Along with many others this weekend, I attended the Duck Beach of Mormon history nerds: the annual MHA Conference. This year it was in St. George, Utah. It was as splendid as ever. I did not present this year, but I did respond to a panel.
Emily Jensen wrote an article on David Pulsipher’s paper—a history of Latter-day Saint exegesis of the Anti-Nephi-Lehi passages of the Book of Mormon. I noticed that Emily did not comment on the cogent remarks of the responder. Bah.
The gist of Pulsipher’s piece was to show how Church curricula at first used the Anti-Nephi-Lehites as a positive example of pacifism and non-violence. Then, after Pearl Harbor and during the Cold War they were viewed as aberrant and even possibly misguided. Pulsipher’s evidence and analysis was certainly more complex than that; but he outlines a pretty clear relationship between the culture of the Saints and their use of the story.
In one of my responses to the paper (there were other more substantive ideas I felt I offered), I indicated that perhaps more than the particular topic—peace—Pulsipher’s methodology is helpful to elucidate important shifts in Mormon theology, self-ideation, community delineation. Consequently I am interested in other exegetical examples, and how they might show similar trends. Is the ultimate conclusion that Pulsipher makes, that Mormon’s are more likely to find themselves in narrative materials than to try to challenge themselves? How else is this manifest in Mormon History? To turn towards current discourse, does the Mormon approach to scripture—the ever-invoked exhortation to “liken” the text to oneself—limit the prophetic capacity (in the sense of the Hebrew Bible) of that scripture?
However, after asking those questions, I wondered if something else weren’t going on. If I can use a crass analogy, perhaps where due to their obsession with sola scriptura Protestants treat the Bible as “Originalists” treat the US Constitution, Latter-day Saints treat the scriptural canon more like those who look to the US Constitution as a living document. Does it matter how the original authors interpreted the scripture, or can interpretation shift to meet the needs of the community?