Context is Everything!

A few years ago I lived in Taiwan, and so I tried to learn Mandarin Chinese. It is a wonderful language, but it also has a few unique challenges for those trying to learn it. First, unlike english, it is tonal. That means a syllable such as “Ma” can mean either: mother, a horse, a scolding, a question, or hemp, and several other things, all depending on the tone. This can lead to some weird sentences like “Ni de Ma Ma Ma de Ma Ma Ma?” (Is this your scolding mother’s hemp horse?)  Secondly, the written language uses pictograms rather than phonemes. In other words a Chinese character shows a meaning, not the sounds. This is really important in Chinese because there are more homophones in Chinese than any other language. Modern Mandarin has only 1,200 distinct syllables, including the distinctions of tone, amounting to less than 300 different sounds to the western ear. This means that if you write mandarin phonetically, and without tonal markings you would be writing a language where every single syllable is a homophone, some with hundreds of different meanings.  for example there is a poem in Chinese by Zhao Yuanren where every single word is pronounced Shi. That is by using 92 different words, all with the same sound! In contrast, in written Chinese there are tens of thousands of characters that all have distinct meanings. This has created a situation where the written language is very specific and exact, but the spoken language is extremely dependent on context. Chinese people do not have difficulty understanding each other because in the form of a sentence, or paragraph it is easy to distinguish which word is most likely being used. It is like a “fill in the blank” test. If an ambiguity remains people distinguish by saying another context for the word they are using. (This is employed most often in explaining how to write a name because names have no context, for example my name Mu Ni Fei, could mean the shepherd flying monk, or the tree you steak, wooden nun airplane, or a hundred other random word combinations.) The motto for anyone learning Chinese is: “Context is Everything!”

scriptures

I mention this because when studying the scriptures we often forget the importance of context. If anything the context in the scriptures is more akin to the context issues in Chinese than in english. There are many “proof-texts” out there trying to prove a point from the scripture. A few examples of which could be LDS blog posts, including mine, Church curriculum, commentaries, the bible dictionary, or even how the topical guide was put together. Any time a person says “In [scripture reference] it says: . . .” they are engaged in “proof-texting” They are appealing to the authority of the scriptures to teach, argue for, or against, a doctrinal position. This is not necessarily bad, but can lead to very contradictory results.

An important thing to remember is that there are literally several different world religions, each made up of tens of thousands of different sects who all accept the first five books of the bible as the word of God. How can they differ on the things taught in those books when they all have the same books? There may be translation issues but these do not account for nearly the number of interpretation issues. Further it is worth remembering that it is interpretation differences by different translators that leads to different translations. That means that interpretation is everything in scripture study, and interpretation can only be made by context, so context really is everything! here are a few examples, the bible says:

“thou shalt utterly destroy” (Deut 7, & 20:17) Hmm. out of context that makes it sound like this religion must be extremely nihilistic. Their God says that they should destroy everything, and kill everyone. People use misquotes like this all the time to vilify other religions, this one however is accepted by all judaism, islam, and christianity! So atheists are using it to vilify the bible, but … context is everything!

How about the Book of Mormon story about how a righteous man beheads a drunk, leaving his body in a ditch, and then robs his house, and is blessed for it! (Think Nephi and Laban.)

final-nephi-laban-430x320

    If we were to take these examples of righteous behavior and put them in the wrong context we would have learned the wrong principle. This happens constantly both within and without the church. These examples of murder are extreme for a reason, everyone can clearly see that in any other context this would be bad behavior. What happens if we quote these verses to prove a point, but we are wrong about the point? Then we lead ourselves and others astray. This can happen very easily, in fact we all accidentally do this from time to time. The examples above could be used out of context to argue that God loves it when his people commit murder, but what about other controversies? What about evangelicals and doctrines about grace? same thing: pretty soon they cannot even see that there are any verses about commandments.

It is the interpretation we take to the table that usually governs how we view the context, and leads us to our conclusions. It is very rarely that the context governs how we view the text and leads us to our conclusions. as George Bernard Shaw observed: “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says; he is always convinced that it says what he means.” When we go to the scriptures almost all mankind is looking only for things that support their preconceived notions. If we were seeking truth it would go like this:

Context helps us find the doctrine which leads us to right conclusions. (Context-Doctrine-Conclusions)

in practice it usually goes like this:

We bring our conclusions, formulate doctrines based on those conclusions, and then interpret the context to be in favor of our foregone conclusions.  (Conclusions-Doctrine-Context)

A simple way to test your preconceived interpretations is to read this phrase, which acts as an interpretive word play: “Godisnowhere.”

What did you read? say it out loud so you can remember what you think it says.

Now remember that in ancient hebrew there were no spaces, punctuation, or vowels making the phrase more like “Gdsnwhr” How did you read it this time? So how should we interpret it?

If we are already atheists we will likely say the meaning is “God is no where” i.e. god does not exist. If we are Gnostics we are likely to say the phrase means “God is now here.” meaning that God is both real and accessible. If we are Adventists we are likely to say it means that God has returned to earth. Others may take even other less obvious approaches and turn “gdsnwhr” into “Gods [k]now her” meaning God knows us, or a particular “her”, or that there are many female gods, or that Gods are now female gods, implying they were something else before, Or maybe it is not about God at all and says “Go, does now where?” an archaic phrase meaning, if you depart now where will your deeds be done? (a rhetorical question like: “what good will it do?”) Or it could mean a thousand other things. Thus you can begin with the same original text and end up with any possible interpretation a person wants.

Additional context only makes it slightly less problematic, it narrows the field of interpretations, but still leaves us plenty of room to “wrest the scriptures” to our own interpretations. (D&C 10:63) There are several base assumptions that can lead to complete and reasonable interpretations for the whole of scriptural texts, and still be entirely internally consistent within their own philosophies. For example do we start with the assumption of an ex nihilio creation, or a matter unorganized creation? and is God a man as in the King Follet discourse, or is God a incomprehensible infinite being? Both of these first assumptions lead logically to other doctrines until an entirely complete and consistent theology can be framed, both of which are compatible with the scriptural text, but antithetical to each other. The most significant one I can think of is the question: is the phrase that “we are children of God” literal or figurative? if figurative then there was an ex nihilio creation, because Gods are not generational beings, there is just one who existed before he created the universe, and nothing before him, and nothing ‘ex nihilio” before creation. If this is true then his creation of man was not an essential part of his nature, it was only because that is what he desired to create. Our relationship to him as “children of God” is therefore figurative more than literal. This means that he saves us just because he loves us, this shows that God is Love, because God is of a different nature than Man this means we can never become the same as he is, if so then in heaven we enjoy the love of God but do not do the Works of God. If this is so then there is no reason for marriage in heaven because we will not be creating new spirit children….  and on and on. These sectarian notions are not illogical. They logically flow from the one basic assumption that God created the world from nothing. And the scriptures do not contradict this theology, the context is simply assumed to be figurative or literal depending on which basic assumption you subscribed to before you even read the scriptures in the first place. On the other hand If you assume that “we are children of God” is literal, then it logically follows that he is like us, and we can become like him. And if he is like us and our relationship is one of parent and child, then he created us because it was already in his nature. and where did that nature come from, well it came from his father! and why does he save mankind? because he wants us to be like him. If we are going to be like him in eternity we must do the same things, and participate in the same work. If his work is to create and people worlds, then marriage must be eternal, for how else are we to have eternal offspring like he does? if we are to increase eternally into a larger and larger family then plural marriage (at least in heaven) is the only possible outcome. this leads me to:

The elephant in the room for Mormons: Polygamy. we have Section 132 which is clearly all about polygamy, but if monogamy is what we prefer there are interpretations that can tone plural marriage down to a fairly small part of God’s Marriage law. once this is done other verses appear to have other meanings and Celestial marriage becomes a real oddity, as though the whole idea was out of context. Then you can tell yourself that polygamy is weird, and isn’t applicable anyway. For most Mormon fundamentalists polygamy is the context and so they see it where no one else does. this leads to bad logic for them too as they see plural marriage in every verse. The reason for these two extremely divergent outcomes for different branches of our LDS movement is because all doctrines are related to all other doctrines. You can start from any point in the doctrinal web and work your way to any other point.

spider-web-with-dew

Unfortunately most LDS people do not subscribe to one complete view or another, most people have a variety of different ideas, some from mormonism, some from sectarianism, and some from philosophy. We then end up with a religion: “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” Such a miss mash of ideas is not internally consistent, but most of us never think deeply enough about it to discover the places where these conflicts meet. when we do most of us live with the cognitive dissonance for quite a while before trying to find a solution. (Most “solutions” are then only a “band aid” measure of convoluted logic as we attempt to justify continuing to hold contrary positions simultaneously.)

It is my radical declaration that God is our father, and as such Mormonism and so called Christianity are incompatible in their approach to all of scripture. Either the King Follet Discourse is true or it is false. if true then every true doctrine extrapolated from that doctrine taught in Mormonism is also true. The Context is Everything! Truth and error are simply not compatible. Some of the doctrines may seem strange, or incompatible with our modern culture, this is the stuff so often thought of as “weird.” That includes ideas of generations of Gods, worlds without end, eternal marriage including polygamy, consecrated community property systems like the united order, Adam-God, and every other teaching of Joseph Smith. But these things are all logically extrapolated from the King Follet discourse and its doctrines. If it is false than all of these doctrines of Mormonism are false. And these form the basis and context for all uniquely Mormon doctrines. If they are false then Mormonism as restored is false, and we should return to the sectarian world, or even atheism. We must not try to adapt the gospel to our cultural preconceived notions, we must adapt our thoughts and our culture to the truths taught in the fullness of the gospel. to do anything else is to risk loosing what truth we do have.

The problem in the LDS movement today is that we all want to “have our cake and eat it too.” The church wants to be accepted as Christian, while it still seems to want to keep its temples, which contradict Christian creeds and theology throughout. Nearly every Mormon and LDS church since Joseph Smith was martyred has been trying to have eternal marriage without polygamy, We want to sing “I am a child of God” but renounce the “Adam-God theory” We want to live in the world, stay in our own countries, and pay a tithing instead of gathering to Zion and consecrating everything. And of course we want to receive all the blessings without the obedience. unfortunately this is immature behavior. If we want to grow into the kind of people we could be then we need to grow up and choose whether we will serve the gods of our gentile fathers (christianity) or if we will serve the Lord. (Josh 24:15)

There is an interesting example in the many LDS apologists who are trying to justify rejecting plural marriage while still keeping D&C 132 in the cannon, along with keeping eternal marriage, temples, and the rest. They are trying to use scripture to fight other scriptures. This is the context is everything problem. LDS apologists are saying that monogamy is “the Lord’s standard” how can that be so when monogamy has only ever in the scriptures been a stepping stone to something more? They often point to the words of the prophet Jacob in Jacob chapters 2 and 3. Where we find this: “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none” this seems to be a very straightforward command not to be married too much. But what does it prove when we take this out of context? To put this in context we are talking about an old testament people, who were living under the polygamist law of Moses. This law not only allows plural marriage, it in some instances commands it. (mentioned in Gen. 38:8, Deut. 25:5-6, 2 Sam. 12:7-8, etc.) Then we must consider that he is clearly speaking to specific people he says “no man among you” but who are these people? and we must also consider why he is talking to them.

p-075-1

In these chapters Jacob is giving a speech at the temple. He is chastising people for committing whoredoms. It is because these people are treating women like property, and violating the law of Moses in their marriage practices. it is not polygamy v. monogamy that is the problem, it is obedience to the commandments. And what does the Lord do when we break his laws? he condemns us with a LOWER law. Here the people were breaking the laws of celestial plural marriage, mistreating women, building huge harems, marrying outside the covenant, etc. Committing all the crimes for which David and Solomon were condemned, and the prophet gets up and chastises the people for these sins, just as David and Solomon were chastised by Nathan. (2 Sam. 12, 1 Kings 11:1, D&C132:38-39) Because of their unworthiness he must take a higher law from them (celestial plural marriage) and give them a lower law to their condemnation (monogamy.) How else is he supposed to liberate these women from the clutches of men committing whoredoms? He can only do that by taking them out of this abusive situation. Does this mean that all marriages are by nature abusive? NO! it just means that when a marriage is abusive it must end. So Jacob has to grant a general divorce for all those who are being abused, and punish the abusers by taking away their blessings.

If monogamy was a higher law it should have come as a result of the righteousness of the people. Then they would be worthy for additional light and knowledge. That is when new revelations of higher principles are obtained. But in this case we have a wicked people being condemned by a prophet. Is that the best time to give them new revelations of higher principles? ones that are even harder to live? no. it is time to condemn them with a lower law. “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) These people did not have the spirit. Jacob even said that what he was about to do would wound the hearts of many of the women even more than what they were currently experiencing, and then he says that these men can only have one wife. What was it then that pained these women so? they were cast out of their marriages. As bad as these marriages must have been, at least they had a husband. Now they were single again, and that is naturally a very painful thing.

I want to be clear: Divorce can be good. It was for the best in this case and it put an end to various abuses, but divorce is also very disruptive and difficult, even when it is for the best.

Now that we have looked at the context of these verses what do they mean? It is clear that any man who was not participating in abuse, harem building, and the violence associated with David and Solomon in their later years would not be under the same condemnation. Would they feel that their marriages were also annulled? no. Would they think that they could not live the law of moses, or the higher laws of celestial marriage? no. of course they could continue to live righteously. The people affected by these condemnations were the ones who were condemned, not all mankind, or even all of Lehi’s descendants. If anything it seems clear to me that the result of this speech by Jacob was that there was more plural marriage among the people by righteous men due to all the women who had just gotten divorced and needed new husbands. What these women needed was to be liberated from abusive relationships, not to be single for the rest of their lives.

So the abusers are now put under the condemnation that they are no longer allowed to have more than one wife, if even one wife will choose to stand by them after this, unless the Lord removes this condemnation to allow these men to have “seed” again. That is what verse 30 means. Not that God can revoke and renew his laws regarding plural marriage willy nilly for entire populations, but that repentance by the condemned will bring a removal of the condemnation.

A good example of this principle is excommunication. (when practiced righteously) When a person commits a terrible sin, and is under condemnation, they can be excommunicated. While in this state of condemnation they are not to take the sacrament, perform ordinances, etc. Does this mean that God is giving a new commandment revealing that the sacraments and ordinances are wrong and that no one should ever perform them? Of course not! That is a ridiculous interpretation. The situation is this: the individual(s) under condemnation are no longer worthy of the sacred rites of the gospel, as such they must repent before they can receive them again. The situation in Jacob 2 is the same. Those who are not under the condemnation not only CAN continue to obey the commandments, perform the ordinances and live the gospel, they MUST continue. Or they risk falling under the same condemnation.

In this context that is what OD 1 means too. The people have lost a higher law, and that condemnation will remain until the law is lived righteously. This condemnation applies to the Lord’s people who are unworthy of the higher law. It in no way denies the Lord’s commandments.

It is all in the broader context. If disobedience to the commandments brings new revelations of higher principles in Jacob 2 then the whole pattern in the rest of the scriptures is backwards. If sin brings condemnation in Jacob 2 like it does in the rest of the scriptures, then we must read these verses in that context. Once we look at what the scriptures say about this pattern let’s look at what Moroni says about this: “And I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that all these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men. . . And now I speak unto all the ends of the earth—that if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be because of unbelief. And wo be unto the children of men if this be the case; for there shall be none that doeth good among you, no not one. For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God. And wo unto them who shall do these things away and die, for they die in their sins, and they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God; and I speak it according to the words of Christ; and I lie not.” (Moroni 10:19,24-26)

If even one man remains on the earth who is willing to be obedient to all of the Lord’s commandments then it will be incumbent upon that man to keep all the laws, principles, and ordinances of the gospel. And how can he live these laws except through faith? Then will the gifts of the spirit be manifest in his life.

Are the gifts of prophecy, revelation, and exaltation manifest among the wicked? God forbid. Are they among us? They are absent from the church because of condemnation. and if we do not speedily repent we cannot be saved. The scriptures plainly teach the principle of plural marriage throughout, and section 132 is given to us for clarification, the only contrary word we have is OD 1, and it is not even canonized into a section! Since that time no monogamist president of the church has ever received, or even claimed to receive, a single revelation. Now the power and gifts are done away among the people of the church, and therefore, woe unto the people.

Seek the Prophets! You will know them by their fruits! They will truly prophesy, see, and reveal, they will live all of the Lord’s commandments. Do you know any one like this? You have probably never even heard of anyone on the earth like this. Well, I have. If you want to find Zion then contact me. My contact information is under the “about” tab above.

So this all comes down to context: do you approach the scriptures on the assumption that it is literally true, or do you prefer it to be figurative? or do you want to pick and choose?

Literal-or-metaphorical

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3 thoughts on “Context is Everything!

  1. Interesting points. I like the comparison of excommunication (and being forbidden to perform ordinances) to the people not being allowed to practice plural marriage. Your point about monogamy being the lower law was well-taken.

    As a quick aside since you mentioned divorce – I remember noticing that Nephi’s sisters followed him after Lehi’s death, but their husbands stayed with Laman – an example of divorce not explicitly blessed but Nephites sisters were righteous so I think it’s implicit.

    I was hoping you would clarify one point for me that didn’t make sense. You said, “Either the King Follet Discourse is true or it is false. if true then every doctrine ever taught in mormonism is also true.” Please help me understand that logic. Why can not the King Follet Discourse be true and yet Mormonism have false doctrine? I’m not disputing Mormonism but simply the logic.

    Best wishes,
    Charlotte

    1. I was making a hasty generalization, and perhaps I will edit the post. What I mean is that as one doctrine flows from another, if we accept that God is truly our father, and that God is an exalted man, then other doctrines which are sometimes controversial are also true, as they relate to the other established doctrines. There is of course a huge amount of false doctrine in various LDS settings. Those false doctrines do not however logically flow from the true doctrines, and will always come into tension with them. I was trying to show that cognitive dissonance is a problem. It is a warning sign that something in the doctrine is a false doctrine. By taking the King Follet and other statements and revelations of Joseph Smith as the guideposts I believe that we can learn to separate truth from error. And that we are provided by Joseph smith with adequate context to extrapolate the true doctrines. Sometimes this leads us to conclusions we may not like. For some the sealing of families, and other temple work is incompatible with their other beliefs. Especially if is could include plural marriage, even in theory. Others reject the idea of generations of Gods, or that we can become like God. In these instances the cognitive dissonance between these feelings and the foundational doctrines of the restoration shows that we need to accept the whole of the restored truths, or reject the whole. When we make a patchwork of protestant ideas and Mormon ideas we are in an untenable position. We cannot forever hold these contradictions in our minds. We should either accept one coherent theology or the other. If we don’t we will end up with something that is incoherent. By extrapolation we simply cannot accept the Book of Mormon and the Bible, and the prophet Joseph Smith without subscribing to certain fundamental truths.

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