I had the enjoyable opportunity to teach a class on scripture reading. What follows is the material I prepared for the class:
Choose to Be Holy: Practical Strategies to Elevate Our Scripture Study and Make Us Holy (Beyond the Text)
A lot of learning is perspective and depends heavily on our approach to a given subject. As a foundational principle I would propose the following relationship exists between the scriptures and God; that is our treatment of the scriptures equates, on some level, to our treatment of God. When Nephi discussed his own mission of writing scripture, he equated the scriptures with God:
“For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.” (1 Nephi 19:7)
—- a similar statement can be found in D&C 1:38, where the voice of God’s servants is equated with the Lord’s voice.
We can get more out of our scripture study if we approach them like we would if we approached the Lord. In this way, we can sanctify our scripture study and ourselves; we can choose to be holy by humbling ourselves before God and His word. One of my favorite scriptures is a reminder to me to be humble; it is in Christ’s voice, “Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me” (D&C 19:23). Humility, unlike humiliation, is a choice we make. It is a gift we give to God and ourselves.
For ease of discussion on approaching scriptures, I have artificially broken up this study (our approach) into three positions: beyond the text, above the text, and at the text.
Beyond the text
By “beyond the text” I am imagining myself looking towards the scriptures, but beyond or below the ink and the paper. I am focusing on the source of scripture, I am looking for God.
Restoration scripture especially promotes revelation in preparation for an encounter with God. “And there were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad” (Ether 12:19). Visualizing this encounter (ie. imagining Him) and becoming comfortable with the idea of being in God’s presence can occur as we approach Him through the scriptures.
We need to have experiences with God. We should expect revelation/communication with God when we read the scriptures. “Understand that in the absence of experiences with God, one can doubt the existence of God. So, put yourself in a position to begin having experiences with Him. Humble yourself. Pray to have eyes to see God’s hand in your life and in the world around you. Ask Him to tell you if He is really there—if He knows you. Ask Him how He feels about you. And then listen” (President Russell M. Nelson, “Come Follow Me,” April 2019).
Reading the scriptures can acquaint us with the Lord’s voice. Consider the following verses in Doctrine and Covenants 18:34-36. According to his great-great nephew Elder S. Dilworth Young, “Brigham Young was so impressed by [these verses] that he copied [them] in his laborious handwriting into his diary,” when he heard them read by Oliver Cowdery in 1829.
Elder S. Dilworth Young then taught, “The thing that impresses me about this is, and I have never thought of it before, when I read a verse in the Doctrine and Covenants I am hearing the voice of the Lord as well as reading his words, if I hear by the Spirit. Now I have heard it said many times by men that they have often asked the Lord for a special testimony and oftentimes haven’t had it. They seem to want to hear the voice of the Lord. I confess I have often wanted to hear the voice of the Lord, without knowing that all these years I have been hearing it with deaf ears. This woke me up” (S. Dilworth Young, “Ye Have Heard My Voice,” April 1963).
—— “We become acquainted with Him and His voice as we study and feast upon His word in the scriptures, (2 Nephi 32:3; D&C 18:34-36)” (Elder David A. Bednar, “If Ye Had Known Me,” October 2016).
—— “We talk to God through prayer. He most often communicates back to us through His written word. To know what the voice of the Divine sounds and feels like, read His words, study the scriptures, and ponder them” (Elder Richard G. Scott, “Make the Exercise of Faith Your First Priority,” October 2014).
“When we want to speak to God, we pray. And when we want Him to speak to us, we search the scriptures.” (Elder Robert D. Hales, “Holy Scriptures: The Power of God unto Our Salvation,” October 2006.)
Above the text
Above the text refers to us, what we do outside the scriptures to prepare for studying the scriptures. Here are a few strategies for us.
• We need to make time for the scriptures.
• We need to repent, frequently, deeply, whole-heartedly…
• We need to avoid activities that estrange the Holy Spirit
• We need to get in the habit of thinking about the scriptures when we have nothing to think about
• Take notes when we read (especially note revelation we receive)
• Do something “unprecedented” (refer to workbook document for some suggestions)
“I plead with you today to counter the lure of the world by making time for the Lord in your life—each and every day. If most of the information you get comes from social or other media, your ability to hear the whisperings of the Spirit will be diminished. If you are not also seeking the Lord through daily prayer and gospel study, you leave yourself vulnerable to philosophies that may be intriguing but are not true” (President Russell M. Nelson, “Make Time for the Lord,” October 2021).
If you find yourself pulling out social media feeds or news feeds automatically throughout the day when you have a spare moment, this may be a sign that you are overly dependent on them. Instead, consider pondering gospel topics or scripture phrases, “treasure up in your minds continually the words of life” (D&C 84:85).
Here is a great strategy for reading the scriptures for doctrine:
“As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle. I have tried to do that with gaining spiritual knowledge. The result is now shared in hope that it will be a beginning place for your study” (Elder Richard G. Scott, “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” October 1993).
“We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
What principle can we pull out of this very short verse? What does this say about God’s love?
How do we apply this to us?
How do I teach this principle?
Extension: what other principles does this connect to?
“And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon…Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.” (2 Nephi 2:14,16)
For an example analysis for 1 John 4:19: https://nathanwritesstuff.com/2018/05/08/love-first-love-last/
“No message appears in scripture more times, in more ways than, “Ask, and ye shall receive.” (Matt. 21:22; James 4:3; 1 Jn. 3:22; 1 Ne. 15:11; Enos 1:15; Mosiah 4:21; D&C 4:7; and Moses 6:52 are examples.)” Boyd K. Packer, “Reverence Invites Revelation,” (October 1991). We need to ask more as we ponder the scriptures. It is important to go beyond the question “what does this mean” to asking “what more can this mean” or “what else am I missing” during our reading.
It is instructive to note that in Christ’s mortal ministry, his audiences were often confused by what he taught. Even his own disciples misunderstood his teachings. It is very possible that we might be missing meaning from our studies as well. It is okay to be confused, confusion should be a state of anticipation (D&C 123:17)
Much of the success of our scripture studies will depend on us, our efforts. “…it is now time that we each implement extraordinary measures—perhaps measures we have never taken before—to strengthen our personal spiritual foundations. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures” (President Russell, “The Temple and Your Spiritual Foundation,” October 2021). Try something new, something bold in your studies today.
It is my personal opinion that the most significant thing we can do to improve our scripture study is to repent and humble ourselves.
At the text
“At the text” refers to us reading the text of scriptures. The text connects us to the unnamed and named editors of the scriptures. A good approach to the text is to focus on the narrators, ask ourselves why they chose to include certain content and omit others. It is good to remember that they are ancient and lived lives almost inconceivably different from ours. It’s beneficial to attempt to understand their world from their eyes.
Scholarly approaches can enhance our worship. I love this quote: “For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship” —Elder Neal A. Maxwell. We can go too far with scholarship; however, so I think prioritizing devotion and discipleship over scholarship is a good approach.
The single best thing I have learned from academia is how to read. We, as modern readers from the western world, have to change our approach to reading scripture. “Accustomed as we are to reading narratives in which there is much denser specification of fictional data, we have to learn…to attend more finely to the complex, tersely expressive details of the Biblical text” (Robert Alter-see resources).
Another thing we must be aware of is our own bias, we are approaching a Hebrew text from a Greek literary tradition. The “…difference can be summed up in one sentence: ‘the Greek demonstrates, the Jew indicates’. The Greek intends to convince his hearers, to lead them along a straight line, by means of logical reasoning, following a demonstration based on a whole series of proofs, to a conclusion which ought to compel them to agree. The Jew, on the contrary, is content to show the way which the one wishing to understand may take.”
The approach to reading the Old Testament is directly applicable to reading the Book of Mormon or the New Testament, because these all come from the same unique literary ancestry.
Let’s look at some specific examples of reading strategies;
An artistic element used by Hebrew writers is the art of gaps, meaning their choice to omit specific things the reader might expect. Grant Hardy (see resources) points out that Nephi tells us a lot about his roles as a son and a brother, but Nephi tells us very little about his own family (wife and children). He doesn’t pass the plates to his son. He doesn’t pass the kingship on to a son. Why? Did something happen to his sons? He doesn’t say. And although he records blessings for his brothers, he doesn’t record his own blessing from his father. These are gaps, ones that should cause the reader some reflection. We will not necessarily find a specific answer, but Hebrew artistry is not always intended to lead us to a specific answer. (I would like to point out that I don’t agree with all of Grant Hardy’s findings, but his approach is noteworthy-I highly recommend his book).
Repetition is a common practice in Hebrew scripture, we need to look for the subtle variations that occur within repeated elements and ask ourselves why the narrator made this decision. Meier Sternberg (see resources) points out that in the repetition occurring in the multiple reports of the murder of Naboth in 1 Kings 21:13-16 the unnamed narrator characterizes Jezebel and king Ahab. The narrator reports Naboth’s murder, then the details, almost verbatim, are reported to Jezebel, Jezebel waters down the murder to Ahab, and directs Ahab on what to do next. You can see in this repetition the strength of Jezebel and the weakness in Ahab, neither qualities are being used to do what is right, of course.
Because the Bible and Book of Mormon are so lacking in description, when they do include a description it is important to note. For example, Robert Alter (see resources) observes that the epithets used by the Biblical narrator for Michal seem designed to orient us to Michal’s changing role as the story of king David unfolds. Michal is variously called David’s wife or Saul’s daughter at key points in the narrative to accentuate her roles. A very telling use of her epithet as “Saul’s daughter” is used when she criticizes David’s dancing in 2 Samuel 6.
There are so many reading strategies outlined by scholarly literature, but suffice it to say, the Bible and the Book of Mormon are worthy of renewed reading; they are works of art, not primitive fables, that have often gone unrecognized for centuries. Enjoy them!
Resources (Consider using your local interlibrary loan system to rent any of the resources below)
• churchofjesuschrist.org there is so much to explore here!
• Scripture citation index (app) or website: https://scriptures.byu.edu
Richard C. Galbraith spent 50 years of daily study to provide a scripture index to all the General Conference talks given by General Authorities. Today his “labor of love” is available for free as an app or via a website, where you can pick any scripture verse and see what any General Authority has said about that scripture in general conference. https://www.deseret.com/faith/2020/11/4/21536685/50-years-scripture-citation-index-gospel-study-journal-discourses-joseph-smith-lds-mormon-galbraith
• https://www.blueletterbible.org/ (for language study of the texts of the Bible; you can do word studies in Hebrew or Greek, you can compare translations of the Bible, etc)
• Learn how to read Hebrew narratives (which is the style that the Old and New Testaments are written, as well as the Book of Mormon)
• Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Revised Edition, (New York: Basic Books, 2011)
• Meier Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)
• Mark Allen Powell, “What Is Narrative Criticism?” (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1990)
• Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
• the BYU Maxwell Institute Brief Theological Introduction to the Book of Mormon series
• An introduction to the church academic world—the Book of Mormon Studies: An Introduction and Guide (Religious Studies Center, June 9, 2022)
• There a tons of scripture commentaries or helps. Consider James E. Faulconer’s MADE HARDER series, it can help you think harder about the scriptures
• Links to faithful scholarship: the Interpreter Foundation https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/journal/ (free) or the journal of Book of Mormon Studies https://www.press.uillinois.edu/journals/?id=jbms (requires a subscription)
• Podcasts like Follow Him are also great resources
Choose To Be Holy: Workbook
“…it is now time that we each implement extraordinary measures—perhaps measures we have never taken before—to strengthen our personal spiritual foundations. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures” (President Russell, “The Temple and Your Spiritual Foundation,” October 2021).
Here are some starter ideas to help you take extraordinary measures or come up with your own ideas in your scripture studies:
• Parley P. Pratt challenge: set aside as much time as you can and read the scriptures for as long as you can without interruption
• Make a goal to read the whole standard works in a certain amount of time (or a goal to read a certain volume of scripture) there are a ton of resources online to keep track
• Get caught up on church scholarship by reading articles from the Interpreter Foundation on https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/journal/ (free) or the journal of Book of Mormon Studies https://www.press.uillinois.edu/journals/?id=jbms (requires a subscription)
• Research and write a response to a current criticism of the scriptures, the church, or belief in God for your own edification
• Keep a scripture reading journal
• President Russell M. Nelson challenge: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/inspiration/i-studied-more-than-2-200-scriptures-about-the-savior-in-six-weeks-here-is-a-little-of-what-i-learned?lang=eng
• Take a segment of scripture, a few verses or a chapter, and translate them into modern English
• Write a journal entry or entries as if writing scripture for your descendants
• Choose an apostle to research: read every General Conference talk by this apostle, identify their favorite topics, rhetorical strategies, individual writing styles, favorite scriptures, etc, and then try to write in their style. Here is my attempt to write like Elder Neal A. Maxwell: https://nathanwritesstuff.com/2016/04/24/the-wind-bloweth-where-it-listeth-following-the-spirit/
• Take a segment of scripture, a few verses or a chapter, remove the punctuation, and then try to re-punctuate that segment.
• Color code your scriptures topically: find a system online
• Research the available resources on the church’s website: churchofjesuschrist.org you may be surprised at how much is available
• Create a scripture reading club and enjoy reading and discussing the scriptures together
• Write a short story that takes place in scriptural times and settings
• Research and write devotional articles on gospel topics (go deeper than you have ever gone before)
• Interview your one of your congregations scriptorians about their scripture reading habits, experiences, etc
• Keep a question journal. Write down every question that comes to your mind as you read a chapter, then answer one of those questions per chapter