Ben Peters on “considering unanswered questions about scripture without anxiety”

08.18.2014 | Guest

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 Ben Peters, assistant professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa and a current Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He’s a media historian and theorist of information technology. —BHodges

My experience at the Mormon Theology Seminar this summer was no less than a personal highlight for me as a practicing and sometimes thinking Mormon. I am grateful for the combined brilliance and collaborative reading of my fellow participants as well as the generous support of the Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. I want to comment on two features of the experience that my co-seminarians haven’t touched on yet.

First, I take three facts as given: (1) the Mormon tradition produces many very bright practicing members, (2) these members meaningfully read the scriptures, and (3) these members have helpful conversations with one another. However, it was not clear to me until last month that one may have all three at the same time for any extended period of time. In the everyday grind, I count myself fortunate when I encounter any one at a time, and any two at once is a real treat. On the rare occasion I do experience all three in the form of a passing remark in a class or blog, it usually lasts for only that moment before the pressing swirl of children, callings, and calendars sweeps in to divert my attention. The Mormon Theology Seminar, however, is structured to include all three—collaborative, close, and open conversation sustained among practicing readers. As a friend joked, before London I’ve spent far more than two weeks rereading 1 Nephi 1 and yet I can safely say I’ve never read any text quite like we did 1 Nephi 1 in London together. It is a curious fact that my forthcoming paper—on the interruptions that sometimes beset the revelatory process—developed during the most sustained, uninterrupted group close reading experience I have ever enjoyed.

Second, I suspect—and I should be clear this is me speaking, not the seminar directors—that the Mormon Theology Seminar is effectively modeling a way of reading the Book of Mormon fit for an increasingly global Church. The kind of exegetical analysis and theological interpretation we undertook strikes me as a potential prototype for a much broader educated readership in any language and across the many cultural traditions supporting the Mormon faith. To read the Book of Mormon carefully, one does not need to be a specialist in Mesoamerican archaeology, ancient religions, or the historical-critical method of Biblical studies, however helpful these backgrounds may or may not be. Rather, one needs the text itself (Skousen’s The Earliest Text proved especially helpful) and a working will to read both what the text actually says and for what it might mean. Our group also wonderfully embraced our ability as believing members to entertain and consider unanswered questions without anxiety. It is the opportunity to open and discuss, and not to close having solved, scriptural questions that gives meaning to scripture study. Caution fuels the best of textual exegesis and charity, the best of modern-day interpretations. Whatever else may be said, most of all is that one should not be a “one” at all—but rather each should be one among a small group of fellow readers.

In other words, while I imagine the Mormon Theology Seminar to be no less than laying pipework for a global scholarly infrastructure for Mormon scripture reading (no lesser ambition will do), what I take home from it is actually what originally began for me at home. That is, the basic practice of seeking alongside sisters and brothers the truth of all things through close reading, critical reflection, commonsense, and doctrinal reclamation is something I first experienced in family scripture study, and something I saw reach new heights among my new brothers and sisters in London. (See Michael Ulrich’s post for more on this global aspect.) Whether at home or abroad, may we each seek in scripture study to create our own Mormon Theology Seminars.

May we seek one another in the Word.