The 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up in New York City (see here). We asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences, offering a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. This post features Jenny Webb, who holds a degree in comparative literature and works as an editor. Posts from other seminar participants will follow.—BHodges
The question I have received repeatedly following my experience with the Seminar in New York this year is “So, what did you actually do there?” And my answer has generally been something along the lines of “Well, we studied each morning and wrote a paper and then met and discussed Jacob 7 verse by verse.” All of which is true: the experience of meeting daily with the same group of people in order to read scripture closely and communally is at the heart of the Seminar project. But I’m not certain that this actually answers the question of what we did.
Near the end of Jacob 7, after Sherem has died and the people of Nephi have collapsed in astonishment, Jacob says (in verse 23): “And it came to pass that peace and the love of God was restored again among the people; and they searched the scriptures.” There is something instructive here about the way that the scriptures participate in the binding together the hearts of a community.
The community coheres around an act of dual restoration: peace is restored (and therefore contention is absent) as is the love of God (both as God’s love, but also the love of the people for their God). And in the center of this restoration, we have the scriptures.
But the scriptures are not a mere artifact—they are an object with which the people interact. They are a site for searching. What are the people searching for? I think the fact that we don’t know the answer to that question is significant, because it points us back to the act of searching itself. The important thing isn’t what they were searching for, it’s that, together, they were searching.
That act—searching the scriptures—binds the people of Nephi together as a community. It’s what they do. And it’s what, in part, I think answers the question of what we did during the Seminar this summer: we searched the scriptures, together, edifying both our understanding of the text and each other. And in that experience, I caught a glimpse of what it might mean to build the kingdom and establish Zion.
There is a fundamental charity in the idea of communal reading. It requires generosity and produces humility. In a very real way, it is the most important thing I will personally take away from this experience—something I will turn to time and again in my relationships with family, congregation, and even colleagues.
What I found encouraging was that in a group of eight opinionated readers, we did not have contention or competition. What we did have was an experience of freely sharing in the love of God through reading scripture together. And I’m extremely grateful to have had a chance to share in that act.