Who came up with the idea of doing lessons and talks about talks, including very recent talks?  Is this an activity that removes us from our own serious personal study of the gospel or does it elevate current teachings with scripture and bolster current leaders’ authority by studying their words?  Is it a worthwhile practice?  Is it punishment for not listening to conference?

I was reading the intro to Stephen Prothero’s book, The American Bible:  Whose America Is This?  How Our Words Unite and Divide Us.  His book attempts to select books or other texts that form the basis of American values, much as the Bible functions for Christianity.  Given the inherent comparison, I couldn’t help but reflect on the way we engage with our scripture study as a community–or don’t.

Jews and Christians are often referred to as People of the Book. [1] Mormons, with additional books of scripture beyond the Bible, certainly should qualify for this title.  The manner in which Jews engage with their holy texts is an example to us all.  The texts are there to be debated, critiqued, commentaries written and then rebutted.  As Stephen Prothero states regarding the American texts we value:

These texts too affirm competing goods without offering a method for choosing among them.  So, rather than a record of the beliefs Americans hold in common, this book is a record of what Americans value.  More specifically, it is a record of what Americans value enough to fight about.

Are our scriptures and conference talks an ongoing debate about what we value?  Do we discuss competing goods and multiple interpretations?  He adds:

The way to wisdom here lies not in affirming simple truths but in engaging in difficult discussions.

Do we, in our Gospel Doctrine classes, engage in difficult discussions?  Or do we merely affirm simple truths and consider that when the correlation committee speaks, the thinking has been done?  Are the questions we ask thought-provoking or designed to yield “the same ten answers”?  The fact that we call them “Sunday School answers” tells me the answer, although I suspect that there are wards out there where members do engage in thoughtful debate about the issues raised in our texts.  Prothero raises the issue of fear of outside ideas infiltrating our values, a concern perhaps shared by those who prefer to exclude outside references in talks or lessons.

Whenever we say, “That is un-American” or “That is what America is all about,” we are declaring our allegiance to this republic.  And whenever our fellow citizens disagree with us, they are doing the same.  Such declarations are charged because our unity is fragile.  In every generation our pluribus threatens to overtake our unum; in every generation the nation must be imagined anew.  So we are forever anxious about possible threats to our unity: immigrants, traitors, un-American ideas.

Since the New Testament is full of parables, many of which have paradoxical meaning, they are ripe for debate.  It’s one reason the Bible has a long shelf life, not because it contains the answers, but because it poses difficult questions.  This is one reason that giving talks about talks is an idea with merit, depending upon its execution.  Individuals wrest with the scriptures, and then we wrest with their interpretations of the scriptures.  While some might say that removes us from the scriptures as source material, it also engages us with the ideas presented in the scriptures.  Or at least it has the potential to do so.  To paraphrase Prothero:

It is tempting to imagine that the [scriptures speak] with one voice–the voice of [God], perhaps.  It does not.  After all, [its authors] disagreed profoundly with one another . . . . after the speaking and the listening, we talk back. . . . what makes great books great:  their ability to generate commentary and controversy.

If you question the assertion that the scriptures don’t generate commentary and controversy, you must not have been paying attention in history class.  If there were one obvious interpretation of the word of God, there would be but one religion worldwide, or just one per holy text.

Within Mormonism, we have our own unique scriptures to debate.  Do we engage with them seriously enough to generate the level of engagement that the Bible has generated for two thousand years?  There are plenty of meaty topics, from the morality of Nephi slaying Laban [2] to the meaning of unrighteous dominion.  Are we debating these ideas in our wards or just regurgitating a sanitized, simplistic, literalist interpretation? [3]  If we aren’t debating the meaning of the scriptures, why not?  Is it a fear of conflict?  That’s certainly a Mormon concern, but also addressed in the book intro:

So incivility is our problem as well.  But what ails us is not just a matter of the words we choose or the tone we adopt.  There is also the matter of our collective amnesia.  The chain of memory linking us to the great voices of our collective past . . . has been broken.

To put it another way, we have been told what the scriptures say so much that we forget what they actually say. [4] We are content, like children, to be read to and shown pictures rather than to read.

  • Do you have deep discussions in your ward about the various ways to view the dilemmas posed by scripture stories?  Or is there one interpretation presented and allowed?
  • Do you like the talks about talks?  Do people question the interpretations or just use it to leader-worship the speakers whose talks they are talking about?  Is it used to engage more deeply with the texts or to bolster authority of church leaders?


[1]  The Quran specifically refers to monotheists that predate Islam in this way:

“If only the People of the Book had faith, it were best for them: among them are some who have faith, but most of them are perverted transgressors.

Not all of them are alike: Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (For the right): They rehearse the Signs of God all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration.

And there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in God, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to God. They will not sell the Signs of God for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord, and God is swift in account.”

[2] Or as Spock put it, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”  I was in a lesson that mentioned this story in conjunction with obedience, but without raising the problem that it posed for Laban, the one!  He wasn’t exactly Jesus, willingly sacrificing himself for others.  That seems a valid question to raise in this debate, which I did.

[3] Traditionally, our manuals aren’t great at teeing up difficult moral-debate type questions, but many of our better Gospel Doctrine teachers are.  And when they are not, hopefully the students are.  And one viewpoint, among many, that can be represented is certainly a literalist one.  It just shouldn’t be the only one.

[4]  This became very clear to me recently when I was teaching the Old Testament last year.  We shorthand the characters in the stories in ways that disconnect us from the text.  Prophets are all good and represent God.  Kings are either good or bad; we have a list in our heads to know which are which.  Groups of people are good or bad depending on their interactions with the chosen people.  These heuristics are ways of remaining distant from the text, not delving into it.  As I taught, I found that the lesson manual engaged in these exact same heuristics, and in so doing often misrepresented the text.  Class members were enlivened when we read the actual text, sans correlated interpretation, and they discovered that the prophet Samuel was very political, acting like most humans, not merely a mouthpiece for God.  They saw Saul as not really a king so much as a mafia kingpin.  Suddenly the motives of the text brought new ideas to the surface, ideas that were hidden in plain sight.