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.
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is perhaps best known for his sometimes controversial statement “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While often quoted, it is also sometimes dismissed because history doesn’t quite “repeat” itself–the circumstances and details are rarely quite the same.
On the other hand, Santayana’s larger point, that the similarities between historical situations and current situations have value, is widely accepted and even used in education and elsewhere. In law similar historical cases are used as precedent. In business classes and medical school cases are used to teach, and some fields, like psychology, are built entirely on individual cases.
The idea that language changes over time isn’t very controversial, but how it changes and whether or not we can or should try to control those changes certainly is controversial. Without thinking about what they are doing in these terms, many groups both along the political spectrum and among the religious sects seek to control language to some degree.