This is the fourth post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part three, “The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters”, I briefly examine a New Testament narrative–Satan’s temptations of Christ–first of all, to underscore the dangers a consumer-based outlook on Mormon theology poses to Mormon culture and on the essential relationship between self and other, individual and community, and, second, to suggest a way to transcend this paradox, namely by inconveniently pushing at the boundaries of established or misinterpreted cultural conventions (of action, knowledge, language, etc.) and thus expanding the limits of personal and communal understanding and potential.
As I conclude, “This vision of doctrinal expansion and spiritual cooperation as acts of theological creativity ties very closely to Mormonism’s cultural and artistic development because 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.”
IV. Maintaining Rhetorical Balance
Karl Keller insists that Mormon culture’s literary immaturity arises from three distinct delusions, conventions we cling to that keep us from fully experiencing words and with which we have historically “denied ourselves a literature.”1 To begin with, he cites “our puritanism,” by which he means that, by and large, we have a cultural “suspicion of literature” that stems from our puritanical “fear that to delight in anything imaginative is to give oneself over to one’s senses, and of course one’s senses could lead to sensuality, sexuality, and sin.” These “puritan condemnations”, as Keller calls them, result in a certain “paranoia“ about literature, a psychological state in which we see literature as nothing more than a tool in Satan’s arsenal and that leads us to “domesticate,” to “bowdlerize,” or to Mormonize the best books (including “the bawdy Shakespeare and the ambiguous Hawthorne and the skeptical Robert Frost”) in our efforts to keep ourselves morally clean and mentally straight.
Taking these together, Keller asserts that the “puritanism and paranoia in us culminate in a kind of apocalypticism in which we see the productions of the world–literature and the arts in particular–as evidence of the final end of this dispensation in time.” In other words, because the world’s literature is crude and immoral, because it supposedly “attacks [“¦] the things of God” and “attempts to undermine the lives of moral people”,2 we must on principle abstain. After all, as the clichÃ© goes, we must live in the world, but we don’t have to be of it.
And if that’s the case, we might as well take the moral high ground and watch our neighbors (both literary and actual) burn.
As Keller implies, these positions–and I add to them our consumer-/rewards-based view of Mormonism–are merely symptomatic of this refusal to engage the world (which is ultimately our means to exaltation) and Mormon theology and thus to bear what England calls the “difficult burden” of “describ[ing] a unique set of revealed truths and historical and continually vital religious experiences and to do so both truly and artistically”. Mormon writers face this paradox in particular as they strive to be “at once artistic and orthodox”, to produce “a literature that [“¦] can both teach and delight as the best literature always has, that is realistic, even critical, about Mormon experience but profoundly faithful to the vision and concerns of the restored gospel of Christ.”3 While some Latter-day Saints may give in to the temptation “to assume [that in literature] a good “˜message’ is enough”–leading us to uncritically receive and propagate “a “˜faith-building’ story or one based on “˜real experience,’ however badly written or sentimental in its appeal” whereas, with regard to the other arts, we might “see right away that a painting of Joseph Smith’s first vision done badly would demean the experience or that a clumsy or sentimental musical score on the suffering of Christ in Gethsemane would be a kind of blasphemy”–there is indeed a segment of the Mormon population sensitive to the aesthetic and moral development of our arts and letters, one faithful to the vision and strength of our forebears and intent on seeing our “religion succeed[…] in an aesthetic way,” as Keller puts it.4
In England’s words, these “faithful Latter-day Saints are developing the skill and courage to write well in all the genres,” confronting the paradoxical challenge, “which must be faced as well by their readers, both Mormons and others[,] [“¦] to find ways to reach out and unite the extremes of experience President Kimball recommended and to accept the role of art in assisting in the central human purpose Brigham Young described”5 and which I’ve been exploring here as the central witness and ethical burden of our theology and of all good literature: “We cannot obtain eternal life unless we actually know and comprehend by our experience the principle of good and the principle of evil, the light and the darkness, truth, virtue, and holiness, also vice, wickedness, and corruption.”6 I use the word “burden” to describe the difficulty of this Mormon epistemology very deliberately: with its implication of both “obligation and opportunity”,7 it captures the largely untapped eternal source of intelligence and experience outlined by President Young and inherent in Mormonism’s covenant theology and in the human experience with language.
Because language is essentially compressed or “refined” experience, it offers the perfect medium through which to absorb, expand, and complete our own life experience to “the nth power” and to fulfill the obligation and opportunity placed on us by our reciprocal theological and cultural relationship with Mormonism, but only if we’re willing to leap into and vicariously and empathically explore alternate, rhetorical lives. Tory C. Anderson explores this particular conception of good literature and its potential to get at “the heart of the meaning of life without ever talking about it” by leading us through a reading of Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In his gloss of the story, which, he testifies, “is good fiction,” he illustrates how the skilled and conscientious wordsmith, like Flaubert, can help us feel and understand how another feels and understands by moving us through a fictional life, a “refined life”, as Anderson calls it. In this way, he says, we can “understand something like the ugliness of unchastity without experiencing it”, much like Christ can understand everything we’ve felt and done without actually doing it himself.8
Samuelson points to this idea when he concludes that literature is “a writer [“¦] imagining how [the world] would look if he [or she] were standing somewhere else.” For a reader to carry this burden with the writer, they must open themselves to the writer’s reality, as expressed through the demanding realities of language, and allow themselves to increase in understanding vicariously. If we deny our ourselves the vitality of such vicarious experience in our venture toward Godhood, especially as it relates to gaining understanding of “vice, wickedness, and corruption” without falling prey to these principles of evil, it may just take us, as Anderson observes, “four billion earth lives (give or take a million) to experience what we need to experience to become like God.”9
But the reader can’t fully participate in this process if the writer hasn’t invested in it themselves. Wayne Booth10 observes of this failure that much writing falls short of persuading others of the truth of human experience because the writer hasn’t first gained their rhetorical balance. In other words, they might lean too heavily on a pedantic crutch, writing to their congregation from some Rameumptom-like will toward cultural authority; or they allow the marketability of their words to outweigh the real significance or sensibility of those words, offering a gaudy, thin, or shallow linguistic vessel rather than a well-wrought cistern that could preserve the living waters of existential paradox; or they engage in rhetorical acrobatics, endlessly trying to amuse their audience while putting their textual body in evermore precarious positions in order to maintain the thrill factor as they build to what may easily become a sensational and textually unjustifiable end.
In terms more directly related to my discussion of Johnston’s commodified theology, many Mormon writers (and many Mormon readers, for that matter) throw themsleves off of rhetorical balance by leaning toward the convenience of “official” LDS texts–those that seem to reflect Mormon culture’s popular and widely accepted and acceptable view of morality, conflict, contradiction, experience, God, and the universe. And they do so for those very reasons: convenience and acceptance. It’s much easier to earn a culture’s marks for success, economic and otherwise, by working within culturally inscribed formulas for acceptable performance and production than to “cast them in new formulas” as Roberts suggests must be done for the Kingdom–its disciples, doctrines, and culture–to expand in deifying ways. Indeed, we sometimes seem too busy fearing or ignoring the world and language and consuming, and in the process reinforcing and propagating, popular Mormon culture and our sometimes damning misrepresentations of Mormon theology to spend time actually exploring or experiencing the depths of that world, of our humanity, and of Mormon theology in redemptively textu(r)al ways.
(Next time: Part V: Assuming Responsibility)
1. Keller, Karl. “On Words and the Word of God: The Delusions of a Mormon Literature.” Tending the Garden. Ed. Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1996. 13. Although Keller’s essay was first published in 1969, the trends he recognizes continue to plague our efforts to articulate a Mormon literature.
2. 14-15; italics mine.
3. “Mormon Literature“ par. 44.
4. Keller 19.
5. “Mormon Literature” par. 68.
6. Qtd. in “Mormon Literature” par. 68.
7. Mulder, William. “‘Essential Gestures’: Craft and Calling in Contemporary Mormon Letters“. Weber Studies 10.3 (1993). 14 Aug. 2008.
8. Anderson, Tory C. “Just the Fiction, Ma’am.” Tending the Garden. 73.
10. Booth, Wayne. “The Rhetorical Stance.” Teaching Composition: Background Readings. Ed. T.R. Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 163-71.