Taking things out of context. We see this in the media. Words taken out of context — phrases taken from a talk, or from a book. We post quotes. We read snippets and headlines. Tweets and cute messages. But even though a quote conveys meaning, sometimes we use these words taken out of context to represent the whole story — which they are not.
The political and news media use “soundbites” to promote a certain perspective. It is so engrained in our society that we accept it as truth. I recall the Mitt Romney soundbites that never included the backstory or the whole story — you may remember hearing that he didn’t care about the poor.
We do this with our religious readings too. Someone decided to put our scriptures into verses with numbers and thus we forget it is part of a story, a journal entry of sorts. Sure, it’s helpful for locating things, but then we may not be aware of the story line. And we may use the quote to fit our needs when the author had an entirely different meaning. It would probably be better to have the lines numbered off to the margin, like they do in poetry and Shakespeare so as not to distract from the story.
One of the reasons we need to read our scriptures and ancient texts in context is because the words as used by the author, may not have the same meaning to us today. We often think the words they used have the same meaning to us — but we should readily see that this is not true. I am reminded of the movie, Back to the Future, when Marty uses the word “heavy” to describe something as incredulous and Doc Brown says, —”There’s that word again. “Heavy.” Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”
We have to be careful not to assign the same meaning to a word used in a different time. For Joseph Smith’s time, you can use the online Dictionary from 1828. But for more ancient texts, it is more difficult. You will have to see how the same author used the word throughout his entire text. That will give you some kind of a clue.
And thus you see the reason for not taking things out of context. We need to read the whole book or at least the whole story. It’s like a little detective work on your part — as if you were reading and deciphering someone’s journal to understand them better and what they are saying.
I think Alma the younger is often a little difficult to understand, for example when you read his words about denying the Holy Ghost:
For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable (Alma 39:6)
Or when the apostle John writes,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
And what about this familiar story — If you didn’t know the story you might deduce that this girl was after gold and silver for the wrong reasons:
“Now that no one else was at home, she went to her mother’s grave beneath the hazel tree, and cried out:
Shake and quiver, little tree,
Throw gold and silver down to me.
[STOP. Let’s take that out of context. Let’s not read the rest. And I will use this to support my idea that this girl is obviously not mourning her mother’s death, and obviously is only about money and gain!]
Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver. She quickly put on the dress and went to the festival.”
[Hmmm… this girl needed the gold and silver…]
I think it is a good idea to read the scriptures as a book — skip the headings, read it as it was originally intended. I don’t want anyone going over my journal and making headings for their interpretations — you know what I mean. Penguin Classics has The Book of Mormon as a book — like Joseph transcribed it and printed it. Try that. And take a look at the word “marvelous” — it seems to mean something other than how we use it today.