Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » A Rant about Scriptural Literalism

A Rant about Scriptural Literalism

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 05, 2010

I was chastised in Sunday School today, not by name but by remarks that were unmistakably aimed at me. There’s no point in setting out the specific chastisement, but it had to do with the speaker’s insistence that every detail in the recorded life of Jonah was literally, factually, historically, biologically accurate – specifically Jonah’s survival for three days in the belly of the fish. The sole grounds given for this defense of literalism was Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The Lord himself had referred to Jonah/Jonas, and this was endorsement of the literalness of the story.

The story may be factual. I don’t have any strong opinion one way or the other, and certainly no special insight or expertise to offer. Frankly, I don’t think it matters at all whether Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish was literal or metaphorical – it serves the Biblical purpose either way: God used extraordinary means to send the runaway prophet back to his assigned mission in the record of Jonah, and for Matthew Jonah’s stint in the whale’s belly, whether historical or allegorical, was symbolic of the time Jesus’s body would remain in the tomb. The symbolism holds whether the story is historical or not.

But the way the insistence on literalism was preached was a direct rebuke to me. On the weeks when it is my turn to teach Sunday School, I have repeatedly asked the class to consider whether an event was historical or metaphorical, and did it matter either way? I do that in part because there are some instances when I do think a Biblical story is relying more on symbolism than on journalistic accuracy, but mostly because I think we need to be reminded that the Old Testament is full of symbol, and if we forget to acknowledge that then we miss whole layers of meaning in what God and his prophets are trying to tell us. I also suspect that there are some members of the class who have their doubts about the literalness of certain events, and my questions are meant to include them, to tell them that considering the possibility of a figural purpose to some story does not mean that they are heretics.

But I have never – and I mean absolutely never – pushed the issue to the point of contradicting anybody who wants to interpret events literally. I have never called anything a fairy tale, or said that anything didn’t happen just the way the Old Testament says it happened. The farthest I have ever gone is to note in the Creation chapters that we’re given so few details as to the method God used for creation that we ought not to assume with absolute dogmatic assurance that we are connecting all the Biblical dots in precisely the correct way. We should leave room in our interpretation for future knowledge.

When we read the New Testament we are generally pretty willing to allow for “fictional” elements – I haven’t heard even the most die-hard literalist insist that the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are biographical. Ditto for the Book of Mormon: We easily grant that first Lehi and then Nephi had a dream filled with poetic images – nobody, to my knowledge, believes that there is a literal stream of water somewhere on the earth with an iron rod running alongside it, past a physical building filled with jeering people and leading to a flaming white fruit tree. We allow Lehi and Nephi to have their dream images without thinking that they were peering into a real valley somewhere. When it comes to our day, we’re used to storytellers like Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson illustrating their conference talks with references to, say, Shakespeare and Dickens and Milton and popular children’s books. But no one, to my knowledge, uses those Conference references to claim that therefore Romeo and Juliet and Oliver Twist have somehow become historical personages, or that there really was a Little Engine somewhere that climbed up a hill saying, in human speech, “I think I can, I think I can.” We’re comfortable allowing literary allusions to illustrate true gospel principles, with allowing that even fiction can be “true” in a sense, and that we can learn from something other than the historical and biographical, strictly speaking.

But when it comes to the Old Testament – a collection of writings apparently spanning thousands of years, the most ancient years of our knowledge, passed along in oral tradition for generations before being written down, by peoples whose world views and experiences were utterly alien to our own – we Latter-day Saints somehow insist on a literal interpretation. We solemnly recite the Article of Faith about “so far as it is translated correctly,” but proceed as if it were translated with 100% precision. We nod along with the teacher when the lesson is about types and shadows, but then lose sight of the types and shadows in our endless defensive protectionism of the literalness of this story or that.

I don’t care if you believe the earth is 6,000 years old and not a day older (although the Bible doesn’t say that – even if its chronology is accurate for the span of mortal human history, the earth was created before Adam and Eve left the Garden and nothing in scripture tells us how long that took – even the conservative, literal Sunday School manual explicitly notes that the “days” of early Genesis do not correspond to the 24-hour periods of our experience). I don’t care if you insist that the earth stopped spinning on its axis in the days of Joshua (no matter how contrary that is to physics, and how unnecessary it is to understanding the story). I don’t care if you think Balaam’s ass spoke with the voice of a human (no matter how unnecessary that belief is when it doesn’t teach us anything and when the story does say that an unseen angel was standing before the ass, whose voice a startled Balaam could just as easily have misinterpreted as coming from the animal). I don’t care whether you insist that Job is strictly biographical (although it raises doctrinal issues to assume that Lucifer can enter God’s presence, and that God plays trivial games with the lives of good men for his own amusement and pride).

I do care, though, that literalism, and the knee-jerk defense of that literalism as though faith is demonstrated only by believing six impossible things before breakfast, obscures what the scriptures are trying to teach us. An emphasis on the literal – and more especially, a defensive protection of that literal interpretation – blocks us from seeing the poetry, the allegory, the metaphor, the symbolism, the very idea for which the story is included in scripture. If people were defensive about protecting the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, as a journalistic account of a real, historical figure, then they likely would overlook the symbolic message of who is a neighbor. They certainly would miss the even deeper layer of the Good Samaritan parable as an allegory of Christ’s atonement, of the despised one who rescues us at our most helpless, who binds our wounds and pays the price for our healing. We need to be just as open to the poetic – the “fictional” – possibilities (in my view, likelihood, even certainty) of the Old Testament narrative.

Our Relief Society lesson this morning concerned the temple experience. One sister – not so coincidentally, I think, one who has been most insistent on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament in Sunday School – said she took comfort from something David O. McKay supposedly said (I can’t vouch for it) that it was only toward the end of his life that he began to understand the temple. This older sister, who has undoubtedly memorized all the information given as part of the temple ceremony, wondered what else she was supposed to learn from it and how it could really be meaningful to her. “What am I missing?” she asked us.

I wanted to put my arm around her and tell her that she should stop treating it as – or solely as – an historical account of the early days of Creation. The ceremony itself tells us in so many words that some parts are figural. If we’re ever going to go beyond a merely historical account – and a sketchy one at best – of the early days of this planet, then we need to look beyond the literal, we need to consider the symbolic, we need to broaden our definitions of what is “true” about ancient tales. Calling something a “tale” or a “story” and inviting each other to look for the poetic and to understand an event as it was understood by the prophet who described it is not at all saying that something is a “fairy tale” or calling it “false.” It’s a call to look beyond the literal surface, to look beyond history.

And for a historian to say that, you have to believe that I mean it.



  1. Amen.

    Comment by Silus Grok — September 5, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  2. I suppose it’s too late now, but next time you might highlight that when the 1922 First Presidency was asked about Job and Jonah, the response was an openness to the possibility of them being fictional. (Mormonism in Transition, p. 283).

    I am sometimes appalled at people’s lack of reading comprehension when the text is modern English. Add in an archaic form of English about a foreign culture, and it’s easy to miss such simple elements as rhetorical questions.

    I’ve been musing a little bit about how I might take on the issue of literalism if I am ever assigned to teach a class where it’s appropriate. One idea I’ve had would be to print out an article from The Onion–a perfectly clean one, of course–and have the class discuss what they think about it and why. Then we could discuss how the ancients were also perfectly capable of employing sarcasm or satire in order to make a point, but that it might be going right over our heads. In my imaginary class it goes swimmingly.

    Comment by Jared* — September 5, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  3. I taught the adult class this week. (I’m SS President, and asked to fill in for this lesson. Taught it to the youth last week.)

    I started by talking about the elephant, er, whale in the room, and passed around a handout with that statement, emphasizing that it may well have been a parable.

    “While they [the First Presidency] thought Jonah was a real person, they said it was possible that the story as told in the Bible was a parable common at the time. The purpose was to teach a lesson, and it ‘is of little significance as to whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book’ to illustrate ‘what is set forth therein.’ They took a similar position on Job. What is important, Penrose and Ivins insisted, was not whether the books were historically accurate, but whether the doctrines were correct.” As cited by BYU prof. Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition (p. 283), a history of the LDS Church from 1890-1930, originally commissioned by the Church. Available online through Google books.

    I talked about why focusing on the whale issue misses the whole point of the book, and that one’s opinion on its historicity shouldn’t hinge on the possibility of Jonah surviving in the big fish. (Read Mosiah 4:9).

    Then we went through the story, and talked along the way of why it appears the Israelites viewed it as a satiric parable and what we can learn from it and how it’s applicable to us today. (Very much so!)

    The Stake President didn’t seem to mind. Or at least, didn’t disagree with me publicly, but I wasn’t pushing my interpretation, just pointing out that it’s allowable.

    (and of course, if the Israelites intended it as a satirical parable, then defending it as history constitutes “wresting the scriptures.”)

    It’s not fun to be in a ward like yours. My deepest sympathies.

    Comment by Ben S — September 5, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  4. Thanks for the rant, Ardis.

    Sometimes we overstate the extent to which LDS leaders and LDS manuals embrace literal readings. I looked up the CES Old Testament manual commentary on Lot’s wife (Ms. Salt Pillar) awhile back, which notes her turning to look back likely means she physically returned to Sodom and perished there with Sodom’s other unfortunate citizens. Quotation: “Her becoming a pillar of salt could be a figurative way of expressing this outcome.” Progress comes in small steps.

    On the other hand, the same CES manual quotes Joseph Fielding Smith’s defense of a literal reading of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. Those who entertain the possibility of alternative views are termed “scoffers.” Interestingly, Elder Smith cites William Jennings Bryan on this point, as if that strengthens the credibility of his position: “I believe, as did William J. Bryan, the story of Jonah.” I think Elder Smith’s approach is not the approach taken by the senior LDS leaders of our own century, but I do think Correlation (for some reason known only to God) still takes its cues from Elder Smith and his son-in-law. In a strange way, the Church is three generations out of date with itself. It’s as if senior LDS leaders are using iPhones and Correlation is using rotary dial handsets from the fifties!

    Perhaps you ought to approach the bishopric (who called you to teach the class) and suggest a counselor have a chat with Bro. Literal reminding him (gently) that he can make comments but he is not allowed to lecture the class on his own personal views of scriptural interpretation, given that such views are not in harmony with the guidance given in the manual.

    Comment by Dave — September 5, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  5. The best of luck if you’re teaching the lesson about Hosea next!

    Comment by Alison — September 5, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

  6. The David O. McKay story is recounted in Boyd Packer’s book on the temple.

    I think one of the unfortunate effects of the filmed version of the endowment is that participants seem more likely to see the ceremony as a literal depiction of historical events. I’ve heard people describe the endowment as including the viewing of a “movie about the creation and fall.” No! No! No! We’re not watching a movie; we’re in the movie.

    The disconnect between what’s happening on the screen with what’s happening with live people in the endowment room makes the ritual disjointed and almost incomprehensible unless the participants imagine themselves in a live session, ritually acting with Elohim, Eve, Adam, and others as participants, rather than as observers. In the ritual, all of Adam and Eve’s posterity are with them in the garden, and are ritually cast out with them, and then ultimately brought back with them to the presence of God. The sacred drama has no audience; we are all actors together on the same stage. Yet I’ve never heard anyone claim as historical fact that all of us were in the garden with Adam and Eve. I suspect that’s because they don’t really understand that aspect of the ritual. And that probably means they really don’t understand any of the ritual at all.

    Of course, if I’m not mistaken, you’re probably in the Salt Lake temple district, so we can’t blame the misunderstanding in your ward on the filmed endowment. I think people really just don’t understand ritual.

    Comment by Left Field — September 5, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  7. Let me just add that, viewed as literal history, the endowment to me is virtually devoid of any meaning. Viewed as symbolic ritual, it teaches us how each of us individually can overcome our fallen state, personally embrace the Lord, and enter into His presence.

    Comment by Left Field — September 5, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  8. I think Matthew’s simile is actually a better case for Jonah dying in the belly of the fish and being brought back to life after three days than it is for Jonah surviving for three days inside the fish. After all, no one believes that Jesus was alive for three days in the tomb, and Matthew seems to be making a direct comparison between Jesus and Jonah.
    …And I definitely don’t think it matters whether Jonah is literal or allegorical. Thanks for this rant. I share your pain.

    Comment by Amy — September 5, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

  9. Well for one thing, whales aren’t fish. They’re mammals. :-)

    Sorry you had a rough day, Ardis. You don’t deserve that at all.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — September 5, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  10. Ardis,
    It’s great you are so inclusive in the way you teach. I think I would enjoy lessons more sometimes in GD if teachers would not force everything to be literal–because you are right, we miss a lot.

    Comment by mmiles — September 5, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

  11. You are a good soul, Ardis. Well said.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 5, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  12. In my class, the teacher asked how many thought Job’s account was literal. Everyone (who raised their hand) thought it was.

    But, on its face, that view is defective.

    I’m always struck by the geographic deficiencies.

    The account indicates that Job boards a boat from Joppa (roughly modern day Tel Aviv) for Tarshish which was in modern day Spain or, some argue, it was Carthage in North Africa.

    The book relates that after the bit with the whale, Job went to Nineveh and the trip took three days. Ever looked at a map? The distance from the Mediterranean coast to the city on the upper Tigris River is about 400-600 miles.

    Of course, it would be impossible to travel that kind of distance in less than a few weeks.

    Some literalistic ones try to claim that the whale swallowed him and then passed around Africa and tossed him up in the Persian Gulf. The distance still doesn’t work. Too far for a quick three day journey.

    Bottom line is that the whale isn’t the only problem.

    Comment by Steve — September 5, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

  13. Ardis, I was with you completely until you suggested there was no such thing as ‘The Little Engine Who Could.’ That has to be literally true.

    Wonderful piece. This is going into the reading list for my students. Thank you.

    Comment by SteveP — September 5, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

  14. Ardis,

    An emphasis on the literal – and more especially, a defensive protection of that literal interpretation – blocks us from seeing the poetry, the allegory, the metaphor, the symbolism, the very idea for which the story is included in scripture. If people were defensive about protecting the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, as a journalistic account of a real, historical figure, then they likely would overlook the symbolic message of who is a neighbor. They certainly would miss the even deeper layer of the Good Samaritan parable as an allegory of Christ’s atonement, of the despised one who rescues us at our most helpless, who binds our wounds and pays the price for our healing.

    Brilliantly said.

    Comment by Dan — September 5, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  15. Well said, Ardis. Keep fighting the good fight.

    Comment by WVS — September 5, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

  16. Yay, Ardis! This deserves a Facebook link and a permament bookmark. Simply excellent.

    I teach Gospel Doctrine in my ward, and I am very fortunate in that (1) no one in my class tries to defend “literal” interpretations of OT stories; (2) I am able to briefly reference the idea that this or that story is “probably” not literal without bringing down the house; and (3) I have students in class who will helpfully suggest OT stories aren’t literal, without any prodding from me. I realize my situation is somewhat unusual, and believe me, I’m thrilled.


    Comment by Aaron Brown — September 5, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

  17. Actually, Ardis, I was with you until the Lehi’s dream part.

    Anyone who’s ever lived in Brooklyn, seen the East River with all those great and spacious buildings on the other side, knows that Lehi and Nephi were seeing a literal vision of our day. And we know that a tree grew in Brooklyn, and I’m just hoping I can find it and the iron rod sometime in the next three decades–since my first three decades here haven’t turned it up. As Tug McGraw said, Ya Gotta Believe!

    Comment by Mark B. — September 5, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

  18. “The sole grounds given for this defense of literalism was Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.””

    How many nights was Jesus in the tomb? Think about it.

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — September 5, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  19. Romans chapter 14 is a wonderful reading. Paul wants each of us to allow others their own interpretations, and teaches us to be careful not to place stumblingblocks in front of others. “Let every man [or woman] be fully persuaded in his [or her] own mind.” And, “He that regardeth [all scriptural historically], regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not [all scripture historically], to the Lord he doth not regard it.”

    Comment by ji — September 5, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

  20. Amen, amen and amen.

    Ardis, you’ve a fan in me. In my SS class today, there was an actual discussion on whether the fish was a whale or possibly a large shark that swallowed Jonah whole. I sat on my hands, lacking the energy to even murmur.

    Comment by Tracy M — September 5, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

  21. I love this post, Ardis! Very well put. I’m hugely encouraged that you are teaching. Surely some of your reasonableness will rub off on the people in your class.

    In my SS class today, there was an actual discussion on whether the fish was a whale or possibly a large shark that swallowed Jonah whole. I sat on my hands, lacking the energy to even murmur.

    LOL, Tracy!

    Comment by Ziff — September 5, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

  22. We always seem to run into the problems when gospel discussions have to be presented in a box. (literal, poetic, parable, tradition or presentation) We are challenged to understand a gospel that is taught by presentations,(the temple), parables, and recorded quotes. Many times as I study the gospel, I first find direction in a childlike willingness to take everything as literal. And almost always I have been able to expand understanding of a principle as I study it by looking for the hidden meanings that come from trying to understand if there is a dual meaning or applying wisdom or charity to the scriptures.

    As for Job, I never have been able to really wholly get the spirit of it’s council if I am forced to literally believe that God would ever recommend one of his children to be singled out by Satan, while they are explaining pleasantries in the cool of the evening.

    Ardis, I can’t imagine that those rather narrow principles were directed just at you to hurt you. I would prefer to think that there are very few members of the church which would intentional hurt someone. Think of the way we are taught to pray in the temple, it would appear that our committing sins is less important than the way we feel towards others.

    Comment by JimB — September 5, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  23. Wish I could do more than just voice my support and offer a hearty “amen.”

    Comment by Ben Park — September 5, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

  24. Hey! Pinnochio and Geppetto were both swallowed by a whale. That’s gotta prove something

    Comment by Abertawe — September 5, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

  25. Our Bishop, (Sister Ardis’ and mine), characterizes our our ward as the “newly married and nearly buried” and I can testify to you that that description is essentially true. (We do have a sprinkling of other members from the generations between those extremes.) And with this cross-section of Saints come views and opinions from all over the spectrum. I join all who have expressed empathy for Ardis, for hers is not an easy row to hoe. However, we are speaking of a sister possessing profound historical integrity, not to mention one who brings both skill and acumen to this calling. Ardis, is “spot on”, as the British Saints might say. Anyone acquainted with the Jewish faith, Scriptures and commentaries would emphatically agree that all of Judaism is shot through with multi-layered symbolism that is meant it induce the believer to tease out the deeper truths through faith and constant study. Chaim Potok’s novels deal with this as found in the Orthodox/Hasidic school of Judaism. Ardis’ point regarding the unique perspective of each of the successive cultural milieu that produced these ancient works is equally valid. Theirs was a world that were we to transported back there, would make very little modern sense to us . (Like Iran wanting to stone to death this young mother of two children.) We would be infuriated and outraged at such barbarity, and they, (the people of that era), would see us as either possessed of devils or satan himself.
    Sadly, many who have not had the experience of a higher education are not aware that this enormous cultural gulf exists and read Scripture as if it was hot off the presses of last week’s Deseret News. They take comfort in the ‘clarity’ of literalness, which brings comfort to them at their level of understanding. I am deeply sorry that I wasn’t there this Sunday to lend my moral support to Ardis, but some d*mn fool ran over my dog yesterday afternoon and I was seeing to his needs. Soldier on, sister Ardis, this too shall pass. Your spiritual compass is in full working order. Doubt not, fear not. There are those of us who count on your insights and understanding because they cause us to reflect back for insight into those deeper messages.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — September 5, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

  26. Thanks, Ardis, for that excellent exposition. Your faith comes through clearly. I am lifted.

    Comment by Clair — September 5, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

  27. There may be wards like that, Ardis. But your’s is not one of them, they also have YOU as a teacher.

    Usually he would never dream of setting himself up as having a greater authority than the Bishopric. Except in one or two or more instances. You, as the other teacher, are one of them.

    He will use “his” valuable class time to correct you.

    You will do your best to overset him without attacking; then write rants which are beautiful in their reasoning, wonderfully thought out.

    Personally, while I am hoping you NEVER, have another experience like this, I treasure your rants.

    Comment by Diane Peel — September 5, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  28. Lovely brilliant rant. I envy your class on having such a fine teacher.

    Comment by JA Benson — September 6, 2010 @ 12:18 am

  29. It seems to me that the biggest issue in moments like these is to make sure we as members are studying, testifying, and teaching from the scriptures through the Holy Ghost.

    He knows exactly whether or not any story is literal, what the stories are intended to teach, and how they apply to us individually in our personal latter-day work. If there is confusion, apprehension, contention, or disagreement on a matter from the scriptures, the Holy Ghost is the only one with the knowledge and the ability to clear up the matter. I testify that he does so with beautiful precision when he is earnestly entreated in faith–especially in the meetings of the Church. To do so, after all, is his job. As we do our part as teachers and active class participants, we cannot doubt whether or not he will do his.

    This is not to accuse Ardis of not having the Spirit in her teaching. Exactly the opposite. What I’m attempting to do is emphasize that seeking the Spirit is inherently inseparable from what she’s teaching us to do.

    “We should leave room in our interpretation for future knowledge.”

    Quite right, and Amen! Thank you Sister Parshall :)

    Since goofball comments in RS, Priesthood, and SS are often symptoms of spiritual deficiencies in ward members’ scripture study, my proposed solution is not to get annoyed when they happen. Instead, we should consider teaching those who make such comments how to more effectively study scriptures through the Holy Spirit. To do so may require extra effort on our part, but the rewards are great for those who will seek the understanding of the Holy Ghost and go that extra mile.

    Comment by Paradox — September 6, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  30. Completely agree Ardis — so sorry this happened to you. I also have no idea why so many Mormons seem to acquire a defensive clinginess to scripture as literal, borrowing from the soundbites of the closed canon, inerrant Bible crowd.

    I have also unfortunately observed a real, deep-seated opposition to “seeing the poetry, the allegory, the metaphor, the symbolism, the very idea for which the story is included in scripture”. For some Mormons, I am afraid that seeing scripture as poetry, allegory or metaphor is essentially denying the faith and crucifying Christ anew. It is very discouraging. The scriptures can be so beautiful and enlightening if read with the Spirit, which I do not believe would include rejecting their poetic value or their frequent use of allegory, parable, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, humor, storytelling, midrashic retelling and a long list of other devices meant to uplift and enlighten the mind, heart and soul. By contrast, a forced literalism borrowed from the inerrant and sufficient Bible crowd tends to darken the mind and inhibit the understanding, reducing material that can actually contain exponential knowledge to prooftexts and soundbites, largely if not entirely divorced from the epic journey each of us is making through this mortal life and in the broader context of our eternal lives.

    Comment by john f. — September 6, 2010 @ 4:36 am

  31. But when it comes to the Old Testament – a collection of writings apparently spanning thousands of years, the most ancient years of our knowledge, passed along in oral tradition for generations before being written down, by peoples whose world views and experiences were utterly alien to our own – we Latter-day Saints somehow insist on a literal interpretation. We solemnly recite the Article of Faith about “so far as it is translated correctly,” but proceed as if it were translated with 100% precision. We nod along with the teacher when the lesson is about types and shadows, but then lose sight of the types and shadows in our endless defensive protectionism of the literalness of this story or that.

    So well said. In the Restored Gospel we are not encumbered by a need to artificially introduce Biblical literalism and inerrancy into our worldview. Why do so many Mormons do so and then, worse, treat those who do not insist on biblical inerrancy (because that is not a necessary element of our faith) extremely poorly, in some cases accusing them of apostasy?

    Comment by john f. — September 6, 2010 @ 5:03 am

  32. as though faith is demonstrated only by believing six impossible things before breakfast,


    Anyway, if our discussion of Job yesterday was any indication, literal interpretations of the OT can cause more problems than they resolve.

    Comment by Peter LLC — September 6, 2010 @ 5:32 am

  33. And until a person is familiar with the story-telling conventions of a society, its impossible to tell if an aspect of a story is to be taken literally or not. A contemporary of the writer of Job might think a later reader naive or an idiot for taking the numbers of animals related as lost to Job as an actual accounting. And humans generally take it for granted that the bulk of details regarding any event will be omitted from a relation of that event. Another kind or degree of being might consider such an omission to be prevarication, considering the Lord’s definition of “truth.”

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — September 6, 2010 @ 7:55 am

  34. I don’t know Ardis. I am sort of glad your class member took you on. This fabulous rant likely would not have occurred if your buttons hadn’t been pushed. I enjoy your historical posts but I love the ones where you let it out loud and proud and proclaim, this is what Ardis thinks. You are someone whose fierce belief mixed with intellectual toughness produces results that are fascinating to read. Thanks for letting us in on this one.

    Comment by Sanford — September 6, 2010 @ 8:14 am

  35. as though faith is demonstrated only by believing six impossible things before breakfast,

    I had a seminary teacher back in the day who, when confronted with the “problem” of whether Jonah was swallowed by a whale (Luke) or a fish (Jonah), said that he preferred to believe that it was a whale. His reason was because scientists (allegedly) say that whales can’t swallow a person, so it takes more faith to believe that it was a whale.

    I’m not making that up.

    Comment by Left Field — September 6, 2010 @ 9:46 am

  36. number me among those who don’t relish the provocation but do celebrate the aftermath. i can’t tell you how much i appreciate your putting lessons you teach here. even though i’m not a literalist by any stretch, i still see perspectives i wouldn’t see on my own. you are a real treasure.

    Comment by ellen — September 6, 2010 @ 9:59 am

  37. Just as the Savior taught in parables so that the simplest of believers could understand, so too are much of the scriptures written in forms that every reader can receive a preliminary understanding of deep doctrine. As time passes and the student of the scriptures matures, their capacity to understand the deeper meanings is expanded. In this life the challenge continues to be – believe until the Spirit confirms that which is true. Many things will not be revealed in this life. But our patience and faith are required until all truth is revealed.

    Comment by Jim — September 6, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  38. How I wish I were there to listen to you teach Hosea if this is what happened when you taught Jonah!

    Ardis, keep believing that you are a person of integrity and honesty because you definitely are such a person.

    Comment by Cliff — September 6, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  39. I don’t have the quote or the citation at my fingertips, but Brigham Young once said — in essence — that many biblical passages should not be taken literally. For instance, Adam being made out of the dust of the earth. Instead, such passages were written in a manner that people could understand and grasp. It sounded very much like a John Calvin-esque theory of accommodation. In other words, I think BY is on your side of this debate.

    Comment by John T. — September 6, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  40. I love your rant. And your lessons.

    This week every time someone said “whale” the sister behind me muttered “It wasn’t a whale!” (At least a dozen times, but who’s counting.) Finally I was forced to invoke VeggieTales to bring the conversation around.

    Comment by Jami — September 6, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  41. Ardis, if you never challenge anyone who wants to push a historical reading of an obvious allegory or satire, how are they going to learn? I think the chances of understanding the point of Jonah while reading it as a history are nearly zero.

    If the author of Jonah visited our Sunday School classes and found out there are a bunch of people reading his story as a strictly historical document he would laugh himself silly. It would be like if Mel Brooks went 2500 years into the future and found out people thought Space Balls was a historical documentary.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 6, 2010 @ 10:57 am

  42. Great rant.

    One notable feature of the report of your class’s lesson yesterday (which I understand was taught by your alternate rather than by you) and remarks of so many commenters is that the lesson was NOT supposed to be about Jonah-and-the-[insert appropriate noun here] at all. The lesson as outlined in the teacher’s manual was about Jonah’s work as a missionary AFTER he was spit up, along with Micah’s missionary work. Any discussion at all of the [appropriate noun] episode was strictly a threadjack that robbed time from the issues the teacher should have been addressing.

    Next time, do a rant about teachers who don’t even read the statement of the lesson’s purpose before they launch into their canned “discussions.” No wonder our classes are so often pointless.

    Comment by JFC — September 6, 2010 @ 11:07 am

  43. I think the literal people worry that we are questioning God’s infinite power..his ability to somehow accomplish the miraculous and impossible. You can also get into a place where you might have to think…instead of deciding it’s all figurative or literal…you might have you use your brain and discern story by story. Or just let it go.

    Either way, the point of the story is for us to learn what God wants us to learn from the story…I think what kind of fish discussions keep us in the safe territory and far away from “I might actually have to change myself” place…at the same time I’ve heard intellectualized, open minded discussions of scriptural accounts that are so focused on the Hebrew or conjecturing which parts were accurate and why or why not..and again miss the “I might have to change”…. Of course if we get to the changing part, our mind first thinks of how this certain story applies so much more to a certain someone over there..they sure should read it and change.

    Comment by britt k — September 6, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  44. Ardis, smashing post. Thanks. (I found myself wondering what would have happened had you clarified that Jonah is actually an Asparagus…)

    And #4: “It’s as if senior LDS leaders are using iPhones and Correlation is using rotary dial handsets from the fifties!” — I don’t know if I agree with you, but I really like your image.

    Comment by Paul — September 6, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  45. Ardis=rock star.

    Comment by smb — September 6, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  46. Walter Martin used to answer LDS missonaries’ literal use of anthropomorphic imagery in the Bible, to show God’s literal human form, with Ruth 2:12:
    The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.

    Comment by manaen — September 6, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

  47. There are only two problems in Steve’s (comment 12) otherwise lucid deconstruction of the Jonah story:

    First, he calls him “Job” throughout, needlessly destroying his credibility from the get-go; and

    Second, he suggests that nobody could get to Nineveh from the Mediterranean coast in three days. But he never for a moment considers how far onto the shore the great fish vomited Jonah. Has he never heard of projectile vomiting? Did he forget that it was a great fish?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 6, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  48. Ardis— Have you ever looked at the book by Heber Snell on the old testament that was published in the 1940’s ?

    Snell was a member of individuals from the Church Educational System who in the 1930’s went to the University of Chicago Divinity School to study modern Biblical Scholarship. Others who did this inculded T. Edgar Lyon and Sidney Sperry.

    Unfortunately men like Snell had been purged from the CES by the 50’s and 60’s.

    It is tempting to think what the church would be like today if our Scripture Mannuals would of been written by men like Snell.

    Ther was a good article about Snell in Dialogue in the 1970’s

    Comment by john willis — September 6, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

  49. Mark B. —

    Uggh. The dangerous of typing on a phone. Job/Jonah/Hosea — all kind of smear together.

    As to the distance, it is a hoot what some of the evangelicals have tried to do with this. Some even claim that the whale swam up the river to Nineveh. Yeah, we know all of the whales that go up the Mississippi to Saint Louis.

    Comment by Steve — September 6, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  50. Sigh — “dangers of typing on a phone”

    Comment by Steve — September 6, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  51. Steve, the 3 days journey isn’t the distance from Jonah’s landing TO Nineveh. It’s the distance across the city of Nineveh itself. (The KJV English obscures this.) It’s just another example in the story of very exaggerated language. “Great” (Heb. gadol) occurs some 15x in these 4 short chapters.

    This exaggerated language is one of several elements in the things that suggest its non-reality.

    Comment by Ben S — September 6, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

  52. Ben,

    That is fascinating. I just reread several other translations and your interpretation that it refers to the size of the city looks valid (One uses the following: “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.”).

    What is funny is how many sites try to explain how Jonah got from being deposited by the whale to Nineveh within three days. Obviously, they (and I) were off.

    My hat is off to you . ..

    Comment by Steve — September 6, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  53. You can tell by my last post that I was trying to say something different than what I ended up saying. I won’t even try to go there.

    Despite my failings, I want to give thanks your ward being just the way it is.

    What if it was the sort of ward in which a single sister was never called as a visiting teacher, let alone a gospel doctrine teacher? The horrible experience of the day would not have happened to Ardis; but she would not have given the lesson which spurred it, or the lovely rant of today. How poor we would be!

    It’s very trying to hear yourself abused so Ardis, I’m sorry you had to sit through it. But I’m feeling blessed by your reaction, and I’m so glad you shared that with us!

    Comment by Diane Peel — September 6, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

  54. I have enjoyed all of these comments, plus the ranting by Ardis. My husband and I got fed up with the poor teaching in GD class and started going into the Gospel Essentials Class. As RS president it helped me connect with less active members. After reading all of the lessons Ardis posts, and the comments, I’m really thinking strongly about going back to the GD class to compare her lessons to the ones in our ward.

    Comment by Maurine — September 6, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

  55. Sorry, Ardis, you’re going to hell. Unless you register for this conference.

    Comment by gst — September 7, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  56. I sometimes think the Church would be better off without a Sunday school class. We’ve reduced the size of the teacher’s manuals so small that the teachers must depend upon lots of personal preparation. Sadly, most are not prepared to teach the Old Testament (or other books, for that matter). We end up with poorly prepared lesson plans, where no one learns anything, but everyone’s currently held beliefs are kept intact by their ignorance.

    Teachers need to open up the minds of their students. But we aren’t accomplishing that task. Instead, we slouch towards Gomorrah, having the blind lead the blind into the ditch.

    It should be required that any Gospel Doctrine teacher take a few courses via Institute or perhaps online classes on the book of study, prior to actually teaching it. Or, we need to restructure the lessons away from the annual Bible/BoM/D&C structure to studying topics in-depth over the length of several weeks.

    The GAs pound on us to “teach the doctrine”, but so many will be hung up on whether Jonah was really eaten by a whale or not. Such are distractions, and the members really do not learn true doctrine by lightly touching upon it every week as if we were all in first grade.

    Comment by Rameumptom — September 7, 2010 @ 11:35 am

  57. I wish we’d do like they’ve done with Priesthood/Relief Society recently, and have one course of study over two years. Imagine a two-year-long Old Testament course, where individuals are encouraged to actually read the entire Old Testament, and not just the same proof-texts!

    Heck, a Two-year course on the New Testament would be fantastic – imagine a whole year on the life of Christ, and another whole year exploring the doctrine of the Epistles!

    Of course, the CES institute manuals (which most Gospel Doctrine teachers I’ve seen use for reference) really aren’t that much better, and are in heavy need of revision and update. They’re still filled with JFS and BRM anti-Science literalisms and proof-texting.

    Comment by David — September 7, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

  58. David,

    I’m trying to remember exactly when, but the church first envisioned doing a sever year rotation for Sunday School, with two years for the OT, two years for the NT just as you suggested, two years for the BOM, and a year for the D&C/PGP. I don’t think they got through more than about four years, and switched to the current four year cycle.

    Ardis, you have the patience of Job. :)

    We did Job yesterday, and had a substitute for GD who is an individual that has been a huge, positive influence in my life, and someone whom I great admire. He, however, was unable to escape the trap of literalism, even going so far as to say that Job, as mentioned in chapter 1, had already obtained perfection. My rereading of Job just confirms for me that the work is a literary one. There is also the obvious gap where something has gone missing from the text in the later chapters, and suddenly Jehovah is speaking, without any transition at all. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, and while I have a huge amount of respect for this individual, I am glad he won’t be teaching SS on a regular basis.

    Comment by kevinf — September 7, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

  59. @#44 Paul – I had to spend the entire lesson last Sunday refraining from steering the discussion towards fish-slapping, Go Fish, and angelic choirs in the fish’s belly. Fortunately for the class, my sense of self control prevailed.

    Comment by iguacufalls — September 7, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  60. I guess I have a few “cents” to add to this discussion:

    While we proclaim a Gospel of Faith and Free Agency, some amongst us try to ignore the inescapable relationship between Faith and Uncertainty. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

    Add Free Agency and it can get downright messy. Many people simply can’t deal with uncertainty, and they can’t abide the appearance of disorder that follows from the exercise of agency. Using questionable application of logic and extrapolation, they feel it necessary to prescribe all aspects of orthodox interpretation and orthodox practice for themselves – their own choice, however unhealthy it may be, since it may close the door on receiving any new measure of light and knowledge.

    If they stopped at this point, they would have done damage enough, but the purveyors of orthodox interpretation and minutely prescribed behavior then generally attempt to enforce there self-certain vision of “right thinking” on all around them, as if some alternate understanding represents a personal threat to them.

    King Benjamin reminds us that we are all beggars. I think that applies to all aspects of our lives, not just our economic state. As beggars, humility whispers to us that we need faith, because we are always moving forward with some measure of uncertainty, and it is faith that sustains and encourages us in the face of such uncertainty.

    How could a humble expression of faith ever call forth declarations of orthodox certainty?

    It never could.

    Is it something else then? Fear of acknowledging uncertainty? Fear and faith cannot coexist. One dispels the other.

    I think efforts to shove one’s POV down someone else’s throat are most often driven by fear, not faith; pride, not humility.

    Think of all the expositions written and addresses given from pulpits over the years spelling out so clearly the logical underpinning and sound doctinal foundation for the policy of witholding the fullness of Priesthood and Temple blessings from those with African ancestry. They who advanced these ideas clearly had it all worked out, and further, were certain they knew how this issue would play out in the future. And they were all wrong. As Elder McConkie later proclaimed about such declarations: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

    Until and unless we have duly acknowledged canon on critical issues, there must be room for a variance of opinions, for we speak with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge” that must accompany such authoritative interpretation. There are alot more critical isseus to sort out before we will have time to clarify the question of Jonah and the great fish.

    The most important message that Jonah has for us gets lost in the distraction from substance that such misplaced emphasis on orthodox literalist interpretation creates.

    Res ipsa locutor.

    Comment by Jeff — September 7, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  61. Great post, Ardis. Wish you could teach Sunday School in my ward. Seriously.

    Comment by fMhArtemis — September 7, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

  62. Good post Ardis. It must be very scary to be a literalist — you’d probably feel like you’re under attack every moment.

    Comment by Martin — September 7, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  63. Great post, Ardis. This is one to which I will be linking in the future.

    Comment by Ray — September 7, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

  64. Thanks for this breath of sanity.

    The topic of my ward’s adult Sunday School class today was ‘since Jesus referenced the story of Jonah, if you don’t think it is literal, then you don’t have any testimony of our Saviour’.

    Aarrgh!!! I am bookmarking this page.

    Comment by Anon — September 12, 2010 @ 1:25 am

  65. Forgive the self-promotion, but I just put up a post addressing that kind of argument in #64, and my Jonah podcast.

    Comment by Ben S — September 12, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  66. My hero.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 12, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  67. Thank you, Ardis, for your wonderful thoughts.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — September 12, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  68. […] in generalities, let’s take a specific example that has received some attention lately (see here and here), the book of Jonah. Lesson 33 in the manual (titled “Sharing the Gospel with the […]

    Pingback by Correlation is Killing Sunday School | Times & Seasons — September 13, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

  69. A young Baptist girl just taught me the story of Jonah in 6 easy minutes.

    Video here

    Comment by Clair — November 14, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

  70. That was delightful, Clair! Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 14, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

  71. Ardis,

    I don’t know you, but I wish I could study with you in preparing my GD lessons. I so appreciate your point of view, even if it was motivated as a rant. Imagine how wonderful it must be when it’s not!

    I must admit to feeling as though I’ve been harshly spoken of by some of the comments here, but no harm has been done. I was raised to be what is being termed a “literalist”. It has only been in recent years that I have begun to move away from that view of the scriptures. In the past I’ve always assumed that anything that didn’t make sense didn’t matter anyway. I have loved the scriptures all my life, and have found great peace in them as well as marvelous teachings that, over time, have made (and are still making) a “new creature” of me. And for so many years this has taken place while I assumed that all the scripture stories were pretty much just the way they were written.

    I’m not that different today, )I still haven’t reached to point of viewing them as poetry and metaphor), but as I’ve studied more deeply I have found more inconsistencies, and more reasons to assume that everything cannot be just as it is written. I’ve also learned more about how ancient texts came about, which leaves more room for inaccuracies, embellishments, and errors. But nothing has changed in regard to how the central theme of those stories teaches me about myself and my relationship with God or his children.

    I suppose I’ve not been a true-blue-through-and-through “literalist” for many years, since I’ve been willing to just let things go if they get in the way of the message (the sun turning back, the fish/whale/3-day thing, etc). But I really don’t care. I’m also willing to let those things be true. (well, OK, never was ready to have God and satan arguing about Job…) Those details don’t matter. I’ll just skip over that detail and try to obtain the spirit of God to teach me and edify me. Mostly I want to obtain the spirit, so that he can change me. The scriptures, both ancient and modern have so much to teach us and change in us. I really don’t think the scriptures are meant to teach us history; they just use history to teach us about ourselves and our father in heaven and his son.

    So, I wholeheartedly embrace your point “The story may be factual. I don’t have any strong opinion one way or the other, and certainly no special insight or expertise to offer. Frankly, I don’t think it matters at all whether Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish was literal or metaphorical – it serves the Biblical purpose either way”. There were some comments that followed your post that were more critical of those who still take those stories literally, and I don’t embrace those points of view.

    The “Biblical purpose” is fulfilled both for the literalists and the “metaphoricalists”. We can and should coexist in harmony. I am so sorry when either point of view is held up to be the “true and living” point of view. The spirit of God can teach us what we need to learn no matter which point of view we come from and that’s all that matters. (assuming we aren’t too extreme in either point of view).

    Thanks for sharing your well articulated thoughts.

    Comment by Brian — August 15, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

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