Like most Mormons, I have owned several sets of printed scriptures and have dutifully marked them up with red and blue – and sometimes a rainbow of other colors – pencils. Somehow, while I have difficulty writing in other books, it has seemed obligatory to scribble all over the pages of holy texts. I’ve never found a satisfactory way of marking them, though.
It’s fine to color a few verses, or put a border around them, when you’re scripture-chasing in seminary or when you’re a missionary handing your Bible to an investigator and asking her to read a selected verse – but when you try to move beyond mere proof-texting that method loses its effectiveness. And I’ve never, ever been so enamored of proof-texting that I was willing to follow any of those commercial systems for marking a defined list of scriptures about “faith” with blue, and a list of those about “repentance” with red, and a list of those about “sacrifice” with green. Ugh!
When I come back to a passage of scripture that I’ve underlined, I am often puzzled as to why I underlined it. It must have struck me as powerful, or as being exceptionally lovely in a literary sense, or as being relevant to some challenge I once faced, but none of that is evident in the marking – rather than serving to preserve an important insight, those inexplicable markings overpower anything on the page that might inspire me today.
I was excited when the LDS editions came out just in time for me to carry them as a missionary. Those footnotes! Wow! Not that I used them much after a while, mind you – the Topical Guide, addressing its curiously late-’70s set of concerns (would you expect a category of “Birth Control” to appear in a Topical Guide produced today?) is not of much use except as a proof-texting exercise, and the sheer number of “TG” footnotes drowns out the more useful ones to such an extent that I consciously trained myself not to look down at the footnotes as I read. (I have gone to the extreme of putting tiny green circles around the footnote superscripts that I do find useful, such as those to the JST.) I very much appreciate footnotes that link between the Bible and Restoration scriptures, or between the Old and New Testaments, on those too-rare occasions when I have bothered to look up those verses and puzzle out why the LDS edition crew included them.
It’s hard to link printed scriptures to extra-scriptural sources, too. My neat blue boxes around a verse with “Handel” inked in the margins notify me that the verse formed the text of some part of Handel’s Messiah, but the margins are too narrow to write more than a citation to a Conference talk or commentary, not the text from those sources. I’ve tried typing more extensive notes on onionskin and tucking that between the pages, but the slips flutter out and become a nuisance.
Okay, you’ve done all that, too, so you know what I mean.
My other problem with studying – really studying, as contrasted with letting the words flow over me in the requisite 30-minute chunks – is that the format of the printed scriptures is not conducive to study. Chapter and verse divisions are useful for references purposes, but they play havoc with the reading experience. Rather than getting easier with my maturity and experience, that fragmenting of the text has made it harder and harder for me to appreciate what I read. Awareness of that has been made acute since I’ve been teaching Sunday School, because when class members read requested passages aloud, they read each verse as if it had little or no connection to the verses before and after. The New Testament in particular seems to be viewed as a book of short quotations with most of its narrative sense obliterated by the chapter and verse breaks – and those short quotations are mysterious and Zen-like (“I am the Light of the World” or “I am the Bread of Life”) when divorced from their context.
So, after this long prologue – and weeks of procrastinating because I just know somebody is going to point out that there was an easier way for me to do this – I’m finally going to describe my personal solution to both problems.
I wrote my own scriptures.
Well, formatted them to suit me, anyway. Using my word processor, I reformatted the Bible into coherent narrative chunks, just the way the Harper Collins Study Bible does it, but using the King James Version of the LDS edition. I reformatted the Book of Mormon into the same coherent narrative chunks that Grant Hardy used for his The Book of Mormon: Reader’s Edition edition, but using the current text of the Book of Mormon rather than the 1921 text that he had to use because of copyright concerns. I reformatted the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price according to my own judgment, with some guidance from headnotes in the LDS edition.
And I added headings to each piece of text, which I find to be incredibly useful. For the Bible, I used Harper Collins’ headings; for the Book of Mormon I used Grant Hardy’s; for the Doctrine and Covenants I have used the headings from the headnotes of each chapter. I have slightly adapted some headings to suit me (e.g., I changed Harper Collins’ heading of “the first sin and its punishment” in Genesis to “the first transgression and its consequences”), and I expect to do a lot more editing as my study goes forward in the next few years.
(And, by the way, the personal use of these copyrighted elements from Harper Collins, Grant Hardy, and the Church comes within the fair use allowed by copyright law, but I cannot share copies of my reformatted scriptures without violating their copyrights. Please do not ask.)
Having the reformatted text in my word processor means I can add my own notes to the scriptures – as many and as extensively as I wish, without the straitjacket of narrow margins or the clutter of colors. I can add any note anywhere at any time and everything will remain as neat as it started.
Because I’ve been using “my own scriptures” only a few months, the New Testament has been the only book I’ve done much work on. So far, the kinds of notes that I have entered have been:
* Joseph Smith Translation variations, including many of those that didn’t make it into the LDS edition.
* Old Testament scriptures that are quoted in the New Testament, and Doctrine and Covenants scriptures that indicate that Joseph’s study of a Biblical scripture was the proximate cause of his seeking a revelation. (Unlike the footnotes in the LDS edition, however, my version allows me to record the full text of those related verses in my notes where it is handy for study and doesn’t require me to turn to another book the next time I go over that passage.)
* Relevant paragraphs copied from conference talks, Jesus the Christ, or other commentary.
* Explanatory information on New Testament-era customs or objects or plants that appear in the text.
* Questions or bits of explanation that could be useful while teaching that passage of scripture, taken from, for example, books like Julie Smith’s Search, Ponder and Pray, other lesson manuals, and similar sources.
* Bits of wording from non-KJV translations that help me understand a passage.
* My reaction to verses that have personal meaning (dated, so that eventually these personal reflections can help to trace my personal development).
* Bits of material from commentaries I use in helping me to understand a chapter I’m preparing for Sunday School.
I use brief citations (“JST” for Joseph Smith Translation; “HC” for Harper Collins; “JTC” for Jesus the Christ, etc.) keyed to a bibliography so I can always trace where a bit of information came from. (Incidentally, Bruce R. McConkie didn’t do that when he found useful material in published sources, creating a massive and I think largely unrecognized plagiarism problem in his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary.)
On the one hand, this has all taken an insane amount of work and I am hardly recommending that anybody else replicate it on a large scale. On the other hand, it has been useful enough to me that I would recommend it for relatively short passages of scripture that you might be preparing for a lesson or talk. Although I’vebeen using this system only for the past three months or so, I am hooked on it. It is so easy to organize my notes, and – as long as I keep my computer backed up – these notes are preserved more permanently than any paper notes I’ve ever made. I can carry them with me to Church on my Kindle, needing only a moment each week to upload the latest version of chapters needed for Sunday School.
If it sounds like anything you’d like to try on a small scale, here’s an illustrated version of what I’ve done:
Step one: Copy and paste the scriptural text from an electronic source, like that at lds.org. (I decided early on that preserving the italics used by the KJV was not important to me, so I didn’t try to transfer those from the electronic source.)
Step two: Run a few search-and-replace procedures to change the verse numbers to unobtrusive superscripts. (You still want to be able to refer to a passage by chapter and verse number, but you don’t want those numbers to overpower and dictate your interaction with the text.) I also removed paragraph symbols (they don’t always accord with the text breaks I adopted from Harper Collins).
Step three: Divide the text into logical narrative units, taking advantage of scholars’ work as I have done with the Harper Colllins Study Bible, or according to your own judgment. Add headings to each section, again taken from other sources or according to your own judgment.
Step four: Start recording your notes. Taking hints from the commentaries I’ve used, I double indent and use a smaller font to separate my notes from the scriptural text. I head each note with a bolded indication of the verse(s) the note applies to, and use a brief citation to indicate the source of the information, regardless of whether I have copied verbatim or summarized in my own words.
[Hmm. Looks like I dropped a few lines when I broke this up for scanning and posting, and I don't have the time this morning to re-do the illustrations. Sorry.]
[Again, I seem to have made a bad page break when I prepared the illustrations. I trust you get the general idea, anyway.]