Write-up of a few of the March 2008 AML sessions

The theme for this year’s AML Annual Meeting was “Scripture as Literature and Scripture in Literature.”  This theme provided for the usual wide variety of papers, but the marked emphasis on scripture evoked a different atmosphere from other AML meetings.  One attendee I met while I waited to register told me that she had fasted before coming to the conference.    

The first session I attended included presenters William Brugger, Donald W. Parry, and Neal Kramer.  This session started with prayer; not all did.

Brugger’s paper, titled “Mormon Maritime Migration in Meter,” discussed poetry that  English converts to the gospel wrote as they uprooted from home soil and immigrated to the U. S. to answer the church’s call to gather to Zion. 

A surprising number of these Mormon pilgrims wrote poetry to justify their leaving to family and friends and to say goodbye to beloved homelands.  Brugger noted that a lot of the migration poetry appeared in early church publications, including the Millennial Star.  Most, he said, have been archived; few have been critiqued.  Brugger himself has collected around a thousand of these poems.

Brugger noted that some of the popular poetry written during this time is stiff, didactic, and undesireable, but most was quite polished, which is something of a surprise given the widespread illiteracy of the times.  Writers of Mormon immigration poetry includ Samuel Claridge, John McLaws, James Bond, John Lyon, and a fellow whose first name I missed but his last name was Richards.  (Anybody knowing the proper spelling of these names, chip in — I guessed spellings from hearing the names, not seeing them.)

Claridge came and went from Britain to America more than once and wrote poetry bidding farewell several times.  The poem Brugger showed us explained Claridge’s choice to immigrate to family and friends with the refrain, “Christ forbids me to stay.” 

McLaws’ poetry, which described the tender affection he held for the pastoral beauties of his homeland, argued that leaving the “mountains” and fields he loved was as hard as leaving family: 

Old Scotland, I leave the, tho thou’rt dear to me 

To go to a land where the people are free.  

James Bond, who was about as tactful as his fictitional namesake, wrote poetry he meant as a keepsake for those who, in his opinion, remained unwisely behind.  This group of loiterers would have included many who desired to immigrate but had not found the means.  His verse included stanzas such as:

As I’m going to part from you, these verses I make

And present them unto you, to keep for my sake

That when I am gone to a land o’er the sea,

You can look on these verses — and think upon me.

Especially, he urged readers, “think upon me” when you see the signs of God’s destruction around you.

The poetry immigrants left in their wake was intended to encourage brothers and sisters to follow them.  Some of the poetry was meant to innoculate immigrants against the dangers and hardships of sea travel, to “downplay trouble and risk.”  Thus it acted to share the burden of immigration and was a “form of consecration,” Brugger said. 

Donald Parry’s paper, titled “Isaiah’s Use of Double Meanings in the Song of the Suffering Servant,” asserted that Isaiah 53 is about Jesus Christ, though the usual approach to this passage is the Jewish one, with the suffering servant said to represent the Jews as a persecuted people.  But Parry noted that while the Jewish explanation accounts for the descriptions of the servant as being beat up and put upon, it doesn’t explain why this is done for our transgressions.

Parry said that Isaiah 53 has four recurring themes: 1) The Messiah’s suffering; 2) The Messiah’s assumption of our burdens and sins; 3) the Messiah’s death; 4) the Messiah’s reward. 

Isaiah, Parry said, is highly literate, and his writing is filled with word plays and double meanings, many of which contain turnabouts whose skillful use artistically enhances Isaiah’s messages.  Parry said Isaiah was inspired, clever, and original.  This prophet turned nouns into verbs and used more rare words than any other Old Testament writer. 

Parry provided several examples of Isaiah’s adoitness.  Here’s one:

Surely he hath born (nasa) our sickness. 

In Hebrew, nasa means “to bear,” specifically, as a donkey bears a huge burden, but it also means “to lift up.”  The wordplay here incorporates “two points of the atonement in one word.”  Parry noted that when speaking metaphorically of Christ, Isaiah often used the feminine forms of words for animals, for instance, describing Christ as a ewe instead of a ram.  Parry suggested this might be because female animals are thought to be more passive and also because they continue the generations — they give life.

Neal Kramer’s paper, “The Narrative Function of Nehor,” discussed some of the very striking and surprising characteristics of the story of Alma the Younger’s conflict with the anti-Christ Nehor.  Kramer noted that, among other differences, the narrative is crafted rather than told as a chronological account of the conflict between the two men and their beliefs. 

In the Book of Mormon, Sherem and Corihor are treated as individuals, but Nehor receives different treatment.  While Nehor is executed for his aggressive, anti-Chirst teachings, Alma continues to refer to him throughout the narrative.  Kramer believes that anti-atonement philosophies lie at the core of Nehorism.  He gave three characteristics of Nehorism: 1) No one is held responsible for sin, so there’s no sin; 2) No sin means no need for redemption; therefore, no need for a Christ; 3) A person’s popularity is the actual source of the proper authority of the priesthood.  On this last point, the pursuit of weath and power is a significant feature of Nehor’s concept of popularity and any end one aspiring to popularity wishes to achieve should be achieved  through violence.  Kramer remarked that much of the violence in the text can be traced to Nehor’s teachings.

This was a very interesting and complex paper, but the main point Kramer made seemed to be that Nehorism’s threat and heresy were so great that Alma took extreme measures to fight it, including giving up the judgement seat and engaging in stark “repent now” rhetoric.  Probably, Kramer said, Alma’s own past as “a murderer of souls” caused him to recognize the power of the threat Nehor and his followers posed and to engage it in a highly charged personal battle.   

Corihor, Kramer said, takes Nehorism to extremes.  Not only is there no Christ, there is no God.  “The apex of nehorism is atheism,” Kramer said.  Kramer spoke at length about the extreme dualism Alma creates as he strives to counteract the teachings of Nehorism, saying Alma did it in order to combat the “extraordinary effects of Nehorism.”  If I ever teach gospel doctine again, I’ll remember this paper; Kramer’s points were extremely helpful in understanding the extremities of Alma’s rhetoric in this section of the Book of Mormon.

The plenary speaker Harold Rawlings gave an address titled “The History of the Bible.”  This address provided me several new points of reference for appreciating the Bible.  To help the audience’s regard for the Bible “deepen even more,” Rawlings took us on a tour through centuries of Bible activism and translation, starting with the first English Bible, Wycliffe’s Bible, which was published 239 years earlier than the King James version.  Rawlings detailed the personal sacrifices various Bible activists made to get the Bible into the hands of the people, laying out the relationship between the actions of dedicated individuals and the production of the Bible for mass audiences. 

John Wycliffe, translator of this early volume of the Bible, was considered the leading theologian in all of England and perhaps Europe.  He believed the teachings of the church ran counter to the teachings of the Bible.  At the time, two popes ruled the church and each excommunicated the other and each “bellowed at the other.”  Wycliffe preached against the accompanying abuses of power and doctrine with the result that  two papal bulls were issued against him and he was sentenced to be burned.  The sentence failed, but Wycliffe was forced from his position.   The church “thought they’d rid themselves of him,” but Wycliffe decided the only way people could judge the extent of the falsehoods and foolishness perpetrated by the church of that time was to put the Bible into common folks’ hands.  In 1382 he and a group of scholars produced a completed translation from Vulgate into English, at the time considered ” a gutter language.”  The book had to be handwritten and thus was too expensive for most.  Some, Rawlings said, would save for months to pay for an opportunity to read it; farmers paid a load of hay to read one page. 

Another important Bible mover and shaker was William Tyndale.  His translation rolled off the presses in 1525.  It was pocket-sized for easy concealment, since printing the Bible in English was against the law.  Tyndale ended up with a bounty on his head and suffered betrayal when a man named Phillips insinuated himself into Tyndale’s inner circle and then set him up for arrest.  Tyndale was brought to trial, condemned as a heretic, then sentenced to be burned.  Before the trial, officials put the robe of the clergy on him so they could “defrock” him in public. 

Rawlings emphasized that Tyndale “enriched the English language.”  Eighty percent of the King James translation is from Tyndale.  Among the phrases original to Tyndale: “Let there be light”; “my brother’s keeper”; “apple of his eye”; “signs of the times”; “salt of the earth”; “root of all evil.”  He also coined the words “Jehovah,” “Passover,” and, if I heard right, the word “beautiful.”  If there had been no Tyndale, Rawlings asserted, there would have been no Shakespeare. 

When Tyndale died, other scholars took up his work.  The Matthews Bible was finished in 1537 and became the basis for bibles up through the 20th Century.  Like other bibles, the Matthew Bible was constructed on Tyndale’s version.  Henry VIII finally authorized a translation of the Bible into English and it was mandated that every parish church have one.  Some were stolen, so they were chained to the podium and “came to be called ‘The Chained Bible.'” 

“The Bible flourished under Edward VI,” Rawlings said, with the Geneva Bible published in 1560.  The Geneva Bible, the first Bible with verse numbers and Roman type, was the “favorite in England for almost one hundred years,” was the Bible of Shakespeare, and was the first Bible brought to America. 

The story of the King James Version of the Bible was an especially interesting one.  King James I didn’t care much for the Geneva Bible because, among other things, it contained notes opposing the divine right of kings.  He “jumped at the idea” of producing a new bible.   The King James Version of the Bible, Rawlings said, did not become immediately popular.  “Appropriate changes” were made to purge the text of those offensive notes opposing the divine right of kings.  Very interesting was Rawling’s point that the KJV was “written for sound.”

At the end of his presentation, Rawlings lamented the decline in Bible literacy, saying it hurts not only a country’s moral underpinnings but also its literature.  FYI, you can read an online copy of the Tyndale Bible here.

The 2-3:30 AML session posed a dilemma.  Two separate events, both highly attractive to me, were scheduled: Jim Faulconer was presenting a paper titled, “Zion in the Text” at the same time Susan Howe, Bruce Jorgensen, Marilyn Brown and Diane Porter were presenting at a panel titled, “The Contributions of Clinton F. Larson to LDS Literature.” 

With one thing and another, I got to Faulconer’s presentation late.  Among his points: Scripture reveals God to us in ways other texts do not.  He discussed the problems of understanding scripture, problems that impose meanings, such as principles, on the text.  Principles are not to be confused with scriptural meaning.  When scriptures do speak to us, he said, they do so as a call rather than as principles — that is, scriptures call us to be something other than what we are.  The meaning of scriptural text leads us, Faulconer said, to Godly life. 

What we take to be scriptural meaning displaces scripture.  It is the work of interpretation to compel our ideas to meet scriptural meaning; it isn’t the work of scriptural meaning to confirm or support our ideas.  The overarching unity of scripture, Faulconer said, is the unity of Zion.  Latter-day Saints have an open canon.  We recognize priesthood as a second unity.  We share with one another scriptural meaning.  Yet we do need limits on interpretation — we can’t make scripture mean whatever we want it to.  Furthermore, answering the call scripture makes to us to be something else is dangerous, because it changes what we know.  “Scriptures call, we hearken, our hearkening brings about the reign of God.”

After Faulconer’s paper, I ducked out to catch what I could of the Larson panel.  I missed a lot, but the overall purpose of this panel seemed to be to call attention to the Larson family’s February 29, 2008 donation of Larson’s works, holographs, library, and biographical material to L. Tom Perry Special Collections in the Harold B. Lee Library.  They also donated copies of his last collection, Sunwind, for students to use in their studies of Mormon literature.

This donation is momentous.  If scholars will take advantage of it, it will contribute strongly to the development of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies.  If I were younger and lived closer to the Lee Library, I would high dive into this collection with gusto.       

9 thoughts on “Write-up of a few of the March 2008 AML sessions”

  1. I apologize for getting this information up a week and half after the meetings. Also, I have reconstructed from my notes the points these presenters made, which means my post will omit many pertinent points, skim others, and miss some altogether. Still, I thought that putting up my notes would give AMV readers some insight into the interesting presentations I had the good fortune of attending.

  2. Thank you for sharing your very interesting notes. (I believe you correctly captured the spellings of the poets’ names.)

  3. You’re welcome, Justin. I appreciate your reading the post.

  4. Patricia, thanks so much for the great overview. It was fun to see you there.

    I just wanted to let you know that I “borrowed” 🙂 the list you posted of the AML award winners in my post over at Segullah today. But I gave you credit!

    I’m highlighting the AML award winners, as well as the Whitney nominees, in my post today, and I’m inviting authors to pop in and talk about their books, as well as readers of these titles to weigh in with their opinion. Hopefully we’ll get some more exposure for the best LDS writing of 2007.

  5. Thanks for commenting, Angela. AML has just posted the list of awards on the AML-List, which probably means they’re over on the discussion board, too.

    Cool idea to invite the award winners at AML and the Whitney Awards winners to blog at your Segullah post!

  6. Fascinating. I once took the Bible as Literature class at BYU. It opened my mind to the whole idea of a history surrounding it; the people who sacrificed so much for what I now sometimes resent having to read; and the beauty of it.
    I appreciated your extensive notes that you shared- thanks!

  7. You’re welcome, Lora.

    I’m happy people find this write-up interesting and useful. Some of the sessions were so sparsely attended — in fact, the AML meetings overall are rather sparsely attended for the amount of work people put into organizing the meetings and presenting papers — that it makes sense to me to try to get more mileage out of it all this way.

  8. Patricia K. wrote:
    ” … the call scripture makes to us to be something else is dangerous, because it changes what we know.”

    I got a lump in my throat when I read this, Patricia K.

    I believe scripture does this, but I believe good literature does this also.

    And once you know something that changes you, you can never really go back to the way you were before the knowledge was gained.

    This is the stuff literature is made of. 🙂

    I’m so glad you shared.

    Patricia W.

  9. Patricia W,

    If I remember right, that sentence you like is pretty close to Jim F.’s own words. His language in this paper caught me up more than the language in any other presentation — so simple, lexically and syntactically, yet it zipped by on sharp wings. Some of the questions audience members asked afterward were exactly the wrong things, understanding the opposite of what he meant, or else they struggled in other ways. I’ve been wondering why that was, since questions I heard in other sessions did not fly so far off the mark. I’m interested in seeing the paper so I can look at the language more closely — hold it still, so to speak. I’m thinking it might be because it was a suspension between poetical and philosophical rhetorical stances.

    Anyway, I liked it and want a better look at it.

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