In the latest issue of Sunstone (the latest for me, at least—I always get the new issues a couple weeks later than everyone else), Jack Harrell writes a provocative and, for me at least, difficult-to-argue-with essay about Mormon writing. In fact, I’m tempted to describe it as a manifesto. Sunstone won’t put it online for a few months, but I want to talk about it now.
He starts with calling Mormon artists out for our attitudes toward “two forces . . . [which] originated outside of Mormonism, and [that] tempt us to work below our station” (6). For simplicity’s sake in this review, I’ll refer to these forces as absolutism and postmodernism, but I want to be on record as saying that postmodernism means a lot of things to a lot of people and if you don’t how it’s been oversimplified in this post, get over it.
Mormon theology does not believe in an absolute God in the traditional Christian sense, a God without body, parts, or passions, who “created an ordered and fixed universe out of nothingness in order to demonstrate his perfections. . . . a determined universe in which all things operate according to his foreknowledge” (6). But, as Harrell observes, this is not the physical father God of Mormon thought. And adherence to the absolutist worldview leads to a stale universe in which things can only happen as they are predetermined to happen. No room for epiphany. No room for risk.
Yet in Latter-day Saint cosmology, God created a world with great risks for both himself and his children. The absolutist’s god “resembles Lucifer in the pre-mortal council where he presented his plan . . . [and] none would be lost. But God knew better, understanding that great souls cannot be forged without adversity and risk. Art is the same way” (7).
Yet, Harrell fears, the Mormon arts too often “embrace this absolutist worldview” rendering “the meaning we make . . . redundant, familiar, and anesthetizing” (7).
Not a good state of affairs, even if it does appeal to the bottom-line.
“This ideology argues that the universe is absurd, that there is not such thing as ultimate meaning” (7). We assign meaning to chaos ourselves, signifying nothing.
This path Mormon culture is less likely to follow, but it holds great sway outside our doors and is as destructive as absolutism—after all, what is the difference between an ex nihilo creation and nihilism? Don’t they both reject our power to create meaningful work? Don’t they both reject our responsibility to do so?
“Mormonism gives us a universe that is meaningful but not determined . . .” (7).
Joseph Smith learned that God did not “create” the world, but he “organized” it. Harrell offers a correlation: if light cleaves unto light, must not chaos cleave unto chaos? “Therefore, when God goes out to yonder unorganized matter, he is, perhaps, going to a dangerous place, a wilderness where disorder and confusion reign, where things naturally devolve into disorder. Nonetheless, God enters that corner of perilous chaos and creates something from the raw materials there” (8).
Hence, the title of this post. The postmodernists are not wrong in seeing a natural state of meaninglessness. What they’re wrong about is when they suggest meaning is not possible. Meaning is possible. When God created the world, he made the stars “‘for signs,’ to spark the further making of meaning”—and God called his creative periods “days,” causing them “to exist as distinctive periods because God named them so” (8, emphasis mine).
Likewise, when we take our random, disordered experiences and choose “arbitrary signifiers,” we become as God, bringing meaning to the world.
Harrell suggests that even artistic failures find precedent in a “God who lost a third of his spirit children” (8).
We live in a world where the absurd assaults us. But we have a better option than pretending that this world is the best of all possible worlds because God made it so. The world has meaning and purpose because God gave it such. And we as people, artists, children of God, are able to similarly endow our own works and creations with meaning and purpose. It is our divine heritage. It is our theology.
This was a fiction-heavy issue of Sunstone. You can read my brief reviews of all the stories here: http://thmazing.blogspot.com/2013/04/five-sunstone-stories.html.