Joseph Fielding McConkie and the Lens of Literalism

Aaron R. aka Rico metaphor, Mormon, scripture, theology, thought 50 Comments

In a recently published book ‘Between the Lines: Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles’ (2009), Joseph Fielding McConkie tries to deal with the issue of discerning between what is ‘Literal’ and what is ‘Figurative’ in the scriptures. I think there are large problems in his brief account and I want to try and deal with them here. These problems arise because he (inadvertently?) wants to establish a particular set of orthodox readings for two different groups of readers.

Seeing that ‘the importance of discerning correctly that which is figurative and that which is literal would be hard to overstate’ [p. 133] we might expect that the insights that Bro. McConkie will offer would reflect this seriousness. Yet his answers seem facile and ill-thought out. For example, his first insight into working through this dilemma is that often ‘the scriptures provide the answer’ [p. 134]. Following this he then explain that Adam was clearly born (literally) because of the scripture in Moses 6:59 (Adam is described as being ‘born’ in this verse).

His second insight is that sometimes ‘things spoken of in the scriptures are both figurative and literal’ [p. 134]. What is confusing here for me is that he argues that sometimes symbols are used in the middle of real stories, for example in the Garden of Eden. However, what those symbolic aspects are is less clear. Certainly Pres. Kimball’s declaration that the Eve-Adam-Rib story was figurative would be one example of what McConkie is discussing here. Yet, Pres. Kimball’s remark assumes a particular understanding of the Garden of Eden narrative to make that argument (i.e. that the story is literal and that they were born). Why is this reading any less literal than the born passage? Could the rib be literal and the reference to born be figurative?

His third insight is the most troubling for me. He writes that, ‘When scripture provides no clear answer by which we can discern what is figurative and what is literal, we are reduced to our own good sense and wisdom’. He continues ‘This… may well be quite deliberate, for it creates an opportunity for [God] to get a measure of our judgement, spiritual maturity and spiritual integrity’ [p. 135]. Really! ‘Figure it out for yourself’! That’s your key to discerning between what is literal and figurative. However, what is more perplexing is the implication of McConkie’s discourse.

By invoking issues that relate interpretation to spiritual maturity McConkie is creating an implicit ‘orthodoxy’ which places the reader in a position of spiritual uncertainty regarding their position with God. This is surely spiritually destructive. To encourage individuals to read the scriptures in a way that is reflective of their spiritual standing is to place them in a situation of tension of with God. For if their interpretation is wrong then they are not ‘saved’ and are in need of repentance. Moreover it allows those who are in authority to question worthiness upon the basis of differing interpretations. I believe that if we are to benefit from the scriptures, i.e. if they are to draw us God, then placing the individual into a spiritual uncertain situation while engaging with the texts is spiritually unproductive.

A recent post by SteveP, at BCC, argues that there is a temptation to approach the scriptures literally when they were not intended to be read in that particular way. I think this is fundamentally correct, however, I am convinced that there is a tendency within such arguments to find those who derive spirituality through a literalistic approach to the scriptures as incorrect or mis-informed. I am not arguing that SteveP would advocate this but rather that I have seen some who do. In one sense this form of argument can be used just like McConkie’s but instead to defend a non-literal orthodoxy.

Though SteveP frames his debate within the context of the literal/figurative binary, his position is rooted to the idea that the scriptures are intended to help us related to God and to ‘spiritual’ truth. My contention is that perhaps the literal/figurative dichotomy is part of the liahona/iron-rod split. Applying Richard Poll’s analogy here is useful because it helps us see that Liahona (figurative?) and Iron-Rod (literal?) readers of the scriptures are not in competition and should learn more empathy for the other position.

I am not convinced that literal readings of the scripture do violence to the depth the scriptures have to offer (though I am concerned about how they view more figurative readers). Yet, I am convinced that they do violence to the depth’s that SteveP sees in the scriptures (and I admit that feel the same). For another person that literal reading might derive other depths that (perhaps) non-literal readers might miss. Each paradigm has its failings and flaws, just like Liahonas and Iron-rods.

I think that a better way, a more complex and certainly less clear way, of approaching the scriptures is with different lens of literalism. If we rather see the scriptures literally in a way that both groups can accept, i.e. the scriptures can literally help us to come to God, then perhaps both sides could be more willing to apply these different lens of literalism to the same story and deal with the challenges that each will bring. Though a non-literal reader by inclination I have felt the challenge of trying to reconcile a literalistic reading of certain OT passages. Though I do not feel bound by such a paradigm, trying to read them in that literal way has proved a spiritually productive venture. Moreover, I hope that I am still able to plumb the depths that a non-literal paradigm has often provided for me.

Comments

comments

Comments 50

  1. OP: “If we rather see the scriptures literally in a way that both groups can accept, i.e. the scriptures can literally help us to come to God…”

    Another question that has been suggested to me as a guiding principle in scriptural analysis is, “How does this passage reveal or demonstrate God’s love for his children?” This is, as you can imagine, a difficult one to always apply.

  2. What if we are all children of Adam as we are children of Abraham?

    McConkie’s problem is that he is trying to lay the basis for a theology wherein if you disagree with him, you are damned, more or less. /Sigh.

  3. “By invoking issues that relate interpretation to spiritual maturity McConkie is creating an implicit ‘orthodoxy’ which places the reader in a position of spiritual uncertainty regarding their position with God. This is surely spiritually destructive.”

    I think McConkie books, while they have in general been very well-meaning, etc., have the unintended effect of having a net destructive effect. Going back decades, for all the insight that “Mormon Doctrine” might have given, it’s net result was destructive. I haven’t read this book, but if it is similar, then I’m probably not going to read it. There are too many “good” books out there.

  4. Thanks for the comments so far.

    #1 – I actually think this is great question, primarily because it is challenging and because it allows us to approach these issues of literalism and metaphor in ways that are constraining. Thank you for suggesting that.

    #2 – I agree. This is probably rooted in anumber of factors but seems to linked to the correlation movement as per the brilliant series at BCC at the moment.

    #3 – Just to be clear it is BRM’s son that I am discussing. I have not read it all either. Someone I knew bought it and read the chapter in question. That was enough for me and I had to move on to something else.

  5. Interesting. Seems like a conclusion in searching of justification.

    I have a theory that as far as we are concerned, anything that is historical, where we do not have a direct knowledge of it, is figurative anyway. For example, the story of Abraham and Isaac. Does the lesson lose its impact if it actually never happened? And how do we really know either way? in other words, the lesson of the story becomes the most important aspect, not whether it really happened of nor. I realized that for some folks, it is critical to know if these things really happened or not. It doesn’t bother me that much.

    Plus, something I heard once still rings in my ears. “This is simply figurative so far as the man and woman are concerned….”

  6. @ Rico

    In my opinion you are over critical of BFM’s “third insight”, whilst I may not be comfortable with the implications his reasoning seems to have scriptural support.

    Nephi’s rebukes his older brothers for not having the faith to “inquire of the Lord”, we are specifically told “Ask and ye shall receive knock and it shall be opened to you”, we are also told multiple times that through prayer we can know the meaning of all things.

    I have not read the book but generally I find BFM’s tone too absolute, however his assumption that man should feel responsible for finding out if something is literal or figurative is explained in scripture, Christ encouraged those he was teaching to find the meaning of what he was teaching, often the things he was teaching were figurative but were taken literal.

    Whilst BFM seemingly sides with literal, and I would side with figurative I do believe that in a vast majority of scriptural cases the onus is upon us to find out what the true meaning of the scripture is.

  7. #5 – jeff I am unsure what you meant by this comment ‘Seems like a conclusion in searching of justification.’ Just to play devil’s advocate for someone that might be a literal reader: yes it matters because if Abraham was never actually willing to sacrifice Isaac then why should I be actually willing to sacrifice the most important things in my life to the Church. Now I know your retort is to be the principle is the same, but the example of someone actually doing it is far more inspiring for some than just a story about someone doing it.

    #6 – MrQandA I am not critical of the idea of searching for ourselves. I agree this is essential, my first criticism is that this is so obvious it need not be stated. Moreover, it is coupling this process of searching with other moral judgments of righteous that I find particularly dangerous.

  8. My approach seems to be similar to that of Jeff. Whether anything in scripture is literal or not, the only use we can make of it is to extract whatever symbolic value we can from it — likening it unto us. So I guess my question to Bro. McConkie is what actual difference it makes if we successfully determine which things are literal and which are figurative? What do I need to do in the next year differently if Adam was a walking talking guy who was missing a rib, talked to the animals and offered sacrifice because God told him to compared to what I need to do if he was purely figurative? Do I get to not feel bad for not Home Teaching either way? Can I skip listening to next month’s High Council speaker either way? Please? Does the Law of Chastity go out the window?

    Until I see some difference, I’m not going to worry about taking anything literally in particular. And can we at some point get some instruction on noticing and interpreting symbolism? We’ve got so much of it going on and we never talk about it.

  9. Rico, #5,

    I was referring to the points JFM’s was making, that you quoted. I should have said that I was in agreement with you on his points. In other words, he draws a conclusion and then tries to support it somewhat clumsily if I read your post correctly.

    Also, I realize that an actual event is more compelling than a story. but my point was, how do we actually know if happened. We can take it on faith certainly. But know? And how does an Old Testament story compare to a Jesus Parable?

    Were there 10 virgins?

  10. The Spring 2010 volume of Dialogue has a great article by Mack Stirling about the cultural theory of French philosopher Rene Girard. Girard’s method of determining which scriptures are from God and which are interpolations of men (not quite the literal/figurative dilemma, but related) is based on our understanding of God’s nature and purpose.

    Our different understandings of the nature of God obviously color our interpretation of the scriptures. I doubt than any two Mormons have identical understandings of the nature of God–and I’m not sure we should alter our personal understanding to match those of ecclesiastic leaders.

  11. Very good post, and I see your point. What it really boils down to is not maturity though to know what is literal and figurative, because a great many people are mature and very spiritual. I see it as the need for direct personal revelation on particular points. Some mature people have sought for those, and others, being disinterested in a particular point have not. It is not about maturity. A great many people are very spiritual and very mature but have not gotten the same revelations others have on particular points, because their journey through life has not taken them that way to care to seek after revelation on that particular point. The point with Adam’s rib and made from the dust thing, that point was never agreed upon by two very spiritually mature people who could never agree on it, over decades, namely Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. I side with Brigham Young on that particular point, only because of what I have encountered on my own personal journey. But I wouldn’t label Orson Pratt as spiritually immature.

  12. Scripture study has the opportunity to be one of the few really personal means of worship available to us. Understanding others’ ideas about what is literal and what is not is interesting, but does not define my understanding by itself.

    I had a great instructor in an Intro to English class at BYU years (and years) ago who talked about “the crux of the matter”, suggesting it was where a reader put a small cross or x by a passage that required further understanding. That is how I read my scriptures (and have for years), marking sections where I need further understanding.

    Sometimes I can go to other resources for illumination, and sometimes not. Sometimes illumination comes as a result of pondering and prayer. Sometimes I need to be patient until I learn more along the way. Rarely is “the crux” for me the literalness of the passage.

    Like you (and I hope I am characterizing your view correctly), I wince at the idea that God is playing some cosmic game of checkers in order to get a measure of my spiritual maturity through my understanding of the scriptures. After all, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?…If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:11,13)

  13. Awesome post Rico! I really liked it.

    I’m in your camp at this point in life, but before my faith crisis I was in the literal camp. It definitely meant something to me (in fact, my whole world) to realize that some things might not be literal. If Adam and Eve weren’t literal, what else wasn’t? The BoM, the priesthood, etc.? Don’t get me wrong, I realized that some things had to be symbolic, but I “knew” that Adam and Eve, Abraham, et al. were real!

    I’m not sure what to make of my church lessons at this point. It feels like the language we use in our lessons indicates a rather literal interpretation. But I find that when I press an individual about the obvious conundrums a literal reading would imply, they are willing to back off. So I’m left wondering if we just use the literal language to sound more faithful, or if we are just being metaphorical, or if we really do encourage a more literal interpretation in our church. Certainly our language lends itself to the latter IMHO.

    The other thing that goes through my mind is a bit more cynical. I don’t intend it to be that way, but it will probably come across that way. In my mind the whole discussion feels surreal (despite my former status as a literalist). I look at this 2000+ year old book, the manuscripts of which have been copied and copied ad nauseum from a time and place that I cannot possibly hope to understand, and people are arguing over whether or not we should interpret these (erroneous) words literally? Seems laughable. The talks, lessons, and sermons that emphasize a particular word, or grammar usage in the scriptures don’t even realize there is a very high probability that the word is wrong! But this is exactly the type of language that would indicate a literal interpretation.

  14. I am afraid that in practice, it all comes down to this:

    All scriptures are to be taken literally, until science finally gets around to conclusively demonstrating that the literal interpretation is impossible. Then the self-anointed orthodox move to a figurative interpretation, and declare that this was what they believed all along.

    My biggest objection to McConkieism (as espoused by pere et fils) is that it exaggerates the spiritual significance of one’s opinions on matters as to which there is insufficient evidence for an honest man to declare certainty about those points. The farther you get from “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God,” the more religion tends to magnify the human tendency to enmity, by creating unnecessary points of conflict, where each side is equally convinced of its orthodoxy — because neither side is willing to admit its shaky epistemological basis.

    The flip side is that proponents of “figurative” interpretation of scripture can easily be accused of seeking to justify spiritual or moral laziness: A figurative story is supposed to carry less authority than a literal one. While a figurative story can express spiritual truth as well as a literal one, a literal story arguably has this advantage, that it may be understood as supporting the authority of an authority figure to give direction on other matters. Thus, while a “figurative” account of the First Vision may teach some spiritual truths — such as the nature of the relationships between the persons of the Godhead — a literal understanding supports the familiar syllogism that if God actually visited Joseph, Joseph was a prophet; if Joseph was a prophet, so are his successors; and if they are prophets, we should do what they say.

  15. I find it strange that something must be literally “true” in the historical sense in matters of faith. Before the Enlightenment, faith was never a list of things that must be believed in order to get into Heaven. Fundamental biblical literalism is a 19th-century invention that sought to legitimize religion in light of scientific progress that placed truth within the context of observable, replicable phenomena, as well as an effort to bring religion back to the humble masses not satisfied with a philosophical conception of God as a distant watchmaker or inaccessible and utterly in-human prime mover. For literalists, God was very human-like, and as such one could have a personal relationship with God, the scriptures being prime examples of God’s literal interactions with humans.

    A story need not be “true” or even remotely based in reality for it to nevertheless communicate truths about the human experience and our connection with the divine. Did Adam and Eve exist and were they really the first man and woman, created from dust and ribs, etc. etc.? Did Abraham exist, and did he give his wife to Pharaoh and almost sacrifice his own son? Did Moses really cause the waters of the Red Sea to part? Did Jesus really feed 5000 with two loaves of bread and some fishes? Does it matter? Whether Adam and Eve existed in history or not, we can still learn something about choice and accountability from their story. Would Jesus be a sham if he didn’t perform all the miracles attributed to him in the Gospels? Would Joseph Smith be a charlatan if Nephi never chopped Laban’s head off or built a boat? Or are all these stories simply tools to communicate truths about god and man. Aren’t they all a matter of perspective and subject to the author’s license in choosing which narrative elements are included (or left out), which rhetorical or literary forms or devices are used, and what purposes and audiences the author intended to reach in writing? When we speak of events, dialogue, or wording of scriptural stories, we use them as reference points in the context of the story as a whole as markers for deciphering the story’s possible meanings.

    I feel no obligation to believe that any of the events described or words “spoken” by scriptural characters actually occurred for them to have meaning for me. Hence, I don’t refuse to read about Noah and the Flood simply because I know that it is scientifically impossible for the entire earth to have been flooded simultaneously. I do roll my eyes when someone insists that it had to be thus in order for the Earth to be “baptized” by immersion. Why must the Earth be baptized in the literal sense? I can, however, read the story of the Flood as a cleansing, a renewal, a time of rebirth for mankind. In the allegorical sense, the story can speak to me without all the silliness of trying to make scientific law accommodate impossible scriptural accounts that were never intended to be accepted as absolute historical fact.

  16. I meant to add at the end of my second paragraph above: “They need not become talking points or proof texts for establishing rigid doctrinal orthodoxies or place limits on God’s character, perfections or attributes.

    Cheers.

  17. “McConkie’s problem is that he is trying to lay the basis for a theology wherein if you disagree with him, you are damned, more or less. /Sigh.”

    Like father, like son, really. I had brother McConkie as my professor twice at BYU and, while he helped me to unlock a lot of insight in the Pearl of Great Price and the Teachings of Joseph Smith (the two classes I took), he adamantly refused to accept anything other than what his dad would say about any particular subject.

  18. SteveS — “Before the Enlightenment, faith was never a list of things that must be believed in order to get into Heaven.”

    Really? Here’s the Athanasian Creed:

    “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: [A great big list of things that must be believed in order to get into Heaven.]”

    Joseph Fielding McConkie is following in a long tradition of substituting doctrinal orthodoxy for personal piety. I believe this is a manifestation of the deadly sin of pride — the thing that got Christ killed by the properly-constituted religious authorities, who were so concerned that someone would “take away their place” that it was “better that one man should perish.”

    The idea that it is critically important to salvation to have the proper opinions about things which an ordinary person has no chance whatsoever of getting right, has ever been the mechanism by which people set themselves up as authorities. “You need us,” they say. “Only we can advise you about these critical things. You have no hope of figuring them out on your own. Just keep us in enough money to pay Michelangelo’s bills, and we’ll take good care of you.”

    “Would Joseph Smith be a charlatan if Nephi never chopped Laban’s head off or built a boat?”

    Yeah, probably, I’m afraid. There is a reason we distinguish between the characters of Stephen Glass and Mark Twain. Fiction is fine, as long as it’s presented as such.

    “Did Adam and Eve exist and were they really the first man and woman, created from dust and ribs, etc. etc.?”

    This is where we get into gray areas, where the provenance of a story is so lost in the mists of time that its transition from folklore to fact may happen without any explicit deceit on anybody’s part. A person may tell a story, intending it be taken as a moral fable; his listener may misperceive it as a factual account; in further re-tellings, details are misremembered and cross-pollinated from other stories, and before you know it, you have something Joseph Fielding McConkie expects The Righteous to defend to the death as the literal Lord’s truth.

    That said, the fact that a book’s author may misrepresent its origin, speaks only to the character of the author — not the utility of the work itself. There is good evidence that King Josiah had the Book of Deuteronomy ginned up and conveniently “found” during a Temple remodeling project, the better to support his Yahwist reformation. And yet the Book of Deuteronomy is one of the most spiritually rich books of the Old Testament. Look at chapter 30, verse 19: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” The power, high seriousness, and clarity of that passage is just compelling. It stands regardless of whether Moses wrote it, or Josiah’s personal secretary scribbling secretly in the dead of night.

  19. Excellent examination. I not only agree with your assessment, but will take the “literalism” argument one step further. Not only do I find that the average LDS is literal to the max, there is also a kind of moral shield that is imposed on every story in the scriptures that makes the motives and actions of all the good guys gooder and the bad guys badder. Example: as I sit through gospel doctrine class, now in Genesis, I’ve noticed how completely literal every story is taken and how amazingly nobel all of the heroes are. Abraham – the man who sent his “concubine” wife and son into the desert to die and who farmed his lovely wife out twice to leaders so that “it would be well with(for) him” (coming back each time much more wealthy than he was before) – is portrayed as flawless. Jacob – the guy who forced his starving brother to fork over his birthright before he would save his life and participated with his mom in serious deception to seal the deal – is seen as the non-hairy brother who is always in the right. I went so far as to say in class that Joseph was “messin’ with his brothers” with all stuff he did to them, which did not go over well.

    So, in conclusion, I find that orthodoxy in the church consists in viewing pretty much everything as literal (allegorical and figurative interpretations show a weakness in testimony and can lead to apostasy, I was once told), and that we are to project only the best of motives on the good guys no matter what the text says.

  20. “Would Joseph Smith be a charlatan if Nephi never chopped Laban’s head off or built a boat?”

    Yeah, probably, I’m afraid. There is a reason we distinguish between the characters of Stephen Glass and Mark Twain. Fiction is fine, as long as it’s presented as such.

    Yeah, but my question is, is this a function of time and space, or of the actual deed itself. That is, is Joseph’s supposed status as charlatan in that case simply a function of the fact that we can more closely track the history since it’s more recent and in our “homeland”? If the writers of the Gospels fabricated the story of Jesus turning water into wine do we consider them charlatans and reject the rest of their accounts? We likely consider that they embellished the story, or that they were reciting oral tradition or some other justifiable reason.

    In 1000 years from now, my guess is that if it is somehow found that “Nephi never chopped Laban’s head off or built a boat” then orthodox Mormons will simply apply your first step:

    All scriptures are to be taken literally, until science finally gets around to conclusively demonstrating that the literal interpretation is impossible. Then the self-anointed orthodox move to a figurative interpretation, and declare that this was what they believed all along.

    And they likely won’t think any less of Joseph Smith.

  21. Re #19, larryco_
    Yeah, I hear you! I used to be bothered by this as well, but it then dawned on me that these are stories setup for exactly this purpose. IOW, they’re supposed to have the “good guys gooder and bad guys badder.” I think of those types of stories as the ancient equivalent to a superman comic book. The point is to sharply (and unrealistically as you point out) contrast the good guy from the bad guy.

  22. jmb275:

    I see your point, but it seems to me that we are the ones projecting our values and desires for a “superman” on the text. When you read Genesis stripped of the preconcieved views that we get from childhood on up, you see the original writers portraying very flawed people who happen to be God’s favs. You have to wait until Exodus to get the flame-throwing, sea-parting superhero. Genesis almost seems to relish in how the no. 2 son can “stick it to the man”, overthrowing the whole primogenature thing. Or how the 12 sons of Jacob can do pretty dispicable stuff and still be the founders of Israel. The honesty of the portrayals in the text are much like other ancient texts that we now “selectively” read. For example, when modern-day writers present Hercules (Heracles), they show only his most noble traits and daring deeds. Totally left out of the modern story is how Hercules killed his wife in an insane rage, yet this is a central part of the original telling. I supposed it helped ancient people see how a semi-god could overcome adversity, but we like the comic book version better.

  23. I see your point, but it seems to me that we are the ones projecting our values and desires for a “superman” on the text. When you read Genesis stripped of the preconcieved views that we get from childhood on up, you see the original writers portraying very flawed people who happen to be God’s favs.

    You’re exactly right. But Joe Normal Guy who made tons of mistakes never inspired anyone to become a better person. We are projecting our values onto them, but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. It’s a self-sustaining cycle, and every group/religion does it. We project our values onto our heroes, and our heroes inspire us to become better. We’re not interested in the truth, but in someone to admire, and inspire. When I take this view not only can I fit in at Sunday School better and participate, but I can gain insight into how I might improve my life. IOW it does nothing good for me to sit there during class grumbling over how everyone believes this stuff literally and only I can see the truth.

    As I mentioned to Thomas, I think this is a function of space and time. Abraham, Isaac, Adam, and at some level Joseph Smith are far enough removed from our current situation that we can project our versions of them onto their character and they inspire us. They become the heroes in our mythology.

    What I do think is particularly destructive, however, is (as you mentioned) when we are led to believe that metaphorical/allegorical interpretations are spiritually destructive. That’s the point of this post, in my eyes, to dissolve that claim.

  24. I find JFS assertions problematic for several reasons.

    First, literal/figurative is a false and fairly useless dichotomy, particularly when what we really mean is historical/nonhistorical (itself somewhat reductionist, though it’s what we really mean.)

    Second,”When scripture provides no clear answer by which we can discern what is figurative and what is literal, we are reduced to our own good sense and wisdom” is not true. We have ancient contextual comparative evidence. We’re dealing with ancient worldviews, not a page taken from God’s personal ultimate doctrinal handbook. “his answers seem facile and ill-thought out” Likely true. I may have to read this myself, if only to have better basis to critique.

  25. “There is a reason we distinguish between the characters of Stephen Glass and Mark Twain. Fiction is fine, as long as it’s presented as such.”

    And here is where knowledge of ancient worldviews and genres becomes particularly important. When you pick up a Tom Clancy book, where is it explicitly labeled as fiction? How do you decide it’s fiction? It’s realistic, in the sense that it lacks spells, fairies, the Death Star, etc. Particularly when fiction involves real people and places, ie historical fiction, how would you know it’s fiction without some kind of outside sense of genres? I’d wager McConkie says nothing of this, but it’s all over books trying to make Genesis make sense to moderns.

  26. Or, to borrow the words of Robert Alter (literature and Hebrew Bible) “[Writing] history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been
    accustomed to assume.”- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative

    Alter and many others talk about this (Enns, Walton, Brettler, Day…)

  27. jmb:

    “Space and time” may be a big part of it. Joseph Smith was a bold man indeed to reveal new scripture in the age of printing, railroads, and von Ranke — and just a century and a half away from the Internet.

    At the same time, I think there’s a fundamental distinction between allowing for the possibility that some portion of the Gospels may consist of folklore that sneaked in via oral tradition, and viewing Joseph’s account of the Book of Mormon’s origins as less than literal. Unlike the Gospels, where there is a serious chain-of-custody problem with the manuscripts, there is compelling evidence that Joseph expressly advertised the Book of Mormon as a literal translation of an ancient record. There’s no wiggle room for it emerging, innocently, out of a mixture of misunderstanding and garbled transmission. Either Joseph could translate ancient records by the power of God, as he said he could, or he could not. If the latter, then yes, he must be considered a “charlatan” — at least as far as concerns that particular portion of his work. (I discount the option of “innocent mistake” — physical gold plates are either there, or they aren’t.)

    But of course there’s no rule that says a “charlatan” can’t also be a prophet. If we can root for “loveable rogues” in movies and the White House, why not in religion? As others mentioned, you can’t get through many chapters in the Book of Genesis without one or other of the Patriarchs tricking someone or other. (Loki and Hermes would love these guys.) Whether the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon are the literal translations Joseph declared them to be, is not conclusive of whether any other product of Joseph Smith contains divine truth. There is no rule that says if you pass off an ancient Egyptian funerary document as the personal writing of Abraham, God can’t reveal D&C Section 88 to you. Remember that ad hominem is a logical fallacy: The fact that I am a self-absorbed jerk doesn’t mean it’s not true when I say 2+2=4, or “the wages of sin is death.”

  28. #25: “When you pick up a Tom Clancy book, where is it explicitly labeled as fiction?”

    On the inside cover, in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.

    As an undergraduate student in history and a practitioner of law, I recognize the limitations of both disciplines, and the inevitability that despite our best efforts, untruth creeps into every narrative. Where I draw the line, though, is at Thou Shalt Not Intentionally Fudge. And If Thou Doest, Thou Shalt Surely Be Smacked With A Cold Dead Mackerel For The Charlatan Thou Art.

    Litigation, after all, is in a sense a first draft of local history: We are trying to decide Who Did What To Whom. We use more or less the same evidentiary standards historians are supposed to use (unless you’re Michael Bellesiles), restrained by things like statutes of limitations that recognize that the closer in time to an event, the more likely it is that useful evidence can be found and fairly weighed. In extreme cases, when we’re finished with this process, we take a man from his cell and hang him by the neck until dead based on what we’ve decided. (Sometimes we just take his children away, or ruin him, but these are matters of degree.)

    In short, I’m not ready to throw up my hands and say “it’s all more or less like fiction.” Maybe so, but I’d rather give Truth a better try than that. I will only say that objective truth doesn’t matter (because it’s a chimera) after I’ve broken my neck seeking it.

  29. We use more or less the same evidentiary standards historians are supposed to use (unless you’re Michael Bellesiles), restrained by things like statutes of limitations that recognize that the closer in time to an event, the more likely it is that useful evidence can be found and fairly weighed.

    This is exactly what I was referring to with my “space and time” question. Of course not being a lawyer I couldn’t quite articulate it like this ;-). 1000 years from now, perhaps the question of whether or not Joseph was a charlatan will be long forgotten, and he will be a true mythological hero because we will have made it so. I think we have a tendency to quickly aggrandize our previous/current leaders (see Sheri Dew for details).

  30. #29: Probably true. That leaves open, though, how we ought to respond, here and now, a thousand years short of Joseph’s mythic apotheosis, to the best evidence available to us.

  31. Thomas: about the Enlightenment rebuttal: you have a good point about the creeds. I’m still trying to research creedal theology, however, in order to determine what level of intellectual assent (belief) was required of adherents of the Catholic Church, or whether the creed was meant to serve as a template of basic doctrines to which one offers devotion. Remember that the vast majority of Christians couldn’t read or write, and the creed in Latin became further and further removed as Latin was no longer a spoken language. Still, lots of people were tortured and killed for having the wrong ideas, or being suspected of having wrong ideas, so my comment was probably a bit overgeneralized.

    About JS as charlatan: I think I see your point, esp. as clarified in comment #27. What if Joseph honestly thought he was writing an historical account, even if he was ultimately making it all up? Certainly the circumstances of his “translation” of the plates defy traditional methodologies of historical research. If intentions are pure, but the result is nevertheless fiction, doesn’t that still make room for JS as a prophetic figure who can communicate truths about god and the human experience without requiring everything he claimed was historical actually be historical?

    Perhaps insights into JS’s motives for writing the BoM are in order. Maybe JS thought producing the BoM would help him and his family achieve fame and wealth? It certainly made him famous (mostly infamous, really), but it didn’t make him wealthy. Did JS produce the BoM to preserve his family’s honor as physical evidence to back up the stories he told people in Palmyra and environs about angels and ancient American wars and buried treasure? It seems such a mammoth effort to produce such a long account when something short would serve the same purpose. Perhaps JS, frustrated by the multiplicity of contradictory belief systems from which to choose, and feeling within himself an incomprehensible, mantic connection with God, produced the BoM as an ecstatic revelatory dispensation? Again, the length and degree of detail of the narrative present as evidence disfavoring such a view (although certainly it is not outside the realm of possibility). At the end of the day I’m inclined to believe that JS acted with pure intentions, even if what he said was historical fact was indeed not so. And the great part about it is that like any great literary work (history, biography, gospel, epistle, poem) the BoM can be read as a document that can connect us to our spirituality and open windows of understanding into our souls without relying upon its historicity.

  32. “What if Joseph honestly thought he was writing an historical account, even if he was ultimately making it all up? Certainly the circumstances of his “translation” of the plates defy traditional methodologies of historical research. If intentions are pure, but the result is nevertheless fiction, doesn’t that still make room for JS as a prophetic figure who can communicate truths about god and the human experience without requiring everything he claimed was historical actually be historical?”

    Yes. Though it does, I think, give a hard knock to the doctrine of the LDS Church as the literal, restored Kingdom of God, vested with uniquely valid Priesthood authority to perform ordinances necessary for salvation. Would that lead to less dedication by the Saints to doctrines, such as tithing to the specific institution of the Church, and temple worship, that depend in substantial part on the Church being what it says it is? Probably.

    Elder Maxwell once said that the Lord does not give us any commandment, except to avoid those things that would destroy us. I wonder if that isn’t a bit overstated. I would venture to guess that the number of people destroyed by Earl Grey tea is rather low. Some commandments only make sense if the Church that propounds them is the literal kingdom of God, obedience to whose precepts — even those that have nothing directly to do with the underlying moral law — is one of the key tests of mortality.

    In summary, I wonder if the mileage you could get out of a non-historical Book of Mormon isn’t limited. Here I have to confess a judgment many will probably strongly disagree with: The Book of Mormon has its moments of profundity — but there are parts that just aren’t that good, as a matter of literary quality or spiritual depth. Parts of it come across as melodramatic. Much of it is derivative of passages in the Bible (though often improving on the original). The Book of Mormon itself acknowledges its weaknesses; Nephi and Moroni both complain that they are not “mighty in writing.” Is it really true that everything in the Book of Mormon blows Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Rahner, or C.S. Lewis out of the water?

    I think the same way about the fall-back notion that even if Christ were not God incarnate, he would still be worthy of veneration as a “great moral teacher.” He was that — but again, a great deal of his teaching can be found elsewhere, frequently in the Jewish sage Hillel, whose near-contemporary Jesus was.

    The Book of Mormon’s greatest value would be as a keystone of the Restoration — as evidence “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” As just one more devotional resource for a person seeking to build a personal faith, it’s less impressive.

    That’s why I ultimately agree with President Hinckley’s declaration that “it’s all true, or all a fraud.” The middle ground has been tried and found wanting.

  33. Thomas-
    I think you bring up some great points. But I see one major problem. There are many religions that could tell a similar tale. Why can’t Muslims use the same sort of reasoning with the Quran, and Muhammed? We could say

    The Book of Mormon’s greatest value would be as a keystone of the Restoration — as evidence “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” As just one more devotional resource for a person seeking to build a personal faith, it’s less impressive.

    about any book designed to support its corresponding authoritative claims.

    The fully engaged saint in any religion will derive the most benefit from its teachings from the point of view of those within that group. That’s by design!

    Some commandments only make sense if the Church that propounds them is the literal kingdom of God, obedience to whose precepts — even those that have nothing directly to do with the underlying moral law — is one of the key tests of mortality.

    I’m getting lost now. This seems very easy to say, but much more difficult to actually make use of. Any church in the universe could parrot this line.

    So, maybe I don’t understand your position. You regularly critique Mormon culture, but you are devoted to the “it’s all true, or all a fraud” notion? I’m not criticizing, just wondering where you stand.

  34. Rico, thank you for this article.

    I have never found the Book of Mormon a “text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity”. Teeming? Filled to overflowing? I can’t wrap my head around the idea that anything made up, but purported to be history, is something that should be read. I’m with Thomas.

  35. “On the inside cover, in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.

    As an undergraduate student in history and a practitioner of law, I recognize the limitations of both disciplines, and the inevitability that despite our best efforts, untruth creeps into every narrative. Where I draw the line, though, is at Thou Shalt Not Intentionally Fudge. And If Thou Doest, Thou Shalt Surely Be Smacked With A Cold Dead Mackerel For The Charlatan Thou Art.”

    This is imposing modern categories on ancient documents, and engaging in mind-reading as to intentionality. As an undergraduate student in history, you should know that modern historiography is a very recent invention.

  36. #35 Nitsav:

    “This is imposing modern categories on ancient documents, and engaging in mind-reading as to intentionality. As an undergraduate student in history, you should know that modern historiography is a very recent invention.”

    Specifically, the invention (more or less) of Leopold von Ranke, he of “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,” referenced in #27 above: “Joseph Smith was a bold man indeed to reveal new scripture in the age of printing, railroads, and von Ranke.”

  37. Jmb,

    Sorry if I’m unclear.

    My point re: “some commandments….” is that I don’t think you can get from “Whether it’s literally, historically true or not, the Book of Mormon contains true principles about God and the human experience,” to willing obedience to all the precepts of the LDS gospel.

    I understand “true principles about God and the human experience” to refer to objective, universal truths: Love God, love thy neighbor, love truth, beware of pride, and so forth. You will find those truths in the Book of Mormon. But the LDS Church demands more of its members than merely to act in accordance with these truths. The Church does not merely request that its members obey the ultimate, unchanging principles of natural moral law. It also expects them to obey — for the sake of obedience itself, perhaps as a test of faith and devotion — precepts that have nothing to do with basic goodness, and which may in fact change from time to time. Examples are the Word of Wisdom with respect to tea, the wearing of religious clothing, and the wearing of just one earring.

    Nothing in any of these rules has anything to do with loving your neighbor. You do them because you believe that obedience to God is a virtue, regardless of the underlying morality of what is commanded: “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.” But this only works if you are confident that it is the Lord that is giving you the seemingly-arbitrary commandment. If the commandment is given to you through an institution, you need to have confidence that the institution is authorized to do so. So if the authority of the Church really stands or falls based on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a miraculous translation of ancient scripture, then losing confidence in its authenticity will remove your motivation to obey the portion of LDS teaching that one obeys simply to obey.

    “So, maybe I don’t understand your position. You regularly critique Mormon culture, but you are devoted to the “it’s all true, or all a fraud” notion? I’m not criticizing, just wondering where you stand.”

    I’m afraid I am too.

  38. Jmb, again: I should probably clarify that when I endorse President Hinckley’s “it’s all true, or all a fraud,” I’m speaking of the Book of Mormon specifically, not the Church generally.

    The Church generally would clearly not be “all a fraud” even if one of its foundation stories were not true; its teaching of the basic moral commandments, for example, would continue valid.

  39. @Thomas #32: “Yes. Though it does, I think, give a hard knock to the doctrine of the LDS Church as the literal, restored Kingdom of God, vested with uniquely valid Priesthood authority to perform ordinances necessary for salvation. Would that lead to less dedication by the Saints to doctrines, such as tithing to the specific institution of the Church, and temple worship, that depend in substantial part on the Church being what it says it is? Probably. ”

    I think you are right. But I also find myself believing that there are more ways than one into heaven these days. It does cause me to wonder sometimes “why all the hoops to jump through in this particular religious tradition?” I don’t really have an answer for that, but I’m less inclined to criticize/condemn people who choose not to follow the “commandments” and cultural practices of the modern LDS church than when I believed they were absolutely necessary for salvation.

    “In summary, I wonder if the mileage you could get out of a non-historical Book of Mormon isn’t limited.” I concur. I don’t read the book as much as I used to (every day for years and years). In my own personal path, it remains to be seen how much spiritual direction the BoM will provide.

    “The Book of Mormon has its moments of profundity — but there are parts that just aren’t that good, as a matter of literary quality or spiritual depth. Parts of it come across as melodramatic. Much of it is derivative of passages in the Bible…” Very true. Most of the book doesn’t speak to me, and I refuse to forcefully impart some special significance to chapters that seem more like filler than spiritual food.

  40. #12 “I wince at the idea that God is playing some cosmic game of checkers in order to get a measure of my spiritual maturity through my understanding of the scriptures”

    I still find it interesting that some would be so adverse to God measuring our spiritual maturity by how we interpret the scriptures, Christ taught in parables due to the hard hearted phrases, “those that have ear’s to hear let them hear”.

    Whilst I don’t think God is playing games, I do think that many of the decisions we make are based on our interpretation of the scriptures, and if we are interpreting the scriptures incorrectly that must have some affect.

    #15 “I find it strange that something must be literally “true””

    Whilst I’m of the figurative camp on many scriptural accounts, I understand why literal interpretations are preferred; many literal interpretations indicate the omniscients of God, the faith required to believe that God has the power to flood the entire earth, differs from the faith required to believe that Moses was giving a parable. Historically for Christian religions it is easier to control the interpretation of a scripture if it is literal, The scriptures that were obviously figurative congregations were told you won’t understand it on your own, let us interpret it for you.

    Finally if we are going to take a figurative bias where does it end, Did a man named Jesus literally minister, suffer & Die?

    I have no issue with a literal bias for the general membership, I think with spiritual maturity comes a greater understanding of the power of figurative interpretations, but it must be done line upon line…

    However we do agree on doctrinal rigidity, I had an interesting EQ meeting where a discussion was established as to when the sun was created, scripturally it was after the earth and vegetation were created but common sense would dictate that life could not be sustained without the sun.

    #19 I had this same experience recently on something rather clear; we were discussing the story of Joseph & Potiphers wife, It was interesting when a member explained all the warning signs Joseph missed, such as the wife propositioning Joseph previously and the two of them being left alone in the house together, there was an uncomfortable silence in the room and quick change of the subject.

  41. Thanks for the comments. This has been an interesting discussion but one that I cannot comment upon fully.

    Just one thought.

    #40 – I agree that God cares about how we interpret the scriptures. Yet, the tension here is between hermeneutic (one true meaning) and polysemic (many meanings) approaches to scripture. I think that we all deal with this tension and that God appreciates the culturally embedded nature of our thinking and experience. Therefore I acknowledge that my interpretations should work with my spirituality and not against it. Therefore God cares and will correct my understanding of scripture but I think it dangerous to use this idea as basis for righteousness. If we differ in our interpretation of the Adam & Eve account I am not convinced that one of us is right or wrong. Even if I am wrong and that God wants to correct that incorrect knowledge I am not convinced that this makes me less-righteous. My reason for this is that salvation or exaltation become linked with doxology (and specifically with those who are more intelligent) rather than with a praxis.

  42. As a physicist, my mind isn’t wired to work comfortably with metaphror. In fact, I’m a little OCD about attempting to unravel the physical mechanisms, both scientific, sociological, and historical, that underlie our Scriptures and, indeed, the way the spiritual and the physical (and anything not fitting in those categories) fit together.

    I think there is a clear correlation between basis of worldview and resulting behavior, although I’m not certain which is cause and which is effect.

    However, once we have some basic testimony of either metaphorical or physical truth about Scripture, I think we should start with the metaphorical approach — “What does the Scripture mean?” — first, and then pursue it back toward its physical reality, if, and as far as we can, as a means of further understanding.

    I guess what this adds up to is this: you can’t search everywhere for truth at once, and lack of that original impulse (from Spirit, parents, or culture) that IDEA X is true will definitely push IDEA X down the search queue.

  43. Rico,

    I think the material you are dealing with in the OP is beneath you, move on my good man. 🙂

    I would love to see us get to the place where there is broad understanding that thinking in terms of a literal / figurative dichotomy is a pretty darn anemic way of trying to understand scripture. But more than that, it is incapable of even coming close to comprehending how or why our scriptures were written in the first place. Oh yea, and then there is the issue of language and the play of signification. Let’s not even go there!

  44. Douglas, it has been too long since we have seen you here. Moreover, I also really appreciate your comments they seem to provoke me to thought. Thanks.

  45. I took New Testament from JFM at BYU in the early 80’s. Frankly, he seemed to interpret everything in the scriptures literally.

    On one test, everyone in the class missed a question, “Who were the 3 wise men?”

    The answer (that none of us picked) was “the stake presidency of Jerusalem.” He insisted that he had told us that grandpa Smith told him that at Sunday dinner once. He must have told the other section of that class, because none of us remembered it.

    To me, that is literalism at its peak! Not only is the story of the wise men literal, but it must be interpreted into the context of the modern church (i.e., the stake presidency).

    I think that was the last scriptural religion class I took at BYU. The rest were things like Science and Religion or Religions of the World, etc. Just one more gut punch to my testimony.

  46. Mcaro,

    ““the stake presidency of Jerusalem.”’

    Whoa, now that is a stretch! I have a problem with always interpreting things in light of the Church practice. Like the fact that every experience on a mountain is a “Temple” experience.

    Sometimes mountain s just a mountain…..

    So, FIL/MIL are going to Orlando? Good excuse to visit Disney World?

  47. I think this is the heart of the faulty premise so clearly identified in your excellent OP, Rico: “A figurative story is supposed to carry less authority than a literal one.” I agree with Thomas’s points as well (and how could I not agree with Douglas’s remark?)

    The issue I see is that some PEOPLE are figurative and some are literal. Why question whether the stories are figurative or literal? All history is largely figurative. We tell the stories we tell in a certain way, to make specific points we want to pass along, and to promote certain ideas. You could tell the story of Jacob & Esau with either of them coming out the hero. We are familiar with siding with Jacob and valuing merit over birthright (a usurper’s argument if ever there was one). But it’s just the version of the story we know. You could easily turn the story around and talk about Esau’s successes in life and Jacob’s descendents ending up in slavery eventually.

    Other stories in the Bible seem like they arose from physical landmarks – Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt? There are weird salt pillars in the desert, some of which have eroded into nearly human forms. Does that mean that one was literally a woman? Or that they thought a salt pillar looked like a woman and made a story to explain a principle that the people needed to understand?

    Jesus didn’t have a problem with figurative stories, which is why he spoke almost exclusively in parables. As he said, God could raise up sons to Abraham out of these stones.

    What I do think literalists need is: 1) to be right, 2) a sense that people are all the same, regardless the age, and that is what it means for them to liken the scriptures unto themselves. Literalists don’t like what they can’t control or fathom, and some people don’t have conceptual minds; they only get the concrete, not the abstract. Let them wring the value they can from the stories. But a literal view of these stories is not more faith-promoting than a figurative one and largely misses the point, IMO.

  48. I know Joseph McConkie well and have heard him teach this a number of times. His point about interpretation of scripture being a reflection of spiritual maturity is not meant to say that if you misunderstand a scripture you will be damned, but rather that if you misuse and abuse the scriptures you may be. This is taught plainly in the scripures (eg Alma 13:20 speaks of “wresting” the scriptures to your own destruction). People have justified some terrible things based on faulty interpretations of scripture. For example, anti-mormons who use (misuse) scripture to oppose the true church, Pharisees who rejected Jesus on the basis of their interpretation of scripture etc. Brother McConkie’s point is a good one and scripturally sound. Might I suggest that the reason some of you don’t like it is because you do in fact have a tendency of wresting scripture (as evidenced by so many of the posts above) and the truth stings a little?
    -an iron rodder 🙂

  49. I’d like to ask him how he reads (literally or allegorically) the tower of babel, noah’s global flood, balaam and the talking donkey, God and Satan waging bets on Job, and the entire book of mormon.

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