Language is unstable; texts are ambiguous. Reading, therefore, is not always a straightforward affair.
This gives us leeway in how we approach our sacred texts, from the scriptures to ritual to official proclamations. Accepting the premise that a) God is good and loving in a way that makes sense to us here and now, and b) all sacred texts both embody absolute truth and are inspired by that same God, we’re often left with the seemingly simple task of selecting the interpretative possibility of any given text that best accords with our own conception of God.
However, although any text permits a range of interpretations, not all interpretive maneuvers are equally valid. When presented with a spectrum of interpretive possibilites yielding conclusions ranging from absolutely appalling to satisfactory or comforting, it’s tempting to simply select the latter as the most valid. In this way, we never have to question either assumption a) or b). Armed with preconceptions of God’s character, we can approach texts knowing in advance what they *must* mean, and then simply undergo interpretive acrobatics in order to graft our foregone conclusions onto the text.
While the conclusions may be perfectly valid, however, I submit that this practice is fundamentally dishonest. When we reach conclusions based on readings which do not follow naturally (and I recognize this issue is complexified considerably by the fact that what seems a natural reading of one text to me may not seem natural to you), it seems essential that we openly locate the authority of our conclusions *outside the text itself*.
I once consulted a priesthood leader on the matter of a sacred text which has enough institutional authority behind it and troubles me sufficiently profoundly that it has severely disrupted my relationship with God. His response: “Everyone knows that it *really* means . . .” My contention is that not everyone knows that. Many people accept the language at face value. If that’s what we mean, that’s what we have to say.
As a specific example of a difficult passage, I’ve chosen 2 Nephi 5:21: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord GOD did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
I cannot read this passage without flinching, and I suspect there are members of our own community for whom it causes excruciating pain I don’t claim to understand. There’s an almost overwhelming temptation, in encountering such a passage, to resort to convoluted conceptual and textual acrobatics in an effort to explain away the plain sense of the verse, and thereby find a way to maintain our commitment to a God who loves all his children without regard to physiological characteristics (and certainly several other scriptural passages would suggest this), and at the same time to maintain our commitment to the inspired nature of the text.
But it seems to me that in an effort to minimize others’ pain (and in particular our own discomfort), we trivialize that pain.
There are several ways of approaching this text; the focus of this post, however, is not how best to address racism in our tradition (this is an important issue which deserves a post of its own). The focus is how we treat texts whose most natural implications leave us profoundly uncomfortable. The text says something I don’t like, and I find offensive and disquieting, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that fact rather than searching for a way to ham-handedly fit the text into my own worldview.
I’m convinced that our sacred texts are often problematic and raise issues that are deeply troubling. But the only way to address these issues is to allow ourselves to see them.
My suggestion is that, whatever else we do, we encounter the text as honestly as we know how. This is not intended to imply that everyone will read a text the same way; our own perceptions and experiences necessarily inform our reading of every text. Nor do I intend to imply that all of us encountering texts as honestly as we can will reach identical conclusions. This is only to say that, given a broad range of possible interpretations to choose from, we select the interpretation not that is the most appealing to our own sensibilities, but that fits the textual evidence as we see it the best.
- 2 February 2006