“Teaching Bible Stories”- History vs. Fiction in the Improvement Era

Public domain, http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=8577&picture=old-books
Public domain, http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=8577&picture=old-books

The Improvement Era in September 1925 ran a short article in the Editor’s Table called  “Teaching Bible Stories.” To set the stage a little, this was 14 years after the 1911 Crisis at BYU over evolution and how to read scripture (see here as well), and immediately after the 1925 Scopes Trial over teaching evolution. I included an excerpt and  little analysis here in the larger context of Elder Stephen Richards May 1925 address to BYU. I’d like to revisit it.

Recently a number of communications have come to the Era setting forth in splendid language and in very clear thought the literary advantage of teaching Bible stories; also, that Bible stories are mainly literary tales “written for the simple Israelites to glorify God, and that they should therefore not be taken too seriously. In other words the idea is expressed that they are not historical, not actual, but that they are fiction.

In our opinion, if God is left out in teaching Bible stories, and literary excellence, rather than historical truth, made the only reason for their study in school or otherwise, we may as well study Shakespeare. We think the teaching of Bible stories in this way would be unfortunate. We dislike to call the Bible stories “tales,” which means legends or fiction, in other words. The whole trend of such teaching is to impress the reader that the stories of the Bible are literary fictions, “made up” to boost the God of Israel and the Israelitish religion— they are not real. Taught this way they become a joke, and God a myth. We mean by Bible stories such stories as the creation, the flood, the wooing of Rebecca, Joseph and his brethren, Moses, the Ten Plagues, the passage of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments received on Mount Sinai, the golden calf, Samson, David and Goliath, Jonathan and Bathsheba, Daniel, and many others.

The Bible must be studied for more than its literature, however excellent that is. That more is the vital and essential purpose, the underlying fact of all facts — to gain a knowledge of the Fatherhood of God and a testimony of his existence, and interest in mankind as his children and offspring. This lesson must be impressed above all others, for it is the paramount truth which rises above the Bible’s wonderful poetry, its concise, direct, clear and beautiful orations, essays and songs, and reaches to the spiritual heights to which the Latter-day Saint youth and all American citizenship must rise if we shall continue a Christian
nation. — A.

What is the value of fiction? Can fiction teach truth? What truths are necessarily of a historical nature? If the Bible makes use of such a loaded category as “myth,” does that render it “a joke and God a myth”? C.S. Lewis didn’t think so. Neither do a lot of other conservative Christians.

But lets steer away from “myth” and talk about “history” with the same scarequotes. Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative, which talks about how the Hebrew Bible tells its stories, has given me the signature for my email—“history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.”

Alter makes a distinction we should make as well, between “history” as “what actually happened in the past” and “history” as “a record or account of the past” the latter being much closer to fiction than most people realize.  As Elder Homer Durham wrote in The Ensign,

The “events themselves,” which took place in the past, whether yesterday or 5,000 years ago, are beyond exact recall with our present facilities. We cannot re-experience an event. Thus, we are left with records of events, all of which are interpretations of events. (Even television involves a human judgment on where to point the camera.) Furthermore, despite the contributions of archaeology, linguistics, and the natural and social sciences, most history is a form of literature. Naturally, the most reliable records come from qualified participants in the events or from analysts with access to all the records, but their re-creation of the event for us will always be shaped by their own perspective. [My italics]

So Elder Durham says that written history constitutes, in essence, an interpretive form of literature. History is highly interpretive because it involves choosing a subset from among the very small number of sources that survive (whether written, archeological, or artifacts), and then telling a story from a certain perspective. “Fiction” comes from latin fictio, meaning “something made or fashioned.” In that limited sense, all history-writing is “fiction” because all history is the conscious attempt by someone to select certain points and make or fashion a story with them. A different person at a different time with a different focus or access to different data might select different points, and tell a radically different story. I know a couple who cannot tell their engagement story because they disagree so much on the details and their meaning. No one disputes that they got engaged and married. But the stories of the past they tell are different stories.

This is not to undermine “history” as a profession. Indeed not, it is professional historians who are most trustworthy to handle historical materials and narratives, because they are the ones most aware of its pitfalls and concomitantly the most careful about making sweeping authoritative historical claims.

To bring this back to the Old Testament, Samuel/Kings and Chronicles tell the same stories in very different ways, because the lens of the authors has changed. For no one in the Bible are the stories merely recounting the “facts” of the past.

Says Peter Enns in one of my favorite books,

All historiography  [or history-writing] is a literary product, which means it is about people writing down (or transmitting orally) their version of that history. In other words, historiography is by definition an interpretive exercise. There might not be much that is interpretive about saying “David lived,” but when you give an account of David’s life—what he did, when, with whom, why, what the implications were—you are most certainly engaged in interpreting these events. How  so? Anyone who communicates historical events must be very selective about what is communicated. You simply can’t say everything, nor would you want to. You say only those things that are important to the point you want to get across. Also, you will say those things in such a way that will drive your point home. In other words, this presentation, this literary product, looks the way it does because the author has a purpose in mind for why those events should be reported. The presentation is not divorced from the events, but it is a purposeful representation of those events.These three elements are always interconnected. All written accounts of history are literary products that are based on historical events that are shaped to conform to the purpose the historian wants to get across.” – I&I 61-2.

Like many authors, including me, Enns repeats himself. In a more popular, easier-to-read book, he reiterates that

Recalling the past is actually never simply a process of remembering but of creating a narrative out of discrete, imperfect memories (our own or those of others), woven together into a narrative thread that is deeply influenced by how we see ourselves and our world here and now. All attempts to put the past into words are interpretations of the past, not “straight history.” There is no such thing. Anywhere. Including the Bible.

So we can’t just nakedly assert in any and all cases that “scripture says x, therefore x happened,” especially if we haven’t even asked if that particular part of scripture was intended as “history” in the first place. Even for those parts of scripture that are intended to be historical, the bright line between “history” and “fiction” doesn’t really exist, and has to be teased apart carefully. Alter expounds.

What the Bible offers us is an uneven continuum and a constant interweaving of factual historical detail (especially, but by no means exclusively, for the later periods) with purely legendary ‘history’; occasional enigmatic vestiges of mythological lore; etiological stories; archetypal fictions of the founding fathers of the nation; folktales of heroes and wonder-working men of God; verisimilar inventions of wholly fictional personages attached to the progress of national history; and fictionalized versions of known historical figures. All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny. The only evident exceptions to this rule are Job, which in its very stylization seems manifestly a philosophic fable (hence the rabbinic dictum ‘There was no such creature as Job; he is a parable’) and Jonah, which, with its satiric and fantastic exaggerations, looks like a parabolic illustration of the prophetic calling and God’s universality. – Art of Biblical Narrative, 33.

Ultimately, the question we should be asking in scripture is not “why did it happen this way?” (which assumes way too much) but “whether history or not, what is the author trying to teach by telling the story this way?” That question produces much better thought questions and discipleship.

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