AMV Mo-Lit Guide: Agency

The AMV Mo-Lit guide continues with an exploration of why agency is an important concept to Mormon literature and a list of key texts that explore the concept.

NOTE: this is an entry in the AMV Guide to Mormon Literature series. Click here for more details on the series.

In Mormon thought, agency (also called moral agency or free agency) is a crucial concept to solve two key issues:

A) why do bad things happen to good people if God is our loving, all-powerful Heavenly Father?

B) what is our purpose living in a fallen world?

The agency of mankind is a gift from God, but it also flows from the fact that Mormons believe that human beings existed as individual intelligences prior to receiving spirit bodies from our heavenly parents. The exercise of agency can lead to progression, that is the acquisition of the attributes of God, or to sin and pain (and without repentance, the stopping of progression e.g. damnation).

Although the Mormon concept of agency solves some issues of theodicy (why God allows bad things to happen to good people) it also raises others, especially how genetics, culture, material circumstances, history, the natural environment and coincidence affect an individual’s ability to freely act in the world. Another issue is the foreknowledge of God as well as his intervention in the world (miracles) and how those can constrain/impact the free exercise of agency.

For the Mormon artist, freedom from the basic dilemma of theodicy and original sin, the concept of agency presents a fruitful area for exploration of and experimentation with the various constraints and contradictions that remain.

KEY TEXTS:

1. The Worthing Chronicle by Orson Scott Card is about a civilization that doesn’t allow people to experience pain and what happens when that changes.

2. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which the author herself has explained is about choices, especially the way beings with great power (vampires) use (or abstain from using) their power to affect normal humans

3. The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie is about a society where the government limits choices and also chooses (theoretically based on complex algorithms) major life decisions for its citizens, including marriage and occupation.

I welcome feedback on this entry. Anyone who provides it will be included in a list of co-conspirators which will be published in the final version of the guide. In particular, I’m interested in hearing a) what I get wrong or am missing from my brief discussion of why agency is an important concept to Mormon literature (keeping in mind, of course, that these entries are supposed to be brief) and b) what key texts I’m missing (note that I want these to be if not canonical at least fairly widely known texts that deal fairly explicitly with the concept). Overall comments about the format are also fine.

6 thoughts on “AMV Mo-Lit Guide: Agency”

  1. Dan Wells’s “I Am Not a Serial Killer” trilogy deals a lot with agency. The main character, John Cleaver, recognizes he’s a sociopath, so develops a set of rules for himself so that he does not become the famous serial killers with whom he is obsessed. He constantly uses his agency to rein in his base desires.

    (The Christ imagery, especially in the second book, is subtle, but fascinating. Note the protagonist’s initials. And the first two words of the first book’s title.)

  2. Ah-ha! I knew there was a work that I was going to use instead of the Matched trilogy, but when I went to finish this blog post up, I had forgotten it. Thanks for the reminder, Luisa.

  3. An area of tension you don’t mention in the main article but that arises in many Mormon literary texts (including the Matched trilogy, based on your summary) is the tension between the focus on individual agency and a competing focus on social constraints in order to encourage righteous behavior (including both government regulation and religious rules), as illustrated in the joke one hears about “free agency and how to enforce it.”

    Good stuff.

  4. I think it would be difficult to find any work of Mormon fiction that did not deal with agency in one way or the other. A couple of literary novels that hit hard on the agency theme are:

    1. The Backslider, Levi Peterson
    2. Aspen Marooney, Levi Peterson
    3. Summer Fire, Douglas Thayer
    4. Anything by Nephi Anderson (esp. The Castle Builder, Piney Ridge Cottage, Romance of a Missionary, and Dorian)
    5. Falling Towards Heaven, John Bennion
    6. Vernal Promises, Jack Harrell (Also: his short stories “Calling and Election” and “The Trestle” and probably several others)

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