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

What Westerners can learn from Eastern philosophy: Filial Piety.

Americans often look down on other cultures, such as middle-eastern cultures that force women to wear something over their hair and/or face while in public. We think it is demeaning to women. It certainly seems a little demeaning to me. I couldn’t dream of that being enforced as a law in America. But have you ever wondered, what American’s do that other cultures think is just wrong? What about us makes them cringe?

During my time in Taiwan I taught regular English classes. Once when I was teaching English class, we were discussing Chinese and American culture. I learned that to the Taiwanese, one of the most abhorrent things we accept in our culture is the prevalence of nursing homes. It makes them sick to think about it. You may think this funny, but listen to my limited understanding of their reasoning. Your parents gave you life, they feed you for years and gave the best of themselves to you. When they get old, how could you in return, send them away from their home, away from friends, and away from you, to a place where those who take care of them don’t do it for love, but for money? In Confucian influenced cultures there is a deep belief in filial piety, meaning  respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. Due to this belief, grandparents often live in their children’s homes and are taken care of by their own children as they age. So that is the norm in China. Continue reading

In Defense of Modesty

Modesty, Oil by William Adolphe Bouguereau

Modesty, like reverence, is becoming a forgotten virtue. Calls for modesty in dress in ultra-orthodox jewish neighborhoods are perceived by some as a violation of human rights. Others, less extreme, view codes of modest dress as stifling individual expression or as shifting responsibility for men’s sexuality from the men themselves to women. Now, it may or may not be a good idea to post signs in the hasidic neighborhoods. And codes of modest dress may indeed be misinterpreted by men as absolving them of responsibility for their own sexual behavior. But regardless, modesty is still a virtue–and one that deserves to be encouraged and inculcated.

We use the term “modesty” in the context of dress and in the context of personal achievement, but the core of the idea is the same Continue reading

The Delusions and the Truth of Romance

Image result for soulmate
photo credit: http://www.powerofpositivity.com/soulmate-relationship-signs/

Too many people seek lasting happiness and fulfillment in romantic love, where it is not to be found.

What romantic love offers is agitation, desire, a fevered preoccupation with the object of love, the blithe contemplation of an other. There is beauty and there is truth to be found in romantic love, but no lasting happiness or fulfillment. That “happily ever after” is to be found in romantic love is the first of its delusions.

Yet there is something undeniably beautiful about two souls waltzing in a private heaven, loving and being loved. But one falls when one waltzes in heaven. Romance either lands on the earth of daily life or it combusts in tragedy. By the “earth of daily life” I mean mainly marriage or the modern forms of pseudo-marriage. The only realistic alternative to these is some form of tragedy–breaking up or dying or in some other way being separated. These melancholy obstacles to consummation are the only way to prevent romance from descending into the soil. And that is why romantic novels and movies inevitably end shortly after consummation (traditionally, marriage). The last scene may be the wedding; or the story may play out just long enough to witness the tragic pre- or post-consummation death of one or both lovers (as, e.g., Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet). Continue reading

The Stupidity of Belief Against Evidence And The Essence of Faithfulness

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.  {my favourite Dante quote.}:

Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/129478558011794613/, “Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”

There is a facile enthusiasm about “believing” that is manifest every Christmas season and often enough in-between. Sentimental movies like “The Polar Express” and “The Miracle on 34th Street” chime in with their paeans to believing, and even works like “The Life of Pi” suggest that it is proper and even admirable to accept as true “the better story” even when it is the unlikeliest story imaginable.

At the front end, let me admit that there is a kernel of truth in these expressions. But there is also great danger is assuming that optimism can or should trump reason, and that belief in the truth of whatever appears good or lovely is itself necessarily good.

At least in questions where the relevant evidence is capable of being comprehensively considered, the proper formula is very simple: belief should be according to the evidence. Continue reading

To my one-year-old daughter: Thoughts on Body Image and Beauty

11960092_4308339073677_2314436844244038233_nMy daughter, you are no longer a baby. This is impossible to me. You are more than a year old right now and I marvel at how big you’re getting. You were trying to stand in an ice cream bucket the other day—giggling as it fell over again and again—an ice cream bucket that we could bathe you in when you were just born. Your growing feet and toes are the foundation for the past miracles of standing and your first, tottering steps—and now for running, jumping, climbing the stairs at the playground outside, and the endless enjoyment as we play “this little piggy” while you sit (and sit, and sit, and waaait) on the potty. Your increased size is paralleled by increased ability and comprehension. Dad and I are amazed every time you show some new understanding: a new sign, a new animal sound, a new mimicry. The other day I told you in pre-dinner end-of-day frustration, “I’m tired, too, but soon Daddy will be home and then we can bug HIM.” You looked at me seriously… and then signed “bug” (as in insect).

I’ve experienced the double blessing of watching myself grow next to you. People joke, “She’s getting so big! And so is Alsina!” Oh ha ha. I’m eight months plus two weeks pregnant, and things have definitely changed dramatically. Moving my bulk around is a huge commitment, and sometimes I wake up at two am half off the bed—having, apparently, decided halfway that it wasn’t worth the effort of getting all the way up to go to the bathroom. It’s not just a big belly added on to the front of my normal frame, either: I can’t even get pre-pregnancy pants up around my ankles, much less my now-herculean thighs, and pre-pregnancy blouses have the same issue around burgeoning… other places.

Why does “getting big” suddenly become a curse as we grow older? Continue reading