Terry Eagleton and the Mormons, take II

Back in Aug. 2004 I wrote a post titled Terry Eagleton is Utah-obsessed which cited two Mormo-centric references in his book After Theory. More recently (just last month) Dave Banack posted on the same references at Times & Seasons. An excellent discussion ensued which referenced Eagleton’s latest book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

In the interest of completism, here is the one Mormon reference in that book (or at least the only overt one I found):

It is true that a great many Christians have fallen prey to flagrantly ideological versions of the Gospel — that is to say, version of it which in one way or another play into the hands of what Saint John darkly refers to as the powers of this world. As far as I can see, there is no support in Scripture for what I believe may still be the practice at the Mormons’ Brigham Young University (I refrain from placing that last word in scare quotes), where those students or faculty members who need for medical reason to grow beards are required to carry on their persons a so-called beard card. But perhaps I have overlooked some vital antishaving verse in Luke or Matthew here. (pages 58-59)

Anyone who doesn’t like Eagleton’s style and/or core philosophies won’t enjoy this book. I derived some mild pleasure from the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens (or Ditchkins as he calls them) take down although you have to buy in to so much of Eagleton’s social justice version of Christianity for it to really be convincing.

As for the Mormon potshot: eh, whatever. It’s sort of like the potshots on Gilmore Girls — I still find you somewhat witty and interesting, but think you’d do best to keep to what you actually know.

19 thoughts on “Terry Eagleton and the Mormons, take II”

  1. .

    Reading only what you’ve quoted out of context, all I can say is that he should really get over that Mormon girl who wouldn’t go to the movies with him. Seriously. the Bible does say something about forgiveness….

  2. I don’t blame Eagleton — he isn’t doing anything that Kushner or any other major high or low critic/artist does. Mormons have become (partially through our own fault — but also because of laziness and misunderstanding on the part of the larger culture) a convenient cultural shorthand.

    What’s disappointing in this context is that if he were to dig deeper, I think that he’d fine some things in Mormonism that would resonate with his own project. Perhaps not the surface mainstream version of Mormonism, but since he’s not attempting to defend most versions of Christianity here either that shouldn’t be a hold up.

    I feel the same way about Eagleton that I feel about D.H. Lawrence: I disagree with a ton, but I admire the vivacity and iconoclasm of the effort and do find it sometimes productive to engage with.

  3. I liked Eagleton’s roasting of Hitchens and Dawkins in “Faith Reason and Doubt.” I think Mormon bloggers might like him for the same reasons they like Bart Ehrman – they offer up withering criticism of some of our most obnoxious opponents.

    But we’d be silly to think of either as really an ally to our cause.

  4. Oh, absolutely. And that’s been talked to death here in the Bloggernacle. I don’t think the reference is completely out of left field. I’m simply a) documenting Eagleton’s Mormon references since I did so with his other book and b) suggesting that for the most part the use of Mormons by artists and public intellectuals tends to be rather shallow. Understandably so, but shallow nonetheless. And it’s particularly ironic here because one of Eagleton’s main complaints with Ditchkins is their shallow use of Christianity.

  5. Thanks for this post, William. I was not aware of your earlier AMV post (2004, wow) when I did my recent T&S post. I’m still waiting to get my hands on Eagleton’s new book.

  6. Well, we’re bound to tackle the same topics — I’m very glad you posted what you did because, as I note above, it led to some good discussion. You also called out some stuff that I had ignored.

  7. Interesting note, William. My first AML paper was a comparison/contrast between Chapter 5 of Criticism and Ideology and Marden Clark’s essay, “Liberating Form,” which both propose theories of literary value. I first read that chapter my first semester in grad school for Charles Altieri’s class Ethics and Esthetics.

    It was a very difficult chapter to read, so I was pleasantly surprised, when I got back to Provo several years later, at how accessible Literary Theory: An Introduction is–at least the first chapter, The Rise of English. It’s a popular book and I could only get ahold of it once or twice while I still had my UVSC library card, good at any academic library in the state.

    That chapter helped me understand why I’ve never seen an interpretation of Othello as an abusive husband, except the one I wrote. English was invented as an academic discipline in late Victorian times by academics who wanted a back door to let women into the academy. They thought English would be sufficiently non-taxing for women’s inferior intellects. And one way they controlled the discipline was to teach women that literature is not about their lives, or the teachers’ lives, or anything quotidian, really. It exists in its own rarefied realm. (See Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy for an account of reading some of Arthur Quiller-Couches textbooks for English classes.)

    This was right when plays like A Doll’s House or novels like Jude the Obscure (I’ve never read it, but listened to a recording recently, knowing that Father Time and the other children would be there hanging from the ceiling to haunt)were insisting that literature was very much about our daily lives–but of course Henry Gibson (listen to Laugh-In if you want to hear how he pronounces his name) and Thomas Hardy weren’t studied in the universities.

    Anyway, I was mentioning something about Eagleton to Linda Adams one night at Charlotte England’s for the AML prizewinners reading, and she said, “You know, he’s John Murphy’s son-in-law,” John Murphy being the devout Catholic who was a visiting professor the year I took Marilyn Arnold’s Cather class (1983, I think), and came to speak to the class, and also joined the BYU faculty. I think he’s retired now, having reached the age of all those trombones leading the big parade.

    So Eagleton is not speaking from ignorance. He has a family connection with BYU of many years’ standing.

    I have somewhat to say about the beard rule, but we also have a tool/camping shower to attend across the street. More later.

  8. Thanks, Harlow. I don’t think he’s speaking from ignorance. I think he’s speaking from shallowness.

  9. Gosh. We have beard cards in the Air Force, too, for sufferers of pseudofolliculitis barbae (shaving bumps).

    I wonder if Eagleton is aware that there’s “no support in Scripture” for scripture citations being required in how a church-owned university sets its dress and grooming policy.

    It’s a cheap shot utterly devoid of a framing logic, as vapid as demanding the Air Force cite scripture for its beard card policy.

    (I also like how he seques from “flagrantly ideological” deviations to beard cards in the space of a single sentence. Come now, Mr. E… is that worst heresy you can drum up?)

    — Lee Allred

  10. Wow! Reading this, and William’s earlier post, and the post over at T&S (and about half of its responses) makes me almost wish that I hadn’t lost the patience for academics and literary theory. Almost.

    My recollection of Eagleton was that he was certainly one of the most approachable of Marxist literary scholars. And at a conceptual level, I agree that tracing power concerns within literature is a direction that’s highly consistent with gospel concerns. However, a lot of Marxist literary criticism tends (from my experience) to be highly obsessed with its own concerns: engaged in a debate over dogmas that wouldn’t be out of place (except for the specifics) in a medieval discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Part of the problem is that from what I’ve seen, literary interpretation – including Marxist literary interpretation, including postmodern literary interpretation, including feminist literary interpretation – tends to be very heavily rooted in some particular view of The Way The World Is. It’s a debate about Truth, even when those engaged in it are postmodernists who (officially) deny that there is any Truth out there.

    All that being the case, I’m not inclined to feel very charitable about those who use literary theory as a forum for bashing my worldview – typically without acknowleding either (a) that my worldview even has standing to return the favor, or (b) that their own rhetoric is in defense of a worldview that is at heart no less arbitrary – no less a matter of belief (as opposed to “rationality”) – than my own. The characteristic rhetorical move of postmodernism is a kind of condescending dismissiveness, from what I’ve seen. Of course, that’s hardly unique to postmodernism either…

    Sorry. It’s a bad day, and I have a headache.

  11. I understand and largely agree with your comments, Jonathan. At the same time being rooted in a particular view of The Way The World Is can provide a some good juice and grounding for literary criticism (esp. when it sticks to literary criticism rather trying to do philosophy or culture studies). But only if it avoids dogmatism and doesn’t wrest the text(s) too much.

  12. Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’d have to say that I think ALL worthwhile literary criticism is grounded in some particular view of The Way The World Is. The problems come when (a) that isn’t acknowledged, and/or (b) there’s an attempt to insist that in order for my litcrit to be worthwhile, I have to share someone else’s worldview.

    Which is, in a way, hypocritical of me, since part of what I’m saying here is that I can’t bring myself to be overly interested in literary criticism that doesn’t mesh with my own worldview. Still, that’s more or less how it is…

    The nice thing is that well-grounded litcrit can often (surprisingly) be translated from one worldview to another. Insightful readings by Marxist/feminist/postmodernist/Freudian/archetypal critics can offer value to Mormon readers. But I feel no compunction to respect sly little digs at my worldview that have nothing to do with litcrit, but only to do with trying to trying to made me feel like I don’t belong in the clubhouse.

  13. William said: “Thanks, Harlow. I don’t think he’s speaking from ignorance. I think he’s speaking from shallowness.”

    True, but you said, “Terry Eagleton is Utah-obsessed.” Obsessed is the word we use when we talk about an irrational interest in an actress that might lead one to try and shoot the president–though most obsession is not that dangerous. My post was meant to suggest that Eagleton doesn’t have some irrational obsession with Mormons or BYU but has an interest based on family history.

    Come to think of it I may have been reacting more to the last paragraph: “As for the Mormon potshot: eh, whatever. It’s sort of like the potshots on Gilmore Girls — I still find you somewhat witty and interesting, but think you’d do best to keep to what you actually know.”

    I suspect he does know what he was talking about. If Eagleton had said, “My father-in-law teaches at BYU and has to carry around this stupid beard card,” would it seem less shallow to you? We have a marvelous capacity, we hyu mans, to trivialize complaints about conditions that don’t affect us personally. I don’t know if John Murphy does wear a beard. I last saw him in 1995 at the Flannery O’Connor 70th anniversary symposium, which he organized, and I don’t remember, but if he doesn’t I suspect he knows someone who is affected personally by the university’s beard policy, as do I.

    It’s also true that people who don’t have a personal stake in a particular religious or cultural question can perceive the struggles over such questions as no more important than squabbling over which end of an egg to break open, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

    I suspect Eagleton knows perfectly well his remark is a potshot and expects it to be taken in that spirit. That he chose to take his potshot at BYU’s beard policy rather than, say, BJU’s interracial dating policy may suggest a certain affection for Mormons. Shortly before his death Fred Rogers was on the Diane Rehm Show (http://wamu.org/programs/dr/02/12/17.php) and mentioned meeting Eddie Murphy at a studio where he had gone to tape something. He was surprised at how warmly Murphy greeted him, considering he had just done some sketches lampooning Fred’s neighborhood. “You don’t think we’d want to make you famous if we didn’t love you,” Murphy replied.

  14. FYI, Eagleton met his future wife when he was invited to conduct a week-long seminar on Marxist literary theory and postmodernism at BYU in the spring of 1989. I was just starting grad school, and I attended the seminar, which was fascinating. I struck up a conversation with Professor Eagleton, and he invited me to the faculty lunch (some of the professors were not happy about this), where I sat next to him, and he asked me about my plans and interests and family. I really liked him. He did make some pointed criticisms of Mormonism during the seminar, and at the very end, he gave an extended allegory about a man named Joseph who, from humble beginnings, became engaged in a great effort to change the world, bring the rich and powerful down, and exalt the poor and powerless. But over time, the movement he championed became more about rigid rules, such as what to wear and not being able to say the word “fuck.” He then said he was talking about Joseph Stalin.

    His wife, Willa, graduated in my class, and is, as you mention, John Murphy’s daughter. So, yes, you may consider his references to Mormonism shallow, but they are not made from ignorance.

  15. Fascinating back story, John. Thanks for sharing.

    Of course, there are varying degrees of ignorance. Shallowness that reviews to go beyond the shallows is a form of willful ignorance, imo.

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