This is a copy of a paper I delivered at the last conference I attended two years ago. Reading it now, I have some serious reservations about my thesis and conclusions, but I will save that for a later post. As it is, it gives an interesting picture of where I was two years ago, not long out of the church or the closet. While ostensibly a paper about the need for a critical hermeneutic for Mormon scriptures, I have come to the realization that it is really about something else--something bigger. More on that later.
He That Increaseth in Knowledge Increaseth in Sorrow:
Vexation and Catharsis in Critical Readings of Latter-day Saint Scripture
You may want to listen carefully, because I am about to utter three words that you will never again hear at an academic conference. “I was wrong.” Several months ago I crafted what I thought was a sweeping but defensible thesis. Simply put, it was that a historical-critical engagement with scripture would make you a better Mormon. And I intended to prove it through my own experiences as a Mormon and formal student of ancient scripture. I supposed that the rigor of the study and its contradictions with the fundamental tenets of my own religion would serve as a crucible to refine my stalwart defense of Mormon orthodoxy. But I was wrong. Indeed, the reality of my experience in my first semester at Yale Divinity proved me so spectacularly wrong that I nearly withdrew from this conference. Because it is, well, a bit humiliating to make a compelling argument for my own ineptitude.
I do take some consolation in the fact that my thesis was not totally without merit. I was right about the fact that the study is rigorous and that the contradictions with Mormonism are vexing. And it does, in my opinion, serve as a most salubrious, if painful, crucible. But my error was in supposing that such a critical hermeneutic was compatible with Mormon orthodoxy as it had been taught to me since my youth. When I say “orthodoxy” I do not speak principally of doctrine but of method—a method of engaging scripture that ensures we always come up with the right answer. Orthodox methodology has unfortunately become the foundation of religious education in the church.
I would like to show you what I think is a quintessential example of this orthodoxy. I hold in my hand a certified LDS Scripture Marker. (It’s engraved to that effect.) These pencils are the staple of every seminary, institute, and Sunday school class. And with these certified LDS Scripture Markers, we are told to mark an obtuse four hundred year old translation of the Bible, and indeed we are told which specific scriptures we are to mark and memorize. For Sunday school, the Church produces a lesson manual which tells us which passages we should read and what generic lessons we are to take away from them. And we are warned not to supplement these intellectually unfulfilling lessons with additional materials—unless their from Mormon Doctrine.
This is the hermeneutic designed to produce orthodox Mormons. But I must wonder whether it makes us very good Saints. Certainly it doesn’t make us think very hard. It obviates theological difficulties, smoothes over ethical quandaries, and ignores historical incongruencies. There is not a particularly high price to be paid for this superficial engagement with the text. And it should not be surprising that the dividends are equally poor. Mormons woefully underutilize the full potential of ancient scripture. Here is a text at times beautiful, empowering, and uplifting. But, as any serious student of the Bible knows, it is often messy, frustrating, and disturbing. And, as Joseph Smith famously pointed out, it is not a book that lends itself well to Christian orthodoxy and one dimensional interpretation. And so, in the name of orthodoxy, we follow the most obvious solution. We don’t simply read it. And we certainly don’t ask questions.
While I do believe this orthodoxy comes out of a sincere desire to protect our testimonies, I do not recall that the avoidance of truth, however difficult, to have ever been a tenet of our faith. And indeed, as I reflect upon the birth of the church and the guiding principle of its founder, I see critical reading of scripture and theological creativity as the seeds from which sprang the peculiar people. It was Joseph Smith who claimed that the Bible was not translated correctly but was a flawed text. It was Joseph Smith who searched for the purer truth through the study of Greek, Hebrew, and German. He was willing to ask of the Bible hard questions and was willing to accept the answers. And the answers were radical and terrible and neither he nor his people came away from it unscathed. The price to be paid for this honest and critical appraisal of a sacred text was very high, but so too were the dividends. For it was a refiner’s fire. It may have made Joseph Smith a good Mormon, but more importantly, it made him a good saint.
The critical reading of scripture in our day is somewhat different, but no less fraught. Joseph Smith had the daunting task of deconstructing mainstream Christian notions of the Bible. But the LDS Biblical scholar today faces the difficult opportunity of deconstructing Mormon notions of the Bible. Heretofore Biblical exegesis within Mormonism has ascribed to a literalist and, more or less, infallible interpretation of scripture. It is a perspective fundamentally at odds with historical-critical scholarship, and it comes as no surprise that such academic delving is condemned as unspiritual and even apostate. And with reason.
The critical scholar can’t even get through the first chapter of Genesis before this literalism, the basis of so many testimonies, is obliterated. Modern science has shown with incontrovertible evidence that the creation of the earth took a bit longer than six days. Linguists take issue with the Tower of Babel, climatologists rather frown upon the flood narrative, and I frankly have a hard time figuring out how Jonah lived in a fish for three days. But these are rather insignificant problems that can be easily interpreted as metaphorical and theological treatises rather than actual historical accounts.
More troubling are the textual issues. While it is a tenet of Mormon faith that the Bible suffered some manipulation in its transmission, few Mormons are prepared to accept the magnitude of the textual messiness that constitutes the Bible. The critical scholar soon discovers that the books of the Old Testament were written centuries after the events they ostensibly describe and reflect contemporary issues rather than historical occurrences. And as much as Isaiah preaches against the evils of Babylon, much of the Old Testament is rather consistent with Babylonian religion. We find that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people we thought they were written by. And indeed, if we are to understand the historical Jesus, we must throw out the Gospel of John altogether. Oddly, the Book of Mormon contains nineteenth century concepts of Christology foreign to the ancient world. And Nephi seems to have a rather good mastery of King James English.
These are very difficult, perhaps impossible truths, for an orthodox Mormon to accept. It is no wonder that such a study produces a crisis of faith and is so strenuously discouraged. The very underpinnings of Mormon theology are at risk of dissolving into fiction when the texts upon which they rely are so brutally contradicted. But for me, the hard historical realities were not the most troubling issues, nor the most poisonous to my Mormon orthodoxy. I could accept ahistorical scripture and still remain firm in my faith. For me the questions of historicity were eclipsed by the more important questions of theology.
Here too was vexation. For textual problems aside, the Bible is a very disturbing book. And the orthodox solution is either to ignore these troubling issues or to explain them away as belonging to a different time and a less developed people. When we study the Book of Joshua, for example, we are happy about the miracle that allows the twelve tribes to cross the Jordan, but forget they are crossing the river to commit genocide. We proclaim the Christ that said, “Love thy neighbor.” But brush past the Christ who says we must hate father and mother to follow him. We herald Nephi as among the most righteous of God’s prophets, while disregarding his deeply racist comments. That our scriptures contain ethically troubling stories does not particularly bother me—that merely reflects the human hands that made them.
But what does bother me is that Mormon orthodoxy does not allow us to critically examine these passages. If we cannot, through our study, promote the hagiography of God’s prophets, we must ask no further questions. We are not permitted to say that sometimes the texts portray an unethical prophet, that sometimes they portray an unethical God. We cannot say, that here the scriptures propose a course of action that is fundamentally wrong. We cannot say that the theological implications of this passage or that one are incompatible with Christian morality. We cannot even discuss it and we certainly cannot question it. I do not believe that these questions threaten our eternal salvation, but they can jeopardize our right to fellowship. In asking these questions, I violated the guiding principles of orthodox methodology. And so the crux of my original thesis was wrong. My study did not make me a stalwart defender of orthodox Mormonism.
But it did increase my faith. For when the study of Christianity becomes troubling, when it constitutes a mental agony and a spiritual crisis, when it deepens its mysteries even as we deepen our investigation, when we are threatened to be swallowed up in all the complexities and contradictions and absurdities—there is the trial of our faith, our cross of true discipleship. To say we do ourselves a disservice by avoiding this terrible crisis is a profound understatement. There is little of saintliness in superficiality. And by avoiding the questions or assuming the answers we waste the true power of these sacred texts.
And these texts are sacred, which is why a critical and unflinching examination of them is so essential to the journey of faith. For the unbeliever, such an examination is no more than an evisceration of the text, but for the true Christian, it is an evisceration of self, because the questions are supremely meaningful, because everything depends upon the answers, and because the life and character of the text is inextricably intertwined with our own. By asking, we risk annihilation. Here is a sacrifice that requires our heart, might, mind, and strength. And one that offers no promises in the end. There is a certain powerful liberation in this kind of awesome faith.
Now, when I speak of the sacrifice and agony attendant to the critical study of sacred scripture, I am not speaking in merely philosophical terms. Hebrew really is hard. I have spent many an anguished night trying to figure out why in the hell the psalmist decided to put an preposition on the infinitive of a doubly weak verb, attach a pronominal suffix with an energic nun, and throw the whole thing into construct. That is a trial of my faith. When I took introductory Hebrew, we read the binding of Isaac as every Hebrew student does. It is a text that haunts me. It didn’t the first time I read it in Hebrew—then I was too worried about those damn vowel points. But since then I have read it many, many times and there is something about reading it in Hebrew that grants it more power and more horror. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son he loves, Isaac.
There is perhaps no more eloquent meditation upon this story than that given in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard ascribes to Abraham the kind of awesome, unconditional, and unflinching faith that I am talking about. He is asked by God to do something not just unethical but anathema to all that is Godly. Abraham is not merely asked to slay his son, but to slay the promise given by God that he would be a father of many nations. To render God a liar. And there is Abraham’s dilemma. If he obeys his God, his God becomes false. Yet if he ignores the command of deity, he loses the promise. To be faithless or to have faith in a faithless God. We have no reason to believe Abraham knew this was merely a test, that he would not actually have to sacrifice his son. How then is Abraham to reconcile the irreconcilable, to extricate himself from an ironclad paradox. By faith. Faith that he would sacrifice his only son but also receive the then impossible promise. This, Kierkegaard says is faith at its greatest. Abraham does not resign himself to a loss that might be made up in the eternities, but actively believes in the face of an irresolvable spiritual crisis. It is faith in the absurd. And this is what makes Abraham the victorious knight of faith.
Honest, unflinching Biblical scholarship for the devout, believing Mormon may produce this kind of faith. Our testimony is founded in scripture, that it is inspired, that it is true, and that it is the word of God. But what if these texts are complicated? What if we must say the Old Testament is largely mythological? What if we must say the New Testament does not accurately portray the historical Jesus? What if we must say the Book of Mormon cannot be a literal account of an ancient proto-Christian people? What if we must say the scriptures are often unethical and that the prophets are sometimes wrong? Well, then we say it. And we believe anyway. We believe that these scriptures are flawed, inaccurate, even unethical and we also believe that they are inspired, true, the very word of God. The power in these scriptures lies not in their historical accuracy or theological purity, but in their complexities, contradictions, and failings. Powerful faith comes of accepting this and believing anyway. If we struggle with them, if we weep over them, if we are abused, lied to, and crushed under the weight of doubt, and then after this agony and betrayal, we nevertheless confess the name of Christ and the reality of the restoration—there we find the inspiration, the truth, and the divinity of these sacred, terrible books.
And how refined would be our faith. How much better would we understand the atonement, that most absurd of all acts when immortality died, when purity became stained, when justice was convicted and all this for a people who would ignore it, scoff at it, and be wholly ignorant of it. And yet God did it anyway. Knowing the impossibility, the absurdity, and the infinity, he believed anyway. Why do we want to superficially engage these texts? It is sacrilege. But Christ atoned for that too.
The words of Ecclesiastes are powerful in their unapologetic assessment of this mortal journey. “I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” I find a certain consolation in that statement. Aristotle would call it catharsis, a purging of sorrow through the experience of grief. But it’s not the grief I find consoling, it’s the honesty. And that’s the way I like my scriptures: honest, unapologetic, and messy. Because it’s a reflection of life and of the human condition. If we apply no critical hermeneutic but read the scriptures as uncomplicated stories we can hardly expect them to have any wisdom for our very complicated lives. But if we look deeper and embrace the messiness of the text we learn something of its authors and we glimpse a people yearning for God and sometimes not finding him, a people asking questions and often getting no answers, a people seeking justice in an unjust world, a people begging for relief but suffering all the more—in short we find ourselves.
Growing up as a gay Mormon I was torn between two worlds; I sought for God to ask him why, to plead for justice, to beg for relief. And I learned that sometimes there are no answers, there will be no justice, and there can be no relief. Ultimately I could not find a place for myself in Mormonism and I left the church with great agony of soul. I do not want superficial scriptures; I don’t want ethical scriptures; I don’t want historical scriptures. I want honest scriptures, true scriptures, messy scriptures. And they’re right here. And though I have left the church, I have not lost my faith in my God and in his sacred word. The critical lens through which I have examined these holy texts has only served to increase my faith and bring me closer to deity. For the Bible is a book about my relationship with God.
This is the hermeneutic that we need in Mormon culture. It is the hermeneutic we are starving for. We need to throw away our certified LDS Scripture Markers, open our eyes, and start reading the book. No matter how great the price, we need not be afraid of what we shall find. “For you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
I conclude where I began by confessing that I was wrong. An error for which I paid a heavy price. The critical hermeneutic did not make me a good Mormon, but I like to think that in some small way it made me a better saint.