Toward Becoming a Gospel Scholar
Read, read, and read. Set reading goals and record your progress. Turn lots of pages. Stop and read carefully materials that catch your attention. Pick up threads that run through many discussions. Figure out what's going on.
Slow down, read slowly, and read it again. Speed-reading is helpful, but overrated. I may work on a few verses for several weeks. Stephen Ricks and I took thirty years to get through King Benjamin's speech in Mosiah 2-5, and our recently published book about it is still only a beginning.
Always leave the scriptures open. If you do this, when you sit down again, there they will be, open and ready to go. Never let the scriptures be a closed book in your life. The inertia of a closed book can often be overwhelming.
Create and keep files. It is important to have a good file system. Buy a box of file folders and open a file for each subject in which you have a strong interest. Make copies of relevant things you find. Write down notes as you read; gather data; compose your own thoughts. I find that I haven't really thought about something until I have tried to write it out.
Gospel Study through Purposeful Questions
While it is always important for gospel readers to contemplate and ponder the scriptures for pure enjoyment and general inspiration, gospel scholars read and study with specific points in mind.
Scholarship exists to answer questions, or at least to attempt to find answers. To become a gospel scholar, you must adopt a purpose for your pursuits. There must be a point to your endeavors. General grazing can, of course, be beneficial for daily edification, but a scholarly undertaking must have a specific objective and a focused plan. As with many other things in life, if you do not know where you are going, how will you know when you get there? Or when you are not getting there?
Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing every scholarly effort is to come up with a good question. One of my favorite German proverbs says, "A good question is half an answer." This truth stands behind the many scriptures that tell us that we must first ask, seek, and knock before we can expect to find.
What makes a good question? Few people spend enough time asking themselves whether the questions they are asking are actually good questions. In an academic sense, good questions are those for which possible evidence exists. For example, where was Bountiful where Nephi built his ship? Or how far was it from the city of Nephi to the city of Zarahemla? Data extracted from the text can be used to shed light on these questions. There is little point, however, in asking a question for which no evidence possibly exists. For example, it is useless to ask what Nephi would think of the stock market. It is important to realize, however, that until a question has been asked, we often do not begin to recognize certain things as possible evidence in the first place.
A good question also has several possible answers and, with a little thought, a person can develop some criteria by which to evaluate those possible answers. Scholars need to analyze and consider all of the possibilities. This does not mean that they must allow that every possibility is equally plausible. In fact, scholars accept and reject various ideas all the time. Good scholars ask themselves, "Why do I accept certain ideas and reject others?" Good scholars also articulate those reasons openly and honestly to themselves and to their audiences.