Prayer and parascripture

December 20, 2007 | 27 comments
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‘Parascripture’ was the term Hugh Nibley used to refer to popular statements of religious sentiment that weren’t actually found in scripture, and that can sometimes be the vehicle for foreign ideas to find a home in a Mormon setting. An example in recent circulation is, “If you want to talk to God, pray; if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures.”

The precise wording varies, but you can find the statement in various forms on Mormon Internet sites, in speeches given at BYU, and even in a few conference talks. So it might give us pause to find essentially the same statement in any number of non-Mormon costumes:

  • The Evangelical version: “When we pray, we talk to God. When we study the Bible, it is God talking to us.”
  • The Jewish version: “As Rabbi Irwin Kula has pointed out, quoting Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, when we pray we talk to God, when we study God talks to us.”
  • The Islamic version: “If you want God to talk to you, read the Qur’an. If you want to talk to God, pray to Him.”
  • The TM version: “It has been said that, when we pray, we talk to God. When we meditate, God talks to us.”
  • The Sri Chimnoy version: “When we pray – we talk to God. When we meditate – we listen to God.”
  • The folk magic version: “Perhaps when we pray we talk to God; and when we Dowse we listen to God.”

One problem with this list, of course, is that there are varying degrees of disagreement concerning the precise definition of “God,” “pray,” and “scriptures.” When we start looking at older sources, “want,” “talk,” and “read” also do not necessarily mean what we think they mean, either.

From a printed redaction (1481) of the revelations of St. Birgitta (1303-1373), in a chapter on the shepherds of Israel: “For Isidore says: When we read, God speaks to us. And therefore when any preacher reads these words, he hears them from Christ. And thus he has the duty to preach them to the people over whom he watches.” The Patrologia Latina database records numerous uses of the same phrase, often attributed to Isidore of Seville (560-636): Qui uult cum Deo semper esse, frequenter debet orare, frequenter et legere. Namcum oramus, ipsi cum Deo loquimur; cum uero legimus, Deus nobiscum loquitur (Sententiae, Book 3, 8.2; PL 83: 679). “Whoever wants to be with God always should pray often and read often. For when we pray, we speak with God himself; when we read, God speaks with us.”

In the 700 years from Isidore to Birgitta, and in the 700 years from Brigitta to us, the same phrase acquired different meanings in new contexts. Isidore recommended reading as a way to experience the presence of God, but ‘reading’ in the 21st century entails a different context and different practices. We are not members of a cloistered community; even when we seclude ourselves for devotional reading, we might read many other works apart from the familiar biblical text; even when we study the scriptures, we do not always ruminate over every word, but instead use chapter and verse divisions, footnotes, and topical indices (all direct descendants of 11/12th-century innovations in information technology) to quickly find the information we seek. When we read, we do not experience the presence of a speaker, but rather, at best, the transmission of an absent voice, or at worst, the access of information. The principal beneficiaries of the 11/12th-century innovations in textual presentation were clerics, who needed quick and accurate access to single passages of lengthy texts, but who also served medieval society in particular ways. There are ethical assumptions about literacy, authority, and obligation underlying Birgitta’s use of Isidore’s phrase that are not part of modern injunctions to read (or study or meditate or dowse).

Mormonism does have something to say about the equivalence of reading and hearing prophetic voices, of course, and about the obligations that creates. Intensive scripture study can even come to resemble monastic ruminatio at times. But our world is not Isidore’s, and our way of experiencing the presence of God is not exactly the same as his, or other textually-focused religious traditions’. The formulation “If you want to talk to God, pray; if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures,” doesn’t completely work in a Mormon context because we consider scripture reading as a beneficial precursor or activator of religious experience, but not itself the process of experiencing God. If you want to talk to God, pray; if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures, and then pray.

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27 Responses to Prayer and parascripture

  1. David T. on December 20, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Absolutely, amen.

    When I read the scriptures (and I concede it could be a different experience for everyone) I gain some sense of enlightenment or rediscovery of doctrine, principle or other sense of learning. However, it’s when I pray– while I’m pondering– that God talks to me. Although I knew this intellectually– to kneel, shut up & listen– I only recently started practicing it, and found the voice of my Father, as if He were sitting next to me the whole time, just waiting to get a word in edgewise.

  2. jnilsson on December 20, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Jonathan,

    Fascinating idea. I have noticed lately though that Evangelical incursions (at least in the U.S. and Latin America) into LDS religious culture have made the statement which you attribute to Evangelicals more commonplace in Mormon circles. I have heard that a few times anyway at least.

    An interesting sidelight to what you have said is the tendency of CES personnel to explain the contemporary lack of visionary experiences made public by General Authorities as, “Well, if an angel did appear, he would probably just quote scripture anyway.” I have heard variants of this more than once in Church settings.

    When you look at LDS visionary experience, like Moroni quoting Malachi or even rare twentieth-century accounts of visions or voices, scripture or parascripture like “Follow the Prophet” or “I never said it would be easy, only that it would be worthwhile” often are the centerpiece of the proposition being revealed. These are also usually things which the recipient of the experience is already familiar with, rarely some new doctrine.

  3. Kevinf on December 20, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Not looking to threadjack, but here is another example of “parascripture” as defined above:

    B.H. Roberts said the following: “In essentials let there be unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity”.
    83rd Semi Annual Conference Report, 1912, p 30.

    I had heard that several times, so I was surprised while listening to NPR some years ago to hear Pope John XXIII quoted thusly: “Orthodoxy is in necessary things, unity; truly unanswered things, liberty; and in all things, charity”. Quoted by Father John Traley, Theologian at the University of Chicago, NPR Morning Edition, April 23, 1987.

    Roberts predated Pope John the XXIII by a few years, so I doubt he was quoting Roberts. I can only assume there is another, earlier source that both had quoted.

    Back on topic, I’d say that in our religious tradition, the personal spiritual experience is more clearly understood as a basic means of “hearing God” and our privilege to enjoy, without a personal intermediary such as a pastor, saint, or the scriptures. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had real spiritual experiences while reading the scriptures, only that it’s just one of many ways the spirit communicates with us, but usually in response to prayer or, not infrequently, while performing acts of service or serving in a calling.

  4. Ray on December 20, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    “if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures, and then pray.”

    In my case, it is “if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures. If you want further clarification or to have Him answer a specific question concerning your own life that just isn’t covered fully in the scriptures you read, then pray.” Perhaps that’s exactly what you mean.

    I might add that scriptural messages definitely are secondary in Mormonism to personal messages through prayer when it comes to hearing from or receiving the will of God. There are way too many examples of personal revelation (at the time of prayer or later as a result of prayer) trumping communal revelation (recorded in scripture as canon) to try to list here, but the entire Restoration was NOT primarily a result of scriptural messages – rather it was the result of direct answers to prayer stimulated by the scriptures. God spoke to all through the former; He spoke to Joseph personally through the latter – and that pattern has remained our modus operandi ever since.

  5. Adam Greenwood on December 20, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    #3:

    I found this on the origin of your quote–
    http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/augustine/quote.html

  6. Kevinf on December 20, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Adam,

    Thanks, I had heard the attribution to Augustine as well, but never had found it in my admittedly limited reading in that area. Interesting for a Pope and a Mormon apostle to be quoting a Lutheran, some 300 years later.

    Ray,

    Good point. Many things can serve as the catalyst, but prayer is often the trigger that brings on the personal revelation, or God “talking” to us, certainly evident than in the events of the restoration.

  7. Brad Kramer on December 20, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    “I never said it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it.”
    –Jesus

  8. Mark N. on December 20, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Yes, every time I hear that “worth it” statement, I ask “Could you please cite the scripture where Jesus said that ‘it’ would be ‘worth it’, please?”

  9. Jack on December 20, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    I remember the time when my seminary teacher asked me what my favorite scripture was. Not knowing the Bible very well when I was younger, I could not give him the exact reference. And so I quoted it as best I could. “I never said it would be easy. I only said it would be worth it — or something like that,” I said. It was a very special moment–and what made it even more special was that my teacher told me it was his favorite scripture too.

    Deep Thoughts by Jack

  10. bfwebster on December 20, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    “If you want to talk to God, pray; if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures.”

    Hmm. I’ve never heard that one. It doesn’t strike me so much like ‘parascripture’ as just a simply maxim or proverb, which of course we have plenty of (e.g, “Do it”, “Every member a missionary”, “Chose the Right”, and so on).

    I have no recollection of Nibley using the term ‘parascripture’ in his writings (any cites?); a Google search on ‘Nibley parascripture’ turns up a grand total of two hits — this blog entry and one over at By Common Consent (in a comment posted by Kevin Barney). On the other hand, I only had one class from Nibley (on Enoch) and that was ~30 years ago, and I don’t have an electronically-searchable set of his complete writings at my immediate disposal. But frankly it’s as good a term as any, and I certainly recall him raising the issue described above. I believe one of his favorite examples was the phrase “Be in the world, but not of the world”. One can defensibly derive that concept from John 15-17, but the phrase itself never actually appears in the scriptures. I would argue that a large percentage of the Church probably believes that that phrase exists in the scriptures somewhere, because it sounds scriptural — very much like something the Savior would say, Paul would write, or the Lord would reveal in the D&C.

    Still, the example you quoted certainly doesn’t sound like scripture; it sounds rather clunky and modern and too clever by half, and I would be surprised if that many Latter-day Saints thought it was literally scriptural. In fact, I would think that English-speaking Latter-day Saints expect scriptural language to have a more archaic and elegant tone, because of our use of the KJV, as well as the archaic English used in the Book of Mormon and most of the D&C/PofGP. But, hey, these kids today, who knows what they’ll accept. :-) ..bruce..

  11. smb on December 21, 2007 at 12:11 am

    My best sense is that early LDS would have been shocked to hear that such a phrase would have been used to describe Mormonism. As Jonathan has aptly noted, Mormonism was a religion of a speaking God, not the uninspiring (to their view) tedium of sola scriptura Protestantism. And thank that speaking God for his interest in speaking to us directly.

  12. Talon on December 21, 2007 at 12:49 am

    “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”.

  13. bfwebster on December 21, 2007 at 1:46 am

    And: “God helps those who help themselves.”

  14. Jonathan Green on December 21, 2007 at 4:09 am

    B. F. Webster: “Parascripture” shows up in Nibley’s discussion of “in the world but not of the world.” At least, that’s how I remember it from reading whatever chapter of Nibley that was, a couple decades ago when I was young and impressionable. I don’t have access to those books at the moment, and I wouldn’t bet on my memory being correct.

  15. Eric Boysen on December 21, 2007 at 11:13 am

    #2 – Aye, but which scripture!

  16. Eric Boysen on December 21, 2007 at 11:25 am

    When a General Authority stands and speaks and utters one of these parascriptures does it become scripture? I have heard Conference talks put on par with the Standard Works by many leaders and by CES (e.g. “Teachings of the Living Prophets”). Yet there have been some of our Authorities who will merely recit one of the then current funny stories for a vague moral lesson ( The guy with the bricks going up and down, sustaining injuries with every passage. The guy who eats the other guy’s cookies in the airport lounge) Ar these scripture? How about praying with baseball players and other faith promoting but false stories. Are they scripture.

    These sound bites may all speak “a” truth, but they are not always “the” truth. We need to listen carefully to our leaders, but we need to confirm what we hear through our own revelation.

  17. Eric Boysen on December 21, 2007 at 11:27 am

    #13 – I think that is from Aesop.

  18. Geoff J on December 21, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Funny you should bring that saying up (“We talk to God through prayer, God talks to us through scripture”). I ripped on it briefly in our priesthood lesson just this Sunday. I think it is not only inaccurate, but a potentially pernicious. It implies that God can’t or won’t speak to us directly through the Holy Spirit. I think the end of that road is full fledged Bible worship..

  19. Perry Shumway on December 21, 2007 at 11:59 am

    \”We talk to God through prayer; God talks to us through . . . parascripture.\”

  20. BHodges on December 21, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    B.H. Roberts was very well read, so to see him quoting such is not surprising.
    I like this post, by the way. I call these “pseudo-scriptures.” Spiritual Twinkies.

  21. Brad Kramer on December 21, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    #13, I think, is from Ben Franklin.

  22. Jonathan Green on December 21, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Geoff, thanks for the link. It looks like you were making much the same point I’m making here, except about three months before me. This really is one of the cases where Mormon and Evangelical epistemology part ways rather dramatically, and quoting Isidore hides the difference.

    Eric Boysen, that’s a good question. What do we do when a general authority says something in conference that seems questionable? Rather than parsing words for literal meaning, I think the faithful listener should look for the most likely intent. So, for example, when “If you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures” is uttered in conference, what is the speaker most likely trying to say?

    1. The First Vision wasn’t all that significant. Just read the Bible, and it will tell you everything.
    or;
    2. Talking to God = good. Scriptures = good. Do both.

    I usually vote for #2.

  23. PnGrata on December 21, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    13, 17, and 21

    It’s at least as old as Beowulf…

  24. mlu on December 21, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    The formulation “If you want to talk to God, pray; if you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures,” doesn’t completely work in a Mormon context because we consider scripture reading as a beneficial precursor or activator of religious experience, but not itself the process of experiencing God.

    It doesn’t seem so to me. Reading scripture sometimes does seem itself the experiencing of God to me, somewhat akin to having an angel appear in my chambers to speak.

    My prayer experiences have tended to provide enlightenment more tailored to specific situations that I faced while my reading (prayfully) experiences have tended toward enlarged understanding of the gospel plan.

    Even so, when I am deeply troubled, I have sometimes found that reading scriptures works best, allowing the spirit to come back in and fill me until the only prayer I need is one of thanksgiving.

  25. Bruce Lee on December 23, 2007 at 2:18 am

    I have heard the round table discussion BYU professors say that when we are reading the scriptures, it is like having an interview with the Lord.

  26. Geoff J on December 23, 2007 at 2:46 am

    Yuck.

    Those round table shows on BYU TV are what made me decide the name stands for Bore You Unconscious TV.

  27. Matt Donaldson on December 27, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    My response to the saying, “I never said it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it” is to point out that the Savior actually did say it would be easy: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:30.) While the ease spoken of is relative (He is using the term to describe a yoke), the scripture helps to quickly expose the quote as a philosphy of man that merely sounds like scripture.