A friend recently said she needs a “new approach” to studying the Book of Mormon. I’m not sure what her old approach was, but I assume from her insightful gospel doctrine comments that it had something to do with topics, lots of cross-referencing and plenty of electronic note taking. It is an admirable approach and, in my opinion, a huge step forward from reading straight through for story line–or not reading at all. I studied like that for years until I got distracted by “disjunctions,” the word I use to describe things that that do not make initial-reading, surface-level sense to me (i.e., when the angel in Nephi’s vision does not seem to respond directly to Nephi’s questions; Moroni 6:1; the antecedent of the word “priesthood” in Moses 6:7; the jump from Mosiah 3:15 to the next verse; or Antionah’s series of questions in Alma 12; etc.).
I am still very fond of disjunctions, but lately I have enjoyed another methodology. At the risk of being laughed at by the much more erudite scriptorians who write and read this blog, I offer a simple and straightforward study technique: words. Even a single word.
Some of you can no doubt enlighten me about the historical issues and problems created when comparing the 1800s American English words Joseph Smith used in translating the Book of Mormon with the various versions of the Bible, which were translated from other ancient languages. However, I believe I will remain a fan of close reading; spending a full BYU semester studying King Lear, Act I, Scene i with Arthur Henry King convinced me that words matter; sometimes Dr. King would only get through a line per hour discussing the meanings and depths of single words. I think words and phrasings can create, alter, slant, and highlight meaning. And that was “just” Shakespeare; scripture is the word of God.
Last time I began reading 1 Nephi 1, I did not make it through verse 1:1 before being slapped in the face with Nephi telling me he was “highly favored of the Lord.” Of course, I stopped. Who would not want to be favored of the Lord? Highly favored sounds even better. Though I had never fixated on it before, the phrase, “highly favored” derailed me from my story reading, and, frankly, I have not yet made it back to finish 1 Ne 1:1, much less 1:2.
It turns out that very few people are “highly favored”; studying who and why and how has made me think twice about adopting that goal, myself. Though I am still pondering possible synonyms, “highly favored” is used only 8 times in scripture–one time in the New Testament (Mary) and seven times in Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1:1; Mosiah 1:13; Alma 9:20; Alma 13:23; Alma 27:30; Alma 48:20; Ether 1:34). Good stuff.
That development pushed me to study plain old “favored” and plain old “plain,” a completely not-plain word that I could talk about for at least thirty minutes, even though I am not close to finishing up my study of it. In the last few years, I have stumbled onto studying “establish,” “power,” “authority,” “write/writing,” “turn,” and “Mary” (used only twice in the Book of Mormon by proper name), just to mention a few.
I tend to get distracted with new words before I fully finish my study of the old ones, but the goal is to
- note patterns, repetitions and oppositions;
- pay attention to who uses the word, when, why and how (which has pushed me toward an intriguing study in Book of Mormon intertextuality);
- identify other words used consistently with or around my word (hint: look for “angels” around “highly favored” references);
- consider synonyms that ought to be factored into my word study, especially if the word shows up in the New or Old Testament; and
- ponder why that little unit of language matters and what it all has to do with me.
So, yes, much to the dismay of my family members who get to hear ad nauseum about whatever small smash-up of letters is my current obsession, I really have spent the better part of the last few years focused on a few words. I figure I can always revert back to studying “disjunctions,” topics, or stories, but I do not think I will run out of words to study any time soon. (And hopefully that doesn’t make me an “offender for a word.”)