“Reading is about community”—Rosalynde Welch on the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar
Applications for the 2019 Mormon Theology Seminar are now being accepted! See here for details. This post and others in the series offers you glimpses of what the seminar is like from the perspective of past participants. This post comes from Rosalynde Welch, who will be co-directing the 2019 seminar.
As a mother of school-age kids, I’m embarrassingly susceptible to clickbait-y articles decrying the fracturing social effects of digital media. I’ll click every time. Yet, as my kids hasten to point out, reading any kind of written text—digital or paper-and-ink—is inherently atomizing. Everything from novels to newspapers were subject, when new, to concern about their possibly deleterious social effects. Reading is usually done silently, individually, and mentally removed from one’s immediate context. So much for being present in the moment!
Some kinds of texts and some kinds of reading—scripture chief among them—are meant to be communal. The soaring walls of the Cathedral of St Francis, glory of the Umbrian hilltop town of Assisi, are graced with frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue depicting the lives of Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi. Far more than inspiring decoration, the frescoes were, for illiterate believers, crucial visual counterparts to the written scriptural accounts that, read and re-read from the pulpit, structured the Christian Franciscan community that took root in this place. The frescoes remind the viewer that texts and reading are, after all, about community: the community of writers and scribes who produced the texts, the community of brothers who studied and disseminated them, and the community of the faithful who lived forth—imperfectly, to be sure—the image of Christ that burns in the words of those texts.
The communal nature of scripture reading and interpretation is easily lost outside the walls of a church. The institutional context of academic biblical studies and theology fosters a conventional scholarly culture of individual research, writing, and publishing, in which the brilliance of each individual scholar’s interpretation is the currency of the realm. To be sure, scholars converse vigorously in the footnotes of academic journals, but these conversations often take place among individual voices—or they appear to, anyway.
In reality, each individual voice is already a chorus of influences, repetitions, and reflections of the interpretive communities—faith-based, disciplinary, socio-economic, ethnic, or gendered—to which the scholar belongs. That the inescapably collaborative quality of textual interpretation is sometimes effaced even in the project of interpreting scripture—which insists upon its own communal function—is ironic.
The design of the Mormon Theology Seminar brings interpretive collaboration into the open, and indeed brings it to the fore. The seminar gathers nine scholars from different interpretive communities together for many hours of intense discussion (and ordinary daily socializing) over two weeks. Every scholar produces a short essay to present at each meeting, and these focused engagements with the text provide the grist for the fantastically close, lively, and wide-ranging discussions that ensue. As different approaches collide, fracture, and re-assemble over the seminar table, sometimes with force but never with acrimony, the nuances of the scriptural text emerge in a full-spectrum critical light that, in my experience, is rare and exciting.
To consider the perplexities, both minute and grand, of a scriptural text in such a sustained, intimate way is bound to produce fine interpretive fruit, and I believe that is the case with this year’s work on Mosiah 4. King Benjamin’s epic sermon was the object of impressive scholarly attention in the 1998 FARMS volume King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom.”
Twenty years later, I believe the Mormon Theology Seminar has produced important, original, and exciting new work that will substantially advance our understanding of this essential Mormon text. I believe the generous institutional sponsors of the seminar, the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies at the Maxwell Institute and the Wheatley Institution, can consider their resources to have borne praiseworthy results,
For all my talk of community, however, the goal of the seminar is not complete consensus. Mosiah 4 contains challenging Christian ethical mandates that raise thorny questions of approach, efficacy, and insufficiency. The nine scholars arrived at the seminar table with different instincts and toolkits, and we left the table with our difference intact but deeply enriched. The essays that will compose the published proceedings of the seminar will reflect those different approaches—but every essay, no matter whose name appears at the top, will have the shared insights of each of the nine scholars stitched into its deep seams. As I composed my essay on a phenomenological approach to salvation in Mosiah 4, the penetrating contributions of my colleagues provided the raw material out of which I fashioned my argument. The deep communalism of interpreting scripture (which is to say, the meagerness of my individual mind!) was laid bare.
In the end, this “revelation” of interpretive community is as important to me as the deep intimacy I developed for the passages of Mosiah 4 itself. But there’s no shortcut to community: it can only emerge in the sweat, brain-cramp and eye-strain of many hours of strenuous, good-faith engagement with the text and with one another. As cliche as it sounds, I feel ridiculously fortunate to have been among this group of brilliant men and women, in the inspiring setting of Assisi and Franciscan spirituality, and in the company of King Benjamin’s challenging, elusive, and convicting words.
Are we all beggars? Yes, indeed. But this beggar is the richer for her intense Italian sojourn with scripture.
Hear Rosalynde Welch’s presentation here.
In this guest post, Rosalynde Welch talks about her experience at the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar at the Cittadella Ospitalità in Assisi, Italy. Welch is an independent scholar working in Mormon literature, culture, and theology. She holds a PhD in early modern English literature from the University of California at San Diego. Her work has appeared in Mormon Studies Review, BYU Studies, Dialogue, Element, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and other journals and edited volumes. She lives in St Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children. See more Seminar reflections here.