It is nice to be introduced to Times&Seasons. My thanks especially to Melissa Proctor for inviting me as a guest. Thanks also to those of you who went to the bother to frame thoughtful questions. My attempt to respond follows. In a few instances I have combined related questions that were posed.
1: Many books that apply academic perspectives to LDS history or doctrine get sucked into the apologetic debate and get labeled as “notorious,” criticized by one side and championed by the other, or sometimes attacked by both sides. Mormons and the Bible, however, somehow escaped that fate. I stumbled across this gem of a book one day at my neighborhood Borders bookstore in the general religion section. Do you share the feeling that the book somehow slipped in under the radar, and if so, why didn’t your detailed account of how Mormons use or misuse the Bible strike a more responsive chord among Mormon readers and scholars?
If Mormons and the Bible “slipped in under the radar” of religious attack and defense, I am pleased. I hope the work is not bland, but I do remember that, when writing it, I sometimes pictured myself reading aloud what I was writing to a small audience of specific people. Among these imagined hearers were my deeply spiritual and devout mother, my teachers at Harvard, Elder Boyd Packer, my institute students, a brilliant atheist friend, several LDS and non-LDS scholars of Mormonism whom I admired, and a representative from each of several denominations and religions. It wasn’t that I figured I could or necessarily should please them all. But I did work to imagine them in the room with me, to look into their eyes as real people, to respect their sensibilities and intelligence and their differences with me, even to learn from each of them. Perhaps something of that experience seeped through in the writing and has muted the book’s becoming prominent fodder for apologists and critics of the Latter-day Saints. My effort was more to explore the underpinnings of my own and my people’s religious thinking in relation to the wider world of religion than to defend or attack.
Scholars from around the country or, occasionally, from abroad, call or write to ask a question or to exchange about something involving Mormons and the Bible, or to invite my contribution to an encyclopedia or an edited book or to propose some joint project dealing with how believers relate to scripture. And Latter-day Saints, most of whom I have not met, continue to write. Occasionally they do so because I wrote or omitted something that surprised or displeased them: How could I fail to give Hugh Nibley more space? Why didn’t I resolve more issues with the Book of Mormon while I was dealing with the Bible? More commonly, however, they write because they seek grounds for faith that do not compromise their minds, and they sometimes bring up something from the book that they are wrestling through, things that have puzzled them or helped them. So conversation about issues related to Mormons and the Bible is an ongoing experience for me and for a fair number of Latter-day Saints. The book remains in print.
As to the extent that the book has yet to strike a deeper chord among Mormon readers and scholars, others may be better positioned than I to comment. The most obvious potential culprit is surely my own limitations as an author. Beyond that, a contributing factor may be that the book is published by Oxford University Press, which does not display its wares at small specialized conferences like that of the Mormon History Association or Sunstone. Arthur Bassett, in reviewing the work for Sunstone, noted that the BYU bookstore placed the book in some general historical or religious section, away from its more perused section of works by Mormon authors.
I am sure that the subject of the Mormon relation to the Bible does not seem to people on the street like a very sexy subject compared to, say, biographies of Joseph Smith or to polygamy or magic. As my colleague at the Cambridge Institute of Religion said long ago with good-humored sarcasm when I told him the subject of the dissertation on which I was at work, “Oh, I bet THAT will sell a lot of copies.” And perhaps I titled the book poorly; Kenneth Winn began his review (for the American Historical Review as I recall) something like: “This book has rather a dreary title for one of the most interesting works on the Saints to appear in years.”
Beyond my own weaknesses and my particular book, however (or perhaps in part because of them, who knows?), I do think that a portion of the Mormon scholarly community does not yet apprehend the fundamental importance of the subject. That may be partly because the Bible has long been taken so for granted in American culture that people scarcely knew how to say or conceive anything interesting about its role. The great Protestant scholar, Mark Noll, has found a similar frustration in trying to get the point across about the need to probe the Bibleâ€™s function in American history generally. If we remove the Bible, Mormon history dissolvesâ€”or becomes something else entirely. But the nature and function of its role, which affects LDS religious consciousness profoundly both among those who scarcely pick up the Bible and among those who believe they understand it, is not nearly so obvious as it may appear at first glance. You may be right that the book remains under some folks’ radar, in that I continue to encounter historical treatments that seem oblivious, that don’tseem to get it, and therefore indulge in misleading or innocent historical accounts.
2. Has the Mormon attitude to the Bible changed at all since you published Mormons and the Bible?
I don’t think so, not in any fundamental way. Offering a new edition of Mormons and the Bible has been suggested to me, however, and if I decide to do that I would need to invent a way to take a fresh look at the question beyond the casual anecdotal evidence provided, for instance, by my own experience in church.
As I will mention in #5 below, the First Presidency issued a statement, some months after the publication of Mormons and the Bible, reiterating the church’s commitment to the King James Bible. Authors of relevant entries in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which seems one good gauge of popular or widely accepted church practice and understanding, cited Mormons and the Bible in their bibliographies, but then wrote as if they had never encountered the book.
I do know that some folks at BYU are planning a large, multi-volume commentary on the Bible, and among those they have recruited are some capable LDS graduate students in religion programs around the country. So it is possible that a more even and informed product than we have heretofore enjoyed might emerge from that effort; we shall see. On the other hand, while talented people are sometimes hired within religion at BYU or elsewhere, the overall direction of the Church Education System in recent years seems to be yet further distancing itself from the notion that competence as a scholar, or even being well-read, is requisite to teaching our college students. So these are two somewhat contrary developments, and the latter is more pronounced than the former.
3. What are your thoughts about the development of university “Mormon Studies” programs?
I think this development is scandalously overdue. Mormonism now constitutes, among other things, a significant presence among the world’s cultures, one that warrants serious and sustained exploration, and not only in confessional settings. That higher education, especially at centers in Utah and the western United States, is at last inaugurating such a program is a mark of the maturing both of Mormon culture and, at least in Utah, of state culture. By comparison, and as I said to a reporter who inquired a year ago on the matter of university programs in Mormon Studies, it is difficult for me to imagine New York City as too proud, defensive, or indifferent to have engendered university programs in Jewish Studies.
I am pleased that the brainchild of Gene England is creating its niche at Utah Valley State College. I think that Ann Taves and Karen Torjesen at Claremont have been imaginative and resourceful in building bridges between the necessarily independent academy and the religious people it studies through the formation of counsels that may generate sufficient support to found endowed chairs in the study of Islam, Mormonism, and other traditions. I also have been impressed with the thoughtful initiative and years-long care behind the emerging shape of things at Utah State University. The success of the aspirations of the two universities naturally hinges on who inhabits these endowed chairs, because the social, political, intellectual, and religious forces that attend these developments can be potent, complex, and contrary. But all this may well result in the elevation of the study of religion in higher education in the West, and it may be also a historic moment in the study of Mormonism. This is not only the concern of Latter-day Saints and Mormon watchers. National agencies, such as the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History, will take due note if these new prospects are realized in Utah and California.
4. The overwhelming majority of Mormons simply assume the JST is in its every work a literal restoration of material lost from the original texts of the Bible. Church scholars have done little or nothing to try to correct this perception. Is this a powder keg waiting to blow up a lot of people’s testimonies due to unrealistic expectations? Or is it more likely that the status quo in pre-critical attitudes and assumptions towards the JST will simply go on unabated?
I think, quite simply, the latter. This sort of thing can and does blow up in individual faces; they feel betrayed when they find something they have relied upon as important, because it was assumed and taught by all those around them, is not so. But as a group church members can bend quite a stretch; I think most would do so if the nature of Josephâ€™s relation to the Bible, including what he called his “translation,” were to become more broadly understood.
5. Do you think that the Church will ever abandon the KJV as its official English language translation? If so, how far off into the future do you see such a development? With what would the Church replace it? Do you think that there will be a modernized translation of the Book of Mormon done by the Church in the next few decades?
Thirty or fifty years from now, it would not surprise me if the Church made a change. Nor would it surprise me if it did not. So I’m a pretty cowardly predictor.
Chapter 5 of Mormons and the Bible treated the historical evolution of the King James translation from the “common” version (which it was in Joseph Smithâ€™s day) to the “official” Bible of the Saints, which it became (de facto) after J. Reuben Clark and (unambiguously) in 1979 with the appearance of the current LDS edition. Within six months or so of the publication of Mormons and the Bible, the First Presidency issued a statement in the Church News (June 20, 1992) reiterating its commitment to the KJV. I defer to the policy of the brethren in their difficult roles and do not lobby against the policy. And the KJV has important virtues. It remains important, though, that we understand the nature, context, and implications of the use of our official translation.
We are in a bit of an awkward position no matter how we choose to relate to the KJV at this point. On the one hand, continued use of this antique version is going to make us, increasingly as this century moves on, seem Amish-like in our dealings with the outside world (that is, attached to a specific time and style for religious/cultural reasons that we ourselves do not well understand) in the specific matter of our biblical choice. 16th-century KJV idiom will continue to retreat rapidly from the rest of the cultureâ€™s usage, consciousness, and understanding, making our use of it in missionary endeavors seem increasingly quaint.
In addition, the KJV functions in some ways as a conceptual prison for 21st-century readers. The reason for this is not merely the inaccuracies in the Greek and Hebrew texts on which the KJV is based, which have long been surpassed by better and more ancient texts. Nor is it merely the obscurity of antique words, phrases, and general expression, and the oddness of perpetually having to resort to the footnotes for limited explanation at least of some wordsâ€”when modern and natural translations abound. Nor is it even the fact that most modern readers would be hard-pressed to follow the complex style and ideas of Paul, Isaiah, and other biblical writers even were they presented in lucid and accurate contemporary prose. The most basic problem is that the elegance of the “Authorized” English Bible warps for the modern ear the tone of the original texts, thus distorting our perception of the very nature of biblical scripture, which our additional scriptures then echo. One can hear no King James-like cathedral bells ringing in the background when one reads the Gospel of Mark in koine Greek. Mark’s writing is raw, fresh, breathless, primitive. The lordly prose of the KJV, as it is heard by 21st-century ears, is for many texts an external imposition, shifting the locus of authority away from the power of the story itself and toward an authority spawned by the partially artificial literary holiness suffusing our culturally created notion of scripture.
This exterior authority in one respect gilds the lily of the original message, then construes respect for the gild rather than the lily as a mark of orthodoxy. We compound the tangle by arguing that Joseph patterned his formulations of revelation after Jacobian language (which he naturally did) and that this neo-17th-century style is therefore sacrosanct. To extend the logic, itâ€™s a little like suggesting that because Luke wrote in koine, 1st-century Greek, modern Greeks (who understand koine Greek less well than most Americans understand Beowulf in its original early English prose of 1,300 years ago) should therefore only use koine Greek.
On the other hand, to be “holy” means to be set apart, and one could argue that retaining an antique and beautiful scriptural style serves the function of deepening the sense of “set apartness.” This can be an asset as well as a liability. Despite what they may think they are doing, most people of faith are not actually trying to discover the sense of scripture as it was penned, but rather using scripture devotionally, to gain and maintain a sense of the divine. And, of course, the beauty of the KJV is pronounced, and beauty can be akin to holiness in some contexts and some respects. Most important, since Joseph Smith cast his revelations in language colored by KJV style, to shift to a biblical translation that is more clear and closer to the original texts would likely induce the need to transpose the language of the Book of Mormon and perhaps other modern revelations. As a people we are naturally reluctant to alter the language of Joseph Smith’s casting of his revelations, and some Restoration understandings (such as the “dispensation of the fullness of times”) are dependent on KJV phrasing rather than on what the original texts said. And all this has been made more complex and difficult by the well-intentioned interweaving of the annotations in the LDS editions of the scriptures published since 1979. Such prospective changes as you inquire about in the phrasing of scripture may or may not come to be seen as in the purview of modern prophets. That is for them, not me, to decide. But either to proceed or not to is rather a substantial decision; it conditions our religious consciousness.
The Church has already adopted more modern translations in languages other than English. The explosive growth of the international church, which is in some instances using modern translations (and not to do so would strike many peoples abroad as strange indeed), is apt in the future increasingly to rub against the usage of an early 16th-century text by the (minority) English-speaking church.
Whether the Church in the foreseeable future will adopt a modernized phrasing of the Book of Mormon is thoroughly entwined with the KJV problem, and I have no way of knowing how it will address the issue. Certainly, in theory, Church leaders could act on prophetic authority in modernizing the language, just as (because of a shift toward a global context for its readers) they have amended and clarified the language of the 10th Article of Faith and (because of shifts in perceptions of the Saints) added a sub-title to the Book of Mormon.
If the Church did feel inspired to loosen its attachment to the King James Translation, it could one of several paths. It could re-adopt its policy operative before J. Reuben Clark, wherein the KJV was widely but not officially in use, with Church members frequently consulting other translations. That is, the Church would not have an â€œofficialï¿½ï¿½? translation of the Bible, as it did not for most of its history and as most other churches do not. Or it could produce its own translation, which would have the virtue, presumably, of integrating well with other LDS scriptures along with the liability of potentially being or seeming more sectarian. It could adopt the New King James Translation, which makes helpful though modest and conservative changes in the KJV, including taking note of scholarship and of Hebrew and Greek texts which are superior to those available to the 17th-century translators. Or it could embrace one of the best modern English translations, and perhaps concurrently be more thoroughgoing in updating the language of distinctively LDS scriptures.
6. Mormonism does not seem to have many scholars who do source criticism of the Bible. We have believing scholars who apply the tools they learn in graduate school toward understanding the text as it now stands, but there seems to much more reluctance in applying the tools in ways that break apart the texts or question their authorship. Composite texts are not countenanced and literal readings are encouraged if only by silence. What are the implications of this phenomenon? Is it important for Mormon biblical scholars to accept the fundamental assumptions of their fellow academic colleagues? Will Mormons feel “left behind” and see themselves left out of important debates? Should Mormons care? Will Mormon views of the Bible become aligned with Christian Fundamentalist readings? Will outside biblical scholars have anything to learn from Mormon biblical scholarship?
I am tempted to interpret some of these excellent questions as rhetorical. That is, one implication of our unawareness of, or lack of response toward, these issues, as well as our incapacity to deal with modern critical tools of textual analysis, is that this spawns among us a false consciousness: a sense that we are a competent, Bible-believing people, when in fact we have little idea of the fundamental developments of the past two centuries that reveal much about the texts. We are indeed badly “behind,” whether we feel it or not. Itâ€™s a little like believing that because we are spiritually attuned and have deep faith in God, we therefore have no use for science, a man-made thing that has produced a lot of atheists. We should care about the issues you raise if we believe in the 13th Article of Faith; we should care if we believe that God is a God of truth and that the glory of God is intelligence. We should care to the extent that we take scripture seriously.
But there is another side to all this. While I would never advocate our failure more thoughtfully to understand the texts to which we profess allegiance, including gaining mastery of the tools and issues of modern biblical scholarship, I do not think this inevitably requires adopting all the assumptions of espoused by various professional colleagues. I think, for instance, that some of the procedures and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are basically off the mark.
Criticism of the Bible becomes a somewhat pointless task if it does not have a spiritual end product. It may give a great deal of insight into matters of composition and historical setting, but these conclusions are not particularly helpful in determining the ultimate point of the scripture unless they can be brought into conjunction with the actual practice of the religion in questionâ€”in this case our own Mormonism.
An example from outside Mormonism: the formidable New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz, who works out of the University of Bern in Switzerland and who has published two of his three volumes of commentary on Matthew, says that he was trained in the historical-critical method, but finds it incapable of producing fruitful results at the deeper levels of meaning. As he read commentaries based on the higher critical methods, he found himself bored and increasingly persuaded of the slender benefits (mostly tangential) that come from historical criticism. By contrast and at the same time, he realized as he read the commentaries of writers like Augustine and Luther and Aquinas and Calvin, he encountered real theological depth. The basic problem, he then realized, is that theological issues are bracketed out of most scholarsâ€™ “higher critical” approach. The results therefore tend to be more or less theologically sterile, almost by definition.
The other basic problem is that, as many seem now to agree, it is not possible to be “objective” when pursuing a matter of biblical interpretation. It seems more fruitful, then, to define one’s point of view and use it openly in doing one’s interpretations. (This is not to say, of course, that there is no such thing as good and poor quality and a broad array of relative intelligence and spiritual and intellectual insight in defining and applying one’s point of view.)
In sum, I would urge a rare recipe: a serious, competent, and non-defensive engagement with critical analysis, whose real object is understanding rather than the barricading of pre-established notionsâ€”but all fueled by an awareness that the point of critical study is theological understanding and spiritual edification. Faith seeking understanding. A broad, flexible, resilient, open faith seeking honest understanding of the divine and of the history of human approaches to the divine.