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Found in translation

July 10, 2014

Book of Mormons

A week and a day ago I attended a lil’ shindig at Zion’s Books in Provo featuring three theologians’ thoughts (say that three times fast) on the question, “Is scripture relevant?” Joseph Spencer, David Bokovoy, and Adam Miller each presented short papers on this topic as it relates to recent work they’ve done, and I loved it! First of all, let me just say that while I’m kind of a newbie to this scene, from what others say and from my own observation last week, these three are great thinkers to keep on one’s radar of hip Mormon theologians. Yes, hip.

You can listen to each of their papers here, and there’s even photographic proof that I was there and that it was crowded.

Joseph Spencer started off, and he suggested, “The key to reading scripture is to begin from structure…. I’m convinced that there’s a close relationship to be found between the structures found in scripture and the structure of good religious living.” He goes on to give several examples of these structures from his work on the Book of Mormon in the two books he has written thus far, ending with a brief reading of structures within 1 Nephi. Speaking of the book Lehi is shown in vision, the brass plates, Nephi’s small plates, Nephi’s large plates, and Lehi’s own record, Spencer says,  “Over the course then of the first half of 1 Nephi, Nephi forces us to grapple with five sets of records, all of them introduced in the structural elements that Nephi uses to organize the narrative he tells.” He suggests that with this as context, as Nephi tells the story of obtaining the brass plates, he also tells what it means to relate to or, I would say, even obtain scripture in the religious sense:

Nephi portrays himself as a clueless lad who believed the life of faith was solely a matter of getting the rules and the constraints right: ‘I will go and do’, etc. And he portrays himself as coming too little and too late to the realization of what a life of faith amounts to, only once, that is, he turned his brothers irreparably against him. … Whatever the ethical implications of Nephi’s actions or what he attributes tot the Spirit, he’s trying to tell us something about the complexities of religious life, of what it is to read scripture, of what it is to grow into spiritual maturity, of what it is to have ruined fraternal relations and still to seek reconciliation.

I recommend listening to the whole paper, and it’s only 11-12 minutes long. That reading of 1 Nephi 3:7 may rub against the grain for you. If it’s not persuasive in the context here, listen to the full context, and if it’s not persuasive in the full context, after taking the time to consider it you’ll still have a keener, more developed sense of your own thoughts by figuring out why you disagree with his. Especially when they come from people earnestly seeking faith and faithfulness instead of doubt and rationalization, I take these experiences of bumping up against new ideas as invitations and opportunities rather than threats.

David Bokovoy was next and aimed to offer an LDS audience an introduction to higher criticism, a scholarly attempt to explain contradictions in the Bible by referring to textual origins and can be one secular approach to scripture. He explains that this doesn’t have to be a faith-demoting approach however, and points out that by seeking to better understand the ancient context in which scriptures were written, we may have to put our modern concepts on hold: “Reading modern conceptions into ancient texts limits the author’s ability to tell us what he knows.” Then he showed how allowing instead of explaining away the inconsistencies in the book of Jonah, taking a “failed prophetic prediction” seriously, offered insights I’d never encountered before about how God works with agency. He suggests that “prophets…don’t always get it right.” Listen to the idea in the podcast. In Jonah, a willingness to repent as the people of Nineveh did can even alter God’s command or will. “There was, perhaps, a way to cause the prophecy [of destruction] to be unfulfilled.” This reading is cool, but what is even cooler is what it led to next. He gives an interpretation of the effect of God’s word directly versus filtered through anyone else. I’ve been fiddling with a way to summarize it here, but it’s really much better if you go listen to it yourself. You can jump to the context and reading that follows around 16:00 in the podcast if you’re interested.

Finally, Adam S. Miller rounded things out with a reading from his new book, Letters to a Young Mormon, which I bought that night on the spot. It’s published by the Maxwell Institute that is also sponsoring the seminar I’m currently attending. Miller described the book as letters to his teenage daughter that are an attempt to explain “what it means to hang on to Mormonism and to life, both in all their beauty and all their costs.”  Introducing his work, Miller said he sees “translation as ontologically fundamental.” That’s a fancy way of saying that translation is inherently part of being who we are, of living our lives, and he framed his remarks by proposing that every time we read scripture, it is an act of translation. The following quotation is long, but really not long enough given all the good stuff I didn’t include, and it’s highly recommended:

The restoration restored scripture. God showed himself to Joseph SMith first as flesh and bone and then as ink on paper. When he appeared in the sacred grove, Jesus quoted scripture. When he appeared in Joseph’s bedroom, Moroni quoted scripture and then sent Joseph to unearth more. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. and then he retranslated the bible. And then he revealed the Book of Abraham. Then Joseph went back and started again…

Joseph always expected more revelations, and “translation” was one vital name for the hard work of receiving them. For Joseph, translation was less a chore to be done than a way, day by day, of holding life open for God’s word. Translating scripture is a way of renewing life. In translation we lend our lives–our minds, our ears, our mouths–to the local resurrection of old texts, dead words, and lost voices. We put down our stories and take up theirs….

Now the task is ours. When you read the scriptures, don’t just lay your eyes like stones on the pages. Roll up your sleeves and translate them again. Every morning and every night, we are each commanded to sit down at our kitchen tables, spread out our books and notes and papers and pens, and, with a prayer in hand, finish what Joseph started. …

To succeed, you’ll have to pray always. You’ll have to study it out in your mind.  You’ll have to listen to the beating of your heart. You’ll have to consult the best books. You’ll have to take careful notes. And then you’ll have to bring all these raw ingredients to bear on how God wants you to retranslate the next verse you’ll read. Led by word and Spirit, you’ll be empowered to do it and when you’re done, you must ask the Lord if–for you, at this time, at this place–you’ve done it right.

You’ll know you’ve done it right if, as a result of the work, you repent.

I’m sitting on my hands to keep from giving you the rest of the chapter, much more out of mercy than stinginess or laziness, but I will say this: I really resonated with Miller’s ideas.

For me, finding meaning in the scriptures isn’t so much about decoding hidden ciphers and treasure boxes that God has planted like a master video game designer. It’s not about mining the text with the kind of ecologically consumptive relationship that mining implies. It’s more like taking on the scriptures as kin, getting to know them, living with them in various settings–around the breakfast table, in a rainstorm, on a road trip, while remodeling and babysitting and crying and crawling into bed. It’s about taking a stand in faith that my life has purpose and meaning and that the words and people in the scriptures had purpose and meaning, and that by bringing my meaning to bear on those texts, I transfer (or translate) my own very real, valid meaning to the scriptures as they simultaneously transfer their meaning to my life and purpose, and new, personal scripture and meaning results–all via the work of translation. We are meaning-making machines. And, as Miller says, how do we know if we get it right? Because we end up repenting as a result. We end up finding God and being found in translation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2014 9:04 pm

    While we’re on the topic of translation, my friend Ben has a great article, “Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed” in the journal Religious Educator. Check it out:

    • July 11, 2014 5:56 pm

      Thanks for the plug! I’ve got a short review of Bokovoy’s book coming out.
      I confess that people like Joe and Adam often go way over my head. I understand the words, but I might as well be reading tax law or something. (That’s even before Jim Faulconer comes into the picture and they start talking philosophy.)

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