On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)

ICYMI: In part one of this letter, I address BYU-Idaho’s mission as a Church-sponsored university and place learning and reading within a gospel context; in the second half I walk through a reading of an essay titled “Medical Student” using the principles I outline in my opening discussion. (To encourage engagement with “Medical Student,” . The link will die at the end of this week. If you find this post after 1.17.2015 and would like to read the essay, email me at tyler [at] motleyvision [dot] org.)

I’ve shared this statement especially because it addresses the concern some students have that despite the fact that active Latter-day Saints try not to profane the Lord’s name or to otherwise use foul language, they felt they had compromised their moral standing by reading essays that contain profanity. I hope Pres. Young’s words clarify the idea that the inclusion of such stories in BYU-Idaho’s curriculum isn’t intended to condone the behavior in those stories or to force students into compromising their standards for the sake of a grade. To paraphrase him: “Shall BYU-Idaho practice evil? No; neither has BYU-Idaho told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.” In line with this idea, which is founded on the gospel vision of learning, BYU-Idaho’s English department adheres to a faith-based Statement on Course Content (which you can read online here). This departmental document makes it clear that BYU-Idaho’s English professors make every effort to avoid certain kinds of texts, even those that “secular academia judges [. . .] as having literary value.” Texts judged inappropriate for use in the school’s English courses include texts that “contain gratuitous profanity, sex, or violence.” Gratuitous uses of profanity, sex, or violence in media are those that are unwarranted by the narrative circumstances and that lack good reason for being there–in other words, they’re included just for shock value. As an example: I’ve not seen (nor will I ever see) Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street, but I’ve read that it contains over five hundred uses of the f-word. That’s gratuitous profanity.

In terms of “Medical Student,” the group of BYU-Idaho professors who designed FDENG 101 found nothing gratuitous in it as regards profanity. I agree with and trust these professors, who hold temple recommends and support BYU-Idaho’s mission to prepare disciple-leaders for service in the home, the Church, the workplace, and the world. I realize, however, that my agreement with these professors on the matter of FDENG 101’s curriculum doesn’t negate the concerns some students have with “Medical Student”; so I’ll address the text specifically in an attempt to show how the narrative fits into BYU-Idaho’s curriculum.

I count nine instances of language use in the essay that could be construed as profane:

The first instance occurs in paragraph 2 after JD has realized that she’s going to be late for rounds. While her string of words could be read as an act of profaning God’s name, I interpret them more as a litany, a plea for help, a prayer of desperation that slips out of her mouth when she realizes the difficulty that has been added to her already difficult circumstances because her alarm didn’t go off. Indeed, in light of the desperate pace she keeps throughout the narrative, it seems less likely to me that her day-opening declaration would be an act of profaning God’s name than it would be an act of calling upon her God for strength (she offers a form of prayer later in the narrative, as well).

The second instance occurs in paragraph 8 in reference to JD’s “hellish morning.” However, to say “hellish” isn’t to be profane; it’s simply to suggest that something (in this case, the first part of JD’s day) is of, like, or suitable to circumstances that exist in the spiritual realm of evil and suffering.

The third and fourth instances occur in paragraph 11 where an OR nurse yells at JD for “allowing her hands to drift out of the sacred ‘waist to shoulders’ zone.” The nurse’s words are an indication of her frustration. They’re used in the narrative to suggest the highly-tense circumstances these medical students have to negotiate everyday: they study and work in an environment where nerves run thin and where tempers flare to emotional and verbal aggression when things don’t go down as planned.

The fifth instance occurs in paragraph 16 where Dr. Donnelly curses at JD in frustration. His language is used in the narrative just as the third and fourth instances are used: to indicate how volatile and close to violence JD’s work environment is.

The sixth instance occurs in paragraph 18 where Kelly patronizes JD with an insincere consolation. Kelly’s sentence-opening declaration is her attempt to mask her insincerity by making herself sound as if she were appalled by Donnelly’s actions. It’s used in the narrative to indicate the shallow relationships that exist among students and between residents and students in JD’s highly-competitive workplace.

The seventh instance occurs in paragraph 19 where the narrator (who speaks from JD’s perspective) comments on Kelly’s failure to intervene when Donnelly accosted JD. It’s used in the narrative to suggest JD’s frustration with Kelly’s selfishness.

The eighth instance occurs in paragraph 20 where JD expresses gratitude to God for Ryan. Her declaration doesn’t profane God’s name, however; she invokes it as a form of prayer to thank a Higher Power for giving her someone to connect with amidst the insanity of her day.

The ninth instance occurs in paragraph 33 where JD fantasizes about getting in a car accident so she can be “injured enough to not have to go back to that hellhole tomorrow.” This instance is similar to the second instance: to say that something is a “hellhole” isn’t to be profane; it’s simply to suggest that the place described by the adjective (in this case the hospital) is as dark and dank and deep as the spiritual realm of evil and suffering.

Of these nine instances of language use that could be construed as profane, only five (as I read them) are actually profane. And these five uses are warranted by the narrative circumstances, meaning that they serve a productive function in the essay: they’re used to establish the volatility of the environment in which JD works and of the people with whom she works. As such, neither their presence in the narrative nor their verbal potency are gratuitous. In reality, actually, Parker could have included much more profanity and much harsher profanity (some obscenities are far more obscene than others). Instead, she keeps the characters’ swearing to a minimum (no one character really swears more often than in one sentence) and simply gestures toward their use of such language: in paragraphs 3, 14, and 26, for instance, she observes, respectively, that JD “screams obscenities in the air,” that “Donnelly starts swearing and muttering under his mask,” and that Keith “mutters some obscenity and storms off.” Of course, Parker could have cut all the profanity, substituting alternative words for the profanities or simply telling readers that so-and-so said a swear word; but this likely would have decreased the reality and the impact of the story. As it stands, the essay helps readers feel some of the challenges endured by medical students everyday, including the emotional and verbal violence they face at the hands of their teachers and peers. It’s eye-opening to know that our doctors are educated in such circumstances.

I realize that some students might not agree with Parker’s decision to include profanity in her writing or with our course designers’ decision to include Parker’s essay in the course curriculum; that’s their prerogative, which I’m bound to respect. However, I’m also bound by my commitment to BYU-Idaho’s mission, to the English Department’s Statement on Course Content, and to the gospel vision of learning to promote texts and have class discussions that “build intellectual growth as well as spiritual understanding and maturity,” attributes that allow us to engage with and to learn from other ideas, stories, and people without being threatened by their otherness and dismissing them out-of-hand at the first sign that they may not fully align with or support our values or beliefs. I strive to do this, per the school’s and the English Department’s guidelines and my training as a disciple, a scholar, and teacher, by presenting “readings to [students] in the context of gospel values; [by] promot[ing] informed opinion, open discussion, honest exchanges of belief, and opportunities to disagree with the conclusions of authors and teachers; and [by] prepar[ing students] for lifelong learning by helping [them] develop [their] own discriminating standards and skills for the selection[,] reading[, and writing] of [texts].”

Per the last item on this list: many in the Church teach that an appropriate response to material we find offensive in texts, movies, TV shows, etc., is to avoid the material’s influence by turning completely away from the story. While I respect this position, I also believe (as outlined in this letter) that the restored gospel provides us with a framework and a set of tools for critical reading that can help us to more productively engage with and learn from stories that may not align with our value systems or with LDS standards. This framework includes the gospel vision of learning, which makes available a toolset that can help us discern the goodness and the virtue–the moral character–of whatever ideas, stories, and people we encounter. This toolset includes: minds and spirits enlightened by reason and revelation; the principles of patience and tolerance; willingness to exercise faith and trust in those who seek to guide us toward increased understanding, including the professors, course designers, and administration at a Church-sponsored university (this shouldn’t, of course, be blind faith or trust; it should be tempered by the first tools listed here: reason and revelation); and, above all, empathy and charity. By applying these tools in our pursuit of both secular and spiritual knowledge, we can become more effective disciple-leaders who are prepared to act responsibly and charitably in whatever capacity or role we desire. To me, this seems like a far more productive way to influence others than does turning away from them and refusing to engage with their stories or their lives on their own terms.

This is, after all, what Christ did: when a sinful woman approached him in the house of a Pharisee named Simon, Christ didn’t turn her away or turn away from her when she began to wash his feet with her tears and to wipe them with her hair, then to kiss them and anoint them with ointment. Simon thought, as any good Pharisee would, that Christ should withdraw from her touch and refuse her offering. But Christ acted otherwise, rebuking Simon in the process: “Simon,” he said (and I’m paraphrasing his words). “See this woman? You could learn a lot from her. When I arrived at your house, you didn’t give me any water so I could wash my feet: but she washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. When I arrived, you didn’t greet me with a kiss; but since I walked in, this woman hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. What’s more, you haven’t anointed my head with oil; but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Despite her many sins, I recognize and accept her expression of love and I forgive her sins.” Then, turning to the woman, he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (see Luke 7:37″“50).

My hope–and I think BYU-Idaho’s hope (although I don’t, of course, speak for the university)–is that the school’s learning framework and academic curricula can help us learn to approach others and their stories less as Simon did and more as Christ did: with high expectations, yes, but also with openness and generosity toward the stories of their lives and with tolerance and gratitude for the expressions they offer. If FDENG 101’s curriculum–or the BYU-Idaho curriculum in general–were to be purged of anything that could be construed as being evil or inappropriate or an invitation to sin, we would be neglecting this vital aspect of our “business and mission” to minister to others. And such neglect would (as I observed earlier) undermine the school’s mission to shape disciple-leaders who are willing and able to effectively serve at home, in the Church, in the workplace, and in the world.

Bro. Chadwick

Thoughts on part two or the letter as a whole? Sound off below.

7 thoughts on “On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)”

  1. I’m usually against defending every single little thing, but I think in this case it could potentially be valuable because it is an act of literary criticism that, even if someone doesn’t agree with the specifics, shows that not all instances of profanity, etc. in a work of narrative art should be treated the same. That usage, frequency, context, etc. all matter.

    And that has to be true because otherwise holy scripture would have to dial back a lot of what it portrays.

    I also wonder if it might be valuable to make a broader point, which is that what is profane for one person is not profane for another and while we should take care to not expose ourselves to that could cause us to become profane (500 instances of the f-word might implant it pretty deeply in one’s mind), we should make allowances for others who do not have the same standards as us as long as that is in the service getting to know them — learning about the other. Now there are limits to those allowances, of course.

    But especially when it comes to profanity, I think there’s a difference between those who are ignorant or careless or going along with a standard discourse and those who specifically intend to profane and blaspheme. And even when it comes to intentional blasphemy, I don’t see the reason to give any power to those who blaspheme because it’s not like they can actually desacrilize my beliefs, God, holy symbols, etc. Their words only taint themselves.

  2. .

    I’m impressed with your patience. I don’t know if I could cover all your points without getting a wee bit sarcastic.

    But I think you made the right choice. A frequent truth of the easily offended is that they’re slow to learn the principles of empathy you’re explaining. You might convince them of the worth of one instance, but they often cannot easily apply that manner of thinking to the next instance. Choosing to be offended, being a much simpler option, remains too tempting.

    Anyway, hoorah. I hope it goes well for you and your department, that your administrators care more about the good than about the appearance thereof.

  3. There must be something in the water, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get potential readers of Mormon literature or viewers of drama over aspects of the works they find “offensive” so they can appreciate the whole. In some ways it’s like the mote and the beam comparison. They’re often making a beam of a mote. I don’t have the answers as to how to educate potential readers or audiences. I think, I hope that it will come in time and with D & C 121, persuasive essays and articles like this one.

    I’m with Th. about your patience and charity. You have a lot more than I could have mustered.

  4. I also wonder if it might be valuable to make a broader point

    I like what you say there, Wm. I think I’ll work it into the letter, which I share with my classes each semester since the student I mention responded so forcefully to “Medical Student.”

  5. Th.:

    From the moment the student contacted me with her/his concerns, I had to temper the impulse to dismiss her/his comments or to send a snotty reply. I also had to have my wife read the letter before I emailed it to be sure I didn’t come across as uncaring or rude.

    I almost wasn’t going to write the letter, in fact. But then I got contacted by the English Department head (who isn’t actually involved with the instructors in Online Learning, which is who I work for), who had been contacted by President Clark, who had also been contacted by this student, who later said s/he was drafting a letter to the First Presidency on the issue. Once it all trickled back to me and I saw how the concerns had escalated, I realized I needed to respond in greater depth than I had originally intended.

    Once I sent the letter, I never heard back from the student re: her/his concerns—not even a “Thanks for taking the time to write this EIGHT PAGE LETTER and for taking my concerns seriously.” Guess I shouldn’t have expected it, but still…

    I know the letter’s done students good in the time I’ve been sharing it with them (about the past year or so). I also know a few have felt like my comments seek to justify “evil,” but for the most part, the letter’s well received. So there’s that.

  6. I like the way that you turn this into a teaching opportunity. As William said, your letter is not merely a defense but itself a model of literary criticism (however much patience, multiple drafts, and spousal reviews you needed in order to get there).

    Contemplating what it is that differentiates the ways different Mormon respond to texts like these: Mormons with literary training, I think, tend to ask, “What is this doing in the context of the story?” (as you do in this letter). While those with concerns about this kind of content tend to ask, “What is this doing to me as a reader?” Not that you’re not concerned with this latter point, but I think your focus (and that of most of us on this blog) is on how the story as a whole affects readers, not on the direct unmediated impact of individual elements.

    Which suggests another fundamental difference: looking at story elements, versus the story as a whole.

    There’s an argument that depictions of sex and profanity, regardless of how they are used in the story, have a real-world impact of readers that is unmediated by story context. Speech acts, perhaps, rather than simply literary elements (if “speech acts” means something like what I think). And there’s some truth to that. So the question becomes, in part, what the proper role of evil is in our own individual lives, as you acknowledge.

    Based on your analysis, it sounds like part of the purpose of profanity in this story is to make readers uncomfortable: to recreate in them, to some degree, the stress of the environment. For that purpose, limited profanity is more effective than more extensive profanity might be.

    Ultimately, a lot of it goes back to what we think about the nature and purpose of opposition. And whether God is so pure that even the knowledge of evil doesn’t affect him, or (alternatively) that his understanding is so deep and comprehensive that even knowledge of what is evil becomes, in some way, part of his knowledge of the good. If that makes any sense.

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