‘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 Birgittaâ€™s use of Isidoreâ€™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.