What is “to Study”?: Thoughts on Engaging with Scripture

Reading scripture can be a key part of making religion a piece of our daily lives and is one of the most personally rewarding ways of worship for me. I love the scriptures. Really. At least, most of the time. I mean, it makes sense given my studies as an English major—so reading and thinking about literature (a label I’d comfortably apply to scripture) is a key part of what I do and enjoy doing. There’s more to it than that, since I’ve been reading scripture and thinking about it long before I realized that I loved analyzing books. Although, I’ve practically always loved reading.

My generally voracious reading has spilled over into the reading of scripture (naturally), with most of that being reading the Book of Mormon (a little shy of 40 times, FWIW), although I’ve read through the entire Bible twice, and the New Testament, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price a handful of times each. I’ve achieved a remarkable consistency with my reading, if not the level of depth and thought that I would like to.

I’ve already illustrated a bias in that I delineated the scripture I’ve read using the accepted canon of the LDS Church. Even then, people have various ideas about scripture (I wrote a bit more extensively on that here) and what role words of latter-day prophets and apostles play in the world of scripture. That’s not my focus today, so we’ll just move on.

How do we study the scriptures? See, now I’ve shifted from scripture ‘reading’ to scripture ‘study,’ which may or may not be the same thing. I’ve always puzzled over what people meant when they said this. Early in life because the concept of studying was foreign to me [yes, I was one of those frustrating individuals who never had to study for a test until college.], so saying that I needed to do more than read was difficult to comprehend. What was there besides reading? I realized later that there is a difference, but it’s still difficult to apply studying techniques to scripture reading.

Typically, study requires an objective. There is some concrete material to be mastered, memorized, understood, etc. You could apply this approach to the scriptures and there is value in it. Knowing the particulars of various stories can allow for them to come to mind at appropriate times and lend insight and learning to our lives. Yet, this approach is rather empty for me.

Some of the best experiences I have had with the scriptures came in my Bible as Literature class at BYU. We treated the text as we would any other piece of literature, looking at the motivations of the characters, trying to read deeper into the story, by looking for answers to questions that are not directly answered in the text. Sure, some of this went into the realm of speculation, but the speculation was motivated by understanding the emotions of the characters and identifying with them at a deeper level.

I’ve also had incredibly memorable study experiences by doing ridiculous things with my scripture study. Like what, you may ask? Creating scripture chains that prove the reality of UFOs, lightsabers, the lost tribes are in the North Pole with Santa Claus, and that the last three verses of “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are scripturally verifiable, by connecting each and every one of the things that has no end to “love.” Or replacing the word “Lamanites” with “haters,” while reading the Book of Mormon (hat tip to The Toast and a friend for the idea).

On occasion, I do the more standard topical study of my scriptures, something that was decently effective as a missionary, but I struggle with because I want to know the context of each of the topical verses, so I don’t usually make it very far, without being distracted trying to understand the larger context that the verse is used in. (This is partially [largely?] due to a hypersensitivity about scripture and quotes being used out of their original context to argue for something that may seem right, but is not present in the text. As a creator of scripture chains, former debater, and English major, I am well aware of how easy it is to cherry-pick verses or phrases, stripped of context to argue for whatever you want.)

In the spirit of the new year, I’ve been trying to think about ways I can improve my scripture study. I have a few scripture chains in mind (hey—there can be some worthwhile insight from the process, even when the conclusion of the chain is not doctrinally sound). I also want to work my way through the Old Testament in a thoughtful manner, since that’s probably the book of scripture that I have the least familiarity with and contains all sorts of wiggedy-wack stuff. I think I’m going to start compiling a list of humorous verses in scripture as well, something that I did briefly as part of my Bible as Lit class, actually. I laugh a decent amount while reading the scriptures (a reaction that shocks people usually and may seem irreverent and borderline blasphemous, but that’s kinda how I engage the world…so it goes. Also, some parts are straight-up hilarious. Like when Abinadi goes to all the trouble to sneak back into the city in disguise and then the first words out of his mouth blow his cover or when Nephi’s praying on his tower outside when the crowd gathers and he turns around and is like, “yo, did you all come here, so that I could tell you about your sins? Well, it’s a long list…” Right? C’mon, I can’t be the only one that laughs while reading the scriptures…)

I guess the point is that there are many ways to gain value from scripture and that however we engage with it, the goal should be to bring us closer to God. How I get there is likely going to be different than you do. Maybe you think scripture chains are juvenile (I’m trying to be childlike) or that scripture should lead to awe, not laughter (why not a bit of both?) or that historical, cultural, and textual context is boring as death (maybe I like being bored to death every once in a while).

Study, read, open, think about, color on, mark-up, personalize, add snarky notes to, engage with, sleep with your scriptures. May they bring you closer to God, however you get there.

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