In this second part of the series on how to read your scriptures, we’ll look at study methods. In the first part we looked at the physical scriptures and all the study aids provided by the Church to help us in our searching of the scriptures.
You can just read the scriptures and gain insights and spiritual nourishment. But that is like getting in your car and driving from point A to point B without ever noticing how you got there and having no purpose for going there in the first place. Reading your scriptures really needs to be done on purpose.
Methods of study
The Straight Read is when you open the book and read it cover to cover as quickly as you can. This is best for an overall picture of the book you are reading. Scriptures cover a long period of time. The Book of Mormon, for example, covers more than a thousand years. If you include the life span of the Jaredite nation you are covering at least another thousand or more years.
If you do a straight read of the Book of Mormon you will get the big picture of where they came from, what separated them as people into the Nephites and Lamanites, why they hated each other, and a brief history of their kings and their wars. You will also see their cyclical behavior of repenting and sinning against God, His punishments, and their subsequent repentance.
If done right this method of reading the scriptures should leave you spiritually “breathless.” Your head will be packed with information that you took in as fast as you could read the words. This method is not skimming or scanning. It is reading with intent. You want to see the framework of the stories, society, and patterns of behavior of the people about whom you are reading. There is a lot to take in when doing a good straight read.
I suggest that before embarking on a straight read you take a few minutes to think about the kinds of things you want to find or the patterns you want to check for. Write them down. You will have so much information heading at you as you spend hour after hour reading, you will surely forget what you were looking for. You will need the written reminders.
Mark to Identify Speaker
This is something specific to the Book of Mormon. Studying this way is pretty much done only once. After that you just need to look at your markings for a refresher. The idea here is that Mormon compiled the records of the people into a coherent story. His notion was to give us some sense of familiarity with their civilization, their history, their struggles, as well as their line of kings, prophets, and prophecies.
What we read in the Book of Mormon has been systematically compiled with forethought, not just copied and pasted from other documents. Here is how I was shown how to do it. If Mormon is narrating the story then run a blue pencil line down the left of the column. As soon as someone starts to speak in their own voice, change color to a red pencil. When the person stops speaking, go back to a blue pencil.
This study method requires that you scan the page. You are not reading for doctrine or content. You are reading for who is speaking. This process captured my attention because there are times when someone is speaking and I get lost in just who is doing the talking. Is it the prophet being discussed or is it commentary by Mormon?
What you will find is that often a chapter will start with one or two verses of Mormon beginning the narrative, then it switches back into the story as told by the people who wrote the story in their own words. Sometimes the chapter will finish up with Mormon writing his own conclusion or writing a bridge to the next chapter to help us through the narrative.
This one pass through the Book of Mormon can change your perspective on how you read this book forever. There are whole sections that are almost nothing but Mormon’s narrative, then it is like he inserts Conference talks given by the prophets in their entirety. It really is a game changer when you have marked your Book of Mormon scriptures in this way. Again, scan, don’t read for content, just for who is speaking.
Read for vocabulary
Remember when the scriptures were written. Their records stretch back at least six thousand years. If you think you have problems reading the Old Testament that was translated just 400 years ago, think about how much has changed in six thousand years.
Even 400 hundred years ago when the scholars were translating the Old Testament and ran across prophecies that talked about things like wimples (a cloth headdress that covers the head and sides of the face of a woman, and is sometimes still worn by nuns) and crisping pins (some kind of small bag), the translators didn’t always know what some of those things were. They supplied their best guess for an English equivalent description.
The vocabulary used in the Bible and other scriptures is the vocabulary of very educated men. Isaiah was a renowned scholar and pretty much a genius. Having a good solid dictionary next to you as you read the scriptures can be a great help. Yes, it slows down your reading, but if you now better understand what you are reading then isn’t it worth it?
Remember that reading the scriptures needs to be something that is not haphazard (accidental), but deliberate. We are studying the word of God because there is power in those words. The Spirit will use those words written by the Lord’s servants to inspire us and fill our minds with what we need to say when we need to say it. But if we have no idea what the words mean we become a worthless vessel to the Spirit. He can’t use us to do the Lord’s work if we choose to remain ignorant.
Fortunately, studying with a dictionary close at hand gets faster with time. The more vocabulary we come to understand, the fewer trips into the dictionary will become necessary to understand what we are studying. I know people mock me for my love of reading the dictionary, but I can’t tell you how exciting it is to stumble across words I have heard people use, but was too embarrassed to ask them for the meaning of the word. Now, with the dictionary in front of me I can think back on those conversations and better understand what was being said.
Pronouncing guide – Directly after the last page of the Book of Mormon there is a Pronouncing Guide, written by Joseph Smith, on how to say all the names and places in the Book of Mormon. So when you run into the name of Zeezrom you know that you don’t pronounce his name Zēz’ rom, but Zē ěz’ rom. It is three syllables, not two.
Knowing how to properly pronounce names in the Book of Mormon will help you feel more comfortable with the people you are reading about because you are not stumbling over their names. It also helps you feel more confident when asked to read their names out loud in class when you are in church meetings or private gatherings. Every little bit helps, right?
Markings and notations
I confess that I don’t own a cell phone. Yes, for all my forward thinking ways and love of technology, I still love my privacy more. So I can’t tell you what, if any, methods there are for permanently marking scriptures on digital devices. But I have had experience with marking up my paper scriptures.
One of the most value-added additions you can make to your new set of scriptures is to mark them up. My mother has been studying the gospel her whole life. When she is through with a set of scriptures, and has marked them up to the point there is no more room to add notations or underlining, she is forced to get a new set and start over. She hates that! But we love that! We all vie for the honor of getting her castoff scriptures. We all value her notes and comments, especially because they are her spiritual insights in her own handwriting. Keep the china, give me the scriptures!
Marking up your scriptures can be done with any kind of writing instrument, including crayons, if that floats your boat. The point to marking them is to help you remember the location of a passage, to mark phrases or passages that the Spirit has caused to jump out at you for whatever reason, or to pull parts of one verse together with parts of another verse, creating a whole new thought.
One of my big complaints about the Nephite culture is their long-windedness when they speak. They start a sentence then in mid thought they run off on another thought altogether, then eventually come back and finish the thought they started several verses before. Sometimes when I am marking a train of thought, not a verse, but a train of thought, I underline up to the point the prophet heads off on his tangent then I draw a line to the spot where he comes back to continue the train of thought he abandoned a moment before. This method of marking gives you a clear picture of the intent of the verses. Once you have that under your belt you can go back to explore why he rerouted the conversation in the middle. Was he giving back-story information? Perhaps he was making a doctrinal point that would support or give understanding to his main point. You have to look at each instance to make that determination.
There are many products on the market you can use to mark your scriptures. There are even transparent pictures you can overlay on your scriptures to quickly remind yourself where a particular story is located. This is especially good for children or those who are new to the scriptures and haven’t gotten the overall story line of the scriptures in their head yet. The nice thing is that (I think) they can be pealed off when you no longer feel you need them.
I prefer to get a wide margin set of scriptures if I can find them. I use as fine a point pen as I can get to write for being a left-handed person. Yes, lefties have to worry about getting pens that have too fine a point. Because we are forced to push the pen instead of pull it, any fibers or dust on the page can clog the ink tip, causing the ink to skip or stop flowing. Very annoying. This fine point allows me to write more text, observations, and references in the margins of the page and still be readable. It also allows me to underline the text without covering the text itself because the line of ink is too fat.
Read for stories
One of the best ways to tie the scriptures together in your own mind is to become intimately familiar with the stories they tell. We are a story telling species, and we remember things better when there is a story attached to the information. Stories also help us understand doctrine better because they give us examples. Listen to Conference and you will notice that the Brethren give many stories to teach us the doctrines.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of determining that this time through the Doctrine and Covenants or the Old Testament, I am going to be mainly looking for stories. There are stories about what happened to individuals, families, communities, the whole church, and whole nations. There are promises made to all of these as well as to the whole world.
Learn the stories. They are the backbone of your learning. If you are comfortable with when the stories take place, who is involved, and why the stories were written, you will be well on your way to understanding the spiritual truths intended by the telling of those stories.
In this opening salvo into the realm of how to study the scriptures, we have looked at learning how to pronounce the names correctly, how to mark your scriptures to customize your learning for your own purposes, how to do a straight read and how to mark the Book of Mormon to identify who is speaking. We’ve also looked at the importance of learning the stories themselves.
In the next part we will look at the importance of reading for doctrine, for history, for topic, and how to look for answers to personal questions. If you can think of additional ways to read your scriptures that have benefited you, please share them with others in the comments below.