At least twice recently I have referred here to my concept of the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon, an admittedly geeky approach to scripture that, nevertheless I find valuable in my study of this particular volume of sacred text, and that informs much of my current understanding (such as it is) of divinity.
But first, the background. Toward the end of my time as a full-time missionary, I decided to major in English at college, and during my first semester back I started taking classes. At the same time, I found myself reading the Book of Mormon for the first time in a while in English.
In so doing, I looked for a way to continue to make scripture study meaningful, so I decided to read the Book of Mormon as I would read literature or academic writing. As a whole, the exercise was a failure, but as I began 1 Nephi chapter 1 I chose to look at this opening chapter as the introduction to the record.
As I read this way, I became convinced of two things: first, that good writing abides by some of the principles I had learned in writing classes my freshman year, particularly the idea of a thesis statement that controls the text and indicates its main ideas, and second, that if I found the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon I would better understand and appreciate what I was reading.
(Side note: I have backed off the first conviction since them, recognizing that not all good writing looks like scholarly prose--and vice versa. But, as will be seen, I stand by the second claim.)
I thought for a while about what a possible main idea for the Book of Mormon might be. The idea of obedience and prosperity is repeated throughout the text, but that sounded too capitalistic for me, and it's not something you encounter in the text until later on. Continuing revelation is a key theme of the book, but that seemed too broad. Even the statement of the book's purpose on the title page felt off, especially as that was penned by Moroni, which seemed like cheating. I needed to see Nephi (or Lehi) saying something early on that set the tone for the rest of the book.
And I found it at the close of the first chapter of the book. Now, 1 Nephi chapter 1 is probably the most commonly read piece of scripture among Latter-day Saints, as we tend to start the Book of Mormon five times before we really commit to finishing a cover-to-cover read. "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents" is familiar to millions of people.
And, to be honest, I had never found much in this chapter. Lehi has a pretty powerful vision, but we don't hear his own words, so it feels a bit removed. And throughout the early chapters, Nephi seems a bit of a braggart (I never liked guys who made a big deal of being big tough guys, so Nephi sounded like the obnoxious jocks from high school at times).
But then I found it. Verse 20, which explains that, after he began preaching, Lehi was threatened with death, ends thusly: ", I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance."
There it is, the theme of the Book of Mormon, and the central tenet of my faith. Like Lehi, we have the choice to testify of the witness of the Spirit that we have received, and, like Lehi, we might not find it going well (this was sort of the theme of my mission). But we find that, as we exercise faith, God's promises of deliverance are fulfilled.
Here's a more deliberate analysis. First, the idea of God's mercy is central to the story of Lehi's descendants, from leaving Jerusalem to crossing the sea to the war chapters to the promise of the restoration of Lehi's descendants to the gospel. We don't deserve ay of the great mercies we encounter in this life, save for the fact that we are on the receiving end of God's great love for us.
The second point that Nephi makes is that God chooses us according to our faith. Throughout the Book of Mormon, the only difference between the righteous and the wicked, the blessed and the cursed, is the exercise of faith. Even the seemingly stable distinction according to bloodlines (Nephi's descendents vs. Laman's) breaks down repeatedly, as one group repents and is converted and the other falls into sin and disobedience. So it is with us. The only thing that makes one person different from another in any significant way is the extent to which he or she acts on faith.
Finally, we find in this verse the outcome, the promise that Nephi finds is true, and which every one of us can find, that God will deliver us. The trope pf Moses and the Exodus recurs several times in the pages of the book, and it serves as a model for what happens to the children of Lehi. Nephi and his followers are able to escape from the violence of their foes. Alma and his converts are freed from their captors. The righteous Nephites are spared from death when the sign of the Savior's birth appears.
But the deliverance is not just physical. Escaping the world, overcoming the natural man, is a key theme throughout the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, I believe the message of the Book of Mormon is that God's mercy is sufficient to deliver us from wickedness (our own tendencies toward the base and low) as we develop and act on faith in Christ.
Sounds like a book worth reading.