Review of James E. Faulconer, The New Testament Made Harder: Scripture Study Questions. Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015.
Who does not want their study of the scriptures made easier? Such a desire is entirely understandable. Recognizing that desire, a wide variety of scriptural commentators have offered their services in making the scriptures “easier” to understand. Their commentaries are scattered across the shelves of every LDS bookstore. While the urge to assist others in their scripture study is admirable, I think that making it “easier” sort of misses the point.
For starters, most commentaries geared toward the goal of making things “easier” take a verse-by-verse approach, usually having the full text of the scriptures right there, with the commentary side-by-side. The commentary usually does the interpretive work for the reader, eliminating the need to actually think about the scriptures themselves (though you may find yourself thinking about the commentary and marveling at the brilliant insights of the commentator). This all makes things really, really easy. You just need to open up a single book and start reading, straight though as the commentator holds your hand and tells you what to think about each passage.
Now, I do not want to sound too critical of such traditional commentaries. There is certainly value in them, and it is a good thing to share our insights into the scriptures with others, and publishing such commentaries is one way to do that. But there is something that is lost when we make scripture study “easier.” Enos tells us of his wrestle with God (Enos 1:2), how he spent all day pondering and praying to gain understanding. When we sit down with the scriptures, we have the opportunity to engage in our own wrestle with God, and commentaries that simply give us the answers preempt such wrestles. That is why, in a certain sense, “made easier” commentaries actually make serious, productive, and engaging scripture study harder.
James Falconer’s “made harder” series, of which The New Testament Made Harder is a part, is different. As it says on the back cover, “This is a book of questions. It is questions because, in my experience, questions prompt reflective, deep study.” One of the first things I noticed is that I could not get away with just reading the commentary. This is largely because the commentary is just a series of questions, questions which did not make sense unless I got out the scriptures and read the relevant passage(s). Thus the effect of the questions is what every commentary ostensibly aims to do: pointing the reader back into the scriptures.
After I had my scriptures out, the next thing I noticed is that if I really wanted this exercise to be productive, it would not be enough to just read the passage, read Falconer’s questions, and ponder over them, and move on. If I really wanted to learn anything, I need to have something to record my thoughts and answers.
Finally with Falconer’s book of questions, the scriptures, and a notepad, I was ready. Falconer organizes the book based on the Gospel Doctrine lessons, making it useful for anyone, whether student or teacher, wanting to prepare for Sunday school each week. I chose to study from Lesson 22, on Matthew 25. After reading the parable of the 10 virgins, I turned to see what questions Falconer asked. The very first question—“How do the scriptures use the symbols of a bride and groom in other places?” (pg. 255)—had me not only reviewing Matt. 25:1–14, but had me looking up other passages in the New Testament that use the bride and groom symbolism.
Notice what is happening here. Rather than having a single book out that I could just read through and get “the answers” from, I had three different things out: Falconers question book, the scriptures, and a notepad (confession: I just used a split screen on my tablet for both the scriptures and the notepad), and I was not just reading straight through. Falconer had me stopping after reading certain segments to think about questions, questions which had me flipping to different passages to enhance and enrich my understanding of the symbolism. To be sure, this is a lot more work. But Falconer had me actively engaged in my scripture study. His questions provided guidance in making my study more productive, and thus in a certain sense made things easier. It was easier to be active and involved in the study of the scriptures. Falconer won’t let you bypass your wrestle with God, but he will coach you through it.
I probably spent about 30 minutes on two questions. Most lessons are only a few pages of questions, which you could probably cover each week if you choose 1–3 questions you want to focus on each day. Of course, you don’t have to probe every question and have the freedom to pick and choose the questions that interest you.
Overall, Falconer’s volume is an effective companion to your New Testament study. It does not have all the “answers to gospel questions,” but rather has the questions that help you find gospel answers in scriptures themselves. I would recommend The New Testament Made Harder—and all the other volumes in the “Made Harder” Series—to every Latter-day Saint.