Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

My review essay on Jack Harrell’s recently released book, Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism, went live on the AML website yesterday. Since Harrell seems to position the book as a conversation starter (but really, isn’t that what all books are for?), I used my response to converse with the way he explicitly and implicitly addresses what in the review I call “a Mormon theology of the Word” and to consider possible ways of elaborating that theology into something more robust that can inform discussions of what Mormonism has to offer theories of language use. My notes on the book participate in my perpetual explorations of that topic. I’m posting the first section of my review here and linking to the full text in hopes of opening a channel for continuing the conversation that Harrell carries on in Writing Ourselves and that I pick up in my essay.

So, if something strikes you, even if you haven’t yet read the book, please comment below.

Here’s my opening section:

Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

“The universe,” writer Jack Harrell claims, “is fundamentally absurd.” By nature, he argues, it’s out of tune and tends toward chaos. Enter God, an eternal personage who, by virtue of habits of being developed during an aeons-long process of development, seeks to call chaos to order, to resolve the discordant system. By Harrell’s estimation this makes God the ultimate Sense-Maker, the Source of meaning in a place that doesn’t of itself make sense. Addressing Mormonism’s “Creator-God” in an essay titled “Making Meaning as a Mormon Writer,” which is included in Harrell’s recent essay collection, Writing Ourselves, Harrell asserts that “God enters that corner” of the universe where “perilous chaos” reigns “and creates something from the raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is.” Then Harrell distills his claims about God-as-Creative-Being to a five word statement: “God is literally logos, meaning.” Drawn from the figure of God presented in the Johannine Gospel—”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” where Word translates the Greek term Logos—Harrell’s portrayal casts deity as the Supreme Rational Being whose creative power emerges from the significance inscribed on his being. Which is to say that meaning is in his eternal DNA. By this line of reasoning, which undergirds the main ideas Harrell pursues in Writing Ourselves, without meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated, God is naught and existence is absurd.

If God is meaning-embodied, to emulate God—as Mormons believe we’re made to do—is to privilege (above all things) meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated. Harrell suggests that Mormon writers should take this work seriously, as a matter of devotion to craft and to Christ, who as the Logos is, in Harrell’s words, “language and reason itself, making communication and meaning possible.” His parallel clauses suggest that, for Harrell, language is the province of communication and reason the province of meaning. It follows from my latter statement that to make meaning as a Mormon writer I must reason as God reasons. I must look “at unorganized matter,” at the absurdity and chaos of existence, and envision ways of bringing such foolishness to order, of shaping something logical from things illogical. We do this work every time we tell stories. Whether we compose them in writing or aloud, whether we’re working writers or relating events to a friend, we have a tendency to seek meaning in and to impose meaning on the happenings, the flow, and the structure of our lives. We may take this tendency as a given aspect of our being, as a characteristic developed during premortal aeons spent in God’s presence then carried into mortality. But must this be the case? What if we aren’t born predisposed to seek or to make meaning but we grow into the tendency? What if in terms of being as such—especially on the scale of eternal existence—meaning-making and reason are corollaries to more vital work? What if making meaning isn’t God’s—and by extension our—only or even highest purpose?

Read the full review on the flipside of this link.

10 thoughts on “Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves”

  1. Thanks for this in-depth review, Tyler. I’m interested to your general reaction to his comments on New Sincerity/Post-Postmodernism. I suppose that my fiction work could be viewed as falling into that category, although I hope that I undermine the notions of sincerity and authenticity in two directions — one that moves in the direction of inspiring and even sentimental; the other that moves in the direction of irony and artificiality and esotericism.

    I hope that because I have issues with New Sincerity. I think it’s a dead end aesthetically as well as an ideologically middlebrow stance* that tends to elide some of the very themes (and characters) we should be asserting. Which isn’t to say that I’m not interested in a Mormon aesthetic/critical theory that values many of the things that Harrell mentions. It’s more that I don’t think that New Sincerity is the right starting point to draw upon in the creation of such an aesthetic/critical theory.

    *There’s a lot more that I should say about this, I suppose, if I’m going to throw such phrases around. And maybe I will do so. For now, searching this blog for Radical Middle would provide a good starting point for what I mean.

  2. This is fantastic, Tyler: “Rather it involves a coterie of Creative Beings entangled in an ancient, perpetually-unfolding discussion *with* the stuff of life and *regarding* the stuff of life and performing in concert as a somatic ecology to reclaim that stuff from a state of decomposition by (re)composing it, by persuading it—again, as has been done before—to reach for the full potential of being.”

  3. This makes me jazzed to read Jack’s book. I think it’s a good time for there to be more theorizing and reflection on what it means to be a fiction writing Latter-day Saint. William, ever since your first review of Long After Dark, I’ve been thinking about what it means to work in a post-post-modern context. I’m still thinking about what is possible when you’re trying to write in the world but not of it.

  4. I’ve begun to come around to the notion that post-modernism and post-post-modernism are both facets to modernism and that because Mormon literature is belated in the way that it is and because for all that technology has changed things, we’re still within the key concerns of modernism, that there’s an opportunity for Mormon artists to address some of these issues in a way that’s interesting and perhaps even fresh and that the tools at hand include modernist techniques, post-modernist techniques and post-post-modern techniques (whatever those are). It’s tempting for the Mormon artist to flee to the confines of neo-Romanticism (which I think New Sincerity is a subset of), but the Modernists weren’t wrong in their critiques of both Romanticism and naturalism. They weren’t wrong in wanting something different and less accommodating to imperialism and capitalism.

  5. I have not yet read Jack’s book, but in what I have read about it here I see parallelism with the semiotic philosophy of art that has come down from Kant through Schelling, Coleridge, Ernst Cassirer, Susan K. Langer, and Eliseo Vivas, which underlay the practical criticism of the Anglo-American Formalists and Humanists, and which I have been championing in my blog series, “Being a Resorationist Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite,” at I say this not to call attention from Jack to myself–well, maybe a little bit–but to call attention to the fact that shoots of a powerful Restorationist philosophy art may be sprouting up here and there. This phenomenon deserves to be nurtured. And Br. Morris, I do not see it as a problem that Restorationist theoretical and critical discussion remains Modernist, as distinct from “post-Modernist” and “post-post-Modernist,” because it seems to me that Modernist premises still best explain most readers’ experience with literature, certainly mine, and best relate literature to life; that the most fruitful Restorationist critical work will be done within the framework of those premises; and that post-Modernism and post-post-modernism have created a huge and prolonged distraction from that work. But I stand willing to be enlightened on that point….

  6. “that post-Modernism and post-post-modernism have created a huge and prolonged distraction from that work.”

    I would phrase it more as a needed elaboration on that work.

  7. {{I would phrase it more as a needed elaboration on that work.}} William, please elaborate, because I don’t get. What I understand as PM leaves me behind at what I understand to be its premises.

  8. I think the onus is on those making the accusations. While there are plenty of things to quibble with when it comes to the writing of those thinkers who are (not always rigorously) grouped into the category of postmodernism, the wholesale dismissal of it (whether or not that dismissal is reduced to “relativism” [which it often is]) by some Mormon cultural critics, scholars and theologians bugs me because what is presented to us as postmodernism is such a caricature that it’s difficult to even know where to start.

  9. (but if I can find the time and motivation I may write something about postmodernism and Mormonism–keep in mind that my scale these days for Mormon culture blogging is months or years because of all the other projects I’m working on)

  10. I propose an exercise in practical criticism. Here is a link to a poem selected pretty much at random, “Nothing in Heaven Functions As It Ought,” by X. J. Kennedy:

    What can be said to illuminate it, and, in particular, what can be said about it from a “Restorationist” viewpoint, that cannot be said from the critical premises and and with the critical vocabulary current before 1968 (a date not chosen at random)? I propose this seriously for discussion, to get us past sweeping generalities and dismissals. William may not have time to address this, but I genuinely hope that someone does.

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