In a comment to my post below, Paul offers the following from Bruce R. McConkie on the story of Balaam’s ass: “This is a true story, a dramatic story; one with a great lesson for all members of the Church; one that involves seeing God, receiving revelation, and facing a destroying angel in whose hand was the sword of vengeance. It includes the account of how the Lord delivered a message to the prophet in a way that, as far as we know, has never been duplicated in the entire history of the world.” This is one reason to love this blog. Thanks, Paul, for bringing that to my attention. While this definitely gives me pause, I will confess to being as stubborn as a donkey on this topic.
First some background. I love Elder McConkie. After I joined the Church in my second year at BYU, he quickly became my favorite Apostle. (Is it all right to favor some Apostles over others?) I saw him at a BYU devotional (fireside?) and was very impressed. After returning from my mission, I attended the General Conference session where he gave his last talk — do you all remember that? Amazing! One of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life. Still, for all of my admiration of Elder McConkie, I do not assume that everything he ever wrote or said was true. Please don’t encourage that line of argument because it is bound to lead to disappointment.
Frankly, I continue to be surprised at how interested people are in this topic and how firmly they cling to the notion that all biblical stories must be based on an actual occurrence. Here is my theory about why people are so invested in this idea: the slippery slope. If one story is “untrue” (i.e., not based on an actual event), where do we stop? Perhaps they are all untrue? We know, of course, that the slippery slope argument is fallacious, but it is powerful nonetheless.
In my view, the primary consequence of insisting on the historical accuracy of the Bible is loss of faith by millions of people who just cannot get over the implausibility of talking donkeys, regurgitating whales, and people turning into salt pillars. Teach seminary for awhile and you will see the students struggling to deal with the fact that their lives are so different from the lives of people they are studying. I had a very similar experience growing up outside of the Mormon Church. The whole “religion thing” just seemed like voodoo. If, instead of voodoo, we could accept the scriptures as inspired stories that are not required to be based on historical events, my sense is that the world would be a better place.
(Please note: I am not saying that none of the stories in the scriptures are based on actual events. As mentioned below, I believe that the Atonement and Resurrection are factual, even if inexplicable to the “rational man.” As for the rest, well, I don’t think about it nearly as much as my participation on this blog would suggest!)