As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture
edited by Julie M. Smith
2016 Best Religious Non-fiction Award,
Association for Mormon Letters
“An invitation to go back to the scriptures and reread these speakers’s stories in a new light.” — By Common Consent
“A unique and absorbing engagement with the Mormon scriptural canon that is well worth reading.” — Association for Mormon Letters
“A model for a new, Jewish-informed way of reading scriptures with rich potential for Latter-day Saint audiences.” — Fiona Givens
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Our scripture study and reading often assume that the prophetic figures within the texts are in complete agreement with each other. Because of this we can fail to recognize that those authors and personalities frequently have different—and sometimes competing—views on some of the most important doctrines of the Gospel, including the nature of God, the roles of scripture and prophecy, and the Atonement.
In this unique volume, fictionalized dialogues between the various voices of scripture illustrate how these differences and disagreements are not flaws of the texts but are rather essential features of the canon. These creative dialogues include Abraham and Job debating the utility of suffering and our submission to God, Alma and Abinidi disagreeing on the place of justice in the Atonement, and the authors Mark and Luke discussing the role of women in Jesus’s ministry. It is by examining and embracing the different perspectives within the canon that readers are able to discover just how rich and invigorating the scriptures can be. The dialogues within this volume show how just as “iron sharpeneth iron,” so can we sharpen our own thoughts and beliefs as we engage not just the various voices in the scriptures but also the various voices within our community (Proverbs 27:17).
AuthorCast Interview with the Author:
Comprehensive Table of Contents:
Michael Austin - “Abraham and Job: Suffering”
Mark T. Decker - “Jacob and Joseph Smith: Polygamy”
Nicholas J. Frederick - “John the Evangelist and John the Revelator: The Divinity of Jesus”
Heather Hardy - “Joseph and Nephi: Rivalry and Reconciliation”
Ronan James Head - “Job and John: The Satans”
James D. Holt - “Alma and Abinadi: The Worth of Souls”
Jason A. Kerr - “Tamar and David: Personal Morality”
Jared Ludlow - “Moses and Paul: The Law”
Steven L. Peck - “Abraham and Thomas: Doubt”
Julie M. Smith - “Mark and Luke: Women’s Roles”
Joseph M. Spencer - “Amulek and Alma: Atonement”
Walter E. A. van Beek - “Balaam and Daniel: Prophecy,” “Solomon and Josiah: Writing History,” “Jeremiah and Jonah: Prophets”
Miranda Wilcox - “Hannah and Sariah: Complaint”
Walker Wright - “Mormon and Israel: Wealth”
Benjamin Peters and John Durham Peters - “Master and Disciple: Communication”
Q&A with the Author:
Q: Give us a little background into how this project started.
A: I read a review copy of Matthew Richard Schlimm's This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities. Its aim is to help the modern reader figure out what to do when a work they regard as sacred seems to promote genocide, slavery, etc. There is a brief section in the book—just a page or two—where he presents a fictitious dialogue between Ruth and Ezra. Ezra is the one who commands the Israelites to divorce their foreign wives. Ruth, of course, is a foreign wife. Now, in real life, they never had this conversation—they didn't even live at the same time. But Schlimm has created this conversation that shows them exploring their positions on what we would call interfaith marriage. It is civil, but neither concedes. They explore their disagreement. This dialogue stuck in my mind. A few weeks later, I was still thinking about it. I wished that I could read an entire book of dialogues like that. And since I know some pretty clever people, I decided to ask them to write a book like that for me.
Q: Why is it important for readers of scriptures to understand that there are various, sometimes even contesting, views within the scriptures?
A: Usually, one of two things happens: we either don't read closely enough to notice that there are differences, or, as soon as we notice the differences, we work as hard and as quickly as we can to come up with some theory that makes the difference disappear. But what if the contesting views are supposed to be there? What if they are a feature and not a bug? This book is an exercise in exploring those differences. If they are there, they are a feature of the scriptures, and we might just be able to learn something from them.
Q: Why did you choose to portray these different views within scriptures as fictionalized dialogues among scriptural figures? Does this approach tie into a more anciently-practiced approach to scriptural hermeneutics?
A: In some ways it is similar to the Jewish practice of midrash because it is creative and because it goes beyond the text itself. But whereas midrash often tries to fill “gaps” or solve problems, it was important to me that we specifically not do that, but rather try to stay true to the text itself. As far as using fictionalized dialogues, it seemed to be a reader-friendly manner of presenting the diverging opinions. It also models civil dialogue—something I think this current moment is lacking and might benefit from seeing modeled.
Q: What are some of the larger themes within scripture that are particularly relevant to a modern audience?
A: Can I say “all of them”? I'm not sure there is much that they wrestled with that we don't, at least in some iteration. For example, my dialogue concerns Mark and Luke discussing (or, as Ben Peters described it, “mansplaining”) women's proper roles. Luke's viewpoint is that we honor women by honoring what women have traditionally done; Mark's is that we honor women by removing restrictions from their behavior. But is Mark's view requiring women to act like men in order to be worthy of honor? Is Luke's view too limiting of what women can do? It's 2,000 years later and we are still having precisely the same conversation about women's roles. This is true for all of the dialogues.
Q: Can you provide an example or two of topics that casual readers may assume unity among Biblical writers that, upon closer scrutiny, may actually show tension?
A: Nicholas Frederick has a great piece contrasting the different views about the nature and divinity of Jesus within the New Testament. Heather Hardy's piece highlighting the different ways that Joseph (in the Old Testament) and Nephi think about rivalry and reconciliation with their siblings is just fantastic. Ronan James Head writes about contrasting views of Satan.
Q: How does understanding the different views and ideas presented in scripture help us to have a deeper, more rewarding experience in reading them?
A:Well, I find the places of tension to be the most productive locations for really pondering because they raise such important questions about how to resolve those tensions. I'm a big proponent of the idea that when you are pondering and wrestling, you are creating space for the Spirit to speak as you let the questions tumble around.
2016 AML Award Citation:
“It is with great pleasure that we give this years Religious Non-fiction Award to Julie M Smith who was the editor of the Greg Kofford published volume As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture.
“As Iron Sharpens Iron provides an excellent study on the challenges found in the Mormon scriptural cannon in a manner that is very intriguing and is sure to challenge Mormon readers to rethink how they approach their scriptural studies and thought. Mormons try harder than most Christians to try and find complete harmony in the scriptural cannon, but as Smith observes, the scriptures are filled with “weird bits”, “profound disagreement(s)” and “not all scripture texts agree with each other…since no writer has been freed from the confines of his (or her) fallen state”. The authors in As Iron Sharpens Iron were allowed to choose various scriptural authors and figures with disagreeing positions and rather than force them to harmonize these authors allowed their subjects to have a “dialogue” and debate with each other in an attempt to air out their differences and work through their opposing positions in a search for more truth, even when that meant continuing to disagree with each other at the end of the “conversation”. The result is a book that is sure to intrigue, challenge, and inspire all those who read it. AML congratulates Julie M Smith, Kofford Books, and all of the contributors for bringing new light, insight, and ideas to Mormon studies.”
Praise for As Iron Sharpens Iron:
“A model for a new, Jewish-informed way of reading scriptures with rich potential for Latter-day Saint audiences. One that embraces complexity rather than fleeing from it; an approach that values nuance and richness over simplicity and closure. Highly recommended.” — Fiona Givens, co-author of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith and The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life
“This is a book worth reading. But it should be a beginning, not an end. It should be an invitation to go back to the scriptures and reread these speakers’s stories in a new light, a model on how to search out, approach, and celebrate additional disagreements in the scriptures, and an invitation to practice disagreeing without letting conviction rob charity.” — JKC, By Common Consent
“Smith and her authors provide a unique and absorbing engagement with the Mormon scriptural canon that is well worth reading. . . . Reading these dialogues emphasizes a very real humanity in these characters and their stories that is not always easy to locate when reading a scriptural text. We have all their voices available to us—we know things unavailable to our predecessors for a host of reasons, but do we really appreciate the value of these texts, and even more, of these past lives?” — Jenny Webb, Association of Mormon Letters
“These conversations are fascinating, enlightening, and in some cases, heartbreaking. . . . [They] serve to sharpen our understanding of history and theology as we contemplate why individual prophets’ views of their lives and experiences vary so widely. . . . Handle this book carefully. It looks innocent enough, but you’ll likely end up needing a few bandages and stitches as you play with the new sharper edges that it creates in your vision, thinking, and faith.”
— Kevin Folkman, Keepapitchinin
“This volume represents a sincere effort to influence and improve the Latter-day Saint laity in their understanding, appreciation, and engagement with their scriptural canon. It is a volume that can provoke deep thinking and new insights. As such, it is a very important piece that should be taken seriously by its Latter-day Saint audience, not as a fully academic undertaking (though there are academic aspects and approaches utilized), but as an artistic or creative endeavor promoting the broadening and deepening of interpretation and analysis of Mormon scripture. It should likewise be viewed as an important secondary work on Latter-day Saint scripture by scholars (LDS and non-LDS) interested in Latter-day Saint scripture and theology, as well as scholars interested in the ways and means by which Mormons interpret and understand their canon.”
— Andrew C. Smith, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies
About the Editor:
Julie M. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BA in English and from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, with an MA in Biblical Studies. She is the author of Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels and is on the executive board of the Mormon Theology Seminar and the steering committee of the BYU New Testament Commentary series, for which she is writing the volume on the Gospel of Mark. She also writes for Times & Seasons.
ISBN 978-1-58958-501-0 (paperback)
Published August 2016