Today’s guest post is by Christian V.
[During the Babylonian captivity,] Jewish scribes got to work, pulling together centuries of oral and written material and adding reflections of their own as they wrestled through this national crisis of faith. If the people of Israel no longer had their own land, their own king, or their own temple, what did they have?
They had their stories. They had their songs. They had their traditions and laws. They had the promise that the God who set all of creation in order, who told Abraham his descendants would outnumber the stars, who rescued the Hebrews from slavery, who spoke to them from Mount Sinai, and who turned a shepherd boy into a king, would remain present with them no matter what. 
The process of creating the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh—what Christians today call the Old Testament, though with some differences—was complex. In the quote above, Rachel Held Evans movingly describes the early process of creating such a record about 500 years before Christ. But according to Wikipedia, the final decisions regarding which books would be included and which would be excluded did not occur until centuries later, sometime between 140 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. Meanwhile, the New Testament was finalized by about 250 C.E., though the canonization debates continued on in at least some communities until about 400 C.E.
Of course, I’m using the word “finalized” pretty loosely, since even today, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and others disagree about exactly which books should or should not be included in the biblical canon.
The process of crafting the Bible was essentially done by committee. Prominent rabbis, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, and church fathers, in the case of the Christian Bible, communicated with one another, debating the merits of certain books for decades until a consensus was reached. The end result is a book that crosses numerous genres and literary types: Legends and myths, history, laws, poetry, hymns, lamentations, prophecies, sermons, letters. It’s got kings, prophets, prophetesses, priests, and warriors, but it also has prostitutes, fishers, widows, and shepherds.
The Book of Mormon has a somewhat simpler compilation story.  Prophets and kings passed down their records in a relatively linear fashion, and then left the job of abridging the material into a single book to basically one man, Mormon. He had unilateral authority over what to add, and he was working from a relatively limited universe of material that, presumably, was already believed to be divine. He didn’t have to sort through all of the material produced by his culture and struggle to discern what was sacred and what was heretical, as the biblical authors had to do. He just had to determine which pieces of the pre-approved material was most important.
Despite the different process, Mormon achieved a similar result. The Book of Mormon is arguably more narrative driven than the Bible; it doesn’t really have an analogue to Paul’s letters or the Book of Proverbs, for example. But it is still genre-defying, mixing together anecdotes from individuals’ lives with sermons and psalms, as well as a relatively detailed account of various wars and an aside about the Nephite monetary system.
Applying The Process To Today
I was thinking about this process of creating scriptures on Martin Luther King Day. Many people view Dr. King as something of a prophet.  And it got me thinking, if I were tasked with creating a new book of holy scripture today, what would I include?
In part, it might just be a sort of greatest hits of sermons and speeches from the last few decades or centuries. Sometimes a single sermon is all you need: We know relatively little about the lives of Amos and Hosea, because the ancient bible-compilers concluded that we mostly just needed the messages they wrote. But other times, it is important to tell the story of a person’s life as well as their words. We get a good amount of detail about Samuel’s life before we get around to him anointing Saul as king, and with Paul, we have a thorough account of his conversion and ministry before we move on to his letters. So if I were creating a modern bible, who would I include as “prophets,” and which of those prophets get life stories versus just their writings or speeches?
And what about people with whom you mostly agree, but perhaps don’t think everything they wrote is the word of God? If I find a great deal of wisdom in C. S. Lewis’s writings, do I edit them down and only include the stuff I am confident he got right, or do I just throw everything in and hope that future generations understand that he was imperfect, treating some of his words the way we sometimes treat Paul’s writings about women and silence and head-coverings?
Scriptures also include history, and not just linear, straightforward, history, but the same story repeated multiple times with unique focuses or explicit contradictions. The Old Testament repeats the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon, with different details and evidently a different purpose in each retelling. The New Testament includes four different versions of Jesus’ ministry, each focusing on the parts that matter the most to that author. So not only would I have to decide what events from history deserve to be included in my hypothetical new Bible; I would have to determine whether some events ought to be told from multiple perspectives.
Then add to that the poetry, the hymns, the myths, the allegories, and whatever the modern analogue to the Book of Job is, and it becomes a pretty daunting task.
What Would You Include?
I asked my boyfriend what he would include if he could compile a new bible, but he got a bit bogged down in trying to decide the proper scope of such work. Was it a Mormon Bible? One that opens with the Restoration and is heavy on stories from the lives of modern prophets and on their writings and sermons, with the occasional bit of church history thrown in? Or is it a Bible for the Anglo people (i.e., his ancestors), in which British settlers in America are a bit like the Israelites in captivity, far from their homeland and in need of remembering where they came from? In that case, things like the Magna Carta and Shakespeare and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England might be most important. Or maybe it is a global Bible, full of the stories of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
Of course, hanging over all of this is the question of how religious the book would be. Is it about God’s relationship with a particular people, or God’s relationship with all mankind? Is it explicitly Christian? Explicitly Mormon?
Obviously, there is no right answer to any of these questions, but that’s why I came here: I wanted to open the question to all of you. Who or what would make it into your modern Bible or Book of Mormon if you were assigned to craft a new one today, drawing on the last 50 years or 100 years or 1,000 years? Which legends and poems and stories and histories and sermons do you think you would want to pass down to future generations as the summation of your hopes or beliefs or just of cumulative human knowledge?
As I’ve thought about it over the last few days, I have come up with some of my own ideas. But I want to see what everyone else comes up with before I comment with some of my own.
 Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, by Rachel Held Evans.
 I am pretty skeptical of a historical Book of Mormon, but it is a useful illustration for purposes of this post.
 A google search for “martin luther king jr. prophet” returns hits for things like “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Prophet as Healer;” “Prophet, priest, and king: understanding the real MLK;” “Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Prophet;” “Was MLK a Preacher or a Prophet?;” and “American Prophet: Martin Luther King Jr.” Certainly, for me, it is impossible to listen to his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave the night before his assassination, and not conclude that he was something of a prophet.
The question is silly since it doesn’t even include God being involved in directing the creation of such a new scripture. Mormon did not just create a record from the records he had, he was also directed to include without abridging the small plates of Nephi. These are the records that Nephi was directed to create without knowing that they would be important when Martin Harris failed to honor his oath to protect the 116 pages. Real scriptures are directed by God, not just pulled together by a committee deciding what to include.
Just wondering, in view of the history of decision making about what to include and canonization, whether the Bible, PoGP and D&C qualify as “real scriptures”. by cachemagic’s standard.
Ideally it would be a global Bible. But as a white male American Mormon, my knowledge of global source material is heavily skewed. I would want to involve a diverse committee, as cachemagic mentioned (though the selection of such a committee would itself be problematic).
I would definitely want to include fiction, especially children’s fiction since it can be applied to such a broad audience. Books like The Family Under the Bridge, Holes, and The Bridge to Terabithia, with some Shel Silverstein poems thrown in.
A book Bible would be the most accessible, but you could also make it a multimedia Bible and include inspiring music, videos, and video games.
By their fruits ye shall know them, right?
Recently when I was looking up the four Utahns (that I know of) who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, I found that each one writes a “biographical” that the Nobel Committee publishes. Worthwhile reading. I have no doubt many other winners’ biographicals would be just as meaningful.
Childhood influences, and beneficial accomplishments are meaningful.
I would include science, with a qualification that it is based on our 2021 understanding, subject to increased knowledge over time.
Utah Nobel Laureates’ Biographicals
Paul D. Boyer – 1997
Mario R. Capecchi – 2007
Lars Peter Hansen – 2013
Kip S. Thorne – 2017
Super interesting idea. Scriptures can give members of a population a sort of curated context for where they fit in the story of their people. They form a shared cultural memory and shape our idea of who we are. In the United States, any such story should absolutely include a detailed history of slavery, the Civil War, the failures of reconstruction, the horrors of Jim Crow, and the lingering systemic racism that plagues our society. Our failure to reckon with who we are and how we got here causes real problems. In theory, this is what required reading in schools is supposed to accomplish, but of course it would be disastrous for anyone to legislate which books rise to the level of scripture, so we’re probably all better off letting the marketplace of ideas do its thing.
THE ORIGIN of SPECIES by Chas Darwin.
Most denominations have writings of their founders or wise men that attain pseudo-canonical status: Luther’s writings for Lutherans, Calvin’s writings for the Reformed churches. More recently, Mary Baker Eddy for Christian Scientists, Ellen G. White for Adventists, and of course Joseph Smith for Mormons. In a somewhat looser sense, MLK’s writings have already attained pseudo-canonical status, but more in terms of civil religion in the line of Founding Fathers than in a strictly religious sense.
Keep in mind that in the early Christian Church, “the scriptures” referred to the Jewish Bible, while letters of Paul and the story of Jesus per Mark and others circulated as the same sort of pseudo-canonized documents, not formally canonized until the fourth century. So I think in our day this “compiling a modern Bible” process is an ongoing process, it’s just that most Christians believe in a closed canon so cannot grant newer writings full canonical status. It’s sort of like LDS with the Proclamation: it’s treated and quoted like it is canonized, but it’s not (yet) formally canonized.
The question w/ all religions is how much irrationality/insanity you put up with to get to the positives, which always involve social cohesion & mutual support. Lately the trend is fairly dire, esp. w/ creation of quasi-religions like QAnon. When faith is aspirational rather than dogmatic it is most positive. Our institution is an interesting admixture of both: an ignorant loony pro-Trump majority, but a very good university and strong pro-social welfare & genealogy programs. There are also intelligent progressive voices emanating unofficially from LDS Inc.
I feel like this is a really useful exercise for anyone who values scripture. It’s hypothetical, not binding. Great excuse to brainstorm, mix and match, and ultimately learn something about yourself. It gets me thinking not only about what I might include and why, but also what my personal definition of scripture is? And that has the potential to help refine my personal definitions about big ideas and societal values.
That said, as an agnostic, I find myself hesitant to wade too far in, because I’m skittish about canonizing anything. As only one example, I love the writings of Carl Sagan. Many take real inspiration from his works. Many of our best scientists and science communicators today cite him as a profound influence. I don’t know what the risks would be elevating his works to the level of holy, and what factions might begin to regard them as inerrant (which is really just a power grab by way of claiming one’s interpretation of the scriptures to be inerrant). But it’s interesting to consider. I’d also echo Tygan’s thought that a new Bible compiled today could be a multimedia effort.
First —no one is inerrant, so we have to scratch that. I would look at this question as what has staying power well into the future, maybe 500-1000 years. Whose writings or other communications from our time would still hold inspire?
I would definitely select Joseph Smith, maybe not in whole, but there are inspiring passages that would likely inspire deep into the future.
Martin Luther King and Gandhi are major standouts.
There are many “minor prophets” also worth studying in the future –Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold. Kierkegaard maybe? Joseph Campbell I think would still inspire.
The Old Testament was oral history, myths and legends that were collected and then judged as important. They were writings that had already stood the test of time. The New Testament was the same, only specific to Christ’s life. So, I would start my Bible with writings that have stood the test of time and been considered important for hundreds to thousands of years.
Now, because others have shown their biases, I will share mine. I never liked any Mormon scripture, from my days in primary, I didn’t like Joseph Smith, and felt like there was way too much of the trait in Joseph Smith that rubbed me wrong in all the “scripture” that he produced. Now that I have totally stopped believing in him as “prophet” I will just toss it out of what I consider “scripture”.
Then to start my Bible, I would get all the teachings from all the religions that have or are currently on earth. I would include things like the Koran and writings from the Far Eastern religions. And I am going to add on to that collection of scripture the scripture we have from Meso America about their religion. And then I would spend the first year of my project collecting scripture from old pagan religions from Europe, then from India and Africa until I have collected all the stories from all the religions I can find. The Bible would become one of many sets of scripture all that have stood the test of time.
Next I would fill in the histories of all the people to go with their scripture.
Then moving into modern times, I would gather the writings of the great philosophers, historians, and religious writings. Then the important scientific writings that have changed the world, such as Darwin, Galileo, the discovery of germs, electricity. After about 1900, the scientific progress has advanced too fast and human culture has not kept up with it, so imost of scientific knowledge stops being about man and our relationship to God and how we deal with our world.
Then I would have a “looking forward” discussion. There are important things in science right now that still impact humans and our relationship with God and our earth and universe, so I would end with the challenges facing humankind right now. Where are with with regard to racial relations between groups of people on earth? Do we accept that we are children of the same God/universe? Do we continue to believe in a God who will clean up our environmental messes like the parent of a spoiled child, or do we take responsibility for our own behavior and our existence on this little rock hurtling through space?
A true Bible needs to have a divine sanction. What is divine? Anything that awakens us to our ignorance of the wonder all around us. What counts as divine under this definition? How about photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope, or those of Ansel Adams. The poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou or the novel “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson. The Dave Brubeck trio playing “Take Five”. Awakening to wonder – it is God’s message to us: “You’re welcome.” He would be pleased we included those things in a new Bible, as they are certainly divinely sanctioned.
@cachemagic: you stated, “Real scriptures are directed by God, not just pulled together by a committee deciding what to include”. I think I agree. But it leaves me with some questions and concerns.
I was taught growing up that the LDS prophet receives revelation from God to direct the Church. That he is the mouthpiece of God. So whether or not his words produced new canonized scripture, these words could certainly be considered to be the will of God. You might even say that these words could be updated doctrine.
So imagine my discomfort with recent conference talks in which we are told that true doctrine is not when a Church leader simply speaks his mind. That may be his opinion. (good so far). Rather, new doctrine is the result of a unanimous opinion by the Q15. In other words, a high-level committee. How is that different from the religions that we criticize when we say that they voted for their changes and that revelation had nothing to do with it? That’s basically doctrine (scripture) by committee.
I am your God I love you all. You are here on earth to have joy, and be moral. Being moral is loving everyone, and not hurting/discriminating against/exploiting anyone. Go and fulfill your potential. If you need help call 1300 god, and we will see what we can do to help.
What more do you want?
My biggest question on a new bible is how the writer would view me, my family, and my sociality with our knowledge of God and our obedience to God’s commandments.
“Which legends and poems and stories and histories and sermons do you think you would want to pass down to future generations as the summation of your hopes or beliefs or just of cumulative human knowledge?”
What would I include in my own personal modern Bible? One way to approach this is to ask what literary works have most influenced my beliefs on the nature of God, the value of human life, and how to conduct an ethical life. Using this criteria, here is a starting point of what I would include.
– The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas
– The Harry Potter Series
– The Decameron
– The Foundation Series
– Yahoo! (Erasure)
– Blasphemous Rumors (Depeche Mode)
– Silent Night (Franz Gruber)
– The Sneetches & The Lorax (Dr. Seuss)
– Hey Jude (The Beatles)
-No Man is an Island (John Donne)
– History of the Ancient/Medieval/Renaissance/modern World (Susan Wise Bauer)
– Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (James W. Loewen)
– I Have a Dream (MLK Jr.)
– You Are My Hands (Uchtdorf)
– The Good Samaritan (Jesus)
No collection is complete without “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
@Tygan, the idea of a multimedia Bible is interesting to me. Dave mentioned Ansel Adams photos and Hubble Telescope images, which I absolutely love. In the OP, I mentioned the idea of some stories being told twice. One option that comes to mind with a multimedia Bible is presenting both a historically accurate version of the United States’s founding and the Hamilton musical, which creates an entirely different perspective.
@ Sasso, I’ve never seen those biographical portraits before, and I really enjoyed them. I assumed they would each just be a superficial paragraph or two, but I actually am very impressed that the Nobel committee requests something more substantive than that. (Or maybe, being Nobel laureates, these are all just overachievers.)
@Kirkstall, I’m glad you mentioned the Civil War, because I confess that is probably the single historical event that strikes me as most deserving of a place in the Bible. For me, I think its significance comes from three intertwined issues that aren’t necessarily present in all moments from history: (1) It is a legitimately important historical event; (2) it is full of interesting individuals about whom you can tell very human stories, rather than just a macro story; and probably most importantly (3) it is theologically rich. There is such a moving struggle during the run-up to war, with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Brown all grappling with and reaching different conclusions about the proper, moral course of action. And then you have the war’s premiere theologian, Lincoln. The first inaugural, the second message of 1862, the Gettysburg Address, all culminating in the second inaugural, which is just a meditation on the justice and will of God. That particular moment in world history is epic and personal and divine all in one.
@p and @Jake and others, I’m intrigued by those who went immediately to science (Darwin or Carl Sagan) because that’s not at all where my brain went when I first started brainstorming this idea. I’m not saying I disagree–there’s no right answers here–it’s just interesting that if I were in charge of leaving a record to future generations, my gut reaction would probably be to just sort of trust that they would figure out the science stuff, while wanting to provide a more literary/cultural/theological record.
@Buddhist Bishop, I know absolutely nothing about Wendell Berry or Aldo Leopold. I’ll have to look into them. Kierkegaard and Joseph Campbell, however, both strike me as excellent examples.
@Anna, I think your approach is probably best–find everything you possibly can from every religion and include it. I’m just not sufficiently versed in other religions and practices to even know where to start.
@Dave, Still I Rise was on my list as well.
Thanks everyone for your thoughts! I hope others contribute as well. I’ll add a second comment including some of the other sources that I had been thinking of.
So I already mentioned that the Civil War is probably the historical event I would be most interested in including. As a close corollary to that, one (American-centric) issue that has long been meaningful to me is the fact that the famous language of the Declaration of Independence, rather than being rejected, was embraced by the women at the Seneca Falls convention; Lincoln in calling for emancipation; Dr. King during the Civil Rights movement; and Harvey Milk in his early campaign. Personally, I still find something divine in its simple statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And I am inspired, and again see something divine, in the way people who were never meant to be included in those words have insisted that they apply to them as well.
I mentioned Dr. King in the OP, but again, there are few, if any, people who so clearly rise to the stature of prophet in my mind. (And note, he was far from perfect or infallible! But that is true of pretty much every prophet in our Bible anyway.) Like Paul, I feel like Dr. King is deserving of both a life story (the Acts of the Apostles) and just a straight reproduction of his letters and sermons (like Paul’s letters).
To the extent anyone else has filled a similar role as Dr. King in modern history, Elie Wiesel comes to mind.
Something else that I thought would be kind of fun would be to highlight modern movements led by children. The March for our Lives kids. Greta Thunberg. Malala Yousafzai. It’s not necessarily that their causes matter (though they do), but more just how meaningful it is to be in an era where 16 and 17-year-olds have stood up and acted as the world’s conscience and demanded change. I was going to write that this is something unique to our era, but then again, how old was David when he faced Goliath or Joseph when he was sold into Egypt? How old was Mary? There’s good reason to think God trusts children, so we probably should as well.
As for psalms/hymns, I confess to being very partial to the Church’s early hymns: Spirit of God, High on the Mountaintop, Redeemer of Israel, A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, and, above all, Come, Come, Ye Saints. I also feel like, as a gay man, I have little choice but to play into stereotype and admit my obsession with musicals: You’ll Never Walk Alone, Mama Will Provide, Alabanza, No Time At All, For Good, Seasons of Love, Wait for Me, literally every song from Prince of Egypt. And perhaps some of the stuff from John Keats, whom I adore as a poet.
Some of the other posters mentioned fiction. I struggle to know what to do with that. I love East of Eden with all my heart, and it has a truly profound message about choice. But I think I would probably just include excerpts or quotes, rather than the whole thing. The same thing applies to The Color Purple. I realize I could just include that with the musicals, and don’t get me wrong, the music is great. But there are few if any passage more meaningful to me, in terms of grasping at the meaning of life, than the one in that book:
“You saying God vain?” I ast.
“Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
“What it do when it pissed off?” I ast.
“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
For theology, I think two authors more than any other inspire me: C. S. Lewis and Rachel Held Evans. Again, it’s not that I believe everything they wrote. But Mere Christianity, the Weight of Glory and the Essay on Forgiveness remain pivotal to my understanding of God. And both Searching for Sunday and Inspired are just beautiful.
One that I struggle with because of the message vs. the messenger issue: J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech. Count me as one of J.K. Rowling’s fans who has been deeply disappointed by her statements on trans rights of late. But her speech back in 2008 was so incredibly formative for me in her description of empathy.
Last but not least, I do have a number of LDS talks/devotionals that I still turn to at times because I believe them to be inspired. “The Highest In Us” and “On How We Know” by Truman G. Madsen. Chieko Okazaki’s explanation of the Atonement from her book, Lighten Up. “Sunday Will Come” by Elder Wirthlin. And finally, “This I Believe” by President Hinckley.
@Christian V, wonderful thoughts. I would certainly like to have a collection like that in a nice leather bound cover with thin onion skin pages that I could carry around everywhere and read from daily.
Your comments on JK Rowling led me to read her Harvard address. I adored the Harry Potter books and the Harvard speech brings back some of my affection for her. But like you, I cringe every time I read any of her recent statements. I hate the fact that I can’t share any of the joy of the HP books with my transgender child who feels Rowling has attacked their very existence . I keep hoping it will be revealed that JK Rowling has a brain tumor that is responsible for her odd bender of trans hatred these last few years. But I know that the reality is that Rowling, while a generally loving and accepting person, has certain deep and hurtful prejudices she is currently unwilling to give up, despite the harm she is doing. Feels so much like certain Mormon personalities I once greatly respected. Sigh….
Looking at your selections and those of most other commentators, I am struck by how impossible it would be to truly whittle down to a few thousand pages all the truly marvelous text/media wrestling with challenging moral questions that has gone on in the past two centuries, even if we just focus on UK/US-centric version of that. Perhaps we just have to acknowledge that any “Bible” that any of us would put together would be as highly US/UK-centric as the Old Testament one was Hebrew-centric. We are probably only really good at telling God’s story within our own cultural experience. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be glorious and hopefully there would be many others created at the same time by those with other cultural heritages.
Dune has the concept of the Orange Catholic Bible, which is briefly described here: https://dune.fandom.com/wiki/Orange_Catholic_Bible