The Panelists for this discussion were Joseph Spencer (author of An Other Testament: On Typology and For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope), David Bokovoy (author of Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy), and Adam Miller (author of Rube Goldberg Machines and Letters to a Young Mormon). Janiece Johnson (a BYU-Idaho professor of religion) moderated the discussion.
Joseph Spencer, a student of philosophy at the University of New Mexico, began the discussion with some prepared remarks on "Scripture and the Structure of Religious Life." His short response to the question "Is Scripture Relevant?" was "yes," but his longer response to the question was "let's see." Spencer compared the structure of religious life to a game that is somewhat like chess. His careful consideration of the question "Is Scripture Relevant?" led him also to reflect on the question "What makes scripture scripture?" In brief, his conclusions were that "good religious living" requires repentance, that "scripture gives life to religion," and that the key to reading scripture is to "begin with structure." In his estimation, the Book of Mormon shows that one of its early prophets, Nephi, was "learning to play the game" that is part of the structure of religious life. Even though Nephi "turned his brothers irreparably against him," his work was that of "reconciliation."
Next on the panel, David Bokovoy, an Associate Instructor of Languages and Literature at the University of Utah, spoke on the topic "'I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart': Reading the Bible Critically as a Believing Latter-day Saint." In answer to the question "Is scripture relevant?" Bokovoy jokingly claimed that certain religion professors threatened to punch in the face anyone who dared to answer "no." Bokovoy's remarks focused on higher criticism and prophetic limitations. He pointed to instances in the scriptures in which prophets failed to correctly interpret the Divine will. He also emphasized moments in which the direct voice of God accomplished its immediate purpose ("Let there be light") in order to distinguish such efficiency from moments in which imperfect prophets spoke, and their predictions failed, or were delayed. "Prophets don't always get it right," he observed. For example, according to Bokovoy, the prophet Jonah projected his own weakness and imperfections into his attempts to call the people of Nineveh unto repentance. As another example, the prophet Lehi uttered words of consolation to his wife, but Sariah was only consoled after the return of her sons from Jerusalem. Bokovoy referenced a few common interpretations of prophecy: 1. unrealized prophecy elicits apocalypticism, 2. the realization of prophecy depends upon obedience, and 3. prophecy is discounted as false predictions. He then posited a fourth possibility: 4. "Revelation is part human and part divine," because "no one is all knowing." Bokovoy cautioned that one must exercise humility in the attempt to speak for Divinity.
Finally, Adam Miller, a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, spoke on "Reading Scripture: Continuing the Work of Translation." He introduced his book Letters to a Young Mormon, and described how reading scripture is itself an act of translation. Miller alluded to the fact that Jesus Christ quoted scripture, as did Moroni, Joseph Smith and others. According to his answer to the question "Is scripture relevant?" the process of "translating" the scriptures is an ongoing process in which the best translations lead one to repentance. Miller jested that he had many years of experience in "treating the scriptures lightly" (see D&C 84:54). Nevertheless, the scriptures indicate that we, like Oliver Cowdery, are commanded to "say nothing but repentance unto this generation." (D&C 6:9)
The moderator of the discussion, Janiece Johnson, then opened the panel to questions. One member of the audience asked, "How do you open up the possibility of scripture?" The panelists responded by returning to the idea of "translation," authorial intent, focusing on what the scriptures actually say, getting rid of pet interpretations, understanding the processes of canonization and de-canonization, and recognizing the directions of scripture as history and in shaping history.
Another intrepid audience member wanted to know, if the mingling of the philosophies of men with scripture is bad, then why do we do it? One of the panelists observed that everyone mingles the philosophies of men with scripture, but the difference is that philosophers recognize what is being mingled. In other words, the study of philosophy is helpful in sorting out the philosophies of men from the actual scripture. Everyone is, in a sense, as one of the panelists asserted, a philosopher, as everyone is also a sinner.
Another question that was posed was, "What is the difference between scripture and literature?" One of the panelists argued that one of the main differences between the two has to do with the process of canonization. Scripture is the product of a community, he asserted, whereas literature is generally the work of one person. One of the other panelists disagreed with this argument, contending instead that anything has the potential to be scripture as long as it deepens and individual's connection to that which is spiritual.
Yet another audience member, noting how Joseph Smith had produced more than 800 pages of canonized revelations whereas there are only 13 pages of post-Joseph Smith canonized scriptures, asked, "Why has the process of canonization slowed down?" To this question, Adam Miller responded that one should pay more attention to the mundane, everyday kind of revelation instead of only recognizing the flashier revelations. Another panelists remarked that new revelations don't necessarily carry as much weight as the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.
The panelists fielded a couple other questions fielded before concluding, questions such as "How does one apply higher criticism to the Book of Mormon? To this one of the panelists responded that the Book of Mormon has a 19th century setting that points to Joseph Smith as the original author, and it answers the religious questions of that time period. Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon, he argued, contains material that would make sense to a 19th century audience. Therefore the modern reader of the Book of Mormon needs to learn how to separate the translator's voice (Joseph Smith) from the editor's voice (Mormon), and the voice of the original author in order to understand the political and religious background of the text.
One of the last questions posed was, "How do I reconcile tensions in what the scriptures are saying to me personally with the current things that are being taught?" The panelists responded that, on the whole, these tensions are present in both ancient and modern scripture, as well as in that which is taught from the pulpit.
In sum, the panel discussion presented some interesting perspectives and ideas regarding the relevancy of scripture, and the overall answer to the question "Is scripture relevant?" seemed to be "Yes."
Certainly the panelists and other participants could have provided other interesting answers to the provocative question "Is scripture relevant?" but the answers to such a question seem to depend, as Spencer noted earlier, upon answers to the preliminary questions "What is scripture?" and "What does it mean to be relevant?" In fact, one might ask, "Is the question 'Is scripture relevant?' relevant?" Or, "Given that scripture is relevant, why is it relevant?"
Fortunately, as I'm sure the panelists and participants are well aware, scripture itself has a lot to say on this topic. Drawing from Adam Miller's remarks concerning the process of translating scripture, I wonder if it could also be said that, when best translated, scripture actually translates us. In other words, the Spirit of the Lord that infuses each verse of scripture has the power to translate that which we bring to the table by way of life experience, desire, charity, humility, preparation, attributes, knowledge and so forth, and to communicate to our understanding that which will draw us closer to the Savior Jesus Christ. Seen in this way, the Word of God as contained in the scriptures has the power to translate us, which is to say, to transform, or convert us, into more Christ-like beings:
"The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." (Psalms 19:7)
"But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." (Matt 4:4)
"Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me." (John 5:39)
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." (2 Tim. 3:14-17)
Which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also;
Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—
Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;
Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen." (D&C 20:8-12)