Something insidious infects our children from the moment they’re born. It’s unstoppable. It surrounds us, burrows in deep, far below our conscious minds, and like a computer virus, writes subtle programming that dictates our worldview, our attitudes, and assumptions, shaping our very reflexes… Ahem. Shifting away from threatening apocalyptic movie-trailer voice, I’m speaking, of course, about culture and tradition, terms I’ll use interchangeably here.
These are not bad per se, surely every culture has positive as well as negative aspects. Rather, it is the strength of culture in shaping our unconscious mind and worldview that poses potential problems; we tend to be blind to our own assumptions and cultural inheritance, and it affects us on many levels.
The written rules of Monopoly provide a good example. The written rules say, you don’t put any money on free parking, and when someone lands on a property without buying it, the bank immediately auctions it off to the highest bidder. If you play that way, the the game moves along quite quickly. Why, then,
is everyone playing a variant of the actual rules without actually realising it? Well [one] answer here is that no-one ever actually reads the rules of Monopoly. Monopoly is something you learn through word-of-mouth in childhood, like riding a bike or tying your shoelaces. Your mother, who never read the rules but was instead taught them by her father, taught you, and one day you will teach your children, again without reading the rules first. She passed on broken rules to you and you’ll pass them on to your kids. So the set of rules we play by is the shared cultural set of rules passed down through the generations, and not the ones written on the booklet inside the box.
We all assume the Monopoly rules we play by are the written rules, but they don’t actually correspond entirely. The real-world consequence is, we all hate Monopoly. The inherited tradition telling us the rules can be so strong that even when we DO read them, we sometimes manage to ignore the absence of our tradition and read it in, unconsciously.
This affects LDS in our scripture reading and subsequent interpretations. We often go into our scriptures already knowing just what they say and what they mean, and then overlook or ignore anything to the contrary. Latter-day Saints are not alone in this, of course.
Everyone inherits some kind of interpretive tradition. Evangelical scholar Peter Enns called this inherited interpretive tradition “the interpreted Bible,” and spends several pages discussing it in context of Paul’s 2nd Temple Judaism traditions regarding Adam. He introduces the concept with the example of the insensitive innkeeper who turns away Joseph and a very pregnant Mary, who’s endured riding a donkey for miles. 3 We all know the mean innkeeper, and we’ve seen him in various LDS and non-LDS depictions of the birth narrative of Christ. However, he exists only in the “interpreted Bible”, the interpretation and retelling we’ve inherited culturally, but the mean innkeeper is not found in scripture. The recent nativity film from the Church dropped the “mean innkeeper” and several other traditional aspects, because they involved scholars in its making who pointed out… they weren’t actually scriptural. Another example is Bathsheba bathing on the roof.
This kind of receiving-cultural-tradition-as-scripture can happen even at high levels in the Church.
Eugene England asked [Elder Joseph Fielding Smith] in a 1963 private interview whether it was necessary for a faithful Latter-day Saint to believe that black men were denied priesthood because of their activities in the preexistence, Elder Smith said, “Yes.” But when England asked for scriptural substantiation, Elder Smith reread the relevant passages, reflected, then finally stated, “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to believe it to be in good standing, because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”
-Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: the Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Deseret Book, draft on included CD) My emphasis.
Joseph Fielding Smith had received a tradition that he assumed was consistent with and based on scripture, but upon rereading the relevant passages closely, he changed his mind. Even though an Apostle, the combination of tradition (“it was what I was taught”) and presuppositions/worldview (“it made sense”) contributed toward his assumption that this tradition accurately represented God’s revelations.
This kind of thing happens all the time, because so few of us have experience “close reading” and because of that insidious power of tradition. Kirk commented about the Mormon Theology Seminar on Gen 2-3, “This is what I love so much about the MTS, it does what nobody else seems to want to do, read scripture.” Well, trying, anyway. Twice during the MTS, I wrote a paragraph, then decided to look at the relevant passages again. It turned out that both times, in spite of reading the text closely in English and Hebrew, my received tradition was overpowering what was right in front of my eyes. Go here, and look at my completely crossed-out paragraph. It was so disconcertingly easy for me to do.
How do we deal with this?
- Exposure to different cultures and assumptions; it doesn’t matter who or where you are, you’re in some kind of bubble, so get out of whatever bubble you’re in. That’s not a Provo or a Utah jab. We ALL have traditions, assumptions, and limited perspectives. We saw some amazingly narrow and provincial people in NYC, who had little exposure to other places or ways of thought. Exposure helps make us aware of our own assumptions. One thing I tried to do when teaching Institute or at BYU was to expose students to new perspectives and challenge them a little, as well as encourage critical thinking.
- Read people you might disagree with, people from different perspectives, people who might not be approved (gasp)! That’s pretty much everybody. LDS, non-LDS, Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, left, right, independent, whatever. If you only read what you already know you like, the “safe” stuff, you’re participating in and contributing to the Balkanization of thought in this country, as well as cheating yourself a bit of the growth that comes from challenge.
- Learn to read closely. That is, pay close attention, ask questions, write a paraphrase, read a second translation, use good tools and appropriate dictionaries, keep detailed notes.
- Slow down. My Mom’s been teaching an adult Institute class for 3 years and they’re just now into Alma. I attended a Torah study class for about 18 months, and we covered about ten chapters of Deuteronomy. I once got permission to teach an Institute class just on the Small Plates of Nephi. We did not have a schedule; we just didn’t move on until there was nothing left for anyone to say about a passage. You’ll note, these are all the polar opposite of that Gospel Doctrine refrain “There’s so much to say, but we have to get through these chapters, so let’s move on.” To say nothing of trying to cover the entire Old Testament in a year. But again, those are institutional schedules. Personal reading and study can march to the beat of a different drummer. If you’re going slowly, you’re much more likely to notice discontinuities with your assumed reading.
- Stop assuming you know what the scriptures say or what they mean. “If we assume that we already know what the scriptures say, then they cannot continue to teach us.” This is partially an Institutional issue (see here for a good discussion) but something we can also do on an individual basis. Jim Faulconer offers some great suggestions here.
All these suggestions about reading presumes that you are, well, reading. If nothing else, at very least reading your scriptures. President Hinckley envied your free time. I know guilt is not a good motivator, but make some time! There are so many great books out there on a variety of subjects! And maybe, next time you have friends over, think about playing a little Monopoly…
Addendum: John Walton gets at the idea of “the interpreted Bible” concisely in his NIV Application Commentary volume on Genesis, p. 318.
Too often traditions can create presuppositions that in turn regulate the interpretive process. When we approach a text, we must be able to set our presuppositions off to the side as much as possible so that we do not impose them onto the text. It is not wrong to have presuppositions, but it is important to have a realistic grasp of what our presuppositions are so that we can assess their impact on our interpretation. Some of the traditions we carry as baggage are blind presuppositions—that is, we don’t even realize they come from tradition rather than text. Blind presuppositions are the worst kind because we think we have gotten them from [scripture] when in reality they lack that authority. We don’t even realize that they are imported into the text, and we must evaluate their relevance and truth rather than assume them to be accurate.
A great volume for challenging our cultural assumptions that we bring to the scriptures is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.
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