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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Crushing My Inner Literalist » Crushing My Inner Literalist

Crushing My Inner Literalist

Seth - October 12, 2007

A few months ago, there was an argument in Relief Society about Job. During a Sunday discussion one of sisters from the faction of “young mothers” locked horns with one of the “old guard.” The younger sister saw fit to point out to the gathered sisters that the story of Job “didn’t really happen,” being merely allegorical. One of our faithful empty-nesters immediately bristled, bearing down in strong testimony against the notion. The teacher played the diplomat and skillfully redirected the conversation away from the discovered hornets nest and the class continued without much further excitement.

“But it says it’s just an allegory right in the lesson manual!” The young sister was later heard protesting. My wife nodded sympathetically, but in private suggested that perhaps she might have been a touch more diplomatic about it.

As for myself, the idea of Job being allegorical is not incredibly upsetting. Much of it reads as a Jewish fable to begin with. Then there’s that odd little betting-match between God and Satan. And it doesn’t really detract to much from the power of the story to call it a “mere story.” And really, who actually reads Job anymore? And besides, what about that caveat about the Bible being “translated correctly?” Isn’t our religion already inherently predisposed to a bit of skepticism regarding the Bible (especially the Old Testament, since it’s full of “mean people”)?

I wasn’t always like this. I was actually a biblical literalist before I started hanging out on the bloggernacle two or three years ago. Back then, I was still a little suspicious of “allegorical creep.”
I mean, why stop at Job? What about the story of Jonah and the Whale? What about the story of Adam and Eve? The temple endowment ceremony already portrays the whole story of Adam and Eve in an expressly symbolic light… Maybe it really is a symbolic story? What about the Parting of the Red Sea?

But doesn’t the story of Moses parting the Red Sea lose a bit of its “zing” if you admit to it being “just a story?” Isn’t a large part of the Bible’s power in its declared historic truthfulness? I admit it. I’m still bothered by “allegorical creep” in my scriptures. It seems that once you make the leap that the scriptures aren’t necessarily historical fact, it’s just a short hop, skip and a jump to wondering what makes them any more inspired than, say… the Koran, or The Brothers Karamazov, or Chicken Soup for the Soul? Next thing you know, I’ll be one of those snivelly goatee-sporting, postmodernist Mormons wearing a beret, and weeping into my cappuccino about correlation and relishing the thought of the fateful day when the bishop finally calls a disciplinary council on me for preaching “truth to power.”

When will it end, I ask you!?

Yet, I have little desire to follow the lead of the sister in Relief Society who vigorously defended the Book of Job as a true story either. That sort of inflexibility in one’s testimony seems dangerous to me. It makes my faithfulness into some fragile porcelain vase that you are always stressing out about, worried that the kids are going to knock it over. Isn’t it better to be able to roll with the punches? Then when you find out down the road, that your take on the holy writ wasn’t necessarily correct, it’s not the end of the world. Right?

So where’s the balance that keeps the “fiddler on the roof” without slipping off the edge? How do you achieve resiliency without courting permissiveness?


  1. I read a post or talk somewhere that suggested the concept of a mental shelf; putting topics of question/concern on one’s “shelf” until the time when they can be revisted/ solved/ explained. Praying for answers about the objects on my shelf and keeping a trained eye out for answers also keeps me from having a cluttered shelf.

    I’ve used this technique with a couple of the ambiguous lines from my patriarchal blessing. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for anything else in between Adam and Zarahemla. I only caution that such a technique can be contingent upon answers from Spirit, and is therefore controlled by God’s timetable, not ours. Just because we haven’t recieved an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It just means we don’t have an answer yet.

    The way I see it, manuals aren’t scripture; they’re tools to help us to build our own interpretations of what we read. But at the same time, we don’t want to become so revolutionary or radical that even the Church leadership cannot reach us.

    The only thing that is guaranteed is prayer. Pray for understanding, and trust that Heavenly Father will give you anything you truly need to know.

    Comment by Paradox — October 12, 2007 @ 2:10 pm

  2. Seth:

    Nicely done.

    I don’t know the answer for sure. I am concerned about the creeps myself.

    I have expressed the thought sometimes that when you start getting ancesters and posterity in the text, it is probably time to take things more literally. So when Adam has a wife, and children, and grandchildren, I begin to take him literally – and most of the events in his life. Some for other people.

    People like Melchizadek, and Job (if I remember right) sort of appear and disappear without a family tree given.

    This is probably all rubbish.

    Again, nice post.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — October 12, 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  3. Great stuff. I have the same kind of dynamic going on in my brain. On the one hand it’s a great relief to consider that maybe God really didn’t command the Israelites to slaughter unarmed people, but on the other hand it’s a bit of a bummer to consider that maybe God really didn’t protect the fleeing Israelites with a pilar of fire.

    I’ve come to the point where I try to find out what God wants me to learn from the text without worrying much about historicity. I believe the Adam and Eve story is meant to illustrate mankind’s relationship to God. It teaches that we are God’s children and we’re living this life on this fallen world because He willed it. But I don’t know if there was a parentless man named Adam from whom all humans descend or if there was no death before Adam’s transgression and I don’t really care. I know there are members and leaders of the Church who believe they have the answer to those questions and who think it’s important to believe their answer, but I just don’t think it matters. I think it matters that I believe that God is my father and He gave me this life for a purpose.

    I don’t really feel like a loss of literalism is leading me toward anything, whether it be sporting a goatee or subscribing to Sunstone. I’m comfortable in the Church and I’m pretty firmly anchored.

    Comment by Tom — October 12, 2007 @ 2:26 pm

  4. One of my favorite all-time general authority quotes came from Bruce R. McConkie when, near the end of his life, he spoke at a BYU symposium on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. As part of his talk, McConkie listed the books of the Bible, briefly commenting on each. When he came to Job, he intoned (as only McConkie could do):

    “Job…(long pause)…is for people who like Job.”

    And then he simply went on with his list. :-)

    Comment by Nick Literski — October 12, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  5. Ha!

    I need a link for that one Nick.

    (incidentally, the Church manual for that lesson did actually allow that the story of Job might be allegorical)

    Comment by Seth R. — October 12, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

  6. I think a key is to consider one’s audience and to consider one’s motivation. For example, what was the motivation to point out to people that the story in Job didn’t really happen? In the context of a lesson, was this meant to help people understand the message of the book? Was this the only way to make the point, or were there alternatives? It is important to realize that in various settings there will be others with different views about the nature of scripture and we should be sensitive to those differences. For many people, allegory and symbolism is extremely powerful and meaningful and often a purely literalist reading masks such insights. For others, to say something is allegory or merely symbolic is tantamount to saying it is meaningless or optional at best and if certain things didn’t happen, then it ceases to have meaning. It is important to be sensitive to these views. There is a lot to be said for diplomacy.

    Comment by aquinas — October 12, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  7. It IS a true story!!! Darn it! And Samson really DID kill thousands of people with a jaw-bone. And Paul Bunyan was a REAL man! And I saw Santa come down my chimney, too.

    Actually, allowing for much of the Old Testament to be allegorical has actually strengthened my testimony. I simply refuse to believe that there were kangaroos on the ark.

    Comment by John Cline — October 12, 2007 @ 4:28 pm

  8. I did a post similar to this a long time ago. Paradox’s comment is an excellent way to handle it (though I call it the puzzle pieces method).
    It seems like I hear most people say the more literal they take the scriptures, the more they understand them, but I think there’s a lot of dualism involved as well.


    I’ll give you no kangaroos, but you know there HAD to be unicorns on the boat.

    Comment by Bret — October 12, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  9. Quite honestly, it’s not the stories of the scriptures that I find most important. Rather, I find the principles taught therein to be more valuable. The stories are simply inspiring examples on how to apply gospel principles. I don’t think it makes a difference whether they are literal or not. The idea is still the same.

    Comment by Kim Siever — October 12, 2007 @ 8:43 pm

  10. If the stories are allegroical in the Bible, what about the book of mormon. 2,000 kids – not one being killed in battle, or a prophet standing on a wall and no one can knock him off – or a compass that works by faith – or men killing themselves until only two guys are left – where does it end? or does it?

    Comment by Don — October 13, 2007 @ 6:08 am

  11. I don’t think it does end actually. I’ve already started to wonder about the 2,000 sons story. What would be the logistics in writing down and transmitting that story in Nephite society?

    Was the number accurate? Probably not exactly 2,000. Helaman probably did a general estimate of the numbers. And what about casualties? I’d be interested to see the numbers for fatality rates in ancient world battles. My understanding is that those who are killed outright by sword or spear were a minority. Most of the fatalities in ancient world battlefields probably occurred after the battle as people died from sickness or exposure after being wounded. And what of those who had their life expectancy drastically shortened?

    And how is Helaman telling the story? If five or six of the warriors had actually died, would Helaman have still reported it as “all of them” surviving?

    Good times.

    Comment by Seth R. — October 13, 2007 @ 6:35 am

  12. Nick, I think it was that same talk that McConkie called the Songs of Solomon “Biblical Trash”

    I’m with Tom on this one, a lot of it just doesn’t matter to me.

    Comment by Rusty — October 13, 2007 @ 6:48 am

  13. It’s a slippery slope. If the BOM is full of allegories what about modern time, the First Vision, Kirtland temple dedication, the mountain meadow massacre. Where does it end, or does it?

    Comment by Don — October 13, 2007 @ 6:53 am

  14. I think it ends with “modern time” because their historical records don’t rely on revelation/inspiration to give us an account of historical events. Now this isn’t to say that the events of the BoM didn’t happen, just that they have all been filtered through the revelatiry lens of one person.

    Comment by Rusty — October 13, 2007 @ 7:29 am

  15. Problem is, as any good historian will tell you, you never get the full accurate picture of even recent events, let alone those that happened over a century ago.

    Anyone care to give me an accurate picture of what’s happening in Iraq?


    Then what makes you so sure of the history of Joseph Smith?

    Comment by Seth R. — October 13, 2007 @ 10:23 am

  16. Admittedly, I do find reading about Joseph Smith a bit more inspiring than reading about Iraq…

    Comment by Seth R. — October 13, 2007 @ 10:24 am

  17. Seth,

    Are you kidding? 2,000 soldiers is a very SMALL army for ancient times. Helaman even says so. We have thousands of accounts from ancient Rome and Greece of exact head counts of soldiers from each town and village and how many died (See Marathon), went missing or were wounded. Sure, when we get to larger numbers like the Persian army of Xerxes invading Greece, we have to speculate, but 2,000 is a cinch and Helaman seems to make it very clear astonishing he and the rest of the Nephites found the Ammonites in not being killed in battle. He even tells how 60 more came later to join them.

    The reason I’m so cautious to allegorize is like Don said, where does it end? It’s so much easier to justify my actions if my morals come from stories that never really happened. How many times in the scriptures do read see the writer make a point to tell us the event really did happen? Do we not trust them? If I remember correctly, isn’t this what happened to the 1st century Christians who tried to convince everyone that Christ was literally resurrected and really ascended into heaven?

    I’d MUCH rather trust history written with the lens of revelation than a secular account. What better source for accuracy than God Himself?

    Besides, what do we lose by taking it literally? Sure, we get confused about things like God’s bet with Satan in Job, but we get confused anyway, don’t we? That’s what faith until we receive a sure knowledge is for, right?

    Lastly, if we are not careful about prophecy and which are allegorical and which are literal, we may miss the signs of the times.

    Comment by Bret — October 13, 2007 @ 11:00 am

  18. #12 Rusty:
    Yes, McConkie also said that in the same talk. :-)

    Comment by Nick Literski — October 13, 2007 @ 11:52 am

  19. I think asking the question ‘What do we lose by taking it literally?’ is extremely important. And how we answer that will tell us whether we should in a given context try to make our point. If our answer is ‘Well, it’s just silly to take it literally,’ then that isn’t a good argument. Does that argument work when someone like John Shelby Spong says that it is just childish and silly to believe Jesus was born from a virgin or that he rose from the dead? Clearly, Spong would say, that holding to the notion that Jesus rose from the dead is just silly and that’s not the point of the Gospel anyway, and people who focus on that miss the whole point of the teachings of Jesus himself. So, if the argument is ‘Well, come on, think about it, it is just silly to take it literally’ then how is that helping someone to understand the material? And if that is the argument, why wouldn’t it also persuade one that it is a mistake to take the resurrection as literal?

    The argument has to be that by taking something literal we are preventing some important understanding of the Gospel or of God’s will and unless someone can demonstrate that holding a literalist view in a given situation completely prevents or bars one from possessing that important understanding, then we must conclude that there is no harm to holding a literalist view in that case, in which case there is very little reason to assert it. In which case, the end result might be, as seems to have happened in the case with the young sister, that nothing was gained and perhaps losses incurred.

    Comment by aquinas — October 13, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

  20. I agree with Bret, I would much rather view history thru the eyes of revelation/the prophets than secular. But I also realize that we only get the account from the one who viewed it (or worse yet heard about it). We all veiw things differently and when trying to explain it to others it’s difficult. Thru the prophets we get the view that will help us increase our faith and testimony. And that’s what I want to do when I read these stories of faith.

    Comment by Don — October 13, 2007 @ 12:22 pm

  21. I agree, aquinas. I think it very rarely makes sense to tell people that they shouldn’t take a passage of scripture literally. It’s just not worth arguing about most of the time.

    Comment by Tom — October 13, 2007 @ 12:58 pm

  22. I think one important thing that we may lose when we see things less literally is faith in miracles, which probably has good and bad consequences. Bad because we are taught that miracles require faith and losing faith in miracles will lead to fewer miracles on our behalf. Good because when miracles don’t come we don’t freak out thinking that it’s because God doesn’t love us enough or something.

    Comment by Tom — October 13, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

  23. I agree with Bret as to all sections of his opinion except his line about unicorns being on the ark.

    I don’t know how his upbringing was so blighted that he didn’t become acquainted with Brother Shel Silverstein’s unicorn song–there were, on the ark, some

    Green alligators and long necked geese
    Some humpty back camels and some chimpanzees
    Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
    You’re never gonna see no unicorn.

    And that’s the truth!

    Comment by Mark B. — October 13, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

  24. Thanks Bret. Neat perspective on ancient world armies.

    I think one of the things you have to be careful about when you start allowing that parts of the Bible might be allegorical, is that you don’t go one-up and start insisting that this is the only reasonable view of things, or that viewing a story as an allegory is the only way to view it.

    I think you’d be on shaky ground there. And it sure would be rather embarrassing to sit before the Judgment Bar and have God say – “well no, actually I really did part the Red Sea – and no, it wasn’t just a gradual change of tides or something.”

    Comment by Seth R. — October 13, 2007 @ 1:39 pm

  25. Mark B.,

    Some of us prefer illusion to despair!



    Comment by Bret — October 13, 2007 @ 4:34 pm

  26. Oh, and Aquinas, thank you. You put it better than I did.

    Comment by Bret — October 13, 2007 @ 4:34 pm

  27. How about this: I choose to believe they’re literal, but my world would certainly not come crashing down if it were allegorical.

    Comment by Rusty — October 13, 2007 @ 5:08 pm

  28. Bret, you’re welcome!

    Comment by aquinas — October 13, 2007 @ 5:38 pm

  29. Seth said,”(incidentally, the Church manual for that lesson did actually allow that the story of Job might be allegorical)”. Where does it say this in the manual?

    Comment by Craig — October 14, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  30. I remember reading from Jim F. at T&S on this subject, though I can’t find it. (If someone knows the link, I’d love to have it.) My paraphrase of his argument is this. In Sunday School, teach the scriptures as though they are literal. That will usually yield the message God wanted us to get from them. In other forums we can worry about historicity.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — October 14, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  31. Besides, what do we lose by taking it literally?

    Well, as mentioned in the original post, basing our faith on the literal truth of scriptural stories risks turning our testimonies into “some fragile porcelain vase that you are always stressing out about, worried that the kids are going to knock it over.”

    Additionally, insisting that the scriptures must be literally true raises some real problems when a literal interpretation conflicts with common sense, later teachings about the nature of deity, modern revelation, your conscience, or scientific knowledge. You essentially deprive yourself of some flexibility and paint yourself into a corner, forcing yourself to choose between the demands of literalness and other beliefs that are perhaps more reasonable.

    I don’t see why we should feel so anxious about the alleged slippery slope of non-literalism. Latter-day Saints don’t believe the scriptures are inerrant. That’s especially true of the Bible, which we only believe to be the word of God inasmuch as it is “translated correctly.” None of us seem to have any problems with interpreting the “days” mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis as “periods of time.” We’re already on the non-literal slope, and it doesn’t appear to be as slippery as some believe it to be. For the most part, we’re pretty capable of knowing how and where to draw the line.

    I think the fact that Mormonism has been open to non-literal interpretations of scripture from the time of Joseph Smith is one of its greatest strengths. It provides a very badly needed degree of flexibility. Taken in conjunction with modern revelation, it makes for a very dynamic religion (potentially, anyway). I, for one, am thankful that I can still be a Mormon without having to believe that the earth is only 6000 years old or that there were kangaroos on the ark.

    Comment by Steve M — October 14, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

  32. Craig:

    It doesn’t say that in the GD teacher’s manual. And I have never seen it in any other church manual either. That’s not to say it shouldn’t, or that I’m a literalist on this story (I’m not), just that I have never seen the church take that position in a lesson manual.

    I don’t think it is necessary to be a literalist in “stories” told in the scriptures. I do think, however, that something is lost (faith?) when we begin to think that “logic” or “scholarship” or “science” should dictate to us which things in scripture are literally true and which are not. The minute we think that the red sea could not have parted because “well, we know now that things like that don’t really happen, it’s impossible!” That’s when we are in trouble.

    Comment by MCQ — October 14, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

  33. Steve M, I appreciate the comments. If I can clarify your position, you aren’t saying that a literalist reading in any given case prevents one from understanding the will of God, or bars one from understanding an important Gospel truth. And you aren’t saying that literalist readings should be rejected because they are silly. Rather, if I understand your position, you are saying that a literalist reading can be harmful and should be avoided because they can lead to a crisis of faith when a person learns that such ideas aren’t true, and therefore it is better to take a non-literalist approach to the scriptures. In other words, literalist readings can be damaging because the risk is too great that one will lose their faith when confronted with contrary ideas. Non-literalist readings are much safer because then we avoid the risk that that these readings can ever lead to a crisis of faith. Would this be an accurate description of your position?

    Comment by aquinas — October 14, 2007 @ 5:28 pm

  34. Aquinas,

    No, not quite.

    I don’t think that we should adopt a strictly literalist or non-literalsit approach to scripture. I personally think that our approach should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

    However, my comment was specifically responding to the anxiety regarding non-literalism that many comments in this thread (and in Sunday School classes throughout the Church) exhibit. These comments warn against non-literal interpretations, because presumably they are a slippery slope that eventually leads to a non-literal approach to everything in the scriptures. The idea is that it’s safer to err on the side of literalism.

    In my view, the non-literalist slippery slope is not so great a threat as some make it seem. Indeed,as I mentioned in my last comment, Latter-day Saints have traditionally approached the Bible with a degree of skepticism and non-literalism, and it hasn’t yet led to our spiritual destruction.

    My other point was that erring on the side of literalness is not inherently “safer,” as some have implied. Our scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, seem to be a mixture of myth and fact. Basing one’s faith on a strictly literal interpretation of scripture–which necessitates believing in a 6000-year-old earth and a universal flood, among other things–carries with it its own dangers. Namely, it doesn’t lend itself to flexibility or adaptation, which I think are valuable assets when it comes to testimony maintenance.

    Comment by Steve M — October 14, 2007 @ 6:29 pm

  35. The O.T. institute manual addressed the topic about Job and whether or not he was a real person. It does not address the topic of whether or not this story in more allegory than literal though. It may be a mixture of both. “When Joseph Smith and his people were in great distress, and Joseph Smith went to the Lord and said, ‘Oh God, where art thou? Where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place.’ The Lord responded to his appeal for help by saying, ‘my son, peace be to thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high . . . Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgressions, as they did Job”. D&C 121:7-10. “The Brethren, also, when they have referred to Job, have regarded him as a real person, for example, John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 7:197–198; 18:309–310; 20:305–306; 22:319–320; Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses 18:30; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 19:315.”

    Comment by Craig — October 14, 2007 @ 6:42 pm

  36. Seth:

    “…those snivelly goatee-sporting, postmodernist Mormons wearing a beret, and weeping into my cappuccino about correlation and relishing the thought of the fateful day when the bishop finally calls a disciplinary council on me for preaching “truth to power.” “

    That caused me to laugh out loud.

    “And it sure would be rather embarrassing to sit before the Judgment Bar and …”

    Won’t everyone be standing?


    (a) In keeping with the concept that God requires men to do all they can, and then he makes up the rest, it’s occurred to me that perhaps Noah saved as many animal and plant species as he could, and God preserved or resurrected the rest. If He can resurrect people back to mortality, why not plants and animals?

    (b) As an adult convert, I’ve thought that LDS’s general beliefs in scriptures is more literal than most mainstream Protestants, but less literal than commonly held beliefs of fundamentalists and evangelicals.

    Comment by Bookslinger — October 14, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

  37. Bookslinger,

    I am not comfortable with the idea of our doing all we can and God makes up the rest. It makes it sounds like he’s just there to put the icing on the cake. I would think that it was he who baked the cake and our own actions are the icing. I think Jesus’s contribution to the Atonement is far more vital than our attempts at righteous living, and will be more significant toward our celestial glory than anything we have done (or not done as the case may be).

    Comment by Kim Siever — October 14, 2007 @ 9:28 pm

  38. Kim, I wasn’t specifically refering to the Atonement. But I also didn’t mean to imply that the “all we can” part exceeds or outweighs the part that God makes up.

    The teaching I had in mind was that of when we pray for something, we should do all that is reasonably in our power to help bring it to pass. And perhaps I also had in mind Nephi’s famous quote in 2 Nephi 25:23, “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” but again, applying the concept broadly and not specifically in relation to the Atonement or salvation.

    I did have in mind Pres Hinckley’s quote “do the best you can” and BY’s quote “be as perfect as you can“.

    I’ve had many instances in my life in which I was richly blessed, and it seemed like making sincere efforts was what put me in place to receive those blessings. Not that I merited them, or earned them through my efforts, but in that the efforts were an exercise in faith, and the blessings then came (at least in part) as a result of that exercised faith. Maybe the exercise of faith is the key that opens the door to grace.

    There’s a lot more to the stories of the OT that has been left unsaid. I believe it won’t be until the future, when more ancient scriptures are revealed, that we’ll get the full story behind the OT stories.

    Noah didn’t write the Genesis account of the flood. Moses did. Noah just may tell us in the millennium, “Well, duh! Of course the Lord resurrected the species that I didn’t take on the ark.” And he may say it in the matter-of-fact way that Seth implied about how the Lord might say “… actually I really did part the Red Sea…”

    “Is anything to difficult for God.”

    I think the outlook I have (and Seth’s) is called by some a “magical world view.” Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.

    There may be mundane explanations of many of the OT stories about which we wonder if they are literal or allegorical. But there also may be miraculous explanations for them too.

    I’m in the “outright miracles are possible” camp. I believe in the resurrection of the dead (to immortality and as in “restored to mortality”), walking on water, healing the sick, spriitual gifts, translated beings, compasses that work by faith, God and angels appearing to a teenage farm boy, etc.

    Comment by Bookslinger — October 14, 2007 @ 11:05 pm

  39. Good post Seth.

    I think the biggest danger is trying to impose our own literalism or lack thereof on other people. For instance few things annoy me more than some bozo who questions my faith in God because I don’t think Job is a literal story (among other stories). Likewise we shouldn’t try to force allegorical readings on people who aren’t interested in such ideas.

    Now as to “Where does it end?”; I think it ends wherever each of us ends it for ourselves. I tend to be a bit more of a allegorist than most Mormons but am nowhere near where others go with the non-literal thing. Big deal.

    Anyway, when it comes to revelations and miracles the only ones that matter to each of us are the ones we personally experience in our lives anyway. Why should I care that God spoke to Nephi if I can’t get him to speak to me? Why should I care that Moses benefited from miracles if I don’t get to benefit from miracles too? I think that was the point Moroni was making in Moroni 10.

    24 And now I speak unto all the ends of the earth—that if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be because of unbelief.
    25 And wo be unto the children of men if this be the case; for there shall be none that doeth good among you, no not one. For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God.

    If one is an ultra-literalist but experiences no real miracles or personal revelations in her own life what good is that? According Moroni here — not much.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 15, 2007 @ 1:15 am

  40. Why should I care that God spoke to Nephi if I can’t get him to speak to me? Why should I care that Moses benefited from miracles if I don’t get to benefit from miracles too?

    Geoff, while I completely agree with your overall point, I think these questions are wrong. A literalist is going to pray for God to speak to him because he saw God do it to Nephi; he’s not praying for miracles and then noticing after the fact that Nephi also did the same thing. In other words, the literal reading of the scriptures inspires people to take action because they see it working elsewhere, they’re not taking action first and then seeing coroborating evidence in the scriptures.

    Comment by Rusty — October 15, 2007 @ 5:30 am

  41. Coming late to the discussion (I pretty much agree with most of what Seth R. has said) -

    the problem comes from insisting Job MUST be allegorical in the first place (or MUST be 100% factually accurate). I prefer to leave it open, somewhat. Is it possible the writer of Job wasn’t writing history? Perhaps it was “based on a true story” and the writer added in a few poetic details in order to get the poem scheme just right, or whatever.

    It would be better for the teacher to allow for the possibility that it might be allegorical, while then inisisting that since God compared Jospeh Smith to Job once (in the D&C) by saying that “you haven’t got it as bad as Job did” that we are meant to take it somewhat literally, at least for the lessons it teaches.

    Whether it “really happened” exactly as reported or not, or whether it is pure allegory with no connection to anyone who every lived (because no one has ever suffered catastrophic losses ever) is beside the point. But as Seth said, treating as literal usually helps us get the point that God wants us to get.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — October 15, 2007 @ 7:40 am

  42. I think the biggest danger is trying to impose our own literalism or lack thereof on other people. For instance few things annoy me more than some bozo who questions my faith in God because I don’t think Job is a literal story (among other stories). Likewise we shouldn’t try to force allegorical readings on people who aren’t interested in such ideas.


    Comment by Steve M — October 15, 2007 @ 8:10 am

  43. Rusty,

    I agree that literalism can increase believe/faith in miracles today, but there is no direct correlation between the two. For instance the most hardcore literalists are the fundie evangelicals and most of them assume God stopped speaking directly to prophets (or anyone else) thousands of years ago. Hyper-literalism seems to lead to a mythologized view of Bible times where those times I think. Hyper-literalists seem to think the earth used to be a very different place — a place where people can live in whales for three days and pillars of fires can lead nations through parted seas and where giants roamed the earth, etc. It’s easy to come up with excuses for not getting miracles and revelations now if one thinks we live in a different world.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 15, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  44. Seth, just found this post. You are talking about Job? Another book that is dynamite. God is speaking mightily through those written words, even today.

    Talk about a book that is relevant for 2007, too.

    And for those that believe in a normative, grammatical, historical, literal hermeneutics, we believe in miracles today, too, Geoff.

    I just talked to a sister yesterday. God miraculously set her free from a personal difficulty, plaguing her for three years. She wept. And I bowed my heart in praise to the living sovereign God who does not need to explain all his ways to men’s continual questions in the midst of suffering.

    Comment by Todd Wood — October 15, 2007 @ 10:41 am

  45. Can I just speak up for seeing the all too common literalist vs. allegory dichotomy as a false one and way too restricting.

    Nibley, for all his flaws, had a very good point. There are two other issues at play. One is that the author may be writing literally but is limited from their point of view. (Both cultural and also historical) Thus whatever the history of Noah we’re stuck with the fact that Noah or one of his sons are recording things. What may look like the world being flooded shouldn’t be taken as some sort of God’s eye view. Just his perspective.

    Second there is the issue that much of the OT was compiled after the return from the exile from varying sources. The compilers may have seen things as literal but there were issues of historical accuracy and problems of editing and redaction. This doesn’t imply that it is to be taken allegorical just that we question its accuracy.

    To say something is inaccurate is not to say it is allegorical or ahistorical. For instance a news report we hear today may be inaccurate in that it gets many facts wrong. But the basic event is probably historical and one can’t take it as allegorical.

    Of course anything can be turned for allegorical purposes. Analogy being the obvious example. And often, especially in the ancient world, historic narratives were often cast in terms of existing archetypes so as to give it meaning. (Consider, for example, the astounding parallels between Nephi’s journey and Moses’)

    Comment by Clark — October 15, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  46. Hi Todd.

    I think most here would agree that the real value of Job is in its transformative power in the lives of the faithful. The question of whether it “really” happened or not is at best, of secondary importance (and possibly utterly irrelevant).

    As for the note on literalness in the manual.

    Keep in mind that this was happening in Relief Society this past year. So we’re obviously not talking about the official RS/Priesthood manual. I think the manual in question was the Old Testament Study Guide. I’ll defer to those who actually have done the legwork to investigate it though.

    Comment by Seth R. — October 15, 2007 @ 12:02 pm

  47. Geoff J, I appreciate your comments and you bring the issue back in focus which is in persuading another person to one’s point of view. I don’t see the issue as whether we shold be 100% literalists or 100% non-literalists. It seems clear that these are two extremes and the majority of Christians fall somewhere in the middle with a range of positions. Secondly, I completely agree that to the question of ‘where does it end?’ can be answered by observation, simply looking at people’s positions in practice. Some people continue to believe Jesus was an actual historical figure even though they feel free to drop that view for other figures in the text. Which is why I think it comes down to a person’s approach or strategy in trying to persuade the other person of whether a literalist reading or non-literalist reading is damaging or beneficial.

    The original circumstance in the post is about a Sunday school environment, and one person wanted to point out that Job “didn’t really happen.” For example, let’s take Seth’s articulation that the “real value of Job is in its transformative power in the lives of the faithful.” Okay, now, my question is this: in order for the elder sister to appreciate this value of transformative power, must accept the younger sister’s comment that “Job didn’t really happen” and drop her belief that Job really happened? Is her belief, rightly or wrongly, that Job is a historical figure barring or preventing her from understanding the “transformative power in the lives of the faithful”? That is the question. If the elder sister can believe both that the story of Job “happened” and also appreciate the transformative power of the story in her life, then what is gained by the younger sister advocating that Job didn’t really happen in a Sunday school environment? It isn’t a general question. It’s a question attached to a specific context and a specific environment.

    Comment by aquinas — October 15, 2007 @ 1:11 pm

  48. Well, if Satan and God don’t really bargain about how Satan gets to afflict people, and if this is something that a literalist must believe, then there may be harm in taking the story literally as it could lead to false beliefs about the nature of God and this life. If someone was using Job to teach that trials are things that God lets Satan do to us, one might be compelled to play the allegory card to rebut that notion.

    Comment by Tom — October 15, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  49. Doesn’t the Church state that we believe the books in the scriptures were written by the stated authors? Is that written somewhere or no?

    The whole deal between Satan and God falls under my “I don’t know yet” category. I know God is the same yesterday, today and forever and this looks contradictory, but I know THAT’S not true, so something else must be in play. Maybe I’ll have a confirming witness that it’s allegorical or maybe I’ll learn of something else, but I’m content to put this and a whole lot of other things in the scriptures under the “I don’t know yet, but looking to know” category.

    By the way, wouldn’t have to have been a universal flood. If it was local, then wouldn’t God have broken his promise of never flooding the earth again? (there having been lots of local floods since Noah’s time?)

    Comment by Bret — October 15, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

  50. I saw a Nova episode one evening where they were explaining how a massive dam of ice in North America, just after the Ice Age, shattered almost instantaneously covering hundreds of square miles of present-day Canada and Washington state in a wall of water hundreds of feet high.

    Just one for your gee wiz collection.

    Comment by Seth R. — October 15, 2007 @ 5:17 pm

  51. Hey yeah. The Great Missoula Flood. Everyone knows about that.

    Comment by Bret — October 15, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  52. I have no idea how literal or historical Job is, but if you ever get the chance to travel in southern Oman (I recommend it!) you can visit the place traditionally known (by the locals, at least) as “Job’s tomb.”

    According to Wikipedia there are tombs for Job in Turkey and Lebanon as well. Take your pick! :)

    Comment by Michelle — October 16, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

  53. Your change feels more like a metamorphosis to me than crushing. Of course, morphing into something else does contain aspects that are violent, disjointed and shocking but when you are crushed, you cannot get up again and it seems to me that you are on pretty sure footing.

    Comment by Hellmut — October 16, 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  54. Bret: Doesn’t the Church state that we believe the books in the scriptures were written by the stated authors?

    No. But no doubt individual leaders have held that sort of opinion in the past.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 19, 2007 @ 11:03 am

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