Why, and how, we should read The Bible more

Since moving to the South a few months ago, I have had more opportunities than ever before to share our faith with neighbors who are genuinely interested in religion and involved in their own denominations.  These exchanges, always respectful and gracious, have allowed me to see how astoundingly well members of other faiths often know The Bible.  Our Sunday School and Seminary programs ensure that Mormons are more familiar than the average population with the contents of The Bible and The Book of Mormon.  But, I would argue, Mormons now know their Book of Mormon far better than their Bible.  Although all knowledge is good knowledge, The Bible is the book that we share in common with members of others faiths, and, therefore, it is often one of our best missionary tools.  So, given its importance as a faith-bridging tool, why do we not currently know it as well as our other scriptures?

One suggestion I have heard raised is that our lack of Biblical knowledge is an unintended consequence of the relatively recent effort to encourage all members to read The Book of Mormon.  Because leaders have stressed the importance of reading The Book of Mormon, Mormon youth now know it extremely well.  But they have not had similar emphasis placed on The Bible.

Another potential explanation, and one that I am particularly interested in, is that Mormons are taught to approach scriptures looking for how we can liken them unto our lives.  This interpretive strategy lends itself more easily to narratives that focus on familial and national conflicts, such as those that comprise The Book of Mormon, than on the laws, metaphors, and symbols that we frequently find in The Bible, a book that does not have a strong unifying story or line of authors to hold together its various books.  Indeed, the sections of The Bible that we do read, such as the story of Moses, are those that tend to have a storybook structure.

However, while this interpretive approach is compelling, it also seems deeply limiting if it is our only interpretive approach.  This approach encourages us to disregard what is potentially sacred but unfamiliar, and thus encourages us to continue seeing the divine in our own image rather than as something that might unsettle or expand our expectations.  It also discourages us from emphasizing scholarship that would explore the historical contexts of our written texts in order to more deeply understand our heritage.  While parts of The Bible that seem unfamiliar might be challenging reads to the average reader, they nevertheless contain information about our history and our sacred ceremonies that we ought to know, especially if we want to have a sustained dialogue with those of other faiths.

Comments

  1. I understand that Pres. Hinckley encouraged all general authorities to become better acquainted with the Bible. I have to add that I get extremely uncomfortable when somebody suggests that the Book of Mormon is better than the Bible. I’ve heard that several times in Church and elsewhere. I don’t think any Mormon should even hint at such a thing. I personally have been focused on the Bible for the last couple of years, recognizing that I know the BOM very well and need to know the Bible even better than I know the BOM.

  2. I’m about 200 pages shy of my second time through the Bible, and it amazes me how many wonderful analogies, stories, and demonstrations of faith that we collectively ignore due to ignorance. It really is a shame that we aren’t thoroughly familiar with one of the foundational documents of Western culture.

  3. The main reason I believe we should read the Bible more and know it better is that most of our truly unique, foundational doctrines are taught there – not in the Book of Mormon. Those who need a spiritual experience with unique modern scripture need the BofM primarily, and I have no problem with its place as the fundamental missionary text, but those who want to understand our most unique and empowering doctrines would be well served by studying the Bible with the fresh eyes of a recently baptized spirit. I think one of the reasons many members can’t speak intelligently about some of the most unique aspects of our theology is that they are not familiar enough with the Bible.

  4. I love the Bible! There’s something about the Old Testament that just speaks to me, and there’s noting quite like the New Testament, with the mortal ministry of Christ.

    I’ll admit that as a teenage convert about 15 years ago, I got the unstated impression from church members that the Bible was somehow inferior to the Book of Mormon, and I remember feeling a bit guilty for preferring the Bible. This attitude continued among some of the missionaries I served with (in the Bible Belt, nonetheless). I even had a zone leader say point blank that we needed to emphasize the Book of Mormon at the expense of the Bible because “nobody was ever converted to the Gospel by reading the Bible”. (I promptly corrected him, by telling him that I was converted by reading the Bible.)

    On the other hand, my greatest missionary success was when I had a companion who understood the importance of the Bible. We agreed that if we were going to get anyone to listen to us, we had to demonstrate our love for the same scripture that they love. We read the whole Bible cover-to-cover in our companionship study during the time we were serving together. It was an amazing spiritual experience.

  5. I agree that Mormons should read the Bible more. The best advice I can give to read the Bible more is to stop reading the KJV. This is the single biggest obstacle LDS have to reading and understanding the Bible. When your evangelical friends open the NIV they have a fighting chance of understanding what is going on. More difficult passages such as Isaiah or Paul’s letters are impenetrable in the KJV and become more understandable in a modern translation.

    I also think that the sometimes heard refrain that we Mormons need to learn Jacobian English better so we can understand the KJV is silly. Also, I tend to reject the claim from some that you just get used to it if you read the KJV enough. Those who fall into this camp (I used to be there myself) will be shocked how much better the Bible reads when written in modern English. I don’t recommend any particular translation, all have their strengths and weaknesses, but all tend to be better than the KJV. Even the Geneva Bible, which predates the KJV, tends to be easier to read.

    Finally, I think that “likening all scriptures to ourselves” is not an interpretive principle and when applied as an interpretive principle leads in many cases to bad results. One tends to read one’s own cultural biases and ethical norms into the Bible and ignore passages that do not agree with said biases and norms. Likening is a post interpretative exercise, once you have an idea of what a passage or story means in context, then you can liken it to yourself.

  6. I’ve only read the Old Testament through once. And I will probably never do so again. I did love parts of the Old Testament though. The KJV has such beautiful language sometimes, it gives me a poetic thrill. There is so much cultural background in the Bible. The four gospels are my most beloved part of our scriptural cannon. I wish we had all the books of the world filled with what Jesus said and did.

  7. We don’t study the Bible as much because the Church lessons and manuals approach the scriptures by theme, heavily supported by latter-day commentaries. That’s not all bad, but if you rush to a latter-day interpretation and moralizing without seeing what the text actually says, you can miss or misunderstand a lot.

    Another answer: That phrase in the 8th article of faith (“as far as it has been translated correctly”) has been used to dismiss any part of the Bible we don’t understand, whether or not it has anything to do with translation. Since we have other inspired words, we don’t bother wrestling with the difficulties of the Bible. Therefore, we miss the nuggets that might be hidden there.

    In speaking about the Bible two(?) years ago, Elder Ballard suggested said that we tend to love the things we know best and spend the most time with. He then said that we may need more balance in our scripture reading (i.e., we need to know the Bible better).

  8. Also, the Book of Mormon is shorter than the Bible, and the BOM has a somewhat conveniently correlated feel, as explained in Chandler, Neal. “Book of Mormon Stories That My Teachers Kept from Me.” Dialogue 24 (4) Winter 1991: 13-30 [p. 26, 29]

  9. #5, last paragraph – Amen.

  10. After reading through the Book of Mormon a bunch of times, my wife and I decided it was time to work through the other books of scripture as well. We’ve been reading through the Old Testament, a chapter at a time and we are currently in the book of Isaiah. It’s been quite a trip so far and I’m glad we’re doing this together.

  11. I totally agree with how important the Bible is. When I lived in Texas, my parents sent me to Bible School (hosted by the Baptists in our area) that was held during the summer. Even though we are LDS, they realized how important the Bible really is.

  12. I think the emphasis on the Book of Mormon is the cause of a de-emphasis of the Bible. I have heard, time and again, that we should, as individuals and as families, read the Book of Mormon every day. Reading of other scriptures seems encouraged, as long as it does not interfere with daily reading of the Book of Mormon. Frankly, I feel positively sinful, after having completed reading the Book of Mormon as family, for having switched to reading through the New Testament and other standard works before returning to the Book of Mormon.

  13. I think it’s kinda interesting how the BoM seems to be emphasized over the Bible (whether officially or just culturally). Is it an example of trying to emphasize our nature as a “peculiar people” over being mainstream?

    And if so, does this actually hurt the church in the end? As Natalie mentions, since other people *do* tend to know the Bible much more strongly, it would seem that missionaries have a test not only to share how the Book of Mormon adds to that, but how well it meshes with what the Bible says. If the BoM is too “different” from what people have been learning about for years with only the Bible, then someone will simply choose to reject it.

    I’ve had many instances with friends where discussions (more like arguments, haha) have gone flat because I haven’t had enough Biblical knowledge to go any further…or when I have had a Church interpretation of the Bible, it has differed so much from what others accept as interpretations of Biblical stories that I still can’t reach common ground. It reminds me of accusations from other churches that LDS follow “another Jesus” — how do we get past that?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    1. I remember when the GD curriculum was an 8-year cycle, not 4 years, and we spent two years on each collection of scripture instead of one. I taught GD during those years, and I personally preferred it, as it allowed greater depth of engagement.

    2. As a GD teacher, I always hated the mantra to read the BoM daily, because realistically most people are just going to read a limited amount of scripture, and so I knew most people were going to ignore my SS reading assignments in favor of their BoM reading.

    3. Another thing that hampers us is our emphasis on class discussion. People can only discuss what they know, and when you teach the Bible and people don’t know it, we inevitably revert to all “liken unto us” all the time kinds of lessons, so people can ignore the text and talk about contemporary things they do know something about.

    4. I am among that rare group of Mormons that much prefers the Bible over the BoM. (And I say that even though I’ve published a fair bit on the BoM and am a minor BoM scholar.) I find the Bible much richer and, frankly, much more interesting and moving.

  15. Terry Foraker says:

    While I am grateful that we have modern-day scriptures as well as an amazingly rich literature (both historical and doctrinal) to give breadth to our understanding, I fear that we pay a price in sacrificing depth that we might have if we weren’t spreading ourselves across four volumes of scripture (aided by manuals, of course, which seem to be guiding us toward the meaning that we “should” be obtaining).

    Archaic KJV language aside (I’ve been looking at The Message Bible lately), my biggest concern about our use of the Bible in the Church is that we too often seem to use it primarily as a collection of proof texts to lend support to our unique scriptures rather than a source of understanding in inspiration in its own right.

  16. Latter-day Guy says:

    I was going to say stuff, but Kevin Barney just said it all better. I agree especially with his #3. We often go into a lesson already knowing what we want to learn, and then we cherry pick the scriptures to fit our model. I often feel like my eyes are going to bleed from frustration during Sunday School.

  17. I’m going to be a naysayer. Having read the Bible multiple times in multiple versions, I have come to like it less. And frankly, the more I have come to know about the Bible, the less I trust it. I am not alone. Take for example, Bart Ehrman, one of the foremost biblical scholars today and one who started with a literalist / inerrancy perspective, but who no longer believes the Bible to be inspired.

    Consider also Margaret Barker, whose scholarly writings, if drawn to their logical conclusion, show the teachings of the Bible to have been so modified and filtered as to be nearly impossible to rely upon at this late date.

    I mean no offense to other Christians, and I will continue to study the Bible, but I am increasingly impressed with the scripures that were given originally in my native tongue, or translated into it by the gift and power of God.

  18. One practical impediment to a greater familiarity with the Bible is the repetition of the current Sunday School Gospel Doctrine curriculum during the last several four-year cycles. If at least some of the Gospel Doctrine Bible lessons were varied in each four-year cycle, average Latter-day Saints could be exposed to more of that lengthy Scripture in the course of normal Church life.

  19. I love the Bible, and study it and teach it joyfully. But I understand that in this latter days, what people need is a testimony of the truthfulness of this church, and that is based in the BOM. I find that if you have that testimony, all else falls into place. But I strongly agree that members do need to increase in their knoledge of the Bible.

  20. PS-I,too, was converted (at least in part) because LDS doctrine best fit what the Bible teaches. It still doesn’t cease to amaze me. I read the Bible by myself before becoming a member. It was hard, I had a hard time undertanding it. Once I was converted, it felt as if someone had taken the blinders off. I do believe that for most of our Christian brother the Bible remains a closed book. Therefore, they spend much of their time in plattitudes and feel-good slogans, all of which are good by themselves, but ignore the rich core of meaning found there. So many of the prophecies of the OT are impossible to undertand without being familiar with the latter-day restoration.

  21. I was converted upon reading the BOM, but, after 15 years as a faithful member, I have begun to find my Faith being sustained by lessons and insights gained from studying the Bible, not the BOM.
    Does it mean I am losing my Mormon faith,and becoming more like a “gentile Christian”, that a fellow Ward member described me as, with some derision in his tone?
    I am confused, I still believe in the restored Gospel, but, for some reason, the BOM doesnt seem as real to em, as the Bible ( NIV/ESV/NRSV versions) that I read daily.

    -Confused somewhere in the USA.

  22. Terry Foraker wrote: “my biggest concern about our use of the Bible in the Church is that we too often seem to use it primarily as a collection of proof texts to lend support to our unique scriptures rather than a source of understanding in inspiration in its own right.

    I’ve felt the same way about the way we use the Bible. I think we could dig a lot deeper than we do.

  23. Antonio Parr says:

    The New Testament contains the exclusive accounts of Jesus’ mortal ministry. Since Jesus is our examplar, the relegation of this body of scripture to a once-in-four-years approach is simply tragic. We as Latter-Day Saints need to know Jesus better than we do — what better way than to give greater emphasis to the books of scripture that provide the clearest view of the way that He lived His blessed life?

  24. Very late post. When I was a kid in the East (expat parents) I noticed that people did not reference the BOM very much in talks, etc. I finally figured out that the theology of the BOM mirrors the theology of the Bible, mostly. Almost anything you can cite in the BOM is available in the Bible.

    I was satisfied that the BOM was necessary as a missionary tool and as a proof text that the Church was true, but after that it was an interesting appendage to the real cannon of the Church, the other three books, with more theology, more exciting stories, more sex.

    When Pres. Benson went on his campaign to reemphasize the book, I wondered and was bemused. Its theology is definitely from the Apostle’s creed. Its story is regularly about the rise and fall of civilizations when they loose focus on the true values of life. But the number of pithy theological statements, with the exception of Christ appearing in America, is fairly thin.

    As I have studied early Christianity and Jewish theology the bible gets more and more interesting, more and more complex with deeper insights into the human condition and our relationship to God.

    The BOM, however, remains fairly two dimensional.

    Read the Bible and study it.

  25. As a BYU student interested in more than gospel doctrine lessons, I took a 4 gospels class from a great professor. He had every student get another version of the Bible and bring it to class. He read (and translated) from a Greek version. We went around the room reading passages from different versions. It was highly illuminating to hear different translations and to really see the meaning of passages.

    Now, I take my New American Standard bible to church and read from it every Sunday. When called on to read scriptures from the Bible, I would read that version instead of the KJV. I got varied reactions from class members. Some thought it was great, some figured I was apostate but most thought it was inappropriate to read non-approved versions in church.

    I have read the Old and New Testaments numerous times and I can state that anyone who thinks that there are a lot of passages that are not translated correctly has not read the Bible enough. What wonderful color. What enlightening doctrine. What refreshing feelings to talk with people of other faiths on their only source for divine revelation and to feel at home.

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