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.