Joseph Spencer recaps the Mormon Theology Seminar

07.14.2014 | Guest

The annual Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped things up in London (see here for more). 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 is from Joseph M. Spencer, who co-directed the seminar. A new edition of his book An Other Testament is forthcoming from the Maxwell Institute.  —BHodges

The Book of Mormon opens with a story that anticipates the experience of every one of its readers. The book’s very first chapter recounts a story in which a man, wondering about questions of deep existential importance, is confronted by a messenger with a book. He’s asked to read it, and when he does, he’s transported by the Holy Spirit. He learns a great deal, but his final word on what he’s read concerns God’s mercy and love.

This is the story of the prophet Lehi. It’s also the story of every person who reads the Book of Mormon. Lost in questions about what it means to live life rightly, we’re at some point confronted by someone who gives us a book and asks us to read it. When we finally give in and give it real attention, we’re startled by its message, as well as by the Spirit that attends it. Whatever we learn as we work on it, we can’t help but praise God when we close its cover, hopefully only temporarily.

It doesn’t seem to be coincidental that the first story the Book of Mormon tells can be read as a story about its readers. The book is “typological” by nature, recounting its history always with an eye to what its readers might learn about living rightly before God. Its contributors couldn’t help but find timeless patterns in the events they wanted to talk about and they clearly shaped their stories to foreground those patterns. Good reading would therefore seem to require careful and close attention to patterns and structure, the latent timeless elements at work in texts regarded as sacred. Unfortunately, most reading of scripture in the West is undertaken either with an eye to getting behind the texts to empirical facts, largely lost in the shifting sands of history, or with an eye to getting behind the texts to a supernatural source of transcendent wisdom, inevitably focused on passing worries and anxieties.

Good reading doesn’t often happen.

It was in the hope that good reading can happen more often that the Mormon Theology Seminar was founded, seven or eight years ago now. Its sole purpose has been to bring together people who are interested in good reading, to provide them with a focused scriptural text to read together, and to make available to the public the resultant models of good reading. Seven such seminars have taken place, focused on texts ranging from Genesis to Revelation, and from Second Nephi to the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants. The proceedings of some of these seminars will be republished this month by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. From my own perspective, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. As I’ve participated in my share of these seminars, I’ve been taught much about good reading, I’ve witnessed more than a fair bit of good reading, and I’ve hopefully been able to produce a bit of good reading myself.

This summer has marked a high water point in the Seminar’s history. Thanks to the generous resources of the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, headed by Brian Hauglid, and to the similarly generous resources of the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, occupied by James Faulconer, we were able to have our first on-site, in-person seminar. Previous seminars have been conducted online over the course of several months. This one found all the participants sitting at a single table for two weeks, working intensely side by side on scripture. Our text, significantly enough, was the story of Lehi’s vision that opens the Book of Mormon, the story of his encounter with a heavenly book that launched his consequential spiritual journey. We lived out together our own version of that experience as we worked on the recorded story of Lehi’s own textual encounter.

The experience was incredible, indescribable. We spent, between the time we dedicated to preparation for our meetings and the time we spent together with the text before us, some eight or nine hours a day for two weeks, working always on the same twenty verses of scripture. If there is any one thing we learned, it’s that there’s enough material in that one chapter alone to keep us occupied for years. We came out of our two weeks together with literally hundreds of unanswered questions about the text: simple factual questions about the text’s basic meaning, more difficult interpretive questions about the text’s bearings, and intensely perplexing questions about theological implications. If anything, we felt rushed, a whole day never feeling like it was enough time to give adequate attention to the two or three verses we were looking at. We considered history, both ancient and modern. We looked at textual structures and exegetical issues. We traced the development of idioms and considered translation problems. We asked about the nature of dreams and visions, of written texts and ritual sacrifice, of prophetic influence and spiritual inheritance, of messianic anticipation and divine deliverance. We debated philosophical questions and we wondered about our own relationships, individual and collective, to God. We learned a great deal, perhaps especially about our own ignorance.

I hope this first on-site seminar heralds a rich future for the Mormon Theology Seminar—as well as for the collaborative efforts of the Seminar with the Willes Center and the Maxwell Institute. It has been among the richest and most rewarding academic experiences of my life so far. I trust it will be surpassed, but I suspect it will only be surpassed by further iterations of this sort of project, undertaken with the same aims, in collaboration with the same kinds of people, and under the sponsorship of the same visionary institutions.

Over the next few weeks the Maxwell Institute Blog will feature guest posts from the Seminar’s other participants. The Maxwell Institute Podcast will include recordings of some of the seminar presentations. I hope these things give you a sense of the rewarding experience we shared in London reading 1 Nephi chapter 1.

All involved in the project in any capacity have my thanks.