Challenging biblical literalism in a conservative Mormon ward

My ward in small-town Colorado is very conservative. How conservative is it? Well, I am quite sure that less than 5 percent of ward members — and probably 0 percent — voted for Barack Obama in either the 2008 and 2012 elections. How do I know? We have a caucus system in Colorado, and I have seen a lot of people at the caucuses. In addition, they have bumper stickers on their cars. And, yes, occasionally they make political statements at church.

I have been the Gospel Doctrine teacher for more than two years. I generally avoid politics in class, but you can tell where people are coming from the types of comments people make. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado is, to many of my fellow ward members, a sign of the end times (I voted for legalization, but I don’t like contention, so when people say legal pot is a sign of the end times I mostly just smile and change the subject).

In any case, believe you me: my ward is conservative.

There are readers right now who are forming stereotypes in their minds. I can just see it. “Conservative ward, they are all probably fundamentalists, ignorant rubes, not as sophisticated as I am, etc, etc.”

Now, here’s something to ponder: most of them (perhaps all?) happily accept the idea that we do not need to take the Bible literally. They accept that Mormons are not Biblical fundamentalists. They accept that some of the Bible is perhaps allegorical. Darn them, why don’t they live up to the stereotypes liberal Mormons impose upon them?

We have been teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine this year. This is an area rife for discussions on the age of the Earth, evolution, the mark of Cain, etc. In short, this is territory where the “ignorant rubes” could indignantly stand up to show trumpet their fundamentalism. Not one person has done so.

I have taught the following in Gospel Doctrine class, and it has been quite well-received:

–There are multiple creation accounts, and they are not the same accounts and even contradictory in some ways. This is OK. God explains the creation to different audiences in different ways and reveals different information at different times. This is not faith-destroying but is just common sense. If we are explaining a complex subject to our children, we might explain it in different ways at different times. It makes sense that God would do this also.
–We do not need to believe that the Earth is literally 6,000 years old or that the Earth was literally covered in the flood or that Noah literally put two kinds of each animal on the ark. Sometimes a loving God wants us to understand basic concepts. Sometimes information is left out or explained in very simple terms.
–There is absolutely no conflict between God’s creation story and scientific discovery regarding evolution. The creation story is meant to impart spiritual truths. The creation story is not meant to be a scientific blueprint. Science studies the tangible material available and comes up with hypotheses based on that material. It is completely OK (and faith-promoting) that science would not study spiritual issues. If we see that the scriptures and scientists are telling two different — but possibly parallel — stories when describing the creation, we can see that there is room for science and faith to coexist peacefully and perhaps even support each other.
–The Church has clearly and forthrightly rejected the idea that black skin a sign of the mark of Cain and the curse of Ham. We don’t exactly know what the mark of Cain is, and that is OK. God wants us to ponder the scriptures.

The discussion was very interesting and filled with good insights. Not once — I repeat not once — did one of these conservative members stand up to proclaim that we must take the Bible literally.

So, let’s be clear: at least in my (very) conservative Colorado ward, people accept the idea that there is more to Mormonism than insisting that our faith is based on biblical inerrancy. Mormon members embrace our uniqueness and the important role of latter-day revelation. I know this will destroy some stereotypes out there, but the truth will set us all free.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “Challenging biblical literalism in a conservative Mormon ward

  1. Btw, if you are a Mormon who believes the Bible must be taken literally, that is OK also! God wants you to ponder the scriptures. He wants you to read them and come to your own conclusions. We may disagree on some issues, but I don’t think that my readings of the scriptures is 100 percent correct. I am open to the possibility I may be wrong. Just so we are clear.

  2. I live in a very politically conservative ward, but politics is not often discussed during the lessons or sacrament meeting. It is clear that the ideas expressed above are believed by many ward members, especially current and former leaders.
    Some have expressed that all of the temple presentation is symbolic, a far cry from biblical or temple literalism.

  3. Or, it could be that they disagree, but don’t want to say anything. I’ve heard lots of things said that I don’t agree with, but I almost never disagree with the teacher. One example was a gospel doctrine class about D&C 76. The teacher was teaching that in verse 37 when it says that the sons of perdition are the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power meant that the sons of perdition will not be resurrected since the second death is physical death. Of course I knew that this was incorrect, and I’m sure a few of the other 50 people in the class knew it was incorrect, but nobody said anything.

    I can’t speak to the reason why anyone else didn’t say anything, but I strongly believe in avoiding contention and I’ve almost never seen an instance where someone starts disagreeing with the teacher and it doesn’t lead quickly to contention. I think in 99 out of 100 times it is better to let (what I believe to be) false doctrine pass on by than to cause contention. In other words, in my book avoiding contention is more important than correcting false doctrine.

  4. John, good point on contention.

    I can’t speak for other wards and other classes. The people I teach fall all over themselves to correct anything that they think is wrong. We are a small-town ward where everybody gets along, so we all do it in ways that are not contentious. If people agreed, they would generally speak out. We only have 20-30 people on Gospel Doctrine, we all know each other, and we are pretty frank with each other. So I am confident that people would be correcting me if they felt it was necessary.

  5. I think the case is overstated here that active Mormons are not literalists, just like over at T&S its overstated how literalist Mormons are in understanding the Bible. There is a wide range of opinions on the matter, but that is fine. Last week, for instance, in EQ we had a discussion related to the lesson about Creation. It was a small class, but not one of us took the position that Evolution was wrong. The conclusion was that God could do anything and use any mechanism He wanted to make this and the Earth. The Scripture accounts were simplified spiritual explanations. For emphasis, no one remained quiet or argued against the concept.

    The flood issue is more problematic, but that is because no theistic alternative has been proposed other than the traditional literalist. Like I have stated about Evolution, saying something is not true or allegorical does not deal with the issue. There has to be alternative explanations that don’t take away from the majesty of God’s works while placing it in scientific and historical context. Relying too much on “logic” will put up fences that don’t move the conversation beyond adversarial.

    I would also like to point out that, popular opinion aside, Mormonism *is* literalist. You can’t read the Doctrine and Covenants and come away thinking Joseph Smith didn’t believe in angels, miracles, prophecy, God’s hand in history, and a literal understanding of the Biblical narrative. His revelations don’t make sense without that at a basic level. We can become more sophisticated in our own understandings of the Bible and modern Scripture, but that goes only so far before it becomes a refutation. Did we over time become too literalist? I think we did. However, right now I think Mormons are leaning too far in the other direction at a dangerous degree. Before we might have been influenced too much by Christian fundamentalists. Currently we are influenced too much by secular humanists.

  6. Jettboy, I think you make a good point that there are some areas — including some you mention — where Mormons are literalists.

  7. I’m glad to see this. I don’t think approach in interpretation need match up to political alignment. You can be a strong Tea Party non-literalist or a strong Democratic literalist. I’m still not happy with the implications or vagueness of the terminology being used, but it is what it is.
    I don’t think identifying the Good Samaritan as a parable is literal or figurative. It’s simply calling it what it is. Similarly, to read a non-historical narrative as non-historical is neither figurative nor literal. This is the point I tried to make in my original post on the flood (, but most seem to have missed that and only seen the fundamentalism post.

  8. It’s true that many Mormons pride themselves on taking more nuanced views on the creation and such. They believe in a “rational” faith, and that the Bible was not translated correctly.

    But this “enlightened” perspective is deceptive. While Mormons may take nuanced views on the flood, they take fundamentalist views on equally irrational tenets like the historicity of the Book of Mormon, or the resurrection of Jesus. From a scientific perspective, all those tenets are untenable. The reality is that religion is not compatible with science as practiced on earth.

  9. Nate, I will take the most charitable view of your comment above and take it that you mean that science studies the observable, and you can’t observe a resurrection, so it is difficult for science to study and report on such a thing. Yes, faith is involved. This does not mean that religion and science are not “compatible,” it means they study different things.

  10. I think the Church is less fundamentalist in its Biblical literacy than it has been in the past. Fewer member quote older General Authorities (McConkie, JFSmith, etc) on issues like evolution.
    Unlike some here, I do not need a Grand Unifying Theory (GUT) of science and religion. Heck, Mormonism sometimes disagrees with Mormonism on even key issues: saved by grace or works?
    The key is we are still seeking out answers in both realms, often having to discard or at least modify previous belief statements.It is okay for ancient people to be taught a certain version(s) of Creation that differs from our own. Just how likely would Moses and his people have understood the Big Bang theory or evolution? And how would that information really have helped him establish a beginning purpose for Israel? (it wouldn’t). When Moses was shown every “particle” of the earth, what size were those particles? Rock size? Sand size? Molecules/Atoms/String size? We often assume many things from a book written thousands of years ago from the perspective of the men who wrote things down.

  11. I agree, we don’t need to believe Noah put two kinds of each animal in the Arch and so on. We don’t need to believe that. I mean what i say. I’m not a judge here.

    But may i remind us all about one thing: If we do not believe these things to be understood literal, let us always ask ourselves: Why don’t we believe it?

    And an answer like: In my modern mind I cannot believe this to be literal true – is certainly not a valid answer.

    So if you don’t believe in things like these, always know why you don’t believe them. And have a valid answer to this question.

  12. Rame, Klaus and SR, all good points and good comments.

    To answer Klaus’ point specifically, I think we need to work these things out ourselves. My personal opinion is that the Lord asks us to read the scriptures, pray about them and come to our own conclusions, with the guidances of the prophets. So, to use one personal example: I personally believe that the Book of Mormon is historical. There really were people named Nephi, Lehi, Mormon, the Brother of Jared, Moroni, etc. They really did live somewhere in the Americas. But if some prophet were to point out that, for example, the story of the Brother of Jared is non-historical and is simply a parable, I would be 100 percent OK with that. It would not affect my faith in the least. I would read the story slightly differently but would make my searching of the scriptures more interesting and more thought-provoking. It seems to me that if we approach the scriptures looking for spiritual truths we are more likely to maintain faith under all circumstances.

  13. Nate, this is my understanding of what you are saying.

    Literalist – I believe the world wide flood to be a literal event; that the earth was literally completely immersed in water. I don’t know where God got all the water from (perhaps brought from elsewhere in the universe or created in situ like water to wine, but in reverse 😉 but if I could explain it, it wouldn’t be a miracle.

    Scientist – there is no proof that god exists, there is no proof that miracles occur, and there is no proof that there was a universal flood. Your belief in such a thing is the result of mental derangement caused by the foolish traditions of your fathers.

    Literalist – I believe that God will literally resurrect everyone who has ever lived, cleanse the entire earth with fire and remake it into a Celestial world.

    Scientist – that’s so insane that in comparison a world wide flood seems totally plausible.

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