The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part III

This is the third post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part two, “In Exchange for the Soul”, I extend the paradoxes of existence more deeply into the realm of literature, exploring how our literary experience with them can become an “intelligent affirmation” of and engagement with the moral universe. I also continue my deconstruction of Johnston’s review and assert that he perpetuates a subtly dangerous stance by punctuating his reading of the state of Mormon letters with pecuniary examples drawn from the scriptures.

III. The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters

The dangers of taking or enabling this commodified position are evident in the spiritually and ethically crucial dialog that occurred between Christ and Satan just after Christ walked from the wilderness, having fasted forty days and forty nights in an effort to commune more closely with his Father. In these inaugural moments of his mortal ministry, Satan tempted him to conveniently satisfy his gaping hunger by making bread of stones and, when that enticement failed, to prove his messiahship to a growing crowd of temple worshippers by leaping from the building’s pinnacle into the protection of the angels bound to do his bidding. Once these persuasions fell short, however, Satan became desperate: following Christ to the peak of “an exceedingly high mountain” from which was seen in vision the glory of “all the kingdoms of the world,” the tempter said, “All these things will I give unto thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”1 Jeffrey R. Holland (then president of BYU) says of this moment that

Satan [made] up for lack of subtlety here with the grandeur of his offer. Never mind that these kingdoms [were] not ultimately his to give. He simply ask[ed] of the great Jehovah, God of heaven and earth, “What is your price? Cheap bread you resist. Tawdry messianic drama you resist, but no man can resist this world’s wealth. Name your price.” Satan [thus] [“¦] proceed[ed] under his first article of faithlessness–the unequivocal belief that you can buy anything in this world for money.2

The true irony of this proposition could not have been lost on Lucifer, son of the morning, one of God’s brightest sons who fell eternally from grace because his vision and intellect were clouded by pride. Was this mere posturing, then, an adversarial drama enacted by Satan to illustrate and overturn the demands of redemption; to show Christ that this process of saving souls wasn’t going to be child’s play, that it would eventually require the last full drop of someone’s infinite and eternal blood in exchange for the unremitting and embittered deference of evil; and to offer Christ the convenient course to his Messianic throne as rightful King of the Jews?

Perhaps.

If so, and I’m convinced that’s just what it is (and more), then this episode illustrates and, in Christ’s response, provides a resolution for the central contraries I’ve been speaking of, namely the dilemma between public responsibility and private integrity, between identifying completely with the Other and using one’s powers to benefit and preserve the group and identifying completely with one’s ego and using one’s powers to benefit and preserve the self.

In his attempts to give away that which wasn’t his to give, Satan revealed deep desperation and selfishness, seeking, as he has from the beginning, to use and manipulate others for his personal gain. And so, knowing that for Christ to give in would assure his own victory and anticipated failure notwithstanding, Satan extended his series of increasingly irresistible (or so he hoped) propositions; and Christ, beginning to grasp in body what he likely knew in mind, confronted Satan, beginning the process of atonement by giving himself, for a brief moment and to a small degree (this time), to the depths of human evil, temptation, and suffering. To foolishly compromise in this confrontation with paradox by buying into Satan’s scripture-speckled philosophy would only have served Christ’s immediate need for physical nourishment, have satisfied the Jews’ desire for a Messiah manifest in a miracle, or briefly fed the human lust for wealth, power, and fame, a platform from which he might make a great difference, at least for a time, in a historically troubled part of the world

But at what cost would this short-sighted focus have come, however selfless the intentions?

Yes, as Christ likely understood, he was (and is) the rightful heir of this world and others and, if he could hold out, he would, in the end, “govern every principality and power” in them; he would be “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” But, as President Holland observes, “not this way. Indeed, to arrive at that point at all, [Christ] [had] to follow a most inconvenient course. Nothing so simple as worshiping Satan or for that matter nothing so simple as worshiping God. At least not in the way some of us think worshiping is simple.” His journey to “the throne of grace [was] to lead through travail and sorrow and sacrifice,” through the depths of full engagement with the contraries inherent in the physical and moral universe. By enduring Satan’s temptations, he was therefore able to enter more deeply into humankind’s fallen situation, an experience he comprehended in every particular as part of his redemptive task and could thus transcend in the combined acts of the Atonement that ultimately open endless glory for us, for his created universe, for his Father, and for him.

Applying the immediate inconvenience leading to this Messianic climax to our lives, President Holland asks in quick rhetorical succession, “Should earning our place in the kingdom of God be so difficult as that? Surely there is an easier way? Can’t we buy our way in? Every man or woman does have a price, don’t they? Can’t you buy anything in this world for money”, even (for present purposes) a Latter-day Saint audience or a place in the LDS literary canon? Then just sentences later, he answers his rapid-fire inquisition with this: “No, not everyone does have a price. Some things can’t be purchased. Money and fame and earthly glory are not our eternal standard. Indeed these can, if we are not careful, lead to eternal torment.”3 By throwing caution or covenants to the wind, in any degree, as we move to accept and experience the glory of God–his intelligence, his light, and his truth–we open ourselves to the tempter’s ideology of self-righteousness, a system of self-worship in which the end justifies the means, as long as that end is the immediate gratification and exaltation of the individual (and not as in their reception into eternal life) and their ultimate and unforgiving misery.

By essentially, however unwittingly, representing the covenant as commodity and by elevating a single form and simplistic, tidy, money-making content as the (stereo)type of Mormon literature, Johnston perpetuates this idolatrous ideology, shaping a consumer-based theological system founded on the exercise of priestcraft and on the simple worship of an ethically shallow God who presides over an expansive round of morality plays (the logical extension of this shallow theology) in which the Mormons will prevail and good will finally and decidedly overthrow the forces of evil

Aside from minimizing the battle between good and evil, forces which, as all opposition, are co-eternal with God and must stand side-by-side for existence to continue, this ideology interprets life and good literature, including good Mormon literature (which should maintain as high a literary as Mormonism’s true theological standard), too cheaply, too simply. It’s too focused on what the audience wants, on what they’ll purchase en-masse, and is thus too economically-rooted to place high demands on its disciples. Hence, by and large, its literary fruit doesn’t necessarily lead us into or through the largely rhetorical process of self-realization. Because of this, it in effect keeps mainstream Mormon readers and writers from really rocking the theological boat–for the expanding self is the risky self, the one prone to push, prod, shift, and overturn the status quo or, to be more scriptural, the one likely to “shake” “the kingdom of the devil” in their efforts to stir those who “belong to it” (including themselves and some of God’s saints) out of “carnal”, theological, and ethical complacency.4

And yet these disruptors (as it were) are the disciples Mormonism most needs, as Elder B. H. Roberts argues, those not content to simply and repeatedly “expound and defend” the faith and its doctrine by one formula, but who thoughtfully strive to bring to the Faith and its teachings “their own personal contribution” and who, in so doing, “develop its truths[,] and enlarge it by that development.” Since “[n]ot half–not one-hundredth part–not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the Church has yet been unfolded, either to the Church or to the world,” Elder Roberts concludes that

[t]he work of the[se] expounder[s] has scarcely begun. [“¦] The disciples of “˜Mormonism,’ growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas; cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.5

This vision of doctrinal expansion and spiritual cooperation as acts of theological creativity ties very closely to Mormonism’s cultural and artistic development because, I believe, the depth and breadth of our theological and experiential perspective and the vigor with which we explore, express, and develop it in our lives, our writing, and our reading (often an unconscious act) determines the vitality and the efficacy of our community’s literary testimony. Because of my belief in this vision, I sense that Mormon literature and criticism haven’t yet grown past the awkwardness of adolescence into a full and necessary articulation of their essential greatness, a mature literary and critical character founded in Mormonism’s theological complexity and prophesied, promised, and hoped for by LDS prophets, seers, writers, and critics alike.

(Next Thursday’s Post: “Part IV: Maintaining Rhetorical Balance“)

Footnotes:

1 Matthew 4:8, 9.

2 Holland, Jeffrey R. “The Inconvenient Messiah.” BYU Speeches 1981-82. 27 Feb. 1982. 7.

3 Holland 7.

4 2 Nephi 28:19, 21.

5 Qtd. in England Dialogues 170.

3 thoughts on “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part III”

  1. Theoretically I get the argument. But I’m not sure that this bimodal model is quite right. Perhaps broadly. But on the ground it’s a lot more muddled.

    However I completely agree that I’d like to see more creative work that is strongly rooted in (and even expands upon) “Mormonism’s theological complexity.”

  2. I have to agree with William on this one that this section is a bit muddled for me. I’ll munch on it for awhile before responding more in-depth. For now, I have a question about what I see as a contradiction.

    You write that good Mormon literature “should maintain as high a literary as Mormonism’s true theological standard.” Then in the same paragraph you suggest that good Mormon literature should “[rock] the theological boat–for the expanding self is the risky self, the one prone to push, prod, shift, and overturn the status quo or, to be more scriptural, the one likely to “shake” “the kingdom of the devil” in their efforts to stir those who “belong to it” (including themselves and some of God’s saints) out of “carnal”, theological, and ethical complacency.”

    I guess I don’t understand how one can both maintain the Mormon theological standard and rock the boat. I should qualify this: I do understand the idea, but I guess I don’t understand precisely how you mean it. Or how you envision it happening.

    It seems to me that the one hump Mormon literature needs to get over (and critics can do it) is measuring Mo-lit (and more broadly, to all Mo-art) against (or through) the Mormon theological standard. I think the literary arts should be beyond this idea, expansive enough to include all kinds of Mormons and their art. One thing I see is that when an artist rocks the boat the other Mormons throw him overboard and then act like he was never on the boat in the first place. The irony is that outsiders lump anything Mormon together no matter what insiders think. To many outsiders, for example, all polygamists are Mormons, and if we’re honest about it, the notion makes sense even though the rest of us cringe. Similarly, Brian Evenson is regarded as a Mormon writer even though he himself wishes this were not true (I know I am an Evenson apologist, but I believe he is one of our great writers–mark my words that someday our culture will reclaim him).

    Perhaps I’ve misconstrued your ideas here (that wouldn’t be a first), and I don’t see you as the ticket taker for the boat ride. The reason I’m bringing it up now is because you seem like exactly the right person to answer my question.

  3. I’m glad I have bright guys like you reading my stuff and forcing me to clarify things that I think are self-evident, but they end up only being this-Tyler-evident. I don’t know if this comment or the rest of my series will clarify anything or just muddy the issue more, but here goes…

    I see the contradiction you’re pointing to, Pratt, and see that I should have qualified my “theological boat” as folk theology or one in which popular Mormon theology prevails–in which Mormon theology goes untested (either personally or culturally) or is accepted merely as a matter of habit or in terms of any number of popular or folklorish interpretations. This unproved or untested acceptance goes against Mormonism’s true theological standard, a dynamic system that pushes us against our psychological, spiritual, intellectual, even our physical boundaries; that pushes us against the boundaries of the universe and our understanding of the universe as God deems to make us as he is–an exalted being that will progress and learn, pressing at the boundaries of an ever-increasing knowledge for the eternities.

    As with any intellectual/artistic venture (within or without the aegis of Mormonism), this pressing of boundaries is the expectation we extend to ourselves–our writers, scholars, and artists. And while I see where you’re coming from that one thing that binds Mormon arts and letters up is the insistence on measuring everything against the standards of Mormon culture/theology, against the letter of God’s laws–something that becomes especially taxing or de-nobling, even unnerving for the writer/artist when it comes to depictions of sin and evil–I believe that this expansive view of Mormonism and its eternal implications is one thing we might fruitfully measure our artistic endeavors against, especially since art can provide such a profound and redemptive conduit to self-understanding, self-expression, self-expansion, and personal/communal healing. Such a view, IMO, is faithful to the very foundations of Mormonism and the Prophet’s life and work and “expansive enough to include all kinds of Mormons and their art”, Jack and Peter included.

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