This is the final post in a five part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part four, “Maintaining Rhetorical Balance”, I cite Karl Keller’s suggestion that Mormonism’s lack or denial of a serious literary heritage stems from three delusions: 1) our Puritanism, 2) our paranoia, and 3) our apocalypticism. Adding these delusions to the Mormon culture industry’s commodification of Latter-day Saint culture and theology, I suggest that these positions are symptomatic of a general failure to engage the world (which is ultimately our means to exaltation) and Mormon theology and thus to bear what Eugene 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.” I conclude by asserting that only by seeing language as experience and by moving to capture the truths of human experience in language can writers strike a spiritually real rhetorical stance, maintaining integrity of character and experience even as they move beyond the familiar, the convenient, and the comfortable to engage readers in lives and universes beyond the limits of their own.
Since the underlying concern of this series has been with the ways in which Mormons–especially Mormon critics–read or misread Latter-day Saint literature, culture, and theology, I turn now to the “or” of my tragically long title, “An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading” and attempt to infer some conclusions about where I think the Mormon reader/critic stands in relation to our letters. (After reading William’s series on the distinction between the terms Mormon and LDS, I’m not sure what my usage here says about me and my particular terminological inclinations. But I sure am self-conscious about them now. Thanks for that, Wm”¦)
V. Assuming Responsibility
The ethical implications and textu(r)ally redemptive possibilities of the rhetorics people use to explore human experience and to communicate with and to persuade others center in the acts of reading, a series of unique performances that exist only in the intersection between writer, reader, and text and that flow from the ethos of each transactional party. This ethos, as Booth has it, emerges not only in a person’s moral integrity, but it’s further expressed in the patterns or “habits of choice” we fall into in every domain of our lives.1 The way we read, then, as the way we habitually choose to live is a complex extension and expression of our character.
In terms of “[e]thical criticism,” as I’ve been attempting and asserting here as the primary mode of Mormon reading, this suggests that the writer is not solely responsible for how his or her text is read. Of course, they are responsible, as I observe in part four, for gaining their rhetorical balance before making their work public–for truthfully empowering their words with the
essence particularities* of human experience, even if the truth of that experience is captured in the conduit of fiction or, in other words, told in a lie. Doing so invests the text with what Patricia calls “a meaningful vision of others’ accountability,” a vision that arises unconsciously from the text’s foundation in experience and through the writer’s desire to “get [something] across” to readers, even if that something is simply a shared experience with humanity.
Through this inferred vision, which ultimately boils down to the writer’s avowal of another’s agency, the inherently ethical burden of evaluating and interpreting the text transfers to the reader. In this ethics of reading, as J. Hillis Miller asserts, the reader has the obligation to “respect [the] particularities” of the text by subjecting themselves to that which makes it “different, unique, [or] idiomatic” and the associated opportunity to engage with and thus to experience the power of the text’s alterity.2 We may, however, shut ourselves off from this experience with otherness by passing hasty or uninformed moral judgments on a text. As Booth observes, “Too often in the past, “˜ethical’ or “˜moral’ critics have assumed that their only responsibility was to label a given narrative or kind of narrative as in itself harmful or beneficial–often dismissing entire genres, like “˜the novel,’ in one grand indictment.”3 Under the guise of maintaining certain black and white moral standards, this mode of reading severely limits the company we might keep and thus the range of experience we might gain by learning to entertain the stranger, to listen to their stories, as Bruce Jorgensen suggests the truly Christian reader should.4 Only by allowing the self to be penetrated by the stranger’s otherness or, alternately, by expanding the boundaries of the self such that it might include, understand, and even embrace and integrate (to a degree) the other’s difference can we collapse the distance between Self and Other (including God) and unite as the race of God in any communally redemptive and healing way.
This isn’t to suggest that we should invite every stranger in that comes a-calling, for while some may be angels incognito, others may well be devils. And still others may be, well, both. That is, depending on our level of literary maturity, on our ability to deal with and to dwell in the ambiguities of moral paradox, a text may prove redemptive and soul-expanding to one person while at the same time proving destructive to another. Laura explores this concept in her post “Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?” in which she describes the different reactions the ladies in her ward book club had to Sorenson’s A Little Lower than the Angels. While she left the novel, she says, “with a heavy, but invigorated, heart,” some, like the recent convert who struggled to accept Joseph Smith and our polygamous past, never entered it at all; and others, like the woman who felt spiritually impressed “that she shouldn’t read it,” never made it past the front hall. William remarks that, in his eyes, each of these varied reactions “are valid” in the sense that “Mormons can have different reactions to a work of art–and all those reactions are Mormon“ (italics mine). In other words, because all of us stand at a different line and embody a different precept on the continuum of lines and precepts that move us toward Godhood, we each need to acknowledge that this difference exists and validate our fellow travelers for what and where they are in this developmental process we call exaltation.
I’m not suggesting with this that we should be content with where we stand, individually or as a diverse community of Saints. While the Church’s bureaucratic organization thrives by maintaining a certain degree of contentment, by reinforcing the status quo, the process of eternal progress embodied by Mormon theology is one of continual subversion, reevaluation, and reconstruction of the central system motivating that organization’s growth: the eternal self. In this light, we must, while beginning where we are, push ourselves and our fellow saints to adhere to 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.
So what does this imply about an ethics of Latter-day Saint reading?
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, our scholars, our artists, and even our readers. And while, as Pratt has suggested, 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 moral paradox, sin, and evil–I believe that this expansive view of Mormonism and its eternal implications is one thing we must read within and against which we might fruitfully measure our artistic/intellectual endeavors, 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 is faithful to the very foundations of Mormonism and the Prophet’s life and work and, as Pratt also remarks, “expansive enough to include all kinds of Mormons and their art” and their readings of art, Jack and Peter–hell, even Jerry Johnston–included.
1. Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep. Berkely: U of California P, 1988. 8.
2. Qtd. in Booth The Company We Keep 9.
3. Booth 9.
4. Jorgensen, Bruce. “To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say.” Tending the Garden 49-68. Also found here.
* See comment #6 for my emendation of the post.