One of the most profound spiritual experiences I have ever had took place in January 2006, when I felt a particularly strong prompting from the Holy Spirit to pick up a tattered old copy of the Book of Mormon and start reading it. At that point, I had been attending my meetings regularly at my LDS ward after eighteen years away from the Church, and I still felt very conflicted in many ways about my re-involvement in the Church. Feeling prompted by the Spirit to read the Book of Mormon filled me with mixed emotions. I had not picked up scriptures of any kind for the purpose of personal study in years. I didn’t even know how to begin, so I prayed for guidance. In response I experienced an incredible outpouring of love from God. Wiping tears from my eyes, I began to read the first chapter of 1 Nephi. That was the beginning of a new, very important leg in my journey to wholeness as a gay Latter-day Saint.
Biblical exegetical ennui
One of the primary objections voiced by Christians against homosexuality is that it is supposedly clearly condemned in scripture. That opinion is voiced so frequently, it takes on a force of its own. Many gay men and lesbians turn away from the scriptures and turn away from the Church because they themselves have come to take that opinion for granted.
I remember having a conversation years ago with a gay friend of mine who was a devout Presbyterian who told me something to the effect that, the Bible, taken at face value, was against homosexuals. You could perhaps argue that the authors of Biblical texts didn’t understand homosexuality, but you couldn’t argue that they weren’t against it. At best, you could neutralize anti-homosexual texts in the Bible through historical exegesis, but there was nothing in the Christian canon that could be understood to bless homosexual relationships in the same way that both Jesus and Genesis explicitly bless heterosexuality. In order for homosexuals to find that kind of blessing, he added, we’d need something akin to a new revelation.
(That was the moment when I decided it was far better to be a gay Mormon — holding as an article of faith that “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” are “yet” to be revealed — than to be a gay Protestant — who is bound to a faith grounded in sola scriptura, and whose canon has been closed for over a millennium and a half!)
For a time when I was coming out, I eagerly read the “revisionist” Biblical scholarship on homosexuality. At the time I was coming out, everyone was talking about Robin Scroggs’ The New Testament and Homosexuality and Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? These texts presented a coherent case against the so-called “clobber” texts — Biblical texts that had historically been used to “clobber” homosexuals (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18 & 20; Romans 1; 1 Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 1; and — sometimes — Jude 7). The arguments presented in these texts and many others like them, in light of modern scientific understanding of homosexuality, have been persuasive in much of the Christian world. They account for the fact that the major American Protestant denominations are slowly but surely in the process of converting to acceptance of ordained, openly gay clergy, and support for legal same-sex marriage.
Still, if the best that we can say of the Bible is that through careful historical textual exegesis we can show that it is unnecessary for us to accept the anti-homosexual biases of the biblical authors, that doesn’t seem to commend the Bible to gay and lesbian spiritual seekers.
No wonder I hadn’t picked up the scriptures in almost twenty years!
The Spiritual experience I had in January 2006 brought me back to a fundamental understanding of the way scripture is meant to work in the life of the faithful. My dad taught me this when I was seven years old and preparing for baptism, when he had me read Moroni’s promise out loud with him: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4).
When we read scripture the way it is intended to be read, we read with the Holy Spirit as a guide and a companion. When we read in this way, the texts come to life. We are able to learn their direct relevance to us in the specificity of our lives, “likening them unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23).
The Spirit freed me from the burden of looking at the scriptures as a dead law book whose purpose was either to condemn or exonerate me. Scripture is not my judge, Christ is. The purpose of scripture was to point me to him, and it would do so not forensically but pneumatically — as a work of the Holy Spirit.
Experiment on the word
From the outset of this new journey, I was aware that, while there had always been scriptural texts I found reassuring and comforting, there were also texts that had deeply disturbed me. What was I to make, for instance, of Old Testament passages in which God seems to command mass murder and sanction slavery? Of New Testament passages denying women the right to speak in Church? Of passages in the Book of Mormon and in the Pearl of Great Price about racial curses? Was the Book of Mormon nothing more than a racist fantasy that erases Native America? Mormons have to deal with polygamy not only in the Old Testament but in the Doctrine and Covenants as well. And then, of course, there were the homosexuality “clobber” texts. Would I have to just excise certain texts from my mental and spiritual standard works? Would my scriptures end up looking like Thomas Jefferson’s, with all the passages I found offensive figuratively snipped out?
Because of this profound spiritual experience I had had, I found myself coming to the scriptures out of a deep sense that God loved me. The scriptures were a vehicle through which I could seek him, and through which he could guide me. I suddenly had a hunger to read the scriptures unlike any I’ve had in my life before.
I resolved that I would let the Spirit guide me to deeper understandings of troublesome texts. I would be open to whatever the Spirit taught me through the scriptures, without assuming that anything would be either positive or negative. And I would see where it led me.
At bottom, I was trying to answer a fundamental question. Were the scriptures relevant to me? Could they offer me a — a gay man in a committed same-sex relationship, in the specificity of my life in this modern world — a viable road map to life?
But also at the back of my mind was another equally urgent question. Could the scriptures actually teach me? Was there some objective truth to which the scriptures could point me? Or would my reading of the scriptures always merely be a subjective projection of my own prejudices?
In order to answer any of these questions, I had to open myself to being challenged. I resolved that I would not make any prejudgments about the truth or the falsehood of any text. I would study and seek understanding from even the difficult, painful texts, always asking for the Spirit as my study companion, and pleading with God to use whatever I was reading to expand my understanding and bring forth good fruit in my life.
This was ultimately an act of trust in the prompting of the Spirit, of trust that God had really spoken to me, that I was his child, and that if I came to him seeking bread in the scriptures he would not reward me with a stone.
If any of you lack wisdom
I realized that the scripture that moved Joseph Smith, Jr. to seek wisdom not in the pews or the camp meetings of the organized religions of his day, but out in the woods, on his knees, in prayer, applied no less to us than it did to him:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. (James 1:5-6)
If the “solutions” to our problems that are offered us by Church leaders don’t make the slightest bit of sense to us; if we’ve sought wisdom in the scriptures, but the scriptures seem bewildering to us, too easily interpreted in conflicting ways; if our friends and our family turn against us; it is our birthright to be able to turn directly to God and seek wisdom from him. And we may trust that God will grant us the wisdom we seek. He will offer us a way forward.
But… Seeking wisdom from God is not a light quest that we undertake. James says “let him ask in faith” meaning, we have to have sufficient trust in God to carry our quest to its completion, and to act on what wisdom God gives us. It is not a light thing to receive counsel from the Almighty.
It may take days, or weeks, or years, or a life time to carry our quest to completion. We need to be willing to go the whole road, “nothing wavering.” That is the kind of faith we need to receive what James promises us.
Following that prompting resulted in two types of blessing: an immediate blessing and a long-term blessing. That night in January 2006, when I cracked open a Book of Mormon for the first time in 18 years and started reading those first verses of 1 Nephi (“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…”), I received a rare outpouring of the Spirit. I saw and understood very clearly how these words applied directly to me, how they had always applied directly to me. I too, many years ago, had been called to leave my people and go on a journey in the wilderness. (Both a literal wilderness in upper Michigan as well as a figurative wilderness, among people who had not been my people in the land of Minnesota!) I had been guided and blessed by the Lord all these years, and he had taught me and still had more to teach me. I felt the presence of the Lord, reminding me that I was loved by him and belonged to him, and that I had no reason to fear.
That was the immediate blessing. And tasting of that sweet, sweet presence of the Lord which communicated God’s peace and love to me motivated me day after day to return to the scriptures again and again. I have never, in the seven years since then, viewed scripture reading as a chore, as something I “had to do” to be a good Mormon or a good anything. It was a hunger. I needed the scriptures to help me see more clearly, to understand. The scriptures became my urim and thummim, daily giving me insight into the world and on my life that challenged me to stretch myself, to grow, to work hard, to live into the full measure of my creation.
And, with the Spirit as my guide, it taught me not in some abstract way. It did not present to me some abstract “perfect pattern” that I was supposed to force myself into, like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. It taught me in my specificity, in the uniqueness of the very specific challenges that I — John Gustav-Wrathall, a gay man in a committed relationship with a man, born and raised Mormon, excommunicated from his Church but having a rekindled testimony of it, living in the midwestern United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century — that I faced. When I read a passage in the morning and received inspiration from the Holy Spirit, I understood what that meant to me that very day. It gave me gifts for every day that I could use to navigate the challenges, frustrations, and craziness of my life.
And the long-term blessing I have only now begun to catch a vision of, seven years into a journey that I see stretching still many miles and many years ahead, is that my daily hunger for the word of God, and my daily filling myself from that word with the Holy Spirit as my guide has made me a stronger, more centered person. Line upon line I’ve found unexpected wisdom that came from the slow but sure accumulation one day at a time.
I’ve taken my time, generally one chapter a day, sometimes less, sometimes more. I’ve tried to read each morning as long as it took me to find something that I needed for that day. In the past seven years I’ve read the entire Standard Works of the Church except the Old Testament cover to cover twice. I’m heading into the Old Testament for the second time as soon as I complete my current reading of the New. And I’ve learned something very important.
Whatever the meaning of those “clobber texts” may be, the scriptures read in their entirety, as God intends us to read them, by the power of his Spirit, totally affirm me as a gay man, in my relationship with my husband. They have taught me how to be a better husband, how to become and be, in partnership with my husband, a gay father to three foster sons. It has taught me how to walk the challenging road I’ve had to walk as an excommunicated member of a Church that I believe in and love with my whole heart, but that doesn’t see yet how I can be a member of it in the specificity of my life, as I live into the measure of my creation. It’s taught me how and why I need to walk that path, and how and why walking in that path would be a blessing not only to me but to others: to my family, friends, neighbors, and fellow Latter-day Saints. And I have been richly blessed!
“A Gay Mormon Reads the Scriptures”
Over the years, I’ve shared on my personal blog some of the insights I’ve gained through reading the scriptures, and some of these have been published in my book Why Theology Can’t Save Us. I’ve only ever been able to share a fraction of what I’ve learned, partly because most of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have been very specific to me and my life in its very peculiar peculiarity. But for some time, I’ve wanted to engage the scriptures more publicly, in a more systematic way as a gay man.
I believe this kind of study from this perspective has value, if only to debunk the myth that the scriptures are “against us” as gay and lesbian children of God! To the contrary, they are very, very much for us! I plan to post regularly in this vein on the “No More Strangers” blog, each month looking at a different book of scripture (1 Nephi, Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, Isaiah, the Book of Abraham, and so on).
It’s not that I have particularly greater insight than anybody else might have into how the scriptures can guide those of us who are gay or lesbian in our particular challenges. And it’s certainly not that my gloss on the scriptures ought to substitute for anybody else’s very necessary personal journey with the scriptures.
I do hope that a monthly reflection on a particular segment of the sacred word will inspire people to pick up their scriptures and read. The blog format is ideal because it allows people to talk back, to ask questions, to share their own unique understandings and ideas — to hold, so to speak, a kind of on-line scripture study or an on-line “school of the prophets.” If any of you have ideas or insights you’d like to share on a particular text, perhaps you could guest post.
The Mormon framework for reading scripture
And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (D&C 68:4)
For Mormons, canonized texts are a subcategory within the living corpus of divine revelation. We value canonized texts because they are a distillation of the most valuable insights drawn from past human interaction with God. But the context for a Mormon reading of scripture is that living prophets always trump dead prophets. Scripture is valuable because it provides a pattern or a model for understanding how God interacts with human beings. It provides a guide in the process of discerning and following present-day revelation. But the dead, written word can never substitute for living, in-real-time communication with God.
There is, within the Mormon understanding, a divinely established order, a means by which every child of God receives personalized guidance in their sojourns on earth – the purpose of which is for us each to enter into the fullness which is our birthright as children of God. Divinely ordained leaders are called to guide and give structure to collective expressions of faith; they have agency (and a potential for failing) within their callings that makes our collective expression of faith as challenging in every way as the possibility of personal sin and error makes challenging the process of living by faith in our individual lives. Ordained leaders receive revelation for the collectivities we belong to, whether those collectivities are our families, our wards, our stakes or the worldwide Church. But there is revelation that can only be given and received by each individual for themselves.
The quantity, urgency and imperativeness of revelation increases in proportion that it is closer us. This is the natural order of things. No Church leader could direct in the myriad of decisions that each individual needs to make in their personal lives. To assume that they could or would is crazy. It inverts the nature order of things and destroys the concept of agency. Their guidance is to the collectivity. It provides general principles which we each then need to figure out how to apply in the specificity and complexity of our individual lives. We need personal revelation.
Personal revelation is vital for another reason. It is part of a necessary personal discernment process that includes exercise of reasoning faculties, conscience, and trust in the Holy Spirit. Without the private discernment process, collective revelation can hold no sway over us. It would be impossible for us to choose between true prophets and false, between error and divine commandment.
Along the continuum from general to specific, then, the three types of revelation are, in order: scripture (most general), revelation to ordained leaders (more specific, but directed to the collectivity over which the leader presides), and personal revelation (most specific). Each has its place. Each requires a kind of validation against the others. But always, personal revelation is what makes the application of every kind of revelation in our lives practicable.
No Mormon Version of “Papal Infallibility”
A false Mormon cultural convention has evolved in which it is assumed that any revelation received by high leaders of the Church (the prophet and apostles) is more correct than personal, private revelation. The prophet is presumed to be more righteous or closer to God than the average Church member, and is God’s spokesman to the world, and therefore presumably “knows better” than ordinary Church members.
Mormons often quote Wilford Woodruff statement in the aftermath of the Manifesto, as a kind of proof text of prophetic infallibility:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)
The conventional interpretation of this text acts as if God will smite or strike down a prophet who attempts false teachings. But in fact, we have an example of a Prophet — Brigham Young — teaching doctrines the Church has overwhelmingly rejected as false: the so-called “Adam-God” doctrine (which was rejected because of its incongruency with the Saints’ understanding of the Fall and of the nature of God) and the doctrine of “Blood Atonement” (which would have detracted from our sense of the all-encompassing power of Christ’s atonement). (See John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet for a detailed account of the history of these teachings.) It is irrefutable that Brigham taught these as doctrine, but he did not lead the Church astray because the Church by and large simply ignored his teachings, and they were quietly set aside after Brigham Young’s death.
A more realistic interpretation of Wilford Woodruff’s statement would acknowledge that in a Church guided both by prophetic and personal revelation, a built-in safeguard against the teaching of false doctrine would be our capacity to receive personal revelation that confirms the teachings of the prophets and to discern for ourselves whether what they are teaching us is true or false.
Wilford Woodruff recognized this at a time when there was consternation and confusion in the Church over the setting aside of the practice of polygamy, which by the late nineteenth century had come to be seen as central to the Restoration. In another text that accompanies Official Declaration 1, Woodruff appeals to this discernment faculty of the Saints. Or as he puts it, the Lord, through him, appeals to this discernment faculty. “The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question,” he says. He then describes the likely outcomes of the continuation of the practice of plural marriage, and concludes again with the question: “I leave this with you, for you to contemplate and consider” (Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Sunday, November 1, 1891. Reported in Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891).
This was hardly, in other words, a statement to the effect that the Saints ought simply to take the prophet’s word for it on the grounds that the Lord would smite him down rather than let him teach them something false. Rather, it was an acknowledgment that a single man could never lead astray a Church guided by the Spirit of the Lord. The “just take the prophet’s word for it” approach would endanger the Church, it would make it possible for the Church to be subverted in just the way President Woodruff promised that it could not.
If personal inspiration seems to conflict with a revelation received by the prophets or with scripture, there could be any number of reasons for this. The story of Nephi being commanded by the Spirit to slay Laban (1 Nephi 4:10-18) is an example of this. Both revelations could be true, but we might not have sufficient context for understanding how they relate to each other.
The applicability of either personal or collective revelation within our personal lives requires a discernment process from which we are never excused. “I was just following orders” will be inexcusable at the final judgment, especially if offered to justify the kinds of heinous wrongs (whether the Holocaust or the Mountain Meadows Massacre) that have usually been committed under the shadow of that excuse. Similarly, recent examples of individuals who have murdered their own children because they believed that God was commanding them to make an Abrahamic sacrifice should warn us of the excesses and dangers of unchecked “personal revelation.” We are always responsible to test and validate revelation, sometimes learning by trial and error.
That is as God intends it. That is an approach to revelation which will guarantee our personal freedom and safety and the greatest opportunity to train our conscience and to grow, line upon line, into the full measure of our creation as children of God.
“Not Fashioning Yourselves According to the Former Lusts in Your Ignorance”
To say that the Saints have an obligation to test the teachings of Church leaders or the scriptures through their own discernment process is not to say that the Gospel is whatever we make it. The Apostle Peter described the process by which the Saints were converted to Christ whom, “having not seen, ye love” (1 Peter 1:8), by the power of “the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven” (v. 12). The teaching power of the Holy Spirit was such that it teaches “things [which] the angels desire to look into”! (In other words, there is none greater!) And yet the end product makes us “obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance” (v. 14). In other words, applying the discernment process required by us as Saints will make us more, not less, humble, more, not less, submissive to the will of God.
Another way to look at the process of revelation in its entirety, in other words, is to see us all collectively seeking submission to God, each in our ordained roles. Some as prophets, some as apostles, some as teachers, some as just plain old members; none better than any others; none more perfect or less susceptible to normal human stumbling than others; but all committed, collectively, to discipleship to Christ and obedience to God.
The prophet and apostles receive revelation specific to their stewardship (i.e., to the entire Church as a collectivity). Our capacity to receive and correctly apply any revelation is contingent upon our personal righteousness. This is as true of the prophet as it is of any one of us. The prophet is called to his office for divine purposes that we may or may not understand; it does not mean that the occupier of the prophetic office is more personally righteous than any other disciple of Jesus Christ. The most righteous man or woman could remain without special calling for his or her entire life, depending on God’s purposes for that individual and for the collectivity. Consider the story of Job.
But when I open my scriptures (or when I attend conference) it is always with fear and trembling; with the understanding that I can’t do so without a profound openness to learn and understand something I never did before. I recognize that sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to trust a teaching that I do not fully understand; to try a principle that seems counter-intuitive to me, to give it a chance to work in me, and to give myself a chance to grow beyond my own limitations. If I do not exercise faith, I can never be more than what I am today.
The Saints are obligated to study scripture, to immerse ourselves in it. It aids us in the very necessary discernment process that we require from the beginning of our lives to the end. It is natural that we would dig into the scriptures out of a hunger to connect with God and to discern his will for us. When we study scripture, we open ourselves to the Spirit, and through the power of the Spirit, scripture becomes a urim and thummim to us, a “seer stone” through which we can discern the pattern of God’s love in our own individual lives and in all creation.