Oftentimes, we’re presented with what appears to be a package deal: If you accept A, you accept B-G as well. If you reject A, you reject B-G as well. Just as often, however, what appears as a package can and should be unpacked, critically and carefully examined to see if it really is so.
In 1911 Provo, a controversy erupted over some teachers at BYU. Horace Cummings, the education commissioner, was sent down to investigate and make a report. Telling the entire story is beyond the length and attention span of the average blog, so I’ll just link to it here though it has been written about elsewhere.
Cummings’ report is of interest to me because of the packaging of tradition, Old Testament interpretation and issues of miracles, science, and rationality.
Some of the matters which impressed me most unfavorably may be enumerated as follows: . .. The Bible is treated as a collection of myths, folk-lore, dramas, literary productions, history and some inspiration. Its miracles are mostly fables or accounts of natural events recorded by a simple people who injected the miraculous element into them, as most ignorant people do when things, strange to them, occur. A few concrete examples will illustrate this view:
(a) The flood was only a local inundation of unusual extent,
(b) The confusion of tongues came about by the scattering of the families descended from Noah when they became too numerous for the valley they originally occupied. After a generation or two, having no written language, their speech changed, each tribe’s in a different way. There is nothing sudden or miraculous in the change,
(c) The winds blew the waters of the Red Sea back until the Israelites waded across, but subsided in time to let the waters drown Pharaoh, while a land slide stopped the River Jordan long enough for them to cross it.
(d) Christ’s temptation is only an allegory of what takes place in each of our souls. There is no personal devil to tempt us.
(e) John the Revelator was not translated. He died in the year 96….
Visions and revelations are mental suggestions. The objective reality of the presence of the Father and the Son, in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, is questioned.
I don’t intend to treat each of these separately, but note that the first has to do with genre, one of the important aspects of interpreting any text, modern or ancient, and something I’ve talked about frequently (and will play an important role in my book.) Cummings characterizes these professors’ views of the Bible as “a collection of myths, folk-lore, dramas, literary productions, history and some inspiration.” I’m assuming for sake of the post that his characterization is accurate.
What I want to argue, however, is that accepting parts of the Bible as “myth” (a loaded term if ever there was one) does not preclude one from applying the label “inspiration” to those very same parts. Inspiration does not determine genre. The parables of Jesus, which no one contends actually happened, are just as inspired as more historical genres. There’s no reason why God, who spoke to ancient Israelites “in their weakness, after the manner of their language” could not adapt familiar myths so “that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24.)
I suspect some of those professors in 1911 did take these things as a package deal. Accepting myth in the Bible might have been not so much the result of careful parsing of genres and genre-markers and theories of inspiration, but a general reaction of extreme rationalism, scientism, or arrogance about our intelligence vs. the supposed “ignorant people” of the Bible.
The right way to interpret scripture is not to make sweeping a priori judgments one way or the other. It’s not right to simply throw out anything that seems irrational or miraculous, as they seem to have done. (As I argued in the follow-up to my flood piece, accepting as I do that God can work miracles does not entail believing that every miracle reported in or outside scripture actually occurred.) Nor is the proper way to interpret scripture, at the other extreme, to assume that everything must be history while graciously allowing for some minor “figurative” bits to be thrown in here and there. Mormons, like Evangelicals,
when making generic assessments of [scripture], are strongly biased in favor of historical narrative and deeply suspicious of fictional genres like allegories, myths, legends, fables, and folktales. For many evangelicals, any hint of fiction in Job, Jonah, Daniel, 1 Kings, Acts, or in any parts of the Pentateuch or Gospels, would be theologically threatening, not only for the biblical book itself but for the Bible as a whole.- Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words.
We’ve had 100 years since the BYU controversy, lots of time to refine ideas and arguments, and really sit back and think about these things. I don’t know that Mormons have progressed much with respect to the Bible, and still assume it’s all of one historical genre. (Because of its provenance and other factors, the Book of Mormon is a different and complicated case.) If, regarding our institutional approach to scripture, our current velocity in a positive direction is close to zero, I think mainstream LDS writings are accelerating in the direction of learning to read scripture more effectively and “intelligently” (to invoke Elder Widtsoe.)
I’d cite Michael Austin’s book on Job as a prime example. It succeeds in being sensitive to tradition and scholarship and pays close attention to genre, while also being enormously useful ethically and spiritually. I know of an LDS mother, taking care of her child’s former partner who is dying of cancer, who found the book a real strength in her situation. This careful, scholarly book, the very opposite of “theological twinkies [and] fried froth” was also deeply spiritual and edifying. The conclusions of scholarship are not necessarily inimical to faith or incompatible with devotional approaches and pastoral care.
Whether reading scripture or thinking about scholarship and assumptions, let’s be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, about our assumptions concerning what really is a package deal and what isn’t. Our faith, understanding, and perhaps even discipleship depend on it.