Horror Stories, Fairy Tales and Scriptures

Another guest post from Starfoxy!

We’ve all heard the horror stories. The ones about Gospel Doctrine teachers telling us that the star Spica is really Kolob. The ones about the reluctant bride who was marrying the guy just because he had the Priesthood and said he had a revelation. The ones about the rude lady in Relief Society telling the young wife that sin was the reason she wasn’t getting pregnant. Some are laughable — Sunday School courses being taken over by serious arguments about Adam’s belly button or lack thereof. Some are annoying — the home teachers that address all conversation to the husband and won’t look the wife in the eye. Some are downright chilling — the bishop that demands lurid details about a young married couple’s sex life during private interviews with the woman.

We’ve also heard the Fairy Tales. The Sister missionaries kept safe from rapists and murderers by the Three Nephites they couldn’t see. The kid prevented from comitting suicide by a friendly gesture made on a whim. The old lady with a good attitude about sex. The home teacher who worked with the inactive family, teaching them on their own terms, and genuinely bringing the spirit into their home. The supportive ward that didn’t ostrasize the divorced sister, or brother. Countless tales of people being supportive, loving, ignoring the shortcomings, and helping others feel welcome.

In Sunday School recently we were discussing Jonah and the Whale. The teacher in researching his lesson, came across some online articles about the factuality of the Jonah story (I suspect they were bloggernacle posts). He was genuinely taken off-guard having never considered the idea that the Bible story might be pure fiction, and he was no longer sure how he should relate to the story. I offered the idea that the veracity of that or any bible story (save the atonement) is a moot point. The story of Jonah and the whale will always be a fiction for me. I will never be swallowed by a whale for disobeying God’s commands. I will never be a widow with just two cents that I willingly give to the bishop. I will never be told by a snake that it’s a great idea to eat that fruit over there. Because none of this will ever happen to me, whether or not it really happened to someone else shouldn’t change the lesson I take from it. What *does* matter is how I let the story alter my understanding of God, and how I let it alter the way I seek to stay close to God and follow the path He has in mind for me.

Some of the stories I referenced above are certainly urban legends far too fantastical to be true. Some of these are things I, or you may have experienced personally. Some are things we hope to (never) experience. Like the story of Jonah, I think each of these stories has value in how I let it shape my view of God, and how I let it shape my view of my role in His kingdom. I hear the horror stories and make internal promises to myself that I will never be that heartless judgemental woman in Relief Society. I promise to never let a bishop abuse me with his authority. I promise to call out, or at least do damage control on the Spica=Kolob guy. I hear the fairy tales and I promise to be nicer to that kid who dropped all his books. I promise to be flexible with my visiting teaching sisters. I promise to try and ignore the things I see as sins and shortcomings and love the person behind them. I promise to not feel threatened by, or superior to the employed mother sitting next to me.

Through their ability to illustrate our common beliefs, and their capacity to inform our behavior I’ve come to believe that these stories and legends are a form of scripture and have an important place in our discourse, we should not discount their value.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post–thanks for your insights.

  2. Beijing says:

    A study has shown that reading fiction correlates with empathy, while reading non-fiction correlates with poor social skills.


    Correlation is not causation. But still, maybe a willingness to see Jonah as fictional correlates with an ability to apply the story in an empathic way.

  3. Caroline says:

    This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I’m going to have to tell my husband about that study. 🙂 (He almost exclusively reads non-fiction, while I’m a big fiction fan.)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Excellent point expertly written.

  5. Sue says:

    Starfoxy, wonderful thoughts. You gave me something new to think about today. Thank you for posting it.

  6. AmyB says:

    Love the post, Starfoxy. It is very interesting to think about what stories we tell, and how those inform our worldview.

    I agree with you that whether or not scripture is historically accurate (which I lean toward doubting in many cases), the important part is what we learn from the story and how the metaphor informs our lives.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the compliments everyone!

    Beijing- that is an interesting study. Perhaps we could come up with some way to gague if it is the stories commonly presumed to be true (Noah, Jonah etc.) or the stories and parables presumed to be fiction (like the good Samaritan) that have higher rates of personal application. I’m willing to guess that it is the fiction that more reliably drives us to behave better, but that may be because the fiction (esp parables) can be tailored to alter behavior where factual stories are not.

  8. Matt Thurston says:

    Your post reminds me somewhat of a classic Sunstone article “On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries” that analyzes what missionary folklore says about missionaries (to say nothing of Mormons or Humans in general) and how it works in their lives.

    For example:

    1.) Folklore creates an esprit de corps, binding missionaries together and instilling equality in an authoritative system.

    2.)Folklore acts a “steam valve,” allowing missionaries to live vicariously through the bold, brash stories.

    3.) Folklore helps channel behaviors, showing how God and Satan are intimately involved in their lives.

    4.) Folklore helps the missionary “overcome the world,” showing how the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.

    Obviously, all cultures (religious or otherwise) have some form of folklore — even many businesses have folklore! — and it indeed has “an important place in our discourse,” as you say.

    But I wonder if all Mormon folklore/stories/fairy tales, to say nothing of scripture, has value. Or is harmless? Can you not imagine some examples of harmful folklore? And, in general, don’t you think it preferable for members to recognize folklore as folklore, instead of actually believing it?

  9. JKS says:

    Wow! Excellent post and very interesting ideas. Thanks for posting this.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Matt- you pose some interesting questions. First I think folklore can be as harmful as you make it. Some may think the stories about bishops demanding sexual details from women are damaging. Stories like that could lead to people not trusting their bishops as much as they should. On the other hand, stories like that have value in their ability to teach us that bishops are human and we shouldn’t necessarily trust them to ends of the earth. If I let a story like that destroy my faith in the office of Bishop then I think that I (and not the story) am to blame. This is true even of scripture stories- some have let the story of Job, for example, destroy their faith in a loving benevolent God. Perhaps I still haven’t heard enough folklore, but I cannot think of a story that inherently damaging and has no positive lesson hidden within it.

    To your other question, and along the lines of the study Beijing linked, I definitely agree that these things are more effective when they are recognized as folklore, or at least unverifiable rumors. This is important in allowing us to distance ourselves from the stories so that we can pick out the moral more objectively. I would have more trouble with maintaining my faith in Bishops if it was my Bishop demanding sexual details; as long as it is a vague rumor that happened to someone else then I can pick out the lesson easily. I still maintain that the veracity (and perhaps proximity) of the story shouldn’t change the lesson and application one can take from it. (Along these lines Snopes is an invaluable resource especially the glurge gallery.)

  11. tracy m says:

    Chiming in a little late here, but: WOW! What a fabulous post and a wonderful idea you followed through so beautifully on- thanks!

  12. annegb says:

    A little off the subject, but I was telling my granddaughter, Madison, that the cartoon Prince of Egypt, was based on a true story. She looked at me and said, “yeah, right, Grandma.”

    I’ve decided that I like to withdraw from life by reading stories. So I’m glad there’s some redeeming value in it.

  13. Beijing says:

    Starfoxy, there is Biblical scholarship to the effect that Jonah is a fictional story, “tailored to alter behavior” every bit as much as the Good Samaritan story.


    The interesting part of the question for me, is what is the effect of the story on those who perceive it as fiction designed with a moral in mind, versus the effect on those who see it as stark fact.

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