Of late I have been thinking of late about how to read Mormon scriptures. In particular, I have been working on some passages in the Book of Mormon on legal interpretation and thinking about how best to approach these sections. By and large, it seems to me that there have been three basic models of how to read LDS scriptures. First, there has been what I think of as an external, sectarian reading. This consists essentially of proof texting in debates and discussions with Protestant outsiders. There is a sense in which this is the oldest kind of LDS hermeneutic. The first Mormons to carefully study the scriptures with Mormon eyes were looking for biblical verses with which to answer Campbellite critics and other Protestant naysayers of the Restoration.
The second LDS hermeneutic has been internal. It is aimed not at outsiders but at Latter-day Saints and it has served two purposes. The first, and in my opinion overwhelmingly the most important, reading has been homiletic. We have used the scriptures as a way of motivating ourselves to godly action. On this view, the successful use of scriptures is measured not by integrity to the text per se but rather by the effectiveness of the reading in leading others to live better lives. The second part of this internal hermeneutic has been the elaboration of Mormon doctrine as a body of systematic theology using the scriptures as sources.
The third mode of LDS hermeneutic has been an apologetic aimed at the problems of historical consciousness and anxiety about the truth claims of Restoration scripture. The dominant figure here is Hugh Nibley, although in many ways his work was prefigured by that of B.H. Roberts and Sydney Sperry. Nibley’s primary goal was to demonstrate the historicity of the Book of Mormon by locating it within an ancient context, showing how external and internal evidences of ancient origins could be marshalled to meet the accusations of critics. In many ways, the results of this apologetic have been impressive. It represents the most sophisticated engagement with LDS scriptures to date, and it has certainly deepened our understanding of textual complexities and possible external parallels.
Increasingly, however, I think that we need to get past all three of these modes. It is not that I think that we should stop bible bashing (with that increasingly limited audience that cares), using scriptures to preach sermons and elaborate doctrine, or seeking to respond to critics of Book of Mormon historicity. All of these hermeneutics are valuable in different ways, and I don’t foresee that any of them is likely to disappear. Nor would I want them to.
However, I would like to see an engagement with scripture that is more textual and literary, less doctrinal, homiletic, and apologetic. In particular, I think that the scriptures reward a very careful, textually sensitive reading, one that seeks to find the strangeness in the text and understand what it is saying. The best model in Biblical studies for what I would like to see is Robert Alter. Alter is not trained as a Biblical scholar per se. Rather, he came out of the literature department at UC Berkeley. Modern biblical scholarship is largely dominated by source criticism, the desire to unravel the various claims of J, P, E, the Deuteronomist, Q and the rest of the cast of characters that inhabit the Biblical text. Alter’s work represents not a rejection of source criticism, but a turning away from it. The Bible, he in effect argued, is a very carefully composed text and even acknowledging its indebtedness to earlier sources needn’t imply the belief that it was assembled thoughtlessly or artlessly. For example, rather than seeing the repetition of stories as the crude seams between different underlying sources, he suggested that they should be read as commentaries on one another or examples of a type-story that the author is deliberately playing with. And so on.
It seems that we need something very much like this for LDS scriptural studies. It is not that I think we should turn to literary readings because the debates over historicity are pointless or unwinnable. Rather it is that such debates are in some sense a distraction from the real work of reading the text. Furthermore, without naming names, I think that some of the work coming out of the Nibley tradition, even when it is not self-consciously apologetic, spends too much time with extra-textual parallels that distract from full engagement with the text itself and often have limited hermeneutic (as opposed to apologetic) value. I am interested in ancient parallels when they are closely enough tied to the text that I am confident that there is some real interpretive pay off to using them. On the other hand, even when the apologetic payoff may be substantial, I am less interested in parallels when the hermeneutic payoff is meager.
In the end, I think that far and away the most important outside text for understanding the Book of Mormon is the King James Bible because this is the book toward which the Book of Mormon text that we have now most frequently gestures. Some LDS scholars are uncomfortable with this fact because they are frightened of playing into the hands of critics who insist that the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a crude re-working of the KJV. The English text of the Book of Mormon, however, is shot through with biblical references, more over the language of those references is the language of the KJV. I think that we are justified in embracing this fact. Doing so does not, I believe, concede the apologetic question, and a careful reading of the Book of Mormon, I am convinced, reveals that it is anything but a crude re-working of the KJV.