Wednesday, September 08, 2010

DMI Dave, Jonah, and the Rant

DMI Dave posted an interesting comment last Sunday over at Keepapitchinin's "Rant about Scriptural Literalism." Today, I'd like to ask Dave a few questions.

First, be assured that I'm ambivalent about whether the Jonah story is literal or metaphorical. What I want to know is how do past and present "senior LDS leaders" — First Presidency and Twelve — feel about it.

You said: "The CES Old Testament manual ... quotes Joseph Fielding Smith’s defense of a literal reading of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish." Here is the passage in question:

"The account of Jonah being swallowed by a  ' great fish '  has been the subject of much ridicule and controversy on the part of the world. They use this verse as one argument to sustain the belief that the book of Jonah is simply a parable and not a record of historical fact. Speaking to those who take such a position, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said:

" 'Are we to reject it as being an impossibility and say that the Lord could not prepare a fish, or whale, to swallow Jonah? ... Surely the Lord sits in the heavens and laughs at the wisdom of the scoffer, and then on a sudden answers his folly by a repetition of the miracle in dispute, or by the presentation of one still greater....

" ' I believe, as did Mr. William J. Bryan, the story of Jonah. My chief reason for so believing is not in the fact that it is recorded in the Bible, or that the incident has been duplicated in our day, but in the fact that Jesus Christ, our Lord, believed it. The Jews sought him for a sign of his divinity. He gave them one, but not what they expected. The scoffers of his day, notwithstanding his mighty works, were incapable, because of sin, of believing.

" ' "He answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the Prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." '  (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:314–15.) " (Religion 302, Third Edition, 2003, pp.98-99)

You said: "I think Elder Smith’s approach is not the approach taken by the senior LDS leaders of our own century."

If you mean they agree with Elder Smith but they would say it differently, I agree with you. But if you're saying they themselves have become the scoffers, then please tell me, Dave, how does CES do it?

How does CES publish a manual with the Churh logo on its back cover and distribute it to more than 300,000 LDS college students (2009 enrollment) without the approval of senior LDS leaders?

And I'm pretty sure the correct answer is: They don't.

The First Presidency and Twelve are in charge, Dave, not CES or Correlation. Therefore, what's in the 2003 edition of a twenty-nine-year-old manual *is* the approach that's been approved by the senior LDS leaders of this century. You can disagree with that manual if you want to, but you can't claim the support of current Church leaders.

You said: "Sometimes we overstate the extent to which LDS leaders and LDS manuals embrace literal readings.... such views are not in harmony with the guidance given in the [class] manual." But wait. Lesson 33 says:

"During his earthly ministry, the Savior spoke about the  ' sign of the prophet Jonas [Jonah] '  (Matthew 12:39). What did this sign mean? (See Matthew 12:39–41. Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish and then was brought forth alive. The Savior would spend three days and nights buried in the earth and then would come forth resurrected.)"  (p.163.)

In what way, Dave, is the CES manual not in harmony with the Gospel Doctrine manual regarding Jonah? Where, in fact, does any official 21st century LDS media suggest that the Jonah story isn't literal?


Anonymous Dave said...

Thanks for the link and kind words, R. Gary. I share your preference for a policy of ambivalence about whether the text of the book of Jonah accurately recounts actual events in the life of Jonah or whether it is an exemplary tale designed to teach us that "God loves all his children" (that's what the manual states as the lesson to be learned from the book of Jonah).

Elder Smith termed those who don't take a literal view of the events described in the book of Jonah as "scoffers." I don't believe present-day LDS leaders employ that sort of terminology to describe those who don't share Elder Smith's particular views, and they certainly don't make the historicity of Jonah (or other issues that don't touch on core LDS beliefs) some sort of scriptural litmus test that works to marginalize some Latter-day Saints. That's the sense in which a Latter-day Saint espousing maximal literalism in scriptural interpretation as somehow binding on every other Latter-day Saint is out of harmony with the guidance in the manuals.

The Sunday School manual itself notes that "days" in Genesis 1 doesn't really mean literal 24-hour days. The CES Old Testament manual is open to a figurative reading of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt. Most Latter-day Saints take the serpent described in Genesis 2 as a figurative expression rather than as a literal reference to a snake. So plainly maximal literalism is not the view taken by the curriculum manuals, CES materials, or Latter-day Saints in general. Whether a literal or figurative reading -- or both -- is warranted for any given passage of scripture is thus often an open question that depends on the context of the passage and other factors. So again, one who espouses maximal literalism as an approach to scriptural interpretation somehow binding on all Latter-day Saints is out of harmony with the approach taken by the (correlated) manuals.

As to your assumed tight fit between what issues from the Correlation process and the views of General Authorities, the relationship between Correlation and senior LDS leaders is undefined, given how little official commentary is provided. It is certainly reasonable to believe reports that anonymous committees do the writing, Correlation provides guidance and supervision, and designated General Authorities do a reading and approval of the final drafts. (See this series of posts at BCC for details on how the Correlation process actually produces manuals.) Certainly much of the guidance and supervision Correlation provides is out of view of the supervising General Authorities, which makes it quite reasonable to speak of Correlation acting independently of the supervising General Authorities. Correlation controls the drafts that General Authorities see.

Likewise, the relationship between CES, Correlation, and the rather dated BYU religion manuals prepared once upon a time by CES personnel is unclear. However, I take the recent removal of references to Mormon Doctrine from the newly revised Gospel Principles manual as an indication that the current work product coming out of the Correlation process differs in some respects from what came out of Correlation a generation ago. See this post for details.

So R. Gary, am I correct in assuming that your ambivalence about the Jonah story means you don't see maximal literalism as binding on Latter-day Saints in general?

9/08/2010 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Dave, although you have expanded the scope of the discussion, in general I agree with you. Private individuals are on shaky ground when they assert maximal literalism independent of being guided in that direction by Church leaders. But that limitation does not include members of the First Presidency and the Twelve, for it is clearly their calling to direct the Church and expound its doctrine, something no other member is authorized to do.

That brings us to Joseph Fielding Smith. What the CES writers say is one thing. But when the CES manual quotes President Smith, that is another thing entirely. The number of First Presidency and Twelve members who reviewed and approved the CES manual is unimportant to me. Those two Church quorums have their own procedures in place for authorizing what is published in the name of the Church, and the CES manual was unquestionably published in the name of the Church.

At any time during the past thirty years, any member of the First Presidency or the Twelve could have expressed displeasure with the Smith quote and it would have disappeared. I do not believe Church manuals are published over the objection of anyone in those two leading quorums.

I myself am unwilling to assert scriptural literalism with respect to Jonah. I agree that the story has little to do with core LDS belief. But because Joseph Fielding Smith is who he is, and because he is quoted in a current Church manual as having asserted scriptural literalism with respect to Jonah, I think Church members who set out to prove the CES Smith quote wrong are on shaky ground.

I appreciate very much the opportunity to discuss this here on my blog where childish name calling, etc. can be avoided. Thank you very much for your comment. And by the way, I'm going to be in Jackson next week. How about we do lunch?

9/08/2010 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

At any time during the past thirty years, any member of the First Presidency or the Twelve could have expressed displeasure with the Smith quote and it would have disappeared.

I doubt it's that simple. Anyone who has served in leadership positions in this Church has probably encountered things they would like to change, and that are within their ability to change, but don't. You have to pick your battles and set your priorities.

If you're going to remove that quote (which falls within the acceptable spectrum of LDS views), then you're essentially going to have to produce a new version of the manual since you might as well give the whole thing a freshening, and you don't want to be perceived as slapping President Smith in the face. Is that really the most pressing need and best use of tithing?

So I can easily imagine one or more of the senior Brethren not being particularly thrilled with some part of a manual, but letting it go.

9/08/2010 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Jared* said: "I can easily imagine one or more of the senior Brethren not being particularly thrilled with some part of a manual, but letting it go."

I can imagine the same thing, yet I also believe members have an obligation to be careful about criticizing the words of the prophets, especially when they're in manuals currently published by the Church.

Have you ever seen a congregation suddenly go quiet and reverently stand while one of the apostles enters the room? That is the kind of reverence I'm talking about.

9/08/2010 04:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Ben S said...

Gary, I have gone where angels fear to tread ;)


9/12/2010 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Ben S, read the second paragraph of my post. I'm not concerned about the Jonah story being fictional. Your post favors fiction. Cool. Good for you!

9/12/2010 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think one or two general authorities disagreeing with Pres. Smith could have resulted in his comments disappearing from an old manual. That would require the prophet and/or entire quorum of the Twelve, as I understand it. I also question whether all things are meant to be defined by either the prophet or the Twelve. Some things just might be meant for us to struggle to figure out for ourselves. Were that not the case, there would be no need for us to work to understand anything. We would simply accept what authority has said. I don't see much growth in always wanting things defined for us.

9/13/2010 07:03:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

"I don't think one or two general authorities disagreeing with Pres. Smith could have resulted in his comments disappearing from an old manual."

I simply do not believe that a manual published thirty years ago and revised seven years ago contains a Pres. Smith statement with which current senior Church leaders disagree.

I agree that not all things are meant to be defined by the apostles and prophets. But when something is defined by a Church president and published by the Church in a manual for college students, that thing is not meant for us to struggle to figure out for ourselves.

Here is what President Eyring has said about accepting what the apostles and prophets teach:

"The choice not to take prophetic counsel changes the very ground upon which we stand. That ground becomes more dangerous. The failure to take prophetic counsel lessens our power to take inspired counsel in the future." (Ensign, June 2008, p.4.)

I recommend his entire message (click here).

9/13/2010 08:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave C. said...


Recently I have noticed quite a bit a skepticism regarding the existence of certain individuals and their amazing stories. I think the further we move down the time line away from these people and their experiences the easier it is for us to deny that they ever existed.

I've recently heard people question whether Socrates really existed, whether Homer really existed, and whether Job really existed and went through those great trials. When the Lord mentioned "thou are not yet as Job" to Joseph Smith, it was one of those ah ha! moments. Now I know Job really lived and experienced great trials regardless what the skeptics say.

9/20/2010 12:07:00 PM  

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