Meaning, Significance, and Silencing the Prophets

This week, the Bible Project podcast finished their series on parables. On the most recent episode, “Finding Meaning in the Parables,” Tim Mackie (the host) talked about something that really stood out to me: the difference between meaning and significance.

“Meaning” (in the way he’s using it) is what’s intended. It’s what Jesus meant when describing the parable of the prodigal son, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount, in the original context. It’s focused on the person preaching or writing, on the authorial intent.

“Significance” is what stands out to the listener. It’s what we get out of it, what strikes us as poignant or important. It’s oriented around the hearer, “the eye of the beholder.” It’s what we take out of a parable or sermon. It’s likening the scriptures to ourselves.

Their point in the podcast is to say that while searching for significance is good, it’s vital to find the meaning first.

This happens with my wife: she’s telling me something, and I’m somewhat distracted, until something stands out that’s relevant to me, or something wakes me from my stupor. I tune in, and occasionally, admit, “Honey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t really listening. Can you say it again?” And with a kind eyeroll (and the occasional dirty look), she sweetly repeats, allowing me to focus on what she means.

As Latter-day Saints, we sometimes focus more on the significance than the meaning. I do this all the time. I’m sitting in General Conference, or reading scripture, and I’m searching for answers to my questions. I’m searching for significance: what does God want to say to me? In doing so, I’m asking what this means for me, without asking what this means–period. I should be searching for both what the prophet intends, and for its significance to my life and world.

In thinking about all of this, I was reminded of Joseph Spencer’s discussion of First Nephi:

Nephi has purposes we ought to let guide us. That’s perhaps something we don’t often reflect on as we read scripture. We read a little every day, mostly looking for something to touch us, to speak to our everyday life in a way that will help us press on as disciples of Jesus Christ. And there’s of course nothing wrong with that. But if it’s all we do with scripture, we’re likely to find that we’ve silenced the voices of the prophets. Part of what it means to have faith in the prophets is to trust that they have divinely ordained reasons for speaking to us. They aren’t just another means to the end of feeling the Spirit and receiving direction for our lives. They’re messengers with things we’re supposed to come to understand.

Joseph Spencer, “1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction”; emphasis my own

I’ll admit that during conference, I was probably more focused on finding significance for my own life than trying to come to terms with “prophetic priorities,” with the “divinely ordained reasons [they had] for speaking to us.” By doing so, have I “silenced the voices of the prophets?”

It’s a heavy question that’s been weighing on my mind. As I go through Benjamin’s words this week, and conference talks too, I’ll be thinking about it.

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