Book review: “Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life” by Boyd Petersen

Hugh Nibley is up there on the list of authors that have left a deep impression on me, right next to C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Terryl Givens, Jonathan Sacks, Nicolai Berdyaev, and Abraham Heschel. I discovered Hugh Nibley in one of the edgiest moments on my mission. I discovered that I could access LDS Ensign articles way back into the 1970s from the Church website, and since those are technically official Church publications, I felt there was no harm done to read a few articles during my morning scripture study. I found an extended series there called A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch. Ever since I had discovered that our German Einheitsueberseztung of the Bible contained the apocrypha (and even earlier when reading the entries for apocrypha and pseudopigrapha in the Bible dictionary), I wanted to read any and all ancient texts dealing with or related to the material of the Bible. Hugh Nibley delivered; he would take sections from the book of Enoch and put them right next to sections from the Book of Moses, and some of the connections were astounding. Don’t get me wrong, Hugh Nibley’s hunt for patterns and parallels can go a little overboard, but High Nibley had me convinced that Joseph Smith was intimately familiar with ancient texts.

When I got home from my mission, I quickly began investing any spare money in purchasing each of the tomes in the The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. I got through quite a few, but I think the two that influence me the most were Temple and Cosmos (he practically re-creates the entire temple endowment solely referencing ancient texts without explicitly mentioning the LDS temple ceremony at all) and Approaching Zion (leaving me fully convinced that our covenant to live the Law of Consecration isn’t metaphorical or to be postponed to a later date– we are meant to live it now).

I haven’t spent too much time with Nibley as of late, partly because I found his academic style hard to stick with for more than a single tome, and partly because I began to have a different approach to Mormon doctrine than Nibley. Some of Nibley’s work falls into old-school Mormon apologetics– pulling out archaeology, linguistics, textual analysis all to show “See? Joseph had it right all along!” It’s not that I don’t find value in those things, but perhaps I no longer felt a pressing need to provide such evidences? I no longer feel that my faith is so fragile that I would abandon it is a linguist found evidence the Book of Mormon was false tomorrow. I feel much more secure in my faith, because I am much more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and the moral failings of human beings. To take the words from Neal Rappleye and his essay Boundary Maintenance that Pushes the Boundaries: Scriptural and Theological Insights from Apologetics:

Apologetics is, by definition, a defense of already held beliefs and points of view. As such, it is easy to see apologetics as an obstacle to new understandings of scriptural texts and theological concepts. This can and does happen, and some may even argue that defending a viewpoints inherently obscures or prevents new points of view from being considered… [My purpose is to show that] defending certain tenets of Latter-Day Saint belief involves reinterpretations of scripture and doctrine– and that whatever the merits of any specific reinterpretation may be, this transformative effect is a net positive. Apologetics is at its best not when it is merely defending or providing supportive evidence, but when it can get Latter-Day Saints to rethink their understanding of scriptural narrative and teachings, even as it defends certain fundamental premises.

I’m not saying that Hugh Nibley doesn’t do this– he has certainly made me re-think the temple, the law of consecration, and more. But I am also more open a broader interpretation of revelation than Hugh Nibley (at times) describes– as truth downloaded from heaven. For instance, the model I have found most inspiring to my faith is that described by Terryl Givens:

Smith believed himself to be an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration. But he was also insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations, with an adventuresome mind, prone to speculation and fully comfortable with the trial and error of intellectual effort.

Even Elder David A. Bednar has told us that we overcomplicate and overanalyze what revelation really is. But Nibley defends his turf pretty strongly:

[This] Joseph picks up ideas like a thieving magpie, throwing them together haphazardly, and sells them from the pulpit. He is therefore not the man whose teachings are so well-knit and perfectly logical that they have never had to undergo the slightest change or alteration during a century in which every other church in Christendom has continually revamped its doctrines.

To be fair, this was Hugh writing a critique of Fawn Brodie’s unflattering biography of Joseph No Man Knows My History. Who knows? Hugh may have agreed with Givens’ description of Joseph’s approach to revelation. He seems to have been much more laid back when he began writing about the Book of Abraham, when it was clear Joseph wasn’t directly translating an ancient text.

I’m this far into a book review, and I have barely mentioned the text I am reviewing! Peterson’s biography Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life is beautifully executed. Hugh Nibley to me is so inspiring, because he isn’t an institutional Mormon by any means. While he is a staunch defender of the prophet Joseph, he is also a social critic that pulls some really strong punches. This didn’t make him any less faithful. One of my favorite moments is his commencement speech where he takes aim at the managerial approaches infiltrating Church culture:

The rise of management always marks the decline, alas, of culture. If the management does not go for Bach, very well, there will be no Bach in the meeting. If the management favors vile sentimental doggerel verse extolling the qualities that make for success, young people everywhere will be spouting long trade-journal jingles from the stand. If the management’s taste in art is what will sell—trite, insipid, folksy kitsch—that is what we will get. If management finds maudlin, saccharine commercials appealing, that is what the public will get. If management must reflect the corporate image in tasteless, trendy new buildings, down come the fine old pioneer monuments.

Hugh, like other faithful academics Henry Eyring, Lowell Bennion, and Eugene England, remained fully committed to the gospel while not remaining uncritical of it. These are individuals after which I model my own faith. The biography leaves me saying with Brigham Young Away with stereotyped Mormons! and Hugh Nibley was definitely not a stereotyped Mormon.

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