(Updated) Some thoughts on scripture study for adults and youth

(Updated) Some thoughts on scripture study for adults and youth October 29, 2018

George Cattermole, “The Scribe” public domain.

[Updated October 2018] Given the encouragement to do more personal, family, and group scripture study on our own, I’ve updated this post a bit. 

A friend asked me about teaching youth about scripture study recently. I happened to have some notes I’d collected, so I wrote it up here. These are things I think LDS adults should know and model to the youth. I’ve grouped them under three logical, progressive headings. Now, I think the Church does a great job getting us to read scripture, and to apply scripture in spiritual and practical ways, but not always how to understand or interpret scripture very well.

Do not misunderstand me, what I propose below in these three headings is not some arcane Master’s Degree in Advanced Trivia, but a basic approach to trying to understand what scripture meant to those who wrote it and those who first heard it.  It’s an introductory guide to contextual understanding, which Elder Ballard has emphasized recently as important for building a long-lasting testimony.

In short form, I believe you cannot fully learn from scripture unless you are also actively learning about scripture.

The first is the act of a disciple and the second that of a scholar, although in an ideal world, they blur together.

“For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration. Hence one who seeks to be a disciple-scholar will take both scholarship and discipleship seriously”
– Elder Maxwell, source

“There is no clearly defined line of demarcation between the spiritual and the intellectual when the intellectual is cultivated and pursued in balance with the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and strength.” President Hinckley

First, learn how to recognize and ask good questions

Not all questions are of equal utility.

  1. John Welch talks about this in “Towards Becoming a Gospel Scholar” reposted by permission here and in .doc format here. (That’s a BYUI link, and I haven’t checked the text.)
  2. Eric Huntsman has an entire article about asking questions and helping students to ask questions, “Teaching Through Exegesis: Helping Students Ask Questions of the Text,” in Religious Educator 6:1 (2005).
  3. James Faulconer’s book, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions has a section just on Asking Questions. (Amazon link for paperback.)
    • Faulconer has also written several books just full of good study questions. This is the Made Harder series, e.g. The Book of Mormon Made Harder.  These are wonderful. Don’t be put off by the title; these are “harder” because they’re genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking questions which don’t necessarily have easy or obvious answers.
  4. Julie Smith has a similar book just on the gospels, Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels
  5. As a historian, whenever a topic comes up, my questions are nearly always variants of “How do we know that? What are the sources it is based on? How has this been approached in the past?”
  6. Why are questions so vital to the learning and revelation process?

    Concrete answers to key questions about the Bible are not always available. But even without definitive answers, asking questions sometimes provides the most helpful avenue to insight. Living with questions about the Bible over time is important because they keep us thinking about matters that are central to the faith. Living with questions will mean we can better recognize answers if and when they come our way.”- Terence Fretheim, as quoted in Schlimm, Wrestling with the Old Testament

    Is it all right to have questions about the Church or its doctrine? …we are [or should be!] a question-asking people. We have always been, because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is how the Church got its start, from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question….searching for answers to your questions can bring you closer to God, strengthening your testimony instead of shaking it.- President Uchtdorf , Nov 1, 2009, CES fireside.

    Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?- President Uchtdorf, Worldwide Leadership training 2012.

Second, learn how to research and evaluate potential answers to those questions

  1. Look to context!
    • See my Sperry Symposium paper here, and Huntsman’s article above.
  2. Recently, Elder Ballard made a statement about questions, answers, and expertise. (My italicized emphases)

    it is important to remember that I am a General Authority, but that does not make me an authority in general! My calling and life experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in a specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions: I seek help from others, including those with degrees and expertise in such fields. I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers—­expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite ­others to come unto Christ—not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions we may have about scriptures, history, and the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the Church, teach the doctrine of Christ, and help those in need of help…. If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.

  3. To illustrate those issues of expertise, note how in the recent face-to-face in Nauvoo, Elder Cook choose to be flanked by two PhD historians, Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow.
  4. So, where do you find these experts that Elder Ballard might himself seek, beyond the BYU campuses? The Church recently published a list of resources which are approved (but not endorsed, depending on the resource) for usage in Seminary and Institute. It’s an interesting list, and I see the Church here trying to expand the average Mormon’s repertoire of “approved” or “safe” sources beyond The Ensign and Deseret Book. (Notably, these sources sometimes disagree with each other, in form, style, and sometimes content and conclusions.) The list includes things like
  5. Now, for many Mormons, that list may not provide sufficient resources when it comes to studying the Bible. If that’s the case, I suggest you find a Mormon scholar who is trustworthy and respected and look at their footnotes, the non-LDS sources they use. I have, of course, listed many of these for the Old Testament (four posts, scroll down) and New Testament (three posts, linked from first one), especially introductory books and mainstream reference works. I also discuss a number of them in my Sperry piece above, and the follow-up online. Welch’s article above also has some suggestions about how to find good authors, publishers, and books.
  6. Once you’re reading, you absolutely must evaluate what you read, even if they are LDS sources.  This can be particularly difficult if you’re new to what you’re reading, but the sad fact is, there is lots of wacky, irresponsible, and unreliable material produced by faithful Mormons, occasionally even from BYU-affiliated people: fool’s gold and theological twinkies such as The Kolob Theorem and The Washington Hypothesis (see here and here). 
  7. Here are some questions to think about in evaluating. Now, none of these questions is any kind of absolute litmus test, but they’re good questions to begin with when evaluating any author.
    • What are the author’s credentials, and is the author writing in his/her field of expertise? Are his/her credentials relevant to the topic? (Amateurs and non-specialists can do good work, but they’re much more likely to make common mistakes.) What kind of sources do they cite? Do their arguments make sense? What do LDS experts with relevant training think about their work in general or specific? Are there LDS reviews of the book or author in question? (The Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, FAIR, and the Interpreter all do book reviews and book notes.) Has the publication gone through any kind of review? Who is the publisher, or is it self-published?
    • Similarly, I suggest an introduction to critical thinking from criticalthinking.org, Universal Intellectual Standards and A Checklist for Reasoning in one pdf here. (See my background for using these here.)

Third, learn how to retain your thoughts, questions, and answers for future growth

  • Take notes!
    • I wrote a three-part post on note-taking way back but you can read an improved draft of it turned into a book chapter here.
  • If you’re talking to youth, suggest using the LDS app to take notes, because when they get a tablet or smartphone on the mission, all their pre-mission notes and thoughts will be there when they log in.

Further reading

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