A Masterpiece? Alma 36
by Christian Y. Cardall
A recent comment in which John F. playfully proclaimed himself “the chiasmus Nazi” renewed my curiosity about the subject. Some, like John F., are unapologetic (forgive the anti-pun) about chiasmus as evidence for ancient origins; other interested students are more nuanced in their claims. (The brilliant doggerel in the first link of the preceding sentence, so apropos to the thread in which it appeared, is not to be missed. I wish I knew the identity of its true author so I could offer well-deserved recognition.) John’s comment provoked me to read both “Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm” by Earl M. Wunderli in the latest issue of Dialogue, and “A Masterpiece: Alma 36” by John W. Welch in the FARMS compilation Rediscovering the Book of Mormon. Here, in addition to mentioning some questions raised by Wunderli, I offer my own half-baked speculation as to how inverted parallel structure with significant ties to the meaning of the text could arise without an author’s conscious intent.
A number of considerations may induce doubt as to whether Alma 36 is an objectively verifiable, purposeful, carefully crafted masterwork of chiasmus. Differences in Welch’s chiastic parsings over time and differences between the chiastic structurings perceived by different authors undermine the objectivity of its alleged presence. In a couple of instances the chiastic structure is imperfect, with no apparent subsidiary purpose for the deviations; this is implicitly admitted in Welch’s graphical constructions, but goes uncommented in his brief accompanying commentary. Some claimed pairings exhibit nontrivial imbalance. Selectivity seems to be an important question: some words designated as key to the chiastic structure occur in other places, but are not given much weight as evidence against a tight chiastic construction. Another manifestation of potential selectivity is that some important ideas seem not play a role in the chiastic structure—a structure that relies in part on seemingly less-significant words.
Having noted these cautions against the manifest presence of tight crafting, there nevertheless seems to be an overall sense of inverse parallel structure—more than Wunderli seems to credit—but I’m not sure it’s obviously purposeful. John F.’s elite Oxford breeding leads him to believe that
…intricate literary forms that combine both substance and form into the structure of a passage so that because of the substance the form conveys its meaning even more strongly simply do not happen unconsciously.I don’t know how John’s Oxford colleagues feel about Alma 36, but I offer two suggestions as to how this very thing could happen unconsciously—one specific to Alma 36, and the second more generally applicable.
For one thing, Welch seems to think that Alma made an astutely appropriate æsthetic choice in selecting the chiastic form for a conversion story centered on the Savior, but this argument can be turned on its head: the spontaneous narration of pre-conversion conditions, a conversion to Christ, and the contrasting post-conversion aftermath could quite naturally take on an unconsciously inverse parallel form like that in Alma 36.
More generally, and by way of explaining some detailed features, in laying out a linked chain of ideas it could be somewhat natural for the human mind to ‘drill down’ into the argument in one direction, and then follow the same logical chain back out again. This may be particularly so for (originally) oral texts, where I get the sense most chiasms originate. (Note in particular the oral origin of Alma 36, either with Alma talking with his son or Joseph dictating his imagination of this scene. Are we to think that Alma carefully crafted a written masterpiece for the occasion of parting counsel to his sons? And moreover, that he then read it to his first son, but not to his other two sons?) To begin and end with the same logical point is of course naturally pleasing, and may even be the explicit intent of the orator/author. However, the overall inverse parallel structure might not necessarily represent artistic purpose, but instead constitute a window into the orator’s mind working its way back on the fly—not by fixed memorization or deliberate composition, but by active (and sometimes meandering and imprecise) real-time logical processing back to the starting point. (N.B.: work on this post last night was interrupted by putting our girls to bed, during which our three-year-old uttered a spontaneous elementary inverse parallelism: “Tuck me in, mommy, tuck me in!”)
The possibility of ambiguity and selectivity in the attempted extraction of a tight and precise chiastic masterpiece, together with a possible cognitive explanation of the spontaneous generation of an inverse parallel structure, constitute sufficient reasons to not consider Alma 36 as incontrovertible objective evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity; but the content, as opposed to the form, of this very chapter yields an even more important reason for believers to not lean on it heavily:
And I would not that ye think that I know of myself—not of the temporal but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind but of God. Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things.This suggests a scriptural claim that should give us pause: no objective evidence—the kind demonstrable by secular arguments, and available even to carnal minds—could ever yield conviction of the truths important to Alma and other believers. When presented with claims to the contrary, beware: if Alma’s assertion about the nature of his knowledge is to be believed, such ‘evidences’ are almost certainly not as incontrovertible as they are occasionally made out to be.