On Re-reading Scripture

I recently read through the Book of Mormon again.  I was interested in how the experience this time was different from other times, and also how it was the same.  Perhaps you have also noticed some of these points in your own reading.

A personal reaction to scripture

Scriptures, as well as other books, have an interesting way of revealing different things to different people, or to the same person at a different time.  Consider the story of Nephi and the brass plates.  What are we to learn from this story?   Ask 20 different Mormons and you’ll get 20 different answers, including probably the importance of faith, obedience,  perserverence, following the Spirit, family unity, geneaology, prayer, and so on.  And all the answers will be valid.  When I look at my missionary Book of Mormon, I am sometimes embarrassed at the things I underlined in red which I thought were enlightening or inspiring, but those were apparently the things I needed to learn at the time.  I also find it especially ironic that many of the passages which I thought were the most faith-promoting were precisely the passages which the Lutherans among whom I lived and served would have found to be the most faith-destroying.

 

Likening the Scriptures

I think the best way to get personal benefit from the scriptures is to apply lessons from them to ourselves, but this time through, I think I started to see some danger in the ways I have done it in the past.  Specifically, I think it is possible to go overboard and to start seeing answers where there aren’t any.  The Book of Mormon contains many distinctive phrases, and here are two of them:  Looking beyond the mark, and wresting the scriptures.  When we apply the scriptures to ourselves too aggressively we are doing both. So the insight I gained this time was to be a bit more cautious and to let the scriptures speak for themselves rather than assuming that I am always the star of the show. 

 

Authoritative interpretation

It occurred to me that the admonition in the Book of Mormon to liken the scriptures to ourselves runs into direct conflict with 2 Peter 1:20, which states that no prophecy in the scriptures is of private interpretation.  If we accept the Book of Mormon’s advice, it is all of private interpretation, or most of it.   There are limits, of course — I’m not free to interpret section 132 any way I feel like, at least if I want to remain in good standing in the church — but there is an entire cafeteria’s worth of smorgasbord to be found in our canon.  That’s why it’s called feasting upon the word.

Authoritative interpretation is often seen as a safeguard against the more wacky understandings which inevitably crop up.  But I realized that most of the really weird things I haved heard over the years — the current location of the 10 tribes and their methods of transportation, the notion that one’s race changes as one repents, the location of Kolob and the entire body of speculation which fits under the title of Seminary Science, the sexual practices of resurrected beings, absolutely bizarre interpretations of the Book of Revelation — I heard about all these things from authoritative sources, either in the priesthood hierarchy or the BYU religion department.  So ironically, authoritative interpretation often creates more misunderstanding than it clears up.  But I have found that scriptural exhortations to charity are helpful in these situations.  If a fellow member of my priesthood quorum thinks that Kolob is really one of the moons of Endor, I am more able to take a relaxed view.  It is really no skin off my nose, and I wonder if 2 Peter 1:20 isn’t one of those passages from the Bible that Joseph Smith planned to revise, but he just didn’t get around to it.

 

Scripture as a personal Urim and Thummim

Both Dallin H. Oaks and Bruce R. McConkie have advocated the idea that the scriptures are the key to personal revelation.  At a recent stake conference, the general authority visitor also stressed this theme, and recommended that we occasionally stop in our reading to pay attention to those “sudden strokes of intelligence” which might come.  If I understand correctly, the simple fact of opening the scriptures invites the Holy Spirit, which puts us in a frame of mind to receive personal revelation.  It is possible that God wants me to know something which is completely unrelated to the text on the page in front of me.  I tried that approach this time and I received no revelation, at least none that I will share here.  But I did find the experience to be worthwhile, and plan to continue this practice.   

 

The Book of Mormon and me

This book has become like a quirky old friend.  The repetitions have become endearing, and the klunkiness of the language is part of its appeal to me.  The book apologizes for itself, many times, and begs us to overlook the faults it readily acknowledges.  I had noticed this before, but not the frequency.  Sometimes my reading stops within the first 50 pages, so Nephi’s self-assurance had unduly influenced my reading and caused me to overlook how truly humble the book is. 

The title page announces that the purpose of the book is to convince its readers to believe in Jesus Christ.  It seems to me that this obvious point nevertheless gets overlooked, even by believing latter-day saints.  The book can be understood in many ways, yes, but the more time we spend looking for modern day parallels to the Kingmen, for instance, the more we will miss the message of Christ’s grace and the hope and redemption that he offers.  That is the central message and it is so huge that everything else must be seen as something of a sideshow.  Sideshows can be interesting and instructive, but they can also be distracting.  The book consistently seeks to persuade us to believe and repent, and we just as consistently want to talk about something else.  We cannot blame other Christians for missing the point of the Book of Mormon when we Mormons often seem intent on missing the point, too. 

I love the last few chapters of Moroni.  The teachings about faith, hope, and charity come through for me there so much more clearly than they do in Corinthians.  It interests me that the book’s final admonitions are to be filled with hope and love, and to believe in Jesus.  There are also passages in 2 Nephi, Mosiah, and Alma which elucidate our Savior and his willingness to bear with us and forgive us very clearly.  I’m thankful for them because they have helped me understand and believe.  My life is richer and more meaningful because of my encounters with the Book of Mormon.

Comments

  1. Lovely post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on personal scripture study.

    As a former Seminary teacher, I have found that if I focus my reading on searching for the principles and doctrines that are found throughout the scriptures, and then how these teachings can apply to me personally — my scripture study is deeply enhanced.

    Each time I re-read portions of scripture, I too, receive “new” revelation that I had not noticed previously, which is very personal indeed:-)

    tDMg

  2. Natalie B. says:

    Nice post. I’m intrigued by your discussion of how “humble” the Book of Mormon is as it apologizes for itself. I am so used to hearing it proclaimed as the word of God that I don’t think I fully registered before the authors’ fears of their own mistakes in writing it.

  3. Ron Madson says:

    Natalie,

    I also appreciate Nephi’s humility and his transparent use of rationalizing followed by “God made me do it” followed by use of the very scripture that was used to kill Jesus, ie, “better that one man perish than….” In other words, the ends justify the means. Mark could not be more right that one can have twenty different readings of Nephi “getting” aka stealing the plates. The beauty is that the BOM does change it’s meaning for us over time. For forty years Nephi’s courageous act of killing a drunk man was used by myself in teaching to inspire faith and obedience. However, now I see the BOM as a correct book in this regard—that is it correctly outlines the pattern of a birth of a civilization based on a founding murder, the “us against them” narrative which is interrupted by teachings and invitations to follow a new pattern through Christ, including a two hundred year reprieve—- followed by returning to the pattern of destruction.” Mormon offered the most sincere apology—“be more wise” and don’t think, talk and act like we did that led us to this perpetual state of war—which leads inexorably to extinction.
    As soon as I began to really liken the scriptures to our time (the “righteous”/leaders even in our faith using their theology/rhetoric to justify wholesale murder in Iraq and Afghanistan) was when my understanding of the BOM dramatically changed—now I take Nephi at his word in 2 Nephi 4 and admire his candor, and the most sincere apology from Mormon who pleads with us “to be more wise” and learn from them by NOT doing what they did rather then imitating what they did.

  4. I’m also interested in the ‘humility’ of the Book of Mormon about itself.

    It’s interesting that the title page states outright that the book contains abridgements of two sets of records and that if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.

    That’s a pretty direct way for the book to say that it doesn’t contain everything and that it isn’t a perfect record – and yet it also warns the reader against dismissing the record.

    There is a temptation by some religions with scriptures (Christianity with the Bible, Islam with the Qur’an, etc.) to claim that they have perfect all-inclusive records. From the outset, the Book of Mormon seems to go out of its way to disembowel any such approaches.

    One might perceive this as a built-in mechanism against some kinds of textual fanaticism.

  5. How timely this post is for me.

    I had been dragging me feet about reading the BOM again. I put it off for a couple months. Yet this time, as I read through Nephi, I am finding so many things that have really spoken to my heart. Things I never picked up before, but I’m thinking it’s because I am going through some particular challenges I’ve never faced before, so I guess that’s why. I can really feel his pain in chapter 17 when he talks about all their afflictions, too many for him to write. And I also hope that like for Nephi, the Lord can be my “light in the wilderness.”

    Enjoyed your thoughts, thanks.

  6. We’re finishing up the BoM here at Jana H. Manor, first time for my recently baptized husband. As I’ve been reading and attempting to approach from the position of an investigator/new member, I’ve been struck quite over the head by the constant (constant, constant) reminders of to repent and believe in Christ.

    I think this is one of the reasons why my initially-reluctant husband was convinced to continue reading, even in the early, rougher days when he was mostly reading to humor me.

  7. I’ve read the BoM over 70 times, and it is still new to me in so many ways. In my various studies, whether learning philosophy, science, politics, etc., I will go into the BoM seeking what it wishes to teach me, and not necessarily try to find what I want to find in it.
    When I joined at 16 years of age, the wars and stuff were the exciting stuff I liked to read about. Isaiah was difficult. Now, I find the wars somewhat long and boring, while love the teachings, visions, and prophesies. My testimony of Christ has vastly increased as I study the Book of Mormon and seek to understand the atonement through the Christology within its pages.

    Thanks for sharing your witness with us.

  8. I’ve read the Book of Mormon several times, but not in the past eight years or so. Your post has inspired me to pick it up again and see if it has anything new to say.

  9. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Once we start to take the Title Page and several other passages at face value and treat the BoM primarily as an instrument to increase faith in Jesus Christ and to convince both Jew and Gentile that he is the Savior, we have made our study much more meaningful.

    You can certainly go overboard trying to parallel each story to something you should be doing in your life.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,434 other followers