Abigail the Peacegiver: Scripture, Personal Application and “Self-Help”
Posted by Robert C. on March 29, 2007
We’ve discussed before the pros and cons of reading scripture primarily with an aim to apply the scriptures to ourselves. On the previous thread, Jim F. questioned this traditional interpretation of “likening the scriptures” to ourselves by noting that it is the first person plural that is used in these passages, not first-person singular as we typically think. I like how this points us to thinking more in terms of community than individuals. But it re-raises all the unresolved (at least for me) questions about “personal application” that we’ve discussed before on this blog.
I’ve just started listening to The Peacegiver on my commute to work (see here for a link to all chapters available at Meridian; thanks, by the way, whoever recommended this book—I thought it was a comment on this blog…). I’m only a few chapters into the book, but Chapter 4 in particular is a good one to read to get a sense of one way we might think about personal application. Before I summarize chapter 4 and comment on it, let me note that the book reminds me of a philosophy/religion class I had at BYU with Terry Warner (notice the links to his book at the link above—the author of The Peacegiver works at the Arbinger Institute with Warner) where we would talk a lot about sin, resentfulness, and forgiveness, esp. as it pertains to personal relationships. For our text in that class, we drew primarily from the scriptures, Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, and our own experiences. It was a very interesting—even transforming—class. There are explicit scriptural footnotes in The Peacegiver, though not given in the audiobook, and although I don’t think there are such footnotes in Warner’s books, I think the scriptural foundations are fairly obvious.
Abigail in The Peacegiver
The Peacegiver starts by describing the thoughts of an LDS man in a marriage that is falling apart. If anyone knows Terry Warner’s writing, you’ll know what I mean in describing this man as “in the box” of self-deception and self-justication, trying to patiently endure all the hurtful things that his wife says and does. Then, in Chapter 3 the man has a dream or vision of some sort where he’s talking to his dead grandpa. Around Chapter 4 of the book, Grandpa takes the enduring husband on “A Christmas Carol” type tour of the plains of Carmel, where the events of 1 Sam 25 begin to unfold (the story of how Abigail deflates a potential conflict between David and his army and her husband, Nabal, by offering David and his men a gift, without her husband knowing). I haven’t seen how this all plays out in the book, but what is interesting is how Grandpa helps the struggling husband link his own feelings of hurt and resentment to those of David’s soldiers toward Nabal.
Applying scripture to ourselves?
Listening to these chapters of the book has been a very moving experience for me, for many reasons I think. However, although I think it’d be very interesting to discuss the specific issues of grace, forgiveness, resentment, etc. at play in these chapters, I’d rather focus on the meta-issue of how we might think about applying the scriptures in our personal lives. I think The Peacegiver represents a very effective example of the kind of “personal application” that we so often (always?) strive for in Sunday school class, but, as has been discussed before on this blog, I think there are certain dangers in making this kind of personal application the (only) goal of our scripture study.
For example, notice that in describing what I wanted to focus on in this thread, I said I did not want to focus on certain “issues”—though I might’ve said “gospel principles.” This approach has been described before as a 3-step process: read the text, extract the gospel principles, then apply those principles to our personal lives. My concern (others have also expressed this concern, Joe Spencer in particular) is that the focus seems to be on the meta-principles more than the text of scripture itself. In fact, oftentimes the text becomes rather incidental, merely a means (and a somewhat awkward means, it seems at times) to an end, where the end is the underlying gospel principles. On this view, it seems we might improve the scriptures by writing them in a textbook format, where a gospel principle is explained, and then certain stories are given as illustrations of that principle. I’m not comfortable with this view of scripture, but I think this is in fact how we typically think about scripture.
As a critique of this view, we might think of The Peacegiver‘s effectiveness being the way in which it collapses the middle step of the 3-step process described above. Rather than simply thinking in terms of gospel principles, The Peacegiver helps us identify more intimately with the characters and context in the scriptural story itself. I think this would be a step in the right direction, but I think this view still misses something important that we can and should be getting out of scripture study. I say this, but I can’t really justify this claim—it’s more of a vague hunch I have, not something I can justify or articulate clearly. I’m hoping some discussion here will help me figure out these these conflicting thoughts and intuitions better.
Similarly, we we might think about General Conference talks in this way: why read scripture at all when we can simply read more-relevant-for-us material in the Ensign?
Applying ourselves to scripture?
I like how Joe (I think) put this before: rather than applying the scriptures to us we should apply ourselves to scripture. I think this subtle shift in emphasis can help us stay focused on the scriptural text itself. This way of thinking might also help us understand the benefit of digging into difficult scriptural texts: it is not so much the answers per se that we find in scripture which are so valuable, but the process itself (I tried to make this point somewhat in the comments of the previous post). We might think of an analogy in terms of assignments we receive in school: even if there are papers in existence that discuss the thesis we are writing about better than the way we write about it, the process of writing the paper (rather than plagiarizing an existing paper) makes us better. (I tend to think of blogging in this way: I don’t think I’m writing anything particularly new or profound, but I think I benefit a lot in writing these posts, and hopefully others benefit because of the more interactive nature of a blog—that is, I think the community aspect of blogging offers something important that books do not…). It is not the sacrifice per se that God desires, but the change in us that the sacrifice causes. Although I think these are valid and interesting ways to think about scripture, somehow this approach still does not seem completely satisfying to me (perhaps for the same reason my students don’t laugh to hard when, after I explain something poorly, I jokingly tell them they will learn the material better if they have to struggle through trying to understand an obtuse explanation rather than a very clear explanation which basically spoon-feeds them the concepts…).
Another way to think of this (Joe’s) notion of “applying ourselves to scripture” might be in terms of “creation theology” (I recently read an essay by Oswald Bayer who used this term which I’m appropriating, though he meant something loosely related; I’m also plagiarizing some of Adam Miller’s thoughts from the Reading Abraham Seminar, and a forthcoming FARMS paper by Jim F. on “Apocalyptic Theology,” and Joe’s many comments about typology…), where we let God’s Word (re-)create our lives. That is, as we apply ourselves to studying God’s word, our lives become recreated or reinterpreted as we begin to “absorb” the words of scripture into our way of thinking and experiencing the world. So, for example, as we study about Adam and Eve, we begin to think of our own lives in terms of what Adam and Eve go through (separation, obedience and disobedience, sacrifice, atonement, etc.) . The words, events, and types and scripture thus become the words, events, and types that we use to think about and experience the world.
Here’s another, perhaps simpler, way to illustrate what I have in mind: Oftentimes, the 12-13 year old boys in my Sunday school class will say “oh, yeah, that reminds me of a Simpsons episode where….” I once responded by telling them that if they would read the scriptures more, they would start saying more often, perhaps even while watching the Simpsons, “oh yeah, that reminds me of a scriptural episode when….” Again, the more we study the scriptures, the more our lives can become recreated/reinterpreted as we begin to view and interpret things in scriptural terms.
But I don’t think is a completely satisfacotry answer either, though I hope my thoughts are not just a waste of your time reading. What are your thoughts on these issues? What are your thoughts on my thoughts on these issues? In what ways is it helpful vs. harmful to think about the scriptures as the ultimate “self-help” book (scare quotes b/c I think the self part of self-help is a misnomer since I think anything truly useful will be closely tied to thinking in terms of grace that we can receive from God and others, at least this is what I like in Arbinger’s “self-help” books…)? How do you apply scripture to yourself (or yourselves in a community), or yourself(/selves) to scripture?
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