Monday, March 9, 2009

Liken with Care

An article in this month's Ensign,  Likening the Scriptures to Our Personal Lives, espouses what I believe is an increasing popular method in the LDS Church for reading and understanding scriptures and teachings of the Prophets. The unattributed piece offers suggestions for making scriptures applicable today. It begins:

Likening the scriptures to our personal lives helps us discover gospel principles and receive revelation. Nephi testified, “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). Even though the scriptures were written long ago, they provide inspiration for our modern-day dilemmas when we learn to liken them to ourselves.

In my experience with LDS church meetings, I a see great deal of likening.  An example of this is a typical Sacrament Meeting talk.  A speaker reads a scripture and then explains how he applies the text of the scripture to his life. 

Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society manuals also promote likening very heavily.   Lessons mostly begin with a story and then turn to scripture quotes or sayings from Prophets.  They generally conclude with a list of potential questions for the class.  The questions are heavily geared toward asking how something in the lesson applies to the life of a class member. 

I experienced likening in action in a Sunday School a few months ago.  The teacher began by explaining that the lesson would cover Doctrine and Covenants Section 9.  She explained that that section dealt with how the Holy Ghost communicates to us.  She said that the Holy Ghost confirms truth by allowing us to feel a burning in the bosom when something is true and by giving us a stupor of thought when something is not true.  She then asked the class if anyone could share an example of this in their lives.  A few brave souls shared personal stories.   I think the teacher was pleased with the lesson and class participation but I went away feeling something was missing.  The problem was that never once during the lesson did the teacher mention that D&C Section 6 was given specifically to Oliver Cowdery.  She didn't even mention his name.  It was apparently not relevant to the lesson.  She did a great job of helping the class to liken but entirely omitted any instructions about the context in which this section of scripture was revealed.  

The result was that the class lost the opportunity to learn about how one of the most important figures in early Mormonism was instructed by the Lord directly through Joseph Smith on how to utilize the gift of the Holy Ghost.  And while I liked the way she got class members to share their experiences, what I would like to have seen was an explanation of why Oliver Cowdery was given that particular revelation.  What prompted it?  Did it work for him? Did he ever talk about the experience?  Is the burning in the bosom and stupor of thought universal to all revelation seekers or was it specific to Oliver Cowdery?  And then moving on to the likening stage, she could have asked something like this – is there something we can learn from Oliver’s experience that can help us develop our ability to have the Holy Ghost confirm truth to us?

Another experience with likening occurred recently in my Elder’s Quorum.  The instructor began his lesson by letting us know that we would be studying the lesson on apostacy from the Joseph Smith manual.  After referencing a few items from the manual he put it down and stated that the stuff in the manual had happened a long time ago and that he was more interested in what apostasy meant today (which he equated with inactivity) rather than what the manual said.  I was troubled by that because I thought that the lesson offered the opportunity to get a glimpse of what Joseph Smith thought about apostasy (actively tearing down the Church, holding yourself above the Brethren, professing false authority to govern the church).  In his effort to apply principles to the here and now he missed the opportunity to first understand how Joseph Smith felt about the matter and then apply the principles. It was almost as though the historical context of the Prophet’s remarks got in the way of the more critical likening.

Now you might say that each teacher has their own style and that some stress history while others stress principles.  I get it that not all teachers are the same and that different teaching styles appeal to different learners.  I also understand that teachers have very different levels of interest and education in the historical setting in which scriptures have been received.  A friend of mine characterized the two Sunday School teachers in her ward as the history teacher and the spiritual teacher.  She enjoys both styles and gains different things from the different methods of instruction.  I guess my issue is that I see the likening approach being stressed more and more and supplanting the contextual approach.  I believe that the Sunday School manual, which teaches the Doctrine and Covenants by topic rather than sequentially, promotes likening at the expense of context. 

I think likening is being stressed heavily institutionally because it is a method for helping learners to adapt the scriptures to themselves.  It is a potentially freeing exercise which puts the burden of interpretation on the reader.  It presupposes that the reader has an obligation and right to receive divine guidance in drawing meaning from scripture and then acting upon the inspiration.  That is a good thing.  But I think it is even better to understand as much as possible the reason why a scripture was given in the first place.  I think context is important to gaining insight as to why the Lord speaks to a certain person or people.  Not all revelation is universally applicable.  We certain don’t expect people to liken Nephi's instruction to kill Laban as a commmandment to us.  Understanding the context in which Nephi received the order helps us draw appropriate wisdom from the episode.

As usual, I am not sure if I am just quibbling over things that don’t need fixing, or more fittingly I suppose, things that I have no ability to control or influence. 


jupee said...

Do you experience the burning in the bossom and the stupor of thought? And, do you interpret it as confirmation of the truth or untruth of things? I find that curious. In my experience, those things don't equate for me. (Assuming that I know what they are, and I'm not sure that I do.) I wonder if JS was guided by those feelings when developing/ creating/ restoring the church?

Fifthgen said...

I like the idea of likening the Nephi/Laban story. The teacher can tell the story, then ask, "Have any of you ever felt like killing someone?"

Do you think this problem is more pronounced in reading and undertanding the Doctrine & Covenants? It seems like other scriptural passages appear within a context that makes them easier to "liken." We may not understand all the historical or cultural references in a Bible of Book of Mormon story, but at least there is a story. The Doctrine & Covnenants presents a different situation, because the revelations appear independent from the historical context (except the editorial chapter headings).

Sanford said...

Jupee – the burning stupor continuum doesn’t really work for me but then I don’t consider myself to be a very spiritual person – kind of like I’m not much of an oil painter. But I know some very gift painters and some gifted followers of the spirit. I think that people utilize a variety of methods for accessing the spirit. I think JS was very much guided by his sense of the spirit. I don’t know that he always got everything right but he did seem to rely greatly upon a sort of other world communication. I see Joseph as something of a religious entrepreneur who had flashes of brilliance which he then struggled to implement and shape.

Fifthgen – the cynical side of me thinks that the Church teaches the D & C topically because a careful contextual reading of the D & C raises a number of very difficult issues ie consecration, plural marriage, millennialism, the literal establishment of Zion and others. By taking the D & C out of context, you can stress principles without dealing with messy stuff. I also think the D & C is a relatively contemporary book that is harder to “liken” than the Bible or the Book of Mormon because of its newness and extensively available supplemental information.

Fifthgen said...

Sanford: Part of what makes inspired writing and teaching important is that it transcends its context and has universal application. If we cannot apply to our own life the lessons from the story of Joseph in Egypt, then what is the point of having the story? Like I said, I think the D&C presents special challenges here, because some of the revelations are so specific to particular individuals that you wonder what the universal lesson really is.

That said, I agree with you that it is silly to think that we can really understand a revelation without understanding why it was given. I think scripture can usually be understood on multiple levels, from the straightforward and direct to the esoteric. In our enthusiasm to “liken,” however, we sometimes take the easy route and just skim the surface of what the words say, without understanding what question was being asked and answered. Again, I think the D&C is more difficult here, because you have to go to an external source to find the historical context and the questions being asked. On the other hand, that purity and directness (along with its modern setting) is part of what makes the D&C interesting.

pb said...

The more that one can understand about a text, the more "appropriate wisdom" one can glean from it. My experience with texts (and I'm not talking scripture here) is that the first read is going to somewhat superficial. If the text speaks to me on this level, then I'll be driven to get into it more deeply. This can lead to investigating the author, time period, historical context, etc., and then re-reading the text with far greater understanding. But the text, first, has to have something to say to me.

Perhaps the idea with church lessons is to introduce the text and encourage the reader to relate to it personally, thus inspiring the reader to a deeper investigation. This is like scripture 101. If inspired, the reader may wish to take scripture 201. This followup class would take some scripture or group of scriptures and study them in historical context, with biographies of principals, etc. You, Sanford, should teach that class. I will personally write a recommendation for you to present to your bishop.

But ultimately, it would seem that fifthgen is right: if a scripture has no universal application, then why study it?