Is the 'Book of Mormon' the Great American Novel? A Lapsed Orthodox Jew Tries to Find Out

Onetime yeshiva bocher Avi Steinberg spent a year tracing the epic text that is a holy writ for millions and a mystery to millions more.

The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Though the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri, by Avi Steinberg.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 288 pages, $26.95.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – LDS for short, or the Mormon Church to you and me – has long suffered from a bad rep. Not that it made things easy for itself for a long while. There’s the whole polygamy thing. The unreconstructed approach to race relations, embraced by the faith for many years. The unfortunate penchant for baptizing people into Mormonism after their deaths. (Anne Frank, if we were to accept the deed of a particularly overzealous missionary-by-proxy, would now be a member of a completely different tribe.)

True, these eccentricities have all long since been left behind, consigned to the annals of dodgy religious dogma. Even so, Mormons often find themselves obliged to explain – defend, even – a central tenet of their faith, one that, fairly or not, remains just as perplexing to the uninformed: “The Book of Mormon.”

For the uninitiated, a précis of the “Book” and the story of its discovery: Written in a hitherto (and subsequently) unknown tongue, the Book recounts the history of a group of Hebrews whom God had led from Jerusalem to North America about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. “The Book,” which is accepted as holy writ by Mormons alongside the Bible, was engraved on a set of golden plates and – after a sojourn in Guatemala – buried around 421 C.E. in a hill in upstate New York, Hill Cumorah, by a prophet called Moroni.

Many years later – in 1823, to be precise – Moroni, “barefoot and luminous,” appeared in a dream to a young man called Joseph Smith, and revealed to him the presence of the plates just around the corner from the Smith family farm. Smith – according to the revelation, to which Smith was the sole witness – was tasked with rescuing the tablets, translating them into the vernacular and disseminating their message to the world. So far, so religious.

One must be fair. The factual substance of the world’s major and minor religions is hardly fair game for the determined skeptic. (I write as a semi-detached Catholic. Explaining the theological concept of transubstantiation is even harder than pronouncing it, believe me.) But for even the mildly questioning non-believer, Mormonism suffers from an additional credibility deficit: its lack of antiquity.

After slaving over the translation for some years (although it has been suggested that he just made it up), Smith published “The Book” in 1830, which makes the LDS an absolute stripling when set alongside the sturdy oaks of the other principal organized faiths. Let’s be frank: It is a bit difficult to accept at face value this particular creation myth when it was only a century or so ago that the last of its prophets was walking among us. A bit difficult unless one is, say, an enterprising non-fiction writer with an imaginative bent, in which case the Mormon creation story might represent catnip more than credibility deficit.

Avi Steinberg, the enterprising author of “The Lost Book of Mormon,” has an interesting back story of his own: one-time yeshiva bocher, Harvard graduate, freelance obituary writer, “accidental” librarian in a Boston prison. At the same time that he was living in Jerusalem and struggling to finish a manuscript documenting his experiences concerning the last – which was published in 2011 as the entertaining “Running the Books” – Steinberg found himself drawn to “The Book of Mormon,” much like a moth to a flame.

“The Lost Book of Mormon” reveals enough about Steinberg for us to understand that at the time, he was somewhat lost himself. He had relationship difficulties, occasionally alluded to but never fully elucidated; there was the existential angst inevitable when one surrenders one’s faith, but then chooses to live among its most vehement adherents. (Steinberg spent part of his childhood in an Orthodox Jerusalem home; sometime after his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, he contrived to lose his faith.) But the main source of his anxiety was the becalmed manuscript, accompanied by the uncertainty that can afflict the people bold enough and presumptuous enough to believe that they have in them a book worth setting free into the world.

Given the circumstances, it isn’t too difficult to appreciate the sense of kinship – some might call it an obsession – that Steinberg developed with Joseph Smith, and which he documents in his book. Both were first-time authors (assuming that we ascribe authorship of “The Book of Mormon” to Smith, rather than divine providence); both found themselves beset by the difficulty of having something important to say to a possibly indifferent audience.

“As a young, struggling writer, I was enthralled by Joseph’s stories, and particularly by his impressive run as an underdog, an underground American writer – a cult writer, you might say.”

From this sprung a project, as much a journey of self-discovery as it was an act of procrastination, anchored by the question: Given the place of Mormonism in the public imagination, why do we, non-subscribers to the faith, know so little about “The Book of Mormon”?

It’s worth pointing out – and I don’t mean this unkindly – that “The Lost Book of Mormon” is much more about Avi Steinberg than it is about Mormons. True, Steinberg does retrace the journey of Mormonism, as documented by Smith, from the Middle East to Middle America. In Jerusalem, he hunts, unsuccessfully, for a copy of “The Book of Mormon.” (His failure was, like so many other things in the city, thanks to an uneasy religious-political compromise; the LDS had promised to refrain from proselytization in Jerusalem, in return receiving permission to build an educational center there.)

He crisscrosses Guatemala in the company of a rowdy, rollicking band of Mormon brethren, visiting the first home of the faith there; he inveigles himself, under a false name (a long story, which even Steinberg seems at a bit of a loss to explain) into the annual Mormon pageant – known to the faithful, simply, as Pageant – in New York State; then finally, he finds himself bonding with an aspiring young writer – quite possibly while under the influence of hallucinogenic substances – in Kansas City, Missouri, AKA The Mormon Garden of Eden.

To see the thing itself

Steinberg tries to frame “The Lost Book of Mormon” as an exploration of Mormonism’s place within American society, led by the journey undertaken by its scriptures. “I wanted to see the thing itself,” Steinberg writes, “to experience the overwhelming idea of it, the kind that compels a person to drop everything, cross continents and oceans, and become something new.”

Within “The Book of Mormon,” Steinberg seems to suggest, lies the very essence of the American sense of independence, self-sufficiency, liberty. “As far as I was concerned, American literature got serious at Hill Cumorah,” he writes: But why don’t other Americans recognize this too?

Try as it does, though, “The Lost Book of Mormon” doesn’t manage to answer this question.

Steinberg follows the Mormon journey from Jerusalem and across the Americas, but what results is less contextual travelogue than a consideration of Steinberg’s responses to these places, to “The Book of Mormon” and to Joseph Smith himself. Even as he gently prods at the basis for the LDS, Steinberg evinces a sneaky admiration for Smith’s obduracy, his earnestness, his certainty of purpose – important qualities, one imagines, if one undertakes to start a new religion from scratch. Or to nurse a book from conception to publication.

It took Joseph Smith four attempts, over as many years – if we are to accept Smith’s self-made mythology at face value – to retrieve the gold tablets; he then devoted significant time, energy, financial resources and powers of persuasion to the task of translating them. (Aside from the testimony of a select group of early acolytes known as the Witnesses, there is no third-party evidence of the existence of the original gold tablets. Once he had finished transcribing them, Smith claimed, Moroni took them back.)

But above and beyond that, there is the experience, the necessity of writing, which Steinberg responds to so strongly. “Happy people don’t write books, just as happy people don’t see angels,” Steinberg observes. “The kind of person who writes a book is the kind of person who feels that something really important is missing or lost or not right with the world, that some story needs to be told, to be preserved.”

He never explicitly underlines the point, but Steinberg seems to be trying to say that he is an unhappy young man; writing, paradoxically, might both make him happy and confirm him in his misery. And history seems to suggest that one could say the same about Smith.

“The Lost Book of Mormon,” one feels, was conceived as an intelligent and original disquisition on Mormonism, anchored by Steinberg’s twin obsessions of writing and proselytization. Unfortunately, it never quite works.

Part of the problem lies with Steinberg’s tone. As he meanders through a strange and at times surreal landscape, he primes the reader for the sly aside and goofy apologetics. But this book is more serious than that, and Steinberg too good a writer to rely solely on these authorial conceits. So when moments of levity occur – and they do, from time to time – they are accompanied by Steinberg’s earnestness, and at times by his sadness.

That the narrative doesn’t work isn’t down to his shortcomings as an author – he is a very good writer – but rather how he chooses to tell the story. Betwixt the story of “The Book of Mormon,” Steinberg’s response to “The Book,” Steinberg’s meditation on what the book meant to him as a budding writer and what he thinks the book should mean to the rest of America, there is at least one narrative thread too many. That he never seems entirely certain whether he is playing for laughs or not muddles matters even more.

All that said, Steinberg makes a strong pitch for elevating “The Book of Mormon” to its rightful place in America’s literary and social imagination. But ultimately, “The Lost Book of Mormon” doesn’t do full justice to this claim.

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv.