7 Techniques to Enhance Your Book of Study | Podcast: 10 Tips from BYU Religion Professors to Deepen Your Book of Mormon Study

10 Techniques to Enhance Your Book of Study | Podcast: 10 Tips from BYU Religion Professors to Deepen Your Book of Mormon Study

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10 Techniques to Enhance Your Book of Study

Are you to revitalize your approach to studying the Book of Mormon? As experts in ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, Dr. Joseph Spencer and Dr. Daniel Belnap have shared a menu of 10 study techniques to help you deepen your scripture study. In this blog post, we will focus on seven of these techniques that can bring a fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm to your study of the Book of Mormon.

First and foremost, Dr. Belnap emphasizes the importance of investigating the social and cultural context of the Book of Mormon. By understanding the historical and cultural background of the events and people in the scriptures, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the message and significance of the text. This approach allows for a more personal and meaningful connection to the scriptures as we seek to understand the context in which they were written.

Another valuable technique is to consider why Mormon included certain passages in his abridgment and excluded others. Dr. Belnap points out that Mormon deliberately crafted the Book of Mormon, selecting and including specific events and teachings that were essential to his purpose. By examining why certain passages were included, we can gain insight into the overarching themes and messages that Mormon sought to convey.

Additionally, Dr. Belnap encourages readers to consider how the scriptures can be applied to their own lives. By making personal application a priority, scripture study becomes more than just an academic exercise; it becomes a source of inspiration and guidance for daily living. Understanding the cultural and historical context provides a solid foundation for personal application, allowing the scriptures to become more relevant and impactful in our lives.

In a similar vein, Dr. Spencer suggests treating each book in the Book of Mormon as its own entity with a distinct purpose. By examining the structure, themes, and overall message of each book, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the intended message and significance of the text. This approach encourages a holistic view of the scriptures and provides a framework for deeper study and reflection.

Furthermore, Dr. Belnap recommends focusing on the sermons and teachings of individual prophets in the Book of Mormon. By delving into the specific messages and themes of individual prophets, readers can gain a deeper appreciation for the consistent and timeless principles taught throughout the scriptures. This approach allows for a more personal and meaningful connection to the teachings of these ancient prophets.

Another technique that can enhance your scripture study is to focus on specific stories from the Book of Mormon and analyze their meaning. By examining the stories and their relevance to the lives of the characters and their application to our own lives, readers can gain valuable insights into the principles and doctrines taught in the scriptures.

Finally, Dr. Spencer suggests a unique and challenging technique of reading a passage from the Book of Mormon without punctuation and requiring readers to punctuate it themselves. This exercise forces readers to slow down and carefully consider the meaning and structure of the text, leading to deeper insights and understanding.

These techniques offer valuable approaches to studying the Book of Mormon with depth and intentionality. By delving into the historical and cultural context, considering the purpose and application of the scriptures, and exploring specific stories and teachings, readers can enhance their understanding and appreciation of this sacred text. Whether you are a seasoned scholar or a novice reader, these techniques can bring new life and meaning to your study of the Book of Mormon.

All over the world, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are starting the Book of Mormon together for a new year of Come, follow me. It’s pretty exciting to think of so many people studying this book we love. But if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to start out enthusiastically and then lose steam as you get into a routine. That’s why Dr. Daniel Belnap, who teaches Book of Mormon classes at u likes to mix things up.

Get caught up in one way. If it’s boring you and it’s not working, then switch it up. There’s nobody that says there’s one way to do scripture study. If it’s not working for you, then dive into something else. If a particular topic interests you, go for it. If you want to know more about the cultural background of Lamanites, go for that. I don’t care. I think either way, you’re going to get something out of your scripture study in a way that you haven’t done before.

Welcome to the Y magazine podcast, bringing you ideas, stories, and voices from Birgium Young University. I’m Whitney Archibald, and today we get to talk to two beloved professors of ancient scripture at BIO, Dr. Joseph Spencer and Dr. Daniel Belnap. As we start this new year of Come, Follow Me. This episode is based on a Q&A with Joseph Spencer that will be in the Winter 2024 issue of Y magazine. Today, Spencer and Belnap will be giving us a menu of 10 study techniques that we can use throughout the year to mix things up, try something new, and deepen our scripture study. That’s a lot of different ways to study, but that’s the point. Many of us are like the students Joseph Spencer encounters in his Book of Mormon classes each semester.

Most everyone comes into the classroom thinking they know it, right? They come into an Old Testament class or a Pearl of Great Price class. They’re like, Feed me. I don’t know what’s going on here. I need help. But they tend to come into a Book of Mormon class feeling like they’ve got it. There’s not much to learn. They’re bored with the Book of Mormon. It’s a lot of fun because I can very quickly help them see that they have not even scratched the surface.

Sometimes that surface scratching leads to deep digging into the doctrines and details of the Book of Mormon. But other times it means taking a step back and looking at an overview of stories and events. This was one of the things I noticed as I talked to Belnap and Spencer. They both approach their Book of Mormon study as if they’re wearing a pair of binoculars, zooming in and out, sometimes looking at the big scripture and other times focusing on individual people, stories, and themes. I asked Joseph Spencer if this metaphor rang true.

Yeah, that’s actually a good way to put it. One of my mentors, Jim Faulkner, who taught philosophy here at BY, and retired just a year or two ago, used to say that the skill you need in reading scriptures is to read, read, read. But he means first you read quickly and broadly and get big picture, and then you got to read slowly and carefully and get details, and then you’ve got to read big and broad again. You have to get big picture, but then you can’t see all of it until you start looking at all the little things. Then when you come back to the big picture, it looks different. But now when you go back to the little picture, that’s going to look different again. There’s like a cycle of out and in and out and in so that they constantly shape each other.

With this in mind, let’s grab our metaphorical binoculars and talk about some specific study techniques. We’ll also list each of the 10 techniques in the show notes so you don’t have to frantically take notes or remember them all yourself. We’ll start with Dan Belnap. He suggests that we approach any passage of the Book of Mormon with three questions in mind. One, what was going on at the time? Two, why did Mormon include it in his abridgment? And three, how can we apply it to our lives? There’s a lot to talk about with each of these three questions, so we’ll start with the first question, what was going on at the time? This is one of Dan Belnap’s specialties, and it will be our first study technique, investigating the social and cultural context. He approaches it in a very personal way.

I tend to look at scripture study as you’re having a conversation with someone. When you have conversations with people. You want to try to get to know where they’re coming from. You want to understand what they’re trying to say. You tend to ask questions to them. If my friend is telling me a story, if my wife’s telling me a story, I’ll sometimes interrupt and ask her, So where were you when this happened? Or who was with you in the car? Or all of those little details that flesh out and give you the full background to the story. That’s because I want to know where they’re coming from and understand what it is they’re trying to say. When I think of scripture study, I often of it the same way, except I’m dealing with people that lived 2,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago, older, whatever it is. I have to understand where they’re coming from. For me, scripture study involves a fair amount of me trying to figure out their context, what language they would use, what they meant when they used that language, where are they coming from, what are their challenges, what is their experience, their life like, which then allows me to go, Oh, I understand now why you said what you said.

I loved this idea of pretending to have conversations with people from the Book of Mormon. So I asked Belnap for an example. You might be surprised at who he picked.

Alma Chapter 30 introduces us to Khororor. Now, Khororor comes on the scene at the beginning of the 18th year, but he has an immediate Just huge impact on Nephite society. But he apparently comes out of nowhere. So the question for me, I look at it and go, why? Why would someone like that have such draw? People like that don’t just emerge of vacuums. Something’s going on in Nephite society that lends someone like Kholwa or to be able to go, I can fit in here. I’ve got a message that’s going to resonate. Whatever it is in the name teaching this critique, whatever it is, it’s going to resonate among the people, which it clearly does. The question would be, what’s been going on? Now, Mormon never really tells us everything, but it gives us enough details to see that this is a big period of unrest. There’s been a lot of lot of change that’s taking place over the past 17, 18 years of Nephite history. These tend to create a place in space where something like Korihor’s message would, in fact, resonate, validate, do the things that it seems to be doing. For me, it would be, what can I see context-wise in that period of time that can help me understand why I’m seeing what I’m seeing in the text?

I had never really contemplated what it would be like to have a conversation with Korihor before this. We’ll talk more about Alma Chapter 30 in the next technique, so put a mental bookmark there for a minute. If you want to learn more about this cultural approach to the Book of Mormon, Dan Belnap has written some fascinating papers, including one about how Lehi’s dream was a cultural game changer for the Nephites, which I really loved. We’ll include a link to some of Dr. Belnap’s writing, including this paper, as well as some of Joseph Spencer’s articles in the show notes. Belnap’s second question, technique number two, is to think about why Mormon included what he included when he was abridging the plates and why he excluded other things, a lot of other things.

The Book of Mormon, it covers a thousand years worth of DeFi history. But the book isn’t a full thousand years worth of history. There’s no way. Mormon tells us, and Again, whether it’s hyperbole, poetic license, who knows? Maybe it’s literal. He said in a couple of places that he only used less than 100th of the material that he had available. Well, the book’s 530 pages long in terms of its English. So what did Mormon leave out? It makes what he put in significant. This is a book that has been highly crafted. It’s been composed. It’s not just a set of random data. Even the war chapters, Mormon put these in, deliberately put these in. If he’s deliberately putting in, he’s got a purpose, he’s got a function that lies behind all of this. For instance, back to that 18th year, Alma Chapter 30 to Alma 46, covers about one, maybe one and a half years’ worth of Nephite history. That’s about 40 pages. Now, in a book that’s only 530 pages long, that’s a significant percentage on one year out of the thousand years he’s got.

That’s crazy.

I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, Okay, I’ve got a lot of context, but I’ve also got Mormon who’s decided, I really need to know a lot about this 18th year, suggesting that from Mormon’s perspective, this is a pivotal year. This period of time is pivotal to understanding what’s going on among the Nephite people. That’s my second question. Why did it get written that way? The Book of Mormon is easy that way because they know who the editor is, and the editor keeps interjecting himself every now and then. The editor introduces himself in a couple of places.

As an editor myself, part of what makes this approach so profound is that I know how focused any editor is on the audience who will be reading the material. For Mormen, specifically, part of that audience is us. That personal connection is real. He was thinking about us as he abridged these plates, and he let that guide what he included. He even addressed future readers directly several times. Then we, in turn, think about him as we read his interjections and then eventually his own book. Pretty cool. Speaking of getting personal, the third of Belnap’s questions, and our third technique is, How can I apply what I read to my life? There’s a reason it’s his third question.

Sometimes I think if we start with the question, I want to apply it to myself, and that’s the first question, you can often lose sight of what the text is actually trying to say. Because you didn’t try to find out their context, and you don’t really care. It’s like having a conversation with someone and going, Now, I don’t really care what you’re about to say. I don’t need to know the background and story or what it meant to you. You just need to know, I’m going to take your words and I’m going to use them this way. But if you don’t have that third question, to me, scripture study is just an academic exercise. It’s just another text. But it’s scripture, and I believe it to be scripture. I believe it to be the word of I did, and I want to be able to apply it. But I do believe that that application, at least for me, only happens when I can understand the context as best as possible.

Joseph Spencer also talked about this balance of scholarly study and personal application.

I had a moment where I realized I have to carve out a space that is explicitly devotional or I’ll feel like I’m doing nothing but work. I have carved out a time where I read the scriptures in a non-scholary way, where I am reading, asking the kinds of devotional questions that say, Come, follow me, emphasizes, where I’m asking, Am I doing this? Am I loving my fellow human beings the way I ought? Am I hearing the voice of the prophet here? Can I hear God in this? What does Christ’s Atonement mean right now for me? I have a time in my scripture study that is just that, and I force myself to be non-scholary, and I mix it with prayer and so on. And then I have a part of my study where I just go nuts, scolularly-wise. Okay, what’s going on in this verse? And let’s rip this apart. So I keep those balanced.

That’s a great reminder. The fourth technique is to look at each book in the Book of Mormon as its own entity with a distinct purpose. How is it structured? Is there an overall theme? What story or stories does it tell? Here’s Joseph Spencer.

As soon as you start to ask about a whole book, things come out of the text that you don’t normally see. Slow down look at big picture. What’s all of Second Nephi about, or what’s all of Helaman about? Does that bigger picture help to shape the smaller pictures we usually look at?

One assignment he gives his students is to read all of First Nephi in a day. Then they look at the structure of the book.

Nephite explicitly divides first Nephite into two halves. A half, he says, is the abridgment of his father’s record, and then a half that he calls his own proceedings or his reign and ministry. Then if you look at original chaptering, so the chapters we have in the modern Book of are from the 1870s. Orson Pratt had the assignment to make a smaller chapter, it was more readable, and introduce verse numbers for the first time, and that thing. But the original chapters seem to be Nephi’s original chapters. They’re not Joseph Smith’s or a modern thing. If you take the original chapters, there are just seven, and divide them up, it organizes first Nephite really clearly.

You can find cool photos of that 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon with that original chaptering at josefsmithpapers. Org. So cool that we can all have access to this. Spencer’s technique of reading a book in a day might work a little better for first Nephi or Jacob than, say, Alma, but it’s more about the method of reading straight through with structure and story in mind than how long it actually takes, so it can apply to any book. Dan Balnapp came up with the next technique, number 5, after he taught Teachings of the Living prophets at Biu. In that class, instead of studying the past 2-3 years of conference, they chose individual prophets and apostles and read all of the talks they had given since being called.

At the time, I did that, and this is way back, but he was elder Nelson instead of President Nelson. What was fascinating is we sometimes see him as our prophet and see his emphasis on the gathering of Israel. Well, that’s his big thing. Go back and look through all of his conference addresses, and you’ll see he’s been addressing this for decades. What Israel is and how we are Israel is something that he was talking about in the ’80s and ’70s. But you begin to see, if you do deep dives this, there are themes that keep popping up, and they keep coming back to those themes, right?


But you have to read them together, and you have to note it when you see it and go, Oh, this is intriguing.

Then Belnap decided to take this same approach with Book of Mormon prophets, looking specifically at the sermons each prophet delivered. Take Alma, for instance.

If you do look at Alma’s discourses, you’ll find that he actually does have a theme that runs through that. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Now, you can see that where he talks about wisdom earlier. You can see where he talks about it with the Zoramites. He talks about wisdom with all three of his sons. You can see him as he’s working through this concept of wisdom. What is wisdom for Alma?

Then there’s Abinnadi, who kept coming back to the theme of redemption. Book of Mormon. You could do the same thing with the sermons of Nephite, Jacob, King Benjamin. What I love most about this approach is that it helps you see these ancient prophets as real people in the same light as we think of our beloved contemporary prophets. I could tell as we talked that both Belnap and Spencer have that personal relationship with these ancient prophets. Something to aspire to. Technique number 6 is probably something you’ve done before, reading specific stories from the Book of Mormon and analyzing the meaning. This is an especially good tactic when reading with kids. I remember acting out different scenes from the Book of Mormon with my siblings when I was a kid, specifically when we turned our backyard into Lehi’s dream with a rope/iron rod tied to our favorite climbing tree and siblings mocking from the great and spacious jungle gym. I’ve definitely had my own kids act the scriptures as well. Joseph Spencer did this with his kids, too, when they were younger, but then added another step.

When they were super young, we would do things like, Let’s act this out, but then go back to the text and say, How did that match? Then they have to go, Oh, yeah. We assumed this. Maybe that reads a little different if we read it closely.

Another thing we can do when we’re looking at individual stories is that whole binocular approach you’ve been talking about. First, zooming in and saying, Okay, what happened in this story? Zooming out to find meaning Thinking, what did the people in the story learn? Then zooming out further to thinking about what we can learn from it and its doctrinal significance. Going back to the complex example of Lehi’s dream, we can look at what happened in the dream and how it applied to Lehi’s family. Think about how it applies to us personally. Then zoom out to apply it to the Book of Mormon as a whole, and even further out to apply it to the entire human history and the whole plan of salvation. I’m pretty sure both Dan Belnap and Joseph Spencer could spend a whole semester on Lehi’s dream alone. But let’s move on to technique seven, focusing on one verse. I love Spencer’s and Belnap’s approach to this technique because they really encourage curiosity. Here’s Dan Belnap.

One thing my wife and I tried in the past, it would be having the kids required to ask a question about the text. We read this chapter, what’s your question? You don’t tell them what the question is. They have to come up with their own question. Sometimes they’re really simple, What does this mean? Who’s it referring? But sometimes it was, No, what does this word mean? I don’t understand that. That can up to some great conversations with the family. But that does mean that the parents have to be ready to look at this to somewhere and go, Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve never looked at this before, or you’ve done your own close study.

Joseph Spencer gives an even bigger challenge to his students.

I have an assignment where I give them one verse, and I force them to come up with 25 questions about that verse, which is a lot, and they struggle to get to them many questions. But it also forces them to keep looking at it again and again and again and see what more they’re not seeing and what more they’re not seeing. Some of those things, I think, are really useful tools in studying scripture to just slow down, make sure we actually are reading what we’re reading, that we’re asking the kinds of questions that will lead us to deeper insight rather than just assuming, I know what that means. I know what that means.

Spencer practices what he preaches. He loves to dive deep into one verse at a time. In fact, he wrote a whole article about one verse, second Nephi 25:23, which is included in that link of his articles in the show notes. Our next technique, number 8, is very specific, what Spencer calls a crypto assignment for his students.

I get them a passage from the Book of Mormon, stripped of all punctuation. How? Because Joseph Smith didn’t dictate punctuation as part of the process of translation. He just dictated words. I strip all the punctuation out, I give it to them, and I say, You have to punctuate it. Then they have to make all these decisions. Interesting. Is that where the sentence should end? Do I make that one sentence or two? It forces them to start thinking about the meaning of the text in the way they don’t usually do.

I never would have thought of doing this, but I tried it, and it was a surprisingly interesting exercise. Pro tip, plug your passage into Chat to take the capitalization numbers and punctuation out. But doing this crypto assignment really did force me to slow way down and really think about the text. It reminded me of when I read the Book of Mormon in Spanish with my rudimentary knowledge of the language. Slowing Coming down so much and focusing on individual words helps me read in a totally different way, which happens to be our ninth technique, not the reading in a different language part, but focusing on individual words. Here’s Dan Belnap.

I want to make sure that I know exactly what every single word is, what those words mean. Oftentimes, we skip over words because we know them, we read them, we’re familiar with them. We have a general sense of what they mean, and therefore, we just shorthand this thing. When reading a verse, and I know that means you probably move a little bit slower through the text, if I don’t grasp what it is, what would I do? I would go look up every single usage of that word and try to see, can I see a pattern that emerges as I look at that? Elder Bednar talks about pattern and looking for patterns. Part of that can be done on a word. Does the word show up in the same type of context or does it change over time? Is it significant in the Book of Mormen that nihorism actually has doctrine of redemption. But it’s not the same doctrine as the one being taught by Abinadai and Alma and Nephite? That’s, to me, part of the fun.

Joseph Spencer has an assignment for this word-by-word technique, too.

I forced them to use dictionaries, modern dictionary, but also historical dictionaries. Webster’s first edition of his dictionary was 1828, right as the Book of Mormon was being translated. Just nice. I give him that, and I give him the Oxford English Dictionary, and I say, Okay, here’s a passage. Look up every a word that isn’t the, or of, or whatever, and they have to slow down, and then they often come back going, It turns out that a third of these words mean things back then that I didn’t know. Dictionaries can be really useful that way.

Okay, so now that we’ve zoomed in about as far as we can go to a really slow reading of one word at a time, I’m going to risk giving you whiplash with one last very zoomed-out technique that Dan Belnap experimented with one year, reading the whole Book of Mormon quickly. It was 2005, the year that President Hinkley challenged all of us to read the book before the end of the year.

I deliberately held that off until I’d finished my fall semester at NYU. I was teaching Book of Mormon, so I was reading Book of Mormon a lot. But to do what he wanted, start from beginning to the end, I deliberately put off till about the last couple of weeks of the year. Oh, wow. I really didn’t start until about the week and a half until the end. That was eye-opening for me to read the Book of Mormen in a one-time setting where I wasn’t just diving in to study it, but just read it for itself as a whole, as an entirety. That was a lot of fun, and that was enjoyable for me. I got a new perspective, an overarching picture of what Mormon was trying to accomplish in a way that I hadn’t done before by sometimes going so microscopic into the text that I lost track of the big picture. That was a great experience for me.

This is one of the things I loved most about talking to both Dan Belnap and Joseph Spencer, how much they truly enjoy experimenting with so many different ways to study the Book of Mormon. How they bring such genuine curiosity to their study. It feels contagious, and I, for one, can’t wait to try out these techniques as we all zoom in and out of the Book of Mormon this year. Thank you for listening to the Y magazine podcast. We’re really working hard to bring you content that helps you learn something new, inspires you, and helps you feel more connected to BIO. But we’d love to actually find out from you what you want to hear. Us know by taking our listener survey. The link is in our show notes. This episode is based on a Q&A with Joseph Spencer in the winter issue of the Y magazine podcast. It was produced by me, Whitney Archibald, with executive producer, Denya Palmer. Sound design and original music by Jarrett Davis.

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