George Handley: “Interpretation is not a solo act”

08.25.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

This year’s Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped things up in London (see herehere). I asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences in order to give us a sense of what they got out of the gathering. This post features George Handley, professor of humanities and comparative literature at Brigham Young University. —BHodges

One of the root meanings of the word “religion” is to re-read. To be religious by implication, then, means that we are committed to rereading and rethinking and that the generation of truth is a kind of recycling and repurposing. Revelation often comes to us as our minds reconsider what we thought we understood and suddenly—seen from a different perspective or in a new light—the familiar and ordinary stands out in new and distinct form. Perhaps nothing embodies this process better than a marriage. The same person, the same history, day in and day out, and yet the ongoing challenge to remain in love, as if you must work at seeing your spouse for the first time. This is a task of the mind and of the imagination as much as anything else.

Returning again and again to the scriptures is no different. I love the fact that one of the most significant markers of the Mormon life (along with health code abstention from drugs and alcohol) is a commitment to regular scripture reading. We might say that we love them and know them to be true, but our love is most powerfully expressed by our determination to stay steady in our reading and to thereby wring new truths and insights from the same words. The recent Mormon Theology Seminar in London focused on 1 Nephi 1. We joked more than once that we were closely reading one of the most-read chapters in the entire Book of Mormon because, I guess, many well-intentioned members have begun but not finished the Book of Mormon. Perhaps this joke isn’t fair, but if it’s true, it occurred to me as we read this marvelous chapter just how much of the whole story of the restoration is contained in it.

How relevant is it? Well, for starters, it declares itself to be a sacred history unknown to Bible readers even though it shares the same genealogy. In the same breath it states that it is an autobiography, and what’s more, it is an autobiography as sacred history. That’s plenty to chew on right there. And then we discover that, well, it isn’t just one man’s story but an intergenerational account of revelations that were passed down from one generation to the next. It teaches, in other words, the central role of interpretation in the ongoing work of revelation. And finally, the revelations themselves pertain to the experience of visions, of reading books, and of the struggle to find fellow believers in one’s visions.

We spent two weeks wrestling with the implications of these dimensions of this exceptional chapter, and we wrote, I think, some pretty insightful essays. But I still don’t think we got to the bottom of it. One thing was clear: reading together in an intense and focused and consecrated way and bringing our multiple talents to the altar and seeking new understandings and insights by listening carefully to the text and to one another knitted our hearts as one. It bound us together in an unforgettable way. And, as it turns out, “to bind together” is another root meaning of the word religion.

Interpretation is not a solo act. It moves us over generations and across communities, and it needs every one of us. It is the purpose of every Sunday School class to bind ourselves together in the act of rereading. It is the purpose of every family scripture reading. It is the purpose of every missionary lesson in homes across the globe. And it is the reason why we are to “meet together oft” as the Book of Mormon tells us (Moroni 6:4–7). We need each other and we need to retain our shared focus on the Word.