We are often told we should read our scriptures, but we aren’t told how to read them. Since most people are literate, but have never been taught how to read, it’s a crapshoot how effective their study is. We learn about reading scriptures as Primary children, but our methods often fail to transcend that approach.

From the Primary song Scripture Power, we learn why kids should be excited to read scripture, and that reason is to get power!

1. Because I want to be like the Savior, and I can,
I’m reading His instructions, I’m following His plan.
Because I want the power His word will give to me,
I’m changing how I live, I’m changing what I’ll be.
2. I’ll find the sword of truth in each scripture that I learn.
I’ll take the shield of faith from these pages that I turn.
I’ll wear each vital part of the armor of the Lord,
And fight my daily battles, and win a great reward.
[Chorus]
Scripture power keeps me safe from sin.
Scripture power is the power to win.
Scripture power! Ev’ryday I need
The power that I get each time I read.

According to this popular children’s song [1], the scriptures are an instruction manual for life, a protection from sin, a weapon to use to fight battles and win them [2], and a commodity to win rewards [3]. I suppose depending on which of these approaches you take, you’ll read them differently.

Christian Harrison wrote an excellent blog post this weekend about various ways to believe in the Book of Mormon.  He described three different spectra of belief paradigms.  These 3 paradigms are also helpful as ways to read the text, not just how to believe. As reading methods, they apply to all scripture, not just the Book of Mormon.

Christian’s post references Article of Faith 8:

We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Although the caveat about correct translation is a notable absent qualifier for belief in the Book of Mormon, it’s still a valuable addition to consider given the record’s own claims. It’s been abridged, parts have been lost, parts were translated from an unknown language (as well as all of it), the people it records are a “fallen people,” it’s had various authors, some of whom insert themselves into the text they are abridging. That’s to say nothing of the modern translation techniques Joseph Smith describes using which were complex and stressful, to say the least. So there’s plenty of room for even the most faithful believer to read scripture more carefully, not merely more often. More of the same approach yields the same result.

Ancient vs. Modern. You can read any scripture in context as something from another culture and time (anciently) or you can liken scripture unto yourself (what’s called a premodern approach, technically). Premodern scripture reading has a few characteristics:

  1. A tendency to read all scripture as one book with one author: God.
  2. Overlooking the context of scripture: the viewpoints and experiences of various authors, the cultures and times and world events that form the backdrop.
  3. An assumption that the meaning of scripture is obvious. This often comes with a lack of awareness of alternate interpretations or how one’s own exposure to a specific flavor of preaching has shaped the meaning that seems so apparent.

Many who are most vociferously defensive about scripture’s ancient origins take the most non-ancient approach to reading it by ignoring the differences of culture that are a necessary part of all historical events. From an excellent article by Ken Schenck on the different approaches readers take:

The pre-modern reader of the Bible hears the voice of God in its words.  He or she does not realize that the meaning they hear is unrelated to the Bible’s original meaning, but it is God’s authoritative voice to them through whatever version or language they may be reading.  The one who tries to read the Bible in the light of its original meaning does better and is an important check on the excesses of pre-modern interpretation, a fixed point to keep the pre-modern from bungee jumping to their death.  But knowing what the Bible meant originally does not mean that we know how to apply it appropriately today.  A mechanism of appropriation is needed, and the text itself does not furnish us with one.

Bear in mind that those who use a pre-modern approach are in good company. So did the Apostle Paul, and the Book of Mormon authors likewise do so, applying their own “modern” context on Old Testament scripture.

We (as did they) believe that scripture is written for us today, for our benefit, that it is relevant. But that ability to remain useful doesn’t mean it wasn’t originally written for someone else in a different time and place that differs greatly from our own. Ignoring the original context means we miss the most obvious meaning of scripture to manufacture one that suits our personal situation. We become Bible dippers, practicing bibiomancy.

bible dip. 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 (Urban dictionary)
While post-modern reading adds the value of understanding (or at least exploring) context, we can still fail to grasp how to apply it to our current lives if that is the sole approach we take. Something between the two is probably a better course. And bear in mind that scripture is sometimes self-referential. Later authors quoted earlier scripture and de-contextualized those scriptures in the process, applying their own interpretation. They likened scripture unto themselves.
Mormons are particularly admonished to be pre-modern readers in the way the Book of Mormon is presented to us–for our day, about our day, the writers claim they saw us and uniquely write to us, and we are told to liken scripture unto ourselves. And while ultimately, we need to arrive at applicability whenever we read scripture or any wisdom literature, some of it is better understood in its context. If we lose the context, we lose part of the meaning and all of our ability to empathize with the original audience because we overwrite them with a modern audience, ourselves. We become closer to the text by alienating the people for whom it was originally written. We appropriate scripture.
One great example of this is something I heard on a podcast. The person was talking about his own understanding of the scripture in Matthew 5:45 where it says “God sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Because of his own life experience, mostly as a child in the suburbs, he considered rain to be a bad thing, something that meant you couldn’t play outside that day. He thought the scripture meant that bad things also happen to good people. But when he realized that in the ancient world (and recent modern world if you are a farmer), rain was a good thing, a necessary thing, it changed how he understood that scripture. Rain was a blessing, not a curse. God gives blessings to both good and bad people.
Reading scripture as ancient puts us on our guard that this is a foreign land where the rules differ, but entering a foreign land makes our own assumptions more clear to us; it can lay our biases bare for our examination. Reading scripture as ancient can also teach us to humanize and empathize with those people in it, but at the same time reveals their completely foreign values and assumptions.  But only if we really look at the foreign land for what it is. If we don’t, we never leave our comfort zone long enough to be changed by the experience. We assume the past is like the present. It’s not.

Factual vs. Fictional. You can assume the stories in scripture are all literal events or you can read them purely allegorically as a type of Christ or to teach a lesson or sometimes just as campfire stories to exaggerate feats of battle (Ammon & the arms!). Reading them allegorically is useful, but reading them literally creates empathy for the actors in the stories, and forces you to consider motives and feelings.

Some scripture stories seem obviously fictional. I was speaking with a Hindu colleague a few years ago about how literally people took scripture. He surprised me when he said that although he was a somewhat more figurative believer, his parents took Hindu scripture and beliefs very literally, to the point that they believed that there was a monkey god who was mischievous, they believed that Ganesh had the head of an elephant, and that when it came to creation, it was in fact turtles all the way down, churning the sea of milk. For a westerner like me, the ideas of Hinduism seemed fantastical, obviously allegorical, but it dawned on me that their views as non-believers of Christian claims might sound similarly unfamiliar and fantastical.

Some of the stories in the Bible have a mythical quality to them rather than a factual quality, and indeed, historical records sometimes show that the stories are embellished. Because human beings are subjective, any story we tell will be a mix of fact and fiction, whether we intend to be faithful reporters or not. We aren’t capable of true objectivity. Some stories (Balaam’s ass) are more fantastical than others. They seem not to intend to be telling factual events. Other stories are more enigmatic in terms of how factual they are.

In many cases, scripture stories are a later retelling. They are almost never written by their principles, almost always surfacing generations or centuries later. Eve didn’t write the book of Genesis. If Moses wrote the book of Exodus, we have no copies from his time frame. It is more likely that these stories were first an oral tradition and only later committed to writing. Even the earliest books of the New Testament were written around A.D. 70, a long time after Christ’s earthly ministry.

It’s like a book being written today about JFK. We have developed opinions, stories, and theories about JFK. He’s no longer just who he was. We don’t and can’t know the man, not really. Of course, that’s partly true for any person at any time. More properly I could say we cannot in 2016 know who JFK really was in 1962 or what his words meant to people then because we don’t live in 1962. To us, he is revered and we’ve heard of him our whole lives. He’s no longer what he was.

Another type of reading is reader-response criticism. This method is most interested in understanding how people receive(d) the text, both the original audience, and various modern audiences. This approach sometimes means we deliberately pull a text out of its own time and apply modern filters, but we do it knowingly rather than ignorantly (as a pre-modern reader does). A feminist reading of scripture is one such example. Either way, the focus is not on what the author intended or the substance of the text, but on our response as readers. King Benjamin’s speech (as well as several other parts of the Book of Mormon) is tailor-made for reader-response criticism because we are told how people responded to what was said. This isn’t always the case in scripture, but when it happens, it reminds us to evaluate the times we aren’t told how people responded. Why aren’t we told? Was it unfavorable? He that hath ears to hear, indeed.

Inspired vs. Uninspired. All this talk of context and history brings us back to the core question.  You can read scripture as uninspired, an artifact of a time and place only, an example of church leaders trying to control or influence a backsliding people, or you can imagine different levels of inspiration that run the gamut from good ideas to burning bush / finger of God revelation. Hearing the human narrators is the first step to appreciating the “uninspired” biases and filters that overlay or underlay the inspired portions. Within Mormonism, Joseph Smith points the way to accepting this in the 8th Article of Faith, something we as Mormons quote often when we want to dismiss a scripture that doesn’t make sense to us. Some other denominations consider all scripture to have been penned by God; they assume the Bible to be more inspired than we allow. This leads to some very tortured logic to redeem the spiritual value of the Song of Solomon.

And yet, what is the point of scripture if not to lead us to a richer spiritual life, to inspire us? Is what inspires us therefore inspired? Or can we be inspired (in a bibliomantic sense) by a well-timed billboard or TV commercial? Does that mean the billboard was inspired? Often when I hear that individuals consider the Book of Mormon to be modern but inspired, they mean that it inspires them; therefore, it is inspired. When God is an active participant in our lives, anything can be a source for inspiration or divine communication. As one commenter on Christian’s post put it:

I also see the BoM as inspired, but not historical. For me, there are too many arguments/evidence for it being modern and none for it being ancient other than belief. But very clearly it draws people to Christ and therefore it must come from Christ.

Another commenter goes further than this in claiming it is inspired or revelatory:

I believe the Book of Mormon is inspired despite not being an a pseudepigraphical and anachronistic text. While I understand that the BOM claims to be ancient, I reject that claim without rejecting the inspired revelatory nature by which the text came to be.

To some inspired means revealed by God and refers to the means by which it was brought about. To others it means that it is aligned with God’s will because of its outcomes: the ends justify the means, what inspires is inspired.

There are certainly parts of scripture that are less inspired (genocide, racism, sexism, violence) and parts that are more inspired. Evaluating scripture in its historical context and understanding its human authors is helpful in sussing this out. The ultimate question is how much is human and how much divine, which is also one of the oldest questions of Christianity about Jesus. Do we believe he was mostly a divine being who became human or a human being who became divine? Which predominated? Of course, we can’t know.

Likewise with scripture we can’t completely disentangle that which is divine from that which is human. Perhaps ultimately the human is divine or is becoming divine. Scripture is a byproduct of the human struggle to comprehend the divine. If we don’t recognize that we are engaged in that struggle (the human aspect) when we read it, we will in large part miss the point.

  • Is it more correct to say that the Book of Mormon is true (the word of God) as far as it is translated correctly?
  • Do you think we are encouraged toward a pre-modern reading of scripture? Is there value in other approaches? What is your preferred approach to scripture reading?
  • Are there some stories in scripture that you think are fictional that others consider to be factual? Does a story being fictional render it meaningless to you?
  • What does inspired mean to you? What qualifies as inspired? Is all scripture inspired?

Discuss.

[1] that sounds nearly identical to the Dunkin Donuts jingle.  Note that the jingle was from 1980, and the Primary song is from 1987. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS4RvFT4kaI

[2] I can hear the Apostle Paul saying “God Forbid!” in the background.

[3] Hello, prosperity gospel!