Stephen MarshMormon 17 Comments

History seems like a collection of facts, but in reality, most history is a collection of stories that we use to give context to the facts.  Often the story details contain more conjecture than fact, but narratives or stories are the way we are able to understand and remember facts.

Without narratives, we don’t have history that matters.  The problem with narratives is that it is easy for people to use them to decide that someone else’s facts are false.

Take the narrative of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  In describing the event, the witnesses stated it was not only physical, but that to withstand the presence of the angel they had to be strengthened spiritually adn that they saw both physically and spiritually.  Their narrative meant to them that they did not just believe, they knew.

So how could people reading these statements conclude that the witnesses had denied belief or that they stated that the experience was less than real? Or why would anyone trust that sort of analysis?  It is because of the narrative need that alternative story feeds.

Yes, one witness said “I do not believe” but he went on to say “I do not believe because I know.” Having knowledge instead of faith is not a repudiation.  Unless, of course, one has needs that such a narrative would feed.

Some who construct such narratives are just dishonest, seeking to lie, as children of the one who loves and makes a lie.  But, having deposed scores of witnesses and having tried a fair number of cases (four this year, for example), I can tell you that most people who are out of contact with consensual reality have gotten there because the alternative story fills a need and their belief causes them to embrace the story — and the necessary conjectures just fill themselves in.

So, what are standard narrative isseus:

1) You have a narrative, you emb race all the conjectures that fill in the gaps, even though they are unfounded (early edition Mormon Doctrine, anyone?).

2) You encounter a “fact” that does not fit your narrative, you then reject your narrative (which is what much anti-Mormon literature attempts to cause people to do). You don’t think to question the “fact.”

3) You encounter a fact that does not fit your narrative.  You reject the fact.

4) You don’t recognize the conjectures in narratives.

5) You devolve into the belief that all of any narrative is mere conjecture and there are no facts.

You can see variants of these five different issues in action, over and over again.  Often the “facts” and the conjectures obtain independent life, with people losing sight of the fact that they are dealing with a narrative, often based on the memories of secondary reporters who disagree with the primary actors (some common bloggernacle narratives are based on the comments of grandchildren of witnesses that disagree with statements by participants, for example).

Other times the “facts” fit the narratives of the primary actors, which complicates things.  For example, Thomas B. Marsh had very critical things said of him by Brigham Young.  However, Brigham Young’s statements follow Thomas B. Marsh’s narrative telling of Thomas’ story in the same terms.  Do we criticize Young for agreeing with Marsh?  If we do, why?

Narrative is an interesting topic.  Too bad Nick never wrote his post on the weaknesses and issues in the narratives people tell about the Church.  Even without Nick, the topic of the weaknesses and issues implicit in narratives applies from teh writings of Paul to discussions of whatever was in the news last week.

What narratives would you like to see examined?

Comments 17

  1. What a highly pertinent topic! And well set up! I am a sort of go to guy in my HP group as to difficult church historical questions (their poor choice)–but only in the past couple of years have I been exposed to many “facts and narratives” in church history. I had read all the faith promoting stuff all my life but only recently read Brodie, Quinn, RSR, etc. etc. I think that many have fallen into the trap you described below regarding church history of discounting wholesale narratives because of “facts” or vice a versa. Or worse what I consider the false dichotomy of “it is all true or all false.” You started this so what “narratives would you like to see examined?”—what I would like to know?
    BTW are you related to Thomas “Marsh.” And what year did you graduate from BYU law school? My class was ’81. And how many lawyers participate in Common Consent? They seem to be all over the place making “common consent” I suspect near impossible….

  2. I have a very different view of this topic that I believe stems from my background as an electrical engineer. I agree with much that has been said, and many apologists use this sort of argument as a tool to help us realize that a single fact should not deter us from our narrative. However, in my reading, as here, it fails to take into account that there is information contained in the “fact” even if it is partly untrue, and even if the fact is somewhat unreliable.

    I make this claim from an information theory perspective. From that perspective, it is keeping with the black and white view to assume that because a “fact” doesn’t fit the narrative it either must be true or false. Even if a “fact” only is “false” or unreliable, it still may contain information that should be incorporated in the probability distribution of the truthfulness of the narrative.

    This falls under the rubric of inductive reasoning because it is a non-sequitar argument. Just because a “fact” is untrue, or partly untrue does not mean that we cannot infer things about the overall picture of the narrative, including what it means for the conjectures possibly taken for granted.

    However, inductive reasoning is faulty logic, except for one case – bayesian inference. I believe that too often we dismiss and point out the fallacy of inductive reasoning and toss away “facts” that may not be reliable in that vein. But this is a waste of good information. The proper thing to do is to develop a “bayesian inference” model in our head that can allow us to incorporate the information still contained in the “fact.”

    I make no claim that this is easy to do, and I don’t think that I do it perfectly either, but for me, my reading of church history follows this model. That is, a single fact is not what has dissuaded me from faith promoting history, but rather the amalgamation of a multitude of facts that contain information but may not, in and of themselves, be a final blow to the narrative, but cast serious doubt in such a way that I am inclined to alter my probability distribution of truthfulness of the narrative.

  3. The main problem: at the end of the day, everything is “narrative”. No matter how objective anyone tries to write/say anything, it is necessarily clouded by inherent biases.

    I tend to agree with jmb. There is no single fact that makes me believe or disbelieve the Church, the BofM, or anything else for that matter. There are very few things (if any) in this world that I absolutely believe or disbelieve in any field of study. I think things may be more or less likely. So when people get hung up on the witnesses, either prop or con, I think they’re missing the point. Even if the witnesses saw some gold plates exactly and literally as described, they don’t read reformed Egyptian. They don’t really have any way of knowing if the English words given to them (and us) as the Book of Mormon was related to the plates at all. So there is nothing that will actually prove or disprove the Book of Mormon.

    At the end of the day, it is still back to a person and God. Either someone gets a “testimony” of the BofM from God, or he/she doesn’t.

  4. Post

    there is information contained in the “fact” even if it is partly untrue, and even if the fact is somewhat unreliable — the exact reason given by Brodie for including stories that were completely false (e.g. Joseph Smith and the walking on water story). The issue is often just what is the information about.

    At the end of the day, it is still back to a person and God Very true.

    BTW are you related to Thomas “Marsh.” And what year did you graduate from BYU law school? — all the Marsh’s in the U.S. before WWII are distantly related to each other, more or less. Generally less. I graduated in 1982.

    This post was written some time ago, set to go active this morning. Just got back from my father’s funeral, which is why I haven’t commented sooner.

  5. I am much more interested in ‘narratives’ given by General Authorities and/or active believers of the LDS Church – who have not left their faith, past and present, – than those who are Non-Believers, Heretics, Apostates, Agnostics, or Atheists [no matter how well versed they may be concerning LDS history]

    Since most members of the LDS Church are of the tribe of Ephriam, I would like to see more ‘narratives’ on the responsiblities associated with being a member of this tribe. And this would be in line with the 2 greatest problems the LDS Church faces today.

    [1] The Church’s growth.
    [2] The socio/psychological problems associated with growth.

    And who is better qualified to discuss these issues? Heretics, Apostates and such or Believers and Leaders in the LDS faith? Where is Truth more likely to come from?

  6. #5

    Is this the old “don’t ask your Chevy dealer if should buy a Ford” argument?

    If there is an inherent manufacturing flaw in the Ford line you are considering, the Ford dealer is party with an invested interest in concealing that detail in order to sell their product. The Chevy dealer on the other hand would be motivated to embellish this flaw in order to steer you towards purchasing a Chevy product.

    If the Ford line you are considering posseses a performance quality superior to it’s competing brands, the Ford dealer is likely going to embellish on this fact by promoting it’s value over the competetions inferiority. The Chevy dealer will be inclined to minimize the Fords superiority by either questioning the feature outright, or by suggesting that the performance disparity exceeds rational cost to benefit.

    The above assumes that either party, the Ford or Chevy dealer, is motivated first to promote their products at the expense of objective analysis. Naturally we all have our bias, but the mode for determining which party to trust should have less to do with their alignment/product orientation, and more to do with the general merit of their arguments including the parties reputation for fairness and reasonable objectivity.

  7. re 6: Cowboy,

    Now, you KNOW that sxark is going to say that in this case, Ford is the Lord’s annointed. It is just so faithless and apostate and degenerate for you to assume that Ford could have manufacturing flaws…

    Plus, you can pray and there you’ll get an independent and objectively true validation that Ford is #1. Unless you don’t fast/read scriptures/pray/wait/endure to the end enough. But that’s your fault.

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  9. I think we all get sucked into the growth narrative, whether TBM’s who see the increase in membership, growth in chapels and churches, and view their investment as sound and expanding its market share, or NOM’s who see the growth narrative as overly simplistic and see cracks in the concrete bridges starting to form. We often leave out the narrative of an expected and prophetic crack in the bridge as the Times of the Gentiles wrap up. This narrative be be the proverbial Green party but it’s there.

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  11. Stephen,
    you graduated from law school a year after I did. My condolences on your father’s passing. It is often a time for reflection. My father who died two years ago gave his father (my grandfather) missionary journal. Growing up I heard from my father and at family reunions stories of how my grandfather while at a meeting had a light bulb shot out. He went to replace it and was shot in the head. While at the hospital the Drs. who were anti-mormon (Midwest mission 1906) were trying to poison him. The mission president received revelation and came to the hospital and saved him. We even have the hat with the hole in it. WELL, when I got the actual journal I decided to type it all out and send on into cyberspace for Madson clan. My grandfather wrote everyday in his journal. Over a two week period he described first being threatened by someone at the door with a gun. Then he hit his head on a nail a few days later, and went to hospital for stitches/etc. His mission president happened to be there for some other medical reason. They both treated and were released. That is it. Never a mention of being shot and miraculously saved. After typing it up I sent it out to all our clan and called my aunt (the family historian/genealogist and told her the REAL story. She totally disbelieved me and said I was wrong and that it REALLY happened as we have been telling it other. I gave up.
    So, the actual journal is out there but the myth continues. Does it matter? Not sure how to approach this–and makes one wonder how the mind and story telling come about

  12. RonM

    Thank you for your condolences.

    I’ve run across stories that are hard to slow down, people start embellishing them and they just keep growing.

    However, they eventually age out and die, which is what will probably happen with the story you’ve talked about. That is about the only thing you can do with them.

    BTW, where are you practicing law now?

  13. stephen (Ethesis)

    I practiced law in Las Vegas, NV for 20 years, then moved to Alpine, Utah and practiced out of home for five years, then my oldest son graduated from law school and I opened a small firm (him, me and daughter in law part time) on main street Alpine. Loving a small town practice.

    There is really nothing at stake in correcting the made up narrative as to my grandfather’s mission. You are right the journal is out there and in time it will self-correct, but myth making serves it’s own purposes–until it breaks down.

    However, in your opinion are there narratives in our faith that are also fabricated and if so how should one approach those stories/fables with family, at church, privately, publicly (even internet)???…that is a highly pertinent question in my world…

  14. Ah, like some of the things about the handcart companies?

    I like to stress true narratives. For example, there was a brother who had a vision of what would happen, prophesied to those in the company about it, and then, when they refused to listen, committed to going along and suffering with them in order to do what he could. That is a powerful narrative.

    I like to replace defective narratives with true ones that stem from the same locus, and that teach better lessons.

    What is interesting is that I practiced for fifteen years in a small town (Wichita Falls, Texas) and then moved to Plano. Was downtown for a while, and have been litigating for St. Paul Travelers the last 8-9 years. I loved small town practice. I find I really enjoy my life now as well, but I’m thinking towards what I should do when I hit 65-67 or thereabouts and need to transition.

  15. re Stephen

    there is information contained in the “fact” even if it is partly untrue, and even if the fact is somewhat unreliable — the exact reason given by Brodie for including stories that were completely false (e.g. Joseph Smith and the walking on water story). The issue is often just what is the information about.

    It may be that Brodie gave too much weight to that story and indeed that is always the conundrum – how much weight to give any particular fact. However I maintain there still information contained in that fact although it may be infinitesimal. All I’m saying is that many apologists tend to focus on demonstrating why a single fact should not deter anyone from the church while ignoring the information, even the less plausible info contained therein.

    I think it is a lifelong pursuit to dtermine how much weight to give the various facts of a narrative.

  16. Pingback: The anchors of narrative « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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