The first annual Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped things up in London (see here for more, or read the seminar co-director Joe Spencer’s reflections here). I asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences in order to give me a sense of what they got out of the gathering. This post features Miranda Wilcox, an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University where she teaches medieval literature and researches the religious culture of Anglo-Saxon England. She recently co-edited Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (Oxford University Press, 2014). —BHodges
It was a unique privilege to participate in the Mormon Theology Seminar in London last month. I am grateful to the generosity of the Willes Center for making this opportunity possible, and I thank Brian Hauglid, Jim Faulconer, Adam Miller, and Joe Spencer for bringing the seminar to fruition. Reading collaboratively with friends and colleagues enriched my understanding of 1 Nephi 1, the Book of Mormon, and the practice of reading in general. I rarely have the opportunity to read scripture with other people. Hearing their insights and analyses propelled me from the circularity of my own textual obsessions into new avenues of consideration, thus expanding my perspective of interpretative possibilities.
I generally consider reading to be a solitary activity, even though as a professor of English literature much of my teaching involves helping students develop habits of critical reading and much of my scholarship involves sharing interpretations of my reading with colleagues. However, spending five or more hours a day reading collectively for a week and then writing an essay informed by these conversations has transformed my perspective about reading in community and renewed my relation to the scriptures. The process of drawing on our diverse disciplinary perspectives as we explored interwoven layers of nuance and possibility in Nephi’s text was stimulating. This careful attention illuminated meaningful and complementary themes. Scholarly analysis is often accompanied by competitiveness or criticism, but I am moved by the generosity of the fellow participants who listened and responded to my thoughts with charity and encouragement. This experience has inspired me to adjust the way I teach in an effort to offer students a glimpse of the possibilities of reading collaboratively, a process that involves preparation, humility, experimentation, and curiosity.
Our reading was exploratory. We identified tensions in the text. We asked questions: for some we worked out answers together, and many we acknowledged cannot be answered. Confronting the ambiguity, paradoxes, and indeterminacy of scripture can be disorienting and frustrating alone. In our reading community, it stimulated discussions about the theological implications of the spiritual functions of relying on scripture filled with dislocations and diversions. Getting to the heart of the sense of the text was difficult indeed. The challenge of making meaning, however tentatively posited, became a beautiful process of growth—collective and individual—in our understanding of “the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 1:1). It is through such immersive attention and engagement with sacred words and narratives that God reveals Himself to us. Perhaps we could or should imagine ourselves, like Lehi (see 1 Nephi 1:8-15), reading a sacred book to a heavenly being who waits patiently until the text has sufficiently expanded the capacity of our understanding to see eternity and to hear the song of redeeming love (Alma 5:26).