Nature of Scripture: Part 5: Conclusions

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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 —

Dickenson points out the impossibility of humans directly accessing the full truth, or rounding the complete statement of truth with a period; and accordingly, her poem ends with a dash. Scripture tells truth slant, and it has no period. No more than the generality of men are prepared to see the face of God does scripture exhaust God’s words. It is the “explanation kind” that is given initially instead of the lightning of direct revelation. It is also the lightning rod that, marvelously, attracts only such lightning as will not injure the reader.

I anticipate an objection to my assertion of scriptural polyvocality and ambiguity: Jesus does “expound all the scriptures in one” with the Nephites (3 Nephi 23:14); and he does say in the Gospels that to love God will all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself is the whole law and the prophets. True—but he does not tell the Nephites that they no longer need the scriptures now that he has expounded them in one–in fact, he immediately reads from another book of scripture. And he does not tell the Jews to just go about loving God and man and stop studying the law and prophets. The scriptures remain, and their polyvocality is irreducible. The various voices are mostly harmonious, with occasional notes of dissonance that have become, with time  and experience, rather pleasing than jarring to my ear. But they are certainly various. And therefore, I believe, Jesus’s moments of expounding the scriptures in one are more like yet another image of the kingdom, or a following of one of the various common threads from start to finish, or an arrangement and ordering of all the notes and voices into a particular concerto, which might have been arranged and ordered differently into another concerto equally beautiful, and likely will be so ordered and arranged on a different occasion by our Maestro. I do not believe the expounding of all scriptures in one could have been a truly reductive explication.

Instead, the scriptures remain open—open to interpretation, open to addition, open to new light shone by God or by man. As inspired literature, they should be read first of all as literature, with sensitivity to all the techniques employed by word artists, and all the aesthetic and imaginative effects that word art enables. If we read them two-dimensionally as mere doctrinal explication, we distort them like a map distorts the globe. They are not meant only to set forth the truth (slant-wise), but to inspire the eye and ear and imagination. They are also to confront us, challenge us, resist us, oppose us, and prepare us for a whole wide world of things greater than themselves. I know from experience that when we wrestle with God in the scriptures, and will not quit the fight until we obtain God’s blessing, they become a rich source of inspiration and refreshment. No other method of reading permits as much of God’s reflected light to shine from the sacred pages.

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