Last month, I was asked to give a talk in my new ward in New York City. I was given freedom to choose the topic, and so I went with this question: how does one live in a place, when one is uncertain how long they will stay? Can I live superficially, or do I have an obligation to participate deeply? And if the latter is required, just how can I participate? Given how much we’ve moved for the past few years, and our fresh relocation to New York, this question was poignant: and I had found a powerful answer in the Doctrine & Covenants that week. Here is the talk, only lightly modified; I hope it speaks to you.
In December 1830, sixty-seven Latter-day saints in Colesville, New York were commanded to leave their farms and their friends, and gather in Ohio. Gather they did, believing that they were gathering to Zion. Under the leadership of Newel Knight, they left in wagon train. They traveled north to Cayuga Lake, and then west to the canals by Lake Erie. They braved persecution, injuries, and sickness. Only one turned back. For two weeks, they were detained by river ice in Buffalo, New York; but that didn’t stop them. After a “rather disagreeable voyage,” they arrived in Ohio.
But for the Saints already in Ohio, this posed a problem. Edward Partridge, Bishop at the time, had the responsibility to organize and find homes for these immigrants saints; but how? A potential solution arrived, in the form of a recent convert who pledged some of his farm—750 acres—in Thompson, Ohio, just twenty miles outside of Kirtland. The Saints began to settle; in the words of their leader, they “commenced work in all good faith thinking to obtain a living by the sweat of the brow.” But they were unsure how long their stay would be. They had questions: is this where God intended them to stay? Should they spend what money they had to build houses, and take time to learn the land? Should they imagine themselves growing old in Ohio?
And aren’t these questions we’ve asked ourselves, too? Will this place be permanent or a passing-by? Is this new job a long-term thing, or a stepping stone? Can we see ourselves settling in, or will we move on in months or years? It is easy, in times of uncertainty or when we’re certain our stay will be short, to skim the surface of community; to refrain from making an investment without any guarantee of a return; to keep from giving of ourselves. Should I invest myself? Should I give my time or my money to this thing or place? Or do I live provisionally, without giving much to the land or community, ready to move at a moment’s notice?
These are weighty questions for a disciple. And they were weighty for the Colesville saints, who had left so much. In reply to their questions, God gave a revelation. We call it section 51. Nestled in a discussion about consecration, the Lord Jesus Christ said this:
I consecrate unto them this land for a little season, until I, the Lord, shall provide for them otherwise, and command them to go hence; And the hour and the day is not given unto them, wherefore let them act upon this land as for years, and this shall turn unto them for their good.
The first thing to notice is that Lord does not answer with a timeline. “The hour and the day” is not given them. Our first sacrament meeting in this ward, a speaker introduced herself, saying “We’re on year 10 of our 2-year stint in New York.” This is how it goes. We do not know how long our stay will be, or what will occasion our departure.
And in this uncertainty, God gives a principle: he commands them to “go hence” and “act upon this land as for years.” What does this mean? It means to act in the present, in the place where you are, with the future in mind, even when you are uncertain of how long you will stay; and even when you are certain your stay won’t be long. A former teacher of mine called this “a D&C carpe diem. It invites us to seize the day, but with an eye toward the future.”
This would prove to be a pattern for the Lord’s people. In the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young later told them:
Were I residing in a gathering place where I knew I could remain for two years, and had fifty thousand dollars to spare, I would expend it in the best improvements I could, and labor to improve until the last day of my remaining.
Brigham young, Journal of Discourses (8:278a)
And on another occasion, he said:
If you had the spirit of your calling, you would be anxious to build the best houses you could, and make the best gardens, fields, and vineyards, though you knew that you would not enjoy them one day after they were completed.
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (8:295b)
Brigham Young had learned this precedent in Kirtland, and Jackson County, and Nauvoo. He knew the pattern, and the potential pain, of giving ourselves to a place they would not stay long. But this was God’s command: to live as his disciples, in every place and land they would be in. If they would, God would provide for them, and “turn unto them for their good.”
This “as for years” principle has an even earlier precedent. Go back with me 2500 years: the monarchy of Judah had been destroyed. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple had been leveled. And many Jewish families had been deported to Babylon, among them Ezekiel and Daniel. As the Psalmist wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” What were they to do now, besides weeping? Should they revolt against Babylon? Make plots? Would God come to save them? And should they have their bags packed and ready? To them, Jeremiah gave the word:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
For Jeremiah and for the Lord, “as for years” meant this: make homes, settle in. Plant and harvest. Start families. Make an Eden wherever you are. Further, they were to seek the shalom of the Babylon: its peace, safety, security, welfare, and prosperity; “for if it prospers”, they too would prosper. Even in Babylon, they were to be Ahraham’s seed, “blessing the nations.” As with the saints in Colesville, God gave the Israelites a promise: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.”
Can we be any more concrete about what this principle means? One way to think about this is by analogy of the roots that plants set in their soil. In asking the Colesville saints and the exiled Israelites to settle in, he was asking them to set down roots: to tether themselves to a place. Of this, Simone Weil said:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.
Weil is saying, in effect, that it is participation that brings about roots: participation in community, in place, in our profession, and social surroundings. Wallace Stegner, the American novelist, gives us another useful distinction: that between boomers and stickers. Boomers, he says, are those who come to a place and only take. Stickers are those who settle, who love the life they have made and the place they made it in. This can help us clarify what it means to act as for years: to be a sticker, not a boomer; to lay down roots by participating in a place, in a community; by being a perennial wherever we are.
How then, can we live “as for years” where we are? How can be stickers, perennials, participants in place? Jeremiah already gave us some advice: seeking the shalom, the peace, of our place. For us, living in the Upper West Side of New York City, this can mean subscribing to the West Side Rag or West Side Spirit. It can mean getting involved politically, patronizing local businesses, saying hello to those who pass us, and even just the simple act of taking a walk. Consider this counsel from Jeffrey Bilbro:
There are any number of practices that help us… belong more faithfully to our places: attend and serve a church, volunteer at community organizations, even hang out in the local McDonald’s. But the simplest way to begin may be walking out your own front door. We live in a time when most trips through our neighborhoods begin by stepping into our cars, and even those trips can often be replaced by an order via Amazon or DoorDash. In this milieu, it can be a radical act to stroll through your neighborhood. More fundamentally, walking can be an antidote to the telescopic morality and disembodied communities forged through our screens. As Wendell Berry has it, “If you want to see where you are, you will have to get . . . out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.” Many people discovered the joys of walking through their neighborhoods in the wake of the Covid-19 shutdowns; perhaps that disruption will serve to revive the art of walking.
Jeffrey Bilrbo, “Reading the times: a literary and theological inquiry into the news”
The writer Liam Heneghan calls this heightened attention to a place “allokataplixis”: wonder at the place we live in, “the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveler offers to the places they visit.” Walking in a place can be one practice that can help us attend to a place, a prerequisite to living “as for years” wherever we are.
it is easy, whether our future is uncertain or “certainly short”, to refrain from giving ourselves fully to the place, and time, and role where we are. Whether we are talking about our stay in a home, in a city, in a job, in a calling, in a ward, or in a community, the temptation is always there—and it’s often the default—to rid ourselves of the responsibility to “improve the shining moments”; to be a tourist in our own city. This is especially important because we live in a uniquely transient time. It is no longer as common to be in one place for long. And even in our short stays, our attention is often seized by virtual realities: our phone, the internet, streaming services, and far too much news of “distant dramas”. If we are constantly being uprooted, even uprooting ourselves, we may never give ourselves fully to where we are. The writer Wendell Berry once wrote that “All of us, I think, are in some manner torn between caring and not caring, staying and going.”
Let me end where I began: with the Colesville saints. How long were they in Ohio? it was a mere six weeks before the owner of the land reneged on his promise, and sent them packing. They sought further revelation, and continued their trek as a group all the way to Missouri. Led ably by Newel Knight, they became the nucleus of the Church in Jackson County and gave their lives to build Zion there, and ever after. In every place and time and role they were given, the Lord wanted them to invest themselves. As one Latter-day Saint has written: “The Lord seems to want his people to be prepared, with equal grace, to build and leave temples, to accept both callings and releases, to live in the moment and for eternity. In this life the disciple must learn ‘to love that well which thou must leave ere long’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73).”
Let us act “as for years” wherever we are. Let us set down roots. Let us consecrate our time and talents, even when the stay is short. This is how we can show love to God, and participate in His great plan for us and the nations. And let us remember we cannot do so on our own. By God’s grace, we are strengthened. By His hand, we have power. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Back in 2008, as the Amazon Kindle e-reader was coming-of-age and people wondering if printed books would make it, Alan Jacobs suggested three ideas about the future of books. He hypothesized that (1) reference works would be read dominantly online, because hyperlinks are so great for reference (think of Wikipedia); that (2) narrative books, like history and novels, would be best read on the Kindle, because there is a forward momentum with e-readers–you can’t skip around, you can only go forward or back a page, and that creates a momentum; and that (3) the traditional, printed book “will be the best home for works that need to be lingered over, meditated, considered with care.”
This came to my mind today–partly because I was perusing the Bible Design blog–and I started to think about how I read scripture, which seem to fall into Alan Jacobs’ third bucket: works that need to be lingered over, and considered with care. That got me thinking about we read scripture as a church. In wards and branches, we have forgotten print scriptures. Nearly everyone reads scriptures on our phones. And if we do have a printed set of scriptures, we settle for the familiar, 2013 editions that are sold in Deseret Book.
I rarely see anyone with printed scriptures. Makes sense–it’s one less thing to carry. We leave our bulky scriptures behind, and use our phones at church; we enjoy the ability to take notes and highlight things, and leap around the scriptures at will. Butwhat we use to read changes how we read. “The medium is the message.” And I’ve been pausing to consider: what difference does it make when I’m reading scripture on my phone, and in print? (And what difference does it make what kind of print editions I use?)
Consider: if I read scriptures on my phone, I’m encouraged to move about: to click on footnotes, to swipe to see resources from the side, to jump from hyperlink to hyperlink. And that’s if I don’t succumb to the temptation to check our notifications, or swipe to see another app. (Spoiler: I often do.) In many ways, reading digitally makes this kind of behavior almost inevitable.
And we need better study bibles, especially as Latter-day Saints. The footnotes in our current print and leather editions are lacking. The context afforded by a quality study bible is invaluable, and brings us into engagement with modern Christian scholarship on the history and literary nature of the Bible. That’s important. Don’t get me wrong. More of us need to know about, and draw on, the wonderful resources that different translations of the Bible–set in various study bibles with maps and footnotes of every kind–provide.
But whether in print or online, these reference works do not encourage sustained encounter with the text. They encourage encounters with verses and chapters, yes. But after a short perusal of a passage, we notice the clickable hyperlinks or notes at the bottom of the page, which call and beg for our attention. And often, we follow–always learning something, often many things, and some of it valuable. But there is still much to be said about a sustained encounter with the text.
It could be said that a principal problem in our day is that our default mode of interaction is to treat scripture more like a reference work, moving about, and less like a book, standing relatively still.
Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura”—for better or for worse.
J. Mark Bertrand, picking up on this idea, wrote a provocatively titled article, “Are Bible Apps destined to Purify the Printed Word?” He begins the article by detailing the history of the Bible, highlighting two major inventions that each transformed how we read the Good Book: first, the invention of the codex, which moved the Bible from a collection of scrolls into a single, bound book; and second, the Gutenberg printing press, which ushered in the Reformation and a new age of Biblical literacy. The Bible became available to millions of Christians, in their own languages, to be held in their own hands–all radical things, for the time. Then, he brings the story up to our day: the age of the digital book. Asking whether the demise of the printed Bible is inevitable, he argues that any reported death is in fact greatly exaggerated.
… the printed Bible is not under threat. If anything the advent of e-books has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the physical form of the Good Book. The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.
J. Mark Bertrand
This call for a deep, immersive experience is compelling. Our attention has been called our “most important asset.” But whole industries and self-help books have emerged to explain how and why our capacity for attention is slowly eroding. This year is the tenth anniversary of Nicholas Carr’s much lauded “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” In it, he describes a feeling we might all relate to: a slow realization that sitting down to read a book (or any lengthy essay) was becoming rarer, and more difficult. The internet, and the entire infrastructure of phones and devices that connect with it, change our brains–quite literally. And as good as the Gospel Library is, it too can take part in that process of eroding our capacity for attention:
In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness.
“A less intermediated, less fractured experience.” Isn’t that what we want? If, as Mary Oliver has written, attention is the beginning of devotion–then we need to do everything we can to develop, and guard, our capacity for attention.
So what? Where do we turn, both as Christians and Latter-day Saints, to attend to scripture in a sustained and devoted way? In an age of feature creep, J Bertrand Russell offers this suggestion, specifically referring to the study bibles:
Reading from a study or reference edition can sometimes feel like watching a movie for the first time with the cast-and-crew commentary turned on. The information is helpful, yes, but it can sure get in the way of the film. I can understand the desire to pack a Bible full of extras. The challenge of designing such a text can be exhilarating. But the easiest way to prevent all the features from getting in the way of Scripture is not to design around them. It is to cut the features. An unmediated — or at least, minimally mediated — design might have just one feature: readability. But that’s a pretty good feature to have.
The principle Bertrand is suggesting: readability is an exercise in subtraction. This can be difficult. But it can be done.
Perhaps no one has done this better for the Bible than Crossway. This publishing house owns the English Standard Version, a translation I’m drawn to both because it’s very, very good as a translation–and because everything Crossway does pays close attention to the readability of the text. In particular, they’ve done a lot for reader’s bibles, which as you can guess, strip out much of the extras. What is left is text–in some cases, just the text–set on pages with wide margins, single columns, and beautiful typography. (Just like it should be.)
Consider their ESV Reader’s Bible. Take a look at how the pages are formatted: aside from the red text, indicating shifts in chapter, the first pages of Genesis read like a story–the greatest story ever told.
It is, as Genesis says, “very good.” J. Mark Bertrand’s review of it is comprehensive, and he calls attention to design choices that are invisible to those of us (myself included) who frequently take book design for granted: the opacity and thickness of the paper, the quality of the binding, the typography–it is all combined into one, marvelous experience. It is bookmaking (scripturemaking) as an art form.
Unlike the single-volume Reader’s Bible, the six-volume set does not have to compact so many things. Therefore the margins and the spacing between letters and lines and words have more room to breathe. It is incredible.
Crossway is not the only one publishing these. Consider Bibliotheca, another fine reader’s Bible, also in a set. J. Mark Bertrand titled his review of it “Bibliotheca, Mon Amour”: Bibliotheca, my love.
Lovely, isn’t it? I particularly love the gradients of each book in the set, in addition to the custom typeface that the creator designed for the site. You can see more of how he designed it here.
Now, these are whole Bibles. But even small books of the Bible can be printed and set. When we were reading the New Testament in Come, Follow Me last year, I was struggling to get “into” Paul. Even after reading N.T. Wright’s excellent biography of Paul, I had a hard time reading through his letters. I was wishing that I could read his letters more like its first hearers: stripped of chapters and verses, forcing me to pay attention to the larger themes of scripture.
Reading Paul here did not solve all my problems. I still consulted notes and study notes to make sense of some of Paul’s finer arguments. But for the first time, I was honoring something that the New Testament scholar and pastor N.T. Wright had once said:
The Bible was not primarily written in order to be read in 10 verse chunks. We have cut the Bible down to size. Now, obviously there are some bits like the Psalms, and like some passages — the book of James is written in very short bursts — but most of it including Paul’s letters and certainly the Gospels and certainly great books like Isaiah and so on are read in order to be experienced the way you experience a symphony.
Imagine if you were to a concert and you got the first 10 bars of Beethoven 5, and then the conductor turned around and said, “Okay, that’s all for this week, come back the same time next week, and we’ll have the next ten bars.” You would think, “Wait…” And if somebody said, “Oh, but if you listen to the whole thing you’d never remember it all, you’d think, “Well, that’s not the point.” You don’t listen to it in order to remember — you will remember quite a lot of it — you listen to it in order to be swept along in the full flow and sweep and flood of it. And I grieve over the fact that there are many many Christians who have never ever read one of the Gospels or even one of the epistles straight through at a sitting…
Now, it is a challenge to read whole books in one sitting. Some take a very long time. But when I was reading Paul, I made a determination–to read his letters all the way through. I wanted to imaginemyself as if I was a follower of the Way–which is what the early Christians called the Jesus movement–who had just received a letter from this apostle of the Lord. I remember reading Phillipians all the way through. And then again, each day, for two weeks. I cannot tell you all the specific parts of the letter, but I can tell you the tone: it is a tone of joy. It is bursting with joy. And all the more remarkable because he was in prison. Having read it in full, made far easier with the Reader’s Letters of Paul, I have come to love that letter. I read it whenever I am tempted to despair. Imagine being able to do something like this, but for individual books of The Book of Mormon, or specific sets of revelation? (Imagine: a Reader’s Kirtland Revelations, or a Reader’s Book of Alma.)
Dan Carlin, host of the popular (and endlessly entertaining) Hardcore History podcast, likes to say that “history has ruined fiction” for him–meaning, that history is so much more interesting than fiction, once it’s known. Borrowing from that formulation, reader’s bibles have ruined reference bibles (and many scripture apps) for me.
As Latter-day Saints, we need to make the scriptures come to life for us–and our children. This begins by reading scripture, and being intimately familiar with it. I have spent most of the time so far gushing about Bibles. But what of our other, Restoration scripture?
When it comes to reformatting and repackaging Restoration scripture to make things more readable, The Book of Mormon has received the most attention so far. Unlike the Bible, it was originally published as a book in single-column pages, with much larger chapters and no verse markings. The chapter divisions were changed (increased from 114 to 239) by Orson Pratt in 1879, who also added our modern verse divisions. And the pages moved from single-column to double-column in the 1920 edition. These changed allowed The Book of Mormon to look more like Bibles of the day–but in the process, made readability a more difficult goal.
As important as these modern divisions have been, we have begun a welcome trend back toward readability, largely thanks to Yale professor and Latter-day Saint Grant Hardy. In 2003, through the University of Illinois Press, he published The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition. There are several reasons Hardy undertook this effort–among them, making it easier for friends of his to approach it–but my favorite is this one:
My wife, Heather, is an astonishingly good reader. I was teaching at the time, and I came home from work one day, and she said, “Oh, I read 100 pages in the Book of Mormon today.” Something like—certainly first and second Nephi—this morning. And she said, “It’s just not . . . there’s not that much there.” She said, “I went to Seminary. I went to Sunday School. I’ve read it a bunch of times. I know the stories. I know the basic doctrines. It’s really repetitive, and it’s awkward.” And she said, “I think I’ve gotten pretty much what I can get out of it.” She tossed it across the room. And I said, “Let me get you a Book of Mormon you can read. I think there’s more there. Let me see what I can do.” So, I had this project. She actually worked with me on this project, and it’s the best gift I’ve ever given anyone perhaps—other than giving my daughter’s phone number to the guy she married, but that’s a different story. I gave Heather a Book of Mormon that she could read, and she taught me how to read it—often reading it for several hours a day and sees all kinds of astonishing things and connections and patterns in it.
This endeavor benefited not only Hardy and his wife, but also myself. I encountered this edition in college, and for the first time, I began to recognize larger patterns in The Book of Mormon, such as who the main narrators are (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) and how their contributions shaped the structure of the book. I also began to notice little details, such as how the Amalackiahite Wars–which range from Alma 43 to Alma 63–are fought on two fronts. Suddenly, “the war chapters” became more than just war chapters. The logic and flow of some of the largest books in Restoration scripture began to make sense. Additionally, the passages of Isaiah found in The Book of Mormon are set in poetic form, allowing you to more easily see where the difference in poetry and prose lie.
Now, many years later, the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of The Book of Mormon has been published, this edition designed more for members of the church. While it bills itself as a “study edition,” it doubles as a reader’s Book of Mormon. It has the chapter and verse numbers–both the original chapter numbers, provided in Roman numerals, and the modern chapter divisions, given in Arabic numerals. The text is set in paragraphs and, where applicable, poetic lines; pages are set in single columns; the verses are small and superscripted; and the footnotes offer new and rich insights about the allusions found within the book, and the changes across multiple printings. In addition, each book is prefaced with a beautiful woodcut printing by Brian Kershisnik.
These editions are fantastic. I mentioned earlier how these reader’s editions had ruined apps for me. Well, I can hardly go back to reading the Book of Mormon in the traditional, Church-published editions, for all the reasons I just described: the easy-on-the-eyes paragraphs and poetic lines; the single column pages; the barely visible versification; the typography; the wood-cut printings; even the footnotes, far more spare than what the Church has produced, are incredibly rich and valuable.
(While it’s very good as a study edition, I would quite like to see a more readerly-centered edition, akin to the Reader’s Bibles shown above: one with wider margins, type with more room to breathe, and no versification or titles at all. I’d also love to see this published, perhaps, in a multi-volume set (a lá the multi-volume Reader’s Bibles), perhaps divided by the contributions of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni.
While these two editions by Grant Hardy are the most prominent examples of printing the Book of Mormon in a readable format, they are not the only instances of the Spirit moving to make our important scripture more readable. Ben Crowder, a talented software engineer at the BYU Library, has prepared a reader’s edition himself–which you can download or purchase as a print edition. Nathan Richardson, a speech therapist and book designer, has made a “do-it-yourself” scripture formatting template, which provides the Book of Mormon in a word document. This file comes without verse numbers, the original chapter breaks, or punctuation, it allows you to participate in the project of making the text more readable. (And if this intrigues you, he’s offered this with the Doctrine and Covenants and other standard works, too.)
(Both Crowder and Richardson also provide editions of their reader’s editions in print, for a cost. I encourage you to take a look.)
We do not yet have any reader’s editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Book of Moses. Pearl of Great Price Central has put out a study edition of the Book of Abraham–a good start in making this important book approachable. It places the book in a single column with subtle headers and footnotes. These are important frontiers for us to push through, with new opportunities awaiting us.
Whether it be from scholars like Hardy, or hobbyists like Crowder and Richardson, or groups like Book of Mormon / Pearl of Great Price Central, the important work of making our scripture more approachable and readable has begun. The Spirit has begun to move within our church–and in history–providing the Body of Christ with new tools and formats for “feasting upon the word of Christ” (2 Nephi 31:20). Recall J. Mark Bertrand’s quote from earlier:
The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.
J. Mark Bertrand
Scripture mastery is more than memorizing twenty-five verses from the Book of Mormon: it is understanding the whole of the book, and the larger message it tells. Consider the Book of Mormon: it is a tragic story, a story Grant Hardy once called “a tragedy… an unrelenting record of human folly and ruin.” But it is also a story of a God who has made promises to His children: a God who weeps, and a God who covenants, and a God who desires His children return. The sweep of the Old, New, and “Other” Testaments–as well as the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price–is a testimony to God’s love; to the reality of Jesus Christ; and to the truth that God speaks to us today. He cares, he loves us, and he bids us return.
It is vital that we not only memorize the doctrines and principles from scripture, but that we are familiar with the messages of the larger books: the drama of Genesis and Exodus; the prophetic poetry of the Psalms; the intense prophecies of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah about the exile; the bold tale of the Gospels, of the son of God Jesus Christ, and his life, death, and resurrection; of Paul’s preaching, boldly, to the Saints in the early church, to the apocalypse of Revelation. Then there is the dramatic tale told on Nephi’s small plates, and his concerns for his people expressed both in Psalm and in prophecy; and Mormon’s retrospective record, looking back and seeing how Nephi’s worries and woes played out, and preserving these lessons for Gentiles in a later day. And of course, there is other scripture, the dramatic history told in-between the lines in the Doctrine and Covenants, of a young man’s quest to meet God again–this time, not in an Eastern desert, but in an American grove–and being called as a Prophet, and leading this church, moment by moment, question by question, with new revelations come in response to those moments.
This is the sweeping tale of scripture, which preserves a record of one God and many peoples striving to observe His will and fulfill a covenant that extends from here back to Abraham: the covenant to be a holy people, blessing all the nations, preparing themselves and all the earth to live in a world remade by God.
If we only read scripture in small sections and chunks, and never allow ourselves the opportunity to be lost in the story, will we ever gain the familiarity with scripture that God has called us to? Not just familiarity with the Book of Mormon, but with the Biblical tales as well? We may not. We need to mature in our understanding of scripture; but we must read it first. Reading is always the first challenge. And scriptures, printed in formats that making reading nearly inevitable, is a good first step, especially in an age where one of our many, many challenges is simply how to pay attention. For me, finding time not just to study, but to read scripture–to feast on the word–is a key part of meeting that challenge. Reader’s bibles have dramatically reshaped my ability to, well, read the Bible! We, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, need something similar. As I learned with Paul last year, and the Book of Mormon this year, editions of scripture stripped of the extra material can help us read them–deeply, immersively–as they were intended to be read: in full. With a good Reader’s Bible–and even a Book of Mormon set in a single column–I find it easier to read, and engage with, God’s sacred word.
Let me end this plea with actual pleas, questions for our Church. Where is our Crossway, our publisher who will print God’s word with utmost care and attention to detail? Where is our Reader’s Book of Mormon, set in one, or many volumes? (And our Reader’s Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Moses and Holy Bible, too?) Who will produce beautiful, readable books that create the conditions for sustained attention, “the beginning of devotion”? What typographers, and publishers, and designers, and artists, and businessmen, and others will conspire to craft beautiful books to shape and form our souls in ways that digital resources–valuable reference works though they are–cannot? I think as we meet these questions, our familiarity with scripture will enhance; and our ability to meet God where we are will grow too.
When Susan and I were in graduate school, we came to appreciate the wisdom embedded in three simple words from the Doctrine and Covenants: “as for years.” We embraced this phrase as we observed others in our situation who never truly unpacked and settled in. There is a strong temptation for young adults to look on their years in school or their first jobs as merely way stations toward a permanent job and home and hence to hold back. It’s easy for any of us to regard ourselves as simply passing through life, without making the effort—or assuming the risk—of putting down roots.
I’ve moved a lot in my life. Between 2008 and 2017, I never lived in the same ward for longer than a year. I had the same roommates for a while, and that was great! I got to know them quite well–we were great friends. But I didn’t get to know others very well, or for very long. “Fleeting” was my experience in each place, before moving on to the next apartment building, to the next ward, to the next place.
Until 2017, that is–when I moved into a ward in Utah County. It was my mother-in-law’s ward; my father-in-law had passed away, and we wanted to be close in the aftermath, and we found a great opportunity. We spent two-and-a-half wonderful, wonderful years there. And though my wife and I recently moved from Utah to New York City (in late 2019) for work, I miss that ward quite a lot. And I’ve been thinking about why. And I think, I think, it has to do with two things: a hard-won unity, and living as if for years. Let me explain.
In an interview between Blair Hodges (Maxwell Institute) and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, they had this exchange.
HODGES: So Tom, for the rest of our time together I thought we’d do a little something of a little primer on how different people have reckoned with Paul. We’ll talk about how historical figures understood Paul, and how we can see how their immediate concerns shaped the questions they asked and therefore the results of their studies. Along the way hopefully we’ll get a better sense of who Paul is and why he’s been the source of so much theological disagreement, which is kind of ironic given that one of his major themes was [laughs]—
WRIGHT: Unity, yeah, yeah. But he’s always after a mature unity. It’s not the lowest common denominator unity. It’s about a sense of a hard-won growing up into unity rather than filing everything down into an easy unity. So, [laughs] we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still having that struggle.
Before hearing this, I’d never thought about different kinds of unity. What would an easy unity look like? And what’s the difference between an easy-won unity, and a hard-won, mature unity? There’s a few answers to this, but let me start with the “easy” unity. The first thing I think about here is a hypothetical Church lesson where something controversial or wrong is said, and people stay quiet, not wanting to “steady the ark,” or cause contention, or seem deviant and different because they might be expressing a controversial opinion. In each of these cases, it is fear keeping them at bay–fear of reprisal, fear of contention, fear of shame–fear of the unknown. What would happen if I questioned that view? Or shared my personal experience? Or voiced an opinion I know not everyone shares? I know I’ve definitely refrained from saying something because I knew the comment might not be accepted, or might be easily misunderstood.
But then, some fears are founded. Maybe I know that the teacher would shut me down. Maybe I know my neighbor would think I’m unfaithful. Or maybe I just think that’s would happen. Even the suspicion might be enough to shut us down. What’s required is a feeling of psychological safety, or even a feeling of relational and spiritual safety–the knowledge that candor won’t be punished, that vulnerability won’t be mocked, that we can be open with each other.
My last ward, before moving to Manhattan, was wonderful. I was there for two-and-a-half years, which is just about long enough to form real relationships and feel at home. (I still miss it.) I once shared with a group there that I believe in evolution–it was actually while sharing a testimony, and I was using evolution to illustrate a point. Two reactions ensued: first, several people thanked me for my testimony, joking along with me that I gave the “Dinosaur Testimony.” The second reaction appeared the following Sunday, when I had the assignment to clean the church. I was cleaning the doors with an older lady in the ward. While squee-geeing the glass lobby doors, she asked me if I really believed in evolution? I said that yes, I did. She asked if I’d ever read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny (wherein Joseph Fielding Smith comes down hard against evolution). She said I should really read it. I knew her well enough to be confident she cared about me, and worried about my soul–her shade about evolution notwithstanding. But I knew that, and I knew I wouldn’t convince her here–Joseph Fielding Smith had been an influential prophet in her lifetime, and she had gone to school before DNA had been discovered–so I told her thanks for the recommendation, and that I might check it out. I spoke to her a bit longer about my views. I could tell she was ruffled, but she listened. I ended with my testimony. We then talked about her family, and her long-time in Utah. I asked her how the city had changed. And after all that, she thanked me for helping her clean.
Although we were separated by gender, age, culture, and generational experience, we were serving together in the Church. I had been the Executive Secretary and had set up many appointments for her. We had spoken before during Sacrament. We were cleaning the lobby. And it was refreshing because I knew that we could speak frankly. We didn’t convince each other, but I think she left respecting me, and I respecting her.
In another episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, Fiona and Terryl Givens gave an interview where Fiona voiced this fascinating thought:
FIONA: My feeling is whenever we moved to a ward, which we haven’t done particularly often, but I have found that in order to gain a voice it is really, really important to immerse oneself in that community. Not to stay at a distance from that community. So helping move, taking dinners. Whatever is required in a service-orientated capacity, we should be busily engaged in. Because that is a huge bridge builder. Because essentially, when you’re serving someone, you’re telling them that you love them. And that gains one an incredible amount of capital to be able to raise something in a gospel doctrine lesson, or a Relief Society lesson that might not otherwise be accepted. But because people recognize that you are a fully collaborating member of the community, you are more than likely to get a bye. So for example, in our Gospel Doctrine class a few weeks ago, the topic being discussed was how do you prepare yourself if you’re going to the temple. And so, you know, I sat for a while and then I thought, well, I’ll offer my contribution. And I said I think it actually might be very helpful to go to Catholic mass three or four times before one goes to the temple. Because Catholics do ritual and symbolism extremely well. And it was very interesting to watch how it played out, you know. Some people woke up and said, “Oh, did Fiona just tell us to become Catholics?” And then others thought, “Well, that is odd. Did I hear her correctly?” So it’s sort of a wake-up moment for most of the class. But actually, there were a lot of people who were entertaining the idea. There was no outright rejection of my suggestion, which I thought was very helpful.
TERRYL: And it was because they trusted you. They’ve seen you—
FIONA: And they did trust me, yeah.
HODGES: You aren’t trying to be a rabble-rouser.
FIONA: I was not trying to be a rabble-rouser. Exactly.
TERRYL: And it had nothing to do with academic credentials or anything else. It’s about being a part of the community and having paid our dues through service to the community.
I love this thought. Coming back to my original tale, our most recent Utah ward–the one we spent over two-years in–was the first ward I felt we really gave our all. I’m an introvert at heart, and more at ease in reading a book then carrying on a conversation–but I tried. The fact that everyone in the ward knew my wife (she had grown up there) helped. We did not know how long we would live there, but we put our best foot forward.
In 1831, in Spring, the Saints had started to move to Kirtland, Ohio. A group of saints from Colesville, New York were given permission by a member named Leman Copley to stay on his farm in Thompson, a short distance from Kirtland. In May 1831, Joseph Smith received the following revelation:
I grant unto this People a privelige of organizeing themselves according to my laws & I consecrate unto them this land for a little season untill I the Lord shall provide for them otherwise & command them to go hence & the hour & the day is not given unto them wherefore let them act upon this land as for years & this shall turn unto them for their good…
“Act upon this land as for years.” What a wonderful phrase! I think I learned how to do this in 2017, in the Utah ward I came to love. Part of it was the time I spent there; part of it was the quality of the time I spent there. We had people over for dinner; we did service projects; we volunteered; we tried to do good. It was the first time I had really, really tried to take Fiona Givens’ advice: “to immerse oneself in that community… Not to stay at a distance from that community.”
We’ve been in Manhattan for five months so far. (Much longer than the Colesville Saints’ six weeks!) We’ve assumed some of the risk of setting down roots. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying–to give our all to the place; not to treat it as a waystation, but as a final destination, regardless of how true that really is; to win that hard-won unity. I’m anxious to report how that goes.
I’m Bryan. I’m a human, Christian, and Latter-day Saint (Mormon). I’m trying to figure out how to better follow Jesus, and this blog is where I write about it. I’m interested in worship, community, intellectual life, scripture, and technology. I love reading, parks, and reading in parks. I live in New York City, and work as a software designer.
Occasionally, I write a long-form post that pulls together a lot of my thinking. The one so far also happens to be a favorite post of mine: