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.
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.