The Risks of Voodoo

December 6, 2003 | 12 comments
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In a comment to my post below, Paul offers the following from Bruce R. McConkie on the story of Balaam’s ass: “This is a true story, a dramatic story; one with a great lesson for all members of the Church; one that involves seeing God, receiving revelation, and facing a destroying angel in whose hand was the sword of vengeance. It includes the account of how the Lord delivered a message to the prophet in a way that, as far as we know, has never been duplicated in the entire history of the world.” This is one reason to love this blog. Thanks, Paul, for bringing that to my attention. While this definitely gives me pause, I will confess to being as stubborn as a donkey on this topic.

First some background. I love Elder McConkie. After I joined the Church in my second year at BYU, he quickly became my favorite Apostle. (Is it all right to favor some Apostles over others?) I saw him at a BYU devotional (fireside?) and was very impressed. After returning from my mission, I attended the General Conference session where he gave his last talk — do you all remember that? Amazing! One of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life. Still, for all of my admiration of Elder McConkie, I do not assume that everything he ever wrote or said was true. Please don’t encourage that line of argument because it is bound to lead to disappointment.

Frankly, I continue to be surprised at how interested people are in this topic and how firmly they cling to the notion that all biblical stories must be based on an actual occurrence. Here is my theory about why people are so invested in this idea: the slippery slope. If one story is “untrue” (i.e., not based on an actual event), where do we stop? Perhaps they are all untrue? We know, of course, that the slippery slope argument is fallacious, but it is powerful nonetheless.

In my view, the primary consequence of insisting on the historical accuracy of the Bible is loss of faith by millions of people who just cannot get over the implausibility of talking donkeys, regurgitating whales, and people turning into salt pillars. Teach seminary for awhile and you will see the students struggling to deal with the fact that their lives are so different from the lives of people they are studying. I had a very similar experience growing up outside of the Mormon Church. The whole “religion thing” just seemed like voodoo. If, instead of voodoo, we could accept the scriptures as inspired stories that are not required to be based on historical events, my sense is that the world would be a better place.

(Please note: I am not saying that none of the stories in the scriptures are based on actual events. As mentioned below, I believe that the Atonement and Resurrection are factual, even if inexplicable to the “rational man.” As for the rest, well, I don’t think about it nearly as much as my participation on this blog would suggest!)

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12 Responses to The Risks of Voodoo

  1. Clark Goble on December 6, 2003 at 11:46 pm

    I think one problem, probably related to the “slippery slope” fallacy is the false dichotomy fallacy. Here it is assumed that the story is nearly all true or is simply a parable or fable. Degrees of accuracy are not admitted. I don’t quite understand this.

    I was discussing something similar at the ZLBM forums. There someone brought up the “problem” of the Tower of Babel. I suggested that probably there was some real event behind things that got exaggerated somewhat and the origins lost. I think the same can be assumed with many other stories. Yet the false choice of sticking to the hermeneutics of the scriptures is made.

    Odd in a way. Especially for Mormons (or in those cases former Mormons)

  2. Jim on December 7, 2003 at 12:21 am

    I’m sympathetic to Gordon’s position: I don’t believe that a whale swallowed Jonah and I’m quite skeptical that a very large grouper did. I’m pretty skeptical that Balaam’s ass spoke to him. I doubt that Noah’s flood covered the entire globe. On the other hand, I believe that Jesus fed the 5,000 and, more important, that he atoned for our sins, died, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. But I don’t have a very good way of deciding why I believe some of these stories and not others. I can’t answer that I believe those that make a difference to my salvation because I don’t see how the feeding of the 5,000 makes that difference.

    On the other hand, I don’t worry very much about which stories are true and which are not and, for pedagogical purposes, I treat them all as true without feeling uncomfortable doing so.

  3. Gordon on December 7, 2003 at 2:35 am

    Clark makes good sense. One can easily imagine actual events that get exaggerated into the tales that we have in the scriptures.

    Of course, I agree with Jim, too. Watch out, Jim, it can be lonely out here on this limb.

  4. brayden on December 7, 2003 at 3:45 am

    Why would Mormons, of all people, insist that the Bible is literally true when we have been told by prophets that many truths have been lost due to errors in translation? If translators could have missed out on a few truths, certainly they could have screwed up a fact here or there.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on December 7, 2003 at 9:53 am

    Jim,

    “But I don’t have a very good way of deciding why I believe some of these stories and not others.”

    Isn’t it pretty obvious, given the examples you offer, that at the very least there is a rough dividing line between your estimation of the stories in the Old Testament, and your estimation of the stories in the New? Not that the hermeneutical problems in thinking about the latter are wholly different from thinking about the former, but still: “myth,” broadly defined, has plainly played a much larger role in the transmission of (many) Old Testament stories than it has in (most) New Testament stories; wouldn’t it be fair to say that such at least partly explains your (historical) doubting of the stories of Jonah, Noah and Balaam, but your acceptance of the stories of the apostles?

  6. Russell Arben Fox on December 7, 2003 at 10:09 am

    Brayden,

    “Why would Mormons, of all people, insist that the Bible is literally true when we have been told by prophets that many truths have been lost due to errors in translation?”

    I think there is at least one, very obvious, explanation: the Book of Mormon. We are taught, as far as I can tell, to be (for all intents and purposes) inerrantists when it comes to the BoM; this position is reiterated and emphasized by everything from our dominant doctrinal (as opposed to textual) approach to reading the BoM, to the labors of certain scholars who argue that every weird grammatical tic in the text simply proves the degree to which Joseph Smith must have literally received the BoM directly from ancient languages word by word. And the fact is, as suspicious as I am of many of these approaches and arguments, they are hard to combat: for better or worse, we do not have and will likely never have any sort of alternative source material that would allow us to put the BoM into a hermeneutical framework. Hence, we may be stuck, to a great degree, with being literalists and inerrantists when it comes to the Book of Mormon. And frankly, I think it’s too much to ask to expect your average member of the church to carry in their heads, simultaneously, two entirely different definitions of scripture. As most Mormons read the Book of Mormon, so will they also read the Bible–literally.

  7. Taylor on December 7, 2003 at 12:41 pm

    I am intrigued by Jim’s comments above: “I don’t believe that a whale swallowed Jonah and I’m quite skeptical that a very large grouper did. I’m pretty skeptical that Balaam’s ass spoke to him. I doubt that Noah’s flood covered the entire globe. On the other hand, I believe that Jesus fed the 5,000 and, more important, that he atoned for our sins, died, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.” It may just be coincidence, but all of the examples that he doesn’t beleive are OT, and all of the examples he does believe are NT. Is there a sociological element invovled here?

    In my experience as a NT student, I find that many members of the church are willing to allegorize or dismiss OT narratives, but very unwilling to do the same thing for the NT, especially for Jesus. Why are we willing to believe that miracles of the OT are religious propaganda, myth, etc., but not willing to adopt this same hermeneutic for NT miracles?

  8. brayden on December 7, 2003 at 7:33 pm

    When reading scripture I always ask myself: what is the principle taught here? I rarely read scripture and ask, what does historical insight does this verse provide? I think we can all agree that historians had a different purpose than those who write scripture. The other plates, those we didn’t receive, are probably more historically accurate. This isn’t to say that the history in the BOM is a fabrication. It’s just that the two books served different purposes, if I’m not mistaken.

  9. Adam Greenwood on December 7, 2003 at 9:06 pm

    When I was in college we all gave each other superhero nicknames (mine was Rameumpton Man). Gordon is getting dangerously close to being known as Balaam’s Ass. Sad but true. :)

  10. Ben on December 8, 2003 at 12:29 am

    I like Jim’s expression- There’s simply not a litmus test to determine why we believe something is historical or not.

    Russel said “…certain scholars who argue that every weird grammatical tic in the text simply proves the degree to which Joseph Smith must have literally received the BoM directly from ancient languages word by word.” I think that’s a misunderstanding, and a dismissive one at that. I think any scholar you asked on the issue who has used such linguistic anomalies would strongly argue against BoM inerrancy (and some, have in print and speech. I can think of Givens and Peterson off the top of my head). If the BoM were revealed to Joseph word for word, we would have a perfect smooth English translation WITHOUT any such things. (Evangelicals make this assumption when interacting with it, that “translated by gift and power of God” =word for word English translation, a la Thomas Finley’s chapter on the BoM in “The New Mormon Challenge.)

    The fact that one can make some *plausible* arguments for semitic structures (and not every argument is of equal weight) is evidence that JS was a) working from a semitic substrate and b) he was a poor translator, in our modern sense, because he couldn’t make a dynamic English translation, completely removing the substrate language. A good translation would not reveal anything about the language it was translated from.

  11. Kaimi on December 8, 2003 at 1:24 am

    I can sympathize with Gordon on this. At the very least, Balaam’s story (and possibly Jonah’s) seem to have more of a “feel” of a dues ex machina (it seems a little odd to refer to acts of God using a term that translates as “the god in the machine,” but I think it is accurate here). This is because they present stories which (1) use a tool which is nowhere else seen (before or after), and (2) could readily be solved using tools elsewhere seen.

    This kind of writing often comes up in serialized comic books, or on shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The bad guy brings out the Super Destructo Device, which can destroy the world, which has existed in a legendary pyramid somewhere for a thousand years, but no one ever thought to use it. The good guy counters with the Secret Protecto Device, which was also hidden in a lost city somewhere, and which (and this is the crucial part) the hero never used before, despite having to save the world from a dozen other attempts to destroy it. I mean, if the world was really ready to be destroyed five episodes ago, why didn’t they use the Super Device back then? And if this new super bad guy is so powerful, how come he never noticed the other folks trying to destroy the world five episodes ago? This is the convention in such stories — just when all looks lost, someone finds a scroll with directions to a secret city, and so forth.

    This kind of story looks odd if it is held out as historically true. Balaam’s story tells that animals speak — then why do they never speak at other times, when it might be needed? Why use this route once, and why use it here? Why not send fire from heaven, wind, or other heavenly devices which are discussed elsewhere?

    I am not saying the Balaam’s Ass didn’t happen. I’m just saying that, in its sudden, unexplained use of a brand-new device which is then never seen again, it has much of the feel of a comic-book story or Buffy episode. And that feel makes it harder to accept as historical fact.

  12. Cassie Wermuth on December 8, 2003 at 4:26 pm

    I personally feel that some of the OT stories aren’t much different from the parables that Jesus told. It’s more about the lesson behind them than the story itself. I know I personally am more apt to remember a story and what it was about than a list of Do’s and Don’ts. Although I do see where you are coming from.

    Someone asked me about the Prophet and why we just believe everything he says….and I proceeded to explain about how we pray to find out the truth. I don’t just take what the Prophet says and do it…because I feel that Heavenly Father wants me to incorperate what the Prophet says into my heart, my life and my testimony. So she asked me what would happen if the Prophet said something and I prayed about it and found out that it wasn’t true….and wouldn’t that then destroy all the prior things that the Prophet had said? I personally feel that the Prophet is no different than us in the fact that he is human, so in my opinion it would not destroy all the previous revalations. Did I make any sense? I think I kinda got off topic? LOL

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