As I mentioned a little while ago, my wife and I were asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting yesterday. At Theric’s request (and because I decided to approach the topic of Latter-day Saints and language and discuss Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth), I’m posting a slightly revised version of my talk here.
* * * *
“To Know the Names of All the Vital Things”: On the Virtue of Words and the Word of God
And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just–yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them–therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)
On June 16, 1844 at a meeting assembled in the grove just east of the Nauvoo Temple, the Prophet Joseph Smith stood to deliver one of his final sermons. Wet with rain, surrounded by apostates, many of whom wanted him dead, and sustained by the saints, he spoke plainly and courageously of the Christian Godhead and “the plurality of Gods,” truths that would in part lead to his martyrdom almost two weeks later.
Yet, his message was no different than anything he’d previously taught: “I wish to declare,” he said, that “in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods.”1 Using ancient and modern scripture to support his reasoning, he took the assembly back to the beginning, showing them the unbroken chain of exalted Beings that extends, Parent to child, across the thresholds of eternity. Pointing to the relationship between Christ and Elohim as his example, he asked, “Where was there ever a son without a father? and where was there ever a father without first being a son? [“¦] [I]f Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He [Christ’s Father] had a Father also?”2
Just over two months before preaching this sermon in the temple grove, the Prophet had stood before a vast congregation of similar make-up at a Church conference combined with the funeral service for Elder King Follett. During this climactic moment of his career, he taught, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”3 In one sense, then, only as we come to understand God and his eternal pedigree can we really understand our place, as his offspring and heirs, in the universe and beyond. In this knowledge, the Prophet said, we find eternal life, a dynamic condition we “have got to learn [“¦] the same as all Gods have done before [us] [“¦], namely by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation.”4
Through these revelations the Prophet not only outlines the eternal nature and development of God’s race and the breadth and depth of God’s experience and understanding, he also unveils the depth and breadth of God’s love. By “lift[ing] a corner of the veil and giv[ing] [us] [“¦] a [“¦] glance into eternity,”5 he reveals the eternal bonds of kinship that unite God’s children to him and to one another through Christ, showing us, as Parley P. Pratt commented after a temple ceremony, “how to prize the endearing relationships of father and mother, husband and wife; of brother and sister, son and daughter.” From the Prophet, said Parley, we learn “that the refined sympathies and affections which endear[“¦] us to each other emanate[“¦] from the foundation of divine eternal love” and “that we might cultivate these affections, and grow and increase in the same to all eternity.”6
Firm in this knowledge of who God is–and by extension who we are–and that his defining characteristic is love, we must move to become like him. We must “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that [we] [“¦] may be filled with this love” (Moroni 7:48) because, of all things, it will never fail. In a world of constantly shifting morals and circumstances, charity, the pure love Christ and the Father have for us and that we can have for Them, can be our constant. It can steady our relationships; it can heal our deepest wounds and help us to heal others’ wounds; and it can tie us to our potential as children of an Infinite Being whose touch extends into the most intimate depths of every human soul.
In her 2008 novel, Bound on Earth,7 Angela Hallstrom approaches and explores this intimacy by giving us the Palmer’s, a tight-knit, Latter-day Saint family whose interconnected narratives provide the structure for and the tension binding the relationships of Hallstrom’s fictional world. The first story, “Thanksgiving,” presents us with the book’s cast of flawed-enough-to-be-human characters. Tess, the family matriarch, who has presided at this holiday gathering in the absence of her long-passed husband, Joel, stands at the door of her son’s Salt Lake home, saying goodbye to her granddaughter, Beth, Nathan and Alicia’s youngest child. “Take care,” she says, her hands wrapped around Beth’s, their final touch before Tess leaves to make the journey north, to Logan and home.8 This simple, sincere directive and the moment of physical contact between Tess and Beth becomes all the more poignant as Hallstrom points us down the street where, just out of view of the Palmer house, Kyle, Beth’s estranged and bi-polar husband, sits in his car, waiting outside because Beth had told him not to come. So, seeking communion in another way, he “imagine[s] the family inside [“¦], laughing, eating, Beth and her sisters [Marnie and Tina] teasing each other and telling their inside jokes. [“¦] Nathan, in his chair at the head of the table, [“¦] Alicia, sitting [“¦] on the edge of her seat, [“¦] ready to jump up and get somebody butter or salt or more ice. All of them,” Kyle thinks, “pretending they don’t miss him, that he never existed, that they’re better off now without him.”9
And yet, inside, his absence hovers in the space just beyond words. His name is the unspoken assumption behind every gesture, behind every attempt to connect, to bridge the distance between bodies, between selves. This is especially true from Beth’s point-of-view. “Today,” she reflects, “no one has said Kyle’s name aloud. [“¦ But] my sisters keep sliding the conversation around, trying to avoid topics like love and marriage, mental health and single motherhood. My dad keeps coming up behind me and putting his hands on my shoulders. Really, they may as well all just be saying, “˜Kyle, Kyle, Kyle.’ A big family chant”10 meant less to remind them of who’s missing and what’s wrong than as a communal prayer for one of their own whose struggle with mental illness has ripped through the family’s bonds, making them each less certain of their commitment to each other, to God, and to the prospect of eternal lives.
This struggle to make sense of life’s uncertainties, to muster the will to press on in spite of challenges and losses we wouldn’t wish upon our enemies, let alone take upon ourselves, is central to much literature. Bound on Earth is no different. It presents us with characters that stand in the midst of transformative experiences through which each must pass in order to maintain or increase their integrity–to be true to themselves, to their communities, and, ultimately, to their personal conceptions of God. Sometimes, as with Beth, this may mean separating oneself and one’s child from potential sources of harm, even if that source is familial and even if that separation is only for a time, until strength and the will to understand and to honor one’s covenants returns. And sometimes, as with Marnie or Tess, this may mean taking the reins of family circumstances that have edged slowly or veered suddenly out of control whether due to a vital decision made and almost carried out, even though it never felt quite right, or to a spouse’s sudden inability (whether physical or otherwise) to share the inherent burdens of family life. And sometimes, as with Nathan and Alicia, this may mean supporting a child’s decision to begin or to continue a relationship that’s bound to cause great anxiety and pain for either party or for the entire family and that doesn’t seem in keeping with that child’s potential.
But always, I’m convinced, it means cultivating an awareness of how our presence, our compassion can influence the world, of how we can fully occupy the space where our lives touch other lives, where a look or a touch of the hand or the simple act of listening or a string of carefully chosen or inspired words can spark new associations within and between selves. It means knowing, among other things, that we can create new intra- and interpersonal worlds based on the responsible and responsive use of language.
This virtue of words is something I’ve become increasingly interested and invested in as I get older and seek new ways to break bread with others across the table of humanity. And I find this same concern with language at the center of Bound on Earth as at the center of Mormon theology. Tess, for example, approaches the creative potential of words as she watches Joel, a once successful attorney, battle the speech-paralyzing effects of a stroke. Night after night, she listens to him recite Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, waiting in bed for him “as he sits straight-backed in his office, struggling through poetry, molding his sliding mouth around the consonants”11 until the syllables finally “came out of his mouth in an acceptable fashion.” At one point, she wants to ask him what they need “with all those words. The children don’t need them,” she says; then, “I don’t need them. There are ways to go on without them.”12 But after years of watching him struggle to regain the virtue of his own words and after returning to school herself as a step toward providing for her family while Joel tried to recover his ability to work, she realizes that, even though there are ways of communicating beyond language and even though silence can sometimes be “full enough”13 to bind us together in deeply fulfilling relationships, as social beings, we have certain needs that can only be met through the sacramental power of words.
This moment of recognition comes for Tess after she’s returned home from her first day as a forty-something nursing student. As the day’s uncertainties burden her shoulders, she stands at the kitchen sink before an open window, her back to Joel, who stands at “the living room window, his hands in his pockets, watching his boys play catch on the lawn.” Their physical and emotional detachment begins to soften as an autumn breeze moves between the rooms and Joel speaks. Remembering how he’d promised his wife the world when they married, he says, “This wasn’t how”¦,” and stops mid-sentence. Moving from the kitchen to meet her companion in the living room, Tess wraps her arms around him and says, “It will be all right [“¦]. No matter what.” In the silence that follows, “[s]he can feel him trembling beneath her cheek. During all this time of disappointment and trial, she has never seen him cry. She waits, holding him, until she feels his breathing steady and his heart beat slow. Then he turns to face her.
“‘I’m trying,’ he says. “˜Every day.’
“She looks into his face. “˜I believe you. So am I.'”
Although this short conversation, this brief moment of communion between souls who had been yearning for connection but the words just wouldn’t come, still leaves many things unsaid, it represents a turning point for Tess. As Joel “turns [from the room] and heads up the stairs to his office” to exercise his voice, she “leans out the open window and calls [her boys’] [“¦] names. “˜Come on home,’ she says, and her voice is loud and strong, riding on the air.” Then she turns to “her canvas [school] bag,” determined to glean all she can from her new books, to “remember the organs she studied so many years ago–what they do and why” because, she confesses, “It will be comforting to know the names of all the vital things; she will memorize everything the body uses and needs, and never forget it.”14 Here she acknowledges that language is as vital to the human organism as is the heart or the liver or the skin. Here she begins to understand that the process of calling another’s name, as a very specifically directed word, is a way for us to connect with those we’ve learned to call our own.
In the literary realm, often more so than in flesh and blood reality, names are given to reflect a certain aspect of a person’s character. Hence the very deliberate way in which Marnie proceeds to name her third son, the one she’d hoped and planned would be a girl–even down to the name she chose. After a brief period during which she mourned this lost hope, she folded her new son beneath the blanket of her expanding love and called him “Daniel. [“¦] After the Old Testament prophet. The strong one, the one who faced the lions, the one who wouldn’t back down.”15
In few places, however, is this naming process more deliberate than in the case of God, whose many names are given to teach us of his character. When Moses–the once adopted Hebrew son of Pharaoh’s daughter, the man who ultimately refused to take part in the king’s oppression of the children of Israel by running into the wilderness–ascended Mount Horeb for the first time after his flight, he received at least three things in the revelatory moment that followed: First, he obtained a burning witness of the Divine presence; second, he was commissioned to lead God’s people out of their Egyptian captivity; and third, he was given a token with which Israel would know that their Deliverer had come.
After accepting the call to lead captive Israel to freedom, Moses needed a way to show them he wasn’t just some lunatic leader seeking followers in the name of a false god, but that he was sent by their God to set them free. So he “said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” (Exodus 3:13). God replied that he should give Israel this name as a token that he had come bearing the proper authority: “I AM THAT I AM;” that is, Moses was to tell them that “I AM hath sent me unto you.” (3:14.) This title, God continued, would show Israel that “The Lord God of [their] fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:15) had sent Moses to deliver them, just as he had delivered his people from captivity and oppression from the beginning. God further declared: “This is my name for ever, and this shall be my memorial unto all generations“ (3:15; emphasis mine.); in other words, by the name I AM or “JEHOVAH” (6:3) is God to be remembered throughout eternity.
Without a doubt, this name serves a significant function in revealing God to his people, not only in Moses’ time, but in all generations. As Joseph Fielding McConkie observes: “To declare one’s name [in ancient times] was to reveal one’s self.”16 Thus, by understanding the meanings behind God’s many names, we can better understand a particular aspect of God’s Selfhood–his eternal personality and nature. The name Jehovah, McConkie relates,
is derived from the verb “˜to be,’ which implies [God’s] eternal nature. I AM is the first person singular form of the verb “˜to be.’ In the name Jehovah, or I AM, God manifests Himself as a personal living being who labors in behalf of Israel and who will fulfill the promises made to the fathers. All of this conveys the idea of an unchanging, ever-living God, who through all generations is true to his word.17
I take this statement to mean that, when the Lord reminds us that he is the I AM, he is testifying, first, that he exists and is an ever-living, embodied Being; second, that he is unchangeable; and third, that he not just knows the word and keeps his word, but that he is the Word, the embodiment of the Father’s eternal Promise to His children.
The more I study the Gospel and become acquainted with God through his own words, given to us in our weakness, through human language, the more I realize the power and virtue of words and the Word of God, as conveyed in this slight paraphrase of God’s words as given to Joseph Smith when the Prophet was in Liberty Jail:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the [acts of language], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile–reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. (D&C 121:41-44).
I’m increasingly convinced that in this way, through our responsible and responsive use of language, we can cultivate our divine potential and bind ourselves to one another and to God here on Earth and for eternity.
* * * *
1. “Gods Many and Lords Many.” God the Father. Ed. by Gordon Allred. Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1979. 245.
3. “The King Follett Discourse.” God the Father. 224.
5. Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt. 3rd ed. Ed. by Parley P. Pratt, Jr. Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1970. 298
7. Woodsboro, MD: Parables, 2008.
16.Gospel Symbolism. Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1985. 176.
17. 177; emphasis mine.