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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.

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71 Comments »

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. Sorry, Ardis, you’re going to hell. Unless you register for this conference. http://www.galileowaswrong.com/galileowaswrong/

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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. @#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

  10. 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

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

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

  12. 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

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

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

  14. 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

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

    http://www.patheos.com/community/mormonportal/2010/09/12/jonah-the-insufficiency-of-the-new-testament-argument/

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

  16. My hero.

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

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

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

  18. […] 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

  19. 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

  20. That was delightful, Clair! Thanks.

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

  21. 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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