Or, Why I Believe in Reading Outside Scholarship as Part of Scripture Study
There’s an attitude in the church—and I strongly suspect it began during the correlation period—that you should only use the scriptures, the Ensign, and the lesson manuals to study the gospel. You might be able to get away with adding in anything said at the BYU conference or by a BYU professor, but anything beyond that would be reaching into dangerous territory. If you seek too much outside of the basic resources, you could be in danger of losing your testimony. We hear the ominous echos of Jacob’s lament (2 Nephi 9:29) always over our shoulder:
“O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.”
We forget that among the things our founding prophet did, he established many schools, and not just schools where he taught by revelation, but schools where they sought to learn Hebrew from books and teachers. We forget that Brigham Young established schools and sent people from Utah to seek out learning elsewhere. We forget the next verse in Jacob’s sermon:
“But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”
If we look more carefully at Jacob’s warning, he gives no straight line between learning and apostasy, but rather three intervening steps:
- They think they are wise—or, we believe that we understand in the subject entirety, leaving no room to doubt our own research.
- They hearken not unto the counsel of God—or, we do not allow for cognitive dissonance between scholarship and revelation.
- They suppose that they know of themselves—or, we are prideful in our learning, rather than grateful to God for our knowledge.
Or, to sum it up, knowledge plus humility is a good thing. Got that? A good thing! Not just acceptable or okay, but a good thing, as in “seek after every good thing”?
Some may say that there is enough in just the scriptures to keep anyone busy for a life time, but to this I say, how can we understand the scriptures without outside sources? How can we say we are truly seeking to know the scriptures if we read them in a naive way as though they were written yesterday in a culture familiar to us? This is like saying you want to get to know someone, but only ever talking about what they did today, never getting any of the details of their past, and stopping them if they start to tell you anything uncomfortable. That’s not how I think God wants me to know him.
The Bible is less a book than a collection of books, and the understanding of who wrote them, to whom, and why, and which ones were left out seems to me critical to understanding the message they convey. The same goes for the Doctrine and Covenants: they are nigh unto incomprehensible without the explanatory headers to each chapter, and even those only scratch the surface of comprehension. This argument applies less to the Book of Mormon, standing as it does as a book without much external context, but even here outside research is of huge benefit. The Book of Mormon Critical Text project shows that we have so far to go in understanding even this book of scripture given to us so cleanly less than 200 years ago. Also, many passages are quoted or interlinked with other scripture which does have a context.
Obviously, our studies should still be rooted in the scriptures, and I believe there is still a place for reading them straight through without outside sources. As an English major, I think of how I learned the novels we studied in class: yes, there is a value to reading it through at least once, without context or commentary, to get your own visceral reaction to the text. But there is only so far you can get without history, linguistics, and discussion. That last word—discussion—that’s all scholarship is. Discussion with people who have discussed it with other older sources, but a discussion none the less. As long as we treat it as a conversation, and not a revelation, as long as we consider it rather than worship it, it’s just like having a really interesting gospel doctrine class. :D
Which brings me to the last reason that I believe in using outside sources in scripture study: the problem with straight up studying the scriptures, with only asking the pre-written questions out of the manual? It’s boring. There, I said it. Scripture study is boring. If I only read the scriptures straight through, I usually stop after a couple of weeks because it feels like a waste of my time. When I pull in outside sources, I am energized. They send me back to the text, to process it in new ways. They provide new fuel, new insights, new material for the Spirit to work with. I figure anything that drives me to read the scriptures more, to think about the scriptures more, must be something “virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.”