Mormon Appropriation of Fundamentalism and Its Outcomes (u)

February 9, 2014 | 53 comments
By

The last post I whipped off quickly and in frustration was surprisingly well-received. This post was similarly written, and may require editing. Update: I have good reason to believe that the Ensign article in question did not and definitely does not fully reflect its author’s position. This post is not about the author, nor even the Flood itself. (For that, please go read my Flood post first.) After 16 years, however, the article’s content is still easily and prominently accessible to members, with the authority of The Ensign and his BYU position behind it, and that remains highly problematic. Let’s focus on the ideas as written, and not the author.

Mention was made today at Church of the 1998 Ensign article “The Flood and the Tower of Babel.” That article is conspicuously absent from the manual and the CES page of resources for teaching these chapters. I hadn’t read it for a while, but someone else mentioned it leading up to this week. I actually spent nearly an hour yesterday going through that article line by line, making explicit notes on the the many problematic assumptions in it. It’s heavy on rhetoric, assertions, straw men, and speculation, and weak on definitions, evidence, and warrants.  Much broader than I recalled, it explicitly or implicitly asserts that

  • faithful Mormons are Biblical literalists
  • anyone who doesn’t think a global flood happened simply lacks faith
  • Moses authored Genesis as we currently have it
  • Genesis is a history
  • the JST on Genesis (i.e. the Book of Moses), which contains verbatim transcripts of Noah’s speech, is also a history
  • Moses knew about the flood from “direct revelation” or else reading the record of the flood written by Noah or one of his sons (what?)
  • “modern scholars” are generally faithless
  • science is unreliable when it says the production of so much water is impossible
  • the only reason for rejecting a historical flood is lack of faith and too much trust in science
  • rejection of a historical or global flood is rhetorically associated with “the world” and rejection of the prophets
  • the “lack of geological evidence” for a worldwide flood is only “supposed”
  • multiple prophets have testified that Noah was a “historical” not “mythological” person. (Edit to clarify: I don’t necessarily disagree with the “historical” part, but it doesn’t follow that Genesis is a history, and other prophets referring to Noah certainly doesn’t indicate that either. None of them have spoken in those terms used by the author.)

facepalm

This is only a partial list, and my point here is not to rebut these, though we could do so at length for each one (or at least severely complicate them). I will merely point out two things.

First, I vehemently disagree with most of those assumptions, but I am not an Ex/disaffected/Mormonthink-type faithless scientist influenced by the devil. (NB: not suggesting this generalization exists as such, just trying to complicate the author’s simplistic dichotomy.) I am a temple-recommend-holding, Book-of-Mormon-historicity-defending, member of FAIR, FARMS author/scholarship recipient, long-time-volunteer-Institute teacher. Some of my disagreements about the author’s assumptions, though not framed in terms of his article, have or will appear in print from BYU presses. So let’s dispense with the idea that disagreement about this kind of thing constitutes lack of faith or apostasy or simple “disbelief.” (I would note that such arguments took place between, e.g. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith and President J. Reuben Clark.)

Second, the entire point of my post on the flood, a point which is certainly neither new nor original to me but well-known in the field, is something the Hebrew professor Ensign author never even appears to consider; he appears to assume that all scripture is essentially modern history. He never defends or justifies this assumption, doesn’t discuss genre in general or particular, nor the other ancient Near Eastern flood accounts, nor other scriptural challenges to a global flood, such as Genesis asserting that the nephilim and others lived before and after this flood.

He also attacks a bit of a straw man; while I do think it’s scientifically impossible to produce that much water, like my namesake King Benjamin I also “believe in God… and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; [and] believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.” If God wants to miraculously produce enough water for a flood to cover all mountains to the height of 15 cubits, I believe He can do that.

But that is not the primary problem.

The author does not address the other, more important and significant half of the scientific possibility question. The author asserts that God does all kinds of things that science can’t explain, such as angels passing through walls and the resurrection. I agree that current science cannot explain these things, which I also believe in. But what kind of evidence would we expect these unnatural events (resurrection, angels) to leave behind? Any evidence at all, other than written accounts? (Remember that writing in the ancient world was a rare and generally unvalued skill with little practical application. I suspect most angelic visits then and now are undocumented.)

By contrast, the flood is categorically different. A flood that was

  • global (the author reads a modern cosmology into the text, so I’m saying “global”),
  • lasted more than six months,
  • and destroyed everything
  • within the last 5000 years

should leave absolute scads of evidence in just about every field, unlike the resurrection and angelic visitations. We should see destruction layers in archaeological sites all over the world (we don’t), we should find that all animals and plants spread out from a common geography (we don’t), we should find geological flood layers (we don’t), we should find linguistic, anthropological, genetic, and other evidence in nearly every field. But we don’t.

Believing in a God who can work miracles to produce the Flood does not entail that he actually did so. The alternative that God did in fact supernaturally produce the floodwaters but then chose to hide all the masses of evidence in every field… That is a trickster God, and I do not and cannot believe in a deity like that. All powerful, yes. Trickster, no.

This article harmfully promotes a Mormon form of Protestant fundamentalism, and doesn’t address the real issues in and around the text. Why is this harmful?

Perhaps you’ve heard of a recent lawsuit in England against one Thomas Spencer Monson, brought by several exMormons. (SL Trib article) As I understand it, the primary mover here is one Thomas Phillips, former Bishop, Stake President, and Area Authority Something Or Other (now the editor of MormonThink, whose claim to neutrality is laughable). Phillips apparently lost his faith over (among other things) conflict between Science and Religion, particularly what he perceived as core Mormon truth claims, such as the age of the earth and no death before the fall. Notably, Apostles have disagreed with each other over these, and the Church officially has no official position.

Phillips is not the only one to have encountered strong assertions that these (and similar things) are Official Doctrine, with negative outcomes as the result. When a Seminary teacher, Institute teacher, Ensign article, or Apostle (thank heavens Joseph Fielding Smith didn’t do it as President of the Church) goes beyond the scriptural warrant without revelation, making claims that Mormons must believe (here insert doctrines such as Young Earth Creationism, Evolution Is Evil, A Global Flood Happened c. 3000 BC, etc.), the recipient of those claims is eventually going to be exposed to actual science, instead of the pseudo-science version they were told about. If they’ve been placed into a false dichotomy of belief and epistemology (e.g. “choose between Mormonism and an ancient earth, because they’re incompatible”), they’re likely to find science much more compelling and believable. People really struggle with this. Link 1, link 2.

What’s particularly infuriating to me about all this is that scripture itself doesn’t require these beliefs, but tradition can mislead us into thinking that scripture requires these beliefs, particularly if we encounter a magnified or strengthened version of that tradition. I’ve written about this repeatedly, how tradition and our assumptions get us into trouble, and how that plays out in reading the Bible and other books. I’ve also written about what Genesis actually teaches in context, and how it has little to do with modern scientific questions. Let’s be careful about our traditions and interpretations.  This is not a defense of “liberalism” or “disbelief” or “discounting all historicity”; recall the groups I’m associated with. Rather, this is a frustrated plea to actually read the scriptures carefully and rely on them instead of tradition, instead of assuming we know what they say, being aware of our assumptions, and proceeding cautiously. By all means, let’s listen to our spiritual leaders (all of them, not just the most assertive ones or the ones most often quoted) so we get the full range of Apostolic opinion in absence of revelation, let’s read our scriptures, let’s be guided by tradition and revelation and scholarship. But let us not be dogmatic where we are not required to be! That kind of fundamentalism has no place in the Church, and only causes severe problems.

To quote BYU’s instructions to Religious Education profs,

[students] should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel.

 To summarize:

Where the scriptures themselves do not clearly compel us to historicity or scientific impossibility, let us not assume it and bind it heavily upon others. Let us recognize that scripture is complicated, and not primarily history (and certainly not modern history). Genre questions must be considered when interpreting. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, read my original post on the flood.

For myself, the primary reason I reject a global historical flood is emphatically not because of “Science” but because of scriptural interpretation that considers genre and original context.

Further reading:

The flaws in the NT argument, i.e. “Jesus mentions Jonah/Noah/Lot’s wife, therefore these things must be histories.” Link.

The argument that scripture is made up of  different kinds of things, and a non-historical story has no effect on historical stories and vice-verse. Link

On  the dangers of confusing tradition with scripture. Link.

On assumptions. Link.

On the cosmology of Genesis 1 (and 6-9), and encultured prophets. Link.

 

 

53 Responses to Mormon Appropriation of Fundamentalism and Its Outcomes (u)

  1. Howard on February 9, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    Excellent!

    Mormonism isn’t all or none, true or false, Mormonism is an allegory, it’s up to you to find the truth within!

  2. Craig H. on February 9, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    Really interesting and informative Ben, thanks a lot.

  3. Mike Parker on February 9, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    Did penguins travel all the way from the Antarctic to wherever Noah was (Missouri?), board the ark, live in conditions for which they aren’t adapted for over a year, and then travel back to the Antarctic when it was all done?

    Well, at least penguins can swim. How did koalas get from Australia to Missouri, and from Turkey back to Australia?

    Oh, wait—I forgot: This was before the land masses across the entire planet earth were divided into continents during the days of Peleg. My bad.

  4. Alison Moore Smith on February 9, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Nice, Ben. (And, yes, much better than your Facebook snark.) :)

  5. Chris Kimball on February 9, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    I really like this.
    I wish you didn’t need the “temple-recommend-holding . . . long-time-volunteer-Institute teacher” credentialing. But for this, perhaps it’s necessary.
    There is a different or added kind of harm that worries me. It seems to me that on any reading the flood story is ultimately about the nature of God and how God deals with man (I’d argue this for the entire Old Testament, for scriptures generally). A story that–on one level–says God kills the unbelievers, requires some careful exegesis and a simple literal fundamentalist approach is quite frightening.

  6. Kent Larsen on February 9, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    THANK YOU, Ben!!

  7. Dave on February 9, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Yes, the genre issue must be addressed. It seems obvious that Genesis 1-11 is a different type of narrative than 1 Kings or Ezra. Ignoring that difference invites careful readers, when they come across something like the linked Ensign article, to conclude that Mormons don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about the Bible.

    I certainly think that when I read some LDS commentary on the Bible. I see the Church as two parts tradition to one part truth, so it doesn’t really bother me when BYU religion profs can’t tell the difference. It doesn’t bother me much when LDS leaders can’t tell the difference. But Mormons who don’t think this way (and most don’t) are more troubled by this sort of misreading. Hopefully revised (reformed?) manuals will begin to address and correct the problem.

  8. Dave on February 9, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Ben, you should read Geoff B’s M-Star account of teaching Gospel Doctrine in a conservative Colorado ward. He takes your general approach and it has been very well received.

    http://www.millennialstar.org/challenging-biblical-literalism-in-a-conservative-mormon-ward/

  9. jader3rd on February 9, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    In my 31 years of active church attendance, I’ve never had anyone in any gospel setting bring up the age of the earth at all.
    Probably the only LDS doctrine I’ve had to mentally work around is the one that says that there was no death until the Fall of Adam. But given the number of times that scriptures intermingle scriptural death and physical death, chalk the Fall of Adam up to being the first spiritual death and everything aligns quite nicely.
    I actually really like how the gospel is more about truth seeking, and less about believing that a certain historical event happened exactly in this one way or you can’t make it to heaven. It sounds like though, we could use some additional General Conference talks along those lines.

  10. SC Taysom on February 9, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Excellent

  11. Kevin Barney on February 9, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    My wife told me that in Primary sharing time today the topic was the creation, and the woman leading the presentation asked various questions about the creation for which she had the answers on cards in a bag that she would pull out and show the kids. The final question? “How old is the earth?” “Ruh roh,” my wife is thinking. The woman pulls the answer card out of the bag, and the answer? 7,000 years.

    Yeah, we’ve got a problem. (Thanks for laying it out like this, Ben.)

  12. Sam Brunson on February 9, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Nice, Ben. (And your Facebook rant was, if anything, far too restrained. This literalist reading at least when foisted on others, is truly and legitimately harmful. So thanks for putting out an easily-accessible, thoroughly faithful response!)

  13. Cynthia L. on February 9, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    Everything you need to know about the historical ark is illustrated in this important post at BCC.

  14. Jake Cox on February 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    First question our gospel doctrine teacher asked today: “So just how big was the Ark?” It was not a joke. People went on to talk about the length of a cubit and all that. Very frustrating.

  15. Margaret B. Young on February 9, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Well done, Ben. I love it when my son talks about scriptures with me and says, “I’m pretty sure this is intended to be metaphorical.”

  16. Cynthia L. on February 9, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Jake Cox, if only you’d had a printout of that BCC link with you!

  17. Genevieve on February 9, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Excellent post.

    Besides the Noah story, I was able to enjoy the Tower of Babel in Sunday School today for the first time, ever, because I no longer saw it as a blow to my faith. The false dichotomy of fundamentalism vs. faithlessness is a heavy burden to bear.

  18. hawkgrrrl on February 9, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    This was basically the exact same conversation we had today in Gospel Doctrine and afterward (when the teacher stated that if we didn’t believe in a literal global flood everything else starts to fall apart). Ridiculous! Why would the first vision or the resurrection hinge on that?

  19. Ben S. on February 9, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    Chris- “I wish you didn’t need the “temple-recommend-holding . . . long-time-volunteer-Institute teacher” credentialing. But for this, perhaps it’s necessary.” It’s only necessary because of the author’s assumption that anyone who disagrees is faithless.

    Dave- “Hopefully revised (reformed?) manuals will begin to address and correct the problem.” The new New Testament and D&C manuals certainly point in that direction. We can hope.

    Cynthia- I remember that post. I think comparing it to Star Wars and Star Trek for size helps show how you can discuss and compare fictional objects/characters as though they *were* real. A SuperStar Destroyer isn’t metaphorical, it doesn’t represent anything, but that doesn’t mean Star Wars is “literal” i.e. a history of an actual series of events.

  20. Ben S. on February 9, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    Margaret- See the above comment to Cynthia, and my main post. I don’t think non-historical =
    “metaphorical”, and I think stretching the dichotomous vocabulary to accommodate is less useful than admitting that such a dichotomy simply doesn’t apply. But I’m glad he’s recognizing certain aspects of scripture are not historical.

    Kevin- That’s… unfortunate. I suspect a lot of us absorb this stuff from an early age, especially with Noah’s ark. The story lends itself so well to kids books (boats! Animals! Counting!) that it’s impossible to avoid. But the Bible is not a kid’s book, and not easily accessible to a 4, 6, or 10-yr old.

    It’s hard to tell just how wide-spread these views are in the Church. As long as Ensign articles like this are easily and prominently accessible, I suspect they will remain.

  21. p on February 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

    When BH Roberts told the Brethren (even before genetic sequence assembly technology) that BoM was indefensible as a historical document, he could not have imagined that 80 years later his Church would still be debating the Flood! We LDS have somehow devolved into Jehovah’s Witnesses. How did this happen?

  22. Ben S. on February 10, 2014 at 12:11 am

    Of note is that Roberts was acting as devil’s advocate, making the best case against the Book of Mormon he could. He maintained his faith in the Book of Mormon. DNA sequencing really has nothing to do with it, as the recent lds.org posting shows.

    The history of interpretation is a mixed one, and the best account is Barlow’s Mormonism and the Bible, from Oxford Press.

  23. p on February 10, 2014 at 12:40 am

    If you’ve carefully read STUDIES OF THE BOOK OF MORMON, esp Robert’s conclusions and the reactions of the Brethren to those conclusions, you know that’s simply not true. And DNA sequencing has everything to do with it, the Newsroom’s rather shallow and disingenuous analysis notwithstanding.

    However, the point of my post was that if, as your own post makes clear, we’re still having trouble dealing with an obvious fable (the Flood) as just that, then how do we deal with a vastly more complex problem? And yes, BoM IS a problem, and a big one, and we don’t have another 80 years to ignore or deny it. The Church will be irreparably damaged if it hasn’t been already.

  24. sterflu on February 10, 2014 at 1:10 am

    Ben: I tremendously admire the work you do. The questions that appear below are not meant to dismiss what you have written, but instead to push you farther. I want to believe your work tries to speak to all kinds of Mormons, whether scholars or literalists. But in this post your scientific arguments sound the most persuasive, while your use of the words “vehemently disagree,” “attacks,” “scads of evidence,” “harmfully,” “infuriating,” “mislead,” and “frustrated” will likely turn off the readers you seem most intent on reaching. But then again, maybe you are most comfortable preaching to the choir and sounding off to those who will listen with a sympathetic ear. Feel free to tackle the below questions if you find them helpful in reaching your goal of crossing the gulf that separates so many Mormon academics and fundamentalists.

    If Mormons accept the wording of the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly,” to what extent are they Biblical literalists? Would you agree many Mormon fundamentalists employ a hermeneutics that takes cultural and historical background into account? Is it the unwillingness of Mormon fundamentalists to use historical-critical methods that frustrates you more than their commitment to literalism?

    Have you tried looking at the concept of a global flood through the eyes of Mormon dispensationalists? Have you taken into account their metanarrative of dispensations as cycles of apostasy and gospel restoration? If you tell these fundamentalists that Noah and flood are not part of history, doesn’t it shatter their idea of Noah as the prophet of the third dispensation and then as the angel Gabriel in subsequent dispensations?

    Has it occurred to you that Mormon fundamentalists share your view of Book of Mormon historicity but reach a different conclusion? These scriptural literalists accept the historical consciousness exhibited by Book of Mormon authors and are persuaded by their statements that the plates of brass “did contain the five books of Moses” (1 Ne. 5:10-11)? Do you want your fellow Latter-day Saints to believe the Book of Mormon authors were no more historically savvy than the Biblical scribes who wrote in the 5th and 6th centuries?

    If early Genesis uses generations to illustrate change over time, describes social and cultural forces that stratify and separate groups, uses the word “account” to signal sections within the narrative, ascribes cultural power to significant personalities, and chronicles the rise civilizations and cities, in what sense do you object to fundamentalist Mormons describing these chapters as history? Or do you think of Gen. 1-11 as a primeval history because it has no concept of kings and politics, presents no middle ground between good and evil societies, lacks an understanding of how societies evolve and become more complex, and does not reflect the concerns of the later era in which it was written?

    If Joseph Smith was raised in a generation that read histories about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and he described himself as restoring things that had been taken from the Bible, can you fault Mormon fundamentalists who believe Joseph’s assessment that he had translated an actual history of Moses? What do you say to scriptural literalists who say Noah/Gabriel/Elias had to have been a historical figure because he restored the keys of Abraham’s dispensation to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery?

    If the explanations Mormon fundamentalists provide for how Moses could have learned about the flood during Noah’s time largely (direct revelation or a record kept by Noah’s family) mirror Joseph Smith’s descriptions of how he translated ancient records, can you really fault these scriptural literalists for coming up with a theory that you say doesn’t make sense? If Mormon fundamentalists see parallels between the sweeping vision of Moses (a history of the cosmos) and the statement from Joseph Smith that he shared with the Saints only a hundredth of his vision of glories, can you fully blame them for believing that the Lord can show his prophets both the past and the future in great detail?

    If the Book of Mormon authors blamed the ancient Jews for “looking beyond the mark” and missing the major messages of the Old Testament that testified of the Messiah that would come in the meridian of time, how much of a stretch is it for fundamentalist Mormons to distrust the scholars who appear eager to cast doubt on Biblical stories? What assurance can you provide scriptural literalists that switching to a more sophisticated understanding of the scriptures won’t destroy their faith?

  25. Steve Smith on February 10, 2014 at 1:30 am

    That article is troubling for several reasons. It isn’t just that it is an LDS person expressing belief in a global flood and implying that LDS people who do not accept the global flood hypothesis are unfaithful. There are lots and lots of LDS folks, particularly among the older generation, who believe the Bible to be a literal history (we have Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith, by and large, to thank for that). The first problem is that the Ensign editorial board as recent as the late 90s allowed the article to be published. I’m supposed to believe that the laws of physics were different some 5,000 years ago so as to justify the idea of a global flood and the rapid regrowth of nature? What’s next, am I supposed to believe that the earth is flat because the Bible talks of the “four corners of the earth?”

    (Edited by admin to remove name-calling and focus on author.)

  26. Hedgehog on February 10, 2014 at 3:55 am

    I was just pleased we got to discuss the possibility of a limited Geography as opposed to a global flood in class yesterday, and that at the end the teacher said he would refrain from bearing testimony of a global flood since that was obviously a controversial issue. (An attitude in marked contrast to that shown in the lesson on the fall a few weeks ago. Maybe the proposed legal action is causing people to be more careful about how and what they teach.)

  27. James Olsen on February 10, 2014 at 7:01 am

    Ben, great post.

    “It just makes it all the easier for critics of Mormonism to dismiss Mormon apologists as charlatans and cranks, which Donald Parry clear is.”

    Steve, I’m in complete agreement with Ben S. on both topics of this post (the nature of the flood and how we ought to faithfully approach Genesis). But calling Parry a charlatan and a crank is silly (mildly put). Far from perfect and certainly given to overreach, he’s had a solid career in scholarship on DSC hebrew and devoted his life to his religious beliefs. Beyond that he’s a sincere and incredible kind individual.

    And none of this has ANYTHING to do with the merits of the arguments in referenced article. You’re making the exact same kind of false dichotomy in your comment that Ben S. is attacking: scholars are EITHER sincere, decent humans that use only epistemically justified claims, and are right, OR they’re apologists of the charlatan-crank type. It makes me wonder if there’s not a third dichotomy here: either you’ve very little direct experience with folks in these categories (scholars, apologists, charlatans, Donald Parry’s, etc.), or this is an unfortunate episode where you allowed your righteous indignation to overrun your rhetoric.

  28. danithew on February 10, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I think this is a really thought-provoking and well-written post. To some degree it shows a quandary that we face and it’s not always clear how to answer, manage and incorporate some very daunting challenges raised by modern scholarship and scientists.

    In my personal beliefs and in my discussions of scripture, I and many Mormons lean towards Bible literalism because the Book of Mormon leans strongly that way – describing Adam and Eve as our first parents, talking about a civilization that began at the Tower of Babel, discussing Moses and the Exodus, etc. In discussing the Bible, the Book of Mormon goes way back, all the way back to the beginning of Genesis, and basically seems to exist on the assumption that the Biblical account is accurate.

    Years ago I took a class at the University of Utah that basically dwelt on assumptions in the archeological minimalist school, the professor concluding that Moses never existed and that the Exodus did not really happen, that even king David never existed – etc. I learned quite a bit in that course, it stretched me and challenged me in ways I had not gone before – but ultimately I still fall back on my faith because the professor (who I liked very much) is a secularist and my experience is that secularism is a superficial void of nothingness. I am not merely looking for a highly intellectual and interesting discussion, but a way of life. I do think there is God and salvation in the world and that there are many things that have happened that defy human intellect and logic. I also feel that archeology is a highly speculative field, highly vulnerable to human mis-interpretation – not really a tool that can be used to prove much one way or the other.

    I hope someday that all these questions will actually be answered and believe that God and many/most of the Biblical prophets will turn out to be human realities, real personalities.

    Of course there are things that don’t make much sense to me or that I cannot really understand or that I cannot fully explain. And I live with that and am okay with that.

  29. stephenchardy on February 10, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Ben: I enjoyed your post very much. Something that I have learned as I have encountered other traditions of Bible reading, besides the literal/historical reading, is that these other approaches can be very deeply spiritual. Rather than trying to make sense of a story in a literal way, we can try to understand what it was that the account was trying to teach. What was the point of the story? I worry that we miss significant truths, and spend precious classtime and manual space bearing witness to the truth or historicity of some account, and then we don’t have the time or energy left to explore meanings.

    The examples are almost endless. The tiniest example which comes to mind is the phrase in Genesis that God “hardened Pharoah’s heart.” We can spend our time trying to justify a literal interpretation of that phrase, or we can use the “escape clause” of the JST, or we can discuss what it was that the writer was trying to teach.

  30. danithew on February 10, 2014 at 8:10 am

    I would only add that when I say I lean towards Biblical literalism, I do not take hard positions on the age of the earth, the nature of the Flood, the literal existence of Job, etc. and etc. [My preference is to accept the scientific finding that the earth is much, much older than 6000 years. - that just makes sense to me]. At the same time, I do tend to accept that the prophets described and mentioned existed and that the narratives we are provided in regards to their lives have basis in real history. As far as I can tell – what is actual history and what is not is historical is most often not demonstrable. It’s a matter of attempting to use faith and reason, accepting that the faith and science approaches each have strengths and weaknesses.

    I am concerned that in modern times, with its emphasis on science on scholarship, that we end up living in a society that is rejecting the Bible outright – which I think is a huge mistake.

  31. JMS on February 10, 2014 at 8:34 am

    To Kevin (#11):

    It’s interesting that the newly-released D&C manual for seminary teachers specifically states that in D&C 77:6-7 “the 7,000 years refers to the time since the Fall of Adam and Eve. It is not referring to the actual age of the earth including the periods of creation.”

    https://www.lds.org/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-and-church-history-seminary-teacher-manual-2014/section-4/lesson-82-doctrine-and-covenants-77?lang=eng

    (More on the new manual here: http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/02/05/a-new-church-history-seminary-manual/)

  32. stephenchardy on February 10, 2014 at 9:00 am

    An addendum to my own comment, number 29:

    What worries me about literalistic interpretations of the Bible is that when approached this way, we may completely miss the meaning. Thus, not only to we drive people away who can’t believe anti-scientific notions such as a very very young earth, but we deny those same people the opportunity to explore the truths revealed in the account. It’s a negative “two-fer.”

  33. Tim on February 10, 2014 at 9:08 am

    The church released the Encyclopedia of Mormonism a while back. In my opinion it was released in order to replace Mormon Doctrine as the go-to-guide for issues like the flood. Unfortunately, most members haven’t really embraced it–perhaps because it doesn’t always offer definitive answers and often confirms that we just don’t know.

    The topic on the Flood quotes Elder Widtsoe, and states that the exact nature of the flood is not known, and that the scriptural account is based on the (limited) knowledge of the writer of Genesis. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/EoM/id/4391/show/5693

    The Encyclopedia of Mormonism can be a great resource when fundamentalism emerges in our church classes.

  34. Ben S. on February 10, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Steve Smith- I’ve edited your comment. Let’s not focus on the author, but the published ideas, and let’s certainly refrain from name calling and ad hominem arguments.

    P- We shall have to disagree on various things. Moreover, serious exegesis does not work by simply rolling our eyes and labeling things “obvious fables”. That’s just as thoughtless an analysis as the Ensign article. Apocalyptic claims about what the Church *must* do rarely have much value beyond revealing the ideology of the one making the claims.

    Danithew- You speak wisdom. I’m trying to walk a line between the two extremes. I think the Bible has great value, and recognizing its genres and problems, which sometimes conflict with received tradition, doesn’t undermine that.

    Sterflu- Good questions, and I must beg off responding in depth. Monday is my heavy day at school (class until 10 PM), plus a publication version of a paper to finish that I send in tomorrow.

  35. Ben S. on February 10, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Sterflu: (continued) I didn’t write this with any particular audience in mind, and the thrust is thoughtless acceptance of tradition and unjustified assumptions, not the flood per se. Those arguments are in my other post, which is more dispassionate.

  36. stephenchardy on February 10, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Sterflu:

    You asked a number of good questions, which we can hope that Ben will discuss. Remember that what builds faith for for some can destroy it in others. I could easily change one of your questions like this:

    You asked: “What assurance can you provide scriptural literalists that switching to a more sophisticated understanding of the scriptures won’t destroy their faith?”

    But one could easily ask: “What assurance can you provide that scriptural literalists won’t destroy the faith of those who believe that the earth is round, or that the sun doesn’t move, or that there was a universal flood 5000 years ago?”

    I believe that some of what Ben was saying is that a literalist intepretation of the Bible can un-necessarily destroy faith. Un-necessary because the Bible does not demand to be read literally. It was not meant to be history. The BoM explicityly denies that it is a history, but is a sacred record.

  37. Rachel Whipple on February 10, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Thanks, Ben. Issues like this are exactly why I take the time to read the scriptures with my children. And then we discuss what we read. I’m also trying to teach them to be kind about others’ interpretation of and faith in scripture.

  38. DavidH on February 10, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Relating to one of sterflu’s questions, I don’t view “dispensationalism” as a core principle of the restored gospel. I think dispensationalism is useful construct for organizing history, and it may or may not be historically correct. But it is no more core to my own belief than whether God created the earth in 6 days or 6 billion years. The notion of dispensationalism is not unique to Mormons, and apparently traces to the same time period in U.S. history as the Restoration, and seems largely held by more conservative Christian Protestants (and Mormons). http://www.theopedia.com/Dispensationalism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensationalism

  39. Roger Hansen on February 10, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Hi Ben, While I generally agree with your post, I have a couple of comments and concerns:
    1. This months Ensign has a pseudo-autobiography of Noah complete with a “Fact Box.” The the legend lives on.
    2. The 1998 article seriously misrepresents Apostle Widtsoe position vis-a-vis the flood. Widtsoe had serious doubts about a universal flood.
    3. I also wonder about your statement: “If God wants to miraculously produce enough water for a flood, I believe He can.” I don’t. I believe that He has to obey physical laws. And I think that this is the reason that Widtsoe had his doubts about the flood.
    4. The post just before you deals with Sodom and Gomorrah. The legends live on.

  40. wondering on February 10, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    Thanks, Roger Hansen.

    Ben’s post implies that literalisim in official teachings is all in the past (“That article is conspicuously absent…”). The very literalist article on Noah in the current Ensign shows that this is not the case. Among other things, it twice describes Noah as the “second father of the human race.”

  41. Ben S. on February 11, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Wondering: “Ben’s post implies that literalisim in official teachings is all in the past” Let me assure you that’s a misreading of my implication and intent.

    Roger: “Widtsoe had serious doubts about a universal flood.” Indeed. I mention this explicitly in my post on the flood.

    “I believe that He has to obey physical laws.” I suppose it depends where you draw the line then. Do angels appearing and the resurrection violate physical laws, or just (as Talmage liked to say) follow higher ones we don’t yet understand?

    “The post just before you deals with Sodom and Gomorrah.” This is too elliptical to constitute an argument or objection. I believe the post consists of topical poetry from the LDS past, which hardly constitutes some kind of literalist argument on Kent’s part.

  42. Mark B. on February 11, 2014 at 9:21 am

    And as if on cue, there’s this from this morning’s New York Times.

    The only problem I have with this is that taking the camel out of Genesis 24 sort of spoils the old smoking joke.

  43. Dave on February 11, 2014 at 10:29 am

    So I read the Ensign article. I’m glad reporters didn’t find that during the campaign. (“Gov. Romney, are Mormons required to believe in a worldwide flood?”) So I wonder if the author also believes in the dome of heaven as related in the Flood account and the three-tiered universe it depicts (above the earth, on the earth, below the earth) and whether he thinks accepting that worldview is required for Latter-day Saints?

  44. Ben S. on February 11, 2014 at 11:21 am

    I also note that Meridian Magazine has an article today on “How Literally” we should take scripture. That author evinces the same lack of critical thinking as the Ensign author by assuming up front that revelation/scripture is primarily history, and the JST/Book of Moses is therefore primarily historical.

    “In Moses chapter 1 in the Pearl of Great Price, the preface to the start of Genesis chapter 1, Moses is shown a vision that will result in the vision of the creation of the world. Right away, we can see that the scholarly theory of Genesis being oral traditions written down centuries later is refuted by this revelation.”

    http://ldsmag.com/article/1/13926/1/page-1

    I suppose that Meridian has far more regular readers than Times&Seasons, and this author has been writing on the same question I have, but very different perspective.

  45. 0t on February 13, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    I think the trouble I have with these articles, and note that I support this discussion a great deal, is two fold.

    First, when you start discussing about what was not literal, my question quickly becomes, where do you draw the line? That is, where do you look at the text and say, “events A, B, and C where literal and miraculous” and “events D, E, and F were not–allegorical, contextual, etc”. I have trouble with this, because the science points away from pretty much every miraculous event. Was there a literal Adam? Was there a literal Fall? If not, then what about the scriptures that seem rather adamant that such is at least part of the reason behind the Atonement? I want to know as much as possible, but I actually don’t see a lot of reconciliation between the science and the doctrines. I think of the D&C comment the Savior makes that seems to imply that our understanding of at least the physical science, is more incomplete than we realize. So, on one hand, I want to know what research tells us, but on the other, I can’t so easily discredit what the scriptures declare because both of my own testimony, and because there’s just no way to settle, in my mind, where to draw that line.

    Second, I can see the position of the church were there are statements from the early 20th century that seem to suggest that part of the reason why the church leadership isn’t more emphatic about whether these things are literal or not is because of the idea that one shouldn’t have to have a college degree to be a believing member. I see that. It makes sense to me. The brethren go back and forth on these topics all of the time, so I can see where teaching such things so boldly is probably not going to work, unless we accept that there are levels of education required, and I don’t think we should accept that. This is different from encouraging learning, research, and scholarship in general, but rather as a requirement for faith. But your argument that God is not a trickster actually worsens this a bit for me. If He is not (and I agree in principle with your supposition), then why didn’t the Book of Moses at least, contain clarifications about what is historical and what is not? After all, Moses appears to be schooled in a level of cosmology that approaches modern understanding at the beginning, but then we get Enoch and the flood. The miracles associated with Enoch have to at least be as troubling. So, if God is not a trickster, why are these modern restoration scriptures that were supposed to clear up the errors not full of clear disclaimers about how to interpret them? This doesn’t mess with my actual testimony, but it doesn’t clear anything up either. I do know at least that the Book of Moses contains the comment about the Creation itself being an account of spiritual events…but then does it become literal for awhile and then back to “spiritual”? Where does that happen? How can this be explained without God being at least a little bit of a trickster?

  46. 0t on February 13, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    To clarify a touch when I wrote: ” not–allegorical, contextual, etc”… I meant to break that into separate clauses.
    “events D, E, and F were not–allegorical, contextual, etc”.

    “Events D, E, and F were not. They were allegorical, contextual, etc.”

  47. Ben S. on February 13, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    ” the idea that one shouldn’t have to have a college degree to be a believing member.”
    On that idea, see http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2013/12/necessity-of-scholars/ The problem is scripture that isn’t modern (and all scripture falls under that category for the purpose of my discussion.)

    “I have trouble with this, because the science points away from pretty much every miraculous event.”

    Well, as I hope is clear in the post and my other posts, I don’t make my *interpretive* decisions about scripture from a binary “scientifically possible or not?” perspective. Rather, I make interpretive decisions based on interpretive methods.

    One of the problems is that many LDS who struggle and study with related issues end up focusing on the scientific side, and almost completely ignoring the interpretive/exegetical side. I think that’s largely due to Mormon cultural biases. If you look at LDS discussions of creation 99% of them focus on trying to reconcile a particular unquestioned reading of Genesis, instead of looking at that particular reading. Rare indeed is the discussion of context, authorship, comparisons to other ancient Near Eastern accounts like Enuma Elish, etc.

    “After all, Moses appears to be schooled in a level of cosmology that approaches modern understanding at the beginning” I’m not convinced of this. Or at least, this assertion seems prioritize certain modern-bias readings and assumptions which may or may not be correct, but at least need to be identified before jumping to conclusions (as, say, at Meridian).

    “if God is not a trickster, why are these modern restoration scriptures that were supposed to clear up the errors not full of clear disclaimers about how to interpret them?”

    Frankly, I don’t think God is concerned with scientific error or progress. Moreover, he has to work with whomever he communicates with from where they are, in terms of knowledge and worldview. ( It’s not totally in response to the question, but I liked this post. http://ldsscience.blogspot.com/2010/02/moses-as-dr-mccoy.html)

  48. Christian J on February 14, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    “For myself, the primary reason I reject a global historical flood is emphatically not because of “Science” but because of scriptural interpretation that considers genre and original context.”

    Ben, the post is much appreciated. This line has the most punch for me. Sometimes it seems that Biblical fundamentalists walk right into the false dichotomy that secular fundamentalists prop up for them. The real answers are always much more interesting and faith promoting to me.

  49. Ben H on February 15, 2014 at 3:13 am

    Great post, Ben. My reaction is a bit like Christian J’s, it sounds like. You made me really nervous at first sounding all irate about an Ensign article that you went so far as to name. Even once I realized the author is not a GA I was pretty suspicious. And it takes a while for it to become clear how serious of a believer you are. But, “scripture itself doesn’t require these beliefs, but tradition can mislead us into thinking that scripture requires these beliefs,” and, “this is a frustrated plea to actually read the scriptures carefully and rely on them instead of tradition, instead of assuming we know what they say,” are calls for greater and more conscientious, more painstaking faith. You are calling us to be more open to what the scriptures actually tell us, and not assume prematurely that we have understood what they are calling us to. Thank you!

  50. Ben S. on February 15, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    “Even once I realized the author is not a GA I was pretty suspicious. And it takes a while for it to become clear how serious of a believer you are.”

    Well, yeah. I was trying to make that clear with this public litany of associations.

    “I am a temple-recommend-holding, Book-of-Mormon-historicity-defending, member of FAIR, FARMS author/scholarship recipient, long-time-volunteer-Institute teacher.”

    There aren’t a lot of liberal/disbelieving/cultural Mormons who fit that type, if any. I was somewhat uncomfortable posting it, but it was important to make clear just where I’m coming from. I am very much a believer, but I also believe critical thinking and examining assumptions are a necessary part of a resilient faith, but both seemed in short supply in the Ensign article.

  51. Sheldon on February 26, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    I have been struggling with my faith and have stumbled upon your writings. I think this will be very helpful for me. Thank you.

  52. John on March 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    I know I’m late to this discussion, but perusing through this site I fell upon it and have decided to post a response.

    In my Sunday School class our teacher–who is a great teacher–bore his personal spiritual witness that the Flood story was literal history and not some myth. Funny thing is, just two minutes before his testimony he was reading the scripture text and came upon this nugget: “And there were giants in the land” by which he finished the sentence with his own addition “blah blah blah.”

    The Flood as we have inherited it through centuries of literate, Protestant tradition, according to him, must be very literal, but even his literalness ran into a snag with the giants which he summed up as “blah blah blah.” This is a very useful phrase, and I am using it more and more when I listen to people preach.

    We have completely forgotten the differences between oral and literate cultures and how oral people compile histories. Even with people who had writing, until full literate consciousness (around 6th cent. BC) people were still using oral strategies. Oral peoples do not write histories the way literate peoples do. They do not compile just the facts and only the facts. They use narrative templates (yes, you can call them myths) and liturgical tropes in all of their histories. The Old Testament is filled with mythological frames. Granted they have been altered by literate priests writing them down; who, by the way, had probably lost their original contexts by the time they did write them down. Genesis is filled with stories belonging to the oral storehouse of thought linked to oral myth, temple, and cosmology. To interpret this stuff as literal, literate history is to claim one’s turnip is a diamond.

    I know the author of the Ensign article. He was my Hebrew professor at BYU. Very nice and smart guy. And like so many, a fundamentalist when it comes to scriptures. This is curious to me. That somehow faithfulness is synonymous with the zeal one can infuse into literalness. When I tell people you cannot take many of these stories literately literally they look at me like a heretic. How did this happen?

    Finally, aside from the enormous issues of oral and literate frames of cognition and history; we Mormons are spoiled. We think that all scriptures come the way the Book of Mormon did. Direct and hands on historians writing pure history through revelation and obtaining their record through inspirational translation. Fair enough, but the Bible certainly did not get handed down to us like the Book of Mormon. There are probably some four or five dozen hands who touched the the writing of the gold plates (i.e. Nephi, Jacob, Enos, several in Omni, Mormon, Moroni, and presumably several unnamed scribes who helped them; additionally Joseph Smith and all of his scribes). Every time someone enters the fray there is an opportunity for a little degradation. The Bible has had thousands of hands touching it over numerous centuries. We are to take all of this factually, literally, and inerrantly? That is a fundamentalist evangelical position which so many Mormons have. Sad, being that such a position is not Mormon theology.

  53. John on March 9, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    And as an aside, there are four scholarly and I think appropriate interpretations of the Flood that I have run into and all are worth considering; albeit one can choose how far one can take all of this. They are as follows:

    1. Folklore Rooted in History. Almost every culture around the world has a Flood myth (Mormons call them all myths except for the Bible story; which goes to show that all myth really is is another persons religion). Several folklore scholars believe that this is a common tale rooted in agricultural societies and based off localized geological floods. As most early cultures lived by water sources for survival (rivers and shores) flooding was a real experience with which they had to deal with regularly, and some floods no doubt were catastrophic in nature. So even the folklore interpretation has an historical basis.

    2. Major Geological Event. This is an upscale from #1, as some scholars (e.g. Ryan and Pitman) have suggested that the massive event around 50,000 BC where the Atlantic spilled into the Mediterranean Basin forming the Mediterranean Sea is the basis for the story. This event would have been cataclysmic, for an oral people global, and relatively quick.

    While I have not read specific scholars suggest the following, it is curious to me that at the end of the last Ice Age the ocean levels rose about 300 feet over a period of a few thousand years. Now this is not a 40 day catastrophe, but 300 feet in ocean rise would wipe out an enormous amount of once inhabited land, islands, etc. and change the topography of the world. It is very possible that people handed down knowledge of former settlements and cities that were now clearly under the waves, and this too could be a basis for the Flood story.

    3. Cosmological Event. A very curious and smart suggestion is from Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Deschend who assert that the world wide Flood is not even terrestrial but celestial. Due to precession of the equinoxes, stars which stood on the horizon for thousands of years receiving the sun on the morning of solstice and equinox slowly submerged below the horizon while new stars took their place. This essentially formed a “New Heaven and New Earth” defined by new celestial coordinates essential for the calendar and ritual associations in oral societies. This celestial flood is certainly global, covering all the hills and mountains, as the entire frame of heaven shifts and is witnessed on every inhabited spot on the globe.

    4. An Event Connected with Eschatology. My favorite interpretation which basically comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the hero is seeking for the secrets for immortality and eternal life and asks the only mortal who has experienced apotheosis how he got eternal life? This person responds, “I will reveal to you a great secret from the gods;” and then tells the Flood story. This is so strange that most scholars believe the Flood story is a late accretion added to the epic and told for its own sake. However, a quick check in Chapter 135 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead reveals the Flood story in this exact same context, as the secret to obtaining immortality and eternal life. Several other world flood myths link resurrection and the Flood directly.

    This at least presents the idea that the historical Flood (either #1 or #2) had been ritualized in the cosmology and cultus for the dead in at least a few cultures. This means that the new flood waters were in fact celestial, as in the world wide Flood is death, and every soul must build an ark in order to find the new dry land on the “other side.”

    It may be that all of these interpretations are correct in their own way. It may be none are, but I doubt that. We could add one more interpretation, and that is the one presented in the Ensign article and re-articulated by my own Sunday School teacher, and most other Mormons I know. Despite all their faith and zeal, and their warm giving of testimonies (which ultimately is the point) their interpretation is neither gospel nor inspired, no matter how many old commentaries or kumbayas they can quote. It is simply another approach.

Leave a Reply