Latter-day Saints are fond of quoting a phrase from modern revelation, “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). From the beginning of the Restoration in the 1820s, a common theme of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s religious quest was to seek knowledge, light, and understanding. When he went into a grove of trees near his home to pray in the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith was impelled by his trust in the biblical promise found in James 1:5 that he could find wisdom if he sought it. This prayer resulted in the First Vision, in which Joseph saw the Father and the Son—beginning a spiritual sunrise unexpected by men and women of Joseph’s own day, but anticipated by prophets and apostles of old (see Acts 3:20–21).
Gospel truths continued to roll forth through the young prophet as he personally sought wisdom from God. Interestingly, Joseph Smith not only prayed for such wisdom but also studied the word of God and the languages of the biblical world (for example, Hebrew and Egyptian), practicing the command to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” His example in this two-part effort set a pattern for Latter-day Saints that continues to challenge us today.
Recently, there has been an explosion of self-help books for “dummies” or books to make something easy. With less time in a busy world, we often look for a quick fix to our problems, even when it comes to scripture study. However, when applied to the scriptures these efforts, even though popular and well meaning, may not necessarily raise one’s understanding of the topic. My colleague Robert J. Millet opined sometime ago that we need the scriptures to be understandable, not easy. I do not believe that he was playing a semantic game but that he was identifying an important difference between the two approaches.
Fortunately, Joseph Fielding McConkie, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, helps us in making the scriptures more understandable with his latest book, Between the Lines: Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles (Honeoye Falls, NY: Digital Legend, 2009).
What I like most about this book is that it forced me to think about how we read and study the scriptures. Sometimes in order to focus our thoughts, it is important to consider how and why we do a routine thing such as studying the scriptures. McConkie is not interested in “procedures,” such as what color of pencils one use to mark the scriptures or whether one should mark the scriptures at all. His goal is to enhance our study by providing “timeless principles that facilitate sound scriptural understanding” (viii).
The book contains more than just ideas about scripture understanding. There are also concrete suggestions. For example, the author suggests that we take advantage of “various study Bibles” (29). He enjoys “the help of an Archaeological Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The Catholic Study Bible, and a variety of Protestant study Bibles” (29) and even provides a brief list of such study Bibles in the section “Sources” (165–66).
There are some light-hearted moments scattered throughout the book as the author has some fun pointing out rather common practices that we have engaged in through the years that may in fact have diverted us from understanding the scriptures. It may be healthy to laugh at ourselves from time to time, especially when we consider that we all have likely endured our “fair share of scripture abuse” (viii). I recommend this book to all who want to improve the quality of their scripture study and teaching.