I am the secretary in my ward’s young men’s presidency and occasionally teach lessons to our priest’s quorum. I recently taught a series of lessons on how to study the scriptures better. Initially we focused in on how to use the various study tools in the current edition of the standard works — e.g. what info do we find in the footnotes, what is the BD, what is a gazetteer, etc. I also showed them how to use some slightly more exotic study aids like Strong’s Biblical Concordance. Finally, I tried to get them to read the scriptures by asking questions about the text itself. I found that it was very hard to get them to ask questions about the text. Rather, what they wanted to ask questions about were the people and events “behind” the texts. Alternatively, they wanted to ask questions about how the texts could be reconciled with LDS theology, e.g. How can Satan be in God’s presence to get permission to tempt Job when elsewhere it says that the wicked cannot stand in the presence of God.
I realize that ultimately I was thinking about the scriptures as a text that was composed very deliberately by an author (or authors) to make particular points, and the goal was to extract the points from the text. My assumption is that the author is inspired in some sense, but probably neither historically accurate nor theologically consistent either within his own text or with the rest of scripture. My priests assumed that the scriptures were windows through which we peeked into a lost world, and the point of the exercise was the get into that world and figure out what is “really” going on.
Naturally, I assumed that my way of reading the scriptures was superior to theirs. Not only is it more historically and theologically sophisticated, I reasoned, but it also takes the text of scripture much more seriously than does their approach. They assume that scripture is an imperfect window or a bad theological treatise, and that our task as readers is to get past the text so as to understand what it is talking about. I assume that we are better off just trying to figure out what the text says. I found it difficult, however, to teach this to the priests in ways that did not raise all sorts of theological hackles for them. For example, when I suggested that Job was mainly a work of poetry whose power came from the forceful way in which it presented the question of suffering rather than a handbook that answers the question, they wanted to know if that meant that it wasn’t inspired or if Job actually existed or if God and Satan really make wagers over humanity. The more I think about it, however, the less naive and more important their questions seem to me. The problem is that my self-congratulatory sophistication about focusing on the text (and no doubt Melissa, Taylor, and others can point out the ways in which I am really not all that sophisticated in how I read scriptural texts) seemed to lack the resources to speak meaningfully to these questions. Hence, I am left with saying either:
1. Your questions are stupid.
2. My method might be able to answer your questions, but I don’t see how it can.
3. There is some way of answering your questions, but unfortunately reading the scriptures is not it.
None of these answers seems particularly compelling.