Before moving to Texas for college, my parents spent their youth in a small Louisianan town. My mother comes from Mormon ancestry (her great grandfather Nathaniel Pope Muse donated the land for the first LDS meetinghouse in Louisiana and was called as the Fisher Branch President), while my father comes from a Southern Baptist background. Both in dating and marriage, my father would accompany my mother to her sacrament meetings (his “penance” as he calls it). My dad’s first encounter with Mormon missionaries was a memorable one: the elder accidentally ripped the door handle off my father’s car and began to nervously laugh. This first impression virtually defined his relationship with missionaries until his eventual baptism years later. Without even being challenged to do so, my father took it upon himself to read the Book of Mormon cover to cover. After completing it a couple weeks later, the missionaries inquired as to what his thoughts were about their beloved book. “It was a good novel,” he answered. As my father describes it, the excitement drained from their faces at this unexpected and unwelcome answer.
The Mormon concept of the Godhead suggests that the attributes of divinity arise out of the unified, loving relationship between the three distinct members. Human beings are invited to join this relationship and become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). In essence, divinity is a social matter; the apotheosis of prosocial behavior. This is embodied in the doctrines of Zion and eternal marriage. Thus, increasing social and emotional intelligence should be a major goal of Mormon life. General Authorities consistently implore members to study and gain insights from the scriptures, with particular attention being given to the Book of Mormon by the likes of Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley. There are numerous ways a reader can approach the Book of Mormon (or any scripture). Some readers seek for evidence of Mesoamerican culture and/or 19th-century American influence within the text. Others use it as a kind of reference tool for topical research or devotional preparation. More recent studies take a literary or typological approach. Yet, many members of the LDS Church read the Book of Mormon narrative as they would any other. The sacred text becomes, as my father put it, “a good novel” (or at least an obligatory one). Grant Hardy warns that there are “problems with reading the Book of Mormon as a novel” due to its “multiple narrative levels,” “intricate organization, and extensive intratextual phrasal allusions and borrowings.” Hardy admits that “none of this is foreign to fiction,” but seems to feel that a novel-like reading of the book would diminish the “literary power and religious vision that make it so convincing to Latter-day Saints.” In my view, Hardy is absolutely correct. Without understanding cultural and historical context or an appreciation for the multiple layers the book has to offer, a casual, straightforward read is sure to miss much of the depth and beauty it has to offer. Yet, what benefits can readers still glean from reading the Book of Mormon like “a good novel”? Fortunately for general readers of the Book of Mormon, modern psychological research has uncovered several benefits to such an approach.
After measuring whether participants read predominantly fiction or non-fiction, one group of researchers provided two tests of social ability. One test used photos of people’s eyes and had participants attempt to assess the mental state of the photographed persons based on eyes alone (i.e. “Mind in the Eyes” test). The second test involved 15 video clips of unscripted interactions between two or more individuals (i.e. Interpersonal Perception Test). Following each clip, a multiple-choice question regarding the clip was presented. Each question had a correct answer (e.g. “Who is the child of the two adults?”), yet the answer was not explicitly revealed in the clip. Participants had to pay attention to non-verbal cues in order to discover it. The results found that fiction readers performed substantially better on the Mind in the Eyes test and slightly better on the Interpersonal Perception Test. Fiction readers also had high marks on self-reported empathy scores. “The ability or tendency to place oneself within the fictional world of a story thus appears to be positively associated with both task-based and self-report measures of empathy or theory-of-mind.”
Another study had participants in one control group read a fictional short story, while another group read a non-fiction version that matched the former in information, length, difficulty, and interest. Those who read the fictional account experienced significantly greater change in personality traits and emotion. A follow-up study tested individuals for levels of avoidant attachment. Emotional and cognitive detachment as a psychological defense against painful emotions is “accompanied by an increased sympathetic nervous system reactivity, which is associated with detrimental long-term health outcomes. Given that about 25% of adults identify themselves as avoidantly attached, discovering ways to reduce avoidance of emotion is important.” As before, participants were given a fictional (Art condition) and non-fiction (Control condition) version of a story to read. Those high in avoidance “experienced significantly greater Emotion Change in the Art condition than in the Control condition.” Both studies indicated that the fiction readers (even avoidantly attached ones) were able to empathize with the story’s characters, leading to measurable changes in personality and emotion.
Fictional narratives act as social simulations, allowing readers to experience different emotions and explore the contexts in which these emotions take place. Just as mathematics enable “a mode of thinking about the physical world that is both more abstract and more generalizable than intuitive everyday thinking,” so “narrative clarifies understandings of certain generalizable principles that underlie an important aspect of human experience, namely intended human action.” Exploring one’s emotions in a fictional social world can help uncover personal truths, increase emotional self-awareness, and develop proper self-regulation. Some research has even shown reading to reduce stress levels by 68 percent, outdoing other activities like listening to music or taking a walk. This is important given the fact that stress depletes willpower, thus decreasing the ability to regulate one’s emotions and decisions.
The Book of Mormon is an epic masterpiece. At least one scholar has compared its narrative complexity to that of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This is not to suggest, though, that the Book of Mormon is a piece of fiction. Whether it is or not is beyond the scope of this post. However, by reading it as if it were, Mormon and non-Mormon readers alike can reap the benefits. For Mormons striving to establish Zion, immersing themselves in the world of the Nephites will help cultivate the necessary traits to bring it about. Readers can connect with Lehi’s family drama, contemplate the social and political changes during Alma’s ministry, and grieve with the war-torn Mormon and Moroni. In doing so, they will better themselves as individuals.
Though it may be much more, my father was right: the Book of Mormon is “a good novel.”
 Lois Muse Hendricks, “History of the Muse Family,” manuscript in possession of the author; Carol Ann Wagley Burnam, “From Red Rock to Denham Springs,” Ensign (April 1983): https://www.lds.org/ensign/1983/04/from-red-rock-to-denham-springs?lang=eng
 See Blake T. Ostler, “Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” Element: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology 1:1 (Spring 2005): http://www.smpt.org/docs/ostler_element1-1.html
 On the subject of emotional and social intelligence, see the work of psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman.
 See Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon–Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign (Nov. 1986): https://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/11/the-book-of-mormon-keystone-of-our-religion?lang=eng; Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Testimony Vibrant and True,” Ensign (Aug. 2005): https://www.lds.org/ensign/2005/08/a-testimony-vibrant-and-true?lang=eng. See also Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
 Specifically Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and Joseph M. Spencer, An Other Testament: On Typology (Salem, OR: Salt Press, 2012).
 For an overview of the research, see Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, “Effects of Reading on Knowledge, Social Abilities, and Selfhood,” Directions in Empirical Studies in Literature: In Honor of Willie van Peer, eds. S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova, J. Auracher (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008); Keith Oatley, “The Science of Fiction,” The New Scientist 25 (June 2008): 42-43; Keith Oatley, “Changing Our Minds,” Greater Good 5:3 (Winter 2009): http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/chaning_our_minds/
 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsh, Jennifer dela Paz, Jordan B. Peterson, “Bookworms versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds,” Journal of Research in Personality 40 (2006): 694-712.
 Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, Jordan B. Peterson, “Defenseless Against Art? Impact of Reading Fiction on Emotion in Avoidantly Attached Individuals,” Journal of Research in Personality 43 (2009): 14-17.
 “Reading ‘Can Help Reduce Stress’,” The Telegraph (March 30, 2009): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html
 Daniel C. Peterson, “Evidences of the Book of Mormon,” Transcript: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=1