My timing is impeccable. Last week I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting on the topic “Scripture”. It’s a fairly broad topic, but one that I felt comfortable with.
While in a masters program in 1999 I first encountered biblical criticism (hey, I’m late to the party, but I’m here). I found that my study of the scriptures deepened, and over the course of the last 8 years I have become firmly entrenched in the non-literalist approach to scripture.
So, on Sunday, I shared that approach. I titled my talk “Approaching Scripture“. It went fairly well. It reached a few people, which was my intended goal. In any congregation there are those who, like me, approach things a bit differently. I wanted to stress to the more literal-minded people that there was another way, and I wanted to help those non-literal people feel a little less alone.
So, back to my impeccable timing. This morning, reading a post by Square Peg at The Cultural Hall blog, I was pointed to the press release from the Church called “Approaching Mormon History” (hey, they can sure pick a catchy title!). It’s interesting that this release stresses a literal stance, specifically as it relates to our recent history but also mentioning scripture.
I’m willing to acknowledge that my non-literal stance could be unsustainable for an organization – I simply don’t know. Perhaps there is tension between my approach and the contents of the press release. But I stand by my talk.
So, I share it here. Many of the concepts arise out of my study of the Biblical Movement, and I borrow liberally from concepts I learned from reading Marcus Borg – specifically much of the second half of my talk is borrowed from his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. I like his concept of scriptures as a sacrament to the sacred. I find power and inspiration when I approach the scriptures in this way. What follows isn’t a scholarly work, it’s a sacrament talk, so read it charitably.
In the 31st chapter of Second Nephi, we read:
17 Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.
19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
21 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.
When we were baptized, when we joined this body of Saints, we passed through the gate to this strait and narrow path. We demonstrated faith in Christ, we took upon ourselves His name, covenanting to be His people, to do His work. It’s a marvelous gift, and a wonderful opportunity to be a part of a community of followers and disciples of Christ.
But as Nephi states in this passage, once we are on this path all is not done. We must press forward, with a perfect brightness of hope and a love of God and of all men. And then Nephi says this: Feasting upon the word of Christ.
I’m going to talk about the word today – the scriptures. I’m going to talk about some of the problems we encounter as we approach scripture from a modern perspective, and I am going to share with you an approach that can bring new life to our study of the scriptures.
Scriptures Under Attack
Scripture is under attack. With modernity equating facts with truth, with scientific and empirical evidence reigning supreme in our world, where does scripture fit? What happens when scripture comes up against modernity? How do we reconcile its primitive authors attempting to explain the world, the incredible claims, the miracles?
One option is to retreat into a literalist interpretation of the scriptures. To reject modern knowledge when that knowledge butts up against our beliefs. To be sure, we never reject all modern knowledge. To the extent that modernity has provided us with wonderful benefits like medical science or transportation or communications, we embrace them. It’s only the advances that threaten our faith that we tend to reject. It’s the buffet approach to modern knowledge – we take a little here, reject a little there.
But there is danger in this approach, especially for the faith of coming generations.
A good example is our approach to the creation story in Genesis. How do we view that passage of scripture? Do we see Genesis as a literal description and account of the creation? Do we feel threatened by advances in evolutionary biology or geology or astronomy that tell us that the earth is much older and life more complex than the account in Genesis describes?
Many of us do. I’ve sat in this very chapel and listened to a condemnation of modern science, dismissing it outright. But that view, that literalist reading of scripture in opposition to science, is a dangerous stance.
What happens to our children’s faith when they have been taught that a literal reading of scripture is the only proper reading? What happens when they reach high school, or to a greater extent college, and they learn of the vast weight of evidence and the consistency of that evidence as it points toward an old earth and natural selection? Must we force them to choose between their faith and their intellect? This is but one example, and it is a losing proposition. The loss is in the very children we seek to teach and nurture and help to return to God. It’s a high price to pay, and one that is completely unnecessary.
So how might we approach scripture in a way that is true to the sacred nature of the writings, and yet expansive enough to allow us to believe the truth that God writes in creation? We have the writings in the books, and we also have the writings in the stone.
Fortunately, this struggle for us is in many respects a cultural one – we, as Mormons in a larger Christian nation, are subject to the cultural influences around us. The radically fundamental Christian denominations are very vocal today, and we sometimes may feel trapped into interpreting the scriptures in a literalistic manner, just as they do. It’s an unfortunate cultural mark of faith, a test to prove that we are true followers by our willingness to suspend rational thought
But our history is bigger than that. From the earliest moments of this dispensation our prophets have taught us to nurture a personal relationship with God, to seek His truth, wherever it may be. As Brigham Young stated,
Mormonism embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to Mormonism. The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. Mormonism includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel.1
Our own scriptures tell us to”Seek out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 109:7)
So if we are bigger than a literalist reading, how might we approach scripture?
We can approach it by reading it as the response of these ancient communities to their experience of God. Viewed in this way, scripture contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what it means to be faithful to God.
Have you ever had a spiritual experience that is difficult to put into words? Why? Because they are experiences of the holy, the sacred, the numinous, and their sheer magnitude and power shatter our ability to convey them in words. How, then, does an ancient – or even modern – writer communicate such an experience? Humans, attempting to explain and relate their experiences with the holy, wrote the books of scripture. We can forgive them their weaknesses in communicating, and we can read the text in a charitable, expansive manner.
Does this diminish scripture? Not at all – it removes the difficulty of the literalist reading and expands the ability of the scriptures to work in us, to influence us, to connect us with God. What happens when we approach scripture with a willingness to let it work in us? Without preconceptions and without the need to force a meaning consistent with our own worldview? Ask the young Joseph Smith, reading James and allowing the words to work in him. Those few words, delivered in the fertile heart of a young boy searching for God, launched this dispensation.
So to get beyond a literalist reading we must approach scripture in a way that allows it to work in us. I’d like to share a concept from religious scholar Marcus Borg – the concept of viewing scripture as a sacrament to the sacred.
Scriptures as a Sacrament
The scriptures are sacred. They are not sacred in a divine, words of God sense, but rather a relational sense, given power as we relate to them and as we esteem them as the most important writings that we know. They are the primary writings that define who we are in relation to God and who we are as a community. These are the books that have shaped us and will continue to shape us.
In a very real sense our scriptures are our constitution – not as a collection of laws, but as our foundation.
But what does it mean to view the scriptures as a Sacrament to the Sacred? We just partook of the Sacrament, but in a larger use Sacrament is defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced.
Think about the Sacrament in these terms – as we sing our sacramental hymn, as the Priests break and bless the bread, as we serve one another the emblems and remember Christ, as we invite the spirit to be here, with us, to work within us, to sanctify us. In this sense, the ritual of our Sacrament is a mediator of the Spirit, a vehicle of God’s grace.
Our tradition has other sacramental elements, most notably the temple, where our rituals and the endowment bring us into a liminal state, one where we can connect in a deep and meaningful way with the Spirit.
Moving beyond the literalist stance, the scriptures can also become a sacrament to the sacred, a vehicle whereby we can be brought into the presence of God. But to do this we must jettison our preconceptions. We cannot approach scripture with an attitude that we can read the text and make discerning judgments, for if we do that we tend to always make judgments that support our preconceptions. Instead, we must approach scripture in a way that allows the text to shape and judge us, to allow it to speak to us, to listen actively, to seek to hear what the text is saying to us and what the spirit is communicating to us.
It is the difference between absorbing the words of scripture into what we already believe, and approaching scripture with a humble, open heart, allowing it to change us. To sanctify us. To open a conduit to heaven and allow God to be present, to touch us, to mold us, and to inspire us to be more like Him.
This is not an attempt to reduce the scriptures to an academic exercise. It is an attempt to expand the scriptures beyond the bounds that we artificially place around them – whether they are bounds of modernity and a skeptical eye, or bounds of radical fundamental literalism. They are literature, and they contain all the great elements of literature – historical accounts, poetry, didactic fiction, parable and myth. When we break the shackles off of the scriptures, when we free them to do their work in us, it is then that we can see God; it is then that we will feel His presence.
I pray that we may revisit the scriptures, that we may allow them to be a Sacrament to the Sacred, that we may be humble enough to allow them to work in us, and that by so doing we may open ourselves to the inspiration and spirit of God.
1 – Young, Brigham. Discourses of Brigham Young. Selected by John A. Widtsoe. 1941.