Long ago and far away…in graduate school I spent a semester studying Genesis with one of my philosophy professors who was also a rabbi. I’ve told that story elsewhere,1 but it is worth repeating its essentials. I asked Professor Stephen Goldman to help me study that entire book and he persuaded me that I was biting off far too much. He wanted to study only Genesis 1 during the term, and that, he said, would require us to rush. We agreed to do “as much as we can cover,” and by the end of the term we had made it through chapters 1 through 3—a tribute to his willingness to indulge a Gentile.
I learned a tremendous amount while we studied, not only about Jewish ways of understanding the chapters but also about how a Latter-day Saint can learn from them. Not surprisingly, there’s overlap between the two ways of understanding. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was not this or that interpretation of verses in Genesis, but a way of reading I’d never before encountered.
Professor Goldman taught me that the most important element of scripture study was the questions I brought to it. And he showed me that the best questions were seldom the broad philosophical and theological questions to which I was first inclined. I came to our sessions wanting to know big things like how evolution and Genesis might correlate. He came wanting to know little things that were hard to answer: In chapter 1, what significance can we see in the order of the days of creation? When God proposes the creation of human beings, why does he say “in our image, after our likeness”? What does each of those words mean and why the repetition? Why are humans the only beings whose creation is not followed by the phrase “And God saw that it was good”?
The difference between my questions and his was like night and day.
So while I learned many things studying with Professor Goldman, the most important lesson was that thinking about my big questions didn’t yield as much spiritual interest and profit as did thinking about his seemingly little and sometimes technical questions. By applying his study style I found that my scripture study was much richer than it had ever been.
Of course there were also other profitable ways to study scripture. Sometimes I read the New Testament or the Book of Mormon or another scriptural collection from cover to cover. Sometimes I read looking for themes or answers to a particular doctrinal question. The ways I had learned to read scripture up to that point continued to be valuable.
But this new way of studying was a powerful addition to my spiritual life. Focusing on questions about the details of scripture gave me at least two benefits. First of all, thinking about details allows answers to my broader questions to emerge from the text I’m considering. It isn’t unusual when paying attention to details shows me possibilities that I’d not thought about previously. The answers are more likely to come from the text rather than from the alternative guesses I’d thought about and brought to the text before reading it. Second, focusing on the details of the material I’m reading makes it more likely that I’ll see and think of things that I hadn’t thought of before. This way of studying scripture, therefore, refreshes my scripture study.
Using the things I learned from Professor Goldman, my personal scripture study was enriched for years. But I also learned from him that I learn better when I think about things with other people. So I was often on the lookout for people who wanted to read and think about scripture with me, whether students, colleagues, or friends. It’s difficult to say how much I owe to those who put up with me in such discussions, but without them it would’ve been more difficult to continue to learn.
The “Made Harder” series
During our studies Professor Goldman also introduced me to the work of a scholar named Nechama Leibowitz. In the 1940s and 50s, Leibowitz created questions people could use to improve their Torah study, covering the parts of the Torah prescribed for each week. In the beginning she distributed sheets of these questions and then responded to any answers that were returned to her—though as demand grew she could no longer respond to everyone. I bought the five-volume collection of Leibowitz’s Studies and once again found myself learning much about my own religion from a Jewish scholar. She often went down paths that were completely unfamiliar to me, but even then she almost always made me think freshly about the passages under consideration.
In December 2003, the bloggers at Times & Seasons invited me to join them. Shortly thereafter I began writing blog posts made up of questions for that week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson patterned on what I’d learned from Professor Goldman and Leibowitz.
My forthcoming books The Doctrine and Covenants Made Harder, and The Old Testament Made Harder, and The Book of Mormon Made Harder (with The New Testament Made Harder in the works) are the outgrowth of those early efforts, which I’ve re-written and added to over the years. The titles reflect what I believe I’ve learned from my Jewish teachers: sometimes we make scripture study too easy. That doesn’t mean that the language is easy to understand. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that I need help understanding. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find time to really study scripture. It doesn’t mean that I never need help from books that explain things about the scriptures. Reading such books can be another way of entering into conversation with other people who are thinking about scripture. It can be a way for them to share their ideas with me and for me to learn things about scripture that I cannot know by myself alone.
Instead, saying that sometimes scripture study is too easy means that too often I come to the scriptures as if I already know what they teach. I read them and repeat to myself what I supposedly already know: “Nephi teaches us that the Lord will always make it possible to do what he commands,” “Nephite culture failed because it couldn’t escape the ‘pride cycle,’” “Paul and James disagree about the need for works,” “If we believe that Jesus’ commandment to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) is meant for this life rather than our life after-life, we will become neurotic and depressed,” and so on. Because I already know what the scriptures teach, I tend to hurry through them. Then, when I don’t learn anything new, I complain about how boring scripture study is. I don’t think about such things as the relationship between God’s commandments and his blessings, what specifically the Nephites were guilty of and how I know that, or whether I’ve really understood either Paul or James. I believe that when many people complain about how hard scripture study is, they often mean that it is too difficult for them to continue to learn. It has become too easy to, supposedly, know what the scriptures teach.
I believe the best solution we have for this problem is to make the scriptures harder by finding ways of slowing us down as we read by giving us things to think about. This will help us see things we’d not seen before and learn from what we see. That is the goal of this series. The “Made Harder” books are not written in the sort of narrative or commentary format you may be familiar with and they aren’t intended to be read independently straight through—you’ll need your scriptures at hand. The books in this series are mostly questions…with very few answers. Occasionally I give historical background if I think that will help, though I only give an amateur’s overview. There are a few linguistic or grammatical helps for difficult passages, equally the work of an amateur. Sometimes I give alternate translations to help make the reading more clear. But those are not the point of these books. For the most part I ask question about specific details, hoping that those questions will help readers have an experience with the scriptures somewhat like the experience that I had reading with Professor Goldman and Leibowitz: an exciting and eye-openingly fresh engagement with our sacred scriptures.
In the end, the goal is that readers will come up with their own questions. With some guidance and a little practice, I hope readers of these books will be able to make the scriptures harder on their own.