I enjoyed reading Hawkgrrrl’s recent post on “Talks on talks.” I too am concerned that the scriptures are getting displaced by General Conference talks. I have heard church members say that Conference talks are more important than the scriptures, because Conference talks are the words of living prophets. Many Mormons, including me, have found the words of various Conference talks to be God’s words for them. Yet, I believe that Conference talks are not equivalent to scriptures. Scriptures are a different genre, and teach in different ways from conference talks. Here are some reasons why I keep returning to the scriptures.
The scriptures are a record of our story. If we forget what God has done for us and our forefathers, then we forget God. For centuries the stories of the scriptures have shaped, defined our collective faith. Without the words of the scriptures to anchor us, our religion will be lost as quickly as a message in a child’s game of telephone.
The scriptures contain covenants and ordinances. These days we hear many talks in church emphasizing the importance of covenants and ordinances. Yet the actual ordinances and covenants are not written in Conference talks, they are written in the scriptures. These include not only personal ordinances and covenants like baptism and the sacrament, but also the big overarching covenants of God with humanity. These include covenants with people like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and the New Covenant that was initiated by Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Christian prayer is grounded in the promises of God (Life Together, Chapter 2). How can we know these promises if we haven’t studied the scriptures?
Scriptures contain prayers. General Conference includes prayers, but these function to open and close the meetings. They are not included in the Conference reports, and are not studied by church members. By contrast some of the most important words of the scriptures are contained within their prayers. Perhaps the most notable prayers in the scriptures are the prayers of Jesus and the Psalms. I pray Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. This frees me from the obligation of thinking up my own words and helps me to better internalize the words of God.
The scriptures contain contradictions. Contradiction and paradox is a fundamental feature of the human existence and human faith. The scriptures are a complicated dialogue with many voices and perspectives. The gospel is not a well-ordered series of principles and doctrines. Rather, it is an evolving story of a relationship between humankind and a remarkable personality who we call God.
The scriptures teach us that prophets are human. Prophets are products of their time and place. Prophets in the LDS scriptures had an unfortunate tendency to espouse violence, racism, and even genocide. This reflects the culture and values of the times in which they were written. The scriptures are full of humanity and were written according to the “knowledge” of the prophets (1 Ne 1:3). Moroni said that we should not “condemn” the prophets because of their imperfections, “but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been (Mormon 9:31).
The scriptures remind us that we are often wrong. For my formative years I was taught and believed that the scriptures were literal history. But since then my thinking has changed dramatically. For example, I now believe that humans evolved from animals and that Native Americans came from Asia over 10,000 years ago. I’ve come to believe that the scriptures are true, but they are not always factual. This doesn’t decrease their worth, but rather increases it. We need to be reminded of the dangers of using religious text to infer factual knowledge. This reminds us to be humble and open-minded.
The scriptures teach moral responsibility. Sometimes they do this by showing us how we don’t want to be (see the section on violence). Rules, principles, and doctrines have a tendency to come with expiration dates. But stories have a way of teaching moral truth that is timeless. I believe that for fully-developed human adults, true moral responsibility is not ultimately defined by a set of fixed rules. I believe that morality is inherently contextual, and therefore can only be taught and understood through stories and experiences.
The scriptures teach a universal faith. I have a pastor friend who is fond of saying “When the Bible says all it means ALL”. It might surprise you to review how many universal promises are made, even in the Old Testament. The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God”, and Paul teaches that in the gospel, “in Christ Jesus … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). The scriptures, for all their shortcomings and human failures, are remarkable in the fact that they teach a gospel that transcends all the ways that humans divide themselves up: like gender, race, nationality, religion, etc. In my mind, perhaps the greatest evidence of the truth of the New Testament is the miracle that people living in the cruel and “primitive” time of the Romans could set a standard of tolerance and love that we still struggle to live up to today.
The scriptures describe how Jesus lived, worked, taught, and prayed. One re-occurring theme of the gospels is that it’s difficult to put Jesus in a box. While he was on earth, even the Apostle’s don’t fully understand who he was and what his mission was about. He has a way of surprising people and challenging their religious priorities. Jesus is not a political cause or a set of religious obligations or principles; he is a person. The best way to remember this is to read what he actually said when on earth. When we do this, we might find ourselves surprised and perplexed by him, leading us to learn more about him.
The scriptures are the foundational text for (probably) all of the greatest talks that have been given by the General Authorities. Why not read the original text too? Once I went to a Regional Conference, cynically expecting there would be more quotations from General Authorities than from the scriptures. For most the meeting I was right, and General Authority quotations were leading scriptural references. But the last speaker, Elder Oaks, had so many scriptural references that he turned the count of the entire meeting in favor of the scriptures. My conclusion was that if you want to talk like an Apostle, use the scriptures.
The scriptures are leather-bound. Scriptures are permanent, and meant to be preserved for all time. Conference talks come in a magazine; they are more contemporary and transient in nature, being replaced or updated every six months. As we move to digital devices this difference in formats is becoming less apparent. Perhaps this homogenization of media contributes to the growing notion in the church that scriptures and Conference talks are interchangeable. I think this is why I like to carry my old leather-bound scriptures to church, as a reminder of the “olden days” when the church experience was more scripture-based.
Because the scriptures are so old, it is easy for us to see that they are messy, complicated, contradictory, and full of humanity with all its shortcomings, weaknesses, problems, and mistakes. Yet the miracle is that they are God’s Words. Sometimes, when I have Spirit with me, the words of the scriptures come alive for me and I understand new things, at a higher plane. God is taking a message from the book and writing it onto my heart, transforming me into a new person. The scriptures are the Word of God, not because of their doctrinal purity, but because they lie at the intersection of human weakness and divine transformation.