The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV

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 cliché 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.

9. 73.

10. Booth, Wayne. “The Rhetorical Stance.” Teaching Composition: Background Readings. Ed. T.R. Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 163-71.

27 thoughts on “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV”

  1. Total sidenote:

    Interesting how we don’t have a whole lot of critical resources to draw on for this discussion — Tending the Garden, the few works posted on Mormon Literature, Mulder’s Weber Studies essay. One could add _Arts and Inspiration_, the Mormon literature issue of Dialogue, and Givens’ _People of Paradox_, but on the whole, I keep coming back to the same things and it’s both heartening and disheartening to see you do the same.

  2. I completely agree. They’re excellent, foundational resources, but, as we’ve touched on before, where are their more recent counterparts? Why don’t we have a sequel (as it were) to Tending the Garden or a contemporary journal issue devoted to the topic of Mormon criticism or a book that builds on and even moves the discussion beyond what People of Paradox has done?

    I realize Givens’ book is still a little young, but it seems like more of a recap of the central issues of Mormon culture and criticism than an attempt to break new ground. (And this is coming from someone that hasn’t finished the book yet, so feel free to elaborate and correct me if I’m wrong.) Granted, I think it’s a needed compendium, especially as Mormonism moves more and more into the world’s spotlight, but what’s next?

  3. Commenting on this as a total neophyte:

    “…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.'”

    I intuitively understand this as a reader, so I imagine that many or most others do too. Perhaps this is part of the reason why we like tidy morality tales so much (you realize, of course that I’m speaking generally of Mormons and not accusing anyone specific of liking these things 😉 ).

    What I mean is that spiritual growth, presumably towards Godhood, is fueled by direct interaction with the Holy Ghost. I don’t think I need to rehash the discussions about confusing emotional experiences with spiritual. Since these morality tales teach (ostensibly) truth and often give us warm fuzzies if nothing else, we may feel that they are indeed helping us progress in the way you describe regardless of the truth of the matter.

    Additionally, the Spirit generally testifies of truth wherever it is found. The general LDS audience may not feel that it needs anything more than these “I spy a true principle” moments that come so easily with the kind of literature you’ve been discussing throughout this series. We (again, collective) get our testimonial fix, forget the details, and move on uplifted but largely uninspired. We don’t look for literary merit because we don’t think we need it. Maybe?

  4. Good thoughts, Adam. (I didn’t know you were a Nephite. Cool! 😉 )

    If I might add:

    Spiritual growth, as you say, is not only fueled by our interaction with the Holy Ghost, but we also grow (potentially in leaps and bounds) only as we apply that interaction in the real world. In other words, we mature into godhood only as we gain experience–only as our book knowledge is supplanted by experiential wisdom. Hence the importance of literature, which, as so many have testified, is experience. To refuse it this role, as many of us might, is, I believe, a real tragedy.

    I also see where you’re coming from when you say that “[s]ince […] morality tales teach (ostensibly) truth and often give us warm fuzzies if nothing else, we may feel that they are indeed helping us progress” toward godhood, though they may leave us “uplifted but largely uninspired” (good distinction between those two; we might also add “unedified”, as in the archaic sense of not built up). Yet, as you allude to, this didactic speaking of truth doesn’t necessarily equate to an experience with the truth, with the things of God, with life in the moral universe. And our insistence that we must stick with the convenient course of playing “I spy a true principle” (witty phrase, BTW) in order to become like God and that we can get “our testimonial fix” (also a good phrase) by refusing to engage the world—including good literature of all kinds—only deepens the tragedy and becomes (to me, at least) an indication that maybe many of us haven’t quite grown into an understanding of what eternity is all about (not that I can claim complete understanding; but I’m trying to grow and to engage what I feel are the important issues, the relationship between us, language, and God being one of them). Hence, as you conclude, “[w]e don’t look for literary merit because we don’t think we need it” or that it will benefit us in the world to come.

  5. Oh, there are a lot you don’t know about me, Tyler.

    Actually, I’m not far from a Lamanite ethnically speaking.

    “In other words, we mature into godhood only as we gain experience”“only as our book knowledge is supplanted by experiential wisdom. Hence the importance of literature, which, as so many have testified, is experience.”

    There’s an interesting paradox here that points to a perception that may be close to the heart of the problem. Namely, that so-called “book knowledge” comes from, well, books, which also can contain the experiential literature you champion. I wonder if many of us don’t see reading as an escape from or substitute for experience, rather than a means of obtaining it. I think you’ve made that point before. Changing that perception might make much of the difference.

    I like your distinction between speaking and experiencing truth. I would add that even seeing the truth we’ve read played out doesn’t equate to that experience. Knowing what’s going on isn’t the same thing as participating in it.

  6. This may be completely off topic but all this talk of warm fuzzies got me to thinking about conversations I’ve had about confrontations with challenging art, particularly film (though there’s no reason it wouldn’t be equally applicable to literature). I’ve often heard of people speak of that moment when difficult material is engaged and justify abandoning it by saying, “I felt uncomfortable.” I calm myself with reassurances that this is merely a semantic misunderstanding. Surely, what they’re telling me is that the Spirit specifically told them that the moment was not right for their soul to receive this emotional, intellectual, and spiritual offering. I tell myself this because in my book, “I felt uncomfortable,” given in such a vacuum, is entirely unacceptable. I often counter by saying, “you know what made me uncomfortable? Knocking on doors and harassing strangers about my religion for two years. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely. Was I uncomfortable doing it? Unceasingly. But then, I knew going in that I wasn’t signing up for a comfortable experience.”

    An institute teacher and I came up with a theory that the opposite of courage might not be fear, but comfort. For this reason, I find that the older I get, the more I distinguish between experiences that are “comforting” and those that are “comfortable.” Job, while not comfortable, was surely comforted. Christ in Gethsemane, visited by and angel, may have known some small comfort even in his extreme discomfort. I guess my point – and perhaps even question is – do we understand, or can we claim to understand – the role of the Comforter in our experiences with LDS literature and other forms of art?

  7. ET,

    This may be simplistic, but my answer to “can we understand…” sort of questions is always D&C 131:6. “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.”

    What I mean is that I don’t think there’s anything that we can’t understand, God willing. Whether we need to understand a given thing for salvation is a different question, and may determine whether or not God is willing.

    To address your question more directly, I would say that if we take the assumption that literature is experience as true, then your question becomes, “do we understand, or can we claim to understand – the role of the Comforter in our experiences.” The medium of art or literature becomes largely irrelevant because we are having experience.

    I would say that we should, perhaps must understand the role of the Comforter in our experiences, firsthand and vicarious, in order to grow from them properly. It seems that specific understanding often comes long after the experience, though, and I think that’s okay.

    I really like your point about feeling uncomfortable doing the right thing. It is easy to think that any uneasiness equates to a spiritual witness of the incorrectness of our situation. I guess this goes back to confusing the Spirit with emotions again, which means that your comment is not off-topic at all. Even if it were, it’s a valuable comment.

  8. Adam:

    You make an interesting point that I failed to connect to when I responded to your initial comment:

    I wonder if many of us don’t see reading as an escape from or substitute for experience, rather than a means of obtaining it.

    There are different levels of knowledge that can be gleaned through reading. When I refer to book knowledge, I think mainly of learning facts. When I refer to literature as experience, I think of the way a well-crafted text (fiction, drama, non-fiction, poetry, etc.) can lead us to, well, experience another’s life; to re-examine the foundations of our knowledge, of our faith. I think of the way it can can break us down, pushing at the limits of our lived experience and challenging us to look at things in ways we might not otherwise be able to look at them. As you suggest, some of us might not see literature that way; some of us might see it as an escape from reality instead of a heightened or refined experience with reality meant to catalyze growth and expansion of the self.

    And ET:

    I think this is where the Comforter comes in. Though I’m hesitant to attribute a specific role to the Holy Ghost in acts of creativity and artistic inspiration, simply because the human mind-body-spirit connection is so complex, I do sense that in some way the Spirit, whose job is to testify of the truth, can inform our experience with the arts, which are essentially (though not in every instance) efforts to speak the truth of human experience.

    Whatever the case may be, however, the arts—and Mormon arts in particular (since that’s the context of our discussion)—can be used as a medium to break us out of our shells, out of the sense, as Theric points out, that all is well in Zion. This destabilization of culture and of the self moves us beyond our comfort zones and forces us to rethink things in paradoxically redemptive, soul-healing ways. This process of breaking down then building up is in line with the etymology of “comfort” (the verb), which derives from a Late Latin word meaning “to strengthen greatly.” Thus the Comforter’s job is to strengthen us greatly and the only way to do that is, first of all, to make us uncomfortable—to break us down, to rid us of the weaknesses and impurities that stop us from expanding and maturing as beings that have the potential to learn and increase for eternity.

  9. With all due respect to Adam, his comments highlight once again the biggest stumbling block for Mormon literature (I’m not sure if he’s buying or selling). In a closed system of meaning where Mormon truth is THE TRUTH, literature must perform a utilitarian function to have any value at all. In such a model you can just fill in the blank: literature, sex, science, long-distance running.

    Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, wrote (and I left my book in my office so I’m paraphrasing) that most Catholic readers should not like her fiction nor should they even read it. The reason, (again I’m paraphrasing on memory) is because these readers want confirmation of faith from her fiction. O’Connor wants them to know they won’t find it. While she maintained her entire life that her fiction confirmed her Catholic beliefs she also maintained that such a reader cannot understand how.

    I suspect O’Connor would agree with much of what Tyler has proposed in his series. Good Mormon fiction has to exist outside of this utilitarian ideal and poke and prod the belief system and the culture. Most Mormons will not appreciate it, but this does not mean the Mormon literary arts will not continue to grow and flourish.

  10. Pratt,

    Before I can process and respond to your comments (please forgive my ignorance, I am a Nephite, as you know), I need to understand your meaning better. Most of what you say doesn’t seem to be disharmonious with the spirit in which I wrote my comments. If I expressed myself poorly, then you have met my weakness: I am not mighty in writing.

    Will you please explain the way in which my comments demonstrate this stumbling block you speak of? What is it? I admit myself puzzled, though I appreciate your respect. I return it in kind. I’m especially confused by this:

    “I’m not sure if he’s buying or selling.”

    If you’re implying commercialism as this great obstacle, I fail to see how my comments – as I intend them – encourage that.

    In my system of meaning, your statement is sort of reversed, because I don’t see truths as exclusive of each other. I believe in paradox whole-heartedly, but where two truths are genuinely destructive of each other, at least one of them is not truth. In other words, it’s not that Mormon truth is THE TRUTH, it’s that ALL truth is Mormon truth, where this last phrase comprises truth that Mormons should discover and accept. So says Brigham Young, anyway.

    Please help me understand what you mean.

  11. Tyler,

    While I think you may have realized this, I wanted to state for the record that I did grasp your distinction between book learning and literature. I simply saw in your words an alternative meaning that I thought assisted a useful point. I agree with your original concept and your later comment.

  12. Adam,

    My phrase “I’m not sure if you’re buying or selling” is a poor choice. It is confusing. It confuses me now. What I think I meant was that I wasn’t sure if you were diagnosing a problem or pushing an idea. I think it was a little of both. In Pratt-speak you were both a buyer and a seller.

    In your response to me you wrote: “In other words, it’s not that Mormon truth is THE TRUTH, it’s that ALL truth is Mormon truth, where this last phrase comprises truth that Mormons should discover and accept. So says Brigham Young, anyway.”

    This is the stumbling block. (And Brigham Young said many things.)

    Mormon literature should have nothing to do with truth. I know this isn’t the proper thing to say, but the best literature pushes back on what is acceptable and proper (and Mormon literature is no different). As long as we measure it by truth (however you want to couch it) the best we can do is morality tales.

    Flannery O’Connor wrote this about Catholic writers: “If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists, but insures it (the restrictions of art are another matter), and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of the discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit” (from “The Church and the Fiction Writer”).

    O’Connor is more hopeful about Catholic literature than I am about Mormon literature. I think what she asks for in Catholicism is impossible in Mormonism–at least for now. The great Mormon writers will continue to be excommunicated until the body of their work is historical enough to be regarded as great Mormon literature. On that day Mormons and their leaders will wake up and embrace theses writers. How long will this take? I think the process is underway, but it will take at least another two or three generations of church leaders before it CAN happen.

  13. Pratt:

    Mormon literature should have nothing to do with truth. I know this isn’t the proper thing to say, but the best literature pushes back on what is acceptable and proper (and Mormon literature is no different). As long as we measure it by truth (however you want to couch it) the best we can do is morality tales.

    I agree that measuring a literature against gospel Truth is a risky proposition and can lead, as it has led, to literature that’s severely limited in its scope, that’s simplistic and sentimental at least and heavy-handed preachy (for one extreme or another) at most, but what of the truth(s) of human experience? The truth of words themselves, of language (which I realize is, at best, only an approximation of reality, but it is also a reality, a system of or reaching toward truth, if you will, in itself)? Should we not measure our literature against these standards, as the best literature does and always has?

    As for your claim that

    The great Mormon writers will continue to be excommunicated until the body of their work is historical enough to be regarded as great Mormon literature. On that day Mormons and their leaders will wake up and embrace theses writers

    I disagree. This statement assumes, and reductively so I think, that great Mormon writing has to take a stance that’s directly opposed to Church doctrine and that warrants excommunication. I realize that many great Mormon writers have been excommunicated (some perhaps because of great misunderstandings), but to place this as a prerequisite for the success of Mormon literature is to tip the literary scales and to embrace an aesthetic extremity and simplistic attitude towards life and literature that rivals our current predicament, that maintains what Eugene England calls the “immature divisiveness” that reinforces our present exclusivity, and that denies any type of (re)productive cultural dialog. To focus on and to assert either extreme, as England explores in this essay, “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction”, is to “suffer[…] from a version of the old logical fallacy of the excluded middle, [and to] rip[…] Mormon literature [and the prospect of a greater Mormon literature] apart”, to divide it into the “remarkably similar” attitudes of “right-wing and left-wing piety and cultural correctness and mutual exclusion.” A great, truthfully Mormon literature (notice the lower-case “t”) won’t arise from either extreme.

    In fact, because of both extremities, as England concludes here,

    too many of [the] writers in what might be called the radical middle, who have no simplistic pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon agenda, but try to practice their craft with careful esthetic skill and ethical insight, can’t seem to get themselves published to a Mormon audience. It’s a shame. I might even say, if I were an extremist, a damn shame.

    And all I can say to that is, Amen, brother. Amen.

  14. .

    I don’t think good literature needs to worry about truth the way good singing doesn’t need to worry about sound. If we’re doing what we should, truth is going to result. We don’t need to worry about it.

  15. Th.:

    I disagree with the basic premise of you argument, that truth is to literature as sound is to singing. As arts, both literature and music each exhibit and approach, to one degree or another, the truth of human experience. They just approach it through a different medium: literature through words, through language, and music through sound. I do agree, however, that if we, as artists, are doing what we should—that is practicing and perfecting our craft and the power of our chosen medium—truth and experience are going to emanate from and through the final production. What the artist needs to worry about, then, is honestly wielding their vocational tools in order to maintain, as it were, a proper rhetorical balance, in order to do justice to human experience by sharing it honestly and well.

  16. Tyler,

    You write:

    “This statement assumes, and reductively so I think, that great Mormon writing has to take a stance that’s directly opposed to Church doctrine and that warrants excommunication.”

    You’re right to call me on this. I should have qualified my statement to say “SOME great Mormon writers will be excommunicated . . ..” I still believe in my basic point which is that there should be space in Mormon literature for the extremes. I respect what England has done for Mormon literary studies, but I disagree with his notion of “immature divisiveness”–does it happen? Sure. But his statement reductively assumes that all extremes are divisive. Simply not true.

    Also, the past history of excommunications is not a tidy list of how this or that writer has violated some church principle or broken some covenant. Many of them suffer from being on the fringes of mainstream Mormon thinking. The situation seems analogous to the banned books list. What lands a book on this list? Why this book and not another? (usually one person starts complaining and so it goes.) Why excommunicate this writer? (BYU student writes a letter of complaint, for example.) Why does that writer get a pass? And who is making these decisions anyway? That’s O’Connor’s point in her essay. The decision-makers are usually not trained in literary studies.

    In your response to Th you write:

    “What the artist needs to worry about, then, is honestly wielding their vocational tools in order to maintain, as it were, a proper rhetorical balance, in order to do justice to human experience by sharing it honestly and well.”

    This is where we’ll have to agree to disagree: I don’t believe there is such thing as a rhetorical balance in art. I don’t believe a good artist can even consider this notion unless it comes at the level of self-censorship. Jacob Kahn, Asher Lev’s mentor, in MY NAME IS ASHER LEV tells Lev that an artist who deceives himself is a whore. An artist has to stay true to his/her voice first, to completely honest with the self, in order to produce his/her best art. The idea of maintaining rhetorical balance to me suggests that an artist is deceiving him/herself–in other words the artist is making sure his/her work coincides with truth.

    I may sound prickly here, but believe me I am enjoying this discussion with a smile. I wish we could do this in person.

  17. .

    Well, yes, I didn’t think about it enough. I need a better metaphor. I stand behind my intention, however.

    And re:Asher Lev’s mentor, I think deceiving ourselves is deceiving what of God is inside us. However, that can be used as an excuse for sin, also. I guess it comes down to what we believe of our native souls, and here, again, I’m with Emerson.

  18. .

    How about saying art:truth::cooking:nutrition? You can make a vittle without nutrition, but what good does it do you, even if it’s delicious?

    It’s hollow and pointless and empty. It’s not “food.”

  19. I think Tyler just pointed us to a new tag line for this blog:

    AMV — the radical middle

  20. I think that deliciousness by itself is a profound good. Beauty can stand by itself without analysis. So while agreeing totally with Pratt Snow, I would like to argue a somewhat contrary position as well: a culture needs to defend that which is simply entertaining. We need the equivalent of Prime Minister Taro Aso, a vigorous defender of manga and anime as Japanese cultural exports. Writes Aso, “We didn’t develop manga, karaoke and conveyor-belt sushi because we wanted to be valued overseas. We just liked it, and while becoming nerds and immersing ourselves in it, it became popular.”

  21. .

    I don’t see why beauty and deliciousness can’t be seen as a subcategory of the Truth. Truth is Beauty, etc etc.

  22. Pratt,

    Your comments are challenging to me, but I don’t think we’re as far apart as it seems. Thank you for the clarification, by the way. I feel better now. And you’re right, it was a little of both. 😉

    What I think I mean is that I’m not very willing to separate my literary experiences/strivings from my overall quest in life. I know that begs explanation. I see the pursuit of truth as one of the greatest callings in life – one of it’s highest purposes. This is because to pursue truth is to pursue Godhood, which is where we started in this conversation. I may be wrong, but I don’t sense that we’re in disagreement here. Literature serves me in this quest.

    Does that mean that I think all literature should be didactic? Absolutely not. Just as I can learn truth from my professional experiences (which are not in the least “preachy”), I can learn truth from literature that does not state it openly. While I think it’s immature to dismiss the morality tale out of hand (of which I’m not accusing you), I agree that it’s not the end-all and be-all of literature. The thing that I’m not willing to do is engage a piece of literature for purposes that lie outside my life’s purpose. Please note that I have not defined by life’s purpose in this comment, only mentioned the pursuit of truth as ONE aspect of it.

    Also, this statement troubles me:

    “Mormon literature should have nothing to do with truth.”

    You probably expected that, but you may not have anticipated my reasons. Then again, you may.

    If you mean that Mormon literature shouldn’t try to dictate truth, I can get behind that. If you mean that it shouldn’t testify of or explore experiences in search of truth, I disagree wholeheartedly. If you mean that it should ask questions more than provide answers, I also think that’s generally the case, though perhaps not exclusively.

    Before I get in too deep, I’m going to stop and consider my next comment carefully. I have more to say, but I lack the time at present to say it properly.


  23. Pratt (cont.),

    I think what I want to say is that the characteristic you identified as a weakness in Mormon literature is, I believe, one of the great strengths of Mormonism. Underdeveloped and misunderstood, perhaps, but a strength nonetheless. Elder Cause’s GC talk last weekend demonstrates this strength as it should be, I think. I’d link to it, but the links aren’t up yet. It is because our doctrine embraces all truth that we can draw such great value from literature that challenges us to think in new ways. That’s one way we discover the truth “in the depths where it glittering lies” as the hymn says.

    I also want to say that searching after new ways of thinking without truth in mind is something that I feel the scriptures warn us against. I’m thinking of the Pauline denunciation of those who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (2 Tim 3:7) as well as Jacob’s reminder of the singular circumstances under which “to be learned is good” (2 Nephi 9:29). Other verses come to mind as well, but since this isn’t Gospel Doctrine…

    Just because I know how crazy things can get when we start quoting scriptures, I want to state again that I am only explaining myself and not attempting to assert the superiority of my ideas or imply that the powers of heaven are on my side. On the contrary, I’ve really liked the multiple sides of the argument in this discussion.

    I’ll end by saying that you have to understand that I’m not just talking about Gospel truth. I’m talking about everything in any field that can be defined as truth. Anything that aids our righteous pursuits that we are exposed to through literature, including better understandings of ideas that are wrong, as discussed in this quote from Brigham Young, the one I alluded to earlier:

    “Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences”¦ If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practice evil? No; neither have I told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world”¦ And inasmuch as the Lord Almighty has designed us to know all that is in the earth, both the good and the evil, and to learn not only what is in heaven, but what is in hell, you need not expect ever to get through learning. Though I mean to learn all that is in heaven, earth, and hell. Do I need to commit iniquity to do it? No. If I were to go into the bowels of hell to find out what is there, that does not make it necessary that I should commit one evil, or blaspheme in any way the name of my Maker.”

    Brigham Young JD 2:93-94 (1853)

  24. Adam,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response–I can’t reply today, but will definitely write something by tomorrow!

  25. Looking forward to it, Pratt.

    I wanted to let you know that I do see your point with the O’Connor quotation. I think it has merit, I just don’t know that I would take it as far.

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