Criticism: Dispensation historical novels

I think that most attempts at broad-based LDS-centric theoretical approaches to the basic questions of such academic displines as philosophy, literary and cultural studies, history (and the rest of the social sciences) are not going to be very successful. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but I have doubts that I will be.

Luckily, Mormon artists can tread with careless disregard on ground that academics either have to ignore or painstakingly survey.

With this in mind, I have a proposal:

There are all sorts of approaches to history — Hegelian, Marxist, feminist, Foucauldian, psycho, political, etc. All of them have specific ways of theorizing how societies and peoples are constructed and change/develop. It seems to me that Mormons do have a way of explaining the course of history that is somewhat unique. That is: history as a series of dispensations. The dispensation view, in fact, heavily informs all of the scriptures that are unique to Mormonism — especially the Book of Mormon — as well as how Mormons view the Old and New Testaments.

As I understand it, the dispensation view goes something like this:

God reveals his gospel and covenants, usually through a prophet. The prophet seeks to create a community of believers. The community thrives (or doesn’t) and grows and its relationship to God and his covenants begins to decay. Retrenchment is required and so God sends more prophets. At some point the tribe, society, people becomes so wicked that the knowledge of the gospel and covenants is lost and/or transmuted and corrupted. God then waits for the time to be ripe for a restoration of his gospel.

The dispensation model of history, then, is the story of the struggle to reveal, teach and preserve true knowledge of and a relationship with God.

Trying to do actual history using this model is quite problematic. Hugh Nibley has tried, but although some of his hints are incredibly interested there just isn’t enough there to do much with, imo (and the opinion of many others in the field of Mormon studies). In other words, it’s somewhat affirming in some of the interesting details, but unconvincing as you scale out the model.

Artists, however, create their own worlds and their own evidences.

I would like to see narratives that reflect a dispensation view of history. Specifically, what is it like to live in a society that God is trying to restore his gospel to or that is about to lose the gospel — in other words to be at the beginning or end of a dispensation?

Speculative fiction would seem to be the natural arena for this. And indeed Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series and Dave Wolverton’s Runelords series both sort of fit what I’m talking about. In fact, both OSC’s Alvin and Wolverton’s Gaborn are Joseph Smith types (the former, of course, deliberately so). But I think there is room for more in this field. What I’d really like to see are speculative historical fiction works that are more firmly rooted in ‘real’ history — both the ‘real’ history that is generally accepted and the ‘real’ history of Mormon scripture (i.e. Jaredite, Nephites, Enoch, etc.). Situating a narrative in the ‘real’ is difficult, but it can often comment on the ‘other’ histories in ways that fully-fantastic narratives can’t.

It’d also be interesting if such narratives didn’t focus on the ‘main’ figure of the dispensation. Yes, Nephi and Joseph Smith and Moses, etc., are all fascinating figures. But what is it like to be a John Taylor, an Eliza R. Snow, an Alma the Younger, or a Moroni or Ether?

NOTE: Now that I think about it — although I haven’t read them, I would imagine that OSC’s Women of Genesis novels fit in with what I’m talking about.

2 thoughts on “Criticism: Dispensation historical novels”

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