Textual Healing

November 8, 2004 | 20 comments
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OK. I’m not sure if that title bears exactly directly on what this post is about, but as an R&B fan I had to use it before my time runs out. I’m a guest-blogger, which means I’m only supposed to get two weeks. I’m not sure if today is my last day or if I’ve managed to sneak past Cerberus at the gates.

For about the past month I’ve been questioning an assumption that I had. My assumption has been that Mormons have a responsibility to base their personal opinions and positions on scripture — and not just on a single verse or a few verses, but on as inclusive a sampling of relevant scriptural texts as is possible. In other words, on topics where scriptural instructions are widely available, my assumption has been that Mormons should not base their personal theology or opinions on a single verse to the exclusion of other relevant verses and texts.

Is this assumption correct?

I’ll stop with that question. I can hear barking …

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20 Responses to Textual Healing

  1. quinn mccoy on November 8, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    just like the life of christ cannot be summed up in a few verses, neither then should the gospel that he taught. it is correct that we should live the gospel as a whole, taking everything that jesus taught to heart. picking pieces of the wholeness and eternalness of christ’s life, perhaps helps some people cope with problems, but in the end it will be through a complete understanding of and obedience to the life of christ that we will achieve our ultimate goal

  2. danithew on November 8, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    Maybe I should be more specific. I’m wondering if there are situations where a faithful student of the scriptures might consciously choose to ignore particular texts in favor of others. Or if as a matter of conscience a person might determine that a particular verse is simply more important than other verses and should be followed with a greater focus.

  3. Rusty on November 8, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    I think you’re exactly right Dan. But I’m not so sure it’s such a bad thing. We are all salesmen of our ideas and that’s what salesmen do, we emphasize the things we agree with and forget about the things we don’t support. The missionaries don’t get in doors by talking about the blood atonement (or whatever), we talk about the things we want them to hear.

    More specifically, this is a problem, I’m finding now, with the justification/condemnation of the war in Iraq. We are always being shown scriptures in the BoM that can back up either position.

  4. anonymous(because it should be thus) on November 8, 2004 at 9:36 pm

    My experience has been that most members treat the Gospel (ie Scriptures) in a compartmentalized fashion. They take what fits them and disregard the rest. Therefore they don’t see the interconnectivity of all the scriptures.
    If we are able to understand the scriptures as a whole there should not be a conflict. If we compartmentalize then angst can arise everywhere. I think the secret is coming to an understanding of the whole which is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

  5. Juliann on November 8, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    My pet peeve is prooftexting the scriptures. When you take a verse and make a scripture sandwich by slapping Paul between Mark and John you have created a new Bible. However, all religions create a canon within a canon by selectively ignoring because the Bible is not an instruction manual nor does it have a theology. I think scripture works well in the realm of personal revelation. I have found that when I really do know a lot of verses, one will cause me to recall another because of some association and I create my personal canon within a canon by reconfiguring what the original authors/editors compiled.

  6. Rosalynde on November 8, 2004 at 10:11 pm

    The trouble with deriving opinions and positions from scripture is that, taken together, the scriptures don’t represent a systematic, integrated or consistent compendium of gospel and theology. They’re a bunch of very disparate texts, separated wildly by time and space and purpose, conveying narratives of God’s dealings with his people mixed in with a lot of other rhetorical elements (poetry, biography, political tract, erotica, epistles, family history, &c). To take this view of the scriptures is not to reject their value, the privileged knowledge of God the Father and Christ that emerges from the aggregate text. But in my view it’s not particularly helpful to wring from the scriptures kinds of knowledge they aren’t intended to convey.

  7. marta on November 8, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    Anon (bisbt), you should not be surprised that we, and I say we rather than they, do this. Humans do this with most information/communication: take what fits us and disregard the rest. Wives and mothers (husbands and fathers, too? I’ve never been one) often refer to this as selective hearing. We are all selecting and sorting all the time. All, your comments have reminded me that scriptures are sort of like statistics: you can prove anything you want with statistics.

  8. Larry on November 8, 2004 at 10:58 pm

    Rosalynde,

    Does this mean that what God teaches in one time is different from what He teaches in another? Aside from the history and people, is the doctrine that much different from Adam to Abraham, to the New Testament(leave out the Law of Moses) to the Book of Mormon to modern revelation?
    It might surprise us just how coordinated the scriptures are. If their objective is to lead us to Christ how disparate can they be?

  9. danithew on November 8, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    Rusty: we emphasize the things we agree with and forget about the things we don’t support.

    Anonymous: My experience has been that most members treat the Gospel (ie Scriptures) in a compartmentalized fashion.

    Juliann: all religions create a canon within a canon by selectively ignoring because the Bible is not an instruction manual nor does it have a theology.

    My question in response: Is it possible to counteract this by some special study strategy and approach OR is it an insurmountable human limitation that we end up creating “a canon within a canon”? Perhaps it is unavoidable?

  10. Larry on November 8, 2004 at 11:16 pm

    Danithew,

    I’m not sure that it can be made into a special study strategy because we seem to come to it from individual tangents. I know how I came to mine. When I used to teach institute classes I found that no matter how clear it was to me and others, there were always those who just didn’t quite get it. This taught me that the problem wasn’t the doctrine, it was my teaching.
    I suppose that is why we ought to focus on bringing souls to Christ and let the Spirit do the teaching (Alma32). When they get it a light goes on (Alma32:35). “That which is of God is light…”.(D&C 50:24). Then use D&C 84:45, we find… And so it goes.
    Others will dispute my chain and that’s okay. I usually start with D&C 50 :24 and then go on and on and on… until the “light’ goes on. By the time we’re finished my hope is that they see that all the scriptures refer to the Saviour and the Atonement and that the promises the Saviour made to His sheep are sure and they are forever His..

  11. John Mansfield on November 9, 2004 at 9:09 am

    Maybe this is too obvious, but one strategy is to keep reading the scriptures over and over, year after year. Then we are not relying as much on old, selective memories of their contents and are continually being confronted with passages we don’t spontaneously think of or sometimes even remember. This strategy is nothing new.

  12. Bryce I on November 9, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    I thought about posting on the practice we have in the Church of studying the scriptures serially in increments of a few chapters. While this makes for convenient lessons, it tends to focus the mind on individual verses or incidents in the scriptures. Very seldom do we take the time to consider any work of scripture, let alone the whole canon, as a whole, searching for themes and patterns therein.

    To echo John Mansfield above, one strategy that I have used in the past with the Book of Mormon is to read it serially, but in three or four place at once, as if I were reading three or four separate books, trying to pick up the threads as I read one section against another.

  13. Joe Spencer on November 9, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    The debate that runs through this discussion seems to me to be very much like the debate between modernism and post-modernism. We have the text itself, and we have the interpretation of the text. The two stand over against each other. The question we are trying to address is whether we can access the text itself at all, or whether we are condemned to the interpretation.

    I think we have access to the text. I think that Heidegger’s article “The Origin of the Work of Art” would be an interesting source on this. The interpretation gives us access to the text, though at the same time it conceals it. It seems that all our interpretations both reveal and conceal the actual text we are trying to get to. But that access through interpretation is really the only possibility for access.

    So are we condemned to interpretation only? I don’t think so. Just as Heidegger says the work of art opens up the on-going strife between “world” and “earth,” the scriptures open up the on-going strife between “text” and “interpretation.” If we can get into that strife, we can, I think, begin to see the text, and the dialectic’s continuation should allow us to see the text more clearly all the time.

    Perhaps it is our self-security that condemns us to our own canon within a canon.

  14. danithew on November 9, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    Joe, I have mixed feelings about this question and thus my post and my interest in what you (and others) are saying in response. My thinking in the past has been that we can get through to the actual text. Or at least we can more closely approximate what a text is saying if we are careful to scrutinize the text thoroughly and don’t deliberately omit or ignore important portions of that text. In fact I felt as readers, as students of scripture, that we had a responsibility to do this.

    Of course there are limitations on any given study. There are always things we don’t know and approaches one could have taken that were neglected. So maybe for that reason we are often stuck in the interpretive mode rather than the actual apprehension of what a text is saying.

    There is also perhaps a smidgen of skepticism that we can utilize in studying scriptures. There is a certain assumptions that the basis of what a scriptural text is saying is truth (truth being what we are ultimately after, I hope). There are instances I suppose where the scriptures could be wrong or where mistakes could have entered a scriptural text, but usually I hope the scriptures altogether are the ultimate repository of truth. But Mormons don’t believe in perfect scriptural texts — at least not that are published and widely available on the earth. I’ve thought that maybe really the only way to arrive at the truth we are seeking is through a combination of study and prayer.

    (‘Scuse me, I’m rambling a little here… but maybe this next paragraph will get me on track a bit)

    A major part of my question is whether or not a student of the scripures, after performing a thorough investigation of the scriptures, has the right (perhaps even a responsibility) to knowingly select some scriptural texts and to knowingly dismiss others OR whether we must use an integretation approach that pre-supposes that every relevant piece of material must be assessed and utilized in some way. I suppose a conscientious (conscience-driven) analysis of scripture could only dismiss a seemingly relevant text if excellent reasons are provided for that dismissal. But in the process of making that analysis and providing reasons for dismissing a particular text, the text has been considered and integrated into the discussion. So it hasn’t really been dismissed at all.

    In some ways, because I’m being vague and not using any examples, this is kind of a stumbling about in the dark kind of question and answer process. I didn’t want to get into arguments about specific principles and that is the reason this post is vague and example-less in that manner.

  15. Larry on November 9, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    Danithew,

    I trust this won’t detract from your thread and go specific. If we were to make (what I will say) some assumptions and let those assumptions form a foundation then perhaps an integration of the scriptures might take place.
    Let me illustrate. If we assume that D&C 50:24 is correct when it says “that which is of God is light”, then let’s apply a scientific test of passing that light thru a prism(what that prism might be relative to the Gospel I’m not sure), then assume D&C 84:45 comes into play – what we have are words that all mean the same thing. If we search the scriptures for all possible combinations of those and related words then a pattern should begin to form that allows for an integration of scripture.
    The point of the prism being that it breaks the Gospel (light) down into bite size pieces that can be absorbed line upon line and precept upon precept. Just a thought.

  16. Joe Spencer on November 9, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    Danithew,

    I suppose I’m drawing an important distinction that may not be clear here. There is the text itself, which we could call the ontos; and there is interpretation, which we could call ontological. Interpretation is not necessarily a departure from the ontos, but it is certainly separate in the sense that it is an entirely different project: interpretation (as ontology) is an account of the ontos, it is something said about the text itself. The distinction between text and interpretation is not exactly the distinction between what it really says and what I think it says. It is the better understood as the distinction between the text and what I say about the text.

    Fascinatingly, the process of teaching (which is clearly a big part of the Church) is a linguistic practice, which means that it must involve interpretation. In other words, in teaching, we talk about the text and not just read the text. But wherever what we say about the text is different from the text itself, we set our account back against the text and let the interpretation and text work against and with each other to produce new knowledge in us.

    Now, if this is all the case, it seems that we are doomed to draw from some scriptures and leave off some others. Any account, it seems, cannot draw on all scriptures (except maybe the unwritten account Jesus gave in expounding all scripture in one). Interpretation, it seems to me, is the process of breaking apart the text itself and taking a look at some scriptures as isolated from the text. I think we do have the responsibility to do this.

    But then I think we have the subsequent responsibility to set such broken off texts back against the collective. We have to set our interpretation back against the whole text and let the text show us where that interpretation is short-sighted or a failure. The conversation that opens up when our few verses are set back against the collective produces in us new knowledge, which takes the shape of a new account of the text, a new interpretation, but one that takes account, perhaps, of a greater number of verses. This interpretation will be set again against the collective.

    I think we have both responsibilities. When the responsibility to break a few verses off is left behind, we sit frustrated before the impossible project. When the responsibility to return interpretation to the face of the text is left behind, we have hubris, our philosophies of men being preferred over the scripture. When both responsibilities are taken into consideration over and over, scripture study becomes something of a dialectic, a line upon line and precept upon precept business, as Larry mentions. The light he refers to, I suggest, comes when we set interpretation back against text. Revelation comes when we come to God, right?

  17. Larry on November 9, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    Joe,

    Excellent points. The light I refer to is not just metaphorical but real light a la D&C 88:1-13. You are right, though, in your analysis. My home teacher who is a senior convert of 13 years used your description to describe an experience he recently had with Alma 40 and 42.

  18. danithew on November 9, 2004 at 7:46 pm

    Joe,

    Thank you so much for your comment. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m sorry this comment is short but I really am grateful for many of the ideas you put together in this last comment.

  19. Jack on November 10, 2004 at 12:13 am

    As Arthur Henry King said, we need to be “soaked” in the scriptures. I agree with John Mansfield that we should “keep reading the scriptures over and over, year after year”.

    Our understanding of the gospel comes from living it as much, if not more, as it does from reading about it. As we live the gospel we internalize its meaning, and as we continue to read the scriptures we become informed as to what we’re experiencing and are therefore led to consider deeper meanings which in turn affect the way we live the gospel.

    If we don’t take in the scriptures as a whole, we’ll not be prepared to view the broader picture. However, IMO our growth tends to “spike” here and there depending on the challenges that life brings. Therefore, it is not inappropriate to focus in on relevent passages that may aid us in those learning moments and thus propel us forward into new adventures. (I realize that some of what I’m saying is a weak echo of Joe’s excellent comment) Another reason for studying the whole of the scriptures, is that the larger view will keep us from running off in wild directions as we encounter new-found meanings.

    That said, I like Larry’s thoughts about discovering synthesis in the scriptures. Though, I would add (and he’d probably agree) that studying the scriptures as a whole will prevent us from becoming stifled in our view of how the scriptures are synthesized.

  20. Juliann on November 10, 2004 at 4:55 am

    My question in response: Is it possible to counteract this by some special study strategy and approach OR is it an insurmountable human limitation that we end up creating “a canon within a canon"? Perhaps it is unavoidable?
    -------------------------------
    I think it is unavoidable...but I don't think that is a bad thing. We have prophets so that we don't have to make unreasonable demands on books. I think that there are two ways to do scripture...one is the personal mystical experience but the second is trying to understand the scriptures as what they really are...missives from real people to real people. I completely missed the personality of the NT texts until I began to do critical study.

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