Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Green Light for Apochrypha…what’s next?

Posted by nhilton on April 2, 2007

With Elder Holland’s green light to study & even quote non-canonical scripture (per his recent conference address) we’re sure to see more teachers & speakers following suit.  Pres. Romney, in a speech to Seminary & Institute Coordinators, 3 April 1973, said, “I don’t know much about the Gospel other than what I’ve learned from the Standard Works.  When I drink from a spring I like to get the water where it comes out of the ground, not down the stream after the cattle have waded in it.” 

Imagine it’s your turn to speak or teach, after exhausting the cannon of scriptures, where would you turn next?  What is your favorite source of commentary on the scriptures?  Do you even read commentaries?  Why or why not?  What is your extra-curricular religious reading?  What do you study AFTER studying the scriptures when you’re seeking inspiration?   Did you or will you now (Thanks, Elder Holland!) use this material in formal teaching settings?  How much is too much?  Do you ever feel uncomfortable when other’s cite non-church-approved materials during church meetings?  Where is the standard or should there even be a standard? 

49 Responses to “Green Light for Apochrypha…what’s next?”

  1. m&m said

    Imagine it’s your turn to speak or teach, after exhausting the cannon of scriptures

    Are you suggesting the canon can be exhausted? :)

  2. m&m said

    p.s. I think it’s a bit overblown to say that one quote from Elder Holland is now suddenly a “green light” for apocrypha. He’s also quoted a movie star; do you think that means we can all start quoting movies instead of scripture? :)

    I’d say the standard for classes is what we are directed to do in our manuals, Teaching, No Greater Call, etc.

    I tend to like to study commentaries, but I’m feeling more and more that I should limit those things. Elder Oaks’ talk that I quoted in another thread touched on that.

    Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution.

    Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food. (When I refer to “commentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one.)

    One trouble with commentaries is that their authors sometimes focus on only one meaning, to the exclusion of others. As a result, commentaries, if not used with great care, may illuminate the author’s chosen and correct meaning but close our eyes and restrict our horizons to other possible meanings. Sometimes those other, less obvious meanings can be the ones most valuable and useful to us as we seek to understand our own dispensation and to obtain answers to our own questions. This is why the teaching of the Holy Ghost is a better guide to scriptural interpretation than even the best commentary.

    Boy, I’ve said a lot here lately….

  3. Ben McGuire said

    m&m #2 –

    You quoted this from Oaks:

    “When I refer to “commentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one”

    The problem with this is that its definition of commentary is far too broad. A translation interprets scripture. You cannot read scripture without interpreting it. And Oaks seems to be suggesting that we not only is interpretation possible, but that it is necessary and significant that we interpret scripture – perhaps in many different ways – as we apply to it our ourselves, to our own situatuations, to our own time frame.

    The issue with the Apocryophal texts (what we usually refer to as the apocrypha, and not the larger genre) in geneal is that some were hugely popular in certain circles at the time of Jesus, and so they were influential on the text of the New Testament. They are quoted from time to time in scripture (not just in General Conference talks). And they already have remained on the fringes of our canon for a long time.

    What do I study? I like to read scholarly material. Usually, I just take ideas from it, and then explore those ideas myself as I produce my notes for a lesson. Rarely do I try and use the manual much. I find that the church produced manuals really do exactly what Oaks is talking about in a commentary. It locks in an interpretation which I often disagree with. (This is also why I don’t teach very often – usually only when they need someone with only a few hours of notice).

    I would also think that it isn’t possible to exhaust the text – at least not in the amount of time that we devote to it in church. And while the Apocrypha is interesting, I generally never use it with the exception of the occaisional reference to it in the New Testament – and then only perhaps to explain the reference.

    On the flip side of the coin, there is a lot of extra-canonical material which was hugely influential in the formation of the early Christian Church and in particular in the formation of early Christologies. And while I think it is quite important to deal with these issues as part of personal studies, I am not sure that this is at all important in our classes.

    I did a review piece a while back for a chapter in an anti-mormon book which deals a little bit with this. You can find it at http://www.cromis.com/jp2.pdf

  4. Robert C. said

    I tend to like scholarly commentaries better than LDS commentaries (and I would say there are hardly any LDS commentaries that can be considered scholarly…) precisely because they tend to focus on the text more carefully than non-scholarly commentaries, and I find that the more carefully I study the and ponder the text, the more effectively the Spirit is able to use me in giving a talk or lesson.

    Regarding apocryphal writings, I’ve found them more useful as I’ve studied scholarly commentaries more. I do, however, tend to think of them as a means to an end, where the end is to understand the Standard Works better.

    I would add that I hope that the Feast blog and wiki are used only in this way, as merely a means for engaging the text more thoughtfully, spiritually, and excitedly. If Feast is serving as a substitute for your direct interaction with God’s word, please don’t return until you’ve considered the text yourself carefully and prayerfully! I’ve found commentaries and my interaction on Feast very helpful, but only as a complement to my personal, direct study, pondering and praying on scripture. Piano lessons from even the greatest piano teacher will only help if you actually practice!

  5. Rex said

    It was indeed refreshing to hear Elder Holland reach outside
    of the canon for conference.

    Remember when Elder Nelson quoted some coptic literature?

    http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,49-1-4-33,00.html

  6. nhilton said

    Great link, Rex! I think the key is this excerpt from Nelson’s words right after the coptic quote: “Although this text is not scripture, it reaffirms scriptures that teach of…” Maybe this is how we can include outside sources appropriately. First, be sure the quote supports cannonical doctrine and Second, clearly indicate it isn’t scripture and explain why we’re using it.

    M&M #1, I was waiting for that! Of course we can’t exhaust scripture. Thank Heavens for this fact. Why then, do we feel inclined to go outside of it for additional study & inclusion in teaching?

  7. m&m said

    The problem with this is that its definition of commentary is far too broad. A translation interprets scripture. You cannot read scripture without interpreting it.

    Elder Oaks’ point was that the best interpreter is the Spirit. With that definition, He is the best commentary. :)

    I’ve found commentaries and my interaction on Feast very helpful, but only as a complement to my personal, direct study, pondering and praying on scripture.

    Great point.

  8. Nick Literski said

    Dallin Oaks said:
    “Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution. . . . (When I refer to “commentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one.)”

    Perfect! This means we can use The Proclamation on the Family “with caution” as an authoritative commentary. It also means we can use Oaks’ mock interview about homosexuality on lds.org “with caution” as an authoritative commentary.

    I couldn’t agree with Dallin Oaks more, so far as “commentary” goes.

  9. Rex said

    We all have our own agendas.

  10. nhilton said

    Rex, what do you mean, exactly? & isn’t this exactly why we sometimes feel uncomfortable when teachers cite an “unauthorized” source? You’ve all been there…squirming in your seats as the Spirit flees the room when some shady source…I know you know what I’m talking about! How many times have we been told NOT to use something in a formal teaching situation w/o the words “The Church of J…” printed on the back?! This is restrictive & obviously not adhered to. But where is the line? Who gets the green light to use these unauthorized sources? Only GA’s? Who gets their “license revoked,” when, why & by who? Who’s the traffic police watching out for these agenda servers?

  11. nhilton said

    #2 m&m, “instead” of scripture? What about, in addition to scripture? How ’bout all the Conf. talks completely VOID of scripture? Does moral authority trump once you get to that walnut-tree pulpit? Wouldn’t “personal experiences” fall into the category of unauthorized sources?

  12. m&m said

    nhilton,
    I think that #9 may not have been referring to your post, but to a comment.

    I don’t know that there are police on this, except a bishop who might reign in someone who is really out of control.

    nhilton, I think in the end people will probably use what they want to use. I don’t see Elder Holland’s use of apocryphal quotes as sudden approval of the use of such in classes, but I could be wrong. But people are already using it anyway, right? :) (I also think a talk is different from a lesson. Had Elder Holland used it in the worldwide broadcast, I would definitely feel differently.)

    I’m not sure what you are trying to get at re: the walnut pulpit and moral authority. General Conference talks are, IMO, scripture in and of themselves. I don’t understand quite what you want me to say, though.

    As to personal experiences, they are encouraged and allowed in class, are they not? In fact, they are encouraged more than anything historical or informational or intellectual. Classes are meant to be something different than an imparting of information from teacher to student. They are meant to be a shared experience. That’s my take on it all.

    My experience with teaching is that there is more than enough material with the scriptures and words of the prophets. To bring in extra stuff rarely is necessary, and can risk being a distraction. As always, the Spirit is our guide but so are our guidelines as given. I think we ought not see this as restrictive but rather wise. :)

  13. nhilton said

    re: #12, The pulpit at the LDS SLC Conference Ctr. is made of walnut wood from Pres. Hinckley’s tree planted by his father–sorry, thought this was general knowledge. My point was that some of the Conf. talks were void of scripture. When most of us speak from any pulpit (since few of us ever speak from the “walnut tree pulpit”) we would cite scripture or words of prophets in support of whatever we say. In contrast, some Conf. talks cited no scripture or words of prophets in support of their points.

  14. m&m said

    I know about the pulpit :) … I just wasn’t sure about your point. And I’m still not sure what you are wanting to say. I think special witnesses of Christ may have different standards of speaking and quoting than we do, although we also are invited to share personal experiences to illustrate gospel principles.

  15. Cherylem said

    m&m,
    Am I reading you correctly to say that in terms of teaching you generally distrust anything that is not in the manual, spoken by the general authorities, or written in the scriptures themselves?

  16. douglas Hunter said

    nhilton #10 writes: “But where is the line? Who gets the green light to use these unauthorized sources? Only GA’s? Who gets their “license revoked,” when, why & by who? Who’s the traffic police watching out for these agenda servers?”

    I don’t think there is a line at all. Myself, I use a variety of materials in the process of reading, interperting and teaching, but I always try to use them with a certain generousity of spirit that seeks to find the best in the experience. I find great inspiration in the way Levinas articulates our comitment to the other, in the poetics of walter Brueggmann, and Derrida’s writings about justice and the economy of the gift. All of which resonant powerfully with scripture and provide what I find to be a wonderful catalyist for reading and teaching. I regret to say that I’ve never read any official church publication or talk from a GA that is as interesting or as powerful as what the authors mentioned above achieve. I suspect that the reason for this is that within the church their is a very narrow range in the types of talks that are given and at the level of the GA’s the emphasis seems to be mostly on restating basic ideas in basic ways. But my emphasis is on have the best spirit led teaching and discussions that I am capable of when its my turn to present a lesson. To that end I am not really willing to limit my potential source material or methods.

  17. Ah, Douglas, specifics! thank you. We’re all well-versed in the writings of well-accepted non-LDS like C.S. Lewis, but your list isn’t as familiar to many. Sharing why these authors & their specific work has enriched your gospel study would be enlightening to me, if not all! Please, do share more.

    m&m #14, I like your distinction of the GA’s as “special witnesses.” This stewardship certainly puts definite emphasis on what they SHOULD say and I know it clarifies what they SHOULDN’T say. However, I’m to stand as a witness of God at all times, in all things, and in all places so I, too, have the stewardship to witness, as does each member of the church. Just how this witness is accomplished is the gist of this post.

  18. m&m said

    cherylem,
    I think there are reasons we are asked to stick to these things, and I have found great value in doing so. As much as I like to learn from other sources (let me reiterate that I do enjoy that!), I don’t think church classes themselves are really the place to do that. And I think the Spirit can bless us abundantly as we stick to what we have been asked to stick to (with all the talk here of how wonderful and deep the scriptures are, I’m surprised that there is resistance to this request, actually). This doesnt’ have to be restrictive, but can provide focus and purity of doctrine that can help the Spirit flow.

    Let me say, though, that it’s less about following the manual verbatim in my mind (I see that as a guide, not a requirement per se except to give us a section of text and a purpose to focus on). It’s more about being really, really careful about what we bring in besides scriptures and words of prophets. There is so much there — do we need anything more for the Spirit to come? I don’t think we do.

    I regret to say that I’ve never read any official church publication or talk from a GA that is as interesting or as powerful as what the authors mentioned above achieve. I suspect that the reason for this is that within the church their is a very narrow range in the types of talks that are given and at the level of the GA’s the emphasis seems to be mostly on restating basic ideas in basic ways.

    I find this regretful indeed, because it’s often in studying and pondering the “basics” that I think we can learn some of the greatest truths. Again, not that I don’t enjoy good commentaries, but I think to discount talks from our leaders as “only basic” robs us of significant opportunities to be taught and to learn and to see important patterns (e.g., one of the most amazing “aha” experiences of my life could have come earlier had I really read a talk by Elder Nelson — one I had read or heard three or four times! — the more I read from our leaders, the more I find and learn) — and to teach with power and the Spirit. I’m starting to feel a bit like a minority here with that point of view, though. ??

    ponderpaths,
    I agree that we are witnesses of God. Clearly there are different points of view about how to go about being such, particularly as a teacher.

  19. Ben McGuire said

    m&m #7 –

    You said: “Elder Oaks’ point was that the best interpreter is the Spirit. With that definition, He is the best commentary.”

    This isn’t necessarily the case. There are several issues here. This might be true if we presumed that God was the author of scripture (which we don’t). It might be the case if we thought that the text of scripture was somehow perfect (which it isn’t). In fact, the value of what General Authorities have to say rarely has anything to do with the actual text of the scriptures.

    We don’t choose General Authorities because they have any particular special knowledge of scripture. Do they (generally speaking) read Hebrew and Greek? Do they have the cultural background to understand the Old and New Testaments? Do they have a working knowledge of Canaanite texts and practices? Do they know the contents of the Ugaritic corpus? These things are largley unimportant. When Nephi asks his brothers if they have asked god (about the vision of the tree of life), they respond that God doesn’t speak to them. And this is why we get the General Authorities we get – God speaks to them.

    And so they have access to an entirely different kind of knowledge that doesn’t reflect on the scriptures at all, but is based on revelation. And there is a problem with assuming that what God reveals to us is what a text means, or is a correct interpretation of a text. They are not the same thing, and they shouldn’t be seen as the same thing. If we are teaching these lessons, it is left to us (and the spirit) to decide how we want to approach the subject matter. If we want to talk about what a text meant to its original audience, then we need to be able to discuss things like the historical context, the original language, and so on – and on these topics, scholarly material will be far better than conference talks. If we want to discuss how the scripture relates to us, then these things are less valuable. (And Oaks is taking this position as far as the content of lessions goes). But we shouldn’t pretend that our own interpretation of scripture – reflecting as it does our own condition, our own language, our own socio-economic status, our own views of theology and doctrine – bears any resemblance to what was intended by the prophet who wrote it to his idealized audience.

    Ultimately, our objective is to stop relying on scripture at all. Should we need scripture if we can speak to God and God speaks back?

    So, to get back to my point, the Spirit doesn’t interpret scripture for us. What it provides us with is the will and knowledge of God. And this isn’t an interpretation of a text, even if the text is also a reflection of the will and knowledge of God.

  20. Ben McGuire said

    I wanted to add one more comment.

    I have a huge library of materials. And I have read most of what I have, and have a good memory of the material. So when I get to teach a lesson, I don’t have to pull out a commentary on a particular text, I usually already have some idea about what the text is and what it means. Sometimes this means that I get into conflict with people in the class. This happened last year during the Old Testament discussion on the story of Joseph in Egypt. There is this scene when he reveals himself to his brothers – the official lesson manual titles this section as “Joseph makes himself known to his brothers and forgives them.” And the manual goes on to ask a series of questions –

    Why do you think Joseph’s brothers were worried when Joseph revealed his identity to them? (See Genesis 45:1–3.) How did Joseph show that he had forgiven his brothers? (See Genesis 45:4–11, 14–15.) How do you think Joseph’s forgiveness helped lift his brothers spiritually?

    • What does the world tell us to do when someone has wronged us, as Joseph’s brothers did him? What does the Lord tell us to do? (See D&C 64:8–11.) How have you been blessed when you have dealt kindly with others who have mistreated you? How can we become more forgiving?

    These are great questions. But the answers that the text provides aren’t really very good answers to these questions. You see, the brothers tell Joseph exactly what taking his youngest son away will do to Jacob. Joseph, is so set on finding out if his brothers are repentant, that he demands it anyways, knowing that this will devestate Jacob. And Joseph’s brothers are troubled at his presence in part because there is this realization of what Joseph has just done. The depth of Joseph’s need was allowing himself to put his father at risk. This isn’t the happy scene that we usually portray it as, and Joseph’s own weeping, the story suggests, is a response to his own realization that he has become as bad as he thought his brothers were. His throwing his brothers into prison was punishment. His entire project never reaches its conclusion. Joseph is like Dante, who in the moment of wreaking his revenge for his imprisonment in the Castle ‘If, decides it his not his place to play God. Joseph is doing anything but kindly treating those who mistreated him – and it is his own discovery of what this is doing to him and to his family that saves him (not them). And this is an interesting comparison to the theme of salvation and redemption of Israel displayed on a larger level through these narratives.

    So, you see, here I can teach using nothing but the scriptures (but it is still interpretation), I can find a valuable lesson, I can teach that lesson, and yet still see the official Sunday School manual as an interpretation that, while teaching useful and good principles, completely destroys what I see as the original intent of the text. Which lesson is better?

    Ben

  21. BrianJ said

    Ben McGuire: While I’m not yet convinced that your reading of Joseph’s story is the most true to the text, your use of it as an example here illustrates your point quite nicely. Thanks for sharing it.

  22. Robert C. said

    Ben #19: “Ultimately, our objective is to stop relying on scripture at all. Should we need scripture if we can speak to God and God speaks back?

    I’d love to discuss this issue in more depth. On the one hand, I think you make a good point here. However, I’m reluctant to presume that there would not be good reason to study scripture even if one is talking to God face to face every day. My sense is that Joseph Smith studied scripture (and scriptural languages) more as a result of his visions and conversations with God, not less. But this surely deserves its own post.

    Ben #20: I’d quibble with your (apparent) claim that your interpretation of why Joseph cries is the only good and sound way to interpret the text from a scholarly perspective. Nevertheless, I agree that the SS manual glosses over what I have found to be most meaningful in the story, and I think the reading you propose is one that is important to consider (even if it’s not the “best” interpretation; and I would agree that it is probably the accepted reading in scholarly circles, I’m just saying it’s not the only good scholarly reading…).

    m&m #18: I think you raise very important issues to consider about what we should spend our time studying and thinking about. I’m less interested in what material is used in the classroom since I think the scriptures themselves give us plenty to talk about in the very limited time we have in class (although I think there is actually quite a bit of leeway given to teachers amidst the many warnings we’ve been given not to get too distracted with non-scriptural material and not to stray far from a focus on the scriptural text and, perhaps, personal application; in fact, I find the wording in the NT manual quite interesting, and curiously vague: “Additional references and commentaries should not be necessary to teach the lessons”—compared to other things I’ve read, I’m almost surprised this “warning” is given in such non-condemnatory language; that is, it’s not necessary, but it may be helpful; regardless, I think there is a very real and present danger that any additional material in the classroom will become a distraction from the scriptures themselves…).

    But back to my point: I think you are right that we should study Conference talks quite carefully and that there is a lot to learn from those talks. And I think on a certain level it’s odious to compare Conference talks to great philosophy, literature, or even scholarly writing on scripture (after someone famous, perhaps Shakespeare, said “all comparisons are odious”…). However, if we were to take up, for whatever reason, a comparison between Conference talks and other great writing, I think we could find many merits of other great writing that are not to be found in Conference talks. I think this is the implication iof studying out of the best books (as scriptures and leaders tell us to do). I believe there is great wisdom in leaving quite vague this admonition to study “out of the best books.” For some, this might be books found at Deseret books, for some this might be C. S. Lewis, for some this might be scholarly commentaries, for some this might be (should be!) be Dostoevsky or Levinas—the point is that I don’t think we should necessarily focus just on the words of prophets.

    I don’t expect you’ll disagree with much of what I’ve written above, but let me say make a more controversial claim: I think that when we “apply the scriptures to our lives” this does not preclude bringing in insights about life we’ve gleaned from other books. For example, since I studied Russian literature as an undergrad, I find it very natural to think about Dostoevsky’s writings when reading scripture, and even to occassionally mention something from Dostoevsky while giving a talk or participating in a Sunday lesson. I make it a point to make any such references quite brief and simple so as not to distract from the lesson or talk, but I do not think we are to censor all such application. This is how I see General Conference talks occurring: our leaders teach and preach drawing on scripture, their own lives, and other material they are familiar with (incl. many great writers, as I’ve heard quoted writers as diverse as C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Sirach, T. S. Elliot, Oscar Wile and many, many others…).

    I’m not sure you’re saying we should do such censorship, I just think it’s important to balance what you’re saying with this injunction we’ve been given to study from the best books, and to realize that Church leaders are not saying we need to check all the truth we’ve gleaned from other books at the doors of our curch buildings on Sundays….

  23. Cstanford said

    I’m sad that I missed Elder Holland’s talk, but I enjoyed reading this post.

    I recently gave a talk where I quoted from letters of Rainer Maria Rilke and later someone requested a copy of my notes saying that they had found my words very helpful.

    Does anyone here read scriptures from other religions and/or find inspiration in them? I personally find a lot of wisdom in the _Tao Te Ching._

  24. Fascinating discussion. Sorry to come so late.

    I think really the issue is quite simple: whatever the Spirit directs us to take up in order to open the scriptures during a talk/lesson can and should be used. Isn’t it that simple? (Notice that this relies almost entirely on my strong conception of “teaching by the Spirit.”) I have had experiences teaching seminary students where I am suddenly led to explain a scene from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra at some length, not to rejoice in the brilliance of the philosopher, but because of the way it opens up a particular text. I have been led in different circumstances to draw on everything from Napoleon Dynamite to Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. But always–ALWAYS–I am so led as we try to think the text itself. Where 1 Enoch opens up a text in the book of Revelation, we will likely be led at times to take that up. Where Derrida’s problematic of the gift helps us to think about the nature of grace in D&C 20, it is possible we will be led to cite him in a classroom. Where Delacroix’s painting of Jacob wrestling the angel helps us to make sense of Enos, the Spirit may often draw us in that direction.

    Obviously, however, if we are ever to be led in these directions, we have got to be buried–and all the time–in the best books, music, art, history, non-canonical everything. As Brigham said over and over, if there is truth in heaven, on earth, or in hell, we claim it as our own!

  25. nhilton said

    Joe, perhaps your mind is full to the brim with “Sunday Appropriate” material, however, not all teachers have the same “appropriate” material on which to draw…or do. And what is appropriate to one person may NOT be to another: thus the mandate to stick to the church approved materials. To consider anything else is to disregard this REAL mandate. i.e. Should I include excerpts or lessons I’ve learned from Voltair’s “Candide?” What about “Lolita?” These are “great works” of literature that indeed can teach. A big N-O.

    More than once “Shrek” has been my example of how Isaiah or parables can be understood, i.e. the “an ogre is like a parfait is like an onion is like Isaiah” the many layers metaphore. Is this really helpful? Is it the Spirit moving me to include it or is it just because that’s my point of reference & one I know my students have accessed? (verses my question sometimes if they’ve ever opened the scriptures, especially Isaiah.) I actually feel rather stupid when I say it & I think I’ll quit. I’ve come to feel that comparing Isaiah to Shrek is disrespectful or at least common.

    Last time I took in a collector’s Star War’s Darth Vader Hologram card to illustrate Isaiah, i.e. changing depending on how you look at it, very valuable to the collector of today, a known character to us but in contrast unknown & unvalued by ancients, etc. My point was well-made & it added interest, but I don’t think the Spirit urged me to share this, but rather my straining efforts to capture the idea in a way I would be sure the students could grasp. Object lessons (as YOU know) sometimes fall short in these ways.

    I have sat in UT GD classes full to the brim with educated students (many BYU professors) listening to a life-long member speak about church history (something he is VERY well-read in) while using shady materials that sensationalize the lesson, cast doubt on early church leaders and the church itself, and without an iota of spirit in the room, even the counter-spirit being present. He taught what he was familiar with, included his present reading, with a sprinkling of the scriptures–mostly as a springboard to his own agenda. He continued to teach. I was so amazed that this was allowed when year after year I went back to his class when visiting my folks’ ward and left his classroom quite unsettled. Today, I’m told, he works in the scouting program where “he can do little damage.”

    So, I think the mandate is meant to guard us from these types of teachers: hearing them and being them. Who can see the forest for the trees? When we venture outside the “mandated materials” do we become this type of teacher?

  26. m&m said

    “Elder Oaks’ point was that the best interpreter is the Spirit. With that definition, He is the best commentary.”This isn’t necessarily the case. There are several issues here. This might be true if we presumed that God was the author of scripture (which we don’t). It might be the case if we thought that the text of scripture was somehow perfect (which it isn’t). In fact, the value of what General Authorities have to say rarely has anything to do with the actual text of the scriptures.

    If you go back and read what I and Elder Oaks said, I was referring to the Spirit as the best “commentary.”

  27. m&m said

    So, to get back to my point, the Spirit doesn’t interpret scripture for us. What it provides us with is the will and knowledge of God.

    OK, call it what you want, but that seems to me to be pretty important. I guess I don’t really understand the desire to parse this out. The text is there for God to guide and teach us.

  28. nhilton said

    #27, I agree with m&m. Having studied scripture long enough I believe the Spirit DOES interpret scripture. In fact, through the spirit the seer stones interpreted scripture for JS even to a translation into language he could understand. This is my definition of interpretation: making something I don’t understand clear to MY understanding. This, indeed, the Spirit does.

  29. m&m said

    I think we could find many merits of other great writing that are not to be found in Conference talks.

    I agree with this and didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

    I think that when we “apply the scriptures to our lives” this does not preclude bringing in insights about life we’ve gleaned from other books. realize that Church leaders are not saying we need to check all the truth we’ve gleaned from other books at the doors of our curch buildings on Sundays….

    I could agree with this, too. But I have also seen the propensity to want to focus on such outside learning more than on the pure doctrine that I think classes should contain. I think any of this should be like what Elder Holland talked about with visual aids — spice, not the main part of the lesson. And I suspect you wouldnt’ argue with that. You can’t take what is already a part of you and necessarily suppress it if the Spirit brings it to your remembrance. But most of the time, such material isn’t necessary and could distract.

    I think really the issue is quite simple: whatever the Spirit directs us to take up in order to open the scriptures during a talk/lesson can and should be used. Isn’t it that simple?

    Yeah, it probably is that simple, assuming that we really are listening to the Spirit. That’s the ultimate key. And this is a very good question with regard to that, and why we need to be careful: “Is it the Spirit moving me to include it or is it just because that’s my point of reference & one I know my students have accessed?”

    and

    “So, I think the mandate is meant to guard us from these types of teachers: hearing them and being them. Who can see the forest for the trees? When we venture outside the “mandated materials” do we become this type of teacher?”

    And this sums up my hesitancy to simply say, “Sure, use whatever you want.” Sticking with approved materials helps create a greater chance that what we teach will be as close to pure doctrine as possible, and thus invite the Spirit more readily.

  30. Cherylem said

    #20 Ben,
    I thought your explanations and comments were excellent. You do have a way of clearly stating a point of view that I agree with, almost all the time.

  31. If something from Candide opens a text, why on earth not share it?

    But let me clarify: I’m not saying that one should “prepare” for a lesson by bringing a stack of the classics to teach from; I’m saying that the Spirit may very well lead you to draw on the insights of the best books/art/music/etc. in order to draw out the meaning of a text that otherwise might remain unfortunately obscure. Drawing on a title of a paper by Derrida in order to explain some of the richness of the Hebrew phrase lkh lkh is hardly apostate: the point is not to bring in Derrida, but to enrich one’s understanding of the text. I don’t learn about God from Shakespeare, but I do learn how to read the scriptures from Shakespeare. I could never get a thing from Job until I read Goethe’s Faust, and Beethoven’s 9th symphony has opened my understanding of one facet of the endowment ceremony that otherwise would have remained dead to me. I’m glad someone mentioned Rilke: his Duino Elegies have helped me greatly to understand the place of angels in our theology. I’ve learned a great deal about how to read the OT from Levinas, and Freud recently opened up a whole side of Alma 36 I had entirely missed. And on and on.

    Clearer, I hope. I’m not suggesting bringing these sources to class. I’m suggesting studying the scriptures all the time through everything we encounter, and coming to the teaching situation with that broader understanding.

  32. Cherylem said

    Joe,
    yes, to #31. Thank you.

    Of course, what you describe is also how my brain works, how I experience my own spiritual life. But not everyone does experience or think like this. The secret of a great teacher, in my mind, is the ability to affirm and accept all, with their different ways of thinking and experiencing.

    I don’t know how many on this blog are engineers, and I hesitate to generalize, but my experience with engineers is that they tend to be more black and white in interpretations and thought processes than I am. Yet, through my professional work (city government) I’ve been compelled to work closely with engineers as co-workers and others who volunteer their time for one thing or another, and I’ve learned through these experiences to value – highly – the way they think, the way they ARE.

    So even though I didn’t like the analogy of the potluck so much regarding the “feast,” I do think we all bring our different mindsets, our different ways of being, to the scriptures. In GD, I bring everything I am, without apology, to the teaching process (I am the called teacher, after all), but I also want to get out of the way, so that others can experience the Spirit through the scriptures via their own ways of thinking.

    And I personally think some of the GAs would be appalled that the membership might limit themselves to only their “quotes” or teachings. Personally, if I did limit myself to the manuals and GAs, I could never teach much about the women in the scriptures, for instance. I couldn’t reference Hebrews – a book I love – much (and while I know Hebrews is scripture, the NT schedule barely touches this book). I couldn’t teach with intellectual, as well as spiritual, authority. In fact, I don’t feel like I teach with much spiritual authority at all, but I do try to offer something intellectually, and then again, trust the process and the Spirit (the true authority) and get myself out of the way. I really do trust that every person in the room can react spiritually to intellectual teaching, at whatever level they are prepared to receive the scriptures being taught. I also believe that some people in the room can and will have a more profound spiritual experience that my own, because they do come prepared to receive it.

    My labor as a teacher is to continue to work hard, to improve, at setting a table full of intellect and spirit, so that others can eat what brings them pleasure and growth at that moment. To my mind, all of our talk about what sources to use, what rules to follow, fade in insignificance to this great task. All of us as teachers are called, I truly believe, because of who we are and how we think, and we need not be ashamed or feel insecure about what we present. And while we often are told that we are given callings in order to grow, I believe even more that we are called to empty ourselves for the benefit of bringing others to God. Our own growth is hardly the issue, when thought of in this way.

  33. nhilton said

    Well, I think it would be a mistake to include “Candide” in any formal gospel teaching situation. If you haven’t read it, take my word for it. However, reading it privately will certainly “open up a text” for you on various gospel related subjects. However, many, many sources can do that. i.e., I could simply visit the ‘Vegas Strip 10 minutes West of me and the sights I’d take in would “open up a text.” I don’t, however, want to bring The Strip into my classroom as a springboard to a gospel lesson because it would drive the Spirit away. This is the concern I have with bringing in outside sources to gospel classrooms.

    A good example, from my perspective, was Pres. Faust’s talk in Gen. Conf. He began by relating a horrific event in Amish country where children were killed. He gave details that really made me uncomfortable. In fact, when he related this current event, which he had certainly obtained from the media, my husband and I each looked at each other in disapproval because it was shocking, our children were listening and the Spirit was offended. The Spirit returned, for various reasons, and his message was clearly communicated. I don’t think I could pull this off in a GD class. This brings to bear the fact that Gen. Conf. is a unique meeting, with unique speakers, purpose & audience. It may be too much to hope for the “green light” to follow Elder Holland’s (or Pres. Faust’s) lead in citing shady sources.

  34. nhilton said

    A case example is when Pres. Packer (or maybe Maxwell), went up to a ward organist who was playing prelude music & put the hymnbook in front of her, requesting that she play from that book instead of the one from which she was playing. He wanted the hymns played, not outside source music no matter how wonderful it was. The same message was given in Gen. Conf. this go around re: music. I think we could extrapolate this to our lesson material, for what it’s worth, or not.

  35. Cheryl, thank you. To give ourselves sans reserve is, I believe, the real weight of our callings. And, though I would articulate it somewhat differently, I too believe that the best teaching “style” is one that outstrips the provincial: the best teacher will allow every point of view to bring all it can to the discussion.

    Again, Nanette, let me make this clear: I don’t think one should ever take Candide or “The Strip” “as a springboard to a gospel lesson.” But when the Spirit directs one to take up either of these in discussing the text, we had better not “quench the Spirit.” To take such up as an “object lesson” would probably be inappropriate, but I hardly condone “object lessons” at all.

    And I have to confess (a personal opinion, but worth saying, I think) that the Spirit was stronger in President Faust’s talk (and throughout the part about the slaughter) than in many others that stuck to “approved materials.”

  36. Rex said

    Nanette, Oh pleeeeease let your “case example” be Elder Packer and not (I would just die if it was) Elder Maxwell.

    Definitely sounds like a page out of Packer’s peculiar “Unwritten Order of Things.”

  37. robf said

    It was Elder Packer. Here’s the story.

  38. nhilton said

    Dang…I think I would have died if I had been playing the organ that day. I wonder who that poor soul was & what they did afterwards–& feel about it now! I love organ music & would LOVE to hear something played wonderfully, especially something other than the hymns as pre-lude & post-lude.

  39. Rex said

    We used to have a very gifted organist who liked to play TV theme songs –
    slow them way down and adapt them as suitable prelude music. Inspired.

    (Okay, it was Bill Marsden – just to give him the due credit he richly deserves.)

  40. Robert C. said

    I too would’ve been quite surprized (i.e. somehow more unsettled) if this story had indeed been one involving Elder Maxwell rather than Elder Packer—which I think is very interesting to confess. That is, if it indeed had been Elder Maxwell, the meaning of this story for me would’ve been noticably different—why is that?!

    (I guess more than anything, the fact that this little thought has my brain all tied up in knots is a testament to what a hermeneutics geek I really am…!)

  41. nhilton said

    Woa, I’m sorry for rocking all the Maxwell boats with my misattributed incident.

    BTW, I love Elder Packer, too. But I do see where ya’ll are coming from, with Maxwells “don’t pull up the daisies” metaphore about checking on people’s spiritual progression. The two mindsets would be incongruent.

    But ever since that story I’ve been VERY nervous about playing the organ—my ward bldg. is the closest to the Strip & frequented by visitors from all over, weekly. One day I did play the same hymn twice (once for opening & once for closing), unfortuneately it was Ward Conf. & the Stk. Pres. were there. My bishopric thought it was highly entertaining, as did the ward, especially since I didn’t know I had done it until after the meeting. Our organist is moving & I’m hoping to hang onto my GD teaching job! (If you ever feel nervous about teach GD, try playing the organ for Sac.Mtg. & you’ll jump at the GD job! :) )

  42. There is enough in the hymn book that affords the in-between anyway right? I’m trying to remember the last time I heard sung or played in, before, or after a meeting something like “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown of Plaited Thorns” or even “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” There is a great deal of beauty in the hymn book we ignore.

    At the same time, there is far too much that is out of the hymn book that I’d like to hear more often as well. I did have to laugh when after this question of music was mentioned during conference, the postlude music was Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

  43. nhilton said

    Joe, exactly. THIS is the kind of music I crave. I love the hymns, TOO. But there are so many good hymns that aren’t in our hymnal. The classical works you cited above were inspired when they were written & inspire those who hear them. Church should be a place for this.

    Gladys Knight lives here with her special choir. They are amazing! Her concerts are missionary minded & her music draws people to want to join the church. It’s alive…or lively. It’s also sacred. Check out her CD’s if you haven’t heard it already. She is a big proponent of putting some life into LDS music.

  44. m&m said

    I really don’t think it’s church policy to only have hymns. For all we know, the person could have been playing the organ in a showy way (which is what the policy is more geared against…no performances, please), and so asking him/her to play the hymns could have been a nice way to avoid that altogether.

    Ah, yes, from the talk: “The organist had chosen various Bach selections for the prelude and was absorbed in presenting a Bach concert. As the music crescendoed it forced the members visiting with each other to raise their voices. The louder the din, the more determined the organist, and the volume of voices and music rose higher and higher.”

    I think it was less about the choice of music per se (see the postlude from Conference…played not to impress, but to allow for impressions of the Spirit…a song about the Savior as well) and more about the way in which is was played — played to impress, to be showy, even to compete. I don’t think there is anything that would prevent a worshipful piece of recognizedly worshipful music (case in point, the postlude at conference that Joe mentions) to be played. Obviously not. :)

    (I have to laugh myself, though, because my daughter’s eyes got big as she said, “Mom, that’s on Baby Bach!” :) )

  45. Ben McGuire said

    A few months ago, in another Forum, Dan Peterson made these observations –

    “I served on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee for nearly ten years. I wasn’t overly fond of the Sunday School manuals when I was called, and still am not. Although I’ve probably taught Gospel Doctrine class during more years of my adult life than I haven’t, I’ve never used the manuals except to find out what chapters we were supposed to cover.

    I’ve never felt restricted in any way from using any materials I feel like using, and don’t see the passage from the manual as a prohibition.

    But I think we should be careful about assuming that deviation from the manuals and from approved Church materials will always, typically, or even often result in better lessons. I’ve sat through many a lesson where the scriptures were essentially ignored in favor of bad poetry, sentimental anecdotes, wild speculations, and inaccurate history. The manuals don’t reach the heights, but, if they’re followed rather faithfully, they probably help us to avoid the depths.

    Moreover, I myself don’t believe in turning Gospel Doctrine classes into seminars on Church history, Hebrew culture, or apologetics, much as I enjoy all of those areas. Intellectuals have their own peculiar tendencies toward error, bad teaching, and irrelevancy.”

    I have also enjoyed these comments made by Elder Hafen which touch a bit on this subject:

    “We need to develop the capacity to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives. We won’t always have the security of knowing whether a certain idea is “Church approved,” because new ideas don’t always come along with little tags attached to them saying whether they have been reviewed at Church headquarters. Whether in the form of music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals or courses of instruction. Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.”

    I think that I have a couple of additional comments to make here. The first is that independant of anything else, I reiterate the fact that the lesson manual only offers us interpretations. That’s all it can offer. And they aren’t always very good interpretations. Substituting the manual for consistent study of the scriptures is just as bad as substituting a commentary. The problem for me is in this notion of preparation and use of materials. On the one hand, we have the comments in Elder Oak’s talk provided to us (#2):

    “One trouble with commentaries is that their authors sometimes focus on only one meaning, to the exclusion of others. As a result, commentaries, if not used with great care, may illuminate the author’s chosen and correct meaning but close our eyes and restrict our horizons to other possible meanings. Sometimes those other, less obvious meanings can be the ones most valuable and useful to us as we seek to understand our own dispensation and to obtain answers to our own questions. This is why the teaching of the Holy Ghost is a better guide to scriptural interpretation than even the best commentary.”

    These suggest to me that the issue here is more about simply accepting any particular voice as authoritative in terms of scriptural interpretation. Oaks is in some ways very post-structuralist. For him, the value isn’t in what the author intended (although that may well be good and useful information). The value is in what we can find to deal with our own questions and answers. And this brings up an interesting question. If what the author’s intended is essentially a nice but only marginally relevant fact, then what does it matter if the Spirit leads us as we read scripture, or as we read any other text (be it conference material, scholarly article, or great novel)?

    Nor should we simply stop at some point – even after feeling the spirit – and decide that “now we know”. Teaching lessons isn’t about reading a text and then discovering its meaning in a lesson manual, in a General Conference talk, or even in some scholarly commentary. Each of these things can play a role in adding to the ways that we read a text or understand scripture – but none of them should be seen as fully determinate or having some special value. Even what we learn from the Spirit shouldn’t be seen as the end all of interpretation, as we may learn more, or a different lesson at some point from the same Spirit. Part of our responsibility in building faith is to learn how to judge between different views and to accept the good and to reject the bad. Preparing to teach Sunday School lessons isn’t a weekly task, but a lifetime engagement with the scriptures and the Spirit and a whole host of other things which will inevitably influence how we read and what we learn.

    It is important I think also not to give special precedence to a particular non-canonical source. And it is important that we not insist that our reading (even if it is deeply moitivated by the Spirit) is the correct reading for everyone. Because any Spirit driven reading will produce a meaning unique to ourselves. Isn’t this the point of Oak’s comments? And what we want to encourage isn’t some fixed meaning determined by a lesson manual, but for each member of the class to develop their own personal reading based on the promptings of the Spirit.

    I enjoyed President Hinckley’s comments in General Conference a year or two ago in which he did something like this (sapwning a wave of speculation on the internet as to what he was actually referring to – allowing him to use a source to make a point without having to endow that source with any special priviledge or authority). This is a quote from his address in the April 2005 General Conference (I think it was the Sunday morning talk):

    “I have just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar. It is apparent from information, which he gives that the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion. In some cases, the writings were not produced until long after the events they describe. One is led to ask, “Is the Bible true? Is it really the word of God?” We reply that it is, insofar as it is translated correctly. The hand of the Lord was in its making. But it now does not stand alone. There is another witness of the significant and important truths found therein.”

    Here is our beloved prophet, talking about learning from a non-authorized source (a scholarly one at that), and using it to make a point (not in Gospel Doctrine class, but in General Conference – which I have to assume is close enough) about which he felt strongly. And I think this example is a good one. (I still wonder .. was it Freedman? Erdman?)

    I suppose we could say, “do as they say, but not as they do,” but then … I think this is responded to by Elder Hafen’s remarks. If we want to understand the scriptures, and to encounter them as fully as God intends for us, then we ought to avail ourselves of whatever is available – even if that means that we have to learn to judge for ourselves that which is useful and good. And I don’t think the comments about using non-LDS sources are really aimed at our rejecting anything that doesn’t come with a convenient label. They are aimed toward keeping us from taking any source apart from the scriptures and giving it authoritative status in our lessons and in a formal church setting (and certainly had Hinckley named the book, I think it would have become an instant hit with Desert Books, and used in countless Gospel Doctrine classes ….). But as Dan Peterson points out, this shouldn’t hamper our own investigations, and our own learning, and the inclusion of how we read scripture based on all of these things – what we know from scripture, from other materials, and from the Spirit.

  46. Ben McGuire said

    BrianJ #21 –

    “Ben McGuire: While I’m not yet convinced that your reading of Joseph’s story is the most true to the text, your use of it as an example here illustrates your point quite nicely. Thanks for sharing it.”

    Well hopefully you will never read it the same either – even if you never agree with my interpretation.

    nhilton #25 –

    “So, I think the mandate is meant to guard us from these types of teachers: hearing them and being them. Who can see the forest for the trees? When we venture outside the “mandated materials” do we become this type of teacher?”

    I think its more geared toward preventing us from pointing at a single tree and saying – “See? Here is the forest.”

    m&m #27 –

    “OK, call it what you want, but that seems to me to be pretty important. I guess I don’t really understand the desire to parse this out. The text is there for God to guide and teach us.”

    It’s not a desire to parse it out, rather its pointing out that texts don’t actually say anything. This was a point which Plato made millenia ago:

    “That’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive: but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words: they seem to talk to you as though, they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, they go on telling you just the same thing for ever.”

    We encounter texts. We create meaning. It seems to me that God doesn’t just guide us and lead us with a text. After all, the Biblical text has meant many things to many different people. As the Oak’s quote that you kindly provided us in #2 suggests, what God wants us to know doesn’t have to have anything to do with what the author of a text intended. So the text isn’t the important part of the equation, the Spirit is. And we need to make this distinction lest we give the text much more weight than it deserves – lest we make it infallible, and perfect, and the sole respository of authority (when properly interpreted of course).

    And finally, m&m #29 –

    “And this sums up my hesitancy to simply say, “Sure, use whatever you want.” Sticking with approved materials helps create a greater chance that what we teach will be as close to pure doctrine as possible, and thus invite the Spirit more readily.”

    What is “pure doctrine”?

    Ben

  47. Robert C. said

    Ben #45, great quotes, thanks—I esp. your bit about post-structuralism in regard to Elder Oaks’ talk, something I was trying to get at in the “A Hermeneutic for the Unlearned” post.

  48. I really like what Ben has to say here, but I must confess that I’m not quite convinced that we can say that texts bear no meaning whatsoever, that we “create meaning.” I think that our encounter with a text creates meaning, and that meaning is our engagement of the text (and I imagine that this is precisely what Ben has in mind), but this hardly amounts to saying that the text is merely a catalyst or that we generate all of the meaning ourselves. Rather, an encounter with the text is a meeting up of my situatedness with the situatedness of the text, and as the Spirit confirms and binds up that encounter, meaning is given.

    Now, it seems to me that this suggests precisely that there are “better” interpretations and perhaps even “correct” or “best” interpretations: they will be interpretations that are wrestled out between the full weight of the text and the full weight of the reader. If either the text or the reader brings too much or too little to the encounter, the interpretation will necessarily be “weaker,” “lesser,” perhaps even “wrong,” and certainly not “true” (“true” as in “true and faithful”). Elder Oaks’ point might well be read as saying that we will miss the encounter entirely if we turn immediately to commentary (inspired or not): we are to wrestle with the word of God.

    m&m, I think this just clarified something I’ve been trying to express in our discussions back and forth. My concern with moving too quickly from a particular text of the scriptures, whether to another text in the scriptures or to something said by a general authority, is that it amounts to a retreat from the textual encounter. That is not to suggest that those other texts and talks are bad, wrong, unworthy, or unimportant, but that they should never be an out for me, a way out of the wrestle to which the text calls me. If those texts or talks call me, I should likewise not run from a very real encounter with them to the first text. My task is to wrestle with the word/Word as it comes to me. Does that clarify things. In other words, does that make it easier to understand why I can say that I almost always agree with everything you’re saying, though it seems I believe the opposite? :)

  49. Lionel Yovino said

    Thought provoking post. Very interesting items and have enjoyed immensely.

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