Dealing With Religious Literalists

My daughter (who is no longer Mormon) spent her last day in church listening to a Sunday school lesson about Noah's Ark. In the midst of this lesson, she raised her hand and asked how the ark could possibly have held two of every species when the dimensions are laid out in the Bible itself and couldn't even hold two of every beetle on the planet, let alone all the larger animals. She was a teenager and I doubt she was particularly respectful, but she did not get a satisfying answer to this question. Instead, she was assured that if she prayed about it, God would give her a "testimony" of the truth of the reality of Noah's Ark. She felt she was being told that her questions were proof she wasn't faithful enough. She left in a torrent of choking tears, and I was never able to persuade her to return to church.

While I don't hold a grudge against this particular teacher because I suspect this daughter would have left our faith tradition at some point in any case, I do wonder if it is necessary to maintain an insistence on literal interpretations of the Bible, New or Old Testament. There are some Christian traditions that demand a literal interpretation of all scripture, but Mormonism isn't one of them. In fact, Mormons believe that the Bible is true only in so far as it is "translated correctly." What this means is, I suppose, left up to the individual believer, but it surely leaves room for seeing many of the stories in the Bible as mistranslated, misinterpreted, or simply exaggerated into myth, including the story of Noah's Ark.

To those who believe literally in every part of the Bible, I have little interest in arguing the point with you except to say that I suspect even for you, there are parts of the Bible that you do not think of as "truth." For instance, there are many practices of the Law of Moses as described in the Old Testament, from the way that feces should be dealt with in a camp to the stoning of children for showing disrespect to parents, that you agree are not meant to be practiced today. For Mormons, The Song of Solomon is omitted in Seminary classes for the youth and is never discussed in our Sunday School classes. Though our scriptures do not cut that part of the Bible out because we use a standard King James' translation with some Mormon doctrine as footnotes, we do not believe that part of the Bible to be inspired reading.

For me, the story of Noah's Ark is a beautiful metaphor for what happens when it seems like it's the end of the world, and then God's mercy is revealed through those who are prepared by Him. It is a story about God's continuing love for the earth, for His human children, and for the nonhuman creatures that are part of our world. It is also a story about the meaning of the rainbow that always comes after the storm and reminds us that sunlight will always shine through the clouds in the end.

There are many other stories in the Bible that I find to be great, inspiring stories, but metaphorical ones. I suppose other Christians and other Mormons would argue with me about which these are.

1. Did Lot's wife really turn into a pillar of salt?
2. Did everyone who touched the Ark of the Covenant literally die?
3. Did Moses literally part the Red Sea so that people could walk through it as depicted in the Hollywood movies?
4. Was Canaan literally a land of milk and honey?
5. Did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego literally survive a fiery furnace?
6. Did David literally kill Goliath with a small stone in a slingshot?
7. Did Jesus literally turn water into wine?
8. Did He literally raise Lazarus from the dead?
9. Did He feed five thousand with a few loaves of bread?
10. Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

I've put these events in a particular order because I think that most Christians would find it increasingly necessary to insist on the literalness of the latter events. Some think the former are just as important, others would shrug and refuse to defend them on literal grounds. Some Christians might consider all of them metaphorical, though I think they are the minority and possibly would feel uncomfortable admitting it in church.

If you do not believe literally in each of these events, are you not a proper Christian? Where do you draw the line, say, you don't have to believe in a pillar of salt, but you do have to believe in water to wine? Is it an Old Testament/New Testament divide? Or more than that?

As a fiction writer, I tend to see almost everything as story first, as a pattern with a beginning, middle, end, with heroic characters struggling to find a solution to a problem. I think that much successful narrative non-fiction (which is literally true) still uses story as a way to structure the events so that people will find them more relatable. Saying that is not the same as saying the events did not literally happen, but there is also some line-drawing going on in this.

I admit, I tend to lean toward taking almost everything metaphorically rather than literally in scripture. But it also doesn't matter to me if a literal event happened in the past. This may surprise the literalists who read this, but it matters a lot less to me if Christ fed five thousand with a few loaves of bread than it does that this is a story that tells about how the mercy of God works in a community, and what our obligations to help feed those who are hungry among us are.

Ultimately, I hope that literalists and metaphorical interpreters can get along and still see each other as equally valid believers of Christ, but this takes some effort. Interpreters sometimes see literalists as simplistic and literalists see interpreters as unfaithful. Can't we all just get along?