Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Making the Gospel truer than it really is

Posted by BrianJ on February 2, 2007

The title and idea for this post I am stealing from one of my college professors, whose name I can’t seem to remember  remembered: D. Cecil Clark.

Perhaps you’ve heard the following explanation, or something like it:

There is a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless all its baggage were removed. When the main gates were shut at night, travellers would have to use this smaller gate–and the camel would have to crawl on its knees. So it is with a rich man entering heaven: he must give up his riches and humble himself.

And perhaps you’ve heard something like this:

You know, I often wonder about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Washing feet was the lowest form of service. But more than that, back then people wore open-toed sandals, so their feet would be very dirty. Add to that the fact that Jesus’ disciples had been preparing for the Passover feast: the streets of Jerusalem would have been crowded with people and animals in town for the feast, and therefore especially dirty. Some of the disciples took the lamb to the temple to be sacrificed and probably stepped in droppings from the thousands of animals killed that day. And the leather sandals would have smelled very badly after so much walking and sweating.

And finally:

When Jesus says, “take up your cross,” he is referring to the Roman practice of forcing the condemned to carry his own cross to the place of execution. Now, the beam that was carried could weigh as much as 100 lbs, and the distance traveled as they looped through the streets of the city a considerable distance. Since the average male in Jesus’ day was approximately 5’6″ and, due to a general scarcity of nutrition, would have weighed around 100 lbs himself, he is essentially carrying his own weight if he carries his cross. Thus, Jesus means not just that one must work really hard to follow him, but that one must lift and carry one’s whole self to be a true disciple. Now, as to the distance traveled, that would be measured in cubits or steps, and since men were shorter in Jesus’ day, then they would have required more strides in order to cover a given distance. In fact, the number of strides required to pass from Pilate’s court to Calvary for a man under 5’8″ would have been just over 2000, which is the maximum number of strides that a Jew could take on the Sabbath. Also, the distance, measured in cubits, is the same as the circumference of Noah’s ark. By all this, what Jesus really meant is that enduring to the end will require breaking the old laws by going further than them and will accomplish the same thing for our souls as the ark accomplished for the lives of Noah’s family.

So, what’s the point? First, I hope that every reader knows that the first and last paragraphs are wrong: the only small gate that might fit this discription was built centuries after Jesus’ death, and the last paragraph I made up entirely. But the point is to look at what the paragraphs do.

Each looks for some additional meaning for a scripture. Not finding that “extra layer of meaning,” the first and last simply invent layers. The middle paragraph, by contrast, isn’t so dishonest, but it still suffers from embellishing the story. Jesus can’t just be washing feet, they must be really dirty, smelly, awful feet. Likewise:

Mary can’t just be pregnant, she has to be pregnant and possibly preeclamptic, riding on a donkey that would wobble and stumble from time to time—oh and it’s backbone under her pelvis would be uncomfortable, too, complicating labor.

Nephi’s bow didn’t just break, it also must have stung his hand when it kicked back upon breaking. That would make constructing a new bow that much more difficult.

Etc.

The Master became the servant; Mary delivered in the poorest of conditions; Nephi didn’t murmur. Why must the stories be more than that? My professor called this “making the Gospel truer than it really is.” Jacob called it “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4). Peter called it, “Don’t stop with the feet: wash my whole body” (John 13:9).

This is not to say that we shouldn’t study the details of the scriptures. But if we’re going to “feast upon the word,” we have to appreciate the feast that is provided.

26 Responses to “Making the Gospel truer than it really is”

  1. Matthew said

    Interesting post. I think there are likely some excesses buried in all of our beliefs.

    Church history is a good example of a case where people often prefer a truer version of the truth–and find the actual truth less satisfying.

    Here’s another example to add to the mix: I had a companion who sometimes would bear his testimony that he knew the Prophet spoke with God on a daily basis just as I am here speaking with you.

    This raises an interesting question–one that is also related to the discussion on the bible dictionary post: what is the right way to address this issue? As a teacher how do you respond when a student founds their point on something truer than the truth? As a student in the class when should you/how should you respond if the teacher bases their point on something truer than the truth? And when you recognize this in yourself–if, for example, you find yourself uncomfortable reading Rough Stone Rolling, not because you doubt that it is true, but because you are uncomfortable with the truth–how should you proceed?

  2. Matthew said

    PS What does looking beyond the mark really mean? Is it really the same as “don’t stop with the feet–wash my whole body”?

  3. Robert C. said

    BrianJ, excellent post.

    Matthew #2: I think the portion of the Christiansen article about the mark referenced on the wiki page, makes a pretty good case for the mark referring to Christ. But even if you don’t buy Barker’s arguments (which Christiansen relies on), I think many verses in Jacob 4 (esp. vv. 4ff) coupled with Jacob 6:8 make a pretty good case for the mark being a reference to Christ.

    I’m much confused about how to read John 13:10 (e.g. there is a fair amount of controversy over whether the phrase about feet should even be included in this verse, I’ll try to post a bit about this on the wiki soon). It’s hard for me to tell whether Peter’s statement was accepted by Christ as well-intentioned hyperbole, or whether Christ is rebuking Peter for not understanding what was going on. So I’m not really sure if this strengthens Brian’s point or not.

    Notice the slightly different reading the Inspired Version gives on John 13:10:

    Jesus saith to him, He that has washed his hands and his head, needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all. Now this was the custom of the Jews under their law; wherefore, Jesus did this that the law might be fulfilled.

    As far as “appreciat[ing] the feast that is provided,” I have a bad habit of being a bit “too honest” in my comments in general, for example when my wife has cooked a great meal and I fail to keep my mouth shut about my noticing that the noodles were slightly over-cooked (and so I’ve always felt bad for people with a super-trained ear; I’m musical enough to have a hard time not noticing the faults of the community orchestra here in Pleasant Grove–which my wife plays in also…–but I don’t have a good enough ear to, say, notice all the slight mistakes on the radio; my wife is convinced that if I met the Savior I would be able to find something to criticize–needless to say, Brian’s wording of this has got me thinking!).

  4. BrianJ said

    Matthew, #1: thanks for the examples. You’re right to ask how a teacher should deal with this. I’ll just say that my reason for writing this post was to point the finger at myself as a student—a warning for myself as I study.

    #2: No, I don’t think looking beyond the mark and “wash my whole body” are the same. Thanks for calling my error. I think they are similar—they stem from the same desire to take something further than it was intended. I’m not really sure how to articulate a distinction between the two, however. If it helps, I added the quote from Peter as an afterthought when making my final read-through before posting.

    Robert, #3: I hoped the reader would understand multiple levels of the word “appreciate” in my last paragraph. You picked up on one meaning—gratitude—but I think there are a few more that are important to my point.

  5. Robert C. said

    Brian, yeah, I know my thinking above was twisting your point, sorry for the off-topic thoughts. I think Alma wishing he were an angel (Alm 29:1ff) is a similar example to what you have in mind, and he explicitly states that he sins in his wish. Also, here are some of my favorite scriptures on “being content,” which I think is part of the cure for the problem you’re describing.

  6. Great post, Brian. My undying (and I’m sure obnoxious) focus on the nature of community forces me to ask what it is about us as Latter-day Saints (as a community) that makes us want to do this. Not really implicit in your post, but certainly implicit in Matthew’s comment (#1) is a kind of accusation: the desire to “go beyond the mark” is fueled perhaps by a lack of faith, a concern that if we don’t make the gospel truer than it is, it may turn out to be false. I wonder where we get that concern. Does it come from a misunderstanding about the distinction between faith and knowledge? Or does it derive from presuppositions we have taken up from evangelical treatments of scripture? Or does it perhaps follow from some other thread of our thinking?

    For the moment, I’m interested by the idea that our going beyond the mark may be a sign of a lack (or at least a misunderstanding) of faith. I wonder what that lack/misunderstanding amounts to. There is certainly some work to do here.

  7. Matt W. said

    I think embellishing the story is merely a matter of creative fancy, idle speculation, and all this coupled with a human need to get something new out of our religious experience even we are reading that nephi was born of Goodly Parents for the 100th time.

  8. m&m said

    Interesting post. Don’t you think, though, that sometimes, it might be possible that insights that go beyond the story could be true insights?

    As to looking beyond the mark, I agree that the mark is Christ. Jacob 4 is one of my favorite chapters, because I think it reminds us how fundamentally, our seeking should humbly point us to Christ.

  9. m&m’s point draws more out of me on this topic. Perhaps the problem I have with goings beyond is that they are ultimately quite arrogant. They pretend to know what the author himself/herself did not bother to write, as if they had an insight into the original situation when the author was not particularly concerned with those details. It would have been very easy for the gospel-writer to add a detail or two to make sure you knew that the feet were really dirty. But close reading suggests otherwise. The author is trying to make a different point. Whether or not the insights are true in terms of facts is not really the question: are we seeking the meaning of the text, trusting the author to tell us something important, or are we assuming that the author is leaving out all of the important details I need to make my point?

  10. brianj said

    m&m, #8: I’ll go with what Joe said and make an additional comment: “…possible that insights that go beyond the story could be true insights?”

    No, they are not insights. By definition, an insight is “looking in,” seeing (as Joe describes) what the author has to say. Which is not to say that they are necessarily false. For example, let’s say that I read God’s words to Joseph Smith, “This is my Beloved Son,” and then I say, “I read this as God affirming that Jesus atoned for our sins and is the only way to return to God.” If I do that, I am not offering an insight. What I said about Jesus is still true, but it doesn’t come from the text being discussed.

    I do, however, think that we can and should “go beyond” the verses we read. For example, we could look at other places where God introduces Jesus. Or we could ask what effect those particular words had on Joseph. We could wonder what times in Joseph’s life those particular words came back to him. We could look at other uses of the word ‘beloved’ and the meaning of the word. Etc. All of these take us beyond the text.

  11. Matthew said

    It seems that one of the keys we are landing on is whether or not the reader is staying true to the text. We are finding fault with readings which are not true to the text. Though for the wiki I think we should always aim at being true to the text, I think there may be other occasions where it is okay to use scriptures in ways that are not true to the original text. I think that topic deserves a separate post at some point.

  12. Joe Spencer said

    I think Matthew is right. I’ve been thinking about a post on “speculation” for a little while, and maybe that subject could be brought together with this subject. I’ll do some thinking and I’ll probably write something up in the next day or two on the subject (I’ll try to be a little less “philosophical” on this, I promise!).

  13. m&m said

    Hmm…I wonder if we are running into semantic difficulties here. I guess when I meant insights I meant more meanings that the Spirit can teach, not necessarily trying to add more details into the narrative. But perhaps my definition is outside the scope of this post. Sorry. I guess I’m just thinking of how many different meanings — meaning applications or what I call insights — can come from one verse, where my initial reading didn’t yield the understanding that subsequent readings have, because I needed something different or the Spirit was able to share something new with me. I think this is different from speculation or arrogant (or simply wrong) assumptions about context, etc. that could be “read into” a text. Hope that explains at least what I was thinking about.

  14. Robert C. said

    I’ve been wondering about this a bit and agree that m&m and Matthew bring up good points, points we’ve perhaps been skirting around in discussions here the last few weeks. Since I’m not really sure what Joe has in mind with “speculation” (I’ve quit trying to second guess Joe), I’m going to ramble a tad about this here, largely summarizing and appropriating thoughts from previous discussion:

    First, I think that it can be helpful to think about what is not said in the scriptures. In fact, I think the scriptures sometimes–even oftentimes–leave many things unsaid on purpose, to allow for such thinking to occur (“lacuna/e” I think is the scholarly term for this). And I think it is this very gap between us and the text that is very important to somehow bridge (and our effort to bridge that gap is what very well may be what best defines us as a community studying the word of God). I think there are “sundry and diverse manners” (sorry, I’ve been thinking about Heb 1:1 lately) that we can–and must–do this. Much of this can/should involve learning what we can about the linguistic, cultural, archaeological, etc. history relevant to the text. But if we don’t somehow think about how that text opens onto us, I think we are simply reading academically and failing to liken the scriptures to ourselves.

    I’ve esp. been interested in this idea of reading “typologically.” I think this is something Joseph Smith did a lot of, and something that the temple requires of us to do. We need to see the patterns in the scripture and see how those patterns/types pertain to us. I think this is why the BOM describes Isaiah’s words as great, b/c there are such great typological patterns there (patterns I feel I have only barely started to grok!).

    But I think we need to be self-aware of what we are doing in this process, differentiating between what the scriptures themselves say and what “we” are bringing to the scriptures (“we” in scare quotes b/c we should always strive to interact with the Spirit in this process, so we can’t take credit for what is opened to us). In fact, I think this is crucial for understanding what the Spirit is and how we can interact with it. And unless we understand that there is a way to read the scriptures without the Spirit, I don’t think we can fully understand what it means to read with the Spirit (and when I say “without the Spirit” I hope it is obvious that I don’t mean to condone the dismissal of things written by, say, atheists…).

    In fact, I think talking about the spirit of a text is a useful way to put this: if we are true to the spirit of the text, we will strive to understand the secular setting of the text, but strive even more to understand the spiritual setting of a spiritual text, where the spiritual setting includes the typological interactions going on between mankind and God–and I don’t think these interactions can be known (in the intimate sense) without experiencing this interaction ourselves. So the process of reading and understanding scripture becomes tantamount to interacting with God (uh oh, here’s where my college students would start rolling their eyes back as I start sounding too abstract and cryptic, so I’ll stop here…).

  15. Robert C. said

    Addendum to #14: So I don’t, for example, think it’s a bad thing to consider what the posssible details of the setting were when Christ was washing Peter’s feet, as long as we are aware that that is what we are doing. For example, I think we should consider the fact that people didn’t walk around on sidewalks in Jesus’ day. This in fact was an insight I had when I was a missionary in Russia and realized how dirtier my shoes always seemed to get there compared to here in the U.S. where sidewalks are so much more prevalent. This deepened my appreciation for Christ washing the disciples’ feet.

    Another danger, which I think goes without saying but doesn’t hurt to state explicitly, is the danger of studying scripture and then using the understanding gained by such study to become scripture snobs: “Well, thank you for your insight Sister Jones, but actually a careful study of original Greek manuscripts and archaeological studies shows that even though you think you feel the Spirit contemplating the stooping-camel interpretation of that eye-of-the-needle passage, in reality you’re completely wrong and misguided and I’m here to enlighten you as to The True Meaning of this passage….”

    I think another way to think about these issues is in terms of the scriptures as a springboard to personal revelation, which I think is a good thing, and something that is facilitated by–but not completely dictated by!–careful study of the scriptural text, bringing all the best scholarly tools of hermeneutics, exegesis, philosophy, theology, etc. as well as Latter-day revelation. This, to me, is the miracle of scripture, it demands our very best, but that best is tailored equally for the least educated and the most educated, the super-busy and the not-so-busy, the least intelligent and the most intelligent, the newest member and the life-long-member, etc. What the Word perfectly sifts is, significantly, the pure in heart from the impure in heart, the humble from the proud, etc.

  16. m&m said

    I don’t think these interactions can be known (in the intimate sense) without experiencing this interaction ourselves. So the process of reading and understanding scripture becomes tantamount to interacting with God

    I love this.

    Another danger, which I think goes without saying but doesn’t hurt to state explicitly, is the danger of studying scripture and then using the understanding gained by such study to become scripture snobs
    Absolutely. I have been thinking about this, perhaps toned down even from being snobs but forgetting Who gives us any insight worth anything, and why these insights should matter. Are they to set ourselves up over others, to seem cool and smart, or to come closer to God?

    I have a suspicion that these types of things might be touched on at the worldwide training that will be broadcast this weekend…the importance of sticking first and foremost with the source, the scriptures themselves, and letting the Spirit be the One who teaches and is the light, not us. I think the same can apply in personal study as we forego making supplemental, scholarly stuff our primary focus, letting that be supplemental at most, and have more personal, pure, Spirit-led experiences with the scriptures themselves.

    Robert, I should have probably just said, ‘yup, well said.’ Thanks for all of your thoughts. They were great. (I’ve just been thinking about this for a while and it’s all sort of coming to the surface for me for various reasons.)

  17. I like the developments here since last night. Thank you m&m for your clarification. Robert is right not to second guess me, since I don’t even try to second guess myself (who knows where a subject like “speculation” will take me?). And I really enjoyed all of Robert’s comments here too.

    Nonetheless, I think I’m inclined still (though again, where will “speculation” take me?) to part ways with “expansions” of the text. I don’t think there is anything evil about doing it, just… I don’t know… stubborn, perhaps? I want to say “arrogant” or even “proud,” but it’s never so belligerent. But it does seem to be fueled by a kind of refusal to hear the call spoken in the text. That is not to say that the Lord ceases to call such. In fact, I think He may well and often call them through the expanded text (as Robert mentions in his scripture snob example). The problem comes when someone chooses the expanded text over the text itself, decides that the “true” or “only” or “richest” reading is the expanded reading.

    The example Robert cited might help to make my point. On one level, I’m very happy to hear a lesson taught about the postern gate in Jerusalem, because the message is powerful, and ultimately, I think, quite true: we need to bow down and be stripped of all of our riches before we can enter into the holy city. At the same time, if we assume that is the meaning (and we base it on a kind of “scholarly” insight–a false one!), then it will be difficult for the Lord ever to speak to us the message actually had in those words. In other words, it would be far better for a teacher to teach the strip and humble yourself lesson in terms of, say, 2 Nephi 9, where Jacob is specifically telling us to do that. A teacher can there take up the whole context, develop the power behind the direct teaching on that subject: the teacher of 2 Nephi 9 can teach the point with far more power than the teacher reading the theme into the NT story. And the teacher who is dealing with the NT story would be far better off trying to understand the meaning of the story itself. If there was no postern gate, then how should we understand the saying of Jesus? We have to think about the nature of riches, and how that makes it impossible to get into the kingdom. We have to think about why the disciples were amazed (this was surprising to them!). We have to think about the other sayings of Jesus that point to the poor inheriting the earth, etc. And we will learn some very direct and important things that we can pass over too easily. That Jesus has just commanded someone to give his riches to the poor is key: this is not a question of stripping yourself of possessions, but of giving those possessions to the poor. In other words, the point of the saying is not to say that possessions are bad, but that there is an ethical duty to feed the starving, etc. And on and on.

    In the end, I hope my concern is quite clear: if we give into the expanded text, we may well have cut a page from our scriptures, because the Lord will only be able to speak to us “through a glass darkly” on that page, and never “face to face.”

  18. m&m said

    Joe,

    I still think we may be talking about different approaches and different “reading into” that could happen. I don’t think it’s appropriate to make up something or teach something that isn’t an appropriate “fact” about the narrative (e.g., wrong teaching about camels and needles’ eyes and a short gate at Jerusalem), or to focus so much on the scholarly interpretations that non-scholars are automatically left out of the discussion (this is a pet peeve of mine, actually and can often lead to a snobbery of sorts, IMO). But I think personal meaning can be read into a text as the Spirit directs. When shared, this type of insight is best presented as a “this is what it meant to me” kind of statement, not an arrogant, “this is the best, richest, truest, deepest, etc. meaning” statement.

  19. m&m said

    p.s. That said, there have been scholarly teachings that have helped me feel the Spirit and helped things “click” in that way, so I think there can be appropriate use of extrascriptural material, but it should be judicious and not the primary focus. (I think I might be talking in circles now….)

  20. I agree with your sentiments here, m&m. If I was using terms or examples that made it seem like we were speaking past each other, I hope it was because I was trying to address comments from several people at once. More likely, it was my own ignorance.

    My own personal approach to scripture (in study, not in teaching) is to bury myself in the scholarship first, which usually provides me with a few keys to interpretation, but with no shocking revelation of interpretive possibilities. And then I get to work on the text, to interpret as best and as profoundly as I can. The Spirit is always the most important thing, though I’m not sure how “personal” the Spirit makes the scriptures for me (to get my full understanding of that, you’d probably need to read the post on “application”). Thanks for this discussion. It’s been very helpful for me (as I think comes out in the post I added today, about speculation).

  21. nhilton said

    We are a culture of “reading in” & “drawing out.” Look at “Saturday’s Warrior.” Who didn’t grow up with that, waiting for your soul-mate and wondering if there was another child waiting to come to your family? What about the classic, “Added Upon?” Jump across time and you’ve got “Rebecca,” “The Red Tent,” “2 From Gallilee” or is it 3? “Stone Tablets,” and “Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” etc. etc.

    Are we too bored with the cannon? Is it too hard for the casual reader, the casual teacher? Not compelling enought? Maybe we’re in a “Tripple X” era where the scriptures just aren’t sensational enough without our ad lib? Are we just trying to capitalize on something authentic(the scriptures)…to get gain, I mean? What about “The Work & The Glory.” I used to make more fun of that, publically, until the author became a GA. What about all the LDS fiction through the ages & all the horrible LDS movies?

    During Fast Mtg. I listened to a convert’s testimony of…not the scriptures…but “TW&TG.” Maybe not my favorite way of coming into the church, but it worked for her. Who’s to criticize?

    Is the K.I.S.S. principle applicable here? Then what of exegesis in the classroom? And how do we liken the scriptures, if not by trying to empathize with them?

  22. m&m said

    nhilton,
    These are the types of questions I have been asking myself lately (even thinking about the whole K.I.S.S. principle). That said, I think there are different ways different people can be reached at different times. Some of my answers to prayers have come from someone else’s interpretations of scriptures, not from the scriptures themselves. But I think it’s likely that we sometimes fall into a trap of distraction and focusing on good things while not giving enough attention to the critical things. At least I get caught in that trap, too easily and probably too often.

    I don’t think we can slam on all LDS fiction or commentary or films because if we are going to have entertainment, why not allow space for LDS entertainment? If there are going to be scripture commentaries, why not LDS ones? Again, though, where is the place for such things in our lives? And do we leave enough place for the purest sources of truth?

  23. Can’t LDS fiction, etc., think the text itself as well? Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series is incredible this way. One might say that it tries to get behind the text to some degree, but it offered some powerful re-readings of the Book of Mormon for me, at the textual level (though it is entirely a work of science fiction that never explicitly states its connection with the Book of Mormon). And I think the film Brigham City takes the sacrament as a text and deals with quite seriously and insightfully. And did anyone else here go to the Mormon Modern Art exhibit at BYU’s Museum of Art in 2004? That was incredible. My wife and I spent days there thinking, exploring, interpreting, and I came to understand a number of different scriptures better. These are all “entertaining” but studious as well. And, in the end, Lund offers a very serious reading of Church History (one I disagree with, but serious nonetheless). The problem that arises is when these become, not interpretations of a text we are seeking to understand, but texts themselves, replacements of the texts.

    Having said all of that, I totally agree with m&m that we are too often”not giving enough attention to the critical things,” that we ought to be asking whether “we leave enough place for the purest sources of truth.” I think the key is, quite simply, consecration: if we are reading fiction, we are reading to further the work of the Lord (and if this particular book can not further that work, why on earth am I reading it?), etc. Isn’t that what we have to be asking ourselves?

  24. m&m said

    I think the key is, quite simply, consecration: if we are reading fiction, we are reading to further the work of the Lord

    that, and priorities…am I reading fiction (or blogging) more than I’m feasting on the source?

    Good points about art, fiction, btw. I went to the Church History art competition exhibit for my birthday. I was so moved I couldn’t articulate all that I felt. But should that replace my scripture study? No, I think it should complement it. There’s a place for these things, but priorities need to matter. It takes more work for us to find our own nuggets of truth in the scriptures and words of the prophets and temple than it takes to absorb someone else’s experiences with them.

  25. I totally agree, m&m. In fact, it seems to me that one can’t consecratedly engage anything unless she/he is already totally engaged in the scriptures. That is, I am hardly to find anything of interest in Homecoming unless I’ve already thought quite a bit about those first chapters of 1 Nephi, etc. I’m unlikely to learn much of anything anywhere unless I am already spending my most important time engaging the Lord in the scriptures, the temple, and prayer.

  26. [...] terrific post from earlier in the month over on Feast upon the Word gave examples of the ways this problem [...]

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