Recently, when I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, class members pointed out something said in James to “clarify” something said by Paul.  I noted that these are two different speakers, not one, with two different viewpoints.  They were writing to different audiences at different times and for different purposes, and further, I’m not entirely convinced they agree on this matter.  I can’t exactly dig them up and ask them.

There is a tendency in our reading of scripture to conflate all sources into one big source, or to attempt to “harmonize” the scriptures.  This is a lazy reading habit that can result in misunderstanding the gospel.

A Gospel harmony is an attempt to compile the Christian canonical gospels into a single account. . . The construction of harmonies has always been favoured by more conservative scholars. Students of higher criticism on the other hand, see the divergences between the Gospel accounts as reflecting the construction of traditions by the early Christian communities. In the modern era, attempts to construct a single story have largely been abandoned in favour of laying out the accounts in parallel columns for comparison, to allow critical study of the differences between them.[1]

Why do members do this?  Quite simply it’s because most people don’t know how to read.  They are literate and fluent in language, but unskilled and uncritical in comprehension.  Language is always an act of interpretation.  As Jacques Derrida succinctly put it “We are all mediators, translators.”  Roland Barthes, in a similar vein, observed that “a photograph is always invisible; it is not it that we see.”  We ignore the medium and go for the content whenever we read or listen to words.  We hear the meaning and forget the context, the speaker and the process of getting those words to us.  As Magritte famously said on hipster tee shirts everywhere “Ce n’est pas une pipe.”  The picture is not the thing itself.[2]  Words are not truth.

Additionally, LDS people frequently trot out D&C 1:38 says:  “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”  This admonition is helpful in encouraging us to take things church leaders say seriously, but it makes a terrible heuristic.  We know that not everything a prophet says is him speaking as a prophet and that prophets make mistakes.  So there is a lot of looseness in how to apply this scripture.  Mormons are not scriptural literalists as Articles of Faith #8 and 9 make clear.  We believe that scripture contains human errors [3] and is incomplete.  We also know that God didn’t write the scriptures personally.  He always works through human beings.

I wrote all of that over a week ago, before General Conference and Ponder-gate.  Hoo boy.

For those who missed it, Devin Durrant (who is not a GA but from the General Sunday School Presidency) gave a talk on something he called “ponderizing,” a way he recommends to read the scriptures.  It’s a neologism combining pondering with memorizing, similar to the scripture mastery program for seminary students.

I invite you to “ponderize” one verse of scripture each week. The word “ponderize” is not found in the dictionary, but it has found a place in my heart. So what does it mean to ponderize? I like to say it’s a combination of 80 percent extended pondering and 20 percent memorization.

This invitation was extended with the perkiness of an EFY instructor and the gravitas of a Tony Robbins (aka the perkiness of an EFY instructor). To complete the picture of just what happened, here’s the series of events that accompanied this General Conference address:

  1. In 2014, a book was published by a Reverend David Morrison using the word Ponderize in the title (the book was called Think on These Things: A Time to “Ponderize”).
  2. A week or so before conference Devin Durrant’s son and daughter-in-law register the site and start to sell t-shirts and rubber bracelets using the word “Ponderize” and related catch phrases.
  3. Devin Durrant gives his conference talk where he repeatedly uses the phrase “ponderize,” presumably to help the talk stand out in people’s minds. [4]
  4. Amid criticism, T-shirt prices drop from $19.99 to $9.99 with the claim that the owners of the site only want to sell at cost, not make a profit, and only meant to get the word out to “ponderize.”
  5. Amid increasing criticism, T-shirt prices go back up to $17.99, this time site owners state that all proceeds will go to the mission fund.
  6. Team “ponderize” goes nutso on twitter, favoriting every use of their hashtag, including the one I did for my own amusement:  “I was just ponderizing 2 Nephi 26: 29, 31.”  Members are flocking to the site, ka-ching ka-ching.  FB status updates talking about ponderizing crop up all over the place.  A request for a “ponderize” app is received and taken very seriously by
  7. As criticism reaches firestorm levels, the site is yanked.

Whether it’s priestcraft or not to use General Conference to sell tee shirts, [5] I’ll leave for another discussion.  The talk certainly sounded like an infomercial, including the requisite sales pitch and overcoming objections from planted questions.  I’ll leave it up to those at a higher pay grade to determine whether or not we want to monetize General Conference.  The speaker has apologized, and I actually liked his apology more than his talk, although in true Mormon fashion, he does make sure to put the onus for his mistake back on those unnamed individuals who were “offended”:

“Yesterday, I had the wonderful privilege to speak in General Conference about a topic that is near and dear to my heart – the pondering of God’s word in an extended and deeper manner on a weekly basis. I have been touched at the outpouring of support for my message. Please know of my heartfelt gratitude for the positive responses I have received from so many!

However, I have also received some negative feedback. A week before my address, my son obtained the domain name and subsequently created a website to offer t-shirts and wrist bands to highlight and extend the ponderize message, which we have long talked about in our family. Although we didn’t invent the term, as far as we know our use of it is unique. Because of the backlash he received in associating a commercial venture with a General Conference talk, he initially lowered his prices to cover his costs and then decided to keep prices as originally set and to donate the profits to the missionary fund of the Church. Ultimately, he decided to take down the website last night. The site will remain down. I was aware that my son was creating a website related to the topic of my talk. I should have stopped the process. I did not. That was poor judgment on my part. Of course, none of the Church leaders were aware of the site. I offer a sincere apology to any person who was offended in any way by the site.

My message remains the same – overcome evil by choosing to elevate your thoughts by ponderizing God’s word every day.

Thank you, again, to so many of you for your kind messages of support and your willingness to accept the invitations given yesterday.”

My bigger concern is with the concept itself.  In order to understand why the advice to “ponderize” is insidious, it’s important to understand a few related ideas:

  • Prooftexting.  The practice of using isolated, out of context quotations from a document to establish a proposition. Such quotes may not accurately reflect the original intent of the author, and a document quoted in such a manner, when read as a whole, may not support the proposition for which it was cited.  The term has currency primarily in theological and exegetical circles.
  • Bible dipping.  According to the urban dictionary and popularized in the book Running with Scissors, Bible dipping is defined as: “ask the bible a question close your eyes open to a random page and put your finger on a word without looking, and whatever that word is has something to do with the answer to your question.”  tl;dr using scripture as a Magic 8 Ball.
  • Biblomancy.  The practice of seeking spiritual insight by selecting a random passage from a Holy Book.

Bible dipping is really just a cooler way of saying biblomancy; the two are roughly the same thing.  Prooftexting may be done intentionally to alter the meaning of a passage to support one’s interpretation.  In any case, all three are examples of taking scriptures out of context, and once we take them out of context, we diminish our ability to understand them correctly.

He’s in good company as this is a practice that is common to most CES-issued materials.  Very seldom do we really read our scriptures in Gospel Doctrine.  Instead we just read isolated passages that fit certain themes and doctrines the manual wants to pursue.  Unfortunately, this often does require ignoring the context and the real meaning.

Many ministers and teachers have used some version of the following humorous anecdote to demonstrate the dangers of prooftexting: “A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, “Then Judas went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). Finding these words unhelpful, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:37). In desperation he tried one more time. The text he found was: “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)

Can scriptures be used as fortune-cookie sized soundbites for personal edification?  Perhaps.  But so can road signs or flipping channels on the TV or song lyrics or any other random input we wish to seize upon and imbue with meaning that it doesn’t inherently possess.  When I was a child I used to play a game at stoplights in which I would count to a number, and if I reached the number before the light turned green, then whatever I was thinking of was right.  I quit doing that at around age 9 because I discovered it was actually a pretty poor way to assess things.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

A certain amount of superstition and invented meaning is required in this approach to scripture.  It’s a fun game for sleepovers, but beyond that, it’s not terribly instructive.  It takes what should be profound, complex, and thought-provoking and trivializes it.

If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we Pinterest these things.

More alarming than the fact that the suggestion was made is how quickly church members flocked to it, calling it inspirational and quickly taking up the “challenge” to “ponderize.”  Perhaps anything that enlivens scripture study is better than not reading them at all, but I’m not convinced.  Creating memes of scriptures and general conference quotes has become so popular, maybe that’s all that we know how to do.

One of Jane Austen’s most overlooked novels is Northanger Abbey, and it’s a book about reading, both reading novels and misreading people.  Her heroine Catherine Morland devours gothic novels to the point that she sees sinister shadows in every corner.  She is both guileless and incredibly gullible.  She hasn’t learned to read people or social situations accurately because of her poor reading habits and her lack of self-discipline and critical thinking.  As a result, she mistakenly accepts a marriage proposal from someone she doesn’t like and accuses her real love interest’s family of matricide.  She specifically fills her mind with the same type of reading over and over until she is incapable of seeing people and situations as they really are, and the result is both comedic and disastrous.  Likewise, if we take things out of context in our reading, we are prone to misunderstanding.  We will also create a self-reinforcing set of ideas that crystallizes over time and doesn’t serve our understanding well.

Is it a coincidence that Mormons are susceptible to both this type of marketing scheme and to the advice itself to take scriptures out of context?  It seems both are born of the same character trait.


[1] I note that our own Gospel Harmony found in the Bible Dictionary is arranged in columns to compare each book’s account.  We are keeping with the trends.

[2] Derrida, Barthes and Magritte are all French dudes, all pointing out a similar issue with language.  But who better than the French to opine about the complexities of human communication?  They are the culture that polices the entry of new words into their language, limiting it to 200 new words a year.  Stephen Colbert probably personally topped that number of new words added last year.

[3]  I think the talking donkey tipped us off.

[4] Reverend Morrison’s book was not given credit for the term.

[5] it is.