Of Paratexts and the New LDS Scriptures

For Mormons (and for their friends and for interested observers), the big news this week is the announcement of a new edition of the LDS scriptures. As the culmination of what the Church noted was eight years of work and preparation, this new 2013 edition is the first comprehensive refreshing of the LDS canon since 1981, and it registers a variety of adjustments. While changes to the scriptural texts themselves were few and minimal (generally limited to matters of punctuation), the new edition does offer some important departures—especially in the images, supplements, headnotes, prefaces and other elements that surround the scripture. That is, although the scripture remains essentially unaltered, the new edition makes significant changes to what literary critics sometimes call the “paratexts” of a written work.

While the revised edition makes adjustments to these elements in all of the books of scripture, the most substantive changes relate to the Church’s modern scriptures and revelations—particularly the Doctrine and Covenants, which consists primarily of divine revelations given to Joseph Smith. Drawing on the rich new historical and textual expertise of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the introductory headings for many of the sections of the book have been reworked, incorporating the insights of the latest scholarship: dates have been corrected and made more precise, additional context has been added where relevant, and adjustments have been made where the conventional historical wisdom has been transcended.

Even some of the slightest, most subtle adjustments to the D&C section headings have or will have rather far-reaching effects. It’s already been noted, for instance, that the revised section headings no longer reference the longstanding but problematic History of the Church. Headings that once freely attributed statements from the History to Joseph Smith now attribute them to the history as a text—and this change acknowledges the important intervening step of historical production. All of these adjustments represent major progress in the historicization of the modern revelations.

On the other hand, perhaps the most dramatic (and certainly the most discussed) interventions in the new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants are several new headnotes that provide important new context for a few of its more controversial scriptural texts. In conjunction with Official Declaration 1 (which discontinued the official practice of plural marriage), for instance, the book now offers a headnote offering a degree of historical and theological contextualization for the Church’s 19th century practice of polygamy. Likewise, Official Declaration 2 (which removed racial restrictions on priesthood ordination) is now prefaced by an note that offers, for the first time, contextual information on both this important text and the history of African-Americans in the Church. Moreover, the introduction to the Church’s eclectic scripture, the Pearl of Great Price, has also been adjusted, offering a significantly different characterization of one of Joseph Smith’s scriptural translations: the Book of Abraham. These additions are welcomed by many as providing a level of transparency to these texts that they always needed but formerly lacked.

Despite how generally welcome these developments may seem, however, their significance only starts to become clear when one begins to think about the inevitable process of interpretation, and the influence that these “paratexts” might exert in that process. After all, how ultimately significant are a few new headnotes and a little historical context? As one literary critic has rather famously noted, introductory or supplemental materials are not mere addenda: indeed, they offer the reader a “threshold for interpretation” [1]. By providing a frame through which we see the text, they help constitute and establish its meaning; at the very least, they delimit a range of interpretive possibilities. The function of paratexts, therefore is to secure “a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.”

In its announcement the Church outlined several of the functions of scripture in the life of Latter-day Saints: to commemorate the long heritage of faith, to provide personal edification and guidance, and to convey spiritual blessings of a particular kind. It would seem that from even the subtle changes in the this latest edition of the canon, Latter-day Saints can expect a renewed vision of their scripture that “pertains” more to these ends, and enhances the experience of Mormons living the modern life of faith.

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[1] Genette, Gérard, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.

  • Leonard

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  • Eric Facer

    Although “paratexts” can provide useful historical context for a scripture, they all too often purport to interpret that scripture in a parochial way, in a manner that conforms to the world view of the author. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter headnotes and textual footnotes in the Church’s edition of the Bible, most of which were written by, or under the direction of, Bruce R. McConkie. The chapter headnotes all too often attempt to read the Bible through the prism of the Mormon narrative, “delimiting the range of interpretative possibilities” and frequently distorting the meaning of the underlying scripture. When someone attempts to limit “the range of interpretative possibilities” or foster a “better reception for the text,” they are frequently inhibiting the pursuit of truth in order to advance their own agenda.

    Just because you’re a hammer doesn’t mean that everything you see is a nail. Just because we are Mormons, doesn’t mean that every scripture is about us and our church. Above else, we should never forget that “paratexts” are NOT scripture.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Gosh, Eric, in an LDS edition of the Bible, having a “paratext” summarize the traditional LDS interpretation of a chapter is not misleading. If you want to see a Catholic or Lutheran interpretation, one would look for it in a Catholic or Lutheran edition of the Bible, in addition to independent study aids produced by each denomination. What is wrong with that? If you claim that your own personal interpretation of a chapter of Isaiah or Matthew is more correct, in that it reflects the original intent of the auth9r, my response is, And when did you talk to the author about this? We KNOW that the paratext is not scripture. Nobody gets points in Seminary for memorizing or citing chapter headings as authoritative statements of God’s intent. As Mormons, we have a more flexible relationship to the scruptural canon than that. We know that the words in a translated text are not the same as the original meaning that was embodied in the original text, but just an approximation. The difficulty in knowing the pristine, original meaniing is one of our foundational beliefs. Because we have modern prophets, we are not forced to rely on stretched interpretations of ancient scripture to give answers to every contemporary quandary. we can live with ambiguity in the Bible because we have the Book of Mormon and other revelatory texts that help us triangulate God’s will and intent. The fact that these paratexts are being changed has a metamessage to all readers, namely that the imperfections in these texts are the imperfections of men who are acting in their best intent to provide what they think will be helpful to us.

  • Eric Facer

    Raymond, while nobody gets points in Seminary for memorizing chapter headings, they do win praise for parroting dubious scriptural interpretations, such as the traditional Mormon view that Isaiah 29 refers to Martin Harris’ confrontation with Professor Anthon or that Ezekiel 37 (“stick of Joesph; stick of Judah”) refers to the Bible and the Book Mormon. To say that we are justified in advancing such questionable constructions of the scriptural text because the gentlemen who wrote them are dead and therefore cannot be consulted, would seem to suggest that there are no limits to our ability to manipulate the holly writ to confirm to our worldview. While we may not be able to ask the authors of Isaiah and Ezekiel what they were trying to say, we can look at the textual and historical context in which they wrote their words and thereby make a reasoned determination as to the scripture’s probable meaning and the author’s intent.
    By contrast, when we strain to make the text fit the Mormon mold, we compromise both our intellectual and spiritual integrity and alienate both investigators of the church and existing members. Witness the recent exodus from the church by members who can no longer accept the church’s sanitized view of its history and the scriptural foundation for questionable doctrinal pronouncements. The Book of Mormon can stand as an inspired text without Isaiah 29 and Ezekiel 27. Our efforts to make these and other biblical texts fit the Mormon narrative distract potential converts from the genuine gospel truths we have to offer and interfere with our own efforts to divine the truth.

  • http://None Rodney Ross

    Are we manipulating holy writ or expressing an understanding the Lord has given us? Therein lies the rub. You do not leave Isaiah and Exekiel room to have intended exactly what the Church teaches that they did intend. I agree that the Book of Mormon can stand without Isaiah 29 and Ezekiel 27, but on what basis can we dismiss them? I’m not even proposing you are wrong, aside from a general opinion, you offer no evidence you are right.


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