The Scriptures: an Anthology; or, Why Jonah and the Book of Mormon Have No Bearing On Each Other

When I teach Sunday School or Priesthood, I naturally draw on my experiences and knowledge in preparing the lesson. This means I tend to express my opinions (clearly labeled as such), which strike most people as novel and, put kindly, “interesting.” A ward member sent me an email after I taught one such lesson, and the conversation turned first towards questions of genre and historicity in the Old Testament, and then towards the historicity of the Book of Mormon. After hearing my view that the Old Testament includes non-historical stories (for example, I see Jonah as a satirical parable, not as a historical account), his immediate question was, “so, do you think the Book of Mormon isn’t historical?”

Many LDS and non-LDS make incorrect and potentially harmful categorical assumptions about both “scripture’ and “history.” For one, “true” is commonly equated with “historical” (see this post for discussion). Obvious scriptural examples to the contrary such as Jesus’  parables, I think most LDS approach scripture assuming that it is all historical in nature, and that “historical narrative” is the primary way  God speaks to us.  The  reality is that scripture is not at all homogeneous, or all the same kind of thing. Our scriptures are a collection, an anthology, a library.

Most libraries contain different kinds of books, divided into general sections such as fiction and non-fiction. We can further break these down into broader or narrower categories of like: reference books, cook books, history, science, culture as well as mystery, sci-fi, historical fiction, fantasy, etc. If I check out several books and put them together on my bookshelf, they do not lose their individual nature.  Each book and section within that book may be a different genre, and each needs to be examined with an eye for differences that help us understand the books genre. For example, Leviticus is analogous to the Church Handbook of Instructions in a way, and Psalms the Israelite hymnbook.  Jonah may well be an old Testament parable, but just as our home bookshelves contain various kinds of books, non-historical parables can sit on our scriptural shelf, next to the hymnbook and the Church Handbook of Instruction, all bound within one distinct cover.

When I share my views on Jonah (here and here for example), I tend to see the assumption manifested by my ward member, that one’s view of the historicity of Jonah (or the Book of Mormon) is primarily a function of “liberalism” or “disbelief”: if you disbelieve in one, you disbelieve in them all.  There’s an imagined domino effect, that if I allow Jonah to be a satirical parable instead of a documentary history, then obviously I must also reject the historicity of every book of scripture, including the Book of Mormon. It may well be the case that some people reject any history in the scriptures out of a general disbelief in miracles or whatnot, but that approach fails to acknowledge the nuance and complexity of the scriptures.

  • aquinas

    I wonder if this isn’t a generational concern. It seems the question of historicity has become a kind of defining point of one’s religious make-up. The issue has often become framed as the liberal dismisses the historicity while the conservative maintains it, not allowing secular scholarship to influence. In a sense, the issue is a kind of touchstone for religious identity formation. The problem I see with this kind of emphasis is that it fails to appreciate the text qua text. The story is less relevant and rather its status as historical or not becomes the most important thing.

    John Dominic Crossan once explained the issue by asking what would happen if everyone questioned Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, and were focused only on whether it really happened or how Jesus knew this story? How did the Samaritan know if he was unconscious or the innkeeper if he wasn’t there the whole time? Who pieced this story together? How can we be sure the account is accurate? Are there witnesses? Such questions miss entirely the point of the parable, which becomes secondary, less important. What matters is not the meaning of the story; it is historicity uber alles. Crossan sees this as a product of enlightenment thinking about history where nothing has value unless it actually happened.

    Yet, one might even see this type of approach as having a bearing on the Book of Mormon as well. If historicity is the only issue, then few will read the Book of Mormon text on its own terms. Givens has persuasively argued that the Book of Mormon functioned as a sign of Joseph’s prophetic powers rather than a source of doctrine among the early Latter-day Saints who were condemned in a revelation for ignoring the book. Even today, the Book of Mormon is often seen as a repository of doctrines to be “mined” by the reader. That is, the attitude is that the narrative is not important at all, it’s merely the delivery mechanism for “doctrines” which is the real worth of the book. This view has been criticized by some as essentially ignoring or downplaying the Book of Mormon narrative. The narrative is sacrificed on the altar of dogmatics or historicity.

    As a pragmatic point on teaching Jonah or Job, I personally don’t spend time on the historicity question at all. Not because it isn’t important, but because I have no time. Rather, I spend the limited time on the narrative, the characters, the internal logic of the story, its themes and goals, and how the audience is likely to understand the narrative, and the message the author is seeking to convey. While Latter-day Saints are more comfortable with “likening the scriptures” I believe asking how the original audience would have made sense of the text goes a long way to helping us make sense of the text today.

  • emilyu

    Nice analogy, Ben. I’m going to use it!

  • Chris H.


    The Good Samaritan story is quite obviously a parable and not an actual event. It is still my favorite part of the entire Bible.


    This post highlghts something that I am struggling with. I do not take everything to be literal or historical. I still think it is valuable and true. Our Sunday School teachers have spent more time pound in that it is literal and true than they have spent with the scripture itself. Likewise, those who attack scripture for not being true, because it is not actually literal bug me. Both sides miss the point of the books themselves. Sigh.

  • the narrator

    Couldn’t much of the Book of Mormon be given the same treatment, while retaining the historical reality of Mormon and the gold plates? For example, could Abinidi and his sermons (or Ammon, Alma, the brother of Jared, etc) be fictive creations of later Nephites/Jaredites which were incorporated into the historical narrative of those peoples?

  • Ryan Thomas

    The common assumption in the church that scripture and history are basically the same thing is indeed lamentable, and I would readily give my support to more careful, historically-informed, genre-attentive readings of scriptural text, but to be fair, I think those who resist interpreting books like Jonah in non-literal ways are correct to sense that this mode of historical interpretation poses significant dangers to their encultured perception of what constitutes religious truth. Although the non-literal character of the book of Jonah may seem so obvious that it is in a class all by itself, the acceptance of its fictional/symbolic nature is actually only a short distance away from understanding that much of the biblical text is non-historical in character and was created for ideological purposes other than to recount history as it was. For if a book like Jonah can have a veneer of historical verisimilitude sufficient to confuse a significant amount of later readers but actually be a fictional account composed during the Second Temple period to convey an ideological message to contemporary Jews, then who’s to say that other books in the Bible were not composed essentially in the same way and that other biblical characters are just as fictional as Jonah (Moses, David…)? A traditional believing member of the church would not state it that way, but I think they implicitly recognize the potential for undermining much of the traditional authority of scripture, that the book of Jonah is not just about Jonah.

  • Kevin Barney

    Thoughtful post, Ben, thanks.

  • Ardis E. Parshall

    “Acknowledg[ing] the nuance and complexity of the scriptures” would require something in the text itself, or the culture, or some other positive reason to justify applying “the same treatment” to the text of the Book of Mormon. A major part of Ben’s reasoning for labeling Jonah (Job, whatever) to be other-than-historical is that there *is* solid, credible evidence for the judgment, not merely “a general disbelief in miracles or whatnot,” and not merely a “couldn’t it be so?” speculation.

    Believers who develop the skills to make those considered arguments, or who are willing to go as far as they can on their own and then trust scholars like Ben for the skills they themselves lack, shouldn’t fear any undermining of *genuine* scriptural authority. Convincing internal clues move Jonah from the genre of history to the genre of fiction (satire, parable, whatever). Unless internal clues say the same about Exodus or Chronicles or Alma, there’s no reason to expect anyone to reach the same conclusion about the historicity of those books. Anyone who truly believes ought to trust the scriptures to defend themselves and not fear studying them by any consistent method.

  • Steve

    In my ward, today, our lesson was on Daniel.

    I had many of the same thoughts. The account basically indicates that the Babylonian King recognized the Jewish God.

    I read a bit of commentary which made the point that the story is the intermixing of several different Babylonian leaders and clearly is not literal in many respect.

    But, does it have a purpose? Surely.

    Daniel is a demonstration of faithful behavior.

    He may very well have been a real figure but the account was likely written later in an attempt to communicate spiritual lessons.

    And, I am ok with that.

  • Hellmut

    It’s pretty obvious to people like me that Jonah is a satirical parable. The question is how do you persuade a literalist? What can you possibly say to somebody like that so that they will form a more informed opinion?

  • Ben Spackman

    Excellent comments, all.

    Aquinas- Insightful comment, as usual, particularly this. “the attitude is that the narrative is not important at all, it’s merely the delivery mechanism for ‘doctrines’ which is the real worth of the book.”

    Emilyu- glad to be useful .

    Chris- I’m as much opposed to knee-jerk non-historical assumptions as I am knee-jerk historical assumptions. Realistically, though, few people have the inclination, time, and means to really do an evaluation.

    Historicity seems to be the primary battleground between “liberals” and “conservatives”, but as you point out, this often misses the point. That said, there are times when historicity is a crucial part, the most obvious example being the Resurrection.

    Narrator- I think you’re asking a different but related question, that of historiography (as I understand it, anyway) instead of genre. That is, let’s assume a given narrative IS historical. How far removed is the author/editor from the original? What’s the source of the story? Is the narrative “accurate”? There’s the epistemological issue of how the editor knows what he asserts in the text.

    These are all the questions Crossan says we shouldn’t be asking about a parable, but they’re relevant for historical narrative, particularly when we have competing texts (Samuel/Kings vs. Chronicles, or the Synoptic Gospels, for example)

    I like to tell people that the Book of Mormon is at least as historical as the Old Testament, and I’ve raised these issues in classes before. Mormon and Moroni are dependent on their written sources. I’m fond of quoting (read:hiding behind) Elder Widtsoe on this kind of assertion.

    “We should remember that when inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.” (Evidences and Reconciliations, 127.)

    Orson Scott Card, who appears to consider himself an ardent defender of the Church, has actually proposed something very similar to the scenario you envision, namely, that Mulek never existed. (See here, scroll down to “speculation on Zarahemla”)

    I used to make my BoM classes at BYU read that section (“Mulek never existed”) and this paper by a respectable LDS scholar (“We’ve found the seal of Mulek”) for the same day, and then talk about critical thinking skills :)

    As Ardis points out, unless there are hints within the text, seams and such, we’re probably not justified in making certain historical assumptions. Grant Hardy does a great job looking at some of the editorial tensions and examining how Mormon shaped the historical narrative, and a seam or two in the text that he leaves. See his Mormon as Editor article.

    Ryan, I think you raise some good issues. I suspect the Church as an institution will have to deal with these issues at some point, but not in the near future. Individual readers will have to adapt in their own way, and it’s for those readers that I blog.

    I’m comfortable with the general idea put forth by Robert Alter in his Art of Biblical Narrative, that much of the OT (and the Book of Mormon?) is

    “the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention, or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays. Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but, working from the hints of historical tradition, he could invent a kind of Bildungsroman for the young Prince Hal; surround him with invented characters that would serve as foils, mirrors, obstacles, aids in his development; create a language and a psychology for the king which are the writer’s own achievement, making out of the stuff of history a powerful projection of human possibility. That is essentially what the author of the David cycle does for David, Saul, Abner, Joab, Jonathon, Absalom, Michal, Abigail, and a host of other characters.”

    Kevin- Thanks.

    Ardis- Well said.

    Steve- I’m glad you’re ok with that. I’m trying to make sure readers don’t fall into rejecting the scriptures because they are not the simplistic things we’ve imagined them to be.

    Hellmut- the best way to make the case is to live as a faithful LDS, establish your bona fides, and show them the arguments. The worst way to make your case is with any use of sarcasm or belittling or creating an us vs. them or “liberal” vs. “conservative” mentality.

  • Ben Spackman
  • Lindsay

    While I can appreciate and in many respects agree with the article and its ideas as they are presented, many of the subsequent comments leave a bitter taste in my mouth. For example Hellmut’s opinion that other’s need to be “persuaded” to “develop a more informed opinion”. The scriptures were presented in a way that all may profit from their study. And as there are endless ways to interpret and learn from the scriptures, there are endless people and spirits that will profit from the different perspectives. Persuading others to your own perspective may be doing them no favors and could be impeding them in their development in the gospel.
    My other real problem is that the brethren have clearly instructed sunday school, RS, gospel doctrine teachers, etc. to ONLY present and teach the material in the manuals. They have cautioned all teachers to not allow speculation in their lessons, as this drives away the spirit and causes contention. So on your own time speculate all you want, but I think our real challenge as teachers is to present only the truth (as it is presented in the manual) and trust/allow the Spirit to do it’s work. And no matter what “insights” you may have, they will in no way be superior to what the prophets have said.
    Sorry I’m not trying to cause contention (although I do love a rousing political debate). These are just my thoughts…..

  • R. Gary

    I think I’d be interested in your thoughts about Henry B. Eyring’s mention of Jonah in the most recent general conference and in an earlier First Presidency message (See Ensign, Nov. 2010, 70 and Jan. 2009, 5.) He seems to talk about Jonah as a real person in a historically accurate account. Just wondering.

  • Chris H.

    Wrote a response to R. Gary, then erased it. Merry Christmas!

  • Ben Spackman

    Lindsay- I can understand where you’re coming from, but I disagree with several of your points.

    For one, our scriptures hold persuasion in high regard, which means showing someone why we believe what we do, laying out the reasons, instead of asserting something by authority. For another we are told to study and edify each other.

    I don’t see how that can happen in Church classes if we simply recite the manual at each other. When I hear a teacher, I want to learn from them and their experiences, especially if they differ from mine, not have them be a manual-reciter.

    Another point- the statement “only the truth (as it is presented in the manual)” implies, to me, that the manual holds all truth, and to deviate from the manual is to deviate from God.

    Knowing both who and how Church manuals are produced, the history of church manuals, and that several relevant manuals are currently being rewritten in a different fashion, I cannot assert that “manual= truth” and “anything-not-manual= not-truth.”

    My Stake President sat through my lesson on Jonah and didn’t shut me down, though he easily could have if he’d seen it as a clear-cut violation. He’s not shy about doing so, either, as I’ve seen it done before.

    Moreover, there is a lot more variation and inconsistency in Church directives than you claim. (See and my own thoughts, at )

    One of the directives that *is* clear, however, is to distinguish clearly between our own views and the Church’s official position, *if* there is one. More often than not, the Church has no position, as is made clear in the instructions given to BYU Religion professors and CES teachers. (See link below to other post.)

    Publication of a particular view, even in the Ensign, is not sufficient to establish that position as the Church’s official position.

    Gary- It doesn’t matter if the combined FP and Apostles *think* Jonah was historical person. What matters is revelation, not tradition or opinion or how many manuals it’s in. Years ago, the First Presidency declared that “dogmatic assertions do not take the place of revelation.” That principle holds true for traditional views put to didactic use. So, unless and until there’s specific revelation on Jonah or his genre, I’m just fine with the Ensign printing those views. I’m not saying Elder Eyring’s right or wrong; just that “there are many subjects about which the scriptures are not clear and about which the Church has made no official pronouncements. In such matters, one can find differences of opinion among Church members and leaders. Until the truth of these matters is made known by revelation, there is room for different levels of understanding and interpretation of unsettled issues.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism- Taken from this post, which gets into similar issues.)

  • Jared T.

    Chris H.,

    Funny, so did I.

    Well said, Ben.

  • R. Gary

    Ben Spackman: The Church President sets forth binding doctrine, with or without the combined FP and Apostles. I don’t view Eyring’s words as “a revelation” on the subject and I don’t believe anyone is required to believe him. His words are not the official position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But I do believe he represents the dominant (if not only) view in current official Church media and that makes it an acceptable point of view for Mormons until a Church President says it isn’t.

  • Steve

    Gary, I’ve reread the accounts you’ve referred to and I can’t distinguish them substantively from referenced to the good Samaritan which is clearly a non-historic figure.

    It seems to me that the GAs can refer to scriptural accounts without necessarily assuming or proclaiming that they are necessarily referring to either real people or real events. Some things are simply object lessons.

  • Ben Spackman

    I’m not sure why you bolded “an acceptable point of view”. I never claimed it wasn’t acceptable, just that it’s traditional, fails to take account of the books structure, and that historical emphases tend to miss the entire point of the book. The spiritual message of Jonah gets lost when the teacher focuses on the supposed necessity of Jonah’s reality.

  • R. Gary

    “The spiritual message of Jonah gets lost when the teacher focuses on the supposed necessity of Jonah’s reality.”

    … but not when Jonah is a satirical parable?

  • Ben Spackman

    No. That drives the point home. It’s laid out in abbreviated form in the podcast and read the notes.

  • Lindsay

    By saying truth as it is presented in the manual, I’m not saying all truth is contained in the manual or that all the truth on that particular subject is in the manual. I’m simply saying that the truth in the manual is what they want us to focus on in our lessons. There could be a million other truths or stories associated with the lesson, but the ones they include are the ones we are to teach and focus on.
    This doesn’t mean reciting the text of the lesson to the class. But it doesn’t mean throwing our own conjecture on the subject in there either.
    I.E. “Whether the story of Jonah is completely historically accurate or not, what does God want us to learn from it” vs. “In my studies I have come to believe that Jonah is a parable, as a parable how would that change how we look at the story of Jonah?” Can you see how the second statement could cause more frustration and disagreement? In the first statement, the door is opened for talk about the historicity of Jonah but the focus is on the story and its purpose, not its historicity.
    Sometimes I feel like some members of the church bring these items into lessons for their sensationalism, as if being more sensational= a better lesson. All learning and edification come from the spirit, so my view is it’s best to stick with the material (which can be done in a highly informative and fun way). This again is not saying that the manual = all truth. But that the all the truth we need to teach the subject= the manual!

    As Wilford Woodruff stated (in church manual):
    Men may labor to make a great display of talent, learning and knowledge either in printing or preaching, they may try to preach the mysteries and to present something strange, great and wonderful, and they may labor for this with all their might, in the spirit and strength of man without the aid of the Holy Spirit of God and yet the people are not edified and their preaching will not give much satisfaction. It is the plainest and the most simple things that edify us the most, if taught by the Spirit of God, and there is nothing more important or beneficial unto us. If we have that Spirit dwelling with us, if it abides with us continually, enlightening our minds by day and by night—we are in the safe path.

    I wish to say that in my acquaintance in this Church, I have seen men, from time to time rise up and try to be servants of God. They try to explain things they know nothing about, to make themselves appear clever. There is a great deal of this kind of thing in this age. There was one of the leading Elders of the Church who went before the people and undertook to preach certain principles. Joseph heard of it and desired him to present the doctrine to him in writing. He wrote it, and when he completed it read it to the Prophet. He asked Joseph what he thought of it. “Why,” said Joseph, “it is a beautiful system, I have but one fault to find with it—” “What is that, Brother Joseph?” Joseph said—“It is not true.” So I say, every little while someone, thinking he is smart, tries to teach something that is not in the Doctrine and Covenants and Church works, and which is not true. …

    … Preach the truth as you understand it. Do not speculate on things you know nothing about, for it will benefit no one. If you listen to false doctrine you will be led away by false spirits. Remember and observe this, and you will be all right. Keep in the paths of truth, and all will be well with you. 10

  • Ben Spackman

    Lindsay, if you’re not reciting the manual, then you’re adding your own twist, your own flavor and interpretation. It’s impossible not to.

    “I’m simply saying that the truth in the manual is what they want us to focus on in our lessons.”

    Do you think it’s possible for a manual to be wrong?

    I read President Woodruff as proposing that we teach by the Spirit. I don’t take issue with that at all. What I do take issue with is equating “teaching by the spirit” with “teaching only what the manual says”, which seems to make the manual the voice of the spirit, no?

    As to this, “the focus is on the story and its purpose” that is exactly what I did. I went into detail about what the purpose was, how to apply it to ourselves, and how those four short chapters make that point, in contrast to other teachers focused on the historicity, who spend the whole time ranting against “liberals” and how 19th century sailors were swallowed and survived.

  • Ben Spackman

    “all the truth we need to teach the subject= the manual”

    That statement is entirely inconsistent with everything I know and have experienced, but it echoes the anonymous Church News article a while back. It’s also completely inconsistent with the example Elder Perry praised in General Conference.

    For discussion, see

  • Lindsay

    I have nothing against adding your own flavor or twist to any lesson. Telling a story from your own life to highlight a point or whatever; that’s fine. I have never said anything against that. Interpretation on the other hand is in the eye of the beholder. I think that throwing in your own interpretation can be very positive and it can be very negative. But again my question is: Do you think that your interpretation can in any way be superior or more informative that what the scriptures or prophets have already said?
    –”Can manuals be wrong?” Absolutely, as they are not part of the standard works, then yes they can be wrong. Though they are reviewed and given the church stamp of approval (which I feel helps there to be less mistakes) But teachers and their theories can more easily be wrong.
    Teaching by the Spirit is absolutely essential and probably the most important aspect of teaching. But Woodruff also clearly warns against “clever theories” or teaching things you don’t completely understand.
    You are nitpicking my every phrase into oblivion, but missing my whole message. Ben you can’t see the forest for the trees.
    As for an anonymous letter to church news, anonymous is not my style. If I can’t stand by what I say, I don’t say it.
    They include what they include in the manual for a reason, and it’s because in a church setting that is what we need to focus on. I’m not saying all truth is in the manual. I’m not saying all details of every story or all principles are in the manual. What I’m saying is that what we are to be teaching and focusing our lessons on is in the manual!

  • Ben Spackman

    Lindsay, I’m trying to parse your arguments. I get the impression this is not a discussion you’ve had before, and that you’re somewhat of an absolutist on this issue. Experience may change your mind a bit in the future.

    “Do you think that your interpretation can in any way be superior or more informative that what the scriptures or prophets have already said?”

    When did you stop beating your husband? :)

    The way you frame a question is very revealing. Let me ask you some other questions.

    Is Jonah self-interpreting? Leviticus? Amos? Is a story written 2000+ years ago in a foreign language in a foreign culture, with genre markers and styles very different from our own completely obvious? I can’t be “more informative” than the scriptures but I can certainly provide cultural, linguistic, and narrative context.

    I assume you’ve gone to college and received a degree in some specialty. Is it possible that you know more about your specialty than President Monson does? I’m not asking if you think you actually do, just if it’s *possible.*

    I don’t receive revelation for the Church, and I don’t make doctrine. But neither do the manuals. Where there is a conflict between the manuals and the scriptures, I’m sticking with the scriptures, particularly when teaching the scriptures over the manual can make a much greater spiritual impact and change bejavior. Of course, like everyone else, including President Monson, I read the scriptures in light of my own knowledge, traditions, and experiences. His and mine differ; his path went through publishing, and mine through the ancient near east. Does this affect how we read the scriptures? Of course. When revelation comes, I will happily accept it.

    My Jonah lesson focused on Jonah, on the scriptures, and on changing our behavior through understanding the doctrine Jonah taught. You weren’t there, of course (and consequently have little basis to form an opinion) but it appears that if you were in the Stake President’s place you would have called me out of bounds. Would you have equally done to the teacher in Ardis’ ward (linked above)?

    What you are really saying is that the manual provides absolute boundaries beyond which one may not go at all.

    This post may help you see my position a bit, from my friend John C, who also spent his graduate work in the ancient middle east.

  • Chris H.


    Ben is a very faithful member. He is very well educated in this area (an expert in many ancient languages). He is also very humble. He approaches these topics with a sincere love of the scriptures and the Church.

    I do not think Ben is saying that we should ignore the manual. He is trying to help us teach the scriptures, and from the manual, is a better way.

  • Chris H.

    “…in a better way.”

  • Urbana-ite


    Wonderful post. However, I am somewhat perplexed as to why you think the perceived unbelief domino effect is not justified? There are plenty of self-identifying Mormons, who claim to be fully believing and active, who have traveled down a lot further the road of “intellectualism” than others are comfortable with. Some see where Carol Lynn Pearson, and John Dehlin have ended up and believe that “if you don’t like what’s at the end of the road, you better back up, you know you better back up fast.”

    I mean, I love some of Bloggernacle author’s posts about biblical Hebrew, but as I find their stated intentions wrt changing the church’s view of gender identity and the law of chastity severely dangerous. I personally have observed many Mormon “scholars” claim that there was no sexual abomination component to the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis. And while more conservative members are surely guilty of ignoring the lack of compassion and neighborly care component to the Abraham/Lot/Sodom story, surely the scholars are just as guilty for actively ignoring the sexual immorality. The bloggernacle scholars have become famous for their intellectual arrogance (Witness Stephen P. in intellectually abusing anyone who doesn’t accept his dogmatic interpretation of evolution at BCC). I’ve been reading CS Lewis’ Biography, The Narnian, and when the author describes Lewis’ self-appraisal of intellectually bullying, scores of bloggernacle posts came to mind.

    I guess it all comes down to example. I can also attest to Ben’s faithful teaching style. He teaches the scriptures well. I also agree that a dogmatic interpretation in-line with the manual doesn’t automatically invite the Spirit, but in some cases excludes the Spirit by requiring the teacher to “hide their talents” from the class. I also can’t stand it when members or leaders automatically assume that because someone includes anything not directly found in the manual, that the teacher’s motives are self-aggrandizement. I recognize that it is abusive to assign motives to others (of course, recognizing someone’s self-ascribed motives, such as changing church doctrine, is not abusive, but merely pointing out what has already been stated). And why can’t we be charitable and assume that others are seeking to glorify God by seeking knowledge out of the best books?

    I agree that the best path is to be 100% faithful instead of judgmental, yet somehow bloggernacle members are only good at criticizing Church leaders for being judgmental instead of leading by example. I appreciate your example Ben, but you need to recognize that a lot of the backlash that many members feel is because other authors and classmembers are not quite as tactful as you are. The warning is well-deserved in many cases, and the intellectual-ites force a false dichotomy between a literal-faithful viewpoint and a nuanced yet unfaithful viewpoint. If I weren’t able to see past the false dichotomy, I’d probably stick to the more intellectually humbler crowd too.

  • Chris H.

    “Witness Stephen P. in intellectually abusing anyone who doesn’t accept his dogmatic interpretation of evolution at BCC”

    Trust me, it is not a treat belonging to the same church as you either. Lucky for you, humble and sweet people like Steve Peck are more likely to be driven out by the anti-intellectuals. Ernest Wilkinson will be proud to know that his work lives on.

  • Chris H.

    You would not happen to be a chemist would you?

  • Urbana-ite

    Chris H.
    FYI, I will not interact with you, I consider you a bully. My comment was directed at Ben. I know Ben personally, and I know that he is not a bully. You act like a bully towards many of my friends, and towards those with opinions I share. Any words you write I generally skip over, and I am not interested in having a relationship with you.

  • Ben S

    All right, truces all around.

    At very least, this exchange has prompted some thinking that will probably lead to another post; the realization that my approach to teaching GD is likely not one that can easily be duplicated by others, and the question of whether it should be.

    My approach has been heavily colored by the fact that I’m trained in ANE studies/Hebrew, and that I taught OT/NT/ Book of Mormon for 10 years, without a manual, with tacit Church approval (primarily as a called Institute teacher but also at BYU for three summers during my grad work.)

    It’s difficult not to intellectually strong-arm people who disagree with you and don’t appear to fully grasp all the aspects of the argument, particularly when you have some credentials to wield and they don’t. Clearly such an appeal to authority is a fallacy, but credentialed people tend to know their own specialty. We all need to make liberal use of Christian charity and restraint in calling others to repentance, particularly when we know them so little and are not in any ecclesiastical position to do.

  • Urbana-ite

    Hi Ben,
    I don’t think the question is necessarily about “calling others to repentance”, but when a call is made by the “intellectuals” for others to follow them, either in teaching style, or belief, it is every members duty to make the judgment of if the person is trustworthy to follow.

    I don’t strictly follow the manual, indeed, I pointed out that insisting that others do so often stifles the spirit by forcing those with extraordinary talents to bury theirs and keep them hidden.

    While it may be difficult not to strong-arm people who disagree with you who don’t “know” as much as you do, that is the very definition of a good teacher (cue Alex Valencic). Knowing one’s own specialty is all fine and dandy if knowing the specialty is the end that one is working for. But for most members of the church, “knowing” is nothing. Application, teaching, and all in a manner consistent with DC 121 matters more than “knowing” anything.

    Teachers who feel like they have intellectual knowledge to impart to their students would do well to remember:

    Their students deserve their teachers respect.

    Teachers should not assume their students are retarded or dumb simply because they haven’t spent 10 years studying a specific field. Ignorance is not stupidity.

    Teachers should respect every students sincere question.

    Teachers should not assume they know where a student is coming from just because “they have experienced” similar viewpoints in the past. Ben, this was our (mine, TB, and MT’s) biggest concern at the beginning of your teaching institute. Don’t worry, you got past it.

    Teachers should not assume that what they want to teach is the MOST important thing that should be taught.

    Teachers must be receptive to questioning of their opinions in a non-emotional way.

    Teachers must allow students to have an emotional response to their challenging of deeply held cultural and personal beliefs.

    In short, teachers must respect those who the intend to teach.

  • Chris H.

    [Deleted at request of commenter, who thought better of it. Merry Christmas! ]

  • CS Eric

    I’m not sure that the point is whether there really was a Jonah or not, any more than whether there was a Good Samaritan, or a Prodigal Son. I remember that in one of Pres Faust’s later conference talks, he told the story of the “Little Engine Who Could.” I don’t think the fact that a member of the First Presidency talked about that Little Engine in General Conference necessarily means that there really was at one time a Little Engine who told himself “I think I can, I think I can.” Both Jonah and the Little Engine are cultural points of reference that can be used as rhetorical shortcuts as the speaker makes his point. Whether there was a historical Jonah doesn’t make the learning points from his story any less valid than whether there was a historical Little Engine Who Could.

    If we were to hold all speakers at General Conference to only tell stories based on proven historical facts, many of Pres Monson’s talks would not have been given? How many times has he cited poems and Broadway plays? Does the fact that the events depicted in “Les Mis” are fiction mean there are no valuable lessons to be gleaned from it? I think some here apply a different standard to General Conference talks than the speakers themselves do.

  • john f.

    How can one teach something one does not know?

    As for Steven Peck, I would be remiss if I did not come to his defense given that he has been slurred here. Steve is an active, faithful member of the Church. I know him personally. He is an excellent father and a real asset to the Church in his profession.

    Steve is persuaded by the overwhelming evidence for evolution and evolutionary processes. I have never seen him use bullying tactics to convince anyone of the soundness of evolution as a fact of nature — as firmly established by evidence and through experimental proof as anything possibly can be.

    Given his thorough awareness of the contours of what evolution is and is not and what it does and does not mean, Steve is eager for his fellow Latter-day Saints to see the merit in it. It is part of his job as a professor in this field as well to teach the material.

    He does so through persuasion and the patient process of teaching the principles and letting reason take the lead.

    He is a great example and a great teacher.

  • Ben Spackman

    I don’t think Urbana-ites quibble is with evolution per se, given his graduate scientific background, but with intellectual bullying.

    It’s difficult to judge someone you know well, let alone someone you only know electronically. That said, many of us do not put our best foot forward online, myself included.

  • Urbana-ite

    Thanks Ben,
    That’s right, I don’t have a problem with evolution, my problem was with intellectual bullying. I would like to add that I was not attacking Steven’s church activity, faithfulness to the Church, his fatherhood, or his being an asset to the Church.

    And John, I also agree that we should know what we teach, but even most scientists aren’t very good at expressing their limited knowledge (in teaching). There papers MAY include the amount of nuance associated with intellectual humility, but that is not universal.

    In the end comments like “if you don’t believe in evolution you pretty much don’t believe in nor understand science. Strong words but I stand by them.” can only be classified as intellectual abuse.

  • Chris Henrichsen

    I testify that Steve Peck is one of the sweetest people I have ever met.

  • Steve


    The quote about not believing in science if you don’t acknowledge evolution is accurate.

    There is simply no evidence — none — that indicates that life forms have become increasing complex over time. I know the geologic side and if you spend any time in the field, the conclusion that rock layers that are older and deeper hold less complex life while those above have more complicated forms is repeated worldwide.

    Creationists/Intelligent Design folks dismiss that evidence with a wave of a hand, often declaring that Noah’s flood laid the fossils down. If so, why are they layered by complexity?

    Non-evolutionary thought is inherently dismissive of the science. It is possible to believe that but it is not possible to simultaneously embrace the scientific method and evidence.

  • Urbana-ite

    Ah, poor Steve.

    It’s an accurate quote because I quoted you accurately, not because the content in it is true.

    Science is not about belief. You have raised your understanding of evolution to a self-evident truth. It is arrogant, and rude, and while I’m not arguing against evolution, and never have, and Ben also notes I’m not arguing against evolution, I’m merely arguing against YOUR persistent intellectual abuse and attacks with anyone who would DARE to disagree with you. That’s not sweet, that’s not charitable, that’s not science.

    Science isn’t a club that Steve hands the membership out to. Quit trying to judge anyone else’s intelligence. It’s never sweet to intellectually abuse anyone else.

  • Chris Henrichsen


    Having interacted with you (under about 5 names) for a long time, you are in no position to judge anyone on the issue of charity. At least be man enough to use your real name, heck, stick with the same freaking fake name, when questioning the character of others. After all these years you are still slaying me. Or is that none of my darn Mormon business.

    Do not whine about me or Steve bullying you. Instead, be a man.

  • Ben Spackman

    I have mistakenly allowed the comments to go past the divinely mandated limit of 42.

    Thanks for participating, we’ve had all kinds of perspectives come out on the thread, and it’s gotten me thinking about some related things I’ll post on.