Since it was first published in 1830, the Book of Mormon has drawn both praise and scorn from those with a vested interest in promoting it as either legitimate ancient scripture or a brilliant fraud.
But a scholarly panel discussion scheduled Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Salt Lake City Library auditorium will examine the book from a variety of secular perspectives including as a piece of "folk literature."
"Rediscovering the American Bible: An Invitation to Share the Book of Mormon from New Perspectives" seeks to open a "dialogue of honest inquiry and good will," according to Mark Thomas, one of the event's organizers and a faculty member at Brigham Young University.
Panelists joining Thomas include Phyllis Tickle, noted Episcopal author and Publisher's Weekly religion editor; Robert Price, a New Testament scholar and member of the "Jesus Seminar"; Robert Rees, former editor of "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought"; and Richard Bushman, LDS historian and author of the recently released book, "Joseph Smith: Rough Rolling Stone."
Thomas said the event grew out of discussions among several of the scholars who have come together each summer the past four years as the Book of Mormon Round Table, which is seeking to compile and edit several scholarly papers to be published in book form, explaining the book to an educated audience.
The result is planned as "an introductory text that provides an eclectic approach" to the book, "utilizing the tools that one would use to interpret any text well: historical criticism, textual criticism and literary criticism, among others."
Thomas said the forum is open to anyone "who wants to have a discussion in good faith," but won't be an arena for bashing the book or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
To date, the book "has been used almost exclusively as a rite of passage into Mormonism. Essentially, the book has been buried by consensus and is still a buried text" when it comes to an wide public understanding of it, he said.
The panel — which is sponsored by the Center for Documentary Arts/The Leonardo — doesn't seek to defend the antiquity of the book, but to examine whether it is worth reading "and why or why not? The fact that you label it 'ancient' doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth reading," he said.
"It seems to me the fundamental issue about the Book of Mormon is that it has the possibility of being a life-changing book. Why do we have to decide exactly where it came from before you can read it? Some people think 'You've got to believe it's ancient or we're not talking to you.' I disagree with that."
Thomas believes in the past few years, "non-Mormons have become better interpreters of the text than Mormons. Sometimes we're too literal and earnest about it."
Tickle said the discussion "shifts some of the emphasis away from the Book of Mormon just as a sacred text and opens up the possibility of it being fine literature."
The book is not only sacred to some 12 million people worldwide, but she sees it as "literarily and aesthetically important, and certainly culturally important. It's probably the best single window in terms of sacred literature of the American religious sensibility in the 19th century," when a potpourri of new religious movements were brewing in New England.
From that perspective, "it's the clearest, most accessible explication or example of what that upheaval was all about. If you want to take it as just sacred literature, you can. Or if you want to see it sociologically as an expression of where Americans were 150 years ago, you can do that as well. It becomes an invaluable scholarly tool."
"New" scripture that is unfamiliar to the majority always goes through a process of public scrutiny, she said. "Americans are just now getting to the notion that the Koran might be holy writ — at least some fairly respectable people see it that way, that something in there is universally true."
She believes the same may be said at some point about the Book of Mormon. "I'm hearing that more now in urban settings and lectures — they will put it in the same sentence with the Bhagavad Gita or other (religious) literature."
As Mormonism continues to gain members, prominent Latter-day Saints have also prompted interest in a cultural conversation about the book, she said.
"There's a tipping point — and that is not just the number (of Latter-day Saints). It is things like an Orrin Hatch, people like Marriott, who puts a Book of Mormon in every hotel bedroom, right next to the Gideon bible. After a few million of us spend a few million nights in Marriotts with that book in the drawer, some of us begin to read."