I’ve been reading Nephi all my life. I remember traveling with my Dad to speak at a small branch in our stake when I was a boy in primary. What can a young boy say to a congregation for a full five minutes? I decided it ought to be scriptural, so I picked what I was most familiar with and inspired by—the story of Nephi and his brothers going back to get the plates. When I was a teenager, I began to passionately engage Isaiah. But the whole motivation was Nephi—if Nephi loved the words of Isaiah, then (a priori) I loved the words of Isaiah too. Of course as I’ve grown older, my relationship with Nephi has grown more complicated. I’ve come to see the ambiguous, sometimes disappointing Nephi; just as I’ve come to see how prodigious he is in ways I couldn’t imagine as a child. This is no different, of course, than my relationship with any other human with whom I’ve been privileged to grow intimate.
And I hope I really have grown intimate with Nephi—I feel as though I have. I’m blessed enough at any rate to look forward to the renewal of our ties each time I pick up his book to give it a serious read. My life has been just as potently shaped by this man’s life and record, as my reading of that record has been shaped by my ever-evolving life. This is scripture.
I kept a journal during my most recent time through, and doing so was a wonderful experience—dynamically adding to my conversation with him. Now I’ve decided to share it. Why in the world would I do that? I don’t have a definitive answer, but here are some thoughts:
- I’ll start by being self-critical and acknowledge upfront a worry that we all might share: maybe I’m just arrogant—appointing myself as someone whose experience benefits others. I can in good conscience deny this as a motive—at least as the driving motive. But of course motivations are complicated, composite things, with intricacies to which we’re not always privy—and maybe my arrogance is solidly a part of it.
- But the primary reason that I feel motivated is dialogic. My relationship with Nephi really is a conversation. He presents me with his narrative, and I talk to him about each part as I go, listening to his various responses, and quite often arguing with him. Our conversation has lasted three decades. Occasionally Moroni or a later Nephi jumps in, and occasionally others in my life join our conversation as well. Each time they do it adds tremendously. Scripture was originally a public, communal affair, and it never gets entirely away from this essential aspect. But giving everyone a personal copy of the scriptures (in fulfillment of Lehi’s prophesy in I Nephi 5) risks the danger of making scripture study a merely individual, closeted affair. I love the idea of more voices joining our conversation. At least, that’s how I feel this time through.
- I’ve mostly lost my ability to read without reading critically. And critical readings are a natural fit for the bloggernacle—it seems natural to share mine here. But criticism is more than negative critique—and the bloggernacle as a whole too often misses that point. I’ve been inspired by others round these parts whose critical readings are immensely constructive, and I want to try my own hand at it.
- And at any rate, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world, right? There are lots of approaches to reading the scriptures; I hope this adds something new and worthwhile.
- Finally, I’ll confess that I simply feel compelled to it. Too often in our culture we say that with a sort of wink in order to insinuate that God has given us revelation—and so appoint ourselves a prophet, just as Lehi did but with rather less justification or result. I don’t mean to do this. I mean more to insinuate neurosis than spiritual inspiration. Can I do so and still claim this as an undeniably spiritual experience for myself? We’ll see.
Mostly, I hope you’ll join in. I hope you will read Nephi with us, gather together with us, and add your own voice to our conversation. My reading this time through is as different as my last time through, as it will be from my next time through. There are some sticking points, some older arguments Nephi and I are still hashing through, but most of our conversation here is new. And I’m eager for the newness that you might add.
But on that note, I want to be perfectly explicit upfront. I’m going beyond Times and Season’s comment policy—or perhaps giving it a hardline reading. If you want to debate historicity, the validity or legitimacy of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the church or faith in general, I invite you to seek out other posts or venues where various of these are the theme. Here, in this series, I will only allow that which contributes to our conversation with Nephi. You’re welcome to dislike him and dislike me and to comment candidly on that fact. But your comments need to be grounded in the text and contribute to the conversation we’re having, rather than an attempt to hijack that conversation.
I look forward to hearing from you.
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1. This is an oft-cited fact in many commentaries. Note that the scriptures themselves reference the public reading of the scriptures; for example, Nehemiah 8, Colossians 4:16, I Thessalonians 5:27, and I Timothy 4:13.
2. Being a little more specific: Jim Faulconer’s unflinching interrogation of each line of scripture has been tremendously influential on me. But it’s also hard to sustain an extended reading—which is (I think) part of why Jim’s published interrogations moved along with Correlation’s Sunday School lesson liturgy. I want a critical reading that’s more narrative and less tied to our Sunday School assignments.
Grant Hardy has inspired us all with his commitment to the text itself. He’s helped teach us to read “against the grain.” But to date he gives us mostly overview with the occasional dive down into a specific story here and there. Again, I want to move slower and not focus simply on Nephi’s words, but even more so on my conversation with Nephi. (While I’m specifically referring to Grant’s A Reader’s Guide. I’ll note here too that I’ve been using his A Reader’s Edition this time through, which has been immensely enjoyable. I highly encourage others to do the same—a change in form brings a change in substance as well.)
Perhaps more than any other, I’ve been inspired by Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, which I highly recommend. I’ll frankly admit that I’m not the writer she is, nor am I exploring the relevance of ancient practices for modern life. I’m merely recording (mostly) my thoughts and my side of the conversation—but it’s a conversation with Nephi, which Norris (I think) has never had.
Finally, I’ll acknowledge my similar debt to Julie M. Smith’s Sunday School notes and Kent Larson’s Literary Gospel Doctrine; their works were inspiring, but again with a different (and more scholarly) approach than my own.
Goodness, compared to all of these folks, my approach is profoundly normal. It’s not paradigm shifting or erudite; it’s literally just my thoughts.