Scripture as Genre: What It Means When We Call Something “True”

Let’s start with an observation that I hope will be uncontroversial: there is a big difference between how people solve crimes in the actual world and how readers try to solve crimes in mystery novels. Here is a crystal-clear example of the difference: in the real world, the person that all of the evidence points to is almost always the person who committed the crime. In a mystery novel, the person that all of the evidence points is the one person you can be sure did not commit the crime.

Readers know intuitively, if not consciously, that solving a mystery novel murder requires a very different skill set than solving a real-world murder. Real murders are solved by trying to understand murderers and uncover motives. Murder mysteries are solved by trying to understand genre conventions and uncover narrative misdirection. A detective who tried to solve an actual murder by acting like Miss Marple or Phillip Marlowe would be the more or less exact modern equivalent of Don Quixote: a person who misreads the world by expecting it to act like a book.

And this observation, I think, has something to do with how we read the scriptures and how we might read them better.

Scripture, too, is a genre with its own set of conventions and of functioning in modern rhetorical contexts. For Latter-day Saints, these contexts are talks and lessons whose primary purpose is spiritual instruction. Thus, nearly everything in them must be read as a confirmation of some spiritual truth. Think about the sorts of lessons we have all heard associated with, say, Jacob tricking Esau out of his birthright, or Nephi smiting off Laban’s head to secure the brass plates, or Peter, James, and John falling asleep while Jesus was off getting transfigured. These stories must be there to teach us a lesson, we imagine. Otherwise, why would they be in our scriptures?

What I would like to suggest–tentatively, cautiously, and with lots of qualifications–is that these interpretations of scriptures are often at odds with the strong assertion of historicity that almost always accompanies them. It is fiction–and a particular kind of fiction at that–that always gives us neat morals wrapped up in easy-to-interpret narratives. Actual life is more complicated and rarely teaches comfortable lessons. Motives are always mixed. Results are ambiguous witnesses are flawed, and accounts are biased.

When we assert that the Bible or the Book of Mormon are historical, we are claiming much more than that Moses was a person who lived in Egypt or that Nephites and Lamanites really lived somewhere in the New World. We are also arguing that these actual people acted like actual people and not like fictional characters. People are messy. They rarely act from either wholly good or wholly bad motives, and the threads of their lives never tie up into a single, comfortable knot. Fictional characters make much better object lessons–especially when they have been created to be either good or bad examples of some moral proposition. When I want to teach good moral lessons, I stay as far away from actual people as I can.

In my own recent writing about the Book of Mormon, however, I have proceeded from the assumption that the historical claims that Latter-day Saints make for the book are true. As I have argued elsewhere, I see this as a claim that is hard-wired into the book’s canonical form and must therefore be taken seriously by anybody attempting to write about it from inside the LDS community. I have found, though, that attempts to understand the actions and characters of the Book of Mormon as actual history will almost always be criticized by some as an attempt to deny that the book is true. In such cases, the meaning of “true” shifts from “actually happened” to “teaches the lessons I want it to teach.”

In my mind, there is always a certain amount of messiness and chaos that we have to accept when we say that somebody was a real person. It means that they were mixtures of goodness and badness and blindness and insight. It means that the records they kept–no matter how much they were inspired to keep them–are subject to the same limitations that all human records are subject to. It means that there will sometimes be gaps in their narratives that speak more loudly than words. If we are not willing to acknowledge these things, we need to stop saying that scriptures are historical and just agree that God writes good fiction.


  1. Great article. I sometimes think that the Bible, especially the old testament shows the messiness of people better than the Book of Mormon.

  2. Not a Cougar says:

    Bravo! I have this exact same problem with the way scripture is often approached in Sunday School. Even as a kid, I wondered how all of King Benjamin’s subjects could unanimously give an unprompted and lengthy response to his speech.

  3. I am with you on this. Though I couldn’t have written it this well.

    My favorite subject for debate using this scenario is Nephi. We have painted him so flawless that we miss the idea that he too may have contributed to Laman and Lemuel’s frustration. Or that Laman and Lemuel weren’t bad guys like we paint them. I try to present that Laman and Lemuel were more like us when our wards or Stakes get split and we have no warning. We weep, wail and gnash teeth. And we can whine about it forever.

    If the Le-hites were actual people the scripture accounts don’t give us a full enough account to claim that one was better than the other. At that point when it comes to scripture reading I put aside the LDS scriptures with their scripted outcomes and return to the four gospels. It just works better for me.

  4. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    Mike–you may be my fave thinker!!!

  5. It’s pretty much how we should approach any history. No matter how recent, declaring that we know a past person or event with absolute certainly is hubris. Yes, it’s easier to say simply “Ammon was awesome” than “Ammon was a complex person who wasn’t trying to cut off anything, but you just get into a rhythm and before you know it you have a pile of arms”

    The closer the person or event is to now the harder this becomes, because we assume that we know everything that can be known. “Joseph Smith was a lecherous fraud” is just as poor as “Joseph Smith did everything just as God wanted”. Both are fragile building blocks which may be useful for a time but won’t be able to bear a great deal of weight.

  6. Thinking about our scriptural accounts as historical and the writers and characters as real people, makes the narrative that much more understandable for me. Nephi, for example leaves out much more than he reveals, and as such when he writes, “Oh, wretched man that I am.” I believe he agonized over the killing of Laban, and subsequently going to war against his brothers and nephews. Captain Moroni, with his military tribunals and summary executions, sounds like he might have been a motivating leader, but not necessarily anyone I would like as a close friend. In other words, they are just like people I know in my own life. People are messy, and the fact that we can find much more in common with these real people than the cardboard cutouts we often revere, gives me greater hope for my own flawed and stumbling efforts at becoming a disciple, Thank you for articulating this concept much better than my weak efforts.

  7. Mark Pearce says:

    As I see it, the problem is that scripture is not reality–even if it is historical. Because scripture is written down it is, by definition, literature. I think we need to be careful making assumptions about scriptural characters and contexts about which the only information we have is what’s given in the text. The author may have used a story to make a particular point by eliminating detail or coloring a character’s motives. In the case of the Book of Mormon, we simply don’t know anything other than what we are told in the text. I’m suspicious of writers who try to analyze the character and motives of Nephi’s brother Jacob, for example, from just one or two sermons that have been preserved in the text.

  8. I have always considered the scriptures (all of them) as story with a purpose. If I’m reading right, that is to agree with the OP as a matter of genre. And as a matter of practice I’m much more interested in the purpose than the origin.

    But if someone wants to engage in a “historicity” discussion, I don’t start with whether there was a man named Nephi finding a drunk Laban on the street. I start with “did God really say ‘Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands’?” It seems to me that whether that message is “true” or not is of great consequence. And whether Mormon or Joseph wrote the story is not.

  9. felixfabulous says:

    We are pretty late to the party on this one and could learn a lot from modern biblical scholarship. Other Christians have been wrestling with issues of historicity literal vs allegorical truth, etc. for a long time while we generally ignored them. I have really enjoyed “The Bible for Normal People” podcast with Peter Enns. I think the Church needs to transition to a less literal view of scripture to survive, or at least make room for people who see things less literally. In my stake, the leadership has decided that the way to counter the current CES Letter type faith crises is to drill into people the importance of literal belief (if the BOM is true, everything Joseph did is true) and to discourage people from looking at anything other than Church-approved sources on this information. In stake conference we were told “not to read one sentence of any anti-Mormon book or website!” This is not a long-term solution and will fail in the short-run, in my opinion.

  10. Isn’t the “literal vs. allegorical” a false dichotomy? It’s not like those are the only choices. To keep to Michael’s original post, hagiography deals with real people but tends to present them in an idealized fashion. Likewise when people tell real stories about real people but to make a point, they only present the people as needed for the narrative they are telling. The Book of Mormon really gives us almost no information about these people. Just the events the writers thought were pertinent – and then presumably passed through a heavy interpretive lens. (Lest we forget we have Mormon summarizing unknown accounts each with an axe to grind)

    In many ways fiction can give the illusion of reality much better than history can. After all a fictional writer can give details no historian would know. They can explain motivations, fears, and hopes in a fashion that most people just don’t share with others. Fiction is beloved I think because so often it seems more not less real.

    The main danger with fiction is that the author can make anything happen to make a point. So John Galt flees to Colorado and the world collapses without him and his friends. But they can on their own without all the complex economic networks that make production possible build everything on their own. Real history is messier in those cases. Things don’t go as expected and the world never is quite what we think. But the people always seem less real.

  11. felixfabulous says:

    Clark, I agree with what you’re saying. Just going off on a slight tangent from where Michael’s post is going and contemplating how to best approach some of these differing views into the general church membership.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice.

  13. Martin James says:

    I can understand scripture as a genre that simplifies moral messaging. What i don’t understand in the analogy is what the “real world” is for morals and existence in the comparison. Do right and wrong and Gods and angels only exist in “scripture genre”. It is the difference between scripture as an aid to learning versus morals and God only existing as narrative.
    It is relatively easy to treat spiritual truth as having genre conventions. It is much harder to understand how spiritual truth interacts with other kinds of truth. It is especially hard to do that in LDS world where spiritual truth rejects a non-material view of God.

  14. Thanks Michael: if we accept that genre is essentially about the mobilisation of semantic forms for a particular (social) purposes, then the scriptures might be characterised as mixed-genres. What do you think? The picture becomes more complicated when we consider that written genres are culture-specific ie culturally patterned and intentioned. While we tend to read at the level of an event or act, it is not often that we go up the hierarchy to look at the other work that these writing conventions/patterns/ genres are doing. For me, part of the work of scripture goes beyond instruction, to identification. Scripture has power to ‘move’ as well as instruct. I think this is evidence of a genre at work.

  15. DeepThink says:

    The Book of Mormon was “advantaged” by having an editor and abridger in Mormon. Wouldn’t it be nice if, at the end of my life, standing at the bar of God, I could hand Him the book of my life that Christ Himself had abridged….to show my real heart, my longing to be God’s…rather than the messiness of my actual living.

  16. Scott Saunders says:

    When I read scripture, I don’t see history, nor do I read a story. I only see myself in them, not the characters necessarily, but the word of God. I am Laman, AND Nephi, AND the pharisees, AND Peter… The truth is in my heart when I see myself, the scripture being the mirror.
    “…hear ye the words of the prophet, which were written unto all the house of Israel, and liken them unto yourselves, that ye may have hope…”
    (1 Nephi 19:24)

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