeating ideas. (There is always a risk that the form will start to torture the meaning and read awkwardly.)  If the Book of Mormon writers ever do chiasmus badly, and we don’t quite see how it goes, it is probably because they departed from the form in greater service to the meaning, and we can be grateful for that.


Rozy Lass said...

Thanks for your insights. Although I can appreciate that they are there, chiasmus seem so insignificant to me as opposed to the overall message of the Book of Mormon. If they were important to our salvation wouldn't Joseph Smith been taught to use them in writing out the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants? Or how about modern General Conference addresses? Clearly they aren't required. Just a nice little evidence of the origins of the people and language in the Book of Mormon. But there are so many other evidences too. And the witness of the Spirit is the best and most important.