Nature of Scripture: Part 5: Conclusions

Image Credit: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2015/11/12/in-praise-of-polyvocality/

Scripture, taken as a whole, is not straightforward and simple, but rather elaborate, polyvocal, heteroglossic, and ambiguous. This suggests to me that the truth about God and man resists capture by human language. Jesus never attempted to set forth the whole truth in plain prose. Perhaps this is because it cannot be done. Jesus instead taught using stories and wordplay and metaphor. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price—and then again, it is like a lost coin—or leavening—or a mustard seed. He never gathers all the images and teachings in one—never purports to be able to set forth the whole at once. He gives us momentary snapshots, from different angles. An Emily Dickenson poem sheds light on the issue:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind — Continue reading

Nature of Scripture: Part 4: Scripture as Catalyst for Revelation

Scripture as Catalyst for Revelation: A God Who Speaketh

So what is the most important purpose of scripture? The Book of Mormon is perhaps the clearest of all scripture in stating its own purpose, which I take to be identical with the purpose of all scripture. Nephi and Mormon both state a purpose to bring souls to Christ. But what role, precisely, does scripture play? Scripture is first and foremost a catalyst and preparation for personal revelation—not the ultimate source of the revealed word, as the protestant sola scriptura philosophy would have it, but an aid to obtaining it for oneself directly from God. Continue reading

Nature of Scripture: Part 3: Scripture as Subversion

File:Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Leon Bonnat.jpg

Scripture as Subversion: A God To Wrestle With

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is perhaps the greatest of all subversive stories. It profoundly subverts the authority of the Jewish rulers and of the Roman yoke. It brings into question the justice of criminal law. It subverts reliance on the righteousness of Peter or the other apostles who abandoned their Lord to the mob. It even subverts reliance on any perceived right to feel close to God if one is doing his will, for Christ felt himself abandoned. It casts down the idols of man’s authority, justice, righteousness, and peace (among others), and sets in their place the image of the tortured God-man whose broken heart is still set on his Father’s will.

God is a creator. He laid the foundations of the earth. His work is constructive, not deconstructive. But he is so relentless in purpose and so faithful in his vision of what he wills that he will fiercely cast down all idols, even by torture (e.g., that of his Son). He is the God who took away the gift of language from the builders in Babel, who prophesied that because his people rejected the true foundation, the foundations of the temple and the walls of his city would be torn down until not one stone was left sitting on another.

Lamentations 2:4 He hath bent his bow like an enemy: he stood with his right hand as an adversary, and slew all that were pleasant to the eye in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion: he poured out his fury like fire.

God is not an antifoundationalist, but is the inveterate enemy of all false foundations that obstruct his building plans. There is therefore a strong streak of iconoclasm (“idol-breaking”) through the scriptures.

Every age has its idols. One of the purposes of scripture is to break them down. One of the chief idols that devours men’s souls in every age is gold, and to every age the scriptures teach that “ye cannot serve God and mammon.” To an age that glorified the warrior above all heroes, the scriptures taught that a king of conquest was not permitted to build the Lord’s house. To an age that idolized rationalism, the scriptures breathed a “peace that passeth understanding,” and taught that “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifyeth.” To a culture obsessed with the oral traditions that had accreted onto the law of Moses, the scriptures taught a higher law, summarized as radical love and forgiveness.

Our age has its idols too, as do each one of us who persist in sinning. (To sin is by definition to place something above God and his laws.)

Among the idols of our age are equality, tolerance, autonomy, and free expression. These ideals, properly understood and deployed, can accomplish good. But to the degree that any of them become an excuse for sinning or even for failing to reject sin, they are by definition idolatrous. And to our shame they are used in this manner constantly.

Insofar as each person and each age have their idols, the scriptures set themselves against us as an enemy. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it is not without a long and painful struggle that we obtain the Lord’s blessing, and some part of us will be pulled out of joint. But the result will be that we become worthy inheritors of Israel’s name (“to struggle and prevail with God”).

The struggle is not one of servile submission—a wrestle would be a supremely inapt metaphor for such a struggle. There is give and take, as in a lengthy wrestling match. God has not given us reason and judgment just so that we can sacrifice them on the pagan alter of fundamentalism. This too is an idolatry that will lead a man to damnation if he will not repent of it. The wrestle with God afforded us in the scriptures is in large measure an effort of clear thinking and careful, whole-souled discernment. The wrestle enables us to interpret our lives, our age, and the sacred texts in a correct manner; and while we would do well to hold the text in higher regard than their own instincts or received wisdom, nothing is properly sacrosanct except Elohim (“the Gods”).

Nature of Scripture: Part 2: Scripture as Myth

Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again

Myths and archetypes echo across the pages of scripture just as they echo across Hebrew and non-Hebrew cultures. C. S. Lewis has a great deal of wonderful things to say about this—ideas that come together most beautifully and most powerfully in his greatest novel, Till We Have Faces. For now, I will simply relate that, before his conversion, C. S. Lewis was an atheist who loved myth—who loved it because (among other reasons) it evoked in his soul what he calls “sweet longing.” His initial appreciation of Christianity was mythic—as yet another instance of the corn-God who dies and is resurrected in the Spring, bringing renewed life to his peoples. After he came to be persuaded that it was implausible for this powerful story to have been invented in that culture and in that way and in those words, he came to believe in the story of the dying and reviving God of the Bible as fact. But it was not as fact instead of myth—it was as the “myth that became fact.” And he continued to believe and teach that a man might obtain spiritual nourishment from the myth even if he does not believe in the historicity or the doctrine.

It seems to me that C. S. Lewis is right about this, as about most things. I do obtain spiritual nourishment from the myth. There is an energy and joy that I feel at Christmas and Easter that is non-doctrinal, non-rational, but mythic. Divine fingers pluck the same deep soul-strings that sound the keynotes of the stories of Balder, Osiris, and Orpheus.

There is a long tradition in Christianity that the great poets and philosophers of antiquity were inspired demi-prophets, because so many of their stories and teachings anticipate Christianity. This Spirit-as-muse theory is one way to account for the archetypes and myths that transcend cultures. For members of the church, another possibility is that the shadowlands of the mind retain certain memories from our pre-mortal existence—and although the veil of forgetfulness prevents them from rising as memories, the fine-tuned imaginative faculties of the world’s poets still find access to those shadowlands. This possibility, if true, is both exemplified and discussed in Wordsworth’s great Immortality Ode, where he sets forth the doctrine of the pre-mortal existence (in which he did not believe as doctrine) and explores how we still catch gleams and glints of a forgotten world in which the human spirit was more at home—a world that grows more distant as we are carried in the current of time away from the dayspring of birth.

The whole Ode is worth reading and re-reading, but this stanza is perhaps the most obviously pertinent:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting
               And cometh from afar;
          Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
               From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
               Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 
               He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east 
     Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
          And by the vision splendid
          Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away, 
And fade into the light of common day.

Nature of Scripture, Part 1: Scripture as Art

Abbey Bible
Picture Credit: https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/09/getty-museum-medieval-bible-.html

It is debatable whether more ink or blood has been spilled throughout history over disagreements about the nature of scripture. The greatest expenditure occurred during the Reformation, but the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also resulted in a substantial outflowing. And yet the issue has never been settled, either amongst the denominations or within any single church. In addressing this subject in our age, I need not fear violence, but I fear I may not hope for many readers either.

There is much to love about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the least of which is its unique take on scripture. We believe the scriptures to be the word of God in a sense not entirely pinned down, but we do not believe in scriptural infallibility. From this perspective, church members should be free to appreciate the scriptures in a relatively free and broad-minded manner. Yet we tend to slip into the habit of reading our scriptures as if the main point was simply to set forth true doctrine (i.e., “Mormon doctrine”–what we already believe and understand)–as if the scriptures reached no higher and probed no deeper than the Gospel Principles manual. Without denigrating the eternally important purpose of teaching true doctrine, I hope to set forth other aspects of scripture to encourage a less dogmatic approach that is both richer and truer to the text. Stay tuned over the next week or two for a series of posts highlighting what scripture is besides doctrinal instruction, starting with art.

Scripture as Art: A God Who Puns

Among scholars of scripture, the claim that scripture is art must be one of the few uncontroversial claims. Whatever else it is, whatever more than art, it is certainly not less than art. The canonical words of the Bible and Book of Mormon come down to us in the particular art forms and genres that developed in the ancient Hebrew culture; the great sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are stamped with a wonderful conglomerate style that mingles two of the literary high points of English prose–King James’s reign and the mid-19th century.

Part of the reason we tend to miss the artistic aspect of scripture is that some of it is lost in translation. “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The Greek word “petros” (rock) made this statement a pun. This is one of the better known instances, but punning and word play is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Few of them translate into English. Nor would any use of meter, consonance, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.

But though we lack direct access to the original sounds that the original authors used to aesthetic advantage, we are still without excuse if we fail to recognize scripture as art. Many of Jesus’s parables are perfectly constructed gems from a purely aesthetic perspective, leaving aside their truth and moral power. Much of the prophetic writing in the Old Testament is in verse (though the King James translation fails to capture this fact). And while much of the aesthetic flourishes of scripture do not translate, some do. When Jesus told Peter, “I say unto you, not until seven times, but until seventy times seven,” the wordplay here translates pretty well. The word “times” in English evidently corresponds with the original language’s word. Both carry the related meanings of “instances” and “multiplied by.” Both cultures used a base-10 system of counting so that “seven” correlates with “seventy.”

Note that if Jesus had intended merely to express clearly and unambiguously the actual doctrine, he would have simply said, “always forgive” or some such statement. His use of aesthetic flourishes actually risks obscuring  his meaning for a people who seemed to take everything he said literally. So why did he not adapt himself to their weakness and speak in plain, unmistakeable prose? There are no doubt many good answers to this question, but my main point here is not to address the why of it, but just the fact itself: the scriptures bespeak a God who is alive to the richness and play of language, and who sometimes prefers a good pun or an ambiguous story, that he may express his meaning (or meanings) in a manner pleasing to the sense, tractable to the memory, and demanding of the intellect. Because of this, scripture requires, even more than most texts, an interpretive act whereby we put something of ourselves into the text.

Next: Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again

Announcing A Change In The Brothers Sabey Blog

The Brothers Sabey has always been and will remain a blog about “the issues”–and particularly about marriage and family, the culture wars, respectful dialogue, and our defense of what we believe to be valuable and right in the weakening traditions of our society. However, we have always written to a general audience and have tried never to assume that our readers shared our philosophical, political, or religious presuppositions. Our goal was to reach a diverse readership and not to alienate those who do not already share our views–the very people we would most wish to influence or at least have dialogue with. But as it turns out, as best we can tell, our readership is predominantly made up of like-minded people, and mostly fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Furthermore, to be hospitable, you have to occupy some place where you can host others. While we maintain our commitment to “courteous conversations” and hospitable dialogue across political and other differences, we also feel a need to acknowledge and explicitly speak from the particular place we occupy in American culture. In our minds, a fundamentally important part of that place is our membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Obviously we do not speak for the Church, nor are our perspectives (political or theological) necessarily shared by other members, but we realize that whenever we offer hospitality to the Other, we do so in part as sincere believers and practicing members of this religion. That community of faith constitutes a large part of the ground on which we stand and from which we speak; we no longer want to abstract ourselves from it. We have never attempted to hide our membership in the Church or some of the religious associations of some of our views. But going forward we will be addressing, among other issues, those of particular concern to the Church or the Christian community generally, and may sometimes adopt an overtly religious or theological stance. We do not consider this a “Church blog” (or a “Mormon blog” as we would have said before the last general conference). And we will still hope for a diverse readership. We hope to benefit all of our readers by this change–our fellow-members by addressing issues of importance to them, and our other readers across all political and religious divides by a more complete revelation of our views and identities, always hoping that they will respond in kind, affording us all a mutual opportunity for courteous and hospitable dialogue.