Last week at General Conference, President Burton delivered a talk titled “Certain Women.”
She began by referencing two passages in Luke: 8:1-3 (which refers to “certain women” who ministered to Jesus) and then 24:22-23 (which concerns “certain women” who went to Jesus’ tomb). She then says:
I have read and passed over the seemingly unremarkable expression “certain women” numerous times before, but recently as I pondered more carefully, those words seemed to jump off the page. Consider these synonyms of one meaning of the word certain as connected to faithful, certain women: “convinced,” “positive,” “confident,” “firm,” “definite,” “assured,” and “dependable.”
Then there is a footnote to that paragraph:
In English the word certain has a second meaning of “a selection of” or “a variety of.” But it is the meaning of assurance, confidence, and faithfulness that I most wish to emphasize today.
The Greek word translated as “certain” in these two passages is the indefinite pronoun, so the meaning is “some,” which is how virtually all modern translations translate it. In the New Testament, the word does not have any connotation of being sure/confident. See, for example, Luke 7:36 or 8:49, where it is translated as “one.” Sometimes the connotation is rather negative, as with the “certain men” in Jude 1:4.
It’s hard to know what precisely President Burton had in mind: the speech itself implies that “convinced” is a synonym for “certain” in this context, although it also suggests that they are synonyms for just “one meaning” of the word. The footnote seems to back off from the claim of the talk, but is itself somewhat problematic in that the issue isn’t what the English word means; it is what the Greek word meant. And in Greek, this word doesn’t have “a selection of” as a secondary meaning–it has it as the only meaning. Had she more clearly signaled that the text itself has nothing to do with the idea of “certain [=sure] women” and that she was just sort of riffing on the language and using it as a springboard, that would be one thing. But I don’t think that is what the talk or footnote does here. And, speaking anecdotally, that isn’t how at least some members of the audience interpreted it.
Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Straining at gnats? Whining like only a grammar snob can whine? Maybe. But there are three reasons that I am bothering to write about this:
- President Burton uses these passages as a launchpad to talk about women who were certain (=sure) of their testimony. But these passages don’t do that. I worry that women (and men) today might think that they need to be certain (=sure) in order to be disciples, but that isn’t a message that you find in the scriptures. Actually, the message of the scriptures is precisely the opposite (see, e.g., Mark 8:33 and 9:24).
- I don’t want to live in a world where the scriptures can mean anything I want them to mean. I think they mean something, and I don’t think we are at liberty to disregard that meaning or advocate for other meanings. In English, words like “cleave” and “sanction” each have two (opposite!) meanings. When those words appear in the scriptures, we aren’t free to pick whichever meaning we prefer: we need to look at the underlying language (where possible) and the context and determine which meaning the author intended.
- Inasmuch as her talk can be interpreted as describing a spiritual impression (“recently as I pondered more carefully, those words seemed to jump off the page”), the inaccuracy of her usage will undermine her credibility and perhaps raise disturbing questions for those who are already struggling.
I don’t wish to pick on President Burton personally. She delivered a phenomenal, woman-focused talk, and mostly used the “certain” thing just as a frame to allow a variety of material to cohere well. Her substance is good; I would like to see more talks like this. And it is not her fault personally, but rather a systemic one, that we do not have in the church a mechanism to vet talks for issues such as this, nor any training in using the kinds of tools and techniques which would have permitted her to check it herself. Which is really a shame, because the tools are out there and they are easy to use. A website such as this one will allow you to do everything you need without any specialized training: just click on any word in the KJV and you can (1) see a basic definition of it, (2) see what part of speech it is, (3) see what other contexts it is used in and (4) see how the underlying word is translated in other places where it occurs.
I had a similar thought, that the word “certain” was not being correctly used in the talk. And while “certain” might mean either “some” or “convinced” in English, I suppose it doesn’t work the same way in other languages. But the speaker explained herself, at least in the written footnote, so she knew what she was doing and was doing it for a purpose. I’m okay with that approach.
However, it is possible that years from now, Relief Society and other lessons will perpetuate the error that the word “certain” in that verse in the English scriptures means “convinced”, because someone at General Conference said so.
Phenomenal post Julie! Thanks for this! A friend who noted this on Facebook (equally as faithfully and charitably as you in this post) received a lot of invective implying he was apostate or in some other way unfaithful, so good luck!
I appreciate the tactful, charitable way you have made this important correction, Julie. Thank you especially for that.
Great post, and charitably accurate. I didn’t hear the talk but now put it in my Sunday queue for reading, so thank you for that as well.
I have actually heard a few times from the pulpit that we as Latter Day Saints are not to doubt our faith at all. This is what happened with Uchdorf’s “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” Members just cannot seem to help themselves by taking an official statement one step further than it should be taken. So, using the word “certain” in the context of faith can be problematic in many ways. This is certainly not Uchdorf or Burton’s fault; it is cultural.
Still, I will have to read the talk. Thanks for the post.
I note that in other languages, the translations add a square-bracketed word (“des femmes [convaincues]” in French; “[bestimmte] Frauen” in German) because the linguistic trick only works in English. And of course the translations also include her paragraph stating that the word “certain” has two meanings in English, so they’ve managed to preserve the framing Sister Burton set up, regardless of linguistic error. It comes across as though she were riffing on a scripture and explaining the license she takes, so maybe the error corrects itself in non-English versions?
I noted the surprising riff on “certain” and took it as just that. As a result, I have a different take on your third concern (“undermine her credibility”). Many speakers derive authority from the scriptures. They interpret, translate, apply, but all the time sourcing from scripture. It’s the scholarly approach. Their words carry the weight of scripture plus study and logic. But some few speak from their own authority. They offer new meaning, not just derivative of the writers of old but also of themselves. I’m thinking mostly ofJesus in the Gospels, but to my hearing some of our Mormon apostles do this too. I heard President Burton asserting this kind of authority–the ability, authority, and confidence, to add to scripture with a new voice.
“the issue isn’t what the English word means; it is what the Greek word meant”
Wouldn’t the issue be what the original Aramaic word meant?
Great post, with which I (of course) agree. A few thoughts:
To me the written footnote reads as a post hoc rationalization. My guess is she wasn’t aware of the other English usage when she originally wrote the talk, and somewhere along the way (before or after the oral presentation?) someone pointed out the other meaning and the footnote was added to acknowledge it and clean it up. (But of course it doesn’t succeed in actually cleaning it up.)
I really like your point that this is a *systemic* problem in our Church education and culture. There’s an anti-intellectual bias in how we read scripture in the Church today. In Kirtland over 100 Saints (including many women) spent the equivalent of a semester learning Biblical Hebrew. Within weeks of entering my mission to Colorado in 1977 we had C. Wilford Griggs reading directly from the Greek New Testament in a packed Know Your Religion fireside (which was influential in spurring my own interest in learning biblical languages). But that sort of thing seems to be actively discouraged in the church today.
There are things one can do even short of interacting with the Greek text to avoid this kind of a pitfall, such as:
1. Read the scriptures extensively. To my eye and ear “certain women” as “sure/convinced women” doesn’t feel at all correct for those passages, even without looking anything up. “Certain X” is a pretty common construction in the KJV, and if you’ve read it a lot I think just by feel you would realize it didn’t have the proposed meaning here.
2. Consult an English dictionary. It’s true that if you ask someone cold what “certain” means she’ll probably say something like “known for sure; established beyond doubt.” But if you crack a dictionary you’ll find “specific but not explicitly named; some but not all” and it wouldn’t be too hard to realize that’s the applicable usage here.
3. Here’s a specific trick I like to use sometimes. Go to biblegateway.com, search for Luke 8:2. You’ll see a button that says Luke 8:2 in all English translations; press that and instantly you can view over 40 translations of that verse on a single page. Since they almost all use “some” it’s clear which English meaning is intended here.
That’s even before we get to simple tools to access the Greek for limited purposes without an actual knowledge of the language, which Julie illustrates. But this type of careful work is not being taught or modeled in our seminary and other scripture classes. It’s not really that hard or scarey, and it wouldn’t be that hard to incorporate some of this into our seminary curriculum.
My third point brings to mind the practice of Elder Mark E. Petersen in his books. When he quoted a passage of scripture, he’d recite the same passage in like a dozen translations to establish he wasn’t wresting it somehow. Perhaps that was overkill, but it was a system that worked for him.
I had the same issues. It’s a nice thought, and I appreciate that many times something comes to you while reading the scriptures that isn’t really based on the words you’re actually reading.
But words do mean things, and once this talk is translated it will be nonsense. There is no way that many other languages will.translate “some” to mean “sure”.
I don’t think Julie (or I) have any problem with reading scriptures for personal inspired meaning and application, and it was otherwise a fantastic talk.
There are at least two kinds of interpretation or meaning here. One is inspired personal application, the other is “original intent,” which would be borne out by looking at context, other translations, or underlying languages.
The problem lies in using one’s personal understanding (as it appears she was doing, though contestable) as if it were *identical* with what scripture intends, conflating the two meanings into one, reading her understanding authoritatively back into scripture. If that isn’t what she was doing, the talk would have greatly benefitted from making that distinction clear with just one sentence.
This isn’t ultimately about Sr. Burton’s talk, nor is it merely nitpicky academic gatekeeping, although it may seem that way to some. Rather, how we read scripture matters deeply, and most Mormons implicitly take their cues from how scripture-reading and interpretation is modeled in General Conference, the Ensign, etc. From that modeling we develop certain assumptions and normative approaches that have at times proven spiritually fatal. We desperately need spiritual insight, divinely customized to our own needs, AND we need to be able to read scripture carefully, deeply, for what it actually says and teaches. Those two things are unlikely to always be the same, but they don’t have to be, provided we recognize what each is for.
Nice discussion, Julie. Yes, the problem is systemic, on several levels. First, the LDS approach to scripture tends to be that ignorance is bliss. Lots of talk about scripture but almost always superficial. Second, Correlation has intensified this problem (see Kevin’s remarks above) by squeezing out any intellectual-based approach to scripture analysis from curriculum materials or official venues. Third, the college instruction in religion required of LDS students at the BYUs and provided at Institutes is not college-level, at least compared to religious instruction provided at most other universities or seminaries. We sell our students short. The only path to actual scriptural education within Mormonism is self-education.
When I suggest the establishment of a Church Theological Department to provide the same sort of depth and expertise in matters of exegesis and doctrine that the Church Historical Department provides for historical issues, I generally get booed off the blogging stage. Which just shows not simply that we have a problem but that most Mormons (at any level) are completely unaware of the problem. Key word: credibility. Ignorance is bliss only in the short term.
I sympathize with people who oppose proof texting, but when the Spirit does it so frequently, it makes it seem like less of a problem.
It’s not a problem, provided you indicate you know that your particular usage is a departure from the contextual meaning. That didn’t happen very clearly here.
Somebody blogged a few years back on “prophetic misinterpretation,” noting that Jesus sometimes took scriptures out of context to teach. Elder Oaks (Jan ’95) affirmed the legitimacy of that approach, saying, “Scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today. Even more, scripture reading may also lead to current revelation on whatever else the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time.”
That said, I agree that in a worldwide church, this type of issue will come up with increasing frequency. I’ve been stewing about this since that post about the KJV.
To provide some gentle pushback, I don’t see the exercises we do to try to discern the original intent or meaning as being particularly fruitful. I know it’s popular among academic types that like that kind of linguistic or logical investigation, but once those approaches have simplified the conventional, this named prophet said this divine thing approach, it raises the question of why we’re expending the effort to know what some priest pretending to be Isaiah believed about his Bronze Age cosmology. In the scriptures we essentially have translation of copies of copies x 10^5, and in probably half the cases the guy at the very end of the line wasn’t he person they said they were anyway. We can go through all this effort to figure out what some ancient prophet may possibly have thought in a totally different context, or we can just listen to modern prophets. If we take seriously the idea that Monson has as much authority as Isaiah I don’t see why this should be a problem.
Of course, there will always be some nod towards prior scripture due to our Protestant heritage, but I’m actually okay with the rather superficial way we reference it. At the end of the day the scripture isn’t the authority, and like Joseph Smith with the Song of Solomon we should feel free to wholesale discard a scripture that doesn’t sit well with us, but then quote it later if it does.
Intellectual exegesis can be an interesting rubics cube, but for me personally it’s orthogonal to the meat of the spiritual experience. Some may disagree, but I suspect my perspective is more common given that the fastest growing denominations seem to driven more by spiritual emotion and charisma than intellectual analysis.
Interesting post. Makes me thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to give a talk which will get dissected by several million listeners. I’m curious, I’ve known that some GA’s utilize scholars at BYU to proof talks and serve as sounding boards. Is there assistance available for the speakers?
I am certain that it’s too soon for a comparative reference to l’affaire Durrant from October 2015.
“I worry that women (and men) today might think that they need to be certain (=sure) in order to be disciples”
This post exemplifies the disconnect between the LDS leadership and intellectual believers. While the former lauds certainty and cocksureness of the truthfulness of the traditional LDS truth claims about the nature of the cosmos and human history (i.e., God has a body of flesh and bones, God exists as a godhead of three distinct personages who are not three hypostases of a single being, and ancients traveled by boat from the Arabian peninsula to the Americas 2600 years ago), the latter tends to look down at expressions of certainty in favor of a perpetual state of questioning that cautiously leans in the direction of supporting the LDS church’s truth claims.
I find it interesting that you point to Mark 9:24 as evidence that the teachings of Jesus support the questioning believers more than the absolutists. If you read Mark 9 in its entirety, I think it could well be interpreted as a gentle chastisement of questioning believers in favor of those who are absolute and unquestioning in their belief. The message of the 4 gospels very much seems to be just that. The doubting Thomases are tolerated, but the unwavering faithfuls who experience little to no doubt are preferred.
Even though you are technically correct that certain should mean “some” and not “convinced,” “positive,” etc., I think that President Burton’s interpretation is more in line with the spirit of what the LDS leaders truly desire: an absolutist embrace of LDS truth claims with little to no doubt. I think the reason the LDS leaders prefer the absolutists is because they are more likely to always back them no matter what and are more likely to rise to the occasion with alacrity when the LDS leaders call on them to do something. Of course, some of the absolutists end up embracing polygamy and Denver Snuffer and other ultra-conservative offshoots because of absolute belief in what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young said, but they constitute a smaller group than those who depart Mormonism in favor of secularism. The LDS leaders tend to perceive the believing intellectuals as susceptible to gentle winds that push them from leaning in the direction of supporting the LDS leaders to the opposite direction of expressing frequent disagreement, which often leads to expressing regular opposition. So many of who were former believing intellectual bloggers ten years ago are now ex-Mormons. I’m not saying that all intellectual bloggers are going to end up that way, just that the LDS church is a little wary of them, and that it seems evidently so in what is preached over the pulpit at General Conference.
“…most Mormons implicitly take their cues from how scripture-reading and interpretation is modeled in General Conference, the Ensign, etc. From that modeling we develop certain assumptions and normative approaches that have at times proven spiritually fatal….”
Ben S’s comment is a further example of the disconnect between the LDS leaders and intellectual believers. He seems to note how General Conference and the Ensign can sometimes mislead LDS followers in how they interpret the scriptures and subtly encourages them towards a more intellectual reading, which, in his estimation, will yield a greater attachment to transcendent spirituality that is above and beyond, yet still in conformity with, the earthly LDS church leaders. I can’t help but think that the LDS leaders would not look too kindly upon what he wrote. It could easily be construed as an assertion of knowledge above what the leaders say. The leaders have thought long and hard about how to maintain the greatest number of actives possible through how they present their messages in the Ensign and in General Conference, and they boast the numbers in favor of their approach. I think that if the leaders were to apply Ben S’s approach to the scriptures, that we would see a much weaker LDS church. Many people are turned off by intellectualism, for one. And most of those who embrace intellectualism end up turning to secularism and rejecting Mormonism. The idea that an intellectual approach to the Bible and LDS-specific scripture will lead individuals toward a greater attachment to the LDS church is an illusion that too many apologists and believing intellectuals seem to fall for. The typical believers look for single passages in the scriptures that give them warm fuzzies and confirm their preexisting biases about LDS truth claims. The LDS leaders like people to read the scriptures that way, and they deliberately do their darnedest to exemplify such an approach to scripture-reading in their talks and magazines. They want people to sit down and read just enough to experience a good strong confirmation bias combined with a good amount of guilt over the thought of not following what the leaders tell them to believe and do, but not think too hard about it to the extent that they often find themselves in question and doubt.
I don’t think that you are whining like only a grammar snob can whine. I think you’re doing the opposite. It’s been my experience that Liberal Arts/English major types despise the idea that a written passage should only mean what the author intended it to mean. They have the belief that any written passage should mean whatever the reader wants it to mean.
So the fact that you want the passage to mean what the author intended is great.
Yes, the talk could have stood clarifying more the difference between original intent and personal insight. But I don’t think Julie’s three concerns are framed in the best way. Regarding #2, sure, the scriptures shouldn’t mean whatever we want, but they can definitely mean whatever the Spirit wants. Regarding #3, inaccurate usage shouldn’t undermine credibility in the saints’ eyes. If it does, I don’t know that the solution is to ask leaders like Sister Burton to not share such spiritual impressions as this one; the solution is to ask the saints to be more aware of how the Spirit teaches us through the scriptures.
The Spirit often gives people eisegetical impressions, putting ideas in the mind that are unrelated to the original intent. That is a common way for the Spirit to work. People shouldn’t feel like they can’t share an insight until they’ve checked their Greek. I like the ideas in this thread of teaching the saints some basic Bible study tools and techniques, but I would never want that to be done in such a way that saints feel like they mustn’t share idiosyncratic insights until they’ve mastered those tools. That’s my fear—that if done in the wrong way, it will make people balk at engaging the scriptures.
Imagine if Joseph Smith had hesitated to record or share the several sections of the D&C that use the term “dispensation” in an idiosyncratic way that is distinct from the Greek source passages in the New Testament? If those KJV phrases catalyzed new spiritual insights, the insights are inspired and should be shared.
I thought the same thing. I’ve heard from numerous women who thought it was a powerful message, and the principles in the talk are universal, but the jumping off point only works in English as the result of ambiguity in our language.
This is something we know Joseph Smith did, get an inspired new idea based off of a mis-reading or misunderstanding of the English Text. We see this in the JST, we see it in the D&C, we see it in his talks. I don’t think Julie is saying that this is what is wrong. For one, there is also a big difference in the small nascent Church, and worldwide/multi-lingual Church where, for a growing majority, the KJV is NOT the base text, and the tools for ‘accurate historical linguistic context’ are now very, very readily available, and that the talk transcript has to literally change the scripture in non-English versions of the talk to make the point work.
Imagine if this had a part in the talk itself noting that while she had learned this was not the original language intent, the spirit spoke according to her understanding to teach a true principle through the scriptures nonetheless, just as had been done through Joseph. What a great additional teaching opportunity that would have been!
Dan Lewis- you are welcome to assert whatever you want, of course.
“I can’t help but think that the LDS leaders would not look too kindly upon what he wrote.” This is not my experience.
“It could easily be construed as an assertion of knowledge above what the leaders say.” Who do you think wrote the Gospel Topics essays? Why does Elder Ballard repeatedly tell CES and others to consult LDS scholars and scholarship? Do you think Church leaders are somehow quasi-omniscient because of their callings? Or that it automatically grants them spiritual access to all knowledge? That milque-toast Apostle Elder McConkie asserted quite the opposite.“Though general authorities are authorities in the sense of having power to administer church affairs, they may or may not be authorities in the sense of doctrinal knowledge, the intricacies of church procedures, or the receipt of the promptings of the Spirit. A call to an administrative position of itself adds little knowledge or power of discernment to an individual, although every person called to a position in the Church does grow in grace, knowledge and power by magnifying the calling given him.”
I think they would admit without reservation that specialists in whatever field have knowledge they do not, but you seem to think that poses a theological problem.
Also, when did reading in context become an “academic” approach?
I don’t have as big a problem with the “riff” as doing this in a talk intended for an international audience. All GC talks should be vetted by the translation department and everything that requires explanation (that isn’t included in the talk already) and footnotes in translation should be rejected. This would deal not only with this lame linguistic punsmanship but also with much of the americentrism.
Sunday School President, I think outright rejection of any language-specific elements would greatly water down the prophets’ words. Imagine if you removed all the language- and culture-specific elements in Isaiah, or 1 Samuel, or Jeremiah? Those elements provide treasures to be mined, not obstacles to be eliminated. I figure the same goes for a Chilean member reading a conference talk by an English-speaking general auxiliary.
Nathan, a responsible talk about Isaiah explains the linguistic and cultural background relevant to the passages cited, since none of us speaks the language he was writing in or comes from that culture. That’s in opposition to the constant cringe-worthy moments in which our GAs don’t bother explaining things to more than half of their audience. The difference between a talk written with that audience in mind and one that doesn’t consider them is obvious and striking. The anecdotes etc can be the same, and it’s even possible to talk about peculiarities of a certain language, but that is all done consciously and tactfully rather than just blundering around.
I’d be happy to accept riffing on “certain” women if we never again had to hear “search the scriptures” quoted positively, without any explanation of “for in them ye think [etc., etc.]”
Sunday School President, you’re not comparing like to like, and so I think you missed my point. Isaiah does not give a responsible talk about Isaiah; later commentators do. Isaiah himself uses puns and allusions without explaining the linguistic and cultural background.
My favorite scripture about not everyone being certain remains D&C 46:13-14 “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” Certainly (knowledge) isn’t given to all. Those who believe despite doubts also have a spiritual gift. To expect certainty for everyone is to deny the very scriptures one is supposedly certain of.
Ben S, you ARE dismissing General Conference and the Ensign as potentially misleading on how to use and apply the scriptures. I can’t help but think that you’re crossing a red line there. Bear in mind that general conference talks and correlated material, which form the bedrock of information about the LDS church and its teachings to the LDS membership, really don’t feature believing intellectual defense narratives. Also bear in mind that the LDS leaders do not attach their names to the essays and tuck them away in the lds.org website, but do not feature them in GC talks. In my interactions with LDS members and lower leaders, I have found that most of them are unaware of the essays.
As I wrote in a response to Julie, the LDS leaders tolerate the doubting Thomases, but prefer the unwavering devotees who act quicker than they think. Their narratives featured in the Ensign and GC are meant to encourage the unwavering devotees and the confirm their biases. Why introduce them to the intellectual narratives if it might cause them to have faith crises? The intellectual believing narratives are a back up in case members experience faith crises because of historical/doctrinal issues. The LDS leaders do their best not to disrupt the blissful ignorance of the rank-and-file devotees. Plus, the leaders don’t appear to necessarily see the believing intellectuals as important for what they say more than for what they are; namely, believing intellectuals. They can point to them as examples of smart people who believe and have written a lot of pages defending their beliefs. That way they can more easily ridicule and dismiss critics and skeptics as uninformed and jumping to conclusions.
“when did reading in context become an ‘academic’ approach?”
It is above and beyond how most believers read the scriptures. They are oblivious to the context. Introducing too much context is likely to lead the rank-and-file to doubt. Hence the GC talks and Ensign articles don’t feature context too much.
The thing that believing intellectuals don’t seem to realize is that members appear to prefer absolutist narratives about truth than metaphorical and relativist narratives about truth (which are predominant among believing intellectuals). The rank-and-file are uncomfortable with narratives about history and the nature of god that are nebulous. They like to believe that they are believing in hard cold unadulterated truth. The believing intellectuals muddy the waters, and the LDS leaders are cautious to feature their narratives too prominently.
Thanks, Dan Lewis, for trying to widen the divide in the Church between mindless members and so-called intellectuals. Which camp would you put God in, by the way, since his glory is intelligence?
Julie, thank you for pointing out one more instance of something said from the pulpit that just doesn’t add up. A further concern here, which occurs often in our Americanized general conferences, is how to translate this particular definitional twist in English into scores of languages that do not share this double meaning. I know that the Church’s translators constantly deal with the problem of trying to render certain “insights” into the English language in other languages where the particular insight is simply impossible. You’d think in an international church there would be some kind of training for general Church officers about potholes to avoid in their preaching. The Church actually does have a department devoted to advising translators on how to handle such language problems. But we can’t prevent them, because it is an unbreakable rule of Mormonism that you don’t “counsel the Brethren.” So we just have to fix it afterward.
“Isaiah himself uses puns and allusions without explaining the linguistic and cultural background.” This is not a good argument.
Isaiah does not explain because he (like most other scriptural authors) was speaking to contemporaries and natives who shared his cultural knowledge and literally speak his language.
Someone who knows they are speaking to an audience that does not share the speaker’s native knowledge (as in General Conference) should be more careful, like Matthew, who occasionally explains to his readers what nono-Greek terms mean.
Matt 27:33 “They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”)”
Or Ruth, where an ancient custom is explained because it is no longer in force.
4:7< < (Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel.) 8 So the guardian-redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal.>>
There are other examples of this in scripture, though it’s rare. But it shows that when they were aware someone might hear/read who might not understand, they clarified.
Dan, I don’t want to drag the comments down a tangent so I won’t say too much. But aren’t a lot of the Apostles themselves intellectuals? Not trying to be snide or anything, but Elder Oaks helped start the journal Dialogue and is a pretty senior Apostle. Apparently didn’t like what Dialogue became (no idea what he thinks of it now) but he’s written on LDS history. Many of the others seem pretty educated and pay attention to academic approaches even while emphasizing the key parts of personal revelation and inspiration. To suggest intellectuals are just there to point to as “see smart people believe” seems an odd way to portray things. Just looking at the types of degrees most have seems to bely your whole thesis. A surprising number have even been professors – I believe around half.
I point out how they (Church materials) tend to make use of one kind of interpretation, that it is not the only kind of interpretation, and that multiple kinds of interpretation should not be conflated, i.e. taking a personal reading as the contextual meaning. That’s only “dismissive” in the sense of untangling a category error.
This is a great post, Julie. Thanks for writing it in a way that is both charitable and enlightening.
Ben S., I completely agree with that; we’re on the same page there. I was responding to Sunday School President’s proposal that went further, that “everything that requires explanation (that isn’t included in the talk already) and footnotes in translation should be rejected. This would deal … with this lame linguistic punsmanship.”
I think she accidentally left one and a half sentences out of her talk: “…but recently those words seemed to jump off the page. IN THESE CONTEXTS, CERTAIN MEANS “SOME.” HOWEVER, TONIGHT I WOULD LIKE US TO consider [the] synonyms of ANOTHER meaning of the word certain as…”
No, this is not a mistake Elder Oaks, Cook, Bednar, or Christofferson (etc.) would have made. And, as you pointed out, her clarification is in the footnotes.
Thus, I agree with your own possible assessment–Whining like only a grammar snob can whine? Yes.
Criticizing a transition error takes away from the message’s overall magnificence–and it WAS magnificent and your nit picking it IS making a mountain out of a molehill. I knew what she meant the moment she said it. Perhaps by the Spirit. I forgave her and proceeded to really enjoy her message.
Ask your self the deepest question of all–deeper than your three reasons–why couldn’t you? Consider pondering Alma 1:26 as you search for that answer.
Clark, you’re missing a critical point: people who have intellectual pasts can lead organizations without intellectual narratives. The LDS leaders are intellectuals, you are correct. But they don’t push an intellectual narrative, but a simple one that has more mass appeal. They most certainly aren’t authoring highly intellectual narratives in defense of the LDS church (at least not in their current positions, Elder Oaks used to). As I mentioned before, they haven’t even attached their names to recent Gospel Topics essays on controversial topics. They push a narrative that emphasizes certainty (like President Burton), whereas most of the intellectual believing community appears to push a narrative of uncertainty.
I’m not sure I’d agree with that Dan. For one there have been some pretty intellectual oriented talks in conference and the Ensign, although not at many as there once were. I think that’s more a simplification and focus on the basics and application though. In particular I think Elder Oaks has done some amazing talks like that – intellectual yet given in a form that all can appreciate. I also would point to Elder Oaks and Elder Maxwell pushing FARMS and other such organizations. Most of which were engaging these controversial topics long ago. Again, not to get off on a tangent. Maybe when I have some time I’ll try to put together more carefully constructed thoughts.
I also think you are conflating an opposition between intellectualism and certainty (which is a really weird opposition I have to say speaking as someone with a background in the hard sciences) with complexity and simplicity. My sense is the church pedagogically (and quite wisely) tries to present things in a simple form. There is more complexity to be found if one desires it of course.
I’d just say that while there’s definitely a rhetoric of certainty, that’s because I think there are things we can know reasonably well. Further those are the things that are often most important religiously and often are simple in the sense of simple concepts with complex application.
Getting back on topic though, Other Clark mentioned my absolute favorite talk from Elder Oaks on how to read scripture. That is a focus on reading as praxis. What counted to Joseph Smith about the meaning of James 1 was that it got him to go to the forest and pray and meet God. That type of emphasis that can go beyond the straightforward meaning is a very important facet of scripture. (I could go on how this functions semiologically due to the ability to quote and quotes have meaning grafted into new contexts, but I’ll skip that)
What’s surprising to me is that you are saying the brethren want a narrative of certainty (and I think simplicity) whereas when you look at how they want us to read scripture it’s anything but. Rather it is a type of reading very much tied to what Umberto Eco calls the open text. That’s why Oaks quoted McConkie saying “scriptures open the door to the receipt of revelation. Oaks then continued saying, that “the idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today.” This is the catalyst theory of scriptural hermeneutics. And it’s a complexity very much pushed by the Church.
Iamfor Virtue, you knew instantly what the speaker meant, but what about the majority of the church (who don’t speak English), who were just confused or reminded that once again their leaders weren’t speaking to them? The non-English-speaking members I know who live outside the US are used to rolling with this kind of stuff, since it happens so often, but they do notice it. They are reminded that this remains an American church rather than a truly international one. Avoiding this kind of thing is really, really easy, and the church would be better off if the institution put more effort into it.
I think they really have tried much harder the past decades to avoid problems like that Owen. It’s more unusual when something like this slips through due to the idiom of English. To be charitable it would be very easy to make such a mistake if one was focused on ones talk and not the nuance of the scripture one was making. Honestly I’m surprised this talk made it through the process without one of the translators saying something. I know most of the time translators get the talks early. I had thought they gave feedback for problems like this one.
My impression, perhaps completely mistaken, was that there were a few oddities in this conference making me think that there were problems behind the scenes. Part of that may have been being unsure whether Pres. Monson could speak. There was the oddity of only one female speaker that may have been due to some unforeseen problem in the back too. Perhaps there were problems the prior week at the women’s session or perhaps unfortunately they just don’t do quite the same degree of care with the translation preparation. I don’t know.
Clark, consider the words of Gordon B. Hinckley in 1995:
“Some time ago I read the newspaper report of the remarks of a prominent journalist. He is quoted as having said, ‘Certitude is the enemy of religion.’ The words attributed to him have stirred within me much reflection. Certitude, which I define as complete and total assurance, is not the enemy of religion. It is of its very essence. Certitude is certainty. It is conviction. It is the power of faith that approaches knowledge—yes, that even becomes knowledge. It evokes enthusiasm, and there is no asset comparable to enthusiasm in overcoming opposition, prejudice, and indifference. Great buildings were never constructed on uncertain foundations.”
Not too long ago, your co-blogger Nathaniel Givens wrote on this blog (sorry I don’t have the link, but he did write about this) about these very words from Hinckley and how it was causing him cognitive dissonance. He didn’t like a Mormonism that emphasized certainty, but one that emphasized the opposite. He wanted a Mormonism that was about exploring and finding not about guarding well-established territory. It was yet another example of the disconnect between many intellectual believers and the LDS leadership. Much of what you write is disconnected with the certainty narrative that the LDS leaders repeatedly emphasize. This idea that the LDS leaders want members to read scripture with a sense of uncertainty is flat-out wrong. They want the members to read the scriptures as a confirmation of preexisting certainty biases that the LDS church is true. They most certainly don’t want them arriving at positions that are in friction with the LDS church leaders’ through their readings of scriptures. You and other intellectual believers want to have your Mormonism and eat it too. You’re imagining a Mormonism that just isn’t so.
To put it simply, the LDS leadership tries to get members to claim, “I know x, y, and z teachings to be true” as quickly as possible.
On the other hand, so many intellectual believers see themselves in a debate with not only ex-Mormon critics but also with the part of their brains that is leaning in the ex-Mormon direction and appeal to the idea that truth is uncertain as a defense mechanism against skeptical narratives. What they often don’t realize is that in an attempt to defend the traditional truth claims of Mormonism they ironically emphasize a narrative that is disconnected with traditional Mormonism.
I think Sister Burton ought to be given a break, even if the best research available indicates that the original Greek should be translated as “some”.
1. Nephi counsels us to liken the scriptures unto ourselves. (1 Nephi 19:23)
2. We are all weak to some degree in the eyes of God (Ether 12:27)
3. She’s in a calling that she did not seek and gave a talk she didn’t ask to give..
4. She was clearly described an experience of receiving additional insight from the Holy Ghost.
5. The original Greek manuscript of the verse she referenced isn’t available for examination. As Bart Ehrman states, we only have available “copies of copies of copies” of the Greek New Testament. And no two copies are alike. Who’s to say she didn’t bring forward a small insight that was lost over the centuries?,
Dan Lewis– I dispute the notion that LDS leaders want readers to approach scripture with certainty. Neal A Maxwell specifically refuted this line of thinking years ago. First his metaphor:
“The Book of Mormon is like a vast mansion, with gardens, towers, courtyards, and wings. My tour of it has never been completed. Some rooms I have yet to enter, and there are more felicitous fireplaces waiting to warm me. Even the rooms I have glimpsed contain further furnishings and rich detail yet to be savored. There are panels inlaid with incredible insights, and design and décor dating from Eden. There are even sumptuous banquet tables painstakingly prepared by predecessors which await all of us. Yet we as church members sometimes behave like hurried tourists scarcely entering beyond the entry hall. May we come to feel, as a whole people, beckoned beyond the entry hall. May we go inside far enough to hear clearly the whispered truths from those who have slumbered – which whisperings will awaken in us individually a life of discipleship as never before.”
He later referred back to this speech, adding:
“All the rooms in this mansion need to be explored, whether by valued traditional scholars or by those at the cutting edge. Each plays a role, and one LDS scholar cannot say to the other, ‘I have no need of thee’ (1 Corinthians 12:21).”
Dan you’re making a false dichotomy. Either everything is certainty or nothing is certainty. That’s why I said you are creating an odd opposition. Take science, especially the hard sciences. In one sense science is forever tentative. We embrace fallibilism. Yet scientists have no problem making claims of knowledge especially to well established theories of science. They are certain in the sense that they do not doubt. I doubt you will find many, if any, physicists who doubt the laws of thermodynamics for instance.
Some things we can be rather certain of. For most Mormons that’s the reality of Christ and his atonement and a few other key doctrines. Not everyone is always certain on those things. Again nothing Pres. Hinkley, as he testifies of his certain, says is at odds with that. Many of Hinkley’s talks were focused on doubt. But the opposite of doubt is not necessarily certainty but faith. Hinkley’s solution to doubt wasn’t feigned certainty but faith and optimism. As Hinkley said in conference,
So honestly I think you are just getting the message of the prophets wrong. Even though we know many things there are always new things to learn. Certainly the brethren want people to know doctrine, especially the key doctrines of the restoration. But the goal is not merely to have people say they know. That is pointless and a false faith. They want us to know by revelation. Again quoting from Pres. Hinkley.
Hinkley’s not even saying that only happens to a few. He explicitly says, “each man or woman.”
I earnestly think you’re fundamentally missing the message of Mormonism. It’s interesting that one of the most popular scriptures of the past few decades is Alma 32 – a treatise on faith. It is quoted from a lot.
Honestly, it seems like you think Mormons and the apostles reject Alma 32. Quoting from an other talk by Elder Scott,
Clark, the issue isn’t about what we can or can’t have certainty in, it is about the what LDS leaders emphasize vs. what believing intellectuals emphasize about certainty. I’m not making a false dichotomy. There is a huge distinction, and the OP is a perfect example. President Burton lauding certainty and Julie cautious about it.
I’m surprised that you bring up Alma 32 in support of the idea that uncertain hope is the emphasis of LDS scriptures. In the rhetoric of LDS leaders and much of the LDS scriptures, faith = certainty, not uncertainty. Let’s go through a few verses.
“And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, WHICH ARE TRUE.”
The author of Alma, here, is expressing the idea that faith is hope that something that he has already predetermined to be true to actually be true. You are conflating knowledge with certainty. The whole idea of Mormonism is that you don’t have to know the fine details about something in order to have certainty in it.
“if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, LET THIS DESIRE WORK IN YOU, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”
In other words, you can believe something with your own willpower alone. No signs are needed. As Elder Boyk K. Packer said, “a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it.” This is the epitome of certainty. You gain certainty by being more certain of something.
“Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
The “word” that Alma is talking about is the words that he is teaching the people. To put it in other words, the people are to plant his words in their hearts and the only way to know that these words are true are to consider them and not cast it out because of unbelief. In other words, just believe and voila! it is true. Alma is emphasizing certainty.
“But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.”
How does faith grow, according to Alma? By believing something long enough for it to take root in you. You strengthen your faith by strengthening your faith.
Alma 32 is all about confirming preexisting biases.
I think that much of the message of Mormonism comes as an inconvenience to you. Hence you misinterpret it to try to make it conform to how you think it should be or you appeal to a sort of quasi-relativism (i.e., “hey we can’t know anything for sure, therefore no one can say that Mormonism is wrong, and therefore there is always a chance that it is right”) as a bad excuse not to face the realities of it.
The Other Clark, Maxwell’s words seem irrelevant to the issue at hand. He is basically saying in a fancy way that people should read the Book of Mormon more and confirm their certainty biases about it even more (knowing full well that this will more than likely lead to members experiencing increasing confirmation of their biases that the LDS leaders are right about nearly everything). He is saying that there is always more to learn about the Book of Mormon. What he is not saying is that people need to know lots about the Book of Mormon to be certain that it is true. Maxwell most certainly endorses, like all of the other leaders during his time, the missionary program of convincing people that they can experience a spiritual confirmation that the Book of Mormon is true with just a cursory glance at it.
Dan, knowledge in our culture is generally taken as a strong belief where ones beliefs are justified and where the thing believed is true. Alma 32 appears to actually be making use of the Hebrew notion of truth more than our tradition which largely comes out of Aristotle. That is things are true without a clear distinction made between a proposition and its subject. For us truth is a property of propositions. The point of Alma 32 is that we don’t know and don’t feel certain but act anyway. As we act we see that the things in question are reliable and we come to know them. So to say Alma 32 is about confirming biases seems dubious at best.
You also completely ignore verse 32 which talks of the bad seed. “but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.” So to say this is only about certainty seems completely wrong. The whole point is that exercising faith in a false thing simply is unreliable. So the person conducting the test can know whether something is true or not. To say it’s only about confirming biases requires a whole lot of repression of the text itself.
To Elder Packer’s point as we bear witness the witness is often (not always) more strongly confirmed as the Holy Ghost testifies of what we say not only to those we’re speaking to but also to ourselves. Often the gift of prophesy is this being filled with what to say. Again this is pretty standard LDS doctrine so I’m quite surprised you’d say what you say.
As for the message of Mormonism and myself, I fear your ability to interpret me is about on part with your ability to interpret these texts. To say I’m a relativist is ludicrous for anyone familiar with what I’ve written over the years.
Dan: When your worldview doesn’t match reality, the intellectually honest thing to do is to update your worldview, not insist upon it. Numerous people have witnessed before you that your view of the church’s attitudes does not match their experience, and it has been demonstrated that your cherry-picked leadership quotes are not representative of leadership in general, or even particularly the quoted leader’s attitudes.
We are taught to seek certainty, but that does not equal blind belief. That equals the scientific method and experiencial knowledge. Those experiences follow sincere seeking for understanding and light, as is taught in Every. Single. Missionary. Discussion. These are things so fundamental its really silly to insist that that’s not how it “actually” is. We’re always taught about how Joseph Smith’s certain knowledge of God was attained by means of his doubts. We’re taught such things in hundreds of places. Your blind faith narrative is a popular anti-christian criticism, but is easily reproofed by the greater bulk of Mormon thought and teachings.
I’d also like to go ahead and echo what a bunch of people have said about the OP: Its not strange that sister Burton should get something different than the literal meaning of the scripture, when God does the same himself in his revelations all the time (speaking of both personal and of scriptural precedent).
You can doubt, question, argue, and even accuse God and still be a good Mormon. (And might I add, if you can do this with God then the ecclesiastia is chopped liver.) But what you must do is keep the commandments and live your covenants. Do Justice, love goodness, and walk humbly before God, regardless of certainty or doubt.
On the other hand, you can be certain of your faith, have a “perfect knowledge” of your God, attend your meetings and support the Church every jot and tittle, but if you lie a little here and dig a little pit for your neighbor there and justify not living the big commandments and covenants, then you are a bad Mormon and are on your way to hell.
Certainty in your faith guarantees nothing. Many of the Pharisees were certain, even as they prodded the crowds to shout Barabas. It is probably true that those guys flying airplaines into buildings while calling out the name of their God were also certain. Indeed, religious zeal that seeks certainty and purity often ends up doing evil, and evil people often have highly confident egos filled with certainty.
Of course, I believe in being certain in your faith, when certainty is possible. I am certain that God exists. Most things about God are a mystery to me though. Very often certainty of particular kinds of faith (e.g. a testimony of the Church) are not possible for some people. There are too many individual circumstances where the only certainty is suffering and doubt, and this caused by the actions of those who are bad Mormons who are religiously certain. Or, what seems more common, is the doubt caused by the zealous certainty of those who treat the applied gospel and Mormonism (its doctrines and history) as infallible and construct them in the same way they were taught as six year olds. The black and white narrative of faith is filled with certainty and has paradoxically caused many to doubt; rightfully so.
I am certain that faith in God works, I just am full of doubts as to how to apply that faith in individual circumstances. I am certain that repentance is the way, but I am uncertain as to what it might look like in some circumstances. I know Joseph was a prophet, but I have many sincere and severe doubts about his introduction and practices of polygamy. And on it goes. I have lots of questions about Church history, and doubt a great much of what I was taught growing up in orthodox Mormon culture. But neither my doubts nor my certainty make me a good Mormon. My living the commandments is what does that.
“Alma 32 appears to actually be making use of the Hebrew notion of truth”
Goal-post moving. And beyond the point, which is the issue of certainty.
“The point of Alma 32 is that we don’t know and don’t feel certain but act anyway”
Read it again and pay careful attention. The point is that you don’t have to know, but you have to be certain and that if you don’t eventually come to a knowledge of Alma’s propositions about truth, then the problem is not his words, but the listeners themselves. Again, you’re conflating knowledge with certainty. Alma compares his words to a seed, which he has already predetermined are true (verse 21). In verse 28 Alma notes that the listeners can know that his words are a good seed by not casting it out because of unbelief. In verse 36, Alma notes how listeners have to have faith to plant the seed and in verse 30 that the seed planted because of faith will yield greater faith. Faith begets faith, you strengthen your faith by strengthening your faith. This is classic confirmation bias, and circular reasoning. Alma tops it off in verse 39 when he says that if the listeners aren’t getting anything from the seed, then that is because their “ground is barren.” The problem is with them, not his words. Alma preaches from a position of certainty (verse 21), equates faith with certainty (verse 28), and blames the audience for not coming to a position of certainty about his words (verse 39). And verse 39 appears to trump verse 32. Alma allows for no possibility that his words (the seed) are a bad seed.
I never said that you were a full-on relativist, just that you resort to relativist argumentation about truth when you are unable to root Mormonism in evidence. More correctly put, you, and this goes for other intellectual believers, are a doublethinker and resort to whatever lines of reasoning, even if they contradict other lines of reasoning that you have invoked, to defend it. The unintended consequence of this is that you have constructed a Mormonism that is inconsistent with the Mormonism promoted by the LDS leaders and unrecognizable to the rank-and-file, not to mention often incomprehensible. In my interactions with you on this blog, it has occurred to me repeatedly that you are mostly interested in one-upping and scoring cheap points against those who disagree. That goes for Ben S, too, although he can’t control his temper as well as you. The problem is that at some point your argumentation becomes nothing but a smoke and mirrors show. Farewell, Clark. I’ll give you the last word, for I know how much you love that. Unfortunately, that last word will not be read by me.
So far as I know I’ve never made a relativist argument. I’ll be honest and say some things we don’t have as much evidence for as others, but that’s not relativism.
Again, I think your exegesis of Alma 32 is just wrong not just because of the important verses you downplay. The whole point is to try things out. To say this is nothing but confirmation bias again distorts the text. Rather it’s trying, testing, and judging. The more something works, the more confident we are. To say verse 21 is about certainty is again to make an egregiously bad reading that is the polar opposite of what it says. The point is to act when you aren’t certain. The whole point of verse 21 is that you are far, far from certain.
Just noticed that Elder Holland in his talk deftly handled this issue: “But today I wish to lift out of context just one line from [the hymn There Is Sunshine in my Soul Today] that may help . . .”. His talk does change the original meaning, but he makes clear that he understands that and is “riffing”.
Thank you. While I appreciated the general idea of her talk, I noticed the same thing and wished that all of our top leadership knew the value of consulting other Bible translations in order to be sure they understand the meaning of scriptures as well as possible before constructing sermons on those scriptures–especially General Conference sermons that will be quoted over pulpits throughout the world and proclaimed as inspired of God by the faithful.
I’ve done a casual study of 2 Nephi 25:23 and its changing interpretation in the 20th Century and because of that have noticed more and more that the context issue is huge in LDS sermon making: even without access to Greek or Hebrew glosses or alternate Bible translations, it should have always been clear, based on context alone, that 2 Nephi 25:23 was just another scripture about grace, not one unique declaration in all of holy writ that saving grace only applies after we’ve done every last thing we can possibly do for ourselves. I think the context issues crop up more for Mormons when dealing with the Bible, because we generally are less familiar with it than with the Book of Mormon and D&C.
Oops. The last half of my comment there got muddled when I added an example interpretation issue from the Book of Mormon but then didn’t proofread to be sure it still made sense (it doesn’t). Of course there are no Greek or Hebrew glosses or alternate Bible translations useful in interpreting 2 Nephi 25:23. Context (and a good understanding of variant meanings of English words) are the main tools useful for choosing a correct interpretation of a Book of Mormon scripture.
I identify strongly with the post, and it’s the kind of thing that I pick up on, and am glad when others (like Julie, ever erudite and articulate) pick up on it as well. This is the kind of thing that resonates with me.
Nevertheless, if I am completely honest with myself (and not just focused on joining the chorus of other like-minded Mormon intellectuals who enjoy this sort of thing), I’d have to admit that the comment from Tiberius is potentially even MORE insightful than the OP and the chorus supporting comments (and squabbles with Dan Lewis). That’s not to say that I gravitate toward Tiberius’s view, or that i LIKE it more than the OP… but this comment is me quietly whispering, “Tiberius is probably right.” Whether I really like it, or not.