An interesting point made at school the other day has inspired me to rise, if only temporarily, from my end-of-school paper writing hell. The point of discussion was the alarming number of LDS people who do not read the Bible, especially the NT, with any regularity. We are a very Book of Mormon centered Church, in practice anyway, right now. At first blush this may not seem like a bad thing but upon closer inspection it can easily be seen that this approach is flawed.
I can imagine that this comes in some part as a response to Pres. Benson’s challenge to the members to read the Book of Mormon more often. I’m under the impression that it was largely ignored and under-utilized at the time and the Church needed a shot in the arm, so to speak, in order to return to faithfully studying it. This, I believe, was true, divinely inspired, and uplifting. However, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.
It is unfair to speak of one’s personal experience in one’s ward SS classes as being demonstrative of how things are in the entire Church and so I will not claim that just because the teachers and students in my ward appear to be woefully unlearned in the NT that this is the case everywhere. I’m sure somewhere there are wards that don’t have this problem, that the teachers and students are reasonably familiar with the NT, its texts, history, and historical background. But I don’t think I’m out of line to suggest that those places represent the norm.
So why is it that we, as a Church in general, don’t have a greater culture of studying and learning the New Testament? I don’t think I need to waffle on about the virtues of this, I would hope that at least some of them are self evident. Is it because Pres. Benson moved the Church towards the BoM and we, like the obedient members we try to be, were overly obedient and sacrificed the study of the rest of our holy texts for this one? I suspect this is part of the problem.
I have a feeling that all of this focus on the Book of Mormon has made us a bit lazy. And I blame it on Nephi (the first). Much as I desperately love the man, and I really do, he’s my favorite BoM prophet, he instituted a policy of “Plain is best.” Most passages of the Book of Mormon are as basic and straightforward as they can possibly be. All because Nephi, as much as he loved his Isaiah, “delighted in plainness.” And everyone after him followed, especially our two great editing buddies, the tag-team duo of Mormon and Moroni. Even where the doctrines are substantive and require great pondering to understand, the Book of Mormon simply does not contain some of the challenges, and I’ll add benefits and pleasures, that the New Testament has. These lie primarily in the realm of historical context.
Every event of the New Testament (and much of the Old) occurred in a known, limited geographical area. They occurred in a relatively well-known culture and time. Study of the New Testament is greatly enhanced by our knowledge of the world in which it was written and its events took place. Any serious student of the NT <i>must</i> learn something about the geography and history of the Holy Land in order to better understand the text. The past and contemporaneous histories of the Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and various Asian provinces can add a dimension of clarity and meaning to what we read that their importance is staggering. Anyone attempting to read the NT in a relative historical contextual vacuum is at such a disadvantage that they are certain to misunderstand some of the most important and poignant points being made.
In other words, really studying the New Testament takes work. It is not plain for the most part though it is equally precious. I believe that in the Church that we’ve spent so much time reading the Book of Mormon that we’ve become ignorant of the importance of historical context. This is because most of the Book of Mormon takes place in a historical vacuum.
The majority of 1 Nephi constitutes the only semblance of a place where a historical background exists. We’ve recognized this in the Church at some level for some time. This is why FARMS has spent so much time and energy trying to retrace the path that Lehi and his party took to reach the coast from which they set sail for the promised land. <i>Those events occur within a known historical context which can be studied readily outside of the Book of Mormon.</i> If you don’t think that that context adds anything to our understanding of 1 Nephi then you’ve clearly never read Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert. Just try it, you will be astounded at what stands out to you about that text after you’ve read it.
The rest of the BoM doesn’t have this context. We don’t even know where they lived. The majority of members, from my experience, believe that the geographical setting of the BoM is the whole of North and South America. Those who have studied the internal evidence believe that it was in fact a much smaller area (after all the Nephites judge how large their land is in terms of how many days it takes to walk across it). And while the majority opinion rests with somewhere in southern Mexico and Guatemala, we have absolutely no evidence, zero, to back up this theory. And this is only problem number one.
Problem number two is that we have very little textual and archaeological evidence for any culture, anywhere, at any time in all of N. and S. America. Even if we knew the exact location and were able to say with certainty that the Lamanites and Nephites interacted with other culture group X, almost nothing would be known about that outside culture, although it would be better still than the vacuum we are left with right now. This is even assuming that the Lamanites and Nephites interacted with any other cultures besides their own, a theory that I am fond of but which not everyone is convinced of.
And so, when we read the Book of Mormon there is almost no burden on us to study a historical context associated with the text. What the text tells us about it’s context is all we have to go on for the most part. This makes studying it in depth somewhat easier, but it also robs us of a chance to understand the text better. No text happens in a vacuum and having even a glimpse of the background in which it is situated can dramatically reveal important aspects of the text that can never be appreciated without it. It also makes us lazy.
Most Mormons, again, from my limited experience, approach reading the NT the way they approach the BoM: read it from front to back over and over and God will tell you everything from it that you need to learn as long as you are diligent and repeat the process ad nauseum. This is so faulty on so many levels that it boggles me about where to begin. Instead I’ll stick to the present subject.
I’ll give just a couple of really basic examples of how having some knowledge of the historical background can be helpful when reading the NT. Let’s say that you are reading along in Acts 16 and you see that Paul and his companion Silas get thrown into prison while preaching in Philippi and beaten. Then Paul announces that he is a Roman citizen and that he is not going to be treated this way any further (it’s ironic because at this point they are being released from jail and Paul is refusing to come out) and that he demands the chief magistrates of the city come and fetch them out. Sounds a bit weird if you don’t have some context to clarify things.
For starters, had Paul (and perhaps Silas too) not been Roman citizens (in the country of Macedonia no less) the magistrates would have done nothing wrong in jailing, beating, and releasing the men with a stern warning. Indeed, it would have been exceptionally common. But Paul, being a Roman citizen, a thing which would have been somewhat uncommon in a place like Philippi, has rights that non-citizens do not, including the right to a trial headed by a Roman official and not just some run of the mill, locally raised, non-citizen magistrates. In fact, the magistrates not only had no right to beat Paul and Silas, they had no right to even put them on trial. Paul, now having been unlawfully beaten, is within his rights to report these men to the Romans. Should he have done so the men faced death for their mistake. Now can you see how “they feared” is a dramatic understatement when the text relates how the leaders reacted to Paul’s news?
I think actually that I’ll just leave it at that one example for now, I’ve prattled on long enough. I’m willing to bet that the BoM is filled with events which we would understand vastly differently from the way we do now if we only had some historical context in which to examine it. And to this I’ll add the plea: when you read the NT for your SS lessons this year, don’t do it in a self imposed vacuum. Get a good book. There are literally hundreds of them, many by Church authors, the best ones being by our Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters. By way of high recommendation I’d suggest that if you need to brush up on your NT context, get just this one book: Jesus Christ in the World of the New Testament, and follow along in it with whatever lesson you are doing. It will open your eyes to so much in the New Testament you just might become a Jesus freak and a Paul freak. Just like me.
47 Replies to “The Book of Mormon’s Contextual Vacuum”
The first time I read the New Testament through I was quite amazed that any protestant could make it through the thing and somehow think it was “complete.” The letters especially were very difficult to contextualize. While laboring to get that context may be enjoyable and enlightening, it is also easy to take prooftext shortcuts and really remain pretty clueless afterwards.
Nice job. The only flaw I see is the assertion that the BoM made us lazy. We were lazy long before we began to rise to his challenge — we wanted things like Mormon Doctrine to give us all the answers in alphabetical order.
That said, I think that you can learn things like close reading techniques, structural analysis, or characteristic vocabulary from the BoM, just as you can learn them from any other work of literature. The challenge, then, is that the poetics of the BoM aren’t totally transferable to Bible. But I suppose it is a start.
Jesus Christ in the World of the New Testament while very good, can’t really be directly followed along in a one to one relationship with typical NT lessons, as it does not produce any sort of harmony of the Gospels…
It is good, but I do wish it haad more footnotes and citations in it. It uses a lot of “Scholars say…” type of statements without pointing to where such is said.
I’m going to quickly note my dissent against the idea that “we have very little textual and archaeological evidence for any culture, anywhere, at any time in all of N. and S. America.” This can be seen as a comparative claim, I suppose, and in that light it is true — we don’t have the level of information that we have for the Near East. But we do have staggering amounts of information about many of the cultures in question. For the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs, and others, we have more information than a single person can learn in a lifetime. The information doesn’t contribute to Book of Mormon reading because (a) we don’t have any textual reason to associate the Book of Mormon with any specific culture, and (b) all of the cultures that I just named are quite poor fits for the cultural information provided in the Book of Mormon itself. But there is nonetheless a lot of information.
Doc: Yup. And I did it too. It’s exactly that sort of thing that leads me to not be very surprised when I see LDS people not reading their NTs and talking so much about how they are so glad that God gave us the BoM. It’s a personal goal of mine to help as many people as can learn to read and love the NT in my lifetime.
Mogs: Yeah, you are probably right, we’ve been lazy forever. As for using those techniques while studying the BoM, I have found that I’m not the only person who has learned to use those techniques while studying other literature, then went and applied them to the BoM, and found that I understood things much more. Getting people to learn to do it with any text is a good start.
Matt: I realize that JCWNT is not a perfect correspondance to our lessons but it could still be immensely useful for our fellow Saints, footnotes or not. Two things about those missing footnotes: average members probably never look at even one and are even less likely to go to a library and find the book and look them up and are even less likely than that to actually own the reference cited. Makes you wonder how useful they are for your typical reader. Second, I know two of the authors personally and one of them has said to me many times that he pushed for footnotes or endnotes and DB wouldn’t allow it. The academic intergrity wasn’t compromised because of neglect, it was because of bad publishing policy. (sorry, just stickin up for my peeps)
RT: Good call. It was meant to be a comparative statement in my head. And all of your points are valid and well stated. Thanks.
i have always struggled with regular reading (interest) of the BofM. Not because i’m preoccupied with daily life, but because of its lack of historical and geographical context. without such context i find that it reads too much like a fictional novel. And i have never been a fan of fiction.
he pushed for footnotes or endnotes and DB wouldn’t allow it
Gatekeepers. All you Mormons are too dumb and vulnerable to deal with what you’d find out if you followed those footnotes!
It would be a fun project to take a copy of JCWNT and post the major players for each instance of “scholars say,” wouldn’t it?
Oh yeah! And then post the bios on all of those scholars so people could literally pass out when they find out who they are reading!
Oh, I’m sure most of them have online biographies; some will have webpages and blogs. We’d just link to their school’s website if we can’t find anything else…
“So why is it that we, as a Church in general, don’t have a greater culture of studying and learning the New Testament?”
Haven’t read the comments yet, but I think three main reasons.
1) We’re lazy.
2) We’re complacent and smug. WE have the true gospel (not false) and therefore WE don’t need anything else, kind of a reverse 2 Nephi, ie. “A BoM, a BoM, we have a BoM and we don’t need anything else!”
3) Anything out of the Gospels is too hard to read in the KJV NT.
For what it’s worth, Brant Gardner, who did his dissertation on the Aztec “Legend of the Suns”, has a verse-by-verse commentary soon to be published, but available online until then. It’s excellent and shows how the BoM fits in with those cultures down there in Mesoamerica. I’ve been reading it for the past year or two, and have gotten so much more out of the text with its help.
Highly recommended stuff.
Give us a citation in which you think that some element of known meso-American information is particularly helpful in establishing a reading of the BoM. I just randomly dropped into Jacob and it looked more like an apologetic argument than a h-c commentary but I could have unrealistic expectations about Gardner’s intentions.
I think the Gardner work has some value as a sort of undergraduate-level textbook on BYU apologetic readings of the Book of Mormon. Because of the constraints of that genre, Gardner’s text seems to largely rely on Near Eastern ideas, rather than Mesoamerican ones. Unfortunately, it also takes sides in ongoing and as yet unresolved intellectual debates. For example, Gardner cites the work of Welsh on chiasmus but not the critiques of Wunderli and others. This to some degree limits the usefulness of the volume.
Jason: Interesting link, I’m going to have to check it out further. An example to a place where he links Meso-american culture to the text would be great.
I think I started to understand the dangers of not having an historical context while on my mission. We were teaching a SciFi-Fantasy Addict (which was fun for me because the “getting to know you” stuff was about Lord of the Rings and such). He, at first, appeared to be devouring the Book of Mormon. I think I was starting to get concerned when he asked for a map and I drew him a stylized one like I had seen in Seminary. Later on, we came to find out, he was reading the Book of Mormon as a novel and enjoying it only on a story viewpoint – he even read the chapter headings so he could skip doctrinal chapters and get back to the narrative. The map didn’t help as it made it seem that much more like a fantasy book. We tried teaching him, praying with him, and taking him to Church, but to no avail. When I left the area he hadn’t progressed very far in the discussions because he didn’t care how true the Book of Mormon might be; to him he enjoyed it far more on a fictional level. I never knew what happened to him, but I hope he tried to read it again. So sad.
The last four comments are very interesting — do you realize what your saying??? Meso-American or Colonial American? I think the latter is most likely.
Sci-fi… Lord of the Rings
Huh? What version of LOTR are you watching?
He said his investigator was a SciFi-Fantasy addict, not just sci-fi. I like both genres myself, so I fully understand his point. The BoM reads like an alternate universe story in some regards.
I didn’t understand the NT until I read the Book of Mormon, and then all kinds of understanding started popping up. I don’t personally think God cares about contextualization or he would have added more material of that nature. The only thing we need is God, Faith, and the Holy Ghost (and, of course, the ability to read).
Why would that bother you if he doesn’t read it as history? Would it perturb you to know that the Pentateuch could not and was not written by Moses, but by later people who put those words into his mouth (if he even existed)? I don’t think it matters that the BofM is read as history. In fact, I think the book utterly fails on multiple levels if it is read this way.
God cares about contextualization or he would have added more material of that nature.
My impression is that the BoM has more material that could be used for h-c context than does much of the OT. The challenge is that it doesn’t really match well with anything we know of in Mesoamerica. But I’d be interested in hearing how others view the situation. (Particularly you, Nitsav!)
The only thing we need is God, Faith, and the Holy Ghost (and, of course, the ability to read).
I’m holding out for Jesus, as well.
Sorry. Couldn’t resist that last! 😉
I agree with you Mogget that the BofM has a lot of internal contextualization. However, that is a discussion outside of what lxxluthor is talking about.
Actually, I am talking about precisely what LXXLuthor calls “historical context.”
Hmmm, some specific verses…
Try Mormon 4:14 (and the reference Gardner there gives to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies in Alma). Mormon 6:3. Ether 7:2 (also check out Ether 7:3 for a critique of a linguistics approach by some members of the church). Alma 43:20, 22, 30 (That chapter has a lot about Mesoamerican warfare). Take a look at Alma 39:1-5 for a refreshing take on Corianton’s sin (although not specifically Mesoamerican). Alma 34:10 and 11 and 12 and 13 help us understand what Amulek was really saying to the people and their cultural understanding when talking about the atonement.
I could probably go on and on. If you can, check out the commentary after those verses in particular.
And thus Mogget invites the fury.
A lot of arguments are, of course, available about whether and how the Book of Mormon fits with various Mesoamerican cultures. These should be evaluated carefully and completely. For example, we should be cautious with any scenario that associates the Law-of-Moses-obeying Nephites with cultures that ate dogs, pigs, or rodents. And we should be especially attentive to the signs of sharp cultural discontinuity that could distinguish the group that imported Near Eastern culture into an American region as late as 600 BC. We should pay close attention to the physical descriptions of cities; scenarios that give us Zarahemlas without city walls should cause concern. In other words, this should be an intellectual discussion like any other. Yet it isn’t. The stakes that participants in such discussions construct for the outcome make it otherwise, and all sides end up engaging in distorting, superficial readings of the evidence and/or each other’s arguments.
Mogs: I love how you capitalize all those letters in my name. I don’t even bother any more. Somehow it makes me feel special.
Jason: Thanks for those refs, I’ll look em up tomorrow some time.
RT: Those seem to all be valid points. Scanty comparatively, but valid.
Jettboy: Ah Jettboy. I’m glad someone is unabashedly conservative around here. Get’s everbody’s blood up.
Dave: I love you man. That was a particularly nice grenade.
And thus Mogget invites the fury
I’d just point out that what I invited was a serious and intelligent discussion. What may well stumble bloody and half-drunken across the threshold is the fury…
For the record: I take seriously the claims of the BoM. All of them. For that very reason, it requires the same level and types of scrutiny afforded the OT/NT. To my mind, it presents itself as a bit of historiographic writing. It should be read that way. The historicity of any particular event or claim should be investigated according to the best canons of that discipline. Ditto the languages, archeology, anthropology, etc., etc.
The results of that investigation should be judged on their own merits. I don’t think they have to be any more “satisfying” than those of the OT/NT but the work has to be done. And let me admit right up front that I am not qualified to do it except possibly in those instances where the BoM intersects the NT. But I am tired, tired, tired, of half-baked work on both sides of the argument and even more irritated by refusals to do the investigation.
Aye yi yi. Mogs is way too grouchy for such a nice time of the morning. Nice chaste Mogget kisses all around…
I think what would strengthen your argument is to make a clear connection between knowledge of historical context (in particular that of the NT) and being a better person of religion (i.e., being a better Mormon).
In other words, how much do you expect “average” members of the church to know? What difference does it make? I don’t think we can expect most people to have the historical fancy that “scholars” do, nor to have the time and/or capability to develop the tools.
Mind you, I’m not saying that historical context is irrelevant, nor that it should not be investigated, but in terms of the religious life of “average” members, are there not more important things?
Hi, I’m new here.
Good essay – may I link to it and comment on it at my little blog?
I have been guilty of neglecting the NT, not to mention the OT, even though I fell head-over-heels in love with the Bible in the MTC – that was 11 years ago, and my passion has cooled since. I just got a New American Standard Bible though, and that has got me more excited about it.
Re: #15 – when I was a teenager, the War Chapters were like the frosting that I’d skip the cake for – I even wrote a short sci-fi story based on them! Now I would rather read the 2 Nephi Isaiah chapters, which used to be excruciating. Interesting how our responses change. But I love the Book of Mormon more now than I did then.
Does anyone have anything to say about the theories that put Book of Mormon geography in North America (Niagara Falls as the narrow neck, etc.) or know of a place I could go to read more about that? Better yet, does anyone know of a project to compile and compare all of the different BoM geographical theories floating around?
Moggs- I have some comments, but little time at the moment.
Cstanfor- feel free. We like links 🙂 John Sorenson of BYU has already compiled and compared 60+ geography proposals, as well as all the relevant BoM statements.
John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992) Amazon
Nitsav, right, that’s the place to start. I find it interesting that current discourse has essentially abandoned all of those proposals in favor of less-well-defined smaller geographies that predict an even smaller DNA footprint.
“Just as continuing revelation enlarges and illuminates the scriptures, so also a study of the scriptures enables men and women to receive revelations. Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “I sometimes think that one of the best-kept secrets of the kingdom is that the scriptures open the door to the receipt of revelation” (Doctrines of the Restoration, ed. Mark L. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989, p. 243). This happens because scripture reading puts us in tune with the Spirit of the Lord.
The idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today. Even more, scripture reading may also lead to current revelation on whatever else the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time. We do not overstate the point when we say that the scriptures can be a Urim and Thummim to assist each of us to receive personal revelation.
Because we believe that scripture reading can help us receive revelation, we are encouraged to read the scriptures again and again. By this means, we obtain access to what our Heavenly Father would have us know and do in our personal lives today. That is one reason Latter-day Saints believe in daily scripture study.
Similarly, what a scripture in the Book of Mormon meant to me when I first read it at age sixteen is not conclusive upon me as I read it at age sixty. With the benefit of my life’s experiences and with my greater familiarity with revelation, I can learn things that were not available to me yesterday by reading the scriptures today.
Another reason for repeated reading of the scriptures is that many of the prophecies and doctrinal passages in the scriptures have multiple meanings. The Savior affirmed that fact when he told his disciples that the reason he taught the multitude in parables was that this permitted him to teach them “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13:11) while not revealing those mysteries to the multitude. His parables had multiple meanings or applications according to the spiritual maturity of the listener. They had a message for both children and gospel scholars.
Those who believe the scriptural canon is closed typically approach the reading of scriptures by focusing on what was meant at the time the scriptural words were spoken or written. In this approach, a passage of scripture may appear to have a single meaning and the reader typically relies on scholarship and historical methods to determine it.
The Latter-day Saint approach is different. Professor Hugh Nibley illuminates this in his essay “The Prophets and the Scripture.” He observes that “men fool themselves when they think for a moment that they can read the scripture without ever adding something to the text, or omitting something from it. For in the wise words of St. Hilary, … ‘Scripture consists not in what one reads, but in what one understands.’ ” Consequently, he continues, “in the reading of the scripture we must always have an interpreter” (The World and the Prophets, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 12 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987, 3:202).
He concludes: The question is not whether or not one shall add to the word of the scripture—thousands of volumes of learned commentary have already done that—but whether such addition shall come by the wisdom of men or the revelation of God” (ibid., p. 206).
Latter-day Saints know that true doctrine comes by revelation from God, not by scholarship or worldly wisdom (see Moses 5:58). Similarly, the Apostle Paul wrote that we are not “sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Rather than trusting in our own interpretations of written texts, we rely on God and the glorious “ministration of the spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8). Here we encounter a new meaning of Paul’s familiar teaching that true believers are “ministers … of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery set the example for this dispensation. After their baptism, they were filled with the Holy Ghost. Then, as Joseph explained in his personal history, “Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of” (JS—H 1:74).
Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution.
Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food. (When I refer to “commentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one.)
One trouble with commentaries is that their authors sometimes focus on only one meaning, to the exclusion of others. As a result, commentaries, if not used with great care, may illuminate the author’s chosen and correct meaning but close our eyes and restrict our horizons to other possible meanings. Sometimes those other, less obvious meanings can be the ones most valuable and useful to us as we seek to understand our own dispensation and to obtain answers to our own questions. This is why the teaching of the Holy Ghost is a better guide to scriptural interpretation than even the best commentary.”
– Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation”, Ensign, Jan 1995
Moggs: No one is as classy as you. Nobody.
Axe: May I call you Axe? I’m not taking your comment as an attack, I don’t think you meant it that way so don’t take this response as heated or anything. We are commanded to daily read the scriptures as individuals and families, weekly read and discuss them as wards, bi yearly as stakes and as a church, etc, etc. Would anyone argue that this is not to make us better members and that doing all this scripture reading and study doesn’t make us better people and help to perfect us? Then how can understanding any aspect (and possibly all aspects) of the scriptures not enhance this? I expect the average members to be much better informed than the currently are in these issues. The onus, however, on making sure they should know them is on the Church and the monstrosities that we use for SS manuals don’t cut the mustard. If we are going to sit for an hour each week in church just studying the scriptures how hard is it for the Church to make sure that part of the curriculum (sp?) is understanding the very basics of historical context? The knowledge is already in existence, I think that the Church should do more to make it available to members and take some responsibility for teaching it to them.
Cstan: Links are always welcome. Thanks for dropping in.
Rob: Without your commentary I don’t know what you are saying with that monstrosity of a block quote. Also: “The idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today.”(italics mine) I don’t understand this comment at all by Elder Oaks. Almost no one is thining about what it meant when it was written in the Church today. The problem is that almost no one cares to know what it meant when it was written. And occasionally knowing what was originally meant changes or adds to something about what it means today. Rather than emphasizing one approach over the other, both ought to be strenuously emphasized together as two halves of the same process of learning and understanding the scriptures.
This morning driving down to drill I was thinking about the Book of Mormon and things in it that are illuminated with an understanding of Mesoamerica.
Two things came to mind (apart from all those I referenced yesterday). First was the “costly apparel” that we constantly see throughout. This rich clothing was frowned upon by the prophets, but why? Were they really just clothes that costed a lot, made from the most hip designers? Without context we might think so, but with context we see that in Mesoamerica the people had the custom of actually wearing their riches. They would tie their things to their clothes, so everybody would know that they were wealthy, of a higher social class, and, for the more rare and valuable pieces worn, would show that they had connections to outside trade networks that the regular population did not.
Societies in Mesoamerica were stratified. The Nephite polity was not. People wearing their riches in the BoM were showing that they thought of themselves as “above” the commoners, which was an obvious sin, because, as King Benjamin had said, “even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are,” and, “[always remember] the greatness of God, and your own nothingness.”
Even more dangerous, though, was the possibility of adoption. It is an obvious danger to have people inside one’s own polity imitating the ways of others, because if the things immitated are liked, it’s the most sure way to have widespread adoption of (and perhaps, like what most likely happened to the City of Nephi, overthrow by) the liked culture. And when the liked Lamanite cultures (“Lamanite” being a term used in later BoM times to refer to all not Nephites, sorta like Hellenes and Barbarians) surrounding the nephite lands were the ones who had a pantheon of gods, some of whom were bloodthirsty, it is incredibly dangerous to have people inside your own city wearing and immitating the culture of them.
Therefore, the prophets harshly denounced the practice of wearing costly apparel among the Nephites. So clearly, like LXX said, it helps to understand the context. But unlike what he said, the BoM does have context.
This comment has already dragged on, so I won’t talk about the second thing I was thinking about, which concerns King Benjamin, the Zerahemlaites, archeology, and the temple.
I think that you may over estimate the extent to which “we” study any scripture,including the Book of Mormon, to any real extent.
I have to add the lack political philosophy reading is far more disturbing. Who needs the Bible when you could read the Leviathan or A Theory of Justice. Feel free to disinvite me from this blog at anytime.
I’m not taking your comment as an attack, I don’t think you meant it that way so don’t take this response as heated or anything.
Don’t worry about it, in all practicalities we don’t disagree much. My last post wasn’t meant to draw your ire, only to clarify your claims.
Once again, my point is not that historical context is unimportant, but to properly frame its level of importance for whom and under what circumstances. Scholars tend to take “comprehension” of a text (understood variously) as more of an “ends” than most “lay” members do. Most members are interested in the text in as much as it serves a particular religious function (tells them a particular course to take in life, leads to/strengthens testimony, acts as a handbook for religious practice, etc.). It’s not that knowledge of historical context does not enhance these things, but a question of whether historical knowledge is necessary for these things. I’m wondering whether it’s fair to characterize most members of the church as “lazy”, or whether that amounts to basically stating that “most members of the church should be a Bible scholar like I am.” Don’t take this the wrong way. I agree that as a general membership we could be much better informed. And the manuals could be much better done to make the time we spend studying the text more informative. But for me those are pragmatic concerns. In other words, if we’re going to spend the time to study a text we should include more of the context. For you it seems like more of a normative concern–the only way to study the text is to know its context. The difference here, as I suggested, could be different reasons for studying the text.
May I call you Axe?
No you may not.
Rob, don’t ever quote GAs here again. It means nothing. I have to go wash out my skull after that one.
Who needs the Bible when you could read the Leviathan or A Theory of Justice. Feel free to disinvite me from this blog at anytime.
Music to my ears, Chris H. These “I only read church books” types make me want to vomit. The world is so much bigger, colorful, engaging, exciting, and lively than that.
Were they really just clothes that costed a lot, made from the most hip designers? Without context we might think so, but with context we see that in Mesoamerica the people had the custom of actually wearing their riches. They would tie their things to their clothes, so everybody would know that they were wealthy, of a higher social class, and, for the more rare and valuable pieces worn, would show that they had connections to outside trade networks that the regular population did not.
Jason: A couple of things about this section of your comment: Expensive clothing today is not limited to the designer label and it never really has been. Whether we look at hip hop and rap stars wearing their “bling” or the uber-wealthy who strut around in furs, diamonds, seriously expensive cars, or whatever it is not an exclusively American or modern thing to demonstrate your wealth by adorning your your clothing with expensive items. This isn’t a particularly strong point but it’s there.
I have no idea why you think that the expensive valuable they wore on their clothing had anything to do with trade. Jacob 1:16: “Yea, and they also began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride.” The Nephites were fully capable from the beginning of digging up their own riches and without explicit connections to trade this argument comes from silence and inference.
Societies in Mesoamerica were stratified. The Nephite polity was not.
I don’t think that there is any evidence that this is true outside of an amazing period following Christ’s visit. They may not have wanted social stratification but there is much evidence that it was always there and that the prophets spoke against it when it became especially bad.
Also, I’m a fan of the whole idea that the term Lamanites came to mean “anybody not a Nephite” but, again, we have no idea where they were! We can’t compare them to specific Mesoamerican cultures when we can’t really be sure that they were in Mesoamerica. And any “adoptions” described in the Book of Mormon by the Nephite people are not specific enough for us to connect them to any known culture in this hemisphere or else the issue would be moot.
It is this inability to place the peoples and lands of the BoM into a known context that prevents us from being able to say with any confidence that outside factor X helps us to understand passage Y inside the BoM. We can try and make guesses but that is all they are. We cannot with certainty say that a certain set of ruins is the exact spot of the city of Zarahemla and that the material culture found there connects them to the Aztecs (or whatever) and thus we can begin to draw the sort of conclusions that you draw above. With the NT we can do this. And should. You can’t debate where Jerusalem is, or Rome, or Antioch, or just about anywhere. There is a historical context for the Book of Mormon but there is no way you can convince me that we know it.
Most members are interested in the text in as much as it serves a particular religious function (tells them a particular course to take in life, leads to/strengthens testimony, acts as a handbook for religious practice, etc.).
S-axe: I agree with you here completely. I just disagree with people who think this way. For me, thinking this way is lazy. I don’t expect everyone to go out and be Bible scholars (for starters it would put me out a job before I even got to get it :)) and I’m trying not to come off that way but I do think that practicing a religion should be more than just about the practical. I feel like the scriptures argue against this mentality of everything being straightforward, really easy, no major thinking required. There is supposed to be effort and struggle required in it. The very most basic and important stuff is already so easy that I don’t feel it too much to ask that everything else require a little demonstration of one’s desire to continue learning.
I doubt that I’ve worded this very well but even if I were going to go on and become a plumber (still a distinct possibility if I don’t get some money to go to grad school) I don’t feel like it would be too much of God to ask me to make an effort to study some history to better understand the scriptures. If my time in the scriptures is gong to be noticeably more fruitful because I studied a bit of simplified history then I think that the time and effort is well worth it. And besides, if you look at how many “scripture study aids” that are out there and how well they sell you get the impression that people want to improve their understanding of them. I just think that reading through something like JCWNT is more helpful when it comes to the NT than an neat, color-coded system of keeping track every time that God’s or Jesus’ name is mentioned.
Chris: Nice. And what can I say? I’m trying to be optimistic.
Dave: I read other books too! …. just because I can’t name any doesn’t mean that I don’t.
I feel like the scriptures argue against this mentality of everything being straightforward, really easy, no major thinking required. There is supposed to be effort and struggle required in it.
I disagree with that as a holistic or flatline statement. Jesus is supposed to be an easy burden to carry, his gospel is supposed to be plain and simple, and when people start convoluting it with extra stuff, it becomes “Christianity” (ala Kierkegaard) and starts to become a burden. It really is straightforward, and the only reason people see it as a struggle is because they make it that way in their minds. Think of living the gospel or diving into the text as an easy task, LXX, and it will become much easier for you to bear. Some of the best exegesis papers I wrote in grad school were because I stopped losing myself in the trees and backed up to see how simple the whole narrative really was. That extends into regular gospel life and living as well. A struggle perceived is a struggle realized. This stuff is easy. It’s not rocket surgery.
I have no idea why you think that the expensive valuable they wore on their clothing had anything to do with trade.
I was referring to the Mesoamerican practice. Linda Schele and Peter Mathews outline it at the beginning of their book, The Code of Kings.
Also, while the Book of Mormon does not specifically say, “I was written in Mesoamerica,” the evidence, all piled together, is convincing enough — and helpful enough — for me. Kind of like the Torah, it never flat out says that it was written by more than one source — indeed, tradition tells us it was wriiten by Moses — but the evidence, put together convinces modern scolarship (and me) that there were several late sources.
I just disagree with people who think this way. For me, thinking this way is lazy.
I think this cycles back into the problem of what purpose the religious text serves and the role that history plays in realizing this purpose. Let me rephrase my original question–how much historical contextualization is necessary for a “correct” reading of the text? The issue hinges on how to make sense of ‘correct’. Is there only one possible meaning that the text has (i.e., the “intent” of the author, or a historical meaning)? If so, then history plays a major role. Or can “correct” also be measured by other variables of “efficacy”? I would claim that there is such a thing as a historically decontextual efficacious reading. If the purpose of the text is to bring about affirmation that one is on the path to salvation, then I would say that not much (if any) context is needed. One of the problems with contextualization is that there is no end to it. Wouldn’t members also be better off also learning Hebrew and Greek?
Like I said, in practice I agree with you, but I think we agree for different reasons. I’ll try to spell out a little more about what I mean on the other thread about “God-like nature”>
I feel like the scriptures argue against this mentality of everything being straightforward, really easy, no major thinking required.
I think it depends on which scriptures you’re talking about. David J. highlights the alternative, and perhaps predominant view.
And besides, if you look at how many “scripture study aids” that are out there and how well they sell you get the impression that people want to improve their understanding of them.
I think you shift back and forth between labeling most members as “lazy” and blaming the curriculum of the church. IMO those are two differnt claims.
LxxxLuthor (#33 ) Also: “The idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today.”(italics mine) I don’t understand this comment at all by Elder Oaks.
Let me take a jab at that, since that’s my all time favorite GA talk. Elder Oaks sees the scripture’s primary value as a catalyst for revelation. This doesn’t mean that more contextualized readings aren’t valuable. But ultimately the value lies in someone having a particular experience when reading that causes an inspired action. In that context it seems that the more nuanced context isn’t always necessary. However it also requires, I believe, that we have a suspicion towards our readings since we aren’t always inspired. It’s that latter suspicion that is often missing from this sort of “reader response” approach to scriptural hermeneutics.
(Yeah, I know it’s not really a reader response criticism. But it’s close enough I’ll use the term in quotation marks)
2) We’re complacent and smug. WE have the true gospel (not false) and therefore WE don’t need anything else, kind of a reverse 2 Nephi, ie. “A BoM, a BoM, we have a BoM and we don’t need anything else!”
I was reading about this recently and it occurred to me that the principle — not wanting more light — is the same with the Saints and with the Gentiles. Pres. Hinckley has basically said that we have a whole collection of revelation and we really don’t need a lot more. How very sad.
I actually think there are plenty of places where clearer revelations would be much more helpful.