To learn more about The New Testament Made Harder, click here.
The one thing scripture commentaries have in common is that the word “easy,” often appears somewhere in its title. After all, isn’t the reason we buy commentaries, to make our scripture study easier? Of course! Now, would you ever buy a commentary that claimed to make your scripture study harder? I hope you would. Because if not, you would miss out on one of the best “commentaries” that has been published in a long time.
Dr. James E. Faulconer, professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University is the author of the new “Made Harder” series from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Dr. Faulconer wrote each book (one for each of the standard works) “on the premise that our scripture study is only as good as the questions we bring to the endeavor.” Each book “consists almost entirely of challenging questions (with occasional commentary for clarity’s sake).”
Dr. Faulconer has been kind enough to answer a few questions about the “Made Harder” series.
SM: I want to begin by saying how much I love the title of this book, The New Testament Made Harder. What made you think of that title?
JF: Thanks for this question. It is one I like to talk about. The frontispiece of each of the series is a quotation from the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It is a piece I’ve always liked. It is an ironic comment in which he says (I’m paraphrasing) “Everyone today is making things easier with new technologies and how-to books. But since I don’t have the talent for that, the only thing left for me to do is to make things harder.” That came to mind as I was thinking about a title for this series, so you could say that is the immediate source for the title, something a little tongue in cheek.
SM: In the introduction, you write about an experience you had when you were in graduate school which shaped the way you study the scriptures, can you us about that?
JF: When I was in graduate school I was fortunate enough to spend a little time studying with a professor who also happened to be a Jewish rabbi. I learned a lot about scripture and about scripture study from him, things that surprised me. What I learned that was perhaps most valuable was that scripture study should focus on questions that are about the text itself.
I asked if he would allow me to study part of the Old Testament with him. “Since I don’t want to go too fast, why don’t we just read the book of Genesis?” I said. He was amazed since he thought it impossible to do that much reading in so short a time. He suggested that we read only chapter 1, and we compromised on “as much as we can get through.” We barely made it through chapter 3, and he obviously felt pushed.
The first day we met, I had read all of chapter 1 and came with several questions. For example, “How do you reconcile the account of creation in this chapter with what is taught in science class?” He taught the philosophy of science, but refused to discuss that question. He didn’t think it interesting; it wasn’t worth the time. There were much more important things to discuss, things pertinent to our lives and salvation. Professor Goldman allowed me to ask my other questions, and he had no trouble answering them.
At our next meeting, I said, “I’m ready to move to chapter 2.” “Before we do that,” he asked, “do you mind if I ask a few questions?” That was a trick question, for he began talking about and asking questions about the details of the scriptures, questions that went on and on as each detail raised more questions. He asked about words and patterns of words, pointing out things I had never seen or had thought inconsequential. In almost every case I had no answers for him or felt that the answers I had were shallow and inadequate. But he was patient with me. As I fumbled for answers, he began to explain what he thought some answers to his questions might be and how the things he noticed were important.
As he discussed the first verses of the first chapter of Genesis with me, I realized that I was visiting with a man who understood many aspects of the gospel that I thought only Latter-day Saints knew, things I had learned from latter-day prophets and the temple but had never seen in Genesis. Most of what he taught me was sound doctrine, and he could always back up his teaching with the words of the scriptures.
I am embarrassed to say that I was surprised. This man was teaching me things that, in my naive arrogance, I thought I would have to teach him. For his part, he was surprised that there were non-Jews who knew these things too, and he was even more surprised to learn that we claim to know them because a living prophet told them to us. That he could not believe, but he was continually amazed that Latter-day Saints know the truth, just as I was continually amazed that he did.
SM: You said your graduate professor taught you that scripture study should focus on questions that are about the text itself. Could you provide a few examples of what he meant by that?
JF: For example, think about the text of Genesis 1: why was creation ordered as it was and why does God say “it was good” after each of the specific acts of creation, but not after the creation of humans? Thinking about such questions helped me begin to see the creation story as one that has important things to say about the earth, about human beings, and about human beings’ relationship with the creation of which they are part.
Suppose I were reading John 9, studying for Sunday School lesson 16. I notice that chapter 8 ends with the words “passed by,” and chapter 9 begins with the same words. I know that the chapter divisions were created much later, to help us refer to scripture, so if I ignore those divisions I see that John has written this:
Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man who was blind from his birth.
I’ve italicized the phrase to make it more obvious. John is connecting the two stories with these words, so what is the connection? I ask myself, “What does the story of his escape from the temple mob have to do with the story of him healing the man blind from birth?” There are lots of possible things to think about here: (1) He has declared “I am.” How is that related to his healing of blindness? (2) Those who wished to stone him couldn’t see him, but he gave sight to this man. (3) Is there a comparison between the temple leaders who didn’t recognize him and this man who didn’t know him? And so on.
Thinking about these things may not teach me any new doctrine, but it will give me an experience of the doctrines—of faith and repentance in particular. It will strengthen me, encouraging me to listen to the Spirit and endure to the end.
SM: I think that’s exactly what we as members of the church desire. We want to have greater spiritual experiences that come from the scriptures. But I believe that too few of us are. No doubt there are many reasons for this, but why do you think that is?
JF: We often approach the scriptures as if they are difficult books to read, but they could have been written more plainly and easily. (This is in spite of the fact that whatever “plain” means to Nephi, that’s obviously not what he’s thinking when he says that Isaiah is “plain unto those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy”[2 Nephi 25:4]). When we think of scripture that way, then we look for ways to make them easier, as if the original writers weren’t very good writers and they need us to edit their work for them to make it accessible. Because of my experience, that seems like a mistake to me.
We need to recognize that what appear to be difficulties as we read, are often places where we should stop and think. We should ask ourselves, “Does the difficulty I’m having here say anything about me? Am I being prompted to notice something I might otherwise not see?” Difficulties are like questions that the scriptures are asking us to respond to. So, instead of writing a book to make the scriptures easier, I decided to write a book of questions that would help us feel comfortable with the supposedly hard things we read, comfortable enough to use them as prods to thinking.
SM: To get the most out of the scriptures, I have learned to be aware of my assumptions about what I think a particular verse of might mean. One of the values that I see in your book is that it can show us the many insights we overlook by not taking the time to slow down, and think about the things we are reading about.
JF: The idea is to point to things in the scriptures that perhaps most members haven’t thought about and to help them think more about their presuppositions by doing so. Many of those presuppositions may be correct, but it’s worth thinking about them and testing them against the standard of the scriptures.
SM: Who is the intended audience for this book?
JF: Lay members of the Church who want to prepare for Sunday School. Of course that means it is also intended for Sunday School teachers. After all, D&C 88:122 teaches us that the teacher is to help us order our discussion, but each of us is to edify the others and to “have equal privilege” in the classroom.
SM: Asking good questions is something I try to do when I study the scriptures. But there are times when I begin to doubt the validity of the questions that come to my mind. Do you have any suggestions for people like myself that want to ask the right questions, but may lack the confidence in those questions? If that makes sense.
JF: Questions are for thinking about what you’ve read, so read first. Use a notebook to write down the questions that arise as you read, and don’t be afraid to write down all of them. Don’t worry that some may be elementary or “stupid,” just write them down. When you finish your reading and begin to reflect, some of those questions will stand out. Those that do are the ones for you to think about. If one of your questions leads to a dead end, drop it and move to another. Let the questions that the scriptures suggested to you guide your reflection and meditation. I find that a better method, for me at least, than coming to the scriptures with a question and then expecting it to give me an answer.