Mormon Hermeneutics: A Modest Proposal

I have recently argued that Mormon biblical studies needs to be more critical of its hermeneutical stance rather than emphasize exegetical proof-texting if it is to be successful in the wider academy. I think that success is measured by overall interest by outsiders and the amount of interest it generates in me :). I have also suggested a set of models (feminist and AfAm) that have gained a great deal of respect from many scholars, which blend the skills developed by modern historical-critical biblical studies as well as the insights that hermeneutics have shed on ‘situated’ readings of the text. What these approaches have in common is an ethical lens that is used to measure the value of any particular text or interpretation. These approaches have brought ethics in the study of the Bible to the forefront. I would like draw upon these models’ use of an ethical framework for how the world should be as an example of how Mormons could produce a useful hermeneutic.

Rooted in liberation theology, feminist and African-American hermeneutics have both exposed the interests of traditional historical critical scholarship while also developing a productive alternative. One of the interesting things that these readings have shown is how certain texts had been overlooked or underplayed, such as the Kingdom of God sayings in the Gospels and Revelation. These approaches have noted the critique of the social and political world that the Kingdom entails, one which puts justice and liberation at the center. Brian Blount argues, “Over and over again the kingdom symbol offered an objective, future orientation whose present impact on believers’ ethics was formidable….The ethical key for Jesus was subsequently offered in the narrative progressions as the behavioral axis for those who would follow him.” (Then the Whisper Put on Flesh, 91).

Feminist and African-American concerns have historically been rooted in a liberation paradigm long before such approaches were introduced to academic biblical studies. This history provided a tradition of theoretical and practical wisdom about the politics and processes of social change. Mormonism has in my view recently lacked a comparable ethical framework, choosing to focus instead on doctrinal and historical disputes. I say recently because much of early Mormon thinking was rooted in the bringing to pass of the Kingdom of God, which was seen as a new kind of society. All of the new Mormon scriptures have this vision for a new kind of world at their center. In each of the foundational texts of the restoration, a new kind of ethical society is envisioned (4 Ne, Mos 7, and D&C on United Order). Such a view could inform a new Mormon hermeneutics that capitalizes on recent trends in biblical scholarship while also developing a richer reading of our sacred texts.

Some traces of this tradition of an ethical framework as the basis of Mormon approaches to scriptures have survived. Though I don’t know his work that well, Dennis Potter has argued for a liberation theology of the Book of Mormon, that reads economic concerns for wealth, social justice, and peace as of primary importance (Nibley is the primary modern Mormon voice before Potter on these issues). The interesting thing about this reading is that it highlights elements of the Book of Mormon that are overlooked. This isn’t imposing something on the text that isn’t already there, but exposes how our interests in “doctrines” such as the atonement, baptism, etc have caused us to ignore perhaps the central message of the Book of Mormon, namely, a more just society and church community.

This new approach could not simply reproduce the past, but must engage with the concerns of modernity. One problem with the early Mormon view of the Kingdom of God was that it was separatist. Joseph Smith abandoned the current structures that society had, including urban frameworks, and decided to build from scratch. While the optimism of this view is inspiring, and in some ways more radical than feminist and AfAm hermeneutics, I also believe that such an approach is bound to fail in the contemporary situation. Further, it is evident that Mormons themselves have abandoned such an approach. A new Mormon ethical framework would have to work within society to change it, rather than attempt to start a new one, whether by revolution or “gathering”. Mormon hermeneutics would have to get more practical by amending its idealist history. What this would look like when a dozen or so scholars have taken it on remains to be seen!

7 Replies to “Mormon Hermeneutics: A Modest Proposal”

  1. One of the interesting things that these readings have shown is how certain texts had been overlooked or underplayed, such as the Kingdom of God sayings in the Gospels and Revelation.

    First off, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree that the kingdom sayings are a powerful critique of the larger society in which they were formulated. This is particularly so with respect to Revelation. We could do much worse than to adopt the approach you suggest as at least one facet of an LDS approach to scripture. (And we can have some nice exegesis as long as it’s not proof-texting, as well.)

    Second, let me pick a nit. It is very hard to say that the kingdom sayings have been overlooked or underplayed. It seems more accurate to say that they have not been deployed in the fashion that liberation theorists and others might have liked. Although on the whole I regret that they have not had the effect they might, I think that there are reasons for this, some of which may be found in the radical apearances that are sometimes adopted.

    So now, down the reality of LDS life. To the best of my knowledge, the kingdom sayings in the BoM are entirely future-oriented, even eschatological or apocalyptic in some cases. We have a long church-wide history of reading this sort of thing through a very narrow and literal lens. We also have a very conservative approach to many larger social and political issues. Do you see an opportunity for the BoM to “break through” these sorts of issues? If so, how?

  2. the kingdom sayings in the BoM are entirely future-oriented, even eschatological or apocalyptic in some cases

    I think that this is the same problem with the KoG sayings and Revelation, and the way that they have often been dismissed by both believers and scholars. I think that the feminist and African-American reading of this is to show that in fact both are intimately concerned with the state of the present world. For the BoM, I think that 4 Ne is explicitly present-oriented. The early social experiments of Mormons also showed that we have an obligation to actively make a better society, not just wait for it to come out of the clouds. To me, the Restoration scriptures urge us to create a more just society and are not heavily eschatological. At the same time, the BoM text deconstructs itself by showing how such an idealistic society is perhaps doomed to fail, as well as the failures of the United Order. I think that we have to find something different, to work to live in a pluralistic society that still seeks a better life for the poor, etc. A new Mormon approach would need to take these failures into account, but I don’t think that passively waiting is a real option.

  3. The new Mormon approach you refer to might simply be reading the BoM to see what we should be doing differently. Frequently in Church we hear references to D&C 1:30 to suggest that the Church is the only true and living church (whatever that means). But we rarely hear references to D&C 84:57 (given nearly a year after section 1) which says the whole church is under condemnation, and will remain so until the members remember the BoM and do what it says. The BoM says nothing about home teaching, temple attendance, and a lot of the other things we’re always talking about, but it does talk a lot about economic issues, including how to live a zion society even from within a non-zion society.

    I don’t agree that the BoM deconstructs itself, because it gives explicit instructions on how to create an ideal society even when the majority of one’s society doesn’t. That’s the area that seems to be ignored by LDS today. And, not ironically, it’s the area that people everywhere are seeking answers for. It seems apparent to me that if LDS people (whether the Church promotes this or not) started living the way the BoM teaches regarding economic and social issues, people everywhere in the world would embrace these principles with open arms, and we would have new societies.

  4. Hey TT,

    I hope I didn’t give you the impression I’m dissing the idea. There’s voluminous secondary lit on both topics that could be more effectively deployed. My comments are directed toward the practical side of things. Since the failure of our earlier efforts we have had a long history of prefecting the saints, not the society, and we do not address social justice issues as part of this effort.


  5. Joseph Smith abandoned the current structures that society had, including urban frameworks, and decided to build from scratch.

    I’m not sure that’s true. If anything many aspects of Joseph’s thought are very American.

    Even the “innovative” aspects of his urban planning appear to be tied more in passing to the classic model of a city. (Think how Rome re-designed Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina and one immediately thinks of Nauvoo) But of course this appeal to Roman classicism is pretty typical of early Americanism. (Think how Washington D.C. was designed, even if the block structure isn’t the same)

    So Joseph definitely disagree with how America was evolving. But I don’t think it fair to say he started from scratch. Rather I think he wanted to backtrack a few decades and then move forward along a different track.

  6. Clark, of course Joseph Smith could not have effectuated a complete break from his culture, and by no means am I suggesting that the ideas that he had didn’t exist anywhere else. Rather, I am suggesting that Joseph was a city-builder, not a city-reformer.

    Mogs, I agree completely that our recent history has ignored these issues. But it wasn’t that long ago during the Great Depression that we had developed one of the most effective ways of caring for the poor. I think that our tradition has a lot of intellectual and practical resources for going down this track again, and our responsibility as bible scholars may be to highlight that.

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