This will be my final post in a three-part series about the way the Old Testament is, and perhaps ought to be, interpreted in the LDS Church. Here I will explore possible reasons why the Latter-day Saints and the Church have been slow to embrace new scholarly theories about the Bible and why this fact is not likely to change in the near future.
Keep your friends close…
My Hebrew Bible/Old Testament professor often refers to the “politics of Biblical studies.” This concept does not refer to American partisan politics (though it certainly may have some application there), but is equally if not more vehement in its division. The politics of Biblical studies has to do with how various parties use and interpret the Bible to (dis)establish its authority. On one side, you have the stalwart Bible fundamentalists, fearlessly defending biblical inerrancy and the God-given authority of the Bible to resolve all of our concerns in the modern age. On the other, there is another group, mostly secular academics, who are more willing to give naturalistic explanations for the Bible’s content and any number of justifications for why its authority on us today ought to be limited, if not eliminated completely. Of course, rather than simply being two camps, these groups form two extremes on a spectrum.
My question is why have Latter-day Saints been so slow to adopt new theories about the Bible and, in spite of a lack of belief in biblical inerrancy, tended to side with the Christian fundamentalists on issues of the Bible’s history, and therefore its authority in our individual and communal lives? My own answer is to say that the club that Mormons most want to join is the “mainstream Christian” club, not the secular intellectual club. The Mormon angst over the constant refrain of “Mormons are not Christians” echoing from the South and Midwest is practically palpable. The folks holding the veto power over our inclusion are of course the Southern Baptists and Evangelicals, precisely the people who want to maximize the Bible’s modern authority. Adopting new theories about the history and content of the Bible almost invariably tends to limit its authority (though I hope to have shown in earlier posts in this series why that is not absolutely necessary). Therefore, embracing any such theory would simply give the “Bible-maximalists” that much more ammunition to say “Just as we thought! We knew you weren’t Christian!” Accepting both the Book of Mormon, other modern scripture, and continuing revelation as sources of doctrinal authority on par or above with the Bible means that we already have two strikes against us. Any kind of rhetoric that would denigrate the place and the authority of the Bible among our people would, in the eyes of those so eager to make nice, be the final straw. This is, of course, what Elder Ballard’s talk at the April 2007 GC was all about. In my mind, that talk was entirely aimed at redressing an imbalance in scriptural emphases that had started with Ezra Taft Benson’s increased emphasis on the Book of Mormon in the 1980s. The pendulum had swung too far towards the Book of Mormon and the membership of the Church was neglecting the Bible. Our tenuous membership in the “Christian club” would be in serious jeopardy unless we gently coaxed the pendulum back in the direction of the Bible.
The BYU Connection
The foregoing was an example of the ideological reasons why I think that the way that ancient scripture, and in particular the Bible, is taught and interpreted in the LDS Church is unlikely to change in the near future. What follows is a related, but more practical, reason.Another facet of this issue is how the Bible is treated by Church educators. In my own mind, the most important sources for our doctrine on the scriptures and their interpretation are: 1) the General Authorities, 2) the Religious Education faculty at BYU, and 3) the Church Education System. (In one of my early posts on this blog, I explained how the BYU faculty and CES serve as separate loci of doctrine-making authority within the Church, alongside the General Authorities) What we receive in classes in individual wards and branches is almost certainly filtered in some way through one if not all of these sources.
Why the General Authorities do not adopt these secular theories is a no-brainer: most, if not all of them, are completely unfamiliar with such theories. Running the Church does not exactly leave a lot of time for “light reading” in scholarly journals and manuscripts in ancient languages. Besides, from a market-oriented perspective, demand for pure scriptural “knowledge” is quite low in the Church. We generally expect GAs to help us “feel” something rather than teach us facts. The same can generally be said of CES personnel, who in general are not required to have much if any training beyond a bachelor’s degree and some Church-sponsored courses.
However, we could expect more of those who teach in Religious Education at BYU, who presumably ought to have the advanced training and skills to learn and impart this information. First of all, as a general matter, this matter of their superior qualifications and training may not be true. Reviewing the qualifications of BYU faculty shows that not all have advanced degrees in relevant fields (OT, NT, other ancient studies fields), and fewer have those advanced degrees from institutions other than BYU (after all, you can’t teach what you don’t know). Further those who do receive advanced education from institutions other than BYU return to Provo and are routinely socialized into an environment where their secular qualifications and methods are devalued, if not looked at with suspicion and mistrust. Their fellow BYU colleagues are their most significant peers and since BYU Religious Ed faculty do not, as a rule, tend to move on to other colleges, they begin teaching and writing to the expectations of the Provo clique rather than to those of the scholarly world at large. Also, the College of Religious Education is currently directed by someone with a CES background, and thus he and the department he leads can be expected to embody the biases of that institution. Therefore, it may be unreasonable to expect that the members of the faculty will offer content that differs significantly from the CES-Correlation orthodoxy.
In my personal opinion, the ideas about the historical or mythical nature of scritpure that I have laid out in previous posts in this series are worthy of analysis and discussion by members of the Church, even stopping short of outright acceptance. (If I did not think so, I would not have written about them. I am emphatically NOT doing this simply to stir up unnecessary controversy.) But we don’t, at least not currently in any Church-sponsored forum with which I am familiar. Furthermore, those forums where such discussions might take place (Sunstone, Dialogue, the Bloggernacle, etc.) are looked down upon by those most in a position to change the status quo. I think that there are reasons, good and bad, for this, and I have laid out a couple of them here. I would be interested to see whether anyone else sees any merit in changing the way we teach ancient scripture and what the prospects are for such change in the near future (say, our lifetimes).
Post-script: I had this post half-formed in my mind as of last weekend’s General Conference, and I have left the above part as it was at that time. However, Elder Holland’s talk “My Words…Never Cease” would seem to refute some portion of my hypothesis. Here we have a General Authority, no less an Apostle, making direct or indirect references to two very scholarly ideas (albeit ones in no way antagonistic to LDS claims) in his address: Markan priority and Q (sayings of Jesus). For those who were previously familiar with such ideas, like myself, it was quite shocking to hear them over the pulpit, primarily as a result of my own deflated expectations. However, in the long run I doubt that it changes much. Those who were not familiar with those ideas previously may have simply ignored it. A couple of intrepid and curious souls may have the audacity to ask questions in Church settings or look up something on the Internet or at a nearby library. Hardly a revolution…