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Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 27 Nov 2009, 23:04
by MisterCurie
First, I want to be clear that this post is not meant as a dig at Curt, our resident word parser. I, myself, am something of a word parser and have parsed with the best of them to make evolution fit a literalist interpretation of the Garden of Eden story.

Recent (sometimes heated, e.g. Elder Holland, Proclamation on the Family, etc.) discussions on word parsing have started me thinking more about word parsing as a strategy to cope with staying LDS after a faith trial. What are the pros and cons of word parsing as a strategy to Stay LDS? Are there any circumstances where word parsing is more of a hinderance than a help? Certainly John Dehlin's essay on how to stay LDS seems to employ a fair amount of word parsing, particularly when it comes to the proposed approach to the temple recommend interview of reframing the questions. Are there circumstances where word parsing may lead to worse outcomes (perhaps the situation where one parses the Word of Wisdom to allow a nightly glass of wine, obtains a temple recommend, but then is referred to their Bishop for breaking the Word of Wisdom and the Bishop interprets that the person lied to get into the temple as well)?

Certainly a skilled word parser can make nearly any statement fit their own interpretation or introduce at least enough wiggle room into the statement to make their own interpretation not entirely unreasonable. This, of course, seems like a big plus at enabling the parser to feel entirely comfortable with their interpretation and make the LDS atmosphere a more comfortable place when one holds unorthodox views. On one hand, word parsing seems like it may hinder ones ability to seek higher enlightenment if one is so attached to their own ideas that they refuse to be budged from them and parse everything to fit their own viewpoint. On the other hand, word parsing may encourage a very detailed study of the actual words used and lead to new ideas and interpretations of the original words, leading to further enlightment. I also sometimes wonder if word parsing prevents the parser from empathizing with the concerns of others, leaving those others feeling unvalidated and misunderstood (such that while the parser is helped, others are actually hindered by the parser). What are the consequences of TBMs learning about the parser's interpretations?

What pros and cons am I missing to word parsing as a strategy to stay LDS? Where am I confused? Feel free to parse away at my own words, if necessary.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 28 Nov 2009, 11:13
by Rix
"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

William Jefferson Clinton


Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 28 Nov 2009, 13:31
by Curt Sunshine
There's a difference between parsing to twist meaning and parsing to discover meaning and parsing to elaborate possible meanings.

Any of those approaches can be used to stay LDS or to leave the LDS Church, and I have seen each of them employed to do both - in ways that I thought were legitimate and illegitimate for both purposes.

In the spirit of parsing :D , the actual, dictionary definition of "to parse" is:

"To examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, especially by breaking up into components; to make sense of; comprehend."

I believe in parsing, because I believe in verbal and conceptual precision - and parsing is the only way other than deep conversation of which I am aware to get at the heart of what people actually say and write. This is true especially with people with whom it is not possible to converse directly about something. Since I've had countless experiences where someone (including myself) has said, "No, that's not what I said (or meant)," I believe strongly in identifying exactly what was said and allowing modification, where necessary, to clarify. Without the benefit of clarification, I simply must rely on parsing if I am to be both fair and charitable.

I want others to parse my words (to examine them closely and subject them to detailed analysis - to make sense of and comprehend them), simply because I don't want to be misunderstood. I want to be judged by what I actually say, NOT by what others assume I must have meant. That has happened to me - people saying, "You can't have meant that, no matter what you said." My response always is, "I said it; I meant it." If I mis-speak, I want others to point out the meaning of what I actually say, so I have a chance to correct my mistake. However, I don't want them to jump to erroneous conclusions based on their assumptions of what I just had to have meant.

What others read into my words that isn't there is NOT my responsibility. I only can say what I mean, as clearly as I am able to say it in that moment. If it is misunderstood, I have NO responsibility for that - IF I have done my best to express myself as clearly as I can. In that situation, it is up to the person who hears or reads my words to put as much effort into undertanding me as I put into trying to be understood - to parse my words for their actual meaning and grant me the consideration of believing I tried hard to write or say what I meant.

To me, that's nothing more than common courtesy and charity - not judging, not jumping to conclusions, not assuming to know one's "real intent" hidden cunningly behind one's words, not dismissing the parsed meaning and inserting other meaning instead. Again, I've been the target of enough non-parsing interpretations that I refuse to do it to others. Hence, I parse - carefully and consciously and as charitably as I can without intentionally twisting and distorting.

If that helps me "stay LDS", great! If not, fine. At the core, however, I believe is helps me "stay Christ-like" - and, personally, that helps me stay LDS.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 28 Nov 2009, 16:11
by Curt Sunshine
MWallace, I deleted your comment because it was posted in the wrong thread. I added my comment as an administrator and author of the thread to which I believe you meant to post it.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 29 Nov 2009, 12:06
by dash1730
In my introduction, I told the story of how I got a temple recommend to get married. Up to that time I had been AWOL from the Church for 17 years. My fiance asked me If I would ask the bishop what it would take to get a temple recommend, but said if that didn't work, she had a family reunion in Tennessee about that time. There were relatives who were ministers who would do the job real cheap.

So I got an appointment with the bishop. After an extensive discussion about doubts and worries, he asked we discuss the temple questions one by one. Then he would read the temple questions and ask me to answer with a simple "yes" or "no" with no explanations. Given those two options, you need to decide which answer, however inadequate, best expresses you. Fifteen minutes later he signed the recommend. Then he told me to answer the questions with the state president (who was a lawyer by profession) with those same one word answers.

So for the last 16 years I have separated discussions with the bishop about issues I am struggling with from temple recommend interviews. And when doing that interview, I answer with nothing more than "yes", "no", or occassionally an "earnestly trying." The bishop may be a judge in Zion, but my signature is going on that recommend along with his. And it is my responsibility to answer as honestly as I can, given the limitation on the kind of answers that the Powers That Be (PTB's) look for. That way, I can approach both issue discussions and interview questions with an untroubled mind, and the PTB's get the answers they need to issue recommends or not.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 29 Nov 2009, 18:17
by swimordie
I see word parsing and it's cousins, metaphor and paradox, as pretty much the only way to "stayLDS" after an honest, intellectual disaffection. I think the spirit of parsing is getting at the, sometimes multiple or even contradictory, meanings in language. And, it is in this metaphorical or paradoxical realm of language, where one may find meaning for oneself, despite the "meaning" that everyone else is assuming.

Again, I'm assuming that most honest, intellectual disaffected somehow came to that point in their lives as a rejection/moving on of stage 3-ness. A rejection of the black/white world-view for something in the gray realm. If one doesn't discover the art of parsing, of finding metaphor, and of embracing paradox, one will ultimately reject the LDS viewpoint, largely because it is presented most often in the extreme form of "take it or leave it". Individual geography and liturgy, notwithstanding.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 29 Nov 2009, 19:07
by Brian Johnston
I am not sure there is always a single meaning in what someone says, at least not so much in a religious context. That would assume that something is said by someone or through them (as in divine revelation) perfectly. The conversion from soul to mind to tongue isn't always a lossless conversion.

For example, how do you parse a passage of scripture that isn't clearly translated or that contains error? The NT is notorious for this.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 30 Nov 2009, 09:22
by allquieton
I like parsing--I think the accuracy and clarity it encourages is helpful. But there is always more than one way to interpret something. I have seen people whittle a single talk, or even a paragraph into absurd messages. Or into messages that ignore, or even contradict what that author has said elsewhere. So if you parse something controversial out of a statement, I think the burden is on you to explain any such discrepancies. It's not fair to ignore an entire body of statements by an author, in clinging to a meaning you teased out of one short text they wrote.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 30 Nov 2009, 11:00
by Curt Sunshine
Well said, allquieton - with one caveat:

Since we believe in on-going revelation, and since we say we learn line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept, I think it is important not to hold someone to what they said in the past and to allow them to say something different (even radically different) than what they had said previously.

I know I've changed my mind on lots of things over time, and I'm nowhere near as old as most of the current apostles. ;) I don't want what I say now to be ignored simply because it doesn't fit what I said at some point in the past.

Re: Strategies to Stay LDS: Word Parsing

Posted: 30 Nov 2009, 11:52
by hawkgrrrl
Personally, I think that "parsing" is just code for questioning our assumptions about the meaning of a statement someone has made (or a doctrine, for example) and an attempt to separate the denotations (objective meanings) from the connotations (subjective meanings). Words have both denotations (what the words actually mean - and often there are several alternatives) as well as connotations. The trick with connotations is that both the speaker, the listener, and even future commentators bring in their own subjective meanings (connotations) that get tied up in the meaning of the statement being parsed.

Historical statements (such as books of scripture) are an excellent example of the difficulty in truly separating the original meaning from its permutations over time. It's nearly impossible to get back to the original context - at best we have a partial guess. It's hard to know when an intermediary's input was a translation (or mistranslation), an error, a correction, a re-interpretation or in some cases all of these. Especially since intermediaries deliberately try to make themselves invisible. The "text" is supposed to be visible, but their unseen hand alters it. Bart Ehrmann does a good job of identifying some of the key places where translators of the NT clearly altered the text: the addition of an ending to Mark (if you read the book you can almost hear the author's voice change), the "Word" poem in John (a rather late addition), the altering of passages in Mark in which Jesus lost his temper. It's hard to determine whether someone is mistranslating or restoring the original intent when the original text is also not the "original" and the passage in question seems incongruent with other information. Did someone before you make a mistake or are you the one making a mistake? I think the JST is an example of this principle. Did JS "restore" or "reinterpret"? If he was right, does that make him a seer or just intuitive (or is that the same thing)? Might we not also be able to do the same thing he did with similar results?

Additionally, there's the risk of "proof texting," which is taking a statement out of context to fit your own interpretation. Likewise, there is the risk of becoming an "apologist" who starts with the conclusion in mind and then forces statements to fit that conclusion. (There are good apologetics and bad apologetics, but all apologetics come from that perspective of a foregone conclusion which is why the results vary so greatly - round pegs fit round holes, but square pegs don't).

Without parsing, though, people ignorantly assume they know what something means without questioning their assumptions (including the baggage they brought to the interpretation). Sometimes those assumptions lead to agreement, sometimes to disagreement. Parsing allows us to see various possible meanings that are not readily apparent to us. So, yes, I think it's a great strategy, so long as we avoid the pitfalls outlined above.