Editor’s Note: Meridian recently had the chance to catch up with well-known author and teacher Joseph Fielding McConkie. In this exclusive interview, McConkie discusses the release of his latest book, Between the Lines – Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles. McConkie’s book takes an inspiring new look at how to read scriptures in ways that will deepen our understanding and help us to draw closer to the Lord.
Meridian: Joseph, you’ve written a lot of books over the years. What led you to do a book about studying the scriptures?
McConkie: I spent about 40 years in the classroom. During that time I had a host of students come to my office and ask how I studied the scriptures. They would also ask how my father (Bruce R. McConkie) and how my grandfather (Joseph Fielding Smith) studied them. Sometimes it felt like kind of a hush-hush thing: “You can trust me. I won’t tell anyone else.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Now, you cannot teach someone how to study scripture in five minutes between classes. I would tell them that the great and grand secret was that there were no secrets and the answer could only be found in hard work.
At this point, there would be some who left in an imitation of the young man in the New Testament who asked the Master what else he needed to do to be saved and received a more demanding answer than he was hoping for.
I was always surprised at the number of college students that were offended at the idea that you would be expected to study for a religion class or the number of returned missionaries who are convinced that they have already mastered the gospel.
Meridian : Are you popping my balloon? We keep telling each other that the gospel is simply beautiful and beautifully simple. Are you going to dare tell me this isn’t so?
McConkie: We owe greater respect to the gospel and its principles and any other subjects we study, and we demean the gospel by supposing that its mastery requires little or no effort.
Gospel principles are eternal and can only fully be understood from an eternal perspective. Much of the understanding we have of them we bring with us from the pre-earth life. We cannot even begin to understand them in this life without the light of Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
To cheapen what is involved in sound gospel understanding is to cheapen the whole system and plan of salvation, it is to cheapen the office and calling of our prophets, and it is to cheapen the very idea of Godhood.
Meridian : So gimmicks and shortcuts are out. Give me an illustration of something that is foundational to what you are trying to teach.
McConkie: One of the basic things I am trying to do in this book is show the reader what scripture is saying about how scripture should be studied.
Meridian : Give me an illustration.
McConkie: Scripture repeatedly tells us that the things of the Spirit can only be understood by the Spirit. Suppose you had two people in the same room at the same time reading the same passage of scripture. Suppose also that one was living so that he was entitled to the Spirit and the other was not.
Both of them are reading the same words and to one it is scripture and will enlighten his mind and to the other, the words are nothing more than black ink on white paper.
A man filled with the spirit of the devil cannot speak the words of God nor can he understand them and it does not matter what source he is quoting or reading from.
Meridian : So in reading scripture, all people are not created equal?
McConkie: Let’s put it this way: anyone who has the gift of the Holy Ghost has the advantage over anyone who does not enjoy the companionship of that Spirit in the reading and understanding of scripture.
In like manner, anyone who understands the plan of salvation has the advantage over those who do not know the gospel plan in scripture study.
The idea is that you get yourself in the light, you stay in the light and as you continue to study, the light grows “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
Meridian : Give me a good scriptural illustration of this principle.
McConkie: The story of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood is an excellent example. After Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had been baptized, Joseph said: “Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of” (JS-H 1:74).
Meridian: What of the idea that we hear every once in a while that we should avoid commentaries and just use the scriptures themselves?
McConkie: Any statement on what we should or shouldn’t do in the realm of scriptural study is itself a commentary on how scripture should be studied. All conference talks and sacrament meeting talks should be commentary on the gospel and scripture.
Now the fact is that we all need help in understanding the scriptures. The Church’s current edition of the Bible contains over a thousand pages of study helps. That is certainly the admission on someone’s part that they anticipate we will both want and need a little help in our scriptural understanding.
Meridian : Can you share with us a personal illustration of how the principles you talk about in your book have worked for you?
McConkie: It’s no fun to teach what you do not understand. As a Pearl of Great Price teacher, I did not look forward to teaching the first part of Abraham 3 in which the old Prophet is given an expansive vision of the order of heaven.
I heard a few astronomers explain what was involved there and they had plenty of interesting things to say, but they generally lost me somewhere in space wondering how well I had to understand their science to be saved in the kingdom of heaven.
Then came the break-through. I stood back and got the big picture. I figured out what God was teaching Abraham through this grand vision of the heavens.
It was not that we need to know the speed of light to be saved, but rather the importance of light. The primary purpose of this vision was not to teach Abraham or anyone else the “set times” that exist between all the planets and all about Kolob, Olea, and Kokaubeam; it is to teach the order that always exists in heaven.
The vision is a great priesthood lesson designed to teach how every man must learn to stand in his own office and fill his own calling.
The vision is an allegory in which Kolob represents Christ and the stars of heaven represent the pre-earth spirits. All of a sudden, everything that followed in the second half of the chapter about the pre-earth spirits, the creation, and the grand council made sense.
Meridian : As a final question, how can you be confident that all the scriptural conclusions you come to are correct?
McConkie: Every passage of scripture has two contexts.
First, the immediate context in which it is being used. Second, every passage of scripture is part of the body of truth that constitutes the wholeness or fullness of the gospel.
If our interpretation of the immediate context is in full harmony with the spirit and fullness of the gospel, the conclusions we come to will be safe and sound.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot constantly expand, refine, and improve upon them.
Click here to buy a copy of Joseph McConkie’s Between the Lines – Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles