May 14, 2008

"In The Eye Of The Beholder..."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," the saying goes. We can look at something and come away with a different impression or meaning than the person standing beside us.

Perhaps it works the same with the scriptures. I've always been amazed, and sometimes frustrated, by how I can read a scripture and get a totally different meaning out of it than someone else -- if I get any meaning out of it at all.

I'm one of those few people who can say that they've read the "Quad" from cover to cover. However, I'm a very sporadic scripture reader and my success in being a daily (or even weekly) scripture reader has usually been short-lived.

I'm not good with symbolism or poetry. To give you an idea of how much I enjoyed studying Shakespeare in high school, if you gave me the choice between re-growing my 4 wisdom teeth and having them re-extracted vs. having to read and memorize Merchant Of Venice again, I might just choose the 5 minutes of excruciating physical pain over the hours of excruciating boredom. The sad part is that that's maybe not far from an exaggeration. And as for poetry, well, let's just say that the boys of my youth had to take a different approach if they wanted to romance me. At the same time, however, I can respect and appreciate the fact that certain people are mesmerized by Shakespeare or poetry.

The scriptures, for me, actually fare a little better than the above mentioned. I appreciate the historical background and symbolism behind the parables of Jesus. Nevertheless, reading the scriptures and applying them to my personal life is a struggle for me.

In the Spring 2008 issue of Dialogue, I thought that Kathleen Petty put it well when she said:

"The problem with allowing people to find their own meaning in the scriptures is that they will find their own meaning in the scriptures."

This has always been a concern of mine and since I'm the type of person who needs clear and explicit instructions, getting advice or answers from God via the scriptures is not exactly comforting. If I interpret a scripture one way and someone else another, who's right?

We had a family discussion a few days ago about vegetarianism. Some of my family members like to tease me about being a vegetarian, but I take it all in stride. So we put the scriptures to the test on the subject. Here is a good example of how it's possible for people to interpret a scripture differently and both can swear that they are right.

In D&C 89:13 it says:

“And it is pleasing unto me that they [the flesh of beasts and fowls] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”

Now, a vegetarian would read that as they should NOT be used, and ONLY in times of winter, cold, or famine is it acceptable. (Interestingly, one source says that the comma after the word "used" was added to D&C in 1920.)

On the other hand, a meat-lover's-pizza-lover would say that they should not be used ONLY in times of winter, cold, or famine. And if this meat lover wants an even stronger argument, he can turn to D&C 49 where it says:

"And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God; For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance."

I've heard some members use this scripture as justification for vegetarianism being "evil." In my view, the problem is that they don't read further on because then it says:

"But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. And wo be unto that man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need." (D&C 49: 20-21).

Anyways, my point is that I think it can be problematic to find an "answer" in the scriptures and know that you're right. Anyone who has an experience or opinion to share, I welcome ideas.


Anonymous said...

It's a little like Nostradamus, the I Ching or horoscopes, isn't it? Enough of general human interest and a gloss of the profound or transcendent without having much in the way of specifics to interfere with anyone believing what they choose or need to.

George Bernard Shaw said "no man ever believes that the Bible means what it says; he is always convinced that it says what he means".

Meanwhile, I think the English language has evolved so that it's difficult for us to penetrate Shakespeare's dialogue for the double entendres and wit but what the man understood of drama and of human psychology before that particular social science took shape has remained eternal and astounding.

anonymous alice

angryyoungwoman said...

I think the example that you gave shows why people have to read and interpret scriptures for themselves--because tow people can come up with two completely different answers and both can be right. Scriptures apply to different people differently (at least that's what I think). I think the scriptures and commandments are general enough so that when each individual reads them, their interpretation can be very specific.

angryyoungwoman said...

pardon my typos, please.

Zelph said...

I agree with the first post. Think about how many countless obscure, non-specific verses of ramblings in Isiah and someone is bound to find a few sentences and say SEE!! SEE!! the Bible PROVES the church is true. When in reality, 90% of the text is just nonsense.

I think there is quite a bit of ambiguity when interpreting the scriptures as well.

Let's just all agree that the only correct way to interpret the scripture is the way I interpret them ;)

What is amazing is how there is even debate within the LDS church as to the literalness of the D&C.

For example, when I pointed out that the Lord himself refers to Native Americans as "Lamanites"

D&C 28:1,8-9

“Behold, I say unto thee, Oliver, that it shall be given unto thee that thou shalt be heard by the church in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter, concerning the revelations and commandments which I have given...And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them; and inasmuch as they receive thy teachings thou shalt cause my church to be established among them; and thou shalt have revelations, but write them not by way of commandment. And now, behold, I say unto you that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites.”

This was not just Joseph Smiths personal opinion, this was a revelation from the Lord given in first person.

D&C 54:8
“And thus you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites.”

Now as a rational reasonable person, it is clear that the Lord speaking to Joseph Smith in a revelation in first person is calling the Native Americans Lamanites. How can anyone read that and interpret it any differently?

It is because people will invent things in their minds to fit whatever they want, even if it means quite a bit of mental gymnastics.

angryyoungwoman said...

Literal people scare me. You can't use scripture to prove anything is true--it goes against the whole nature of faith thing. People who say they can prove it are only trying to convince themselves. I think scriptures are useful as a tool for meditation and exploration of beliefs one has already acquired(sp?), they also can be useful in gaining faith, but aren't key to faith and don't prove anything.

Zelph said...

It has been my experience that a literal interpretation of any text is only destined for failure, because there is so much physical evidence that easily disproves of the literalness.

Humans have been around much longer than 6,000 years. The idea that the first people were here 6,000 years ago is nonsense, because there is so much countless evidence to the contrary.

I think that it is the most difficult for people that grew up with the mindset that everything in the Bible is literal.

My parents taught me of a very literal interpretation of scripture. So you can see how it pitted me into a very black and white "it's either true or it's a fraud" mentality.

When one understands that scriptures are not all literal, one can embrace science, which is simply the observation of the natural world.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I find that balance is the key. Taking every scripture literally leaves you with such a black and white view of the world that it makes a person like me miserable. Like angryyoungwomen, literal people tend to scare me as well. However, I can respect their desire to live their religion as literally as they see fit, as long as they don't harm anyone else, which is sometimes a problem that needs to be dealt with.

I love science because I love logic. But many people can easily latch on to a theory and proclaim as "truth" because it's been "proven" scientifically, only to have the "truth" later revoked or amended once new information comes to light. I've learned that science has holes in it, just as religion does. One can't disprove the other, as hard as they each may try.

Anonymous said...

...but at least science admits that it is still pursuing the truth it doesn't know and stands ready to refine existing truth in the light of new discoveries. Scientists are open about the fact that their "canon" is fluid.

I respect that.

anonymous alice

The Faithful Dissident said...

Ideally, the Church should work basically the same way. We are a Church of continuing revelation, because we believe the heavens are not closed. Knowledge is given to us "line upon line, precept upon precept." There's still a whole lot we don't know.

Fifthgen said...

I think the ambiguity and uncertainty serve an important purpose. I think we are supposed to struggle with the meaning, what is literal, what is symbolic, and how it all applies in our life. That is the only way we can begin to develop the wisdom and understanding that we will need in this life and beyond. Even when we are given pretty specific interpretations by Church leaders on the meanings of scriptures, we usually are NOT given very specific instructions on how to apply that meaning in our individual lives. I think that is to preserve our agency and help us grow.

The Faithful Dissident said...

An excellent approach, Fifthgen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.