In case you’ve just stopped by, I’ve been blogging on an article by Professor Kent P. Jackson of the BYU Religious Education Faculty. The title is “Sacred Study” and it’s found in the 6 Jan 07 edition of the Church News. In this article Professor Jackson defines LDS Biblical scholarship and LDS Biblical scholars solely by their uncompromising use of secondary sources derived from modern revelation.
As I have pointed out in my two previous posts there are some issues with his proposal, at least as they are presented in this particular article. Despite these matters, I do think that we should go ahead with Professor Jackson’s plan. As you will see, the interesting thing about the Bible is its ability to “push back” against attempts to domesticate it. We might build a one-room schoolhouse for it, but it will not remain so confined indefinitely.
In Professor Jackson’s own words, “Latter-day Saint Bible scholarship embraces revealed sources and uses them at every stage in the process of understanding and interpreting the words of scripture.” Perhaps. I weigh such sources against my purposes, their usefulness in illuminating the text, and the audience to which my remarks are directed. But let’s take Professor Jackson at his word and consider just how much of the Bible is “touched” by secondary sources drawn from might be considered authoritative LDS sources.
Not all that much. Prophets, whether ancient or modern, exist in historical context. This dictates where their attention is focused. JS did not apply himself equally to all parts of the Bible and neither did his successors. For whatever reason, there are large swaths of the Bible that are quite untouched, or that have been employed for didactic rather than exegetical purposes. Since Professor Jackson’s proposal will not be needed in these passages, they are presumably open for conventional exegetical methods.
What will happen if the conventional exegesis of a passage without secondary LDS sources does not cohere with nearby passages read under Professor Jackson’s method? Ah well. When/if that occurs, you will see just how powerfully the Bible can “push back.” Perhaps it will turn out that a methodology with the potential to be applied more evenly will be more useful as a foundational approach.
Now let’s take a look at a passage that has had some attention from an authoritative LDS source. The infancy narrative in Matthew is a perennial favorite and the magi are longtime Christmas favorites. Some years ago, Elder McConkie stated that these gentlemen were Diaspora Jews (Mortal Messiah, 1:358) rather than gentiles. Whatever their real ethnic status might have been, in Matthew’s story they are gentiles because they do the things that gentiles do. They get their information about events from stars, they must seek out Jewish sources and records in order to fully understand God’s plans, and all in all you get a very Balaam-like (Num 23) feel from them.
Now there is nothing wrong with what Elder McConkie was doing. In narrative theory it’s called “gap filling.” We all do it all the time because it’s a natural part of reading. But all “gap filling” is not equally successful and unless Elder McConkie wants to make some very significant changes to the story, the magi must be read as gentiles. And “thus we see,” as Mormon would say, that the Bible can once again “push back” with significant force.
So why do I think that despite the issues I have raised we should still proceed with Professor Jackson’s plan? Not because I think it will tell us much about the Bible, except as a secondary effect from looking very closely at applicable passages. I think we should proceed because I think it will tell us a great deal about JS, about his successors, and ultimately about ourselves.
Everybody writes, talks, thinks, and leads within historical context and must be approached from within their context. No one, not even Jesus Christ, is exempt from this. I guess it’s a part of the humility of the mortal state, or whatever. In any case, what this means is that when we pursue Professor Jackson’s proposal what we will find is a godsend of information about the religious and theological context of the Restoration and the diachronic evolution of that context over time. And that will tell us a great deal about who we really are.
Finally, we can see something about ourselves just from Professor Jackson’s proposal. Take a look at these two passages decide and what they tell us about our confidence and faith in the Restoration:
Latter-day Saint scholars, like others, need to challenge unproven assumptions, question unfounded traditions, and demand evidence for historical and interpretive claims. Where the Restoration provides answers, we must rely on those answers and use them in our continuing quest for truth.
And speaking of LDS Biblical scholars who practice his method, Professor Jackson also says:
And unlike many of their peers who set the agenda for religious discourse in their denominations, Latter-day Saint Bible scholars hold allegiance to the Church as an institution and welcome the continuing guidance of those who the Lord has called to preside in it.
It looks like there’s still some fear, doesn’t it? (It would be interesting to survey the LDS grad students and see how they respond as a body.)
So…I think we ought to pursue Professor Jackson’s proposal. And I think that we ought to pursue a more conventional historical-critical approach. And I think that we ought also to take up feminist readings, social-science approaches, and so on. I don’t think this ought to be limited to BYU campuses; some institutions are better at these sorts of things than others. I see no reason to forego the advantages that accrue from interaction with our colleagues from the wider realms of religious inquiry. But mostly I think that regardless of whether we start out with a one-room schoolhouse or something more expansive, an honest, rigorous approach will eventually lead us to something far bigger than we now envision.
You can trust the Bible. It’s just that way.
fides quaerens intellectum