We’re a Church with a canon. An agreed-upon book of authoritative stories, teachings, commandments. Sometimes I feel canon claustrophobia, other times I sense a liberating opportunity. I’ve gone through periods when I put my scripture study on hold. Sometimes an excerpt of scripture off-ends me when I’m simply seeking stability. A curious chapter in John describes such a moment:
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Verily, verily, I say to you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I’ll raise them up at the last day.’ From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:53-54, 66).
Jesus’s words proved a scandal, an obstruction, an offense, blocking the path. Perhaps the disciples’ sin here wasn’t their offense, but their decision to “walk no more with him.” At this point we can all likely agree that 1) Scripture sometimes offends, and 2) Offense does not, itself, signal the lack of truth or goodness. If we refuse to engage with texts that are initially difficult, I think we’ll fail to allow scripture to move us; we become the scandal, the obstacle, the unmoved mover. I can make a number of interpretive moves when faced with an offense. I can read Jesus’s words here figuratively as though he’s not demanding literal cannibalism.
While I embrace this charitable approach to scripture in principle, it’s more difficult for me in application. The question is: To what extent am I obligated or allowed to creatively re-read a text, to shear it of an original context, to rework it from its self-evident (to the extent that such a thing is possible) meaning? Aren’t I slipping into a different form of inerrantism when I try to rehabilitate any little thing based on its being present in a certain collection of books?
To complicate matters, the Book of Mormon’s title page throws us for a loop:
“And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God…”
This clause is like Pinocchio’s paradox. It tells me it contains faults, but how do I know that statement itself isn’t a fault? Regardless of how one solves that puzzle, here and in other places the BoM allows for the possibility of its own fallibility. It also provides opportunities to recognize possible faults. Consider the verse Kristine referred to yesterday, another instance where cannibalism receives attention. In Moroni 9 certain nameless women are depicted as being “deprived” of their “virtue and chastity” through rape. At the heart of Kristine’s concern is her objection to the idea that such a violent act can deprive someone else of their virtue or chastity, with reference to virginity, or at least the restriction of sexual intercourse to the bonds of legal marriage. (This is what Elizabeth Smart so forcefully rejected this week.)
So what do I do? This scripture is an offense that can be approached in a variety of ways. Some wish to defend a “plain reading” of the text and accept its claims as inspired, given that it appears in an inspired translation from a prophet. Again, the title page’s warning can be invoked. I’m skeptical of surface readings of our scriptures which assume too much context from the outset. The BoM culture, its ancient setting, is at a significant remove from us, and although we have no bullet-proof cultural setting for it, engagement with ancient cultures can result in text-morphing discoveries. At the same time, the BoM text has since been filtered through a nineteenth-century translation process, born again into a culture that also has become largely foreign to us today. So I might ask what the words referred to in Webster’s 1828 dictionary. Then again, the text is re-purposed through the contemporary Church’s lens of “chastity,” a concept that hasn’t been static over time.
Whose context is the proper one here? This gets to the heart of debates about proper BoM interpretation. Some may argue that ancient studies provide the best hope for understanding the context of the scriptures. The implication is that originalist readings thus have some sort of authority over present-day readers, that we must maintain fidelity to the original sense of the text. But even Nephi didn’t really do that with Isaiah. The interpretive options for Moroni 9:9 multiply, but I don’t feel replenished yet. If there be faults, they be the mistakes of men. I’m instructed not to condemn the things of God, but the mistakes of men are left to fend for themselves.
Two points left unresolved:
- If there is no necessary “self-evident” reading, how can I avoid lapsing into textual anarchy or falling under the bogeyman of relativism?
- How do I know I’m not simply using that “faults of men” escape hatch to avoid something I otherwise should engage with which offends me?
I have no satisfactory response to these questions. For now I think the best option is to keep directly engaging the text together, to acknowledge my feelings about it. Skipping over the verse on chastity, for example, leaves it in the path where others may stumble. We as readers are always faced with a choice and a chore, especially in cases where scripture says something we find offensive. On the one hand, the escape hatch of fallible scripture can become a way of escaping from calls to repentance. On the other hand, I think it can be understood as one of the most explicit and intriguing calls to repent—one of the best signals for the necessity of repentance—in all of scripture.
Even our holy book needs redemption.