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.