#10- Spencer, Bokovoy, Miller: Three Mormon scholars discuss the relevance of scripture [MIPodcast]
Please help the MIPodcast grow by rating and reviewing it in iTunes! (Go here, click “View in iTunes,” click “Ratings and Reviews,” and then click “Write a Review.”)This episode features three scholars discussing the relevance of scripture. Last Wednesday, Zion’s Books in Provo, Utah hosted a roundtable discussion on the subject featuring Joseph Spencer (author of For Zion: A Theology of Hope as well as An Other Testament, new edition forthcoming from the Maxwell Institute), David Bokovoy (Authoring the Old Testament), and Adam Miller, who read a chapter from his recent release, Letters to a Young Mormon. Janiece Johnson of BYU-Idaho moderated the panel. A question and answer period followed, but this podcast episode contains only the papers themselves as follows:
BLAIR HODGES: This is the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Last Wednesday, July 2nd, Zion’s Books in Provo hosted a roundtable discussion on the relevance of scripture. This panel featured three scholars, First Joe Spencer, who is wrapping up his Ph.D. in philosophy, and he just published For Zion, a book that theologically examines hope. Second, David Bokovoy, he’s a biblical scholar who just published the book Authoring the Old Testament, Kofford Books, and third, Adam Miller is a philosophy professor who recently published his best-selling book Letters to a Young Mormon earlier this year here at the Institute. Janiece Johnson moderated the panel.
For this episode, I spliced together the three panelists’ papers. If you’d like to hear the question and answer portion, Kofford Books posted a video of the event on their Facebook page, keep in mind the views presented here, as always with this podcast, don’t represent the official positions of the Institute, BYU, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope that listening to these scholars talk about their fruitful ways of engaging in scripture can help enhance your own scripture study.
It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Here’s Joe Spencer.
JOE SPENCER: Our question tonight is, “Is scripture relevant?” Short answer: yes. Long answer: well, let’s see. I’ve titled my remarks “Scripture and the Structure of Religious Life.” I begin then with an assumption: religious life has a structure. What do I mean by structure? I mean something like what you experience when you develop skills connected with a game. The rules and constraints of a game organize a kind of network, take chess for example. You have a number of rules, how many spaces and in what direction a pawn can move depending on its position for instance. You also have a number of constraints. The board is only 8 squares by 8 squares, no more, no less. To become a chess player isn’t simply to learn these rules and to recognize these constraints, nor is it to learn a few good strategies or clever moves. Rather, it’s to discern and in an almost pre-theoretical or pre-reflective way, the structure or we might say the texture of the game that’s created by these rules and constraints. You come as it were to inhabit the topological space of the game as you play it again and again.
Let me use that term topological in a technical way. There’s something constant in chess even when you play with different people using different strategies. Something constant even when you use larger or smaller boards and pieces or when you will alternate between playing a computerized version of the game and playing at the park.
Something like this is operative in religious life as well. It has a topology, a kind of structure that remains constant despite our changing circumstances and our fluctuating relationships with others. Religious life has a texture. There’s a way of being before God that can’t be a matter simply of learning either the rules or the constraints of the religious life. There’s a way of being before God that can’t be a matter simply of acquiring a few good strategies or clever moves. To be religious well isn’t to do some divine being and to grant you otherwise inaccessible bliss, but nor is it to figure out how not to break any rules or ignore any constraints. The rules and the constraints are just the conditions for the possibility of playing the game. They don’t play the game for you, they can’t. And it’s no good trying to use the game of religion to corner some deity, thereby winning some grand prize. In fact, it turns out if Mormon theology is worth anything, that there’s nothing to win but the opportunity to play the game in the first place, which prize has already been won for you and the opportunity to go on playing the game forever, something one wins only by insisting on playing the game here and now.
There’s also the topology of religious life. A constant structure that underpins is and that we’re trying to find. How do I begin to feel it’s contours? This I think is where scripture comes in. What makes scripture what it is, what makes scripture scripture, in other words, is the way we’ve collectively come to recognize that it can give us a sense for the structure of religious life. We canonize it through a process that almost always involves compromising it’s strict and historical value, emphasizing and exaggerating what in it is least historical, because we find in it something that outstrips the merely historical. Scripture shows us how the religious life attains its consistent structure or topology even as the ebb and flow of history twists and stretches and deforms religious settings and situations. Scripture brings us face-to-face with history in order precisely to call us beyond its deterministic force. Scripture shows us history and its sublimation in a single gesture.
To read scripture is thus at the very least, to try to find our way through the tangle of passing history and eternal life. Every verse asks us to wonder whether we’ve determined what’s constant and what’s inconstant, what’s topologically invariant and what’s varyingly incidental in what we’re reading. Frankly, scripture is a mess. And it’s a mess God’s given us in place of pristine instruction and straightforward command, it’s as if God, no less in Mormonism than in any other religion, wants us to be struggling with the weave of history and eternity. At any rate, the God of Mormonism launched his restoration, to which I declare undying fidelity, with a book that only redoubles the problems of scripture. Not only is the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, a complex weave of the eternal and the historical, it’s explicitly so. Never pretending to be either the inerrant because transcendent word of God, or the fallible because of the imminent word of some identifiable human beings.
So what are we to do when reading scripture if it’s to be relevant to the religious life? The wager of my work you’ll find this in An Other Testament, in For Zion, in everything else I’ve written and that I’m writing and will write. The wager of my work is that the key to reading scripture is to begin from structure. Religious life has a structure, scripture too is deeply structural. I’m convinced that there’s a close relationship between the structures to be found in scripture and the structure that underpins good religious living.
How should we go about the work of repentance? Alma 36 bears a complicated structure, a chiastic frame focused on the problem of knowing God and then a type pattern of repeated instances of the words memory and thought displayed within that typeframe. A complicated structure that tells us more about what it is to repent and to do it well, sorry it tells us much about what it is to repent and to do it well.
How should we understand the significance of prophecy? Nephi’s quotations, adaptations, and discussions of Isaiah privileging certain Isianic texts, organizing them into distinct sequences, ensuring that commentary by one interpreter is balanced by another and so on. Nephi’s handling of Isaiah tells us much about what it is to grapple with prophecy. How are we to know when and how it’s right to rejoice? Abinadi’s sermon addresses this question by dividing a scriptural text he’s interested in into several parts that receive individual attention, making it clear what exactly it is that ultimately calls for rejoicing and what it is that ultimately calls for fear and trembling.
I’ve taken these examples from An Other Testament. I might just as well take examples from For Zion. When and how and why are we to hope, what is the meaning of covenant, what role should the Book of Mormon play in our devotions? What is the law of consecration? What is the right relationship to sustain to our possessions? What am I religiously bound to do in light of the restoration? But let me actually take up an example only partly connected with something I’ve written; I think it’ll illustrate what I’m after best.
I haven’t the time to spell out the structure of 1st Nephi in its entirety as I would’ve really liked. Let me say that it’s remarkably structured unmistakably with the intent to say something about the relationship between reading scripture, in Nephi’s case Isaiah, and experiencing the prophetic gift in Nephi’s case, his apocalyptic vision. Within that larger structure though, there are a couple smaller structures that have drawn my attention lately. The first half of 1st Nephi, what’s now 1st Nephi 1-9, was originally made up of two chapters, each opening and closing with crucial discussions of texts and records. What’s now 1st Nephi 1-5 opens with the story of Lehi being brought a book from heaven and closes with the story of Lehi being brought a book from Jerusalem, in each case the book inspiring him to prophecy. What’s now 1st Nephi 6-9 moreover opens with Nephi clarifying the relationship between his small plates and his father’s record and closes with Nephi clarifying the relationship between his small plates and his other record, the large plates.
Over the course then of the first half of 1st Nephi, Nephi forces us to grapple with five sets of records, all of them introduced in the structural elements that Nephi uses to organize the narrative he tells there. The opening narrative you all know it far too well, it’s the only one we ever read, concerns the complicated and frankly troubling circumstances under which Nephi retrieved for his family one of those several sets of records with the slaying of Laban to acquire the brass plates. As Nephi tells that story, it’s the tale of how he himself came to understand what it is to relate religiously to scripture. Nephi portrays himself as a clueless lad who believed the life of faith was solely a matter of getting the rules and the constraints right “I will go and do, etc.” and he portrays himself as coming too little and too late to the realization of what the life of faith really amounts to. Only once that is he turned his brothers irreparably against him. It’s profoundly ironic.
I think that we tend to respond to Nephi’s story in much the way that his immature early self responds to God’s command. We take the point of the story to be about rules and constraints as if the point of the story were to recommend scapegoating or to qualify the commandment not to kill rather than to be about finding our way tenuously into the religious life. Whatever the ethical implications of Nephi’s actions or what he attributes to the spirit, he’s trying to tell us something about the complexities of religious life, of what it is to read scripture, of what it is to grow into spiritual maturity, of what it is to have ruined fraternal relations and still to seek reconciliation.
Scripture couldn’t be more relevant. Unless of course God is as dead for us as He is for so much of the Christian and post-Christian world. If we’re the heirs of an attenuated Christian morality but without the breath of religious life that could animate it, then we needn’t bother with scripture, but if God still lives, at least as our interlocketers, then scripture is what gives life to our religion. It’s in scripture if anywhere that God breathes freely. If we have ears to hear what He’s whispering there, perhaps we can manage to limp our way to, or better through, eternal life.
JANIECE JOHNSON: Lovely. Thank you Joe. I think that started us off very nicely, good suggestion David. Now my question is who wants to go next? David? We’ll let you…we’ll let Adam round us off.
DAVID BOKOVOY: Alright. So in answer to the question “Is scripture relevant?” Professor Mark Wright of Brigham Young University came up and said, “If any of you answer no, I’m gonna come up and punch you in the face.” So, not to embarrass him but my answer is yes.
So my series Authoring the Old Testament provides an LDS audience with an introduction to higher criticism. Higher criticism refers to a scholarly attempt to explain inconsistencies in the Bible by identifying its original sources. As an interpretive tool, higher criticism constitutes a central part of the historical critical method. Historical criticism refers to an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to read the text historically, meaning in accordance with its original historic setting and critically, meaning independent from any contemporary theological perspective or agenda. It is a secular approach to scripture. However, for a believer in holy writ, reading scriptural text while looking for the adverse ways in which authors express their religious views accepts the idea that God speaks to individuals according to their understanding.
Often contemporary readers of the Bible assume that ancient authors saw the world in a way that parallels the modern religious experience, but if readers approach scripture this way, they fail to allow the original author to share his own experience with the divine. Reading modern conceptions into ancient texts limits the original author’s ability to tell us what he knows and what he knows is often vastly different from our own knowledge. By reading scripture critically, a believer in the text’s inspiration can gain an increased understanding of the various ways in which God has touched the hearts and minds of his children. Therefore, my series Authoring the Old Testament is not purely secular. I believe that there is a deep spiritual component to this endeavor.
For centuries, readers of the Bible often interpreted it as a privileged source. Assuming that the Bible is perfectly harmonious and without error, that some– if not all, came from God. It was believed that the bible should therefore always be privileged above other books in a way that harmonized, or simply ignored inconsistencies. In adopting the historical critical method, contemporary biblical scholars reject this paradigm. Instead, they treat the Bible as a real book with contradictions, historical errors, and even failed prophetic predictions. Unfulfilled prophecies in the Bible is one of the topics that I’m currently addressing in volume two of the series. In the brief moments that remain, I would like to share with you thoughts I put together on this topic. Biblical prophets served as messengers and mediators for God. Notwithstanding these roles, there is always a limitation to the prophets ability to correctly ascertain the will of divinity. Prophets, in other words, don’t always get it right.
This point is made clear in the book of Jonah, written perhaps sometime in the Persian period, Jonah seems to function as a type of satire, outlining the way a prophet’s own bias may interfere with the correct articulation of the divine will. When Jonah finally accepts his prophetic commission he enters the city of Nenavay and presents a prediction: forty days more and Nenavay shall be overthrown. Jonah’s declaration is not conditional, it is a declaration of fact. The city will be destroyed in forty days, end of story.
Much to Jonah’s consternation; however, the people of Nenavay believed God and repented of their wickedness saying, “Who knows, but that God may turn and relent. He may turn back from his wrath so that we may not perish.” Jonah hated the Assyrian people. He would rather have died than see them repent. Though, inspired after all, God had called Jonah to cry repentance to the city. Jonah’s articulation of the prophetic message was directly influenced by his own weakness. Even though Jonah predicted their destruction, the people came to the conclusion that there was perhaps a way to cause the prophecy to be unfulfilled. They weren’t certain, hence the question, “Who knows?” “He may” for after all, no one at least from their perspective, can truly predict the mind of God, not even as prophets. And ultimately, they succeed. The prophets’ prediction failed. The story of Jonah and his failed prediction therefore seem to acknowledge what we encounter all throughout the Hebrew Bible. There is always human agency and therefore, a degree in uncertainty in any attempt to speak for Deity.
The Book of Mormon seems to acknowledge the idea of prophetic limitations through two separate events linked together from a literary perspective. In the opening chapter of the Book of Mormon, we encounter a moment of great tension. As the prophetic figure, Lehi, attempts to console his wife Sariah’s fears that she has lost her sons, the account presents Lehi’s prophetic convictions as words of consolation. “For behold, I have obtained a land of promise in which things I do rejoice. Yea, I know the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness.” As prophet, Lehi offers at least two predictions: one, God would deliver his sons and two, God would help the boys find their parents again in the wilderness. Both of these predictions are fulfilled in the narrative.
But at this point in the story, Sariah feels she has lost everything, including her four sons. The account itself is told from the perspective of Nephi, the Book of Mormon’s first narrator. He identifies the purpose for Lehi’s prophetic prediction with this statement, “And after this manner of language, did my father Lehi comfort my mother, Sariah.” From Nephi’s perspective Lehi did not rebuke Sariah for her complaints, instead he demonstrated compassion in attempt to provide comfort through his prophetic predictions. Still, the narrative makes clear that Lehi’s effort was only partially successful. The account states, “And when we have returned to the tent of my father, behold, their joy was full and my mother was comforted.” The repetition of the word comfort as completed action proves meaningful. From a literary perspective, Lehi sought to comfort his wife through his prophetic prediction, but comfort as a completed action came only when Sariah once again held her sons in her arms. The power of prophecy to bring about a powerful, physical result appears circumspect. When the Book of Mormon is read synchronically, this exchange can serve as a type of foil for another literary allusion to comfort.
Though the Book of Mormon presents the Book of Alma as an account that derives from a separate record from Nephi’s small plates, the account of First Nephi stands in contrast to the way the Book of Mormon later depicts the power of deity to invoke that same state of being.
In Alma 17, Mormon depicts the impressive spiritual abilities of a group of men known as the Sons of Mosiah. As a result of their faithfulness, the account reads, “And it came to pass that the Lord did visit them with his Spirit, and said unto them: Be comforted. And they were comforted.” In this instance, God speaks a command, “be comforted” and the narrative demonstrates the power that accompanies direct divine speech through the completion formula, “and they were comforted.”
Theologically this references to the ability of the divine word when spoken by God Himself, to produce immediate results reflects the literary pattern in Genesis 1, where God speaks and the narrator responds by depicting completed action, right? God said “let there be an expanse in the midst of water that it may separate water from water and it was so,” juxtaposing these two episodes in the Book of Mormon that deal with speaking words of comfort presents a profound theological message.
Throughout scripture prophets appear depicted as the mouth of God, as messengers they articulate the divine word. Yet no matter how dynamic a man or woman may be in uttering inspired words, there is a limitation to the power of prophet speech that God Himself does not face. Prophets must be taken seriously as the Lord’s mouthpiece, and I would add the scripture they produce, but prophets are still human. Divinity speaks and it is so. But when divinity speaks through mortals, God does not override human agency. There is always a limitation to the efficacy of the prophetic word.
From an evolutionary perspective the necessity to re-contextualize failed prophetic predictions in the Bible serves as one of the primary contributing factors to new revelatory insights. Seen from this angle, unfulfilled prophecy is a necessary component in the development of Jewish and Christian theology. Failed prophetic predictions led directly to the development of Jewish and Christian apactalyptisism. In order to explain why a prophecy fails we typically see interpreters adopt one of three perspectives: 1. Claim that all unrealized prophecy pertains to the end of the world––apocalypticism. 2. Assert that all prophecy is inherently conditional on human obedience. 3. Discount the supernatural of the prophecy and accept the text as a false prediction. This final approach is of course the one that is adopted by most Christian scholars.
There is, however, I would admit, a fourth option. A religious reader who accepts unfulfilled prophecy as scripture could adopt a view that inspired prophets are subject to human error. Revelation is always part human and part divine. The prophetic word is an example of an inspired man or woman seeking to translate the divine will by bringing divinity into harmony with the natural world. There will always be mistakes in such an effort. No one, however inspired, is all knowing. Ultimately, it’s not the literal forecast that is essential for the religious reader, it’s the spiritual quest of seeking to connect with divinity, despite human limitations. The prophetic word provides a scriptural resource critical readers can use to shape their own relationship to deity. Whether prophet or reader, everyone undertakes such efforts, makes mistakes along the way.
Read from this perspective: unfulfilled prophecy provides an inspired aid that helps readers recognize their own limitations in a spiritual quest to make God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Unfulfilled prophecy provides a powerful reminder that human beings should always exercise humility in their attempt to speak for divinity. Rather than a stumbling block that calls into question the validity of scripture, failed prophecy can be seen as accomplishing a dual spiritual purpose. Prophetic limitation allows religious readers to thoughtfully engage with human efforts to articulate divinity in a way that fosters diametrically opposed virtues, spiritual self-reliance and spiritual dependence.
Critical subjection to an imperfect prophetic word can foster humility and is an essential attribute in any spiritual journey. This type of submission questions and challenges inherently flawed prophetic revelation while at the same time taking seriously that word as a reflection of the divine will. It allows a person to use prophecy as an instrument that challenges her own moral bias. Rather than an end, this approach perceives the prophetic word as a ladder that extends to a higher realm of spiritual enlightenment, not because it is an absolute reflection of truth, but because it is not. No one possesses all knowledge, therefore there is great value in critical submission, a journey of this kind would be impossible if prophets did not make mistakes and my series Authoring the Old Testament takes these mistakes seriously. Thank you.
JANIECE JOHNSON: Thank you David. Now we’ll move on to our last snippet from Adam.
ADAM MILLER: Thank you for coming tonight. It’s good to be here with so many friends and with new friends, Janiece not quite so new friends, like David and especially my constant partner in dialogue and co-conspirator in so many projects, Joe Spencer.
I’m gonna read to you tonight a little bit from a chapter on scripture in my book Letters to a Young Mormon. I wrote this book over the span of a year, so … facing the imminent event of my oldest daughter becoming a teenager. She’s headed to high school in just a month and a half. So, I tried to pack into the book a lot of reflections about what I thought it means to be a Mormon, what it means to be a Mormon who hangs on both to their Mormonism and to life, both in all their beauty and all their costs. That’s what I’ve got here.
Some of the things that are in here I expect that she might find useful right now, some of them are just things hopefully she’ll find useful at some point in the future. I wrote a book a couple years ago called Speculative Grace for a general audience of other professional philosophers in which I proposed a kind of approach to metaphysics that views the process of translation as ontologically fundamental. I’m not going to talk about any of that tonight so you can relax, but that has everything to do I think with this particular chapter on scripture in which I propose that we understand reading scripture itself as an act of translation and that’s what I’d like to talk about.
The restoration restored scripture, God showed Himself to Joseph Smith first as flesh and bone and then as ink on paper. When He appeared in the sacred grove, Jesus quoted scripture. When he appeared in Joseph’s bedroom, Moroni quoted scripture and then sent Joseph to unearth more. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon and then he retranslated the Bible and then we revealed the book of Abraham and then Joseph went back and started again, He never stopped working on his translation of the Bible. Brigham Young even seemed to suggest that if Joseph were still alive, he might try a fresh translation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph always expected more revelations and translation was one vital name for the hard work of receiving them. For Joseph, translation was less a chore to be done than a way day-by-day of holding life open for God’s word.
Translating scripture is a way of renewing life. In translation, we lend our lives, our minds, our ears, our mouths to the local resurrection of old texts, dead words and lost voices. We put down our stories and take up theirs. And as we give voice to them, they for a time rejoin us in the land of the living. Joseph produced as God required the first public translations of the scriptures we now share, but that work open ended is long as unfinished. Now the task is ours. When you read the scriptures don’t just lay your eyes like stones on the pages, roll up your sleeves and translate them again. Every morning and every night we’re each commanded to sit down at our kitchen tables, spread out our books and notes and papers and pens and with a prayer in hand, finish what Joseph started. It’s not enough for Nephi to have translated Isaiah into reformed Egyptian or for Joseph to have translated Nephi into King James English.
You and I must translate these books again, word by word, line by line, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. God wants the whole thing translated once more and this time He wants it translated into your native tongue, inflicted by your native concerns and written in your native flesh. To be a Mormon is to do once more on your own small scale the same kind of work that Joseph did.
To succeed you’ll have to pray always. You’ll have to study it out in your mind, you’ll have to listen to the beating of your heart, you’ll have to consult the best books, you’ll have to take careful notes, and then you’ll have to bring all these raw ingredients to bear on how God wants you to retranslate the next verse you’ll read, led by word and spirit you’ll be empowered to do it, and when you’re done you must ask if the Lord if, for you at this time, at this place, you’ve done it right.
You’ll know you’ve done it right if, as a result of the work, you repent. “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation,” the Lord told OLiver Cowdery when he came to help Joseph translate the Book of Mormon. This is your charge too. Translate nothing but repentance. When you’re reading them, writing the scriptures will bring you up short; they’ll call you into question; they’ll challenge your stories and deflate your pretensions. They’ll show you how you’ve been wrong, and they’ll show you how to make things right. You’ll need faith to undertake these translations as acts of repentance, you’ll have to trust that the books can withstand your scrutiny and you’ll have to trust that God, despite their antiquity, can be your contemporary in them.
The Lord counseled Joseph that “As all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom. Ye seek out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” This is good, though circuitous, advice. On the one hand, if you lack faith, seek wisdom out of the best books. On the other hand, if you lack wisdom, seek learning by faith.
Your ability to translate with power will depend on your faith and it will be amplified by your familiarity with the world’s best books. The wider you read in Lausa, Shakespeare, Austin, Dogen, Plato, Dante, Krishna, Sappho, Gerda, Confucius, Tolstoy, and Homer, the better off you’ll be. The more familiar you are with Israelite histories, Near Eastern archaeologies and secular Biblical scholarship, the richer your translations will be rendered. Don’t be afraid for scripture. And don’t be afraid of these other books. Claim it all as your own. Doubtless the world’s best books have their flaws, but this just means that they too must be translated. You’ll need to translate them so that they can contribute to your own translations. As long as these other books help you to translate repentance, then you’re still doing it right.
Don’t docket this responsibility or hand it off to church leaders. Our minds go dark and our hearts go cold when we set this work aside. “Your mind in time’s past had been darkened,” the Lord told Joseph “because of unbelief, because you have treated lightly the things you have received, which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.”
Our minds go dark when we’ve treated this responsibility lightly. We don’t sit down with the scriptures and we don’t study them out in our minds and to our discredit, we’ve often dismissed the world’s best books, rather than translate them. As a result, we’ll remain under this condemnation until we’ll repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is this new covenant. It is itself what God promises you. It is given to you as a Urim and Thummim, as your own personal seer stone. Look into it and learn how to see the world by its light and as you do, you’ll be shown not only how to say, but to do what the Lord requires.
BLAIR HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. You just heard Adam Miller read an excerpt from his book, Letters to a Young Mormon. You can pick up a copy of that book on Amazon. You can also do me a favor by going to iTunes and rating the Maxwell Institute Podcast and writing a little review, let us know what you like about the show. Thanks for listening.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)