Mormon Hermeneutics: A Modest Proposal

Mormon Hermeneutics: A Modest Proposal March 7, 2007

I have recently argued that Mormon biblical studies needs to be more critical of its hermeneutical stance rather than emphasize exegetical proof-texting if it is to be successful in the wider academy. I think that success is measured by overall interest by outsiders and the amount of interest it generates in me :). I have also suggested a set of models (feminist and AfAm) that have gained a great deal of respect from many scholars, which blend the skills developed by modern historical-critical biblical studies as well as the insights that hermeneutics have shed on ‘situated’ readings of the text. What these approaches have in common is an ethical lens that is used to measure the value of any particular text or interpretation. These approaches have brought ethics in the study of the Bible to the forefront. I would like draw upon these models’ use of an ethical framework for how the world should be as an example of how Mormons could produce a useful hermeneutic.

Rooted in liberation theology, feminist and African-American hermeneutics have both exposed the interests of traditional historical critical scholarship while also developing a productive alternative. One of the interesting things that these readings have shown is how certain texts had been overlooked or underplayed, such as the Kingdom of God sayings in the Gospels and Revelation. These approaches have noted the critique of the social and political world that the Kingdom entails, one which puts justice and liberation at the center. Brian Blount argues, “Over and over again the kingdom symbol offered an objective, future orientation whose present impact on believers’ ethics was formidable….The ethical key for Jesus was subsequently offered in the narrative progressions as the behavioral axis for those who would follow him.” (Then the Whisper Put on Flesh, 91).

Feminist and African-American concerns have historically been rooted in a liberation paradigm long before such approaches were introduced to academic biblical studies. This history provided a tradition of theoretical and practical wisdom about the politics and processes of social change. Mormonism has in my view recently lacked a comparable ethical framework, choosing to focus instead on doctrinal and historical disputes. I say recently because much of early Mormon thinking was rooted in the bringing to pass of the Kingdom of God, which was seen as a new kind of society. All of the new Mormon scriptures have this vision for a new kind of world at their center. In each of the foundational texts of the restoration, a new kind of ethical society is envisioned (4 Ne, Mos 7, and D&C on United Order). Such a view could inform a new Mormon hermeneutics that capitalizes on recent trends in biblical scholarship while also developing a richer reading of our sacred texts.

Some traces of this tradition of an ethical framework as the basis of Mormon approaches to scriptures have survived. Though I don’t know his work that well, Dennis Potter has argued for a liberation theology of the Book of Mormon, that reads economic concerns for wealth, social justice, and peace as of primary importance (Nibley is the primary modern Mormon voice before Potter on these issues). The interesting thing about this reading is that it highlights elements of the Book of Mormon that are overlooked. This isn’t imposing something on the text that isn’t already there, but exposes how our interests in “doctrines” such as the atonement, baptism, etc have caused us to ignore perhaps the central message of the Book of Mormon, namely, a more just society and church community.

This new approach could not simply reproduce the past, but must engage with the concerns of modernity. One problem with the early Mormon view of the Kingdom of God was that it was separatist. Joseph Smith abandoned the current structures that society had, including urban frameworks, and decided to build from scratch. While the optimism of this view is inspiring, and in some ways more radical than feminist and AfAm hermeneutics, I also believe that such an approach is bound to fail in the contemporary situation. Further, it is evident that Mormons themselves have abandoned such an approach. A new Mormon ethical framework would have to work within society to change it, rather than attempt to start a new one, whether by revolution or “gathering”. Mormon hermeneutics would have to get more practical by amending its idealist history. What this would look like when a dozen or so scholars have taken it on remains to be seen!

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