Narratives wield a power measured not in historical accuracy but in effect on the reader. In many cases, the values expressed in a narrative, and especially the way that narrative moves us to thought and action, outranks the relationship of that narrative to history. In fiction, truths such as love, loyalty, following principles and defending freedoms shine even more clearly as they are unencumbered by the complexities of reality. But when we are reading Lord of the Rings, we know that we are reading fiction. We don’t expect the accounts to match up to history. What about scriptural accounts, where in many cases the accounts did not literally happen, were not intended as historical truth, but where readers are deeply invested in current literal interpretation?
It is in this context theological truth trumps the historical. God works within our worldviews, and I believe that for the majority of readers of scripture, it is better in most cases for teachers to do the same. To those aware of the critical issues, D&C 122’s encouragement that Joseph is “not yet as Job” may seem disingenuous, somewhat like saying “you do not have it as bad as Frodo” today. But Joseph’s revelation helped him endure a difficult situation that did happen, regardless of the reality of Job.
I thought through this balance while listening to Elder Holland’s 2003 General Conference talk on the “Grandeur of God”. I noted that in this excellent, uplifting talk, the characterization of Jesus was taken almost exclusively from the Gospel of John. At first I was troubled that my views were in conflict with an apostle’s, but then I placed the conflict in perspective.
The Fourth Gospel illustrates my point well because I see it as the gospel the most theologically true, but least accurate historically. All Christian literature portrays different degrees of pre- and post-resurrection understanding of Jesus. Our earliest gospel, Mark, best reflects “what really happened” during Jesus’ life. John seems to be the result of a question such as, “If we understood then what we know now about Jesus, what would his ministry have looked like?” Therefore this gospel best captures the resurrected, eternal Jesus, while leaving the historical Jesus behind. But the important point is that it is the eternal Lord Jesus that most readers of the New Testament seek, and it is this Jesus that Elder Holland describes. Again, theological truth trumps historical.
I am not advocating making up inspiring stories and saying they really happened in sacrament talks. I also realize that this position casts a shadow of Plato’s “noble lie”. A critique of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces thoughtfully asked what the problem was with falsified memoirs and powerfully concluded that such falsehood creates “stolen empathy”—when we say we experienced something we have not, we are lessening the suffering of those who have. The simple words “I know what you mean” are so powerful because the price of earning the right to say them can be so high.
Some biblical narratives lend themselves very well to an approach that highlights both history and theology. In Daniel, for example, the historical purpose of encouraging readers to remain faithful in the midst of persecution rings much truer than the message that faith makes you fireproof. Proper understanding of Jonah as a satire enriches the powerful message that God loves all people, rather than diminishing it with literal belief in gastronomical habitation and penitent cattle. The story of Lot and his incestuous daughters is much less troubling when understood as an ancient “redneck joke” than as history. The challenge is that the same approach that enriches these narratives threatens others, such as the Tower of Babel and Ether, or a critical understanding of John 21 and D&C 7.
The ideal is to teach both theological and historical truth in a complementary manner.
In the LDS community, unfortunately, I am doubtful that this will happen to a large extent, given the constraints that modern scripture places on biblical interpretation. You can harmonize the Documentary Hypothesis or Multiple Authorship of Isaiah with the Book of Mormon, but you need to unravel literal interpretation of the latter pretty far to do so.
One of the risks of an intellectual approach to the scriptures is when we look down on the “simple” interpretation of the masses. I value that simplicity of the “truer than true” understanding of the world, see it as needed, even as I embrace biblical scholarship. The complexity of the critical-historical method has value, but also a very high cost. I favor an approach that is responsive rather than aggressive, nurturing inquiry for those drawn to quest historical details, while privileging theological truth for the vast multitude who never will be troubled by such particulars.