Entitled to Interpret

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!


  1. You really bring up an interesting point here. I have found myself looking through scriptures trying to find a story that illustrates a point that I think is correct. Sometimes it is there, sometimes it isn’t.

    That being said, I don’t believe there is one interpretation to any scripture. Scriptures are what they mean to you when you read them. We have all heard that one scripture reread several times throughout our lives will mean different things each time.

    I guess the bottom line is the Holy Ghost. We always have the Spirit to tell us what they need to mean to us at that time. That doesn’t mean we need to get up and share that with everyone at the next Fast and Testimony meeting… but then again it might… :)

  2. “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.”

    Fascinating post, Amri.

    Can you provide a specific example of what you are talking about here? I want to know what you mean by “interpret difficult scriptures to mean other things.”

    If that’s too intrusive a question, or if it feels confrontational, feel free to ignore it.

    Personally, I think we need to work “through” difficult scripture to find an explanation or arrive at an understanding that still “fits” the scripture or text that we are talking about.

    Sometimes, if that’s just not possible, we might have to put a particularly difficult text on the mental back burner, so to speak, until we have more information or are better capable of understanding what it is saying.

    I would not want to deliberately mis-interpret or ignore a text. If there’s something I dislike about a scripture or if it makes me uncomfortable (if something makes the passage “difficult”) then there must be some kind of mental/spiritual process that needs to happen.

    Of course there are always many, many things that we are not going to understand, ever (in mortality, I mean).

  3. My view.

    Appeal to Authority regarding difficult scriptures.

    Typically I use the writings of various GA’s with difficult scriptures. My favorite is Jesus the Christ

    Also prayer.

  4. danithew–one of a few that comes to mind is the whole peculiar people idea (Stapley walks away, muttering) It doesn’t fit in with what I think of God at all to have one peculiar people, special than all the rest. It especially complicates things in the OT when they’re allowed to kill people because they’re peculiar. That idea is too much for me to handle so I ignore it or write it off to this being a text written by the peculiar people so of course they’re peculiar. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of scriptures on women. Even with OD 1, section 132 makes me feel awkward.You say that I mental/spiritual process needs to happen but God authorizing killing isn’t one I can reconcile.

    But then when people say homosexuality is wrong because Sodom was destroyed because of it, I’m like what? You can’t interpret it like that. Ezekiel even says later that it’s because of severe inhospitability. But still that interpretation is clung to.

    Mormon Techie, the problem with the Holy Ghost being the bottom line is that often times it’s hard to discern the Spirit. Really good feelings (like when I think I’m right) could be the Spirit could not be. I think that’s why holy people have interpreted them for so long since we believe they have better access to the Spirit.

  5. Amri,

    Perhaps when we are (or were) young and more trusting, we might have believed that individual verses of the scriptures, had meanings that were static. But other than applying such broad brush commentary such as “all scriptures lead us back to God” there seem to be many interpretations and applications. One might quote with vigor Nephi’s creedo of obedience (1st Nephi 3:7) as an incentive for a child to clean his room and wash the car. But someone else might point out, that there seemed to be a lack of humility on the part of Nephi or that he was brash and should certainly have never written self-serving comments. Later he refers to himself as a “wretched man” but how comfortable are we listening in conference to stories that seem a bit immodest rather than those that are told from a self-deprecating mode.

    Is it enough to say that if a particular verse makes me uncomfortable that I need to focus more effort on repentance? Possibly. But we are also taught that “discouragement” is Satan’s best and most effective tool. Where is the healthy line between introspection and discouragement and is it always clear in the scriptures? I, like you, read some verses and feel worse than when I started. Conversely, the sweetness of King Benjamin’s counsel, although pointed at times, routinely seems to provide the incentive to improve without the fire and brimstone.

    Another great post where you have articulated the thoughts and thus confusion of many of us.

  6. Great post, Amri.

    On one hand, we teach that it was the proliferation of personal interpretation sans Spirit that led to the condition that necessitated the Restoration – and that the Book of Mormon was written largely to help an apostate world understand what the Bible really teaches. (Mormon 7) Also, there is a very strong sense of not wresting scripture to justify something that the prophets never intended to teach. Finally, there are some scriptures that I believe really do lose their power and immediacy if they are not taken literally.

    On the other hand, I also have read the same passage at different times and gotten different lessons out of it – and given a talk to a group of people and had them hear very different things. We carry on discussions like this within a forum like this largely to hear perspectives that can influence and even alter our own. We are taught to recognize and honor nuances in our collective understanding – even when some expressions of those individual views by our former leaders have to be massaged or rejected completely. (Adam-God is easy, but there are way too many to try to list.)

    FWIW, this whole issue of finding individual balance (of muddling through the middle) is one of my favorite aspects of the Gospel we teach. It also is the biggest reason I shake my head in perpetual incredulity whenever I hear the “Mormonism is a cult” bile. I lived and taught high school in the Deep South Bible Belt, and I saw first-hand how much MORE freedom we have – how much MORE we are encouraged to create our own unique views on most questions – than are those who attend most conservative / evangelical churches.

    Not to create a threadjack, PLEASE, but discussions of abortion, gay rights and politics tend to be FAR more diverse and wide-ranging among Mormons than among most evangelicals. Also, while Mormons do tend to vote Republican as a collective body, the % actually is lower than most white, evangelical congregations in the Bible Belt – where the % approaches 100% more often than not.

    When JS said, “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves,” I think he was addressing exactly what Amri is in this post – the struggle to balance the literal with the figurative / interpretive – the effort to understand the Gospel and God’s will for one’s self. The principle might teach, “Study the scriptures,” but the governance places the responsibility for what is learned on each student – even if it is pursued within very basic guidelines with some strict standards.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    “Are we allowed to make the scriptures mean what we want or need them to mean?”

    Of course. I think they’re intended to work that way. The only danger comes when we insist that a reading is the only way to read it – even if we mean that to apply only to ourselves.

  8. The secret to understanding what the Scriptures mean is that we have to do what they say. Sounds like a pat answer, but it really is easier said than done. Actually living what Jesus taught is hard, really hard. But, it is necessary in order to know the mind of God. The scriptural view of knowledge is one of experiential knowledge, not an intellectual ascent. The fundamentals of Christ’s teachings are easily grasped from an intellectual standpoint, and if we actually do them, then we can discern the mind of God because we become familiar with Him and His ways and His desires through experience.

    Naturally, there are plenty of Scriptural texts that are difficult or problematic, and nothing can take the place of investing the time and effort necessary in gathering available history for context and reviewing existing commentary, parsing through the good and hopefully being somewhat inspired enough to understand. But, even in doing all this, we, as individuals, have to maintain our humility and accept that we can be wrong about things. Especially when it comes to theological esoterica, which is often rife with speculation.

    Frustration over messy or difficult texts is only to be expected. If that frustration propels an individual to study more and read more and be more open to learning more to get to the bottom of things, then it is a good thing. If the frustration causes the individual to throw up their hands and give up, looking for an excuse or an easy out, then it is not a good thing. The Scriptures are messy because people and the world are messy. Its a big messy, imperfect place where people do bad things, and that is reflected in the Scriptures. Accept it and keep working on it.

    As far as interpreting the Scriptures and likening them to ourselves, or what is a legitimate means of interpreting them and what isnt, that is not a question anyone can easily answer. I personally hate acontextual readings, but the fact is Jesus himself uses them, so what am I supposed to say? “CUT IT OUT!!!”? No. It doesnt work that way. Sometimes acontextual readings are valid, and sometimes they arent. My approach to them is: If someone comes up with a reading that is acontextual and there is no general external (i.e., somewhere else in the canon) support for it and there are contextual readings that are hostile to it or contradict it, then it must be rejected. If an acontextual reading has general external support and there are no hostile passages or contradictions elsewhere, then accept it is valid, on the premise of “by two or three witnesses shall every word be established”.

  9. I like to consider interpreting scripture in terms of the alternative(s). We often want more guidance and easier answers, but we also complain often when we get extra guidance and feel spoon-fed. Which is better for us – “plain and precious” things or “obvious” things? “Plain” doesn’t have to mean “simple”; it also can mean “unadorned” or “uncovered”. I prefer the latter more than the former, especially in view of the translation issue of what has been handed down in the Bible – and the fact that most of the scriptures are not “simple” to me.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting thoughts, Amri.

    I know a lot of people lust after the fleshpots of having but one, authoritative, interpretation for everything. But if we were to do that it may well look something like Mormon Doctrine, so be careful what you wish for. I personally am glad that we do not try to pick one interpretation of everything, set in stone for all time and try to jam it down everyone’s throats.

    I don’t think we have infinite elasticity in interpreting scripture, particularly if we want anyone else to accept our interpretation. There may be a variety of ways of understanding a given passage, but some are going to be more persuasive than others. One must show a willingness to articulate and defend a given explanation before anyone else is going to accept it.

  11. I’m with you Kevin, I don’t want one authoritative view on the scriptures partially because I want my own room to think and also because the scriptures are often so open to interpretation. But I do wonder where limits are. And if the limits are way out there then how authortative do the scriptures continue to be if we can understand them in many many many different ways.

    Extreme Dorito, I can’t live everything they say. And I think many times that would make us ridiculous. They are meant to be transcendant but they were written within certain contexts that no longer apply. As a woman, I don’t have to cover my head, I can cut my hair, I can speak in church. Admit it, do we not quietly think when we met people in religions like that that they’re too strict, weirdly strict about Biblical interpretation?

    Ray, the word alternatives doesn’t sound very authoritative.

  12. Amri,

    Your post at first made me a little uncomfortable, but as I have reread it, I think you are right on. It is easy to start with a predetermined thesis, and then go find scriptural support for it. The only problem is then when you take the other side, you can almost always find the contradictory passages of scripture to support the alternate thesis. Learning how to set the bounds and discipline of scriptural inquiry is important, and Extreme Dorito, with his discussion of reading out of context, but then finding validation for that reading, seems helpful.

    I like how Nephi often referred to the scriptures, “likening them unto ourselves”, to find personal applications to the problems we are currently facing. I believe that is how the Lord intended much of scripture to be used. I also get the sense that some of the prophets wrote scriptures more as personal journals, or because they were commanded, not always knowing the intent to which scriptures would be put to use by us (or by the Lord). I find passages like that in the Bible and the BoM.

    I, like Ray, have often found that the same passage will suddenly spring to mind with a different meaning than under previous readings, and attribute that to the workings of the spirit. In 1 Nephi 11:1, Nephi talks about “desiring” to know the vision that his father had seen, “believing” that he could know it, and then while “pondering” the scriptures, he was caught up in the vision, and saw with greater detail more than his Father had recounted seeing. I think that is an instructive example for us in an approach to scripture.

    There is also an interesting discussion of approaching scripture on the Sunstone Blog. I’ve been thinking about that one in relation to this.

    Scripture study to me, like most aspects of enticing the spirit, is similar to physical exercise. If you want to develop greater endurance, you increase your exercise time, monitor your results, and repeat it on a regular schedule. The more regular my scripture study, the better the results, and the more likely I am to feel the spirit in that study. And like exercise, where jogging and strength training can have benefits when applied tto specific skill-based sports (ie better rebounding in basketball), general scripture study then can be applied to specific questions or issues that come up in your life with better results.

  13. Wow,

    That was longer than I planned. I guess I was trying to say that we are entitled to our own interpretations of scripture, and not leaning to one authority only, with the spirit as our guide to show us where the limits are. The Sunstone post addresses an alternative approach to the uncomfortable aspects of a literalistic approach to scripture which all of us seem to have some resistance to.

  14. You’re right, Amri. I re-read how I used “alternative(s)” and realized it was a case of knowing what I “meant” to say.

    I meant that I would rather have to interpret most of the scriptures than the alternative(s) – being told simply to read without trying to understand the mysterious word of God (advice a former student of mine actually received in his quest to become a youth minister), or being taught that rote recitation is understanding enough, or having all scripture written in the form of obvious command, etc.

  15. mutter…mutter…mutter…

    On another note, I think Kevin is correct. I tend to think of Scriptures as a means and not an end.

  16. This post reminds me of the merchant of venice when Shylock pleads for mercy and cites a scripture and they yell at him saying “The devil can cite scripture to suit his purpose!”

    Conversly it also reminds me of the Rocko’s Modern life when they tied him to a post and were going to pelt him hotdogs and bowling balls until they died for not believing their ways. They bring out their scriptures and read, “And lo, if there be one who does not believe in your ways. Yea, do not tie them to a pole and pelt him with hot dogs and bowling balls until their death. Instead let them go that their days might be long and happy.”

    When Rocko points out that their scripture says to let them go the leader throws the scriptures away and say, “Eh, it’s all in how you interpret it.”

    Personally I’ve found personal interpretation to be more of a dangerous and to include turning blind eyes to other scriptures. A lot of horrible things have been done because of misinterpreted scripture.

    I personally try to take things at face value and try not to read too much into it. This is a lot easier with the OT and NT because you can go and research history and try to find out what they really meant. However, with the BoM you don’t have that historical reference which makes it harder.

  17. Amri, thanks for your extended answer and examples (in comment #4).

    I don’t always know how to take the scriptures where God tells people to kill. One verse that interests me though, in the context of attempting to answer that question (how can God command a group of people to kill another group of people?) is Genesis: 15:16 which reads:

    But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

    In this verse, God is talking to Abraham and as I understand it, predicting that a time will come when Abraham’s descendants will conquer their land of inheritance – but God is delaying this process because the Amorites (who are inhabiting that land) are not sufficiently iniquitous to deserve the punishment that later generations will suffer. How is reading that verse helpful? I guess I try to imagine whether or not a group of people can be sufficiently wicked that God would command their destruction. Can I imagine that a group of people could be that wicked? I think I can.

    That verse might not be helpful to you. It’s just something that works for me – showing, as I understand it, that God views people as they are and that he won’t destroy people who aren’t deserving such a harsh fate.

    You bring up other general issues of scriptures about women or scriptures about homosexuality – and how they are interpreted. Rather than respond to them myself I’ll just say what should be obvious – that I don’t have all the answers to everything in the scriptures. Not even close.

    Thank you though for providing the examples – it helped me better understand the post and what it is talking about.

  18. kevinf–I also like being able to make the scriptures my own because they help me sort out my own thoughts, but because it is the word of God I wonder if that invalidates it sometimes. On a sidenote: Didn’t your son have has wedding? It went well? I’m really really glad. For being “joyous occasions” they’re exceptionally stressful.

    Muttering Staples–but why are we allowed to decide that they’re a means a not an end.

    Ronito–Merchant of Venice and Rocko’s Modern Life in one comment? You must be authoritative.

  19. Amri, of course you cannot live everything they say, nobody realistically expects that, youre not going to go out and start sacrificing sheep, goats and turtledoves. And, yes, you can cherry pick problematic outliers all day long. However, what Jesus taught and what we are to do about what he taught is pretty plain, and sensible people can come to agreement very easily on the fundamentals (e.g., Sermon on the Mount). That is what Jesus was talking about in John 7. Live a godly life, maintain a godly walk and the doctrines of God will become clear to you because you have reconciled yourself to God. Easy to say, hard to do.

    As for Paul’s seeming strictures on women, a careful read of those passages and taking the JST/IV into account indicates the issue was local women attempting to usurp the Priesthood and rule the local congregation, so Paul imposed a local solution to encourage humility and temper pride.

  20. I agree, ronito, with the basic message of your last two paragraphs (and I LOVE the Rocko example), but one of the problems all of us face is that we have very little if any “scripture” that can be understood without the need to interpret to some degree. I think that is obvious with regard to the OT and NT, simply because we can research and find 1,238 interpretations of any particular Biblical passage – and 312 of them actually are coherent.

    Even the Book of Mormon poses the same challenge, although the competing interpretations aren’t as numerous. IMHO, the challenge is differentiating between those scriptural passages that were “intended” originally to be literal and still apply to us, those that were intended to be literal but might not apply anymore, those that were intended to be allegorical or figurative or multi-faceted and either apply or don’t apply to us, etc.

    “Thou shalt not kill” seems pretty straightforward and simple – until you research and think about it. Yes, it can be over-thought and bastardized beyond recognition, but I believe it can be taken strictly at face value and cause major problems, as well.

    In the end, I like the Moroni 7 description of anything that motivates to do good and worship God being good and inspired of God. That’s the light I try to use when trying to understand scripture – or any non-canonical passage regardless of the source (inside or outside the Church), since much “scripture” (as defined officially) falls in that category.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    ED: “you’re not going to go out and start sacrificing sheep, goats and turtledoves”

    Speak for yourself.

  22. Amri: I might not have a man-bag or interpret much scripture but I do know my finer works of art.

    Ray: I see your point. But there’s a difference between likening the scriptures to yourself. And controting it to your needs. Like I said many people do really horrible things because to them it’s become their concept of “good”. I think we agree just in different ways.

  23. Amri,

    First off, the wedding went very well, beautiful day and all. The only problem came as my wife’s sister and her husband drove up from Utah on their Harley, got caught in a sudden thunderstorm on the way to the temple, and got soaked. At the end of the reception, we all stood on the shore of a small lake at the park where the reception was held, and waved sparklers as they rowed a small boat across the lake to where they had left their car. Huge metaphor for marriage, BTW, as they first couldn’t seem to paddle together and get the rowboat going in a straight line. After about two minutes, though, they got their act together, and finished strong.

    As to personal interpretations of scripture, let me take another shot at it. It’s okay, when we understand the bounds. We don’t read scripture to find the answers for the whole church, but we do read them to get answers for ourselves, and our stewardships. Personal interpretations are valid when they are not totally out of context, and are used for us for ourselves, our families, and the church callings we have. “Thou shalt not kill” is probably one that, based on Nephi’s experience, is not so much open to personal interpretation, the only logical modifications of that commandment being at the Lords’ discretion. Obviously, there are others like that, but I find that personal interpretations usually address something of a more mundane nature, related to my own needs at the time.

  24. Joshua A. says:

    The scriptures would be empty, hollow, and rather useless if we could not use our own understanding to interpret them to fit our own situations and fill our needs. I tend to agree with Martin Luther: “Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason … ” except that my personal opinion would change the “or” to “and.” Sure, some people come up with off-the-wall interpretations, and that exposes what I believe is one of the most serious deficiencies in Mormonism–the lack of serious debate/discussion in our learning the scriptures. Everyone gets offended and nobody likes to be told that they’re mistaken. In general, the greater emphasis is on niceness rather than truth.

  25. Great source, thread killer. :-)

  26. Fidelity and freedom in translation have traditionally been regarded as conflicting tendencies …

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Benjamin :

    … in his essay The Task of the Translator …[Walter Benjamin] argues that any literary translation, by definition, produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text. In the deformed text, otherwise hidden aspects of the original are elucidated, while formerly obvious aspects become unreadable. Benjamin considers this mortification of the text productive; when placed in a specific constellation of works and ideas, newly revealed affinities between historical objects appear and are productive of philosophical truth.

    The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue …

    Where a text is identical with truth or dogma, where it is supposed to be “the true language” in all its literalness and without the mediation of meaning, this text is unconditionally translatable. In such case translations are called for only because of the plurality of languages. Just as, in the original, language and revelation are one without any tension, so the translation must be one with the original in the form of the interlinear version, in which literalness and freedom are united. For to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings. The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation …

  27. A pacifist is worried about us being to nice? :-)

  28. Ranbato says:

    Re: #4 & #17
    I have always thought of mortality as God taking all of the kids to the neighborhood pool. He keeps an eye on us and sends us warnings whenever we get too rowdy, etc. Every once in a while, someone steps out of line too far and its, “You! Out of the pool! You’re grounded!” To the kids it is can seem devastating; but it isn’t really.
    It also helps to remember D&C 121:7:

    thine afflictions shall be but a small moment

    If the universe is ~12 billion years old, and I live for 100 years, my stay in mortality will be 0.000000008% of the life of the universe so far. That is a pretty insignificant length of time.

    I am not trying to say that God is insensitive in any way, just that He has a much longer perspective than we do. Just as our children often don’t understand our reasons for doing things for many years, I don’t expect to understand all of His.

  29. This thread begs the question…..

    What if an individuals interpretation of the scriptures is at dramatic loggerheads with the Bretherens?

    Who is then right? I would say the Bretheren but that is just my orthodoxy emerging.


  30. I’d say they’re most likely both wrong. But that’s just me.

  31. Seems like it takes a vision to get to Lima, no?

  32. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

    The life of the [Scriptures] attains [through new interpretations] its ever-renewed latest and most abundant flowering.

  33. smb–and if I wasn’t entitled to that vision then I’m stranded in Latin America! This is laden with problems. Where’s that fleshpot? I’m a-lusting.

  34. My visions have nothing to do with Lima, so they must be the correct ones.

  35. So the next time my family sees me naked, I’m going to curse them (But not all their generations after them)!

  36. Kristine says:

    What a great thread! Any discussion that includes “lusting after the fleshpots of authoritative interpretation” AND Walter Benjamin is a fine conversation indeed. Thanks, all!

  37. Nibley as nebbish is Benjamin.

    … men fool themselves when they think for a moment that they can read the scripture without ever adding something to the text, or omitting something from it.

  38. … as for women, well …

    Une femme n’aime que son maître.

    – Aubrey Andelin in Johnny Crapaud: Man of Steel and Velvet

  39. By the way, everyone knows we invented gunpowder and paper. We were also the first to come up with this little piece of advice:

    The palest ink is better than the best memory.

    As much as I’d like to take umbrage at the apparent misattribution, I find your rewording interesting:

    The weakest ink is stronger than the best memory.

    In this day and age, Weak/Strong works much better than the quaint Pale/Better, doesn’t it?

  40. Howdy admin,

    I think I’m either banned or my last comment on this post got stuck in the tubes.


    The comment itself was exceptionally germane.

    By the way, if you’ve read this far and decided to help … you rock!

    And, get a PayPal thingamajig I can click on your site so I don’t feel so guilty about bugging you,


  41. Re #25 …

    Luther as Interpreter

    “If all authority derives from the Word, do we have the right to translate [interpret] it? This seemingly simple-minded question has been the basis of strife between Catholics and Protestants for centuries. Luther defied the Fathers; he translated the Bible and founded Protestantism. In this act, he split the old world of Catholic unity, so paradoxically he increased divisiveness and contributed to the eventual horrors of the 30 Years War, through making the Word understandable to Germans. Benjamin would find Luther’s flaw in this, that he forgot that in translation, “Ihr Wesentliches ist nicht Mitteilung, nicht Aussage.”. Had Luther been less the activist and pragmatist and more the artist, he would have translated the Bible in a different way, with regard for the many voices within it, the work of many different authors, spanning centuries. Instead he made a polemic out of the Bible by providing it with his own unifying voice.”

  42. fwiw, I’m not sure Marianna is right that Benjamin would fault Luther as she’s suggested in the passage I quoted in #42. Rather, I suspect Benjamin would defend Luther’s right to be wrong. When Amri writes “I do not believe I am especially entitled” … I wonder “why not?” and suspect that Benjamin would seize on #31 and agree that, in the tension between personal and authoritative interpretations of scripture, “they’re most likely both wrong” … and proceed to celebrate our entitlement to being as wrong as we please.

  43. otoh, I’m quite sure Benjamin would fault the reliance of efficiency-regimes on “fleshpots of authoritative interpretation” … the Oaks talk linked to in #24 would appear to be guidance against unquestioning allegiance to some notion of a neat and tidy spiritual efficacy that posits a privileged class of entitled interpreters forever charged with guiding the meeker orders of believers …

    As best I recall, the Andelins were members of our ward for some brief period while I was growing up, so indulge me …

    The ideal man has the strength, endurance, and temperance of fine steel. […] A man of steel is a masculine man. He is aggressive, determined, decisive, and independent. He learns efficiency in the affairs of a man’s world, demanding quotas of himself in reaching an objective. He is competent in a task, fearless and courageous in the face of difficulty, and master of a situation. The velvet qualities include a man’s gentleness, his tenderness, kindness, generosity, and patience… He is chivalrous, attentive and respectful to the gentler sex and has an ability to love with tenderness. He has, in addition, an enthusiastic and youthful attitude of optimism which defies the press of years. […] Both the steel and velvet are necessary to produce a great character. There has never been a truly great man on the earth who was not a possessor of both.
    – Aubrey Andelin: Chapter 1, Man of Steel and Velvet

  44. Andelin supposes that “an enthusiastic and youthful attitude of optimism” may “def[y] the press of years” … but with the years, language will move on, and both Scripture and Commentary will be alternately obscured and illuminated as meaning is lost and found between the lines, and Andelin’s work will strike us not as “optimistic” but as now “oppressive” and later perhaps as something else entirely.

    “to want [as Amri suggests] the allowance of individual interpretation and simulateously want an authoritative text by which we can lead our lives, our families and our Church” is to want a Mormon Kabbalah that embraces both a personalization of Mormon concepts and a connection to the Mormon people, language, and homeland, i.e., esoteric interpretation within the context of Mormon history.

    I now crib shamelessly now from Gerschom Scholem, a fellow traveller of Benjamin’s.

    “Scholem stands in complex relation to his predecessors and his contemporaries. In particular, his historiography opposes that of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the nineteenth century “Science of Judaism” movement. The approach of this movement to the history of Judaism posed two major problems for Scholem. One was that it sought to study Judaism as a fixed, dead object, rather than as a vital, organic being. Equally, the major figures of the movement seemed to ignore the “basement” of Judaism — the irratonal forces which Scholem saw as vivifying the religion. For Scholem, the mythical and the mystical elements were just as important to Judaism as the rational and the legal.”

    To my mind, it would be disingenuous for any Mormon to relegate the “vivifying” notion of personal revelation to a Mormon basement, i.e., to devalue it out of fear it might introduce an unapproved narrative into the lives of those who should, if Mormon history means anything, be open to at least the possibility of such revelation.

  45. This is both a really difficult and incredibly important question to be discussing, and I am glad to see it come up here. I tried and aborted one response because I wanted to think about it some more. I don’t have any hard and fast rules to share.

    As far as the Bytheway example, I do not see any harm in what they are doing. They have taken a scripture and “likened it unto themselves.” They acknowledge that they may have stretched the interpretation a bit much. But they are not trying to set up their interpretation as the “only” or “correct” one.

    I would assert that there is a difference in “likening the scriptures” and interpreting the scriptures. When we liken, we are looking for application to our lives. Like when we read about the commandment to teach our children the Gospel and we realize that we need to do better with holding FHE. The Spirit can testify of this, it is entirely subjective and individual, and there is little or no need to introduce context, history, language, etc. into the reading of the scripture. We may share this insight with others, but under no circumstances can we insist that our reading is exclusive of any others.

    Interpreting the scriptures is trying to get at some deeper doctrinal meaning. We are not primarily trying to seek guidance for our lives, but rather searching out the mysteries of the Gospel. I know that some will scream, “WHO CARES?” but I think that there is some scriptural justification for this practice. Jesus told the Pharisees to “search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have life” (this is a paraphrase). He was talking about helping them have a doctrinal understanding of his role as Messiah. When we try to interpret the scriptures, we should do so with an abundance of caution. The Spirit may give us light and knowledge on the subject, but in order to have it with us, we will need to do our homework. There should be further caution as we consider teaching this interpretation to others. Even a doctrinal interpretation may not be exclusive, as scriptures change meaning over time and over the circumstances of the community.

    These are just my thoughts but I would be thrilled to see what others have to say.

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