Brother Jake: Meant Symbolically

by: Bro. Jake

November 1, 2013

brother jake


For those who are a fan of Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” you’re probably gonna like this (if you’re into crappy ripoffs of stuff that’s actually good).

Symbolism is a powerful concept. Its ability to convey a myriad of differing ideas to many people simultaneously makes it an adept teaching tool, which is why it is so darn useful in a religious context.

However, it seems that the tension between symbolism and literalism can create a bit of a logical minefield when applied within a religion as attached to literal ideas and absolute truth as Mormonism is. (As a point of clarification, when I use “symbolism” here, I mean it in the broadest “this-didn’t-mean-what-it-said” kind of way.) I have noticed that when trying to reconcile statements made by past prophets and apostles with secular knowledge, apologetic members often throw on their symbolism-colored glasses and poof! Adam and Eve become non-literal characters, horses become tapirs, the global flood becomes local, and the scientific and religious worldviews return to harmony.

But…do they really? Because, while I do think there are often legitimate reasons for reevaluating religious doctrines through a symbolic lens, I think doing so creates a bit of a quandary, since there’s little doubt that these seers and revelators intended their teachings both as literal facts and prophetic assertions. Throwing down a symbolic remix of a prophetic statement that changes the statement from its original intended interpretation brings up interesting questions.

Like, for example, does such a reinterpretation undermine the idea of a living prophet as the literal mouthpiece of God? Are there any concepts that are inherently exempt from being reinterpreted as an exclusively symbolic (the Atonement, Christ, God, etc.)? If so, why? Often, these reinterpretations come about when scientific discoveries make a religious idea untenable; are there any instances where the opposite was the case, and scientific findings were reevaluated when not in harmony with prophetic statements? Were the scientific findings refashioned as a result?

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.


Brother Jake

Twitter: @askbrotherjake



10 Responses to Brother Jake: Meant Symbolically

  1. Jenn on November 1, 2013 at 7:32 AM

    I like the use of the Deathly Hallows symbol:). I’m feeling more and more sure that Brother Jake and I agree on most things doctrinally, but maybe that’s my confirmation bias speaking:)

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  2. hawkgrrrl on November 1, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    Wow, you are a regular one man ward choir here. Very interesting.

    I’m not sure if I think that this is what happens. Do people who are prone to take things literally suddenly think they are symbolic or are there people who tend to think things might be symbolic even when they are perceived by most to be literal? I’m just not sure I’ve seen a lot of people just turn off their literalism.

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  3. Bro. Jake on November 1, 2013 at 11:39 AM


    You make a good point. In talking about the oscillation between literalism and symbolism, I was thinking of large-scale apologetic trends rather than individual interpretations (although in my post I describe it as if I were speaking of an individual, which isn’t very realistic). I think that you’re right–on an individual level, there probably isn’t a lot of change.

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  4. The Other Clark on November 1, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    “Throw on their classes and horses become tapirs.” This is my issue with apologists. In many cases, their explanations strain credulity more than the original assertion. I’m with Occam that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. That’s how I determine what’s literal and what’s symbolic. There’s also the possibility that prophecies are both literal and symbolic, or fulfilled more than once (or more than one way).

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  5. hawkgrrrl on November 1, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    The Other Clark – yes, actually one more thing to the point of tapirs. That’s an example of requiring a “literal” explanation, not converting to a symbolic one. Or if it’s symbolic, maybe I am not seeing it. I don’t think tapirs “symbolize” horses. They are just the only literally available animal in the supposed geography. So tapirs are an example of mental gymnastics to retain a literal interpretation. I think. (For obvious reasons, the idea of warriors riding tapirs to battle is beyond ludicrous, and I’m a Star Trek fan).

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  6. Alexander on November 1, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    Yes, religious ideas evolve and are re-worked over time, including being seen as symbolic or allegorical and/or literally true, for many more reasons than just scientific discovery.
    Scientists do not re-evaluate or re-interpret their data because they don’t mesh with religious ideas. That’s not how science works. They re-evaluate and re-interpret based on new data from increasingly powerful or precise techniques or approaches.

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  7. Ben S on November 1, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    Meh. I reject the literal-figurative dichotomy. Moreover, sometimes our (modern, western, translated, culturally-removed) reading of scripture is at an extremely far remove from what it meant originally, which means logic goes out the window, and face-value meaning is worthless. Saying “mental gymnastics” is often short for “I don’t know enough to be able to evaluate that proposition, but it doesn’t make sense to me here in my personal bubble.”

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  8. Nate on November 1, 2013 at 7:35 PM

    This is an issue that many people get hung up on, and my brother left the church over it. As Jake says there is a built in quandry in the fact that Joseph Smith intended his revelations to be seen and accepted as literal.

    But one must remember that “literalness” is ultimately meaningless and vain. There is no saving power in mere “facts.” Spiritual truth is not based on facts but rather a state of being. Sure, Joseph Smith believed in Nephites, but it is not their literal existance that gives the Book of Mormon it’s power. The power and truth of the Book of Mormon resides in it’s ability to transform the soul. That is the only truth that is important for us. In the Bible, the word for “truthfulness” is the same as “faithfulness” meaning stability, trustworthiness, unchangeableness, etc. So it does not mean facts.

    Brigham Young said that one could be decieved by the physical senses, but that the Holy Ghost confirms the real truth. Joseph Smith’s first vision might have been Satan and his forces disguised as beings of light. The Angel Moroni could have been Satan. The ONLY real think about the First Vision, ultimately, is that the Holy Ghost must have confirmed to Joseph Smith, that it WAS good, that it WAS true. And that is the same confirmation that others feel regarding the Vision, that it is “true.” Not important how it fits in with different versions of the story, etc. The Holy Ghost is the only thing. Like the Book of Mormon says, “you are just as fortunate as those who saw Jesus in the flesh, for the Spirit is the same today, yesterday and forever.”

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  9. Bro. Jake on November 2, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    Ben, I think you bring up an interesting point. Perhaps the tension between the literal and figurative is a false dichotomy.

    However, (and this directed toward Nate’s point as well) I do think that arguing that Mormon doctrine doesn’t revolve around the literal interpretation of certain facts brings up serious questions of the validity of the Church’s doctrine in the first place. If, for example, the prophetic leaders who taught certain things lacked the discernment to understand that something was meant figuratively and not literally, doesn’t that throw into doubt the validity of ideas like a temple marriage being necessary to enter into the Celestial Kingdom, the literal restoration of the priesthood, and the idea that the Church is the “one true Church?”

    I guess I have a hard time with the idea of ascribing such a literal interpretation to some of these claims and jettisoning that interpretation for others. The distinction to where a literal understanding is applied (the First Vision occurring in the first place, the restoration of the priesthood, the necessity of ordinances) compared to where it isn’t seems arbitrary.

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  10. brjones on November 4, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    To build on your point, Bro. Jake (in response to Nate’s comment, in particular), if the literalness of the facts that distinguish mormonism from other faiths is not particularly relevant, then what ultimately is the difference between the book of mormon and other books that have the power to transform the soul? It would be arrogant and ignorant to claim that other books of scripture have not had transformative effects identical to those the book of mormon claims to have, and many of those on a far more prolific scale. In that case, what really is it that makes mormonism unique or particularly compelling, other than the literalness of its unique history?

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