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.

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