A note on my Reading Nephi series and scriptural interpretation generally

It’s hard for us, as humans, to pry apart the empirical from the normative—and for good reasons. Facts don’t come to us bare of value. Especially with regard to those facts that we appreciate and evaluate in existential contexts (i.e., contexts related to our identity and overall worldview), they always already appear normatively laden (i.e., as meaning something). At least as a pragmatic matter, bare facts are secondary abstractions (whatever metaphysical status we ultimately attribute to them). Nephi certainly saw Laman & Co. as acting in ways that had specific meaning and bearing, and I’m convinced that he saw his written record as likewise bearing an unavoidable upshot (this gets noted briefly in chapter 6 and becomes abundantly clear when we get to II Nephi 25).

Similarly, we (all) do the same thing when we read commentary on the scriptures. Textual artifacts don’t simply get picked out—rather, the ways in which we pick combines with the social context in which we’re picking, and the picked artifacts’ display already has meaning (however neutral the language doing the displaying). In a public context like Times and Seasons, there are different, sometimes competing contexts, approaches to, and projects with regard to the scriptures. Consequently, a narrative that is candid about textual details is inevitably going to appear at least somewhat differently to different readers. [FN 1]

For example, it’s an empirical fact of the text that Nephi only discusses Laman & Co. in stories that show them manifesting basic failures (failures of faith if nothing else). In my most recent Reading Nephi post I point this out, along with two possibilities: either Nephi selected only those stories where Laman, et al did in fact fail, or else Nephi made selections on some other criterion, but then in relating the stories always portrayed Laman in a bad light. Pointing this out—displaying this textual artifact—can look to some (with specific backgrounds and experiences and commitments) an awful lot like I’m among those sophisticates who perversely titillate themselves by reading against the grain or even intentionally seek to undermine faith. Such folks undoubtedly exist, though I suspect they’re much more rare than the frequency with which they’re pointed at makes it seem. Regardless, I’m not part of that crowd.

Instead, I hope that not only my explicit statements (which this project and its readers continually demand that I make) but also the body of these posts combine to manifest something quite different. I find Nephi to be among the most compelling figures in all of scripture. Far from the cartoonish picture we often see (in both faith promoting materials as well as in the crowd of sneering sophisticates), Nephi is compelling in large part because of his complexity. Here is a prophet of God whose humanity is loud and clear, who is inextricably involved in a political as well as a theological (not to mention a survival!) campaign, whose personal relationships are difficult and messy, who offers us a powerful ethic that is often in tension with the details of the historical narrative—all of which shines through his account. I find his writings challenging but also plausible and massively attractive in large part precisely because they’re not a cartoonish, 2-dimensional, dime-back novel. In this sense, I find him compelling for similar reasons that I find Joseph and Brigham compelling.

Like everyone else, I’m reading and writing here in a given context, with a background ethic and various personal commitments (which I consider to be faithful). That ethic includes a belief that—whatever Nephi’s designs—God intends for me to plumb the full depths of the record and not merely repeat ad nauseum a traditional, superficial, catechism. I’m moved by Thomas S. Monson’s final General Conference plea, which does not tell us to continually read the Book of Mormon, but to study it [FN2]. I can’t imagine doing so productively outside of bringing all of my might, mind, and strength to the reading. This includes my educational background and tools and personal experiences.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, perhaps the most important reason to me for doing this is not an abstract notion of “getting at the truth;” heaven forbid, it’s not because of a political agenda; and God as my witness, it’s not a perverse delight in getting others to question their understanding. It’s because slowly reading the full text in as painstaking and comprehensive a way as possible contributes far more to my spiritual growth, health, and flourishing than do other ways of reading. In fact, given the “modern” worldview that impinges on all of us today, I find this not only a more plausible way of reading the scriptures, but far more likely to promote faith than other readings—in particular, I think it’s better than any reading that demands an a priori image of Nephi and his message [FN3]. I suspect this is true for most readers today (though clearly, within this general approach, there will be room for legitimate disagreement on conclusions). I also benefit immensely from the careful insights of other readers.

This is why I’ve been offering up a transparent image of one of my latest readings of Nephi.

 

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  1. Tangentially: this is also why reading facts can be so gosh darn difficult—for example, when we learn that Joseph simply did not open up the Golden Plates and trace the lines of text with his finger, the way that our videos and various works of art traditionally depict him as doing while in the act of translation. On the outside, it’s hard to see why Joseph miraculously translating with his head buried in a hat next to the original text is any more shocking or scandalous than Joseph magically reading ancient reformed Egyptian off of metal plates he dug up on a hillside in New York. Both are way outside of our normal experience. But one of these contradicts a psychological image that’s been developed and calcified over years (and even generations!). Something similar happens with prophets. Nephi has some fairly transparent political motives and moves in this text, even if these are not his primary aim. It’s easy, especially in the church’s cultural context to simply miss this fact. Being confronted with it can be uncomfortable, especially if this picture is new and different than our paradigmatic image of a prophet.
  2. I’m actually very much in favor of ritualistic readings of the scriptures; though I don’t think that such readings are on their own adequate to our human complexity; we also need mindful readings.
  3. Though this gets tricky. I do think that reading Nephi as a prophet is different than reading while withholding judgment on his prophethood.

10 comments for “A note on my Reading Nephi series and scriptural interpretation generally

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    November 13, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    James Olsen, I apologize if I have inferred any lack of faith on your part in my comments. I deconstruct the Book of Mormon as I do any text, except, I have a personal faith stake in my deconstruction of this text, as well as personal relationship stakes, as you can understand. I’m a big boy now, and I can handle a differing pov without assuming it has hostile intent.

  2. ji
    November 13, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    I applaud your efforts, but still advise caution. For example, you note that Nephi’s stories involving Laman and Lemuel always paint them in a bad light — and then, you allow only two possibilities for this — thus, you risk going beyond merely deconstructing and actually reconstructing (even implicitly). Are there not other possibilities? Here’s one: Nephi’s record extolled Laman’s and Lemuel’s virtues, but Mormon’s abridgement washed it out (the Book of Mormon is an abridgement, and something was left out). That possibility would wholly undo your reconstruction. So I don’t mind deconstructing, but I am concerned about reconstructing. Nephi glories in plainness — I do, too. Can you deconstruct without explicitly or implicitly reconstructing? The fact is, we simply don’t know why there is little favorable mention of Laman and Lemuel.

    You might not be one of those who portrays Nephi as an unrighteous younger brother, but those who do will eagerly seize your narrative for their work of undermining faith. So even when the deconstructing is done by faithful people, I am still concerned for this reason (and because of the implicit reconstruction that almost always occurs, almost always with a sophisticated purpose of undermining faith). By the way, I am also troubled when people reconstruct in efforts to build faith — I’m equal opportunity when in comes in resisting those who add to the record based on their own suppositions.

    All that said, I agree that there is little favorable treatment of Laman and Lemuel in the record.

  3. Jerry Schmidt
    November 13, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    The Book of Mormon is a narrative, a text, and like any text its reconstruction can be as personally revelatory as its deconstruction. I see the need for two or more witnesses as fully cognizant of the subjectivity of each witness. In the reconstruction of the overall event each witness will provide an angle that when combined with the others will give an approximation that comes closest to the actual event.

    Seeing Nephi as bitter is valid. Seeing Nephi as loyal is valid. Seeing Laman as willfully ignorant is valid. Seeing Laman as trying to do what he sees is just is valid. Humans are this complex, and to effectively liken the scriptures unto us, we need to see humans that resemble us, complex, inconsistent, simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic.

  4. Brian
    November 13, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    Ji, I believe you are mistaken that Mormon abridged the text in question. He abridged other parts, but not the first few books, as we learn from Words of Mormon. Different plates.

  5. Clark
    November 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    JI, I agree that one can’t deconstruct without doing some sort of reconstruction. Ideally what you’re looking for with a deconstruction reading is what is marginalized yet there in the text in some way. That is you bring to light what is passed over and forgotten.

    I’d say there are always multiple ways to read the text and what these sorts of readings ought do is raise questions. It’s rather rare they can answer them nor are they the only way to read the text.

  6. ji
    November 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    Brian, you might be right…

  7. ji
    November 14, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    Clark,

    I’m all in favor of careful readings that bring to light what might be otherwise be passed over — and I’m all in favor of careful readings that consider learnings from other sources. But I am concerned about readings (and reconstructions) that invent new narrative or encourage speculations or distractions — or raising questions for the sake of raising questions. And again, my concern exists on both sides, those that do it to weaken faith and those that do it to strengthen or supplement faith.

    I know others do it, and I don’t want to ban them — to each his or her own — but we’re talking about different approaches, and I thought I would share my thoughts.

  8. Clark
    November 15, 2017 at 11:01 am

    But JI, every reading is speculative. Just because it’s a different set of speculations than you’re used to doesn’t mean we get to label one speculative and one not. That’s the point.

  9. ji
    November 15, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    A careful reading need not be speculative at all. Indeed, a careful reading should separate the what-is-actually-written from what-I-thought-was-there from what-I-read-into-it.

  10. Clark Goble
    November 16, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Even careful readings are speculative because the narrator you are reading is not infallible. Thus you are speculating about what one should or shouldn’t be suspicious about and where they are accurate. It helps if you have multiple accounts by people with very disparate views but even then there’s a strong speculative element. This is just inherent to hermeneutics and is unavoidable.

Charitable Comments Welcome