Today’s guest post is by Mike S. We’ve all played the game of telephone when we were little – and sometimes still do when we’re teaching Primary. One person says a simple phrase, and as it’s passed along, the phrase degrades. It’s always humorous what comes out at the other end of the line of people. It seems so simple, yet nearly always fails. Why?
There are a number of theories of communication. In a fairly straightforward way of thinking about it, there are 3 levels: abstract, conceptual, and expressed. Abstract is the highest level and is fairly amorphous. It is a concept that exists in your mind. It may be subconscious or realized. Next, the concept enters the conceptual level as we prepare to express it. Things here are colored. We have to grab on to the abstract thought in a concrete way. We use vocabulary words in our language. We relate to things we have experienced. And finally, the concept is expressed externally. This may be written or typed, it may be spoken, it may be expressed some other concrete way. For communication, all three levels are essential to go from an internal, abstract thought to an external representation of that thought.
For example: we often hear in the scriptures of a thought that is so profound that “neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things” (3 Nephi 17:15-17). This is a difficulty going from the abstract to the conceptual level. Prophets seeing future events in a vision may simply not have the vocabulary to talk about something. Imagine Moses trying to describe a computer or a black hole. Book of Mormon prophets complained that their writing was weak, or engraving the plates was hard (Ether 12:22-23), representing a difficulty in going from the conceptual to the expressed level.
When more than one person is involved, this becomes communication, which is even more complex. Person A, Mary, formulates a concept from the abstract in her mind and expresses it in words, moving down through the levels. Person B, Bob, hears the words, then has to go backwards back up the levels to determine what Mary actually meant.
This can break down in many places. Bob may not hear what Mary had to say because it is a loud environment or because he is hard of hearing from too much loud music on his iPod. Mary may have a foreign accent or use words that aren’t in Bob’s vocabulary. Even if the words are heard correctly, Bob may interpret them differently at the conceptual level based on past experiences, past conversations, etc. Finally, it gets up to Bob’s abstract level, which hopefully is the same as it was on Mary’s abstract level.
So, how does this apply to scripture?
Imagine an Old Testament prophet. He (they generally seem to be men) has an impression or a vision or in some way receives God’s word. This is the highest, abstract level. He must then express the abstract thought at a conceptual level using vocabulary and terms familiar to him. Finally, this must be expressed through writing or verbally.
Assuming it’s writing, how do we get it today? The words had to be preserved. Perhaps there were intermediate steps involving oral transmission before it was written down. Hopefully none of the writings were lost and the manuscript was perfectly intact. Centuries (and possibly multiple copies) later, a translator had to read the words, conceptualize them, and process it at an abstract level to understand what the prophet originally meant. This may be close but it is necessarily colored by the translator’s own experiences. The abstract thought then has to be conceptualized in a different language, and written down again on a second manuscript. Anyone who has tried translation understands that this can be very difficult. One word may have a number of different meanings in a second language, making mistranslation possible. Or a number of different words in one language may all be expressed by the same word in a second language, thus losing precision.
Continue this process through multiple centuries and translations, and possibly ulterior motives, and eventually you get to the King James Version of the English Bible, for example, expressed in 17th century English. Like a game of telephone, meanings and context can be changed or lost. We can get the general picture, but some details may or may not be fuzzy. Much effort has been made in more recent translations of the Bible to go “further upstream”, to find earlier manuscripts closer to the original, but there are still potential problems.
Contrast this with the Book of Mormon and the Qu’ran. These are both books that claim to jump past all of this. For the Qu’ran, it is considered in Arabic to be the literal word of Allah as given through the angel Gabriel, and is accepted as proof that Muhammad was a true prophet. Other translations, such as the one I read in English, are designed to give a good idea of what the Qu’ran means, but are not considered Allah’s literal words.
Similarly with the Book of Mormon, witnesses state that Joseph Smith dictated exactly what was to be written down. He spelled unfamiliar names. The scribe would read back each section and the process wouldn’t continue until it was correct. Given this, the assumption is made that the Book of Mormon, in English, is exactly as God would have it be. It has been described as the “most correct book”.
Even with the Book of Mormon, however, there can be the same problems with communication. Book of Mormon prophets talk about their weaknesses in writing. The language of the Book of Mormon is necessarily filtered through Joseph Smith’s vocabulary, including 19th century American English and 17th century KJV constructs.
So we come to today. At this point, the Book of Mormon and the Bible are really just words on a page. For them to have an impact in our lives, we must get from those words on a page to the abstract level of our minds. And just like above, distortions can occur. Some readers may have bad vision or may encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. We all suffer from unfamiliar context (particularly in the Isaiah sections). Even if we read the words perfectly, the concepts are necessarily colored by our biases and prejudices and experiences. At the abstract level, do we all get the same thing out of the exact same words? No – two people can read the exact same scripture and have two different interpretations of it.
So, how can we ever know what was whispered in the ear of the first person in the telephone line? If there are so many places where a simple message can be distorted between a prophet and ourselves, how can we truly understand what God meant?
This is where the Holy Ghost plays an essential role. The Holy Ghost does not rely on any of the different levels of communication. He can talk directly from abstract to abstract, bypassing all of the areas where distortion can occur, independent of vocabulary or any other limitations. He can give us “pure” knowledge, uncolored by mortal man. This is why we are told to search, pray, and ponder. Our reading of the the scriptures may be imperfect, but the inexpressible, abstract knowledge given by the Holy Ghost directly to our mind can be perfect.
– This is great in theory, but how do we do this in practice? What can we do to access the Holy Ghost as our companion when we read scripture?
– Given that the Qu’ran and the Book of Mormon are considered “perfect” books – ie. written down EXACTLY as God/Allah intended in their primary language, how do we deal with the “mistakes” present in them? Or are they true books of scripture, but not necessarily “perfect” books any more than the Bible? (Article of Faith 8)
– I have felt peace when I encountered truth in the Bible and Book of Mormon, but I’ve also felt it reading the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, etc. Does the Holy Ghost only testify of truth leading to the LDS Church (ie. essence of Moroni’s promise: BofM true -> JS prophet -> LDS Church only true Church, etc) or does He testify of truth where ever we may find it, which may in practicality serve to confirm the “truth” of people practicing other non-LDS religions?