The two fundamentals of Mormon scripture reading

There are, I think, only two fundamental requirements that a Mormon reading of scripture must fulfill.

First, it must accept that even from their different perspectives, scriptural texts all describe the same basic reality. There is a God who exists outside of human imagination, and the scriptures have been generated through his interaction with human beings. And beyond that, the writings of each prophet and each book of scripture have resulted from interactions with the same God. Despite human frailty, cultural differences, and the limits of textual transmission and communication, all scriptural texts point to the same supernatural reality. This basic assumption justifies attempts to harmonize the gospels, or to read the Hebrew scriptures via Christian scripture as the Old Testament, or to read Paul through Alma. Perhaps all the prophets are like the proverbial blind men pawing at an elephant: but the elephant is really there, and they are all pawing at the same elephant.

I don’t think this point is particularly controversial. There are certainly other valid and useful ways to read scriptural texts that yield interesting insights: teasing out the various Isaiahs, for example, or reading the gospels as the fictionalized posthumous deification of an itinerant Palestinian preacher, if that’s your thing. You just have to understand that when doing so, you’re not likely to make statements about scripture that are relevant to Mormon devotional practice. Some people are thirsty for milk, others are hungry for meat, and you are offering them small, intricately carved statues made of granite. Statues have their uses, but they are not the first thing people reach for when they’re hungry or thirsty.

The second fundamental requirement of a Mormon reading of scripture is that it reads scripture from the inside. That is, we treat the text as being fundamentally and inseparably about us: The Creation is about the world we live in, the Fall describes the inheritance of every human being, the covenant of Abraham is still operative, prophecy continues to be spoken, the Atonement was for our sake, Nephi and Moroni saw our day, and we are on a path toward Judgment and Resurrection. We read scripture not as disinterested observers, but as participants in its internal narrative.

Again, there are many interesting statements that can be made about scripture from the outside: how the text came to take its present form, for example, or how it relates to the history and cultural practices of various Near Eastern peoples of a long-past age. I find this kind of work fascinating—but it can’t answer the “so what” question posed by an irritable Sunday School student (as Mormons, we are not dependent on an infallible or original text for our authority and doctrine). A pioneer trek re-enactment may be methodologically suspect as historical practice, but it represents an inside reading of Exodus in a way that studying a subjugated people’s fantasies of former national glory does not. The problem with the Documentary Hypothesis for Mormonism is not that it somehow threatens Mormon beliefs, but that it answers questions that Mormonism does not particularly care about. As much as I enjoy textual criticism, it’s hard to justify spending much of our limited time for communal worship and devotion on it.

These two planks of scriptural reading are not unique to Mormonism, as they largely follow how the New Testament reads the Old Testament; it is also how the authors of the gospels present Jesus reading the Torah. My aim is also not to limit what Mormons do with scripture or prescribe how Mormons must read, but to describe norms that are strongly operative among Mormons as a community of devotional readers. These two fundamentals are by themselves not sufficient for a Mormon reading of scripture, but they are necessary for anything that would be. Our understanding of scripture may still consist of blind grasping at an elephant: but the elephant is really there, and we are grasping at the elephant from the inside.

13 comments for “The two fundamentals of Mormon scripture reading

  1. Ryan
    January 25, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    Genuinely interested here. What questions do the DH answer that Mormonism doesn’t care about?

    Or are you just saying that a prerequisite for reading scripture in a Mormon way is that God really exists, and the DH is only really a secular explanation of how the OT came to be – which doesn’t address the reality of God – so it isn’t really of interest to Mormonism.

  2. January 25, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    “norms that are strongly operative” — I think this is right, and find it a useful exposition.

    At a next level — not to matched against “same basic reality” and “from the inside” — I think there is some idea of faithful or honest or sincere transmission. That when a vision is being described what we get is genuine. Not perfect, acknowledged to be subject to human frailty and interpretative filters, but an honest attempt at portraying what the prophet saw or said. Readings that suggest a political or polemical or rationalizing purpose in the narrator are generally not welcome. [But maybe this is implicit in or inseparable from reading “fundamentally and inseparably about us.”]

  3. Ardis
    January 25, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    These two fundamentals are by themselves not sufficient for a Mormon reading of scripture, but they are necessary for anything that would be.

    This, I think, is the real heart of your post. I have a lot of smart friends who are interested in discussing the ins and outs of a lot of smart angles. I enjoy that, too. But sometimes it’s done in a way that excludes, even smirks at, the two fundamentals you describe. A Sunday School teacher who devotes class after class to the DH or to the meaning of this or that Hebrew term or other to the exclusion of the fundamental is not filling his calling, IMO.

    On the other hand, these fundamentals alone “are not sufficient” — that I very much agree with, too. There’s so much more to be learned in a devotional sense by deepening, enriching scholarly studies. Most of us (me, foremost) can’t grasp them on our own because we don’t have the necessary background, but when they’re pointed out to us, the scriptures come alive in a new and often even more devotional way. Each of us can grasp after the elephant on our own, but we’ll never understand the full beast unless we’re willing to hear what the man who’s pulling the tail can add to what is understood by the men patting the side or hanging on the trunk.

  4. Clark
    January 25, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    Jonathan fantastic post with a lot of things I’d never considered before. I really like your statue vs. meat/milk analogy.

    Ryan, I can’t speak for Jonathan but I’d say the Documentary Hypothesis and most authorship questions end up being about the history of the text but rarely it’s content. So for a Mormon the issue isn’t whether some verse of Genesis was written 200 BC or by Moses but whether it’s true. That is the real question is the texts meaning in its final form.

    Now I part ways somewhat with this view. I think that because of its textual history (alluded to by Nephi) the Old Testament is suspect in a way that’s problematic. So I think it’s harder with the Old Testament text, as opposed to say the D&C, to say that because it says something it’s true. For instance I’ve no idea if the genocide commanded in Joshua really happened or if it did was really commanded by God. There are pretty solid reasons to be suspect. However I’m really sure that someone appealing to that scripture to justify mass killing in war is on pretty shaky ground. It’s that place for a ground for practice that I think the Documentary Hypothesis undermines. Which is also why its controversial since some people don’t like scripture that isn’t clear on what’s right or wrong. To my mind that’s why the Book of Mormon, D&C and modern prophets are all so important. Unlike say Protestants we aren’t left just figuring things out from a text.

  5. Jerry Schmidt
    January 25, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    If y’all are expecting any disagreements from me, so far I have to disappoint ya. All joking aside, I”m not sure I’m in a position to tell others how to read scriptures any more than the OP attempts to.

    To me, the OP just identifies expectations most LDS members bring to someone else’s” reading” of the scriptures. The one response I personally tire of is not differing views but ad hominem dismissal. As if any conversation of a scriptutal text must fit a certain format or be automatically false.

  6. January 26, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the comments.

    Ryan, I think it’s safe to say that Mormon devotional reading is mostly interested in how different parts of the text work together and doesn’t have much interest in separating parts of the text from each other. So what verses are J, and which are P, and what may have motivated the post-exilic redactors are unlikely to generate a lot of devotional interest. I think your second point also has it right: a completely naturalistic approach is going to talk past Mormon devotional reading. I get impatient with suggestions that naturalistic textual study is the “meat,” the “real truth” that we should be spending our time on in Gospel Doctrine. It’s fascinating and valuable work in its own right, but it’s not going to help most people be better spouses or neighbors or primary teachers.

    Christian, I suspect you’re right, and it’s tricky to find the right balance. On the one hand, the Book of Mormon seems to invite some obvious questions about, say, the Mulekites and how they ended up incorporated into the Nephite nation. On the other hand, there’s a naive ethic of suspicion that says, Nephi was just a murderer and Moroni was a colonialist, so we must reject all that these prophets taught. That approach won’t get much traction in Sunday School, plus I think that kind of critique is simply the wrong way to approach scripture.

    Ardis, thanks, I think I’d agree with that. Scholarly work can be full of interesting and useful insights, and there can even be a time for inserting those insights into a Sunday lesson.

    Clark, razing cities is one of those areas where appealing to post-exilic redactors can be a useful crutch. I just can’t get behind divinely-sanctioned genocide, and it can be useful to say, No, that’s just post-exilic fantasizing. It’s a crutch, but if that’s what it takes to keep you going, keep the crutch. (I think the proper response is not to reject anything Joshua teaches, but instead to say: This principle was so important that a redactor emphasized it with a scene of bloody slaughter; so let’s just accept the principle without needing the slaughter to convince us.)

    Jerry, there are true and false (and good and better and less good) readings of scripture. There are also devotionally relevant and and irrelevant readings. The trick is learning to avoid calling something false just because it’s irrelevant, or calling something devotionally relevant just because it’s true.

  7. January 29, 2018 at 12:44 am

    Something that I notice as a recurring theme in the bloggernacle is that someone will make a great post, and someone will comment on how they wish that Sunday School was like the post (intelligence, informative, etc). Then there’s a little debate about that, and if most of the church membership would respond well to it. So they propose that Gospel Doctrine should be split in two. One class is called “basic” and is what it is today, and the new class can be called “Gospel Doctrine Advanced.” It wouldn’t work of course, because who wouldn’t want to be in the “advanced” class.
    But after reading this I think that one could be called “Devotional” and the other “non-Devotional.” The idea being that if you want the lesson to liken the scripture to you, and have a spiritual recharge, go to the Devotional class. But if you want to be informed and applying the lesson to their lives is left up to the student, they can go to the non-Devotional class. Perhaps most wards wouldn’t have a non-Devotional class. I dunno. But it’s better than “basic” and “advanced.”

  8. kevinf
    January 31, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    The OP is valid in expressing that these two fundamentals are essential. However, I can’t dismiss a close reading or textual analysis of the scriptures as non-devotional. My testimony of the Book of Mormon has truly been enhanced by learning how to do a close reading of the text, and asking questions and seeking understanding of the context. I’m now partway through David Bokovoy’s new book on the Old Testament and have found it to really help me appreciate what is really in the Hebrew Bible, and why. Your mileage may vary, but for me there is great value in enhancing my basic engagement with the scriptures by learning these things.

  9. Clark Goble
    January 31, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    Jader while in some wards that might work, I suspect in most wards it simply wouldn’t based upon who’s available to teach the class. I’d add that I think the point of Sunday School is to teach the gospel, not the trappings the message is in – as fascinating as I find that. That seems more appropriate for Institute classes or home study.

    Kevin, I’m very sympathetic to there not being a clear division between devotional and non-devotional. If nothing else, just getting people interested enough to read the scriptures is significant. Although I wonder how many people are actually interested in these sorts of readings. My experience is that even among college kids most aren’t, let alone regular people.

  10. Martin James
    February 2, 2018 at 8:52 am

    You say you are describing norms, but I wonder if there isn’t some question begging in that your definition of “Mormon” is likely based on who follows the norms you are saying are characteristic of Mormons. Here is an example, are all members of record of the church Mormon? Certainly that is the presumption of the LDS church in defining membership. So what role in your description of norms is based on the majority of Mormons that don’t go to Sunday school at all?
    I think what you say isn’t controversial is extremely controversial if you extend the definition of Mormon either through time, or across religious observance.

  11. Martin James
    February 2, 2018 at 9:08 am

    I also think it is the case that the fundamental principles you describe are in some ways contradictory. Here is an example. Let’s say someone proposed in HP group based on principle 1 that we should send out a search party to find the lost 10 tribes. After all, they are really out there based on principle 1. What norms would apply to this search? How would we decide whether they might be on mars or under the ocean or in Orem? Hiw would we identify them and know that we found them. I don’t think your fundamentals at all address the cognitive process of coming to grips with what it means to be “inside”. Your principles don’t help me at all to decide what people find as relevant to their worship or what they take as the meaning of principle 1 for reading scripture. I’m amazed at how much the norms have changed in my lifetime among Mormons of all types over the meaning of truth and the adjectives placed before that word like spiritual or literal. In my experience, relativism reigns in a way that is profoundly disorienting.

  12. Martin James
    February 2, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Furthermore, why do you use the term God in the singular? What could be less Mormon than that?

  13. MTodd
    February 9, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    I believe we need the right balance between “devotional” and “non-devotional”. I also believe that the right mix is 80-90% non-devotional and 10-20% devotional. As kevinf points out, there is so much that can be gained by learning to read the scriptures closely. Unfortunately as a culture we spend so much time “likening” without first understanding. We THINK we know what the scriptures say, so we jump to the “so what”. If we slowed down and asked ourselves, “What does this passage say? Really?” we’d be better equipped to answer the question, “What does this mean to me?”

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