Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: the Relief Society Magazine on kinds of truth

Just what is true in literature and what meaning we can find in it are perennial subjects for prophets as well as literary pontificates. Yet often both of these are treated as unitary–a work of literature is either true or its not, and has just one meaning. Of course literary critics have long seen that works of literature can be true in different ways and have multiple meanings. But somehow this fact is lost in the debate when we put things in a religious sphere.

Except when it comes to scripture. By the early twentieth century some Mormons not only thought that scripture was true in multiple ways and had multiple meanings, they also taught these ideas in the published Relief Society lessons about the Bible, such as the extract from a lesson found below. Oddly enough, I’m not sure that most Church members today see this point, at least not from the scripture lessons I attend each week.

Again I’m not quite sure who wrote this lesson. From the reading I’ve done in the Relief Society Magazine of the time, it seems likely that the author is one of the General Relief Society Board–in this case whichever board member was considered the literary specialist. However there were 17 board members, in addition to the Relief Society Presidency and the Magazine staff, so the author could have been anyone from the Magazine editor, Susa Young Gates, to even the President, Emmeline B. Wells. Given their other assignments, and President Wells’ advanced age, I kind of doubt either of them, but I don’t know enough about the background of the others to know who is likely and I haven’t found any information to indicate who else is possible. I’m sure who it is will eventually become clear.

Whoever it was had put some thought into how to read scripture, and, by extension, how any literary text should be read.

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Stories from Scripture

Relief Society Magazine lesson

“Back to the Bible” is one of the stirring calls in these trying days. Why? Because the Bible is the Book of books. Within its pages are found the truths of life ‘plainly told and vividly pictured with the choicest of stories. Every home should know the Bible; every father should make it a companion, a binding link between him and his children, and every mother should make its stories a means of inculcating the gospel in the hearts of her little ones. It is not enough to trust this work to the Sabbath school or other organizations. We should have a scripture story hour frequently in every home.

This does not mean that every story in the good book should be given indiscriminately to children. Some stories from scripture cannot be understood by the immature child. But there are many stories which are within his grasp. Such tales should be read for his delight and his development.

As has been pointed out before, the Bible story is not only charming in its interest as a literary tale, but it is always true to life and true to truth. Between its lines may ever be found some lesson of vital importance to mankind. The child may not catch this message at first hearing, nor at second. It is not necessary that he does. Let him enjoy the story as a story. Read it in its sweet simple language from the Bible or tell it plainly. The day will come when its deeper meanings will come to give new joy to his heart.

A scripture story hour in every home frequently or at least every Sabbath day might do much to stir in the hearts of both parents and children a clearer understanding and a deeper appreciation of these stories, and it would certainly be a means of creating a greater love for the sacred books God has given to us.

Relief Society Magazine, v4 n10, October 1917, p. 592-595.

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The author had already brought up (and I think I published earlier her thoughts on) the idea that there is more than one way that a text can be true. Above she indicates that the Bible can be “true to life” and “true to truth,” while she previously talked about texts being “true to fact.” Today I think we call “true to life” verisimilitude, and the concept that literary works should be true to life has developed into the idea that works must be true to their setting instead of our life today–a natural extension of verisimilitude.

The requirement that literary works be “true to fact” was, as we’ve seen in this series, a bit of a stumbling block for Mormons in the 19th century, but its omission above and the earlier mention shows that this was no longer being taught, at least not in the Relief Society. And it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue today.

But the idea that a work should be “true to truth” is, I think, a bit more difficult to parse. I think the author means that literary works must somehow communicate or promote a basic truth of human nature or of gospel principle in order to have value. But today (or at least to me) this seems a little bit simplistic. Aren’t there actually many truths that could be taught or communicated in a literary work? And if a work has multiple ideas in it, what happens when one isn’t true while another is? And what about more modern works that don’t have a clear point, but simply describe life? Are such works true or not?

I don’t want to dismiss the author’s lesson because of these issues. I wish this lesson were taught in Church today. I think too many members haven’t understood the points the author is making. But if we try to apply these points about scripture to other literature, I think there is still some thinking to be done, especially with current literary styles and trends and the increasing emphasis on media that is made solely for entertainment.

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