Thoughts on Trying to Teach the Priests How to Read the Scriptures

February 1, 2007 | 14 comments
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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.

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14 Responses to Thoughts on Trying to Teach the Priests How to Read the Scriptures

  1. greenfrog on February 1, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    One additional response you might offer:

    4. Your questions assume more about the stories than they seek to learn. That’s one way of using your faith and minds, but it isn’t one that often yields definitive answers from scriptures. Using that approach, scripture reading is more of a process of seeding your own religious imagination than understanding what someone else has thought and said.

  2. KyleM on February 1, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    They’re priests, so:

    1. Be grateful they are reading.
    and
    2. Be excited that they are asking questions. That’s a great start.

    As they use additional resources to answer the questions, they will naturally become more sophisticated. Priests don’t need to be biblical scholars.

  3. greenfrog on February 1, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Priest-aged males are perfectly capable of thinking clearly (at least about subjects that don’t involve intimacy). We disserve them if we don’t give them the tools and encouragement to do so.

  4. Richard O. on February 2, 2007 at 7:03 am

    Starting out by focusing on the text be a bit too cerebral for many priests. Perhaps you could start with a problem that they could identify with. This might provide enough momentum to then move them to a more serious analysis of the text.

  5. KyleM on February 2, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    3: Then why don’t we teach hebrew, greek, and aramaic in seminary. There are some who believe you can’t really study the scriptures without it.

    I agree that our youth are very capable, but I wouldn’t expect the average priest to be an exegete.

  6. Bookslinger on February 2, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Perhaps you could use the same commentaries that the CES course material uses as references.

    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.

    I like that view. Less navel-gazing.

  7. Anita on February 2, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    I liked a recent comment from the NT Sperry Symposium, where Kent Jackson talked about scriptural text being divine with human fingerprints all over it. If you can get the boys to see the divine–the point of scriptures being to testify about Christ and his redemptive mission and the plan of salvation–and not quibble about the “human fingerprints,” that may be valuable. (Of course, adults, scholars, bloggers spend lots of time quibbling, and the priests may have questions about such issues that are raised–and being old enough to move beyond the second-grade theological education many Saints have, we need to counter/discuss difficulties.) I think it’s important for the youth to see that we believe the scriptures, we believe the divine, and want them to find a testimony there as well.

  8. Matt W. on February 2, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    It seems to me there is an underlying question here about what poistion the scriptures take and what sort of information out we seek to get out of the scriptures. There are plenty of scriptures which answer that underlying question.

  9. Matt W. on February 2, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Oh, and I teach this age group as well, and it has also been challenging for me, though for entirly different reasons. I would love to be honestly and seriously asked the questions you are.

  10. Ugly Mahana on February 2, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    In general I think my scripture studying is much more similar to that of the priests than to Nate’s, so I think I may be able to comment on how such study may be useful. As Nate noted, reading the scriptures this way turns up all sorts of difficulties and even contradictions. If you assume that the message of the gospel is true, then these apparent contradictions and difficulties drive the reader to his or her knees, and open the door for inspiration. I have always thought that such querying of the scriptures is what led Joseph Smith to ask the questions he asked, and that the accompanying faith in the basic message of the gospel enabled him to receive answers. Although I have not received revelations such as his, I have experienced moments where my understanding has expanded because I dared to “look through a glass darkly.”

    Such a simple approach to scripture study need not preclude more sophisticated attempts to understand the scriptures, either. Indeed, I have often reached for sources in my attempts to harmonize scripture that I would not otherwise have discovered. I have also been able to consider challenging ideas without seeing them as mortal threats to my faith.

    In the end, I think the key to getting priests, or anyone, to get excited about scripture reading is to first implant in them a desire to know God, then show them that God wants us to read scripture to get to know him. The scriptures are compiled records of men and women who knew God and wrote about what they knew. While authoritative, they are neither perfect nor complete. In order to answer the hard questions (such as those posed by the priests) you must go to option 3 and ask God to reveal the answer. The scriptures themselves are witnesses that God will answer such prayers, if offered in faith, etc.

  11. Bookslinger on February 3, 2007 at 12:35 am

    I just thought of adding: maybe us a parallel 4-translation Bible. I often turn to alternate translations when the KJV doesn’t make sense to me.

    I think every student of the Bible ought to own at least one alternate translation bible aside from the LDS KJV edition. You can get NIV paperbacks for $2/each, and TNIV paperbacks for $2.15/each in cases of 24, from http://www.ibsdirect.com, Int’l Bible Soc. Another easier-understood version for teens is the CEV (Contemporary English Version), only $2/each from http://www.bibles.com, American Bible Society.

  12. smb on February 4, 2007 at 2:19 am

    It’s very tricky when people “out” you, ask you point blank whether your approach to scripture is compatible with theirs or the one they understand they have previously been taught. I tend to avoid being pinned down and to explain what I think are useful insights without pushing hard to compare axioms. This same sort of problem arises in other age groups–many of us have participated in adult gospel doctrine discussions of something like Job with something like the tension you describe. In the end, I’m with Paul, that the church is a body of many members, and we are all not feet or hands or ears. When people tell me they don’t preferthe approach I take (I remember a friend handing back an Anchor Bible volume with a bemused smile and a confession to having given up after three paragraphs), I try to be very positive about their approach and not be dogmatic about my approach. For people who are struggling with the tension, I tend to describe my basic understanding of scripture as the “habitat of the righteous,” a place to encounter God, which can be true whether scripture is (in)errant.

    You could also expose the kids to late Jewish-early Christian Biblical exegesis. Their questions would fit right in, and they might enjoy the sense of discovery (but maybe I’m just being pretentious).

  13. Sterling on February 4, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    I think you are dealing with two types of history. You have one view and your students have another. It certainly sounds like their view of history is changing. But until you can recognize the difference, I think you might be stuck.

  14. DMP on February 20, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Teenage boys, especially if their exposure to the scriptures has been limited, may be a tough and skeptical audience to teach at times. But, that skepticism can be a plus. Since they will look at the scriptures, hopefully, with fresh eyes and minds.

    I believe it is helpful to also help any students of the scriptures to understand the importance of words. Many of the words we use from the scriptures, most of the adults in our Church don’t necessarily understand. Teaching that the scriptures were written by ordinary folk can help. But, also, some of the greatest minds this earth has known have written (or spoken) scripture.

    Last night, for Family Home Evening, I taught our five remaining children at home (two have married, and the other two attend a student ward FHE) about how “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words light and truth…”. I pointed out how the definition for ‘intelligence’ is given in the “or other words” part by the Lord.

    We covered the part in Proverbs 4 about wisdom and understanding. I could have then, but didn’t this time, add Sterling W. Sill’s “and with all thy getting, GET GOING!”.

    We touched upon D&C 130, about how whatever knowledge & intelligence we gain in this life will rise with us in the resurrection (talk about preparing for the future)!

    And then we covered a portion of what I find to be some of the most insightful, wondrous and incredible scripture. It is found in Abraham 3, where Abraham describes talking one-on-one with the Lord, in the night time, and the Lord puts his hand over Abraham’s eyes, and shows Abraham what works his hands have made. More than metaphor, that is astronomically cool (pun intended)!

    I can’t but imagine how cool the virtual reality helmets at some planetarium or “virtual reality” place might have one can wear, and see in 3D some pretty fantastic virtual reality. But WOW!—consider having the Lord put over your eyes his hand, and thereby showing you what his hands have created. I almost am lifted up just trying to imagine it. And I believe that that truly happened, just as described.

    No wonder so many sci-fi writers have come from among Latter-Day Saints. But, again, let’s not forget, what we have in the scriptures, and what the keys and knowledge made available by the Prophet Joseph Smith and a bit more by other Latter-Day prophets and apostles have done and can do for us! That, and the Spirit of the Lord makes it comprehendible.

    Too often, I believe, we do not see the miracles God provides. Do you remember reading when, after feeding several thousand, the Savior’s apostles failed to catch the miracle of feeding them from a few fishes and loaves? The scripture says, “they (his apostles) considered not the miracle of the loaves (for their heart was hardened)”. I wonder sometimes how many such “miracles” we miss, or misperceive, that we find both in life and in the scriptures.

    Young minds can be skeptical. But often they may be less skeptical than our own minds. I have found the importance of “learning by study, and also by faith.”

    How often have we been, and yet are, as so many of the “unbelieving”. It was to the Savior’s disciples, and not some agnostic Korihor, that the Savior castigated with his, “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken”.

    Though the story is told in poetic form, I believe the story of Job, for example, was told in that book accurately. We have God and Lucifer in the Garden of Eden, and even after, striving to win to their side Adam and Eve, as we understand it, both parties contending with one another at various points. And, considering that the Lord knows all, the “wager” between the adversary and the Lord is hardly really a wager. Certainly, the Lord himself had a purpose for Job in putting him through the ordeal he went through, that went far beyond anything Lucifer could realize.

    It is important for us to soften our hearts, and to be believing. This doesn’t come automatically or even by our own personal will. Oliver Cowdery’s description of Joseph’s prayer at age 17, as described to Cowdery by the prophet, tells of how Joseph’s heart then was softened as he prayed into the night. Nephi too tells of how his heart was softened when he approached the Lord to be informed about his father’s revelations. I believe Nephi is telling us that he too was a bit skeptical (as obviously were his older brothers, Laman and Lemuel), but he approached the Lord with faith, and I suppose, with the pause of judgement that his father could be telling the truth.

    The world doesn’t believe the scriptures. They believe that they rank up there with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus in describing reality. We realize, or should, that while so very much of what is spoken of in the scriptures seems to be so fantastic and surreal, it is, nevertheless, the truth.

    We need to learn (and try to teach) by study and by faith.

    —DMP

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