Thursday, July 3, 2014

Is Scripture Relevant?

"Is scripture relevant?"  Such was the theme of a panel discussion that took place last night at the opening of Zion's Books in Provo, Utah.

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)

"For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope." (Romans 15:4)

"But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;

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)

"For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." (2 Peter 1:21)

"And we had obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children." (1 Ne. 5:21)

"And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning." (1 Ne. 19:23)

"And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children." (2 Ne. 4:15)

"I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things, which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct." (Mosiah 1:5)

"And now, it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls." (Alma 37:8)

"Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked—" (Helaman 3:29)

"And behold, ye do know of yourselves, for ye have witnessed it, that as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them—" (Helaman 15:7)

"These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man;" (D&C 18:34)

"And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon;

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)

"And the Book of Mormon and the holy scriptures are given of me for your instruction; and the power of my Spirit quickeneth all things." (D&C 33:16)

"And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by theHoly Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation." (D&C 68:4)

"And whoso treasureth up my word, shall not be deceived" (JS-Matthew 1:37)

"But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves." (James 1:22)

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