Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Is careful scripture study merely academic?

Posted by Robert C. on August 24, 2010

In a recent post, BrianJ responded to Jim F. somewhat self-disparagingly by saying, essentially, that his post was merely academic (for a good discussion of the self-betrayal involved with self-disparagement, see part 17 of Terry Warner’s Bonds That Make Us Free, which I just recently read….).

This has me wondering about topics we discussed a fair bit during the first few months after we started this blog—topics I’d like to revisit. Here’s what I think is the most common approach to scriptures among Mormons: we read scripture in an applied but reductive manner. We read the stories mainly to get to the moral of the story, with an eye toward uncovering the universal truths that the scriptures teach (usually in a fairly plain manner, except for Isaiah, as even Nephi admits…). Then, we spend most our energy pondering or discussing the ways in which these principles might be applied to our lives. We care little for the academic interesting in careful reading, nuanced historical or structural analysis, theological conceptualization, etc.

My question is whether anything beyond this kind of an approach is looking beyond the mark, and merely academic.

I have my own thoughts in response to this question, but I’m afraid I can’t find a very good or simple way to articulate my response. Hence, I’m asking for help. Do you agree that careful scripture study is merely academic? If not, why not?

Or, to ask this differently, are questions like the one that Brian was pursuing in the previous post, a waste of time? My gut says “no,” but I’m not prepared to give a very good justification for my gut reaction here.

My concern that it is precisely this worry, of reading merely academically, that actually prevents us from truly feasting on the words of Christ, that blocks our ability to truly draw near unto God, and to “partake of his goodness” (2 Ne 26:28, 33). In other words, at the least I would like to claim that the question I’m raising here is not merely academic….

24 Responses to “Is careful scripture study merely academic?”

  1. SmallAxe said

    I’ve previously argued that a kind of “consequentialism” is the best lens with which to understand views of church education: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2008/03/church-education-as-consequentialism/

    In short, only those activities that create “stronger members of the Church” (defined as attending church, holding a calling, regularly attending the temple, etc.) are valued as educative. The important distinction, IMO, isn’t between academic and non-academic (whatever that means); but between applied and non-applied approaches to the material. The purpose of reading scriptures isn’t understanding them for the sake of understanding them, but understanding them for the sake of being a better Mormon.

  2. Rameumptom said

    I think there’s a couple of issues at hand.

    First, D&C 130 teaches that whatever principle of intelligence/knowledge/wisdom we gain in this life rises with us, and puts us at more of an advantage than another who has not gained that intelligence. While a basic moral basis of gospel stories is important, and possibly enough to exalt at least some, it may not be sufficient considering the concepts of eternal progression and intelligence.

    Second, the Church focuses on the basics today, primarily because we have so many new converts that do not know the milk, and therefore are not ready for the meat. Even among the life long members, there’s a steady supply of them who have never read the scriptures all the way through even once.

    Third, I’m right now studying the concepts of Order/Chaos and how it relates to Creation, Agency, Atonement, and Eternal Progression. Some of my thoughts on it are here:
    Order Out of Chaos

    In the issue of learning the gospel on many levels versus just the moral of the story, it may be that we limit the order we create for ourselves, allowing chaos to maintain power over us to an extent, and preventing ourselves from obtaining an exalted level of progression and order.

    Joseph Smith was big on symbolism. Today, the Church does not spend as much time on symbols as we once did. It may be that they attempt to be plain as Nephi was, but it may also be a danger in that we miss out on much of what God tries to teach us. Why? Because I believe that much of God’s truths can only be understood/revealed via parables, symbols, and the like.

    There is no English word that translates well for the Hebrew word “hevel” (Vanity of vanities). So, members miss out on key concepts the Preacher in Ecclesiastes attempts to teach.

    Symbols can often take the place of long explanations. But unless someone looks, they will not notice. We miss out on many parables today, simply because we cannot see the symbolism behind the nice story.

  3. Ben S said

    I think that careful scripture study inherently involves more academic methods and techniques, even if they’re not labeled or understood as such, or incompetently performed. Reading carefully, looking in the Bible Dictionary, checking footnotes for GK or HB are all “academic” but at a very low level.

  4. BrianJ said

    “are questions like the one that Brian was pursuing in the previous post, a waste of time?”

    No. And that was not what I intended to say. What I meant was that they are not essential pursuits, or at least not essential for all to pursue. Some of the questions I pursue—the gnats I appear to strain at—are very personal and meaningful to me, but I cannot expect or demand that others follow me down those roads.

    I am an academic by profession, so I am constantly reminded that my interests matter intensely to a select few—even though the end results will (hopefully) eventually hold some importance to thousands of people (whether they connect the dots or not). In one sense, part of my job is to take something that is a very small problem—a problem 99.99% of highly educated people have never even considered—and make a “big deal” out of it because I see my focused efforts—efforts that consume all of my time—effecting small benefits for many others (and that very small benefit for many outweighs the very high cost to me, making my work worthwhile).

    So I don’t mean “academic” as a self-disparaging label. Rather, I mean that I am knowingly narrowing in on a relatively small problem—“small” because it is only a minor nuisance to most people (small in quality) or “small” because it only affects a few people (small in quantity).

  5. Jim F. said

    I’m still having some difficulty understanding the problem that Brian’s post raises, but I certainly don’t think that raising those kinds of questions is a waste of time. How can we know in advance which supposedly academic question will turn out to have more than merely academic consequences? I think it is important that we are actually work in the academy not take ourselves too seriously, but I also think it is important that we not be dismissive of the importance of the academy to culture as a whole.

  6. Paradox said

    To Robert C.

    Here’s a question for you:

    Is God a scholar? Are there any reaches of truth that he does not see or examine with the well-trained eye of a master? Has he not obtained that mastery through perusal, inquiry, and dedication to discovery in exactness, to the service of Heaven and His children?

    It seems to me that part of being a god would be to understand, with all-encompassing exactness, the character and order of ourselves and our universe. And in more ways than we realize, our scriptures do contain what we need in our personal pursuits of these discoveries. And what the scriptures don’t personally contain, they inspire us to go looking for truth where it has been discovered until we find it, or to reveal to those around us what has always been true but has never been realized before.

    We look beyond the mark when we begin to deny the truth in order to support our own theories. A good thing to remember is that all we discover must be in harmony with the doctrine of Christ. All things that are not in harmony with Christ’s doctrine are falsehood. Anything beyond the scope of that testimony truly is not crucial to our salvation, and it does not matter if we understand it or not.

  7. Robert C. said

    Thanks everyone for comments. Just a couple replies for now.

    #2: Thanks, Rameumpton for your link to that interesting post on order and chaos—I esp. like your thoughts on how these issues relate to the rather curious comments in the D&C regarding water. I strongly recommend Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil on this topic of chaos and creation, if you haven’t read it.

    #1: smallaxe, I’m intrigued by the discussion of Elder Oaks’s 2000 General Conference talk on becoming in the post you linked to. The discussion in the blog thread seems to have taken the view that becoming is an end in the means-ends dichotomy. I think this is a mistaken—or at least uncharitable—way to read Elder Oaks’s talk. I would actually like to explain myself at some length on this at some point, hopefully in a follow-up series of posts. For now, I will offer a preliminary response (with apologies to others for spending my time thinking about this issue rather than responding to other comments).

    First, in case anyone has time or interest, I have a paper draft posted here where I try to think about the economic metaphor of money that Isaiah uses (“come and buy without money”), which is quoted several times in the BoM, and in a chapter that explicitly takes up the theme of the word of God later, to broach this topic of consequentialism and the “usefulness” of the word of God. Since economics is perhaps the most consequentialist of all disciplines, and my PhD is in (financial) economics, this a topic I am very interested in (and it is precisely the tension I feel between consequentialism and what I will call “the sacred” that has gotten me so involved in projects like this blog, which have—as a matter of consequence—taken their toll on my academic career!).

    Next, I think it is very interesting that Elder Oaks uses the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt 20) in his talk since this parable seems to teach precisely that an economic, means-ends kind of dichotomy is faulty, at least when it comes to understanding spiritual matters. That is, one of the (infinite, though not limitless) ways in which I think we can understand the parable is in terms of breaking the notion of economic logic which reductively thinks about being and doing as distinct, independent, and unaffected by each other. But labor, in the parable, plays a redemptive rather than economic role. (A lot of Marxist literature, in the social sciences and humanities, has made a similar observation in its critique of capitalist culture quite generally. I’m currently studying Giorgio Agamben’s work on this topic, who appropriates Walter Benjamin’s critical theory in interesting and productive directions—highly recommended, though difficult writing to digest, at least for me….)

    Applying this parable of the laborers in the vineyard to the idea of studying scripture would imply, in my view, not that we think about scripture study in terms of (merely) what useful principles we learn and can apply in our daily lives, nor in terms of what knowledge we acquire that is not measured in terms of its usefulness. Rather, it seems that the parable (applied to how we approach scripture) is teaching that we should think about the very process of scripture study itself more carefully. To study scripture carefully is not a venture that simply helps us acquire knowledge, whether useful or arcane, but a labor of love that purifies and changes us in the very process of study and contemplation.

    In many ways I think that approaching scripture in order to merely obtain more or better (propositionally-flavored) knowledge is to fall prey to same logic that undergirds consequentialism (even if inverted…). This is like the initial grasping for the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Knowledge, in the Gospel, is sacred, and is not graspable in that way. Experiential knowledge (yada) cannot be divorced from our being, but implies a manner of being—i.e., becoming.

    If we approach scripture this way, viewing the texts as a gift that is to be cherished, aesthetically enjoyed—like a good meal that is not measured merely in terms of its nutritional usefulness—then I think we will be more open to being surprised by what we learn along the way, without becoming fixated on the usefulness of what we are studying. The real irony, in my experience, is that if we approach scripture this way, by losing ourselves and our own productivity-obsessed-agendas in the process, our scripture study ends up being the most productive….

  8. joespencer said

    Some really scattered comments:

    Perhaps because I came to academia through my study of the scriptures (I mean that literally: I never would have ended up being an academic were it not for my desire to understand scripture better—and I continue in academia not because I find it somehow “fulfilling,” but because I find that it continues to help me read scripture), I have a hard time drawing a distinction between the academic and the non-academic in studying the gospel. When someone offers a word of self-deprecation in saying that this or that particular foray into scripture is “merely academic” (and Brian has already made clear that that was not exactly what he was doing), I wonder if what’s really happening is that s/he is just confessing that one’s essentially speculative investment (and I regard all actual readings of scripture to be in essence speculative) did not immediately yield an abundance of fruit.

    Let me approach it this way: it seems to me that the real distinction to be employed here is not academic/non-academic, but speculative/non-speculative. I understand the word “speculation” here in its usual non-scripture-study meaning: to speculate is to invest or to wager in the hopes of high yield. To read speculatively is to invest or wager one’s time and effort into scripture in the hopes of learning or understanding or changing or feeling something. To read non-speculatively is to read without investing or wagering anything—and thus it is effectively not to read. If one reads speculatively—if one hopes that something will come of one’s reading—I don’t see how one won’t begin to read academically, attempting to make better one’s wagers or investments.

    Or let me approach the question this way: how could a reading of scripture not be academic, given that one is reading, and especially given that one is reading today? The very fact that we are a people educated enough to read in the first place means that we approach scripture from within a profoundly academic culture. Even the “simplest” reader of the scriptures in today’s world brings hundreds of academically informed attitudes and understandings to the text. If such a reader eschews “academic” approaches, that usually just means that s/he is content to take as unproblematic certain academic positions. (A cute example of this is the returned missionary who says he doesn’t need to bother with academic studies of the New Testament because “Jesus the Christ is good enough for him.”)

    In a word, might it just be that the word “academic” enters into discussion of how to read scripture primarily through either (1) the embarrassment of the committed reader when her work occasionally yields no real fruit or (2) the guilty accusation of the uncommitted reader when he feels that others have something interesting to say about scripture?

  9. Clark said

    I get what you are saying. I think calling all this consequentialism is perhaps too broad though.

    I think the point is that while reading the scriptures we can use them either directly to effect some change or indirectly (typically as a catalyst for personal revelation or at least thought). If we are worried about change then there’s a lot of ineffective ways of reading scripture. We want it to ultimately improve our behavior. All the “facts” (either historical or theological) are worthless in a certain sense if they don’t change our behavior.

    I think the danger for close readings of the scriptures is that we get so caught up in the theories and structures we’re learning that we don’t leave room for either change or allow the scriptures to be a catalyst.

  10. Robert C. said

    Joe #8, I love your description of speculation—brilliant!

    The main issue I’m thinking about, translated into the language of your comment, is basically the question of what counts as fruit. The danger is to only count as fruit that which helps you live a more successful life, where success tends to be measured rather reductively—in terms of, say, church activity/attendance.

    The better approach, it seems to me, is to become so lost in reading and pondering that studying becomes pure joy–that is, it becomes an end in itself (or, even better, as Agamben would say: a pure means…).

    I think this approach, in the end, will actually lead to the most successful kind of life and church activity. However, if one starts “with the end in mind”—to take a cheap shot at Covey—then this kind of wholly-consecrated reading is desacralized from the beginning.

  11. Robert C. said

    Clark #9, my concern with this catalyst-to-revelation idea is that I think it is still too easily used as simply a justification for scripture reading lite (and I mean lite primarily in the sense of not really studying with all of one’s heart and mind, regardless of what formal or informal mind-training one has had…).

    But putting it this way also clarifies the opposite danger of what I will call pondering lite—that is, studying the academic questions, but keeping your heart somewhat distant from the teachings, again maintaining a strict being-doing division, as though one could study without one’s heart being affected by the process. The trick is, I think, to become so engrossed by the issues raised in scripture, that you see everything in life through the lense of these issues. Or something….

  12. Clark said

    While I agree Robert I think there’s no end to rationalizations for reading the scriptures poorly. Intellectualizing them so they become interesting to the academically minded is just as much a rationalization as is ignoring context and culture in reading them. (Say the near mystic oriented hermeneutic of thinking of a question and flipping open the scriptures randomly)

    So I completely agree but I think how I’d respond is that if one is reading catalytically then one really should be focused on making the place for revelation carefully. Most people doing this are like Olivery Cowdery in D&C 9 who “took no thought save it was to ask…” Preparing a place is just as much work and just as difficult as is drawing out structures academically. (IMO)

    I think the scriptures are pretty clear on what to do — at least in broad strokes. We have to study carefully and we have to liken the scriptures to us. (Which isn’t just letting analogy run wild) That is we have to read them in terms of us.

  13. joespencer said

    Robert #10,

    Nice points. Agreed on the concern; agreed on the solution. :)

  14. Karl D. said

    Nice post Robert and the comments have been very insightful and helpful. Don’t have much to add but I did enjoy the post and comments.

  15. SmallAxe said

    The real irony, in my experience, is that if we approach scripture this way, by losing ourselves and our own productivity-obsessed-agendas in the process, our scripture study ends up being the most productive….

    I hope you know that you’re preaching to the choir here; nonetheless, I do want to raise the issue of for who this kind of approach ends up being the most productive.

    From an individual perspective, I suppose this tends to be the case; however, from the perspective of the institution I can see how such an approach might be inimical to its vitality. Take, for instance, David Wright (http://www.lds-mormon.com/dpw.shtml). Whatever we’re calling an academic approach does not promise the kinds of results an institution is interested in. As such, I’m not sure we can expect anything other than a consequentialist/speculative/means-to-an-end approach from the institution.

  16. Robert C. said

    Smallaxe #15, I think you raise a fascinating question regarding institutional vs. individual goals. I’m quite sympathetic to many aspects of your point, but in the end I don’t think there really needs to be that much tension.

    Joe Spencer has an article that is coming out in BYU Studies soon (is that right Joe? your paper from MSH at SVU a couple years ago, or so…) that I think gives a nice account of the institutional versus the deeper work of gathering individuals. We’ll have to revisit this topic after the article comes out.

    In the meantime, I think David Wright makes some serious missteps in his approach to the academic (at least vis-a-vis the institution, at least in this article). For example, it’s hard for me to understand what faith in the Book of Mormon means for him. Also, rather than raising and exploring questions, the tone of his article comes across as dogmatic (in favor of historical criticism and his particular conclusion) and even condescending (because he states his conclusion so assuredly, without exploring or even acknowledging other reasonable readings of the evidence he cites). More specifically, his textual analysis of Alma 12—13 and the Epistle to the Hebrews is interesting, in itself, but he then makes rather strong conclusions based on this inference that cut at the very heart of the institution’s identity (esp. back then!). I’d be more sympathetic to Wright had he offered a more robust discussion of what it means to understand the Book of Mormon as scripture, even if it was a 19th century composition, and/or if he showed deeper appreciation of the institutional and cultural situation that his speculative conclusion was subverting (without throwing a productive bone to what he was subverting—after all, I think scripture study should always subvert our false beliefs, so I’m not criticizing his subverting questions). For example, I think a much more productive and responsible approach to thinking productively about the historicity of the Book of Mormon is Jim F.’s essay “Scripture as Incarnation” (see Keith Lane’s review here).

    I don’t know much about what happened to Wright, but I am inclined to believe that the individual-institution tension was not handled as well as it might be, on both sides. My sense is that the institution, for it’s part, has been doing a better job of dealing with this tension in the last two decades. And scholars, for their part, have also been more thoughtful, less presumptuous, and more respectful of the institutional desire to preserve the strengths of its tradition, esp. as enacted by the less-scholarly-inclined, in the face of the undulating developments of more scholarly and speculative (and I mean speculative in all the best ways) approaches.

    In short, I’m actually fairly optimistic about the possibility of navigating the academic-institution tensions, and I think there is good evidence that things have been moving in positive directions (though I will confess the signs I have in mind are outside of CES rather than inside CES, but I believe the broader institutional and cultural trends will bring CES in a more positive direction, sooner or later….)

    • joespencer said

      Yes, Robert, it’s my “four discourses” paper from that SVU conference that will be in BYU Studies.

      And thanks for your further comments here, because I wanted to say much the same thing about Wright’s positions, etc., but hadn’t the time the other morning.

  17. SmallAxe said

    Real briefly, I agree that things have changed in the past 15 years, but I think from an institutional perspective we’re far away from advocating any kind of “academic” reading of scripture. Tolerating, yes; but advocating, no. And I think a primary reason for this, as reflected by DW’s story, is that an academic approach cannot promise the kinds of results that the current approach does (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

    Perhaps more importantly, the tools of an academic approach can be integrated, but only if they serve an explicitly apologetic purpose (which reverts back into a theory of consequentialism) OR if those wielding the tools are diplomatic enough to present their conclusions in a palatable manner. The problem with the latter is that I tend to see diplomacy as a skill, which some have and others don’t. DW wasn’t so diplomatic, and in his case it wasn’t his conclusions per se that got him in trouble but, as you put it, his lack of appreciation and condescension. I think where this leaves the individual in relation to the institution is that only the savvy, diplomatic, or tactful are tolerated as promulgators of an academic view (or, of course, the explicitly apologetic).

  18. Gilbert said

    Thank you all for your comments. I have been battling myself for months now on why I should be studying the scriptures and your deliberations have honestly been heaven sent. I am anxious to start studying my scriptures without the (usually false) expectation of finding some new insight. Thank you again.

  19. Robert C. said

    Smallaxe #17, I agree, except where you say Wright was not “diplomatic enough,” I’d say he was not theologically mature enough.

    My own sense of biblical studies is that there have been similar tensions within Christianity more generally, and scholarly approaches are finally proving spiritually “fruitful” (in the broad sense, not in a merely consequential/narrow sense of fruitfulness…) only as they become more theologically mature in the sense of recognizing that the theological value of scripture is somewhat distant from (though not irrelevant to) the kind of issues that that historico-critical methods are attuned to. I have in mind the kind of work done under the aegis biblical theology, by the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs, or even Gerhard von Rad (or literary approaches to scripture).

    Here’s a quote from Jim F.’s article excellent article (that I mentioned above, but now I have a link to the online version) “Scripture as Incarnation” to indicate more of what I have in mind:

    [S]ince the eighteenth century, and especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those approaching the Bible and, later, also Latter-day Saint scripture, have used some variation of the academic understanding of history as their entree into the question of scriptural historicity. We understand scriptural interpretation to be a subset of scholarly historical understanding, but the science of history has raised and continues to raise a variety of questions about the historicity of scriptural accounts.

    I think the mistake that Wright makes is not simply that he’s not diplomatic enough, but that he is ultimately giving theological priority of historical-critical(/textual-critical) methodology in a way that I think is idolatrous rather than apocalyptic, in the sense that Jim F. describes in his article “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse”. (Sorry for again simply referring to one of Jim’s articles rather than trying to explain things myself more succinctly here, but I do think these two articles of Jim’s address the problem underlying Wright’s approach rather directly….)

  20. Katherine P said

    Probably an over-simplified response to the original question:

    Elder Eyring: “In time, if you truly begin to feast upon the scriptures, you will find that they become a part of you. I remember that with Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who was as familiar with the scriptures as anyone I know. I would sometimes listen to him and say to myself, “Now is he quoting the scriptures, or are those his own words?”
    President Gordon B. Hinckley is the same way. His ordinary speech is scriptural prose, and even in his pleasant, easy moments, that prose is a part of him. I think he has a great literary gift, in part because of his knowledge of the scriptures. I was with him just the other day when he very casually pulled a scripture into the conversation and it fit perfectly. Obviously the scriptures are in him; they’re part of him.
    We all can have the dream of someday having the word of God be so much a part of us that the Lord can draw upon it and we can learn to think as He does. And in the process we can come unto Him.”
    –Henry B. Eyring, “A Discussion on Scripture Study”, Liahona, July 2005, 8

    Maybe it is like striving to master a musical composition.. you struggle and struggle and struggle with the notes until the result is a beautiful but seemingly effortless portrait of charm. Along the way, you grapple with every aspect you can, until you are satisfied that it and yourself are one. You think you have the process mastered, and then again there is no end to the dimensions from which to approach it, or the next piece. Am I referring to the composer or the interpreter? Both, actually.

  21. Laura K. said

    Hey everybody,

    This blog was incredibly neat for me to find! I actually was looking for a friend’s blog, and this popped up–I so greatly enjoyed and benefited from reading over your conversation!

    My friends, in 2 Timothy 3:16 it says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Another way that word “perfect” has been translated is “adequate.”
    Two chapters earlier, in 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul tells Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

    Without going very deep, the word study means effort to understand. My Bible dictionary says that the Greek word used here for “study means: 1. to hasten, make haste; and 2. to exert one’s self, endeavor, give diligence

    My friends, why would God give us His Word except to make Himself known to us? Why should we hesitate to diligently study all we can about the Lord–Who does the Bible really say He is? What does it say about people? About sin? About eternal punishment? About goodness and holiness? These are terribly important questions; questions God has given us answers to! What does 2 Peter 1:3 say?
    “According as his divine power has given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:”

    Isn’t that incredible? In Christ Jesus we are given all we need for life and godliness, and we are commanded to study, to know the Scripture. What a privilege to be able to know God, why should we be slack about understanding His revelation to us?

    There are so many other passages that talk about knowing God and His Word. I encourage you to find them, and to study them. I am committed to living my life upon the foundation of the Bible, and a clear understanding of it. It has always been more than sufficient for me. If there is anything I can encourage you to do it is this: Get a good, readable, trustworthy translation of the Bible, and read it all you can. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Bring every hard question you have ever had to the Bible, study it, and see if it can provide sufficient answers for your life. They are not always easy answers, but they are truly good because they are God’s answers.

    Find out who God is, who Jesus is, and who you are, according to the Bible. I dare you, encourage you, and beg you; you must know what God has to say for yourself. Because in the end, it does not matter what anybody’s opinion or belief is, but does it agree with God’s truth? God did not write Scripture for it to be obscured, but to be known and understood clearly.

    Because of Christ, Laura

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