Book review: “The Unknown Testament” by Lowell Bennion

This book continues my effort to mine all things Lowell Bennion, in an attempt to rediscover the man and to hopefully bring his works back to the fore in Latter-Day Saint discussion. Bennion represents to me the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ that is often lost in today’s mix of battle-spirited confrontational-style missionary work, a watered down and correlated curriculum, a top-down administrative approach inherited from the business world, and a host of competing doctrinal priorities like family history and temple work. If we truly want our faith to last into the next generation, we can’t sell our birthright for a mess of pottage. Lowell Bennion embodies to me the Lord’s two great commandments to love God and to love our neighbor, and he did it in word and deed.

The Unknown Testament is Lowell Bennion’s introduction to the Old Testament for the Latter-Day Saint reader. It was published by Deseret Book in 1988, but it seems to not have that “Deseret Book” kind of feel that dominates today. He attempts to read the Old Testament by itself, as it presents itself, without any outside interpretation from later doctrinal commitments. There are some things that I don’t know if many Latter-Day Saints would find in a present-day Church manual or seminar class, like:

  • Some writers in the Old Testament may not have had a complete understanding of God that we have today. Some things, like wholesale slaughter of the Amalekites, while apparently being commanded of God, are not the doings of an ethical being.

In the narrative and historical books, authors occasionally justify Israel’s actions by explaining that God wiled them, even though those actions are unworthy of the Deity taught by the prophets and Jesus… Much of the Old Testament is valid for us today, but some of it is an expression of different conditions, attitudes and a more limited understanding of God.

  • Some books in the Old Testament aren’t necessarily historical, including the story of Jonah and Job.

The debate over the accuracy of the details in the book of Job and the book of Jonah is centuries old. We will never have enough information to know if a man could survive three days inside a great fish, if Ninevah archives would show mass repentance on such-and-such a date, or if vines in Ninevah’s ecology are capable of overnight growth and are particularly susceptible to large worms. These facts are beyond us, but the truth of Jonah’s attempts at disobedience, of God’s power, and of divine concern for all human beings does not depend on factual accuracy. It could have happened just as the author relates, but the purposeful creativity of the story contains transcendental truths.

Remember, this book was written by an Institute teacher. The same amount of honesty and rigor when approaching the scriptures is seldom seen today in a church educational system that doesn’t want to rock anyone’s boat. I think making room for a faith like Bennion’s would actually preserve testimonies.

In addition, Bennion brings to the forefront the commitment of the prophets to social justice. They are constantly concerned about abuses of those in power, and the plight of the widows, orphans, and marginalized in society. He pulls out from the scriptures their urgent message:

Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

It’s a fairly quick read. While the material covered isn’t new for me, I appreciated Bennion’s ability to get to the heart of the matter. He makes the Old Testament seem a lot less intimidating.

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