Scripture as Literature of Faith Crisis

In the many narratives of faith crisis that one hears these days, a common theme is resistance to the idea that the Sunday School answer of “read the scriptures” will do much good. “Don’t you understand that the scriptures got me into this mess in the first place?” people ask incredulously, especially as they’re troubled about questions of Book of Mormon historicity, the character of the Old Testament God, or a number of other concerns.

In response to these (very legitimate) concerns, I want to put forward two related ideas: first, that scripture is the literature of faith crisis par excellence; and second, that we as a church would benefit from adding this perspective to our usual faith-promoting treatment of scripture.

In speaking of faith crisis people often use terms like “deconstructed,” referring to how the religious views and expectations they had hitherto held seem now to have crumbled. This perspective might seem alien to scripture, but I’d argue instead that it profoundly informs scripture, especially if one takes modern scholarship into account.

For instance, modern advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis approach to the Hebrew scriptures contend that much of this literature took its current form in the period after the return from Babylonian exile, with some positing Ezra as the Redactor who wove together the various textual strands that had been inherited. This thesis has the effect of making the scriptures, with their repeated emphasis on a special covenantal relationship between God and Israel, a product of a time in which that relationship seemed to have been utterly broken. How could God abandon Israel and let the Temple be looted and the people carried away? The pain of the break can be seen in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion. 
On the willows there
we hung up our harps. 
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’


How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? 
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither! 
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

This poem records an inability to “sing the Lord’s song,” and yet the post-exilic scriptures represent a very deliberate attempt not only to remember it, but to sing it again.

Much of the New Testament also arises out of crises. The first crisis is Jesus’ death, which the Gospels make quite clear that none of the disciples was expecting. You believe that this man is the Messiah, come to save you, and suddenly the Romans have killed him? In this light, the Gospels represent attempts to remember in the face of disappointment, and also to make sense of what Jesus’ life and death might have meant.

The second crisis of the New Testament is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The letters of Paul, written well before these events, testify to millenarian expectation among Christians. The destruction of the Temple certainly looked apocalyptic, but Jesus did not come again. For our purposes, then, it is relevant that (according to scholars) the Gospels emerge in the wake of this event, with the earliest, Mark, having been written right around the time of the destruction. This historical context adds heft to the notion that the Gospels are reasserting Jesus in a time when events seemed to invite disbelief. Similarly, the pseudo-Pauline epistles of the 2nd century represent attempts to adjust Paul’s teaching in light of a new sense that the Second Coming lay far in the future.

The Book of Mormon, too, speaks to faith crisis. As Grant Hardy has observed, Nephi, writing 40 years after his arrival in the promised land, has to reckon with the fact that not much has turned out how he expected: his family is not only divided, but at war with itself. What helps him through this crisis is a sustained engagement with Isaiah, which he reinterprets in ways that situate his experience within a larger divine plan (the gathering of Israel).

This process of reinterpretation is the common theme linking these accounts. The national stories of Israel needed to be reinterpreted in light of the exile, while the remembered experiences of Jesus’ life had to be understood in new ways after his death. In our own moments of crisis, then, we could benefit from turning to the scriptures with such reinterpretation in mind. Scripture is not just a collection of platitudes with which to plaster our spiritual sores; it is a collection of potent materials for the events of our lives to organize and re-organize as we undertake our own difficult journeys of faith.

I think that our approach to the scriptures in Church would benefit from a shift away from the platitudinous (or the proof-text) and toward the sort of engagement modeled by Nephi, who makes more or less explicit what modern scholars only posit about the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In doing so we might hope to make the scriptures a much more useful tool for people in times of trouble. Since that category includes all of us at least some of the time, such a shift would very much be a Good Thing.

I do not mean to suggest that this approach will help everyone in faith crisis. For some, no doubt, such reassertions of faith in crisis will not seem like the right choice for them, and I’m very hesitant to pass judgment on their choices. Still, if it can help some it will have been worth it.

Comments

  1. Good work here. Thank you.

  2. I’ve shared how I like to view various scriptural stories and texts a little differently than the traditional interpretations we hear regularly and had people complain that some of those views seem to be at odds with the intent of the original writers. I simply respond that I have no problem with people seeing those stories and texts differently than I do, and I have no problem seeing them differently, perhaps, than the original authors did – since my views work for me and others’ views work for them.

    When we collectively “liken all things unto ourselves”, we are bound to end up with differing individual likenings – since those doing the likening are different than each other. We are not likening ourselves to a story or text; we are likening the story or text to ourselves. I appreciate that distinction and the breadth of possibility it provides.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for your perspective, Ray. I think that the key here is to look to Nephi (the originator of the “likening” phrase) for an example of how to do it, because his reading of Isaiah has precious little to do with original intent and everything to do with making prophetic sense of his current circumstances.

  4. This is great.

    There are times I think we should liken the scriptures to ourselves, other times when it would be better that we just have the context for the best reasons why things are written that way (Moroni 9:9 comes readily to mind). I think we can do a better job in the church with them both, however it sounds like we are moving from a strongly scripture-based curriculum anyway to the “Come Follow Me” model.

  5. Jason K. says:

    EmJen: Yes, Moroni 9:9 is exceptionally problematic as a proof-text, so we need to pay attention to context. And I don’t yet know enough about the changing GD curriculum to have a decided opinion on it, but if it does involve moving even farther away from deep engagement with scripture, that will be cause for lament.

  6. BethSmash says:

    I thought that one of the reasons people get upset at the, “read your scriptues” thing is the underlying assumption that if you had only read your scriptures more (or prayed more, or did ________ more) you wouldn’t be having issues/doubts/a faith crisis. When the opposite of that seems to be true. Where the person has done more pray/study/scripture reading then ever before because they want to hold onto their faith. When someone else comes along, and basically says, “you’ve obviously been doing it wrong” that gets them out of trying to help productively and makes the person in crisis feel worse about their situation.

  7. Jason K. says:

    That seems right to me, too, BethSmash. The trouble is that the people offering this suggestion are in effect telling people to read in a way that no longer feels authentic or honest to them. It is, as you say, not very productive (and probably even counterproductive, as it usually just leads to frustration on both sides). I think that giving people a more robust approach to scripture pre-crisis might make it possible to avoid some (though by no means all) of this pain. Again, some people are going to decide that engaging scripture further just isn’t going to work for them, and I’m not going to judge that decision.

  8. Jason, regarding the issue of proof-texting, I wrote the following last Wednesday on my personal blog about how I believe we misuse the Book of Mormon and misread Moroni’s invitation – and it applies equally to the Bible.

    “Mis-Using the Book of Mormon” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2014/07/mis-using-book-of-mormon.html)

    I think the best examples of God’s mercy to his people are the times like you mention in the post, when their assumptions, understandings and expectations have been shattered and they face the need to redefine their faith in light of their new reality. In that light, I think Moroni’s final words have particular relevance, which we generally miss with regard to “our own people” (LDS members) due to our exclusive application of them to those outside the LDS Church.

  9. Christian J says:

    BethSmash. Another common response I’ve heard is, “You’re thinking about it too much. You’re taking it too seriously.” “Read your scriptures” always carries with it the assumption that there is only one interpretation (essentially no interpretation at all).

  10. Jason K. says:

    “‘Read your scriptures’ always carries with it the assumption that there is only one interpretation (essentially no interpretation at all).”

    Exactly.

    And thanks for the link, Ray. We have a pernicious habit of reading Moroni’s promise in a way that precludes any kind of asking in which the answer isn’t already known. As though we were afraid of what would happen if the promise really were real.

  11. Carey Foushee says:

    “Because his reading of Isaiah has precious little to do with original intent and everything to do with making prophetic sense of his current circumstances.”

    Jason K.

    Are you saying that the typical LDS curriculum teaches this? I’ve never once heard anyone say that except in more “scholarly” books and on the internet, but then again maybe I just wasn’t paying attention in seminary/institute when they were discussing the topic.

  12. Jason K. says:

    Carey: No, I do not think that the typical LDS curriculum teaches this.

  13. It’s too bad too. This is one place I wish Elder McConkie had been louder and quoted more often. He leads up to this statement by talking about NT interpretation of OT being expansive, relating it to Targums (which also expanded in translation), and then says this-

    “For all practical purposes Nephi often did much the same thing when quoting Isaiah or Zenos. He gave, not a literal, but an inspired and interpreting translation. And in many instances his words give either a new or a greatly expanded meaning to the original prophetic word…. Surely there is a message here. For one thing, it means that the same passage of scripture can be translated correctly in more ways than one and that the translation used depends upon the spiritual maturity of the people.”

    He says pretty clearly that Nephi is expanding and interpreting, instead of giving a “literal” i.e. contextual/historical interpretation.

    https://www.lds.org/manual/teaching-seminary-preservice-readings-religion-370-471-and-475/the-bible-a-sealed-book?lang=eng

    “the underlying assumption that if you had only read your scriptures more (or prayed more, or did ________ more) you wouldn’t be having issues/doubts/a faith crisis.” This is probably true, for the most part. I tend to agree with Jason, though, that studying scripture closely, particularly the OT, helps prepare one to deal with complexity, contradiction, nuance, and crisis.

  14. I really enjoyed this post and definitely think this is a valuable perspective and way to engage with the scriptures, particularly the recommendation to “liken” them unto ourselves.

  15. Terry H says:

    There are the “external” issues such as Book of Mormon translation, historicity, archaeology, etc.; Book of Abraham translation and papyrus, etc.; polygamy and other Joseph Smith issues, etc. that cause these faith crisis for some (and they are real). There are also “internal” issues where there are parallels to ancient works of similar age and authorial style. They are all issues of faith. My experience is that the “internal” and the “external” balance out and people are left to their choice of whether or not to exercise their faith as Alma says in Chapter 32.

    I agree with above posts. Its not simply the “read your scriptures more or pray more”, its how you read them and what you pray for. It also takes time, particularly for those who’s previous simplistic views and testimony has been challenged or crashed by websites designed to do so quickly. I’d also note that some attempts to answer “externals” are obviously amateurish and not very helpful. Of course, those are balanced by those claiming to be “truth-tellers”, but who are “intellectually dishonest” by too heavily relying on questionable sources, selectively misusing original documents and even overlooking contrasting evidence. Those who study both sides (as many contributors to BCC have obviously done) will eventually come to a comfortable place where they can exercise their own faith.

  16. Thanks for this, Jason K. It’s a very interesting idea. If the scriptures are as much about crises of faith as they are about faith, it might at least help one feel that his or her personal faith crisis is not something out of the ordinary, but perhaps simply a natural progression of faith and life on earth.

  17. Science 7 May 2010: Vol. 328 no. 5979 pp. 710-722 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021 RESEARCH ARTICLE – A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome – Neandertals, the closest evolutionary relatives of present-day humans, lived in large parts of Europe and western Asia before disappearing 30,000 years ago. We present a draft sequence of the Neandertal genome composed of more than 4 billion nucleotides from three individuals. Comparisons of the Neandertal genome to the genomes of five present-day humans from different parts of the world identify a number of genomic regions that may have been affected by positive selection in ancestral modern humans, including genes involved in metabolism and in cognitive and skeletal development. We show that Neandertals shared more genetic variants with present-day humans in Eurasia than with present-day humans in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting that gene flow from Neandertals into the ancestors of non-Africans occurred before the divergence of Eurasian groups from each other.

  18. If you get my drift, genetically speaking …

  19. Jason K. says:

    Ben S: Thanks for bringing McConkie to bear on this. If he can do it, we can do it.

    p: Although the research you cite sounds fascinating (really!), I’m not sure I see its relevance to this discussion. In fact I suspect that you’ll find few if any people around here willing to defend a literalistic approach to the biblical accounts of human origins, if that is indeed the nature of your point.

  20. Point being that if your faith crisis is sparked by science or history, as opposed to personal issues, there’s precious little succor in scripture to ameliorate the problem. (As Latter-Day Saints we’ve moved rapidly from believing that the earth and life thereupon was created in 6000 years to not even challenging the proposition that Homo sapiens sapiens interbred with Homo sapiens neanderthalensis 50-25,000 years ago.) This situation is even more stark when the scriptures themselves, BoM & PoGP in particular, are undermined by science/history. What is happening today RE: research/information/availability is unprecedented in human history. The paradigm has not just shifted; it’s taken a voyage. Nonetheless, I appreciate the intent of your piece, and especially this: “I think that our approach to the scriptures in Church would benefit from a shift away from the platitudinous (or the proof-text) and toward the sort of engagement modeled by Nephi, who makes more or less explicit what modern scholars only posit about the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.” Amen.

  21. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for the clarification, p. Surely you’re right that not all faith crises have the same origins, and that responses ought to differ accordingly. Still, because scripture is so messy once you start paying attention (which includes bringing a scientific perspective to bear), I think that it can help us develop a capacity for dealing with complex and even contradictory matters. Even though it’s unlikely to be an adequate tool in such cases as you describe, it can still be a useful part of the overall toolset.

  22. Simply letting go of the need to invest scriptures (all of them) with infallibility / inerrancy and recognizing them as the best understanding of the people who wrote them, influenced by everything that influences people, would be a huge step forward.

    For example, there are racist statements in the Old Testament, Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon? Fine, since societies as a whole and nearly all of the people in them were racist in the time period those records cover. See them as personal opinions natural to the time(s) and not as divinely inspired statements of fact and the issue largely disappears – and the calls to edit the racist statements from the scriptures become meaningless (and actually dangerous).

    Frankly, I hate it when people say those sort of things ought to be removed from the scriptures. We need them there, so we can learn from history and not repeat the incorrect traditions of our ancestors. (It would be like removing all references to the Holocaust from our history books, simply because it was such a terrible thing.) It also is fascinating that most of the people who call for such alterations in our scriptures are the same people who complain the most about white-washing our modern religious history.

  23. Thank you for the original post and for your comments and link Ray. I have probably struggled more than anything with likening scriptures unto myself, in ways that many LDS people misunderstand, or believe is not appropriate for a woman. I struggle less with gospel truth claims, and more with the current gendered roles for men and women.

    My lived experience of the gospel, my personal experiences, and my concerns that very few people of my generation (late 30s) and even fewer of our children, we’re taught that they can, and should, seek personal revelation and confirmation of things they are taught, even if it cones from a prophet. I consider my grandmother, who joined the church in the 1950s, and who disagreed with the priesthood ban and the way black members of her ward and stake were treated. She said that for years she prayed and received personal revelation that it was wrong, and she asked to be released from being part of the injustices, by leaving the church that committed then. Each time she experienced the intense desire to be done with the problematic church, she received inspiration about specific people to talk to and share her concerns with, as well as ways that that she could lift up and support the saints who were being treated badly.

    My grandmother came very close to leaving right after my birth, when my parents had asked a man in the ward who was a priest to gold the microphone during the blessing. A visiting General Authority saw this, and insisted on a change being made, so the “negros wouldn’t tarnish my blessing.” Apparently, I started crying as soon as he was replaced, and kept it up for the entire time. (My mom doesn’t remember that, but she admits that the blow out diaper right after my blessing is her main memory of the day. It wasn’t until one of my cousins told me the story, passed on to her by her mother who was there that day, that I got independent verification.) She just couldn’t understand why it had happened, since there was nothing wrong with any priest, regardless of skin color, holding a microphone for the blessing. Being upset didn’t stop her from remembering several specific things in the blessing, including that I would find my place in the world after many trials, but “if I likened myself unto the prophets of old, that I would serve all God’s children.” And, “that like the Savior, I would forsake the ninety and nine, when the one had been driven away.”

    After 2 months of intense study and prayer, she went to a ward temple night. They needed people for initiatory, and my grandmother was surprised when the temple president had specifically asked her to join them. It was during that time, that she felt like her wrestle with God was answered. (Her wrestles with church leaders went on for the rest of her life.) As she felt, and not just heard, that she was clean from the blood of this generation, she could feel the truth of that, and the additional direction to teach her grandchildren how to receive revelation, and how to know whether a revelation, calling or assignment comes from God or man.

    Not all of my siblings or cousins appreciate how important that was to her. She died suddenly, and I think that she would have opened up more, to more people, if she had lived longer.

    Still, even if not everyone knows the stories behind *why,* all of us remember her admonition after every conference to pray and have a confirmation that the things said in the talk, or the calling of a new apostle, was “true.” I am not sure if anyone else ever went to her to discuss talks or other things from our leaders, that the answers to my prayers, was that it was not completely true, or that it was not God’s will. I guess you could say those conversations were my first experiences with a faith crisis. Part of what kept me in the church, was her confirmation that of course mortal men mess up, mortal women too. What was important was that I could always ask, and expect an answer, about anything. She used to say that “Moroni’s Promise doesn’t stop working at baptism.”

  24. Jason K. says:

    Thank you for this, juliathepoet.

  25. Sorry for a bit of a threadjack, Jason, but, in the spirit of life sometimes forcing a likening experience on us:

    juliathepoet, one of the most powerful experiences I have had in my decades of attending the temple was in Atlanta, GA. I was serving in a Stake Mission Presidency in Alabama, and we had been talking for a while about how to overcome the racial prejudices that existed in our stake – both extensively outside the Church (within all races) and, to a much smaller degree, inside the Church.

    I was in an endowment session, and when the Lord reached through the veil, He was black.

    I will never forget that moment, and it still hits me hard every time I remember it.

  26. Thanks for this, Jason.

    Sometimes I think it would help if the rigid versification of the scriptures didn’t lend themselves so well to proof-texting and cherry-picking. One of the things i’ve enjoyed and found helpful – and your post has actually helped my put into words one of th things I find helpful about it – is to get one of those Herald House reprints of the 1830 Book of Mormon with big chapters and no verses, and just read it like – well, you know. Like a book. :) The sweep of the story, and some of the thoughts Nephi has, can come through more clearly when I’m not constantly checking footnotes and counting verses. I look forward to doing this again with an eye to what you’ve pointed out.

  27. Jason K. says:

    Yes, the versification does lend itself to a not-always-helpful kind of reading (although it is useful for reference). Oremus (bible.oremus.org) has an option for leaving verse numbers out, and many modern translations de-emphasize the verse numbers–and even the chapter divisions when these don’t really make sense. Grant Hardy’s edition of the Book of Mormon from a few years back is also useful in this way.

  28. I think this approach is fine as long as the individual keeps in mind that they are finding meaning to fit their personal circumstance and that is not necessarily the original author’s intent. History is replete with examples of people justifying their evil works with scriptures even though it conflicts with with the context that the scripture was given in. Basically, likening the scriptures to yourself is a way for you to make sense of your circumstances, and to find meaning. This is a much more comforting position than feeling there is no meaning or rationalization for what is happening. Those who don’t believe in scripture will use other things to find meaning – seems to be a natural human response.

    Another thing, if likening the scriptures to yourself leads you to cause harm to others, you’re doing it wrong. Likening the stories of the Israelites annihilating other people to situations where you have enemies is not a good thing. If you liken annihilating other people to eliminating your own personal weaknesses, this can be a good thing if it is done in wisdom and order.

    You would hope that this wouldn’t need to be explicitly said, but history proves otherwise.

  29. Jason K. says:

    Agreed. Nephi’s interpretation of Isaiah touches on original intent tangentially at best.

  30. Michelle says:

    For what it’s worth, my husband and I, who are active life long members, have just been asked by our bishop what could be the root causes of our recent faith crisis. He nicely hinted that if we were more devout in paying tithing or temple attendance, that this would not be happening to us. He very kindly encouraged/challenged us to pay tithing, pray, and read scriptures to receive a witness/testimony/reassurance of the truthfulness of the BOM and JS being the true prophet of the restoration. He’s so kind and caring, but to hear from him and the EQ president the same insinuations about our faithfulness/lifestyle is just damaging. So….basically I feel like I have to pay for an answer from God. Why is who I am as a person not good enough? It’s always, “read more, “tithe more”, “pray more”. It’s never attainable. The member must be to blame for the faith crisis. What is the member doing to invite the faith crisis? Because it certainly couldn’t be any other reason.

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