Zelophehad’s Daughters

How to Read

Posted by Kiskilili

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.

9 Responses to “How to Read”

  1. 1.

    I think there’s a sense in which outright disagreement with a text is actually more respectful than convoluted reinterpretation. I don’t particularly enjoy it when people completely re-frame the things I say in order to create a false harmony between us– it makes me feel dismissed and unheard. I want to be taken seriously, and I’d like to give the scriptural authors the same courtesy.

    It seems to me that sacred texts should be somewhat unsettling, disconcerting; they should push us to examine our assumptions about the world. I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor’s explanation of why she used the bizarre in her fiction, that it was a way to get her audience to really see the absurdities of modern life. Maybe the scriptures are supposed to be a bit weird, as a way of jolting us out of any sense of easy complacency that we’ve figured it all out.

    That said, I really don’t know how to deal with scriptures such as the one you mention. I’m making this up as I go so it may be an idea full of holes ;), but I wonder whether it’s perhaps less important that you come to agree with the outlook of a particular scriptural text as that you honestly struggle with it, that you seriously engage the questions it raises for you (e.g. “is God fair?”)

  2. 2.

    Purely for heuristic purposes, I thought it would be fun to think through a hypothetical situation. (Note: this is hypothetical.)

    Let’s say God appears to me with a definitive revelation: he is not racist. Dark-skinned people are not cursed by him; he considers them beautiful. Let’s say God himself is as dark as can be.

    Now how do I approach the text? I have information coming from *outside the text itself*, which I readily acknowledge. Is there a way, in light of what I’ve learned, to understand the text differently?

    Maybe Nephi was somehow trying to say that all people are equally “fair and delightsome,” regardless of skin color. Maybe he meant “skin of blackness” metaphorically.

    Or, maybe Nephi was just wrong. Maybe he attributed something to God that God had no involvement in.

    Much of our scripture, at least, doesn’t even claim to have been authored by God himself. Much of it claims authorship of people situated in specific cultural environments. It would be absurd to expect every word they said to be transcendant truth.

    I’m convinced that our scriptures contain statements that are worth being infuriated over.

    I’m convinced, also, that the church is accountable to its language. For example: there are people right in our community of faithful members who know full well what “preside” means, and who know full well what it means to “hearken,” and they behave accordingly. Equality in marriage is not the result. Whatever elaborate explanations of these terms the church manufactures, the church bears at least some of the responsibility for that.

  3. 3.

    I think Lynnette captures in two words the pitfall of the hermeneutics of reconciliation: false harmony. I’m a firm believer in personal revelation, but I’m skeptical of personal revelation as a hermeneutic. (I’m also skeptical of broad reconciliative attempts on scripture and prophetic pronouncements more generally. I get the sense that this is the implicit project of too many Sunday school classes: to reconcile J to P, Paul to James, Talmage to Fielding Smith. There are more urgent and more honest things to do with our time.)

    To pick up on Kishkilil’s example, I think it’s one thing for a particular spiritual experience to be the bedrock of my personal faith; it’s another for it to become the basis of heroic efforts to align and attenuate thousands of years of diverse scriptural texts to affirm a single claim. Whatever else the scriptures are, they are clearly not any kind of attempt at some integrated intellectual system. We’re far better served, both intellectually and spiritually, by an acknowledgement of the plurality inherent in any account of God’s dealings with diverse people over time. I much prefer an acknowledgement of ignorance of God’s inscrutible ways (see Mosiah 4:9) to attempts to synthesize scripture into an overarching, logically consistent system of truth claims. As Lynnette noted, such attempts at false harmony too easily slip into pathologizing those who have any questions or problems about any aspect of the scriptures. We can’t just wave the magic wand of interpretative license over clearly diverse and sometimes outright bizarre accounts of God’s dealings with human beings.

  4. 4.

    I think I’m still trying to sort out the question: what obligations do we owe the sacred texts of our tradition? Even while I might end up disagreeing with, for example, some of Paul’s statements on women, I feel more of a need to seriously engage him on the matter than I do Augustine– because I do see scripture as having some privileged position, though I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think that means.

    I have a much easier time with the scripture that–as Kiskilili mentioned–was clearly authored by particular people in particular cultures, and doesn’t claim to be anything other than that. For that reason, I’ve never been as bothered by either Nephi or Paul as I have by parts of the Doctrine & Covenants.

    This issue seems closely related to the question of exactly what we understand the purpose of scripture to be– which I realize isn’t an easy one to answer. Is it primarily to convey information about God and the world? To be a catalyst for spiritual experience of our own? I really like Ricoeur’s notion (which I might be mangling, so no guarantees here about accuracy) of the world “opened up” by the text, the idea that in the encounter with its narrative your own life story is transformed. That gives me a way to think about the text as an inspired whole without feeling like it’s incumbent on me to accept every specific passage as morally binding.

    I’m still thinking this out, but my own view is that the scriptures aren’t “inspired” in the sense of every word being the exact opinion of God– or, as Eve said, in the sense of being part of a tidy, clear, and non-contradictory package of truth– but in their ability to open our eyes to the reality that we live in a world in which a loving God is profoundly involved (albeit often in unexpected and even confusing ways), and in which grace and goodness are real, and continually call us to better lives. I glimpse this vision in, for example, Paul, and thus find real power in his writings. But at the same time, I don’t find it necessary to accept (or even attempt to rehabilitate) all of his views on things. So in the example that Kiskilili gives above, I think I’d be okay with the possibility that Nephi got that one wrong; it wouldn’t shake my faith in his ability to point us to Christ, which is clearly his overriding intent.

  5. 5.

    I’m tinkering with the idea of understanding scripture as “icon.” The scriptures are often invoked as though they represent a codification of doctrine and/or policy, a position I find untenable, given the outright lack of harmony between so many of our various sacred texts.

    All through our churches and homes we display pictures of Jesus. There’s a sense in which these pictures are “lies”: they’re our own human attempts to depict Jesus. They’re not snapshots of Jesus, and they may look significantly different from how Jesus actually looked.

    At the same time, I believe they have value, but not because they are absolute “truths”; rather, because they give us an opportunity to contemplate and access the divine.

    I’m wondering whether it’s possible to understand scripture as a potential conduit of divine revelation without accepting as absolute “truths” much of what scripture teaches.

  6. 6.

    I really enjoy y’all’s discussion of what scriptures are. I like the idea that all of you have mentioned or alluded to that scripture is supposed to help give us access to God, although imperfectly. Eve, I know you’ve mentioned in another place that you find non-scriptural writers to be inspiring and suggested they might be considered “personal prophets,” meaning people who you individually find helpful in accessing God. (Correct me if I’m misrepresenting you.) I like this point of view. It suggests that the difference between scripture and non-scripture might be one of degree rather than of kind. And the line between them might get blurry.

    Lynnette, you mentioned the need to engage Paul more than Augustine, which points out the difference between scripture and non-scripture. If there really isn’t a bright line separating the two, could it be based on historical precedent that Paul is more important? (Paul has always been considered scripture, while Augustine has not.) Or did Paul’s writings make it into scripture because enough early church fathers found him to be a “personal prophet”–helped them access God–that they thought he should be considered a “general prophet”?

    I certainly see that some separations between scripture and not scripture are quite clear: stuff like The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, while I may enjoy it immensely, clearly doesn’t help anyone get closer to God. But could Augustine be considered “near scripture”? (I haven’t read him, so I’m just guessing.) I know that in order to avoid the inevitable arguments and contradictions that would be involved in adding a bunch more scripture, the Church is unlikely to run around adding all kinds of “near scripture” writing to the canon. But that doesn’t prevent us all from reading it and allowing it to bring us closer to God.

    I think that talking about the degree to which some piece of writing is scripture also makes it easier for us to talk about differences among scriptures. For example, King Benjamin’s sermon might be considered more scriptural than the wars chronicled at the end of the book of Alma, for example. Reading King Benjamin’s words is more likely to bring us closer to God than is reading about Captain Moroni’s building and fortifying new cities (Alma 50:1-15).

    One more point: I really like that you all have discussed that there is frequently not agreement of the scriptures with all of our doctrine/practice/policy/folk wisdom. I think it works the other way too. There is no necessary connection between all of our current doctrine/practice and the scriptures. Some things we do just because we believe God said to even if it’s not in any of our scriptures. For example, justifying ordinances for the dead to other Christians using 1 Cor 15:29 seems silly, when it’s clearly just a passing reference that doesn’t really advocate the practice. It seems like we would be much better off just saying “We believe God wants everyone to do these ordinances. Not everyone gets to. He told us to do the ordinances for those who didn’t.” Similarly, I think it’s silly when people argue that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t really ban using some substance or other because the substance isn’t mentioned in D &C 89. Our practice is only loosely connected with our scriptures; let’s just acknowledge that.

  7. 7.

    “Our practice is only loosely connected with our scriptures; let’s just acknowledge that.”

    I don’t think that’s true, either generally or for your specific example. Members use the 1 Cor verse because many non-members discount anything that isn’t in the Bible. But “our scriptures” also include the D&C, to which our practice of baptism for the dead is closely connected.

    But as for the original question: I would rather be uncomfortable with the scriptures than create a false sense of comfort with a warm, fuzzy interpretation.

    My question is, where does the argument go from there? If a text jars so violently against your conception of God that the two cannot be reconciled, where does that realisation take you? Do you think it’s possible to have real faith in God when something in the very scriptures God commands us to study and follow seems undeniably false? In that situation I find myself questioning everything: God, the authors, myself. And all that questioning is good, but eventually I feel pushed to make a conclusion and that conclusion does have an impact on my testimony.

  8. 8.

    That’s such an interesting question about how closely our practice is actually tied to scripture. A thought experiment: if a group of people who knew nothing about the Church were given a set of the standard works (but no other Church-related materials) and told to base their religious practice on it, what might the resulting church look like?

  9. 9.

    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.

    Interesting. Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin spends a lot of time dealing with the way religion and language interact, from a similar perspective.

    She has a blog at: http://ozarque.livejournal.com/ and some information at http://adrr.com/aa/ — You can tell I haven’t updated that for her in a while.

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