Corry Cropper is chair of the Department of French and Italian. This essay is adapted from an address delivered in April 2016 at the BYU College of Humanities convocation.
Two aging priests were researching the history of marriage and the clergy. One afternoon, while in the archives reading medieval manuscripts, the older priest began to weep uncontrollably. His younger colleague asked why he was so upset. Through tears he explained, “The original text says ‘celebrate.’”
Like these fictional priests who discover that failing to read a single r from one word has led to an institutional misreading, in our world of scrolling text and pop-up ads, we, too, have institutionalized many incomplete or inaccurate textual interpretations. An eye-tracking study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group in 2006 found that online readers’ eyes generally follow a pattern that looks like the letter F. This means that reading online has accustomed us to read superficially, to look at images and a few sentences before moving on to the next link. This may be okay when reading tweets or when perusing deeply meaningful sites like KittenWar. com. But as humanities graduates, you are moving on to become judges who do the hard work of reading the Constitution,1 translators who understand the value of nuance, managers who read through impersonal policies to find the human, and gospel scholars who carefully teach the scriptures. So today I would like to touch on three ways to avoid misreading, three techniques to help you contribute more in your careers, in your wards, and in your families: (1) consider context, (2) explore contradictions, and (3) question simplistic interpretations.
“To thine own self be true.” This famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, taken in isolation, has become a call to integrity, a line memorialized on inspirational posters, serenity medallions, and tattoos. But if we consider the context, we discover that this phrase has very little to do with authenticity. It appears in a list of contradictory platitudes Polonius shares with his son, Laertes, as the latter leaves for Paris. “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. . . . Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. . . . The apparel oft proclaims the man. . . . Neither a borrower nor a lender be. . . . To thine own self be true.” In today’s terms, Polonius might say, “A stitch in time saves nine, patience is a virtue, love is a two-way street, and in a relationship both must give 110 percent!” What’s more, Polonius’s oft-cited call for sincerity is itself hypocritical since he is a duplicitous busybody, obsessed with appearances. Read in context, Shakespeare’s message here is not about following one’s heart; rather, he is saying, “beware of banal clichés preached by middle-aged men”—an apt warning as you read essays by university professors.
Robert Frost’s poem about two roads in a yellow wood has already become a classic example of misreading. Its famous last two lines, “I took the [road] less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference,” have been institutionalized by corporate America as the embodiment of individualism, as a celebration of difference, as a call to take risks. The poem has been used in car commercials, online ads, and in a trailer for a popular video game. The website for one well-known shipping company associates the road less traveled with the Latin proverb “Fortune favors the bold” and uses the poem to tout their company’s unique strategic innovation.
But notice the contradiction in the poem. The last line mentions the road less traveled, but earlier we read that the two diverging roads are really not so different after all. Consider these descriptions: “as just as fair,” “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” “And both that morning equally lay” (emphasis added).
The road only becomes “less traveled” in the poet’s retelling of events. In other words, the road “less traveled” is a fiction the poet envisions “telling . . . / Somewhere ages and ages hence.” The creation of a fictional road “less traveled” points to that part of human nature that at times causes us to aggrandize the past and to situate past decisions in a personal teleology.
And as you probably know, the poem is not even titled “The Road Less Traveled.” It is called “The Road Not Taken,” which, when read with the phrases “sorry I could not travel both” and “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” suggests that the poem is not about bold decision making but instead about the poet’s regret that he is forced to choose between two equal options. Exploring this poem’s contradictions allows us to move beyond inspirational-poster misreadings and to more fully appreciate the poet’s all-too-familiar dilemma.
QUESTION SIMPLISTIC INTERPRETATIONS
As members of a faith community without a local paid clergy, we all have the opportunity to carefully read, understand, and teach our sacred texts. You may remember what President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said about the parable of the lost sheep during general conference in April 2016: “Over the centuries, this parable has traditionally been interpreted as a call to action for us to . . . reach out to those who are lost. While this is certainly appropriate and good, I wonder if there is more to it” (emphasis added). Even though “daily scripture study” is something of a mantra in our faith, we have accepted and even institutionalized interpretations of the scriptures that, like the parable of the lost sheep, merit another, more careful analysis.
Let’s look briefly at the famous pride cycle found in the Book of Mormon as an example. We often hear explanations that the Nephites’ righteousness led to prosperity and wealth, which eventually led to pride and sin, which then led to destruction and suffering, which led to humility and finally back to righteousness. But this explanation of the cycle represents a superficial reading that, if taken as definitive, leads at best to a misunderstanding of the complexity of human nature and at worst to a belief that suffering is always a result of sin and that prosperity is always the reward for moral living.
Consider the example of King Lamoni. He is prosperous and powerful and a bit proud— somewhere between prosperity and pride, perhaps. But when he meets Ammon, he repents and comes to Christ. It is after repenting and accepting Christ that he begins to suffer: many of his people are killed, he loses his kingdom, and he is forced to live as a refugee in the land of the Nephites. This story suggests an alternate pattern: coming to Christ frequently increases suffering since Christians covenant to mourn with those that mourn and to relieve the burdens of the oppressed. Being Christian makes us vulnerable.
The Book of Mormon is filled with examples that contradict the pride cycle. There are examples of people who suffer and then turn to the Lord, but in Alma 62, after suffering through a long war with the Lamanites, we learn of a group of Nephites who “had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war” and who turn away from God (Alma 62:41).
There are people who allow blessings and prosperity to give way to pride and wickedness. But in Alma 1 there is a group that enjoys an “abundance of all things.” They even possess the Book of Mormon’s ultimate mark of decadence: “fine-twined linen.” But instead of falling into pride and wickedness, “they [do] not set their hearts upon riches” and remain prosperous (Alma 1:30).
In Ether 10 we read about Morianton, who “because of his many whoredoms . . . [is] cut off from the presence of the Lord” (Ether 10:11). And yet despite his wickedness, he becomes exceedingly rich and prospers to the end of his long life.
Since repentance and obedience don’t guarantee prosperity, and since destruction and suffering can afflict even humble believers, we have to ask what to make of the promise repeated over and over again in the Book of Mormon: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper” (2 Nephi 4:4). Have we perhaps misunderstood the meaning of prosperity?
The word prosper actually comes from two Latin words, pro and spes: pro meaning “for” or “by” and spes meaning “hope.” Etymologically, prosperity (or “by and for hope”) is the opposite of despair. King Lamoni—like Nephi and like the believers in Ammonihah—enjoys prosperity because he has learned to live “by and for hope” in Christ, to glory in Christ, to root his identity in Christ, to seek his affirmation in Christ.
CHALLENGE THE CLICHÉ
When I was in the military, we were often given a Meal Ready to Eat for lunch—a bland, industrially prepared meal in a vacuum-sealed package. When reading, particularly when reading well-known works like Hamlet, poems by Robert Frost, or the scriptures, it is easy to approach them as texts ready-to-read, and to read in order to confirm well-established, bland interpretations. But these interpretations can so often be overly simplistic—or worse, just plain wrong. Challenge them.
Jacob, Alma, and Abinadi each propose readings that counter prevailing interpret-ations of their day. Mormonism represents a reinterpretation of the scriptures contradicting the dominant understanding of the Bible in the early 19th century. Christianity itself is built on challenging a misreading of the law of Moses. I would suggest that challenging narrow misinterpretations of important texts is a key way to be Christlike.
I love to hear sentences like these: “People have typically understood the text this way, but . . .” or “Analysts have usually understood the market in these ways; however . . .” or “Teachers have traditionally assumed that students learn in this fashion, and yet . . .” or “Mormons have tended to read this passage as a metaphor of the latter days, but I wonder if there is more to it.” You might find the established readings are right and wise. But in my experience, more often than not, a close reading reveals fissures in the clichés and leads to a more profound, more beautiful, and more human understanding of the written word.
I am convinced that there is enough ability among BYU Humanities alumni to read skillfully and find answers in the scriptures to help the Church confront challenges, to read analytically and make your businesses more prosperous and more human, to read carefully and help your families flourish and prosper through hope in Christ.
—Corry L. Cropper
1. See Thomas B. Griffith, “The Hard Work of Understanding the Constitution,” BYU Forum Address, Sept.