Every now and then I have heard members of the LDS church state that they found some answer to an existential, spiritual, or life question by opening their scriptures at random and reading the first thing they see as an answer to that question. I always thought that was an odd way of going about things – certainly it’s better to look up passages that specifically deal with the issue at hand, read a few of them, and use the various points of view to inform your own thinking? Why assume that some random scripture would answer your question better than a passage that was written with your question in mind? Furthermore, when we randomly read a verse in isolation, isn’t it easier to misunderstand the meaning of the verse without its natural larger context? You might as well just pull Scrabble letters at random out of a bag.
But I always shrugged such suggestions off as eccentric and shallow approaches to reading the scriptures, but not really harmful per se. Just a cultural curiosity, really. I had known that the practice of randomly finding answers in books (especially holy books) occurs in many religions and cultures and is known as bibliomancy, but I didn’t know until tonight that there was a formal version of Christian bibliomancy in history called Sortes Sanctorum. I’ll give you a dollar if you can weave the term “Sortes Sanctorum” into a party conversation!
First of all, my only source here is Wikipedia so I’ll take it with a grain of salt. But it is interesting and probably unsurprising that this practice is older and more formal than I thought it was. Now it looks like this was never an officially sanctioned practice by any means, and I have never in Mormonism heard anyone in authority sanctioning this as a responsible practice, but I also know that I have not heard anyone in Mormonism formally rejecting the practice as wrong.
Personally, I’m not a superstitious person so I don’t tend to think in terms of “demonic influence” or evil spirits flying around everywhere (in my less charitable moments I refer to this as “Harry Potter Christianity”), so I don’t think that bibliomancy is bad because it’s necessarily demonic. However, I do think it is symptomatic of a bad attitude toward the scriptures – the idea that there should be quick, easy answers that come in easily digestible nuggets without understanding context, genre, or history. Nothing about how the Bible has been written, preserved, decided upon, or used through history would lead me to think that there are easy answers in there at all. And I think that’s how it should be. Both Orthodoxy and Mormonism believe in some sense that the right interpretation of the scriptures should come through the church, though there are qualifications with Mormonism (perhaps that I will address in a future post).