Scriptural Literacy

300px-Great_presidential_puzzle2I’ve just been called as a seminary teacher. Today I was sustained during sacrament meeting. I’m really excited about it — I enjoy working with youth, I enjoy the scriptures, and I enjoy teaching. Heck, I’m even a morning person. The course of study is the Doctrine & Covenants. It has me thinking about how to help them understand the role that the scriptures play in the church.

When I was twelve-or-so years old, I had a teacher who wanted us to understand the importance of the scriptures. He encouraged us to bring our scriptures to class each week, and even took roll on who brought theirs. However, I remember consciously asking myself, “What’s the point? We don’t learn from the scriptures at church. We learn from the lesson manual.” In other words, I hadn’t made the connection that the doctrines in the lesson manual were based on scriptural teachings. Like most Sunday school classes, the teacher would have us read passages from the scriptures, but I didn’t understand that the purpose of those scriptures was to provide a legal basis for the principles in the lesson. (Of course, twelve-year-old boys mumbling quietly through verses of KJV prose doesn’t leave one understanding much of anything at all.)

So it was kind of a revolutionary connection for me when I finally realized that church policies and doctrines weren’t true for their own sakes, that they were at some point founded on scriptural interpretations. It gave me a sense of power to realize that if I understood the scriptures, I could understand the practices of the church, and even evaluate them. I could test them against my own readings of the scriptures — I could say, “I don’t think that’s what that scripture really means.” And that was really cool. I had a reason to reach beyond the 100 “scripture mastery” verses I had learned in seminary. Rather than treating each verse as a stand-alone prooftext, useful only for proving my rightness in religious debates, I felt a desire to understand the context of those verses, the intentions of their author, and relevant interpretations for them in my life.

I have no idea what it will be like to teach seminary, but one of the goals I have set for myself is to ignite an understanding of and love for the scriptures among my students. I want them to feel comfortable, comforted, and confident with the scriptures. I want them to feel ownership and empowerment in their scriptures. So my questions for you today are: (1) When did the “scriptures are actually relevant to my worldview” light turn on for you? and (2) what made that change happen?

23 comments for “Scriptural Literacy

  1. So my questions for you today are: (1) When did the “scriptures are actually relevant to my worldview” light turn on for you? and (2) what made that change happen?

    No clue at all. Can’t put a time on it because it wasn’t that important to me. The thing that I still remember of seminary, now approaching nearly 20 years ago, is scripture mastery chase. That was a lot of fun. I was pretty darn good at it.

    That said, I think I probably appreciated more the conversations I had with my friend and coworker during my high school days, who challenged my Mormon views.

  2. It happened to a small degree my senior year with a seminary teacher who recognized how to help us apply the scriptures rather than give his own interpretation, then really hit on my mission. My dad wrote me a letter and bore his testimony of the blessings they could bring when really one really changes his life habits and attitudes based on what he learns. The Spirit bore witness, I opened the Book of Mormon, and my life changed.

  3. Interesting, I have exactly the opposite impression. In my experience the lesson manual (or Handbook, or General Conference talk) trumps the scriptures every time. The scriptures are mostly used as devotional aids or as prooftexts to support what’s in the manual.

    If we come across a passage of scripture that disagrees with the manual, we spend a lot of energy trying to explain or justify why the scripture really doesn’t mean what it seems to say, or doesn’t apply to our time, or is “mistranslated,” etc., and if this fails we just ignore the scripture. Rarely do we consider the idea that the manual might be wrong, since correlated materials are the ultimate authority in Mormonism. And since the manual is written in clear, modern English, it is hard to just ignore or reinterpret. It’s much easier to simply ignore or re-interpret the scriptures instead.

  4. I agree with Wondering. While it would be great if the scriptures were held higher than the manual, it is clear that in the current church, the manual wins in any case of disagreement between the two.

  5. I may have missed something, but I think Dane tries to capture this dichotomy in the membership. As he was when he was younger, I am sure a lot of members still are:

    “What’s the point? We don’t learn from the scriptures at church. We learn from the lesson manual.”

    His newfound understanding of the scriptures is more progressive and mature for his faith, IMO. Even if many other members might say, “We learn from the lesson manual” and hold the scriptures in low regard, it seems difficult to say that the scriptures — though they may be hard to interpret or read — would ever be seen as wrong.

  6. wondering and Ariel, you’re accurately describing the church as it is. My point isn’t that scriptures trump the manual at church — they obviously don’t. My point is that learning to navigate the scriptures directly, rather than through the medium of the manual, allows one to explore doctrines directly, and perhaps discover alternate interpretations that make more sense or work better. Of course, these interpretations do not suddenly become binding on the institution of the church, but they can be valuable to the individual seeking to make sense of eternal things.

  7. What it will be like, Dane, depends entirely on the makeup of the class you’ve been assigned, and the commitment the teens’ parents have to what you’ve been asked to offer.

    If a sufficient number of them will let you get started with the message you have to give, then you have a chance to impart notions of personal importance. If not, you’ll be crying “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” and calling their parents for help. Moments like that become opportunities for everyone involved to grow.

    My answers to your questions are 1) I’ve taken that notion as a given most of my life, but the light gets brighter with each re-read. and 2) Most of the changes in my outlook have happened when I search the scriptures, or obey instructions to read them, for the purpose of serving people other than myself.

    In that sense, the light burned brightest when I taught the scriptures to others, especially during the time I was a seminary teacher and a primary teacher.

  8. The thing we have to understand as Latter-day Saints is that we aren’t in the business of getting people to the scriptures and having them understand the words on the page within a historical/literary/philosophical context. That intellectual jargon may thrill our minds, but that thrill is fleeting and does not bring us any closer to eternal life.

    The purpose of the scriptures is to testify of Christ. They’re to help us build our relationship with Him through the Holy Ghost. If our lessons and scripture study leave us thinking that the records of men are amazing instead of our God who inspired the events within the stories, we’ve missed the mark in a small way that makes a huge difference.

  9. I’m often surprised at the amount of explicit fatalism (not uncommonly cynical) that shows up in the comments…

    To answer your questions, for me it was when I read the scriptures for the first time because I wanted to. And I wanted to because I began to make connections in the scriptures that no one had taught me, but that I was discovering on my own for the first time. That’s still perhaps my greatest motivation. I don’t know how to teach that. But I’ve a great deal of confidence that you’ll be exactly the kind of teacher who will facilitate it.

    A different, but related question: why do the scriptures provide the legal basis/authority for the principles? I don’t mean the question in a leading, but sincere way. Mormon and Moroni and their assistants formed a sort of correlation committee, albeit a prophetic one (our own correlation is likewise under the direct supervision of prophets); the masoretes and early Christian committees were unprophetic committees, as were their spiritual ancestors (e.g., the Deuteronimists and the post-exilic committees). Why do we take their formal committee presentations as a check on current, prophetically lead declarations/interpretations/etc.? Why their status as a legal check? (Hope that’s not an irritating threadjack for you Dane – feel free to delete it if you find it distracting).

  10. Paradox, you’re killing me ;) The attitude that we can’t learn anything practical from the scriptures, that reading them uncritically is some kind of warm-fuzzy conduit to Christ, is, I believe, wrong. This attitude is the reason our Sunday school and Gospel Doctrine classes are so unengaging — because we’re taught that actually discussing the text of the scriptures doesn’t matter as long as you just listen to someone read from them and make a few extraneous statements tenuously related to the scriptural text. The teacher asks questions and stock answers are recited — is this the way that the scriptures bring us closer to Christ and eternal life?

    James, I’m glad you take the thread that direction. I’d considered mentioning that explicitly in my comment #7 — that part of the empowerment in learning to approach the scriptures directly is the power to start assessing the relative worth of the various scriptures themselves. In other words, the realization that even the scriptures are not an infallible foundation. Then you discover that the scriptures say A, B, and C but the lesson manual says B, C, and D — and you believe in A, C, and E! Now what to do? To me, this is where scripture and religious study becomes interesting — when it’s an engaging exercise that demands something of the student rather than just a handing out of simplistic answers to difficult questions!

  11. When I was 14 years old and in seminary. Book of Mormon. Lakeridge Jr. High.

    We read scriptures every day as a family, so I had a foundation, but I had a great teacher who made it really come alive for me. It’s like he took what I had been taught and made it important.

    Hey, anyone who can have rapport with 14-15 year olds is pretty much genius in my book.

  12. Good for you for teaching seminary! Having a teacher who wants to teach and who loves the scriptures has always been essential in a seminary class.

    The scriptures became “real” for me in the middle of my HS years when my sister came home from being in the Hill Cumorah pageant and told me of her experience there and shared some of her insights about 3 Nephi with me.

    I was not an excellent seminary student at the time, since I was not disciplined enough to complete the home study course in my senior year. But when I got to BYU (and you could still get in without graduating seminary in those days…) I did connect well with the scriptures again.

    When I taught seminary years ago, we were regulary coached by our CES contact that we teach the scriptures, we don’t teach about the scriptures and we don’t teach the manual. That has always been my mantra as I teach, wherever I teach in the church.

    (Yesterday as I taught Lesson 13 in our High Priests group, we spent our whole lesson in Section 84 and Section 121; we didn’t crack the manual once.)

  13. The scriptures became real to me the first year of Seminary- we spent every minute in the scriptures, and our teachers asked us questions and played devil’s advocate to force us to use the scriptures as the basis of our reasoning. I really dived into them once I got into BYU- and we had to write essays based on the text- and only the text- the same way we would write an english essay- ie no “section 89 is great because on my mission I saw someone stop smoking and start believing” type essays.
    Nowadays I’m a Laurel advisor, and in some lessons I write Doctrine/Principles/Application at the top of the board and the girls have to figure out where all the information and ideas and rules we’re discussing fits. A lot of times asking the girls “how would you explain it to your friends?” forces them to think doctrinally.

  14. I have always found refuge in the scriptures while teaching in the church. I discovered that I could greatly expand the range or appropriate classroom material simply by sticking very closely to the scripture itself. It was greatly liberating. No one could complain that I wasn’t a slave to the manual if I was actually teaching scriptural material (in big hunks). Made the classes so much better. Our religion, I think, is buried in the scriptures. It is inspiring and rewarding to dig it out. It is a true worship experience. That was my epiphany.

    Welcome to the world of seminary teaching. I do the same, starting my fourth year. The “Teacher’s Resource” manual is near worthlessness, but the scriptures themselves save the day. As it turns out, I think the student manual is far more helpful in suggesting avenues into the scriptures than the teachers’ manual, which tries to turn every lesson into a topical lesson like YM/YW. Resist. Teach a love for the scriptures and teach the kids how to read them. The kids (at least the ones in my class) are ready and eager (and surprised).

  15. To answer your questions: 1) When I was sitting out in the hallway of the dorm at 2 am in terrible pain, not knowing why, and deeply pondering the meaning of “and all these things shall give you experience” (it was a kidney stone… and 25 years ago an impacted one meant major abdominal surgery and dropping out of school for a semester), and 2) trying to make sense of that experience.

    That said, as a current teacher of 12 year olds, if you had my students, I think that you would find a goodly percentage of them have already got a strong sense of “an understanding of and love for the scriptures among my students… comfortable, comforted, and confident with the scriptures. . . feel[ing] ownership and empowerment in their scriptures” at least to the extent that their own cognitive development allows. Young people in the church, at least in my ward, have been reading the scriptures at least daily (and sometimes twice daily) since infancy. They know the stories, and can apply many of them to everyday life. The quickest turnoff to them (and I’ve seen it happen) is for a teacher to assume they don’t start from a point of intimacy with the scriptures, or worse, for the teacher to be less intimate with the scriptures than they are.

  16. My patriarchal blessings tells me to study the scriptures so I can teach them. I got it when I was 14, so I’ve basically been studying ever since.

  17. Question (1) When did the scriptures actually become relevant – when I was about 13 or 14. Leading into Question (2) that is when I actually started taking my testimony seriously and really wondering how a young boy my similar age could have such a remarkable experience. Something else happened – I actually started reading the Book of Mormon and praying every night. Also, this is when I started early morning seminary. I like to think of early morning seminary as a “safe” environment much like a good home should be. I may have had to face all kinds of things when I went to school, but for a short while I was feeling the Spirit and feeling a bit of my Father’s love as I studied the scriptures. I feel I was blessed by having several loving seminary teaches who put up with an obnoxious teenager. I like the lesson manuals because generally they try to help us see the big picture and connect the various dispensations. The story of Ruth is nice, but if you understand that through her choices her descendants included King David and our Savior (The King of Kings). I look back to my mission and realize that the only way that I could really teach is if I had the Spirit. How many of us can think about those many experiences we are teaching or bearing testimony and we are hearing words and wonder where those words came from. I think that is the greatest thing you can do as a seminary teacher to help the kids feel the Holy Ghost and understand what those promptings mean. That is why we read the scriptures and prayer to feel the Spirit – to feel closer to God.

  18. “It gave me a sense of power to realize that if I understood the scriptures, I could understand the practices of the church, and even evaluate them. I could test them against my own readings of the scriptures — I could say, “I don’t think that’s what that scripture really means.”

    And to think we claim not to be Protestant. :)

  19. Even though I attended Seminary, I came to appreciate the scriptures as a narrative with their own message when I was on my mission, where we were reading lots of scripture daily and discussing it with each other. Toward the end of my mission, after having the read the Book of Mormon through five or six times, we were able to play a game in which someone whoud read a verse from the Book of Mormon and we would guess who the speaker was and where it was located in the book, as well as the context. We did not have all the particular verses memorized, but we knew the narrative and the message.

    Another thing we were able to do in this time was to create cross references in the Bible to the 3 LDS books, something that did not exist in 1970. We added other cross references that were not in the footnotes. We saw how the scriptures were much more an integrated whole than we had thought.

    For me, a great part of the importance of understanding the scriptures is to understand the narrative that the Lord has provided us through his prophets, rather than simply use bits and pieces of scripture to construct our own narrative. For one thing, understanding them in this way helps us to see how later prophets quote and allude to earlier scripture passages, explaining and expanding on them. The Book of Mormon is a good place to gain this understanding of the narrative and editorial process of scripture production, being more thematically integrated than other books of scripture.

    The opportunity to engage the scripture narrative in teaching Seminary for four years, and then gospel doctrine classes in four different wards over the last 20 years, has reinforced for me the importance of teaching the scriptures as much as possible as the narratives that were given by the prophets. Third Nephi and the Saviors’ taking the time to note omissions from the nephite records and dictating to them Malachi 3 and 4 affirmed my understanding that Christ is very much the Editor in Chief of the scriptures, and that there are things we learn from how the narratives are assembled and presented to us.

    When I teach, I am not satisfied that learning the gospel means reciting standard mottos from outlines of church doctrine. As much as possible within the 30 minutes usually available in Sunday School or Priesthood Meeting, I try to draw the meaning from the scriptures instead of tossing off unrelated passages as proof texts for a general proposition. I try to show how passages are aware of and cite and quote one another. I offer alternative and additional readings of familiar passages and suggest connections to other scripture passages that are unfamiliar to my class. And then I relate those principals drawn from scripture to the basic doctrines of the gospel, including unifying themes such as Christ’s atonement, our premortal existence, and the temple ordinances. These are themes that Hugh Nibley returned to again and again even as he brought in connections form all sorts of extra-scriptural literature and history.

  20. Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: but they are they which testify of me.
    And this is life eternal, that you might know Him the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.
    In the scriptures we see Christ cleansing the temple grounds, we see him forgiving his executors, we see him herding the Israelites through the Sinai, we see him praying, we see him tempted, we see him teaching the children, we see him explaining the reasons for the Babylonian captivity lamenting it but promising to restore them with at least the same tenderness that a Mother shows towards her children, we see him submitting to his father, we see him taking upon himself the sins and sufferings of the world.
    I don’t fully understand the principles of that last. I take it on faith that it was necessary as advertised and that it works – and my faith has been confirmed in the exercising of it. But I don’t completely comprehend it. But it does tell me a lot about Christ. And that account has done a lot more for me, than any explanation of the associated principles. Of course we need to learn principles because they are necessary to accomplish our goals and be who we want to be. Learn them from whatever sources you can. But what use are principles if we don’t have goals or a clear idea of who we want to be? (Or they are flawed in that we aspire to something that cannot exist because of inherent contradictions in our ideal)

  21. @Adam in 19
    since when do we not do things simple because Protestants do them? I hear they believe in Jesus Christ too.

    as for the questions:
    1) on the mission, i started reading the scriptures as they were, and not simply as the correlated collection of catchphrases and quotes they were presented as earlier.
    2) come to think of it, it was actually earlier, when I truly came to know my Savior Jesus Christ, the year after I graduated from HS. At the time however it was simply “read the scriptures cause thats what I’ve been taught”. It was on the mission when my study really took off.

  22. I currently teach the 10/11/12-year-old boys in Sunday School — that’s right, the Old Testament. If they don’t have their Bibles when they come in, I send them straight to the Library to get one.

    In class each week, we (and I mean they) read an average of an entire chapter’s worth of scriptures (or more) out loud, straight from the Old Testament, not from the lesson manual. They get the principles they need, the drama and interesting stories, plus all sorts of new vocabulary words. The boys get to actually learn how to read the Bible (with the help of my explanations and dramatic flair, of course)! And it’s all straight out of, you know, the source material, rather than some watered-down, derivative version held together by a loosely tangential moral to the story.

    It’s a shocking and a novel concept, I know. But it’s highly effective, and I recommend it for any age group and any setting.


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