Airing the Rhetorical Laundry: Some Thoughts On Mormon Oration and Audience

I took this out for a test run on my blog a couple of weeks ago, but thought it could bear repeating here because I’m interested in your thoughts. And I’ve got some more musings on Mormon rhetoric I’m planning to post tomorrow (due to their time sensitive nature—you’ll see), so stay tuned.

* * * *

I just finished a delightful (yes, I said “delightful”) little essay in the Spring 2006 issue of Dialogue: “Mormon Laundry List“ by Julianna Gardner Berry.* Berry speaks about what I’ve come to call the Mormon Rhetorical Problem**: Despite our expansive theological witness that “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth“ and that humans are beings of eternal intelligence, co-existent with God and heirs to eternal glory, much of our language seems to betray a lack of faith in that ideal.

In rhetorical terms, this manifests itself in a surprising lack of faith in audience, which further manifests itself in the fact that, as Berry observes, “Mormons love telling each other what to do more than any group I know.” Unqualified and subjective as this observation may be, I sense strands of its proof in the cultural pudding: the hundredth sacrament meeting talk in a row that lays out exactly how (“In just nine easy steps”¦”) I should exercise my faith or serve my neighbor or become self-reliant; the marriage and family relations class that tells my wife and me we should teach our kids faith by teaching them faith, repentance (in just six alliterative steps!***), baptism, reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost, and keeping the commandments (family scripture study, family prayer, family service, and family home evening–on Monday nights only, please–included); the Elders’ Quorum lesson–no class participation included–that emphasizes reaching our full potential by setting personal goals, which we can effectively set and keep track of and report on by following “this ten-step process I got on my mission.” And on. And on.

And on.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize the value of sticking to the small and simple things we’re taught, of learning to do them well so we can draw closer to God—I’ve still got a long way to go before I get these first principles down pat. And sometimes admonition comes along that isn’t cliché or trite or patronizing (like, for example, Luisa’s recent advice for developing a Christ-like attitude). And sure, drawing up lists of these small and simple things is easy, especially because seeing all the bulleted points in white and green (on a chalkboard, see; or in my ward, on a piece of paper printed out in a font that’s much too small for those on the back row to read when the teacher magnets the papers to the chalkboard–I say, just let them use chalk!) makes the gospel seem so functional and pragmatic. And if Mormon culture is anything, it’s become increasingly pragmatic, almost business-like.

But at what cost does dumbing down or pragmatizing or business-meeting-izing eternity come?

As Berry asks,

Do we need a weekly flogging with instructions? Will those who falter be buoyed up by a roster of requirements? God evidently trusts us more than we trust each other to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Morm. 9:27). Is our prevailing sense of one another that we’re all so wayward we can’t get past the remedial course? (Emphasis mine.)

Then this:

Lest I be misunderstood, I feel the tedious need to explain that I’m a card-carrying, calling-filling, sacrament-taking, choir-singing member of the Church, one who is more or less up-to-date with her laundry.

Though Mormons have always loved to admonish, I sense that the [Mormon] Laundry List has become more entrenched in the last decade, as talks are prepared in Microsoft Word, with the benefit of bulleted lists. Our many MBAs, trained in presentation skills, believe that all knowledge can be conveyed through PowerPoint. I cringe when sacrament meeting speakers emphasize their “takeaway message” or when missionary-themed conversations include the word “branding.”

In a larger cultural context, the impact of technology on language is partly to blame. Mass communication that isn’t pure tabloid has become technical writing, a slick how-to manual. Estate planning, quality parenting, weight loss, and cholesterol reduction can all be achieved in three easy steps. Why not, then, our eternal salvation?

While I must confess that I prepared my last sacrament meeting talk in Microsoft Word and that I used PowerPoint in a Gospel Doctrine lesson once to illustrate chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to a group of sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds (in which class, I assure you, the doctrines of Christ took precedence over the PPP), I must also confess that I fear we’ve lost something of the gaze-into-heaven-for-five-minutes rhetorical tradition of our forebears, that we’ve lost faith in the power of the word, of true doctrine, of pure testimony to literally change lives.

Perhaps I’m being naïve or too idealistic to believe that more responsible use of language can really change us. But as a believing Mormon who tries to keep up on his laundry, I’d like something a bit deeper every now and then, like, for instance, a little bit more faith in the Mormon audience and the rhetorical principles that can be derived from Mormon theology—in the power of human language (which is, after all, good enough for God—at least for now), for as Berry concludes, “Our scriptural canon is so broad and our theology so lofty that we should have no shortage of pure doctrine for an eternity of talks and lessons, with exhortation trimmed to a minimum.”

And all I can say to that is amen, Sister. Amen.

Now off to do the laundry.

No. Really. I need some clean socks.


*The link is to the web page for the electronic offerings from that volume; both PDF and HTML versions of the article are available, though you’ll have to link to the full text and scroll down after linking through to find Berry.

**By no means are such questions of oration and audience entirely unique to Mormon culture, though they do bear specific implications for Latter-day Saints in terms of Mormon eternalism, as I discuss it here.

***I’m indebted to Brillig whose comment reminded me of this one. How could I forget?

11 thoughts on “Airing the Rhetorical Laundry: Some Thoughts On Mormon Oration and Audience”

  1. I like this approach. You should condense it in to a one-page Franklin Planner insert. Oh, or turn it into an iPhone app!

  2. Oh, or a program insert for sacrament meeting, though that might not be cost-effective…

    (Aside: someone put activities in yesterday’s program—a pioneer word search and a pioneer picture for the kids color—but we got there late so I, and my kids, of course, missed out on all the fun and had to pay attention instead.)

  3. In just nine easy steps… […] in just six alliterative steps!

    Helloooo, Brother Covey.


    Very nice, Tyler. Thank you.

    My husband and I decided to go to a different ward last week (one we’d moved from) because of narrowing strictures and the “piling on” of regulations that didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere near heaven. Last week and this week, we have both felt much better about our place in the church and with the gospel.

  4. I will play the devil’s advocate in this discussion because I have found my experience to be more in the opposite vein and I think there must exist a happy medium between the two.

    My grandfather (not LDS) used to say that he had no use for a preacher that didn’t pinch his toes. I agree. There is a time and place for a message of reassurance but I think you’ll agree that the Book of Mormon prophets were masters of admonition. While their sermons were thankfully not organized like self-help seminars, they were calls to Christ-centered action and not simply wonderment. Alma spoke of “bearing down in pure testimony,” which sounds almost aggressive. I have lamented that we seek to emulate the General Authorities in dress but not in speech (Why is that?). Often, they present us with simple steps for improvement. President Lee’s teachings concerning the Beatitudes or President Hinckley’s six “B’s” come to mind in a veritable sea of examples. Granted, as Elder Oaks has pointed out, these are general teachings from General Authorities, but I don’t feel that we would be wrong in speaking from the pulpit after the manner that they have demonstrated. As I feel I am repeatedly told that I am of a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a blessed people, etc., I sometimes yearn for less “feel good” and more “do good.”

    And yet, I find all-too-often that doctrines we claim to be fundamental are not explored in depth because, well, they’re fundamental; as if learning them in primary means that we only have to be reminded of them; as if the Gospel math begins and ends with simple addition. Could you imagine if school were simply the reiteration of lessons learned in kindergarten year after year? Yikes.

    And yet, ultimately, I know that despite the shortcomings of either teacher or lesson, the onus is on me to receive it by the Spirit, that we both may be edified and rejoice together.

    And finally, I thought you might enjoy something a very dear friend of mine wrote on the subject of charity some years ago. He is now a professor of law at BYU.

    “The world’s search for acceptance and self-esteem has created a culture of self-celebration that is antithetical to the gospel (see Matt 10:29; 6:3-4). A recent study found that ‘many practices advocated in pursuit of [high self-esteem] may inadvertently develop narcissism through excessive preoccupation with oneself.’

    “This myopic malaise has crept into modern Christianity. One social commentator noted, ‘The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs. Their goal is to service consumers. The result is often a kind of soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith. Christian bestsellers [have a] fixation on self-improvement, on self-esteem. On self. [They] somehow manage to ignore Jesus’ radical and demanding focus on others.'[2] The danger is apparent in our own Church: do our worship meetings become self-improvement seminars?

    [1] H. Wallace Goddard, “Getting Past Self-Esteem,” Marriage & Families (April 2002), 25.]
    [2] Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong,” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 311 no. 1863 (August 2005), 33-34; ellipses omitted.

  5. No use for a preacher that didn’t pinch his toes.

    I like that, ET. I like the sentiment it expresses of an orator who uses language to (to alter the metaphor a bit) light a fire under his audience, to spur them to action.

    And while you say you’re playing devil’s advocate here, I find nothing in your well-thought out comment that deviates from this “airing.” Rather, I see your thoughts as extensions of the notion from which this post (and Berry’s article) ripples: the idea that Latter-day Saint culture has become more entrenched in consumerism and self-help-ism than is perhaps needful and our rhetoric suffers because of it. As I observe, there are times (as those you suggest) when a speaker’s language parts the veil of rhetorical darkness and offers us something of God’s fruits; but much of the time, there seems to be a void and our “worship services become self-help seminars” in which we get stale cheerios and warm water when we’ve, perhaps, been longing for the fruit.

    In another, somewhat related context, I’ve also considered the idea “that despite the shortcomings of either teacher or lesson, the onus is on me to receive it by the Spirit, that we both may be edified and rejoice together.” And you’re right to bring that up here, because, as the scriptural context you allude to in your paraphrase suggests, the learner/audience is just as responsible for creating an effective learning environment as the teacher/orator is. But there are times, I think, when the connection repeatedly fails, when the audience can only get so much from the speaker’s offering. I wonder, where do we go from there?

  6. Businessmen and managers are sought out to serve as leaders because of their management skills. We then get management philosophy, mingled with scripture.

  7. I like this post even better the second time (not just because you linked to me).

    I think ET’s comment is right on (as is your response). And Wally Goddard and Bill McKibben are both awesome.

    But I don’t know what the answer is.

  8. I think part of the problem is that nowhere in the church do we teach, emphasize, or even really encourage improved oratory. Who has ever had a class, fireside, quorum activity, or even talk based on becoming a better speaker? We seem to believe that some people are good speakers and everyone else isn’t and there’s nothing further than can or need be done about it. What we see in sacrament meeting, in my experience, is based on following the example set by speakers before. Hence, nine out of ten speakers begin sacrament meeting with the story about how x member of the bishopric asked them to speak. It’s part of the template. This is why I advocate “receiving with the Spirit.”

    As for me, however, I will continue to model my talks on the examples set by such oratorical giants as Elders Maxwell, Holland, Oaks, and President Uchtdorf in the hopes of ever-improving my ability to communicate the will of the Lord to whomever I’ve been assigned to address.

  9. I will continue to model my talks on the examples set by such oratorical giants as Elders Maxwell, Holland, Oaks, and President Uchtdorf in the hopes of ever-improving my ability to communicate the will of the Lord to whomever I’ve been assigned to address.

    Amen to that, ET.

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