Today we have a new guest post by Buddhist Bishop.
What exactly are faithful LDS required to believe to be in good standing? Must we believe, for example, in a literal Garden of Eden and in a literal Adam and Eve? Is it required that we believe that the whole earth was flooded and that Noah and his family rode out the flood in an ark with reproducing pairs of every kind of living creature? And what of the Book of Mormon—the keystone of our religion? Is the only valid testimony one that accepts the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon?
Modern sensitivities make it difficult to take many of these stories literally. There is absolutely no evidence of a world-wide flood. There is little or no evidence anywhere in the ancient Americas for most of the kinds of things described in the Book of Mormon, from horses to metal swords to coined money.
Does that mean that these narratives are not true? From a literal, factual point of view, probably for the most part not true. Unfortunately, many younger members often have a faith crisis when they realize there is much less factuality in these stories than they were taught growing up. And if factuality is all there is that can hold water, who could blame them?
Oh say, then, just what is truth?
A quick visit to the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that truth defined as a true statement or account does not occur before the mid-14th Century, and truth as an established fact not until the 16th Century. Loyalty and faithfulness are the much older meanings of truth. We still use both of these meanings today, of course.
Joseph Campbell, the preeminent interpreter of myths, posited a denotational truth as well as a connotational truth. The denotation of an event or story is its actual factual “reality”. Something happened or it didn’t. Everyone in the world perished in the flood except Noah and his family – or not.
The connotation of a story or an event has much deeper meaning. We might call it the metaphorical aspect of a story or event. Regardless of the factuality of the great flood, the story of Noah and his family can profitably be interpreted mythologically, and as such the connotation may have many layers. The Ark is a wonderful metaphor of carrying over critical knowledge and materials to a new beginning. I often use the Ark metaphor when teaching about preserving critical wilderness areas. These preserves are storehouses of ecological processes and relationships that we understand very little of. We need these preserves or arks to help us restore prairies and forests to their full functionality in the future when we will perhaps have more opportunity to restore our damaged earth.
The Ark then is a powerful metaphor regardless of what we regard as the factuality of the great flood. And we could draw out any number of other metaphors from the rest of the story. Hanging together as a family, a willingness to be in the minority and to suffer the abuses of being unpopular.
We might ask the question as to which of these orientations is more fruitful in terms of inspiration and the spiritual life. To simply believe in scriptural or other events might actually be somewhat sterile. Of course, many of our brothers and sisters view a testimony of the veracity of stories such as the great flood as an indispensable first step in the Gospel.
But one can certainly adopt a metaphorical approach without getting crossways with our more literally minded fellow members of the church. Most members in fact would find little to object to in a discussion of the connotation of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, for example.
Virtually all of our scriptures in fact have an abundance of connotational truth, truth that can inspire and motivate. One does not have to reveal, in church, exactly how one feels about the factual truthfulness of various scriptural stories. Such a revelation would more often than not be counterproductive.
On the edge, but still very much inside
The edge of inside is a great metaphor. Still in the group, but not quite the truest of believers, perhaps. I am myself quite near that metaphorical edge. Even so, I have served several times as bishop or branch president. I have never felt uncomfortable in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy. And no one has ever complained about what I teach. [I have indeed gotten crossways on other issues, but that’s another story!]. I focus on the connotation of the scriptures. The denotation in most cases turns out to be almost completely irrelevant.
Let’s take for example a very powerful story from the scriptures. In Mark 5:25 we read the story of the woman with an issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and was then made whole. The usual interpretation we hear most often is that this story testifies to us of the infinite sensitivity of the Master and his willingness to heal. Not a bad interpretation, but a bit limited.
We can turn this story into a metaphor of our own attentiveness. The episode in Mark happened in a very busy market of the kind we might find in Mexico or Guatemala today –almost total pandemonium and much jostling and shouting. And Jesus says “who touched me?” Easy to imagine the look on the faces of his disciples when he says that! Let’s metaphorically turn this to ourselves, in our busy lives, where people are demanding attention from all sides –professionally, at home, at church etc. But in the midst of all this someone is tugging on the hem of our garment. Is it one of our children begging for attention, or might it be someone shy at church or at work, and we can’t seem to hear or recognize them, with so many other demands? The power of this interpretation does not rely on belief in the factuality of the story. But weaving something like this into a lesson or talk at church will not bring down the authorities on your head. Most people in fact will feel the power of this “mythic view”, because we all know this situation applies to us, and that we may indeed not be heeding the most important tugs in our lives. Metaphor allows to see many new layers to these stories.
Meaning and metaphor
Jesus himself taught via metaphor. The word “metaphor’ is itself a great metaphor: meta -over or across, and phor, to carry (etymonline.com).—just like the Ark I described above. So a metaphor carries meaning –over and across to people, or even across cultures and epochs. And metaphors can always be interpreted in many different ways.
When we think of metaphors, the word myth comes quickly to mind. Much of our popular literature thinks of myths as much less than truth, sometimes even as a lie. But myths almost always reflect great truths that can serve as powerful signposts in our lives. I have written elsewhere of what I consider to be the central myth of the Book of Mormon: the Tree of Life and the Iron Rod. Even if the Book of Mormon were a total fabrication, which I am definitely not suggesting is the case, the mythic truth of the path and the tree is as powerful a metaphor as any in scripture, or literature for that matter.
What has been your experience with literal interpretations of problematic scriptures (problematic in the sense of being highly unlikely)? Are you sometimes at odds with fellow members? Could a mythic outlook aid those uncomfortable with rigidity?
I like the way you’ve described this and I think it’s an essential way to view religious texts if we want to hang on to young people & doubters. I think we learn much more from thinking “this is a story where the details might be there for a reason, what might this detail / story mean about me, my relationship with God or others, and what can I learn from it?” rather than trying to figure out how it could be literally true (which doesn’t teach us anything beyond a magical view of history).
I think it’s a really tough way to deal with Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the D&C though, because it’s simply not the way Joseph Smith himself described (or any of our current top leadership describes) his experiences and the BoM. I really don’t know how you square a nonliteral view of our founding stories & the Book of Mormon without thinking Joseph Smith was a huge liar or delusional. But would love to hear how people do. (I have heard Greg Prince talk about this, and his approach makes some sense, but requires me to ignore so much of what Joseph Smith actually said …)
An older relative recently told me that Lamanites will build a temple in Missouri…
Apparently McConkie has debunked this but we still have a literal belief in gathering Israel.
And I still have a friend’s parent on a mission in Missouri instructed to share few details about it…
Maybe he was thinking of the wall those “lamanites” were building a little bit to the south? And paying for it too!!
Elisa is correct. The reason why there is no room in mainstream Mormonism for the non-literal or metaphorical approach is because of Mormonism’s continued insistence on the literal truth of its teachings and history. That insistence means that folks who approach things metaphorically aren’t seen as adding anything to the discussion or the church, but rather detracting from it. And the tragic irony of Mormonism’s insistence on the literal truth of things is that under ordinary circumstances, claims of literal truth demand actual, empirical evidence in support of those claims. Mormonism makes its truth claims, but doesn’t have any kind of material evidence with which to support those claims. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that big a problem as the church could simply fall back on saying stuff like “well, we have faith that it’s true.” But when was the last time you heard a testimony being borne that said “I believe it’s true” or “I have faith it’s true and hope someday to know for sure.”? I always hear “I KNOW this church is true.” So the church doesn’t so much as encourage us to rely on a kind of fuzzy, unformed faith, it tries to channel us towards KNOWING its teachings are true, which is simply impossible without a literal, unmistakeable heavenly visitation or some other sort of physical evidence that can be independently verified. So really, it works against its own self-interest by taking this all or nothing approach. Apparently, however, it doesn’t seem to care.
@Brother Sky, yep. I think “it doesn’t seem to care” is really that it *can’t* care because changing the approach and shifting from a literal version of historicity would eviscerate our claims to exclusive priesthood & prophetic authority.
Our claim to exclusive priesthood & prophetic authority is that Peter, James, and John literally came down and conferred that authority on Joseph Smith in an unbroken line.
If that didn’t actually happen and that the conferral was just metaphorical … poof to our claims of exclusive priesthood authority.
Personally, I don’t like that claim – I think it’s the cause of all our biggest problems (over-reliance on prophets and wielding the priesthood as a way to exclude blacks and women, etc.). And it is also probably our MOST SUSPECT historical claim. Like, the record supporting that as having actually occurred is not good. I believe an objective historian would conclude it did not. But I am not really sure where that would leave the Church to come clean. It sort of the whole basis for our entire religion and the one unique thing (in addition to the BoM & additional scripture) we offer to the world. So I don’t see the Church ever ceding that historical ground.
Elisa: “it can’t care because changing the approach and shifting from a literal version of historic would eviscerate our claims to exclusive priesthood & prophetic authority.” THIS times a thousand. When literal, historical truth is hidden, purposely muddled, etc. all for the reason of sustaining our exclusive claims, you know we’ve jumped the shark.
I wonder how much of this is just hard-wired into people. I mean, maybe you can train people to understand it better, but some are just not that interested in these types of discussions. Just for a few examples, Austen’s books have an enduring power because they are complex insights into people’s motives and machinations as well as the underlying societal pressures of slavery, income inequality, and the insensitivities of the rich, but a literalist who isn’t that interested in understanding these things could easily reduce her books to a rom-com (and often do!). I have often said people just don’t read, which is true, but also they don’t know how to read.
The movie A Promising Young Woman is another example. The movie is the demoralizing but engaging story of a woman who is despondent and guilty when her friend commits suicide after being raped by a fraternity. She spends the whole film trying to teach people accountability for their actions mainly by pretending to be drunk in bars until “nice guys” who offer to take her home try to take advantage of her. Then she reveals that she’s been pretending to be drunk, but also reveals to them that they’ve been pretending to be nice. The movie is a dark, damning commentary on the lack of accountability for rape in our culture. What was the first critique of this film, though? That Carey Mulligan wasn’t hot enough to pull off the role. While that’s clearly an ironically bad take on this film, it’s also evidence of a form of superficial literalism. Rather than looking at the symbolism of her actions or the psychological representation of the characters, the critic literally just saw a woman “seductress” and evaluated her on the plausibility of her hotness to attract the men she was targeting. That’s like reducing the Law of Moses to a cookbook.
Multiple times people have told me that the meaning of stories changes if the people are not “real”. Specially, when I suggested Job was mythological, someone said they just don’t see the story the same way if Job wasn’t real, and they certainly thought that Job was real, implying to me that they felt that the deeper meaning comes from the denotations rather than connotations.
Personally, I find the metaphorical aspects of scriptures to be much more meaningful, and I find the literal interpretations frequently problematic. As an example, a literal interpretations of the scriptures can and do lead some people to disregard climate science (the world will be burned at his coming, anyway).
I suppose metaphorical readings can also be problematic, but I think, or maybe hope, that people are more free to use their conscience and critical thinking skills when applying metaphorical readings.
Elisa (and Brother Sky) nails the reason why a metaphorical interpretation can work for Biblical stories but not Mormon-specific scriptures. Ben Spackman has written a lot about the genre of Biblical writings, explaining that we shouldn’t take these stories literally, because the authors didn’t necessarily mean for them to be taken literally. Their audience knew that these things were metaphorical. We’ve misinterpreted the meaning and intent of these stories by taking them literally. (I hope I’ve paraphrased his argument correctly). While most church members and leaders likely believe in a literal Garden of Eden, flood, etc., I was able to find space for a metaphorical belief in these things.
This doesn’t work for LDS scripture, because the authors or “revelators” of these scriptures did believe them literally, and intended for us to believe them literally. I can’t fault the author of Genesis if I misunderstood their intent. I can fault latter-day prophets for their insistence on literal belief in things contradicted by so much evidence.
This approach runs into problems when applied to the New Testament. Given that most of the stories about Jesus, especially those about his divinity and resurrection, have significant factual and source problems, can one still be a Christian while also taking Jesus as only a metaphor? That’s not even getting into evaluating the evidence for God.
I mean, you can still take Jesus as an example or a metaphor, but the vitality of Christianity is greatly reduced under those assumptions.
Noah and the flood is an interesting example. I personally don’t believe it is something that actually happened. Recently I have been listening to Old Testament and New Testament history courses from Yale on YouTube. Highly recommended. For The historicity of Noah it is interesting to see how the older flood stories from Babylonia and Akkadian myths that have been translated from cuneiform tablets change the narrative.
If the Old Testament stories originated from other mythology it weakens any historical Noah, but the differences in portrayal of divine intentions and actions are more telling of doctrinal message that the original author of Genesis wanted to convey. His audience may have known those other myths and recognized the differences. But if the story is a myth then what does that mean for all of the other prophets that considered it factual?
I don’t have answers. It kind of shakes me some – it was simpler to think of the stories in the Bible as absolute truth, but I wouldnt go back. I would rather live in the complex world of not knowing.
@Aden, I agree, the same arguments on LDS historicity could be applied to the New Testament. I do think there are some differences (and I’m sure someone way smarter than me about the New Testament could talk about those).
Personally I’m comfortable not knowing exactly what happened with Jesus. I find so much value in that story – value that I simply don’t find in a story about angels who visited some guys because all of the other churches were bad and wrong, and gave those guys authority over women (including multiple wives) and black people and then those guys passed that authority down to people who get to decide what does and doesn’t make a valid family. (I’m probably being overly harsh, but again, I think the claim of exclusive authority is just so harmful and the root of all that stinks about the Church today.)
Few in the Church, in the pews or in leadership, are particularly open to metaphorical testimonies. “I know that the Book of Mormon is metaphorically true” would get quizzical looks, not agreeable nods, from listeners. Doubling down doesn’t help: “I know with every fibre of my being that the Book of Mormon contains metaphorical truths.” Not much better. Maybe someday, but not today.
On the other hand, members don’t have much trouble understanding that the parables of Jesus are not literally true, are not meant to be taken as literally true, yet are valuable and contain insightful teachings. The extended tree of life and rod of iron story in 1 Nephi are parable-like. No one gets worked up if you tell a class, “In the vision, the Rod of Iron is a symbol. There isn’t really a metal rod, a physical artifact, that Lehi or Nephi was viewing in vision.” It’s really just a question of what scriptural passages allow or require a metaphorical reading versus which passages allow or require a literal reading. And Mormons get almost no informed guidance in the Church, either in classes or manuals or even BYU religion courses, for how to approach that sort of question. Manuals have too many quotes from GAs and not enough (any?) quotes from Bible scholars.
@Elisa, @Brother sky and others
I am not quite sure there is much difference in the Book of Mormon or the Bible in terms of what the original recipients thought. I find it difficult to believe the the intended audiences of the Bible thought everything was of course metaphorical. I am sure most readers of the Old Testament, ages ago and now, viewed the garden of eden as a real deal and not at all metaphorical. Same issues with the Book of Mormon.
But look, its not about getting up in testimony meeting and saying “I know the BOM to be a true metaphor”. That will get you nowhere. Taking a metaphorical viewpoint is to keep you sane and happy at church. And to see that there is real value in the scriptures, whether they are factually true or not. The factual, denotational truth is very often not very inspiring.
Several folks seem to be saying, well, if its just a myth, then what? “Just” a myth is the problem –maybe you should be saying, wow, what a myth. Because in the myth is the real truth.
I have given bookoo testimonies as a leader –comes with the territory as a bishop, for example. I dont have to say “I know this is the only true and living church et etc”. I can say things like “I know that God works through this church” (and why wouldnt he?). “I see the hands of God in the works of charity that I see in ward members assisting Sister so and so”. No one has ever come up to me and said, well Bishop, that was just a little too metaphorical, dont you think?
Any lesson we give, if you teach the metaphorical truth, you dont have to expose your self and say, I dont really believe any of this, so I am going to interpret this metaphorically for you. Not a way to influence friends!
There are of course a lot of issues that are hard to deal with –polygamy for one. But no one that I know is suggesting we return to that, thank God. The deal is that there is not going to be a perfect prophet, and most humans come pretty mixed up. Take Jefferson. A messed up slave holder to be sure. No excuses for being a man of his time–he did bad in this department. But then what about the Declaration of Independence, etc? There had to be a little inspiration there. I think the same with Br Joseph. We wonder about some things –but there are many sublime passages throughout the Restoration scriptures. Sometimes we just gotta take the good with the bad–unless the bad is just so really bad!
I am comfortable in the wards I have lived in. It is my faith community. I see people who sacrifice and share. I have participated with many crews of my brothers and sisters mucking out houses near and far that suffered flood damage (lived on the Gulf Coast for a long time!). Most of these folks for sure take a literal view of the scriptures, and that is important to them. I am not going to tell them otherwise. The metaphorical view of things enables me to take most things in stride.
My hero (metaphorical of course!) is San Manuel Bueno, Martir, by Miguel de Unamuno. He knew how to keep is mask on. Worth a read.
Such a thought provoking post – thank you. If we were to look closely at how the Bible was compiled and by who, what was kept and what was left out, we might be more prepared to accept these stories metaphorically and not literally. Like Balaam and the donkey – how is that even in there and what does it mean? I need someone with more education to explain it to me. Then we have leaders of the church like Joseph Fielding Smith being total Creationists on the age of the Earth. I love the Jesus of The New Testament – but I’m recognizing how ideologies of many Christian people don’t fit how he lived and taught. I feel like I have to jump through too many hoops to accept that TCOJCOLDS holds the answers when there isn’t a level playing field within its walls.
Now I see Patrick Mason new book about truth, which is gaslighting all of us over 40 years old who grew up in the LDS church.
The “trutb” is only what those in power say it is. It changes from generation to generation.
My truth is my inner self teaching me The rest can be debated back and forth. Now my best approach is to read and learn from as many sources to be self enlightened.
But literally we need to let people live their lives and stop using religion as a bulley stick to impose our view. Truth is determined and accepted by the individual and not the institution. If everyone has different truths…. so be it…..we do not need to keep evangelizing and have holy wars to impose our truth on others.
I have found that most people do have different truths but the instuitions form strong coalitions by stealing individual voices and having leadership in power impose their own will.
That no longer works in the information age.
@Faith I hear you. I really like Patrick’s work, as well as the Givens and those folks. But their version of the gospel isn’t the version we were taught. Using their version of the gospel to prop up prophetic authority is gas-lighting.
Faith / Elisa: You two have hit the main point for me. The writer asks, “What exactly are faithful LDS required to believe to be in good standing?” For me the issue is: why is the answer to this question changing? Patrick Mason is allowing me to answer the question much differently than I could have answered growing up in the80s.
I understand that revelation suggests that the Prophet receives new revelation for us today. And in theory, that would mean that RMN receives messages from the Lord that SWK would not have received when I was growing up in the 80s. But how far does that go? It’s one thing to change policies. But we are seeing a subtle change in doctrine. Whether it’s the Givens (check out Mormon Stories episode 1393) or Mason, we are being told new “truth”, new doctrine.
I used to say “the Church is perfect but the members are not” WRONG. I used to say “the Church changes but the doctrine does not”. WRONG. So I don’t know how to answer “What exactly are faithful LDS required to believe to be in good standing?” because the answer keeps changing.
I like the concept of rephrasing things so others are able to hear/accept them. Particularly for those who are in the church, but the fit isn’t very good anymore. In a real way, it is empowering. You do it with metaphors. It’s a form of “likening the scriptures unto us” (something that someone who attended seminary a while back may be able to hear) 😉
For me, it may fall more along science/religion lines:
It’s Doctrine and Covenants 88:78-79 encouraging us to study what’s above the earth, on the earth, and beneath the earth (science!).
It’s D&C 101:32-33 telling us that when the Lord returns, “he shall reveal all things — things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof”. We don’t need to reject understanding that hasn’t even been revealed yet.
It’s affirming that God has complete integrity, the layers of the earth are honest: science leads us to truth.
Unless you want a TR, you can be a cafeteria Mormon. And many members with TRs have progressive views about the Church. But it’s an uneasy relationship. If the Church leaders ever came down firmly on the side of literalism, that would be the last straw for me. And I’m already hanging by a thread (sorry for the mixed metaphor). We need President Eyre (or Elder Gong) to speak up. Both are intelligent men. Eyre’s father was a brilliant scientist. Eyre the Younger needs to step up , quit giving his dull talks, and speak about the Church’s relationship with science. When i was growing up, we learned that the Gospel included all truth. There are too many members who are anti-science.
Clearly a lot of what is taught by the church leaders is metaphorical truth and was intended to be that way. Jesus’s parables, for instance, have long been understood to be and promoted as metaphorical truth by the leaders. But we can’t deny the fact that the church has long emphasized the denotational truth aspect of so many of the historical claims of its scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon. The church’s leaders and its leading thinkers and members will undoubtedly push back against metaphorizing the truth aspects of the Book of Mormon. In fact I’ve talked with a number of FAIR volunteers about treating the Book of Mormon as metaphorical and not literal and the responses I’ve gotten from them is that this is heresy and that true belief in the Book of Mormon requires belief in its historicity.
My wife has in the past criticized me for being a “black-and-white” thinker when it comes to the Book of Mormon historicity question, she wanting to see it at as metaphorical truth (she agrees with me that it isn’t historically true but wants to maintain activity in the church and appear as believing nonetheless). I’ve told her that it isn’t me, it’s the leaders and the rank-and-file community. They’re the ones pushing the either-or narratives and insisting on historicity. But in trying to think as a church leader would, I find it incredibly difficult to transition to a strictly metaphorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon. In so doing you risk throwing Joseph Smith and other past church leaders under the bus and sow the seeds for confusion and division among literalists and metaphorists in the congregations and among thinkers in important church institutions such as CES and BYU.
I personally find it helpful to know what’s literally true and what’s not. Someone on the thread about satanic panic mentioned sleep paralysis. I, too, had a missionary in my mission who experienced sleep paralysis and mistook it for a physical attack from Satan. I’m glad someone explained it to me before I experienced it years later. It’s a scary thing for sure but it’s much less scary if you realize it’s a fairly common phenomenon and does NOT mean the embodiment of pure evil has taken control of your body out of pure hatred. Science every time, please.
“Unless you want a TR, you can be a cafeteria Mormon.”
Oh, I think we are all cafeteria Mormon’s in one way or another. I just have my TR interview last week. I “correctly” answered all the questions. Now, my interpretation may be somewhat different than the bishopric councilor, but he didn’t ask me to elaborate and I didn’t offer it up.
Joseph Smith said he had a vision, but that has been hyped by the church into a visit. Luke 22:44 says of Jesus that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” but the church has hyped that into actual drops of blood. Metaphors are hyped into historical facts. There is no way the church is going to go the other direction and admit their historical facts are just metaphors.
@Buddhist Bishop “I find it difficult to believe the intended audiences of the Bible thought everything was of course metaphorical. I am sure most readers of the Old Testament, ages ago and now, viewed the garden of eden as a real deal and not at all metaphorical.”
This statement is interesting in that it highlights the impact of how we as modern gentiles see the Bible in comparison to how contemporary Jews (who actually wrote it) viewed the Old and New Testaments.
John Shelby Spong, a noted Bible scholar, author of over 30 books on the Bible, and Episcopal Bishop, states that Old Testament stories are sacred myths. The authors did not intend them to be taken literally. They were metaphorical stories, often written to commemorate the significance of historical events. He says that no Jew then or now would feel a compulsion to take them literally.
He goes on further to say that the writers of the books of the New Testament followed the same tradition. (why wouldn’t they?) In “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy”, he lays out how the synoptic gospels closely coincide with the liturgical calendar followed in synagogue worship. No one in the Jewish sect of Christianity took the Jesus stories to be literal. The virgin birth, Jesus’s baptism attended by the Father and the Holy Ghost, and even the resurrection were metaphorical and were not taken as literal when they were presented in the afternoon session of synagogue worship. Many of the stories were crafted to specifically show Jesus as the “new Moses”.
After 77 CE or so, the Christian sect of Judaism was excommunicated and Christian Jews became rare indeed.
It was the gentile Christians that carried on, not in the Jewish tradition of “sacred myths”, but rather viewing the stories as literal.
With that perspective, the writers of the Bible would probably shake their heads at Christians taking the Bible literally. If the Church had a few Biblical scholars in the upper ranks, instead loaded with executives and lawyers, we might feel free to have a more rational interpretation of scripture.