As what may have been a joke, a friend of mine gave me John & Kimberley Bytheway’s What We Wish We’d Known When We Were Newlyweds. In the section about couple communication, they use a story in the Book of Mormon to help illustrate their point. I don’t agree or disagree with their interpretation. It’s one reading and it does help them prove their point, but it brings up the question of entitlement in scriptural interpretation. Are we allowed to make the scriptures mean what we want or need them to mean?
Here’s the Bytheway passage:
One time, while reading the Book of Mormon, we noticed that perhaps Father Lehi knew all about this idea of listening to understand. Sariah was worried about her sons, who had returned to Jerusalem to get the brass plates from a man who didn’t want to give them up. She was understandably concerned. One day, Sariah told Lehi her feelings. He didn’t jump immediately to a solution, but let his wife get all her feelings out first. Nephi reports : “She…complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our interhitance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 5:2). Lehi’s response was perfect. He didn’t say, “Behold, how dare you!” He didn’t say “Why are you worried about that?” And he certainly didn’t tell her that she was wrong. Instead, he agreed with her and supported her in her feelings. (emphasis original) He said, “I know that I am a visionary man” (1 Nephi 5:4). Brilliant! What a perfect response. Then he explained his own feelings. We call this response “feelings before facts,” or “listen before logic.” (Fortunately the boys showed up with the brass plates a few verses later.) Are we reading more into this episode than is really there? Perhaps. But the principle is sound, and it has helped us in our marriage. Listen past the words for the feelings and respond to them first (Bytheway 34).
The authors even acknowledge that they probably have read more into the passage than what is there but because it helps them prove what they call a “sound principle” they are entitled to make that reading. Without other scriptural evidence however, it’s not a principle proven in holy writ, rather a principle that is anecdotally true and helpful for them and maybe for many others.
Scriptures are funny things. Some are old. Some are new. We don’t have the authors’ original intent and often we lack the context as well. We are required to interpret. Regularly, throughout many traditions, that has fallen on holy men, who, through understanding, inspiration, maybe education, are authorized to interpret these often mysterious little books. Past the Reformation and then on to Joseph Smith and others, the lay man became allowed and even encouraged to understand and interpret the scriptures. In the same 1 Nephi, we’re told to liken the scriptures to ourselves. Make them our own. Make them apply to us.
Are the limits to that? Is it dangerous or harmful? I admit that I often interpret difficult scriptures to mean other things because I can’t stomach what they mean literally. Some are too harsh or violent. Some are mean and some just make me uncomfortable. Some just plain old don’t make any sense in my world. Other times, like the Bytheways, I use the scriptures to reinforce a really good idea I’ve had. That idea may or may not be inspired but I can usually find scriptures to agree with me. Occasionally I respect the scriptures that tell me I’m wrong and occasionally I pretend they’re not there. Everyone does this. I do not believe I am especially entitled, inspired, myopic or belligerent.
In the current religious landscape, peopled with entitled interpreters, have the scriptures lost their powers? If we can make them mean or not mean whatever we want them to, then what authority do they hold? Is the problem that we are too loose in our adherence to the literal meaning or is the problem that God’s word is too opaque? It’s tricky, isn’t it, to want the allowance of individual interpretation and simulateously want an authoritative text by which we can lead our lives, our families and our Church?
I feel muddled because I do want both but unfortunately the two ideas are very friendly with each other. And by the way, if I angrily told my husband he were a visionary man and he said, yes! I am a visionary man, I’d be pretty ticked. Little jerk. Don’t tell me that!