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.