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

i.
“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.

“If it be a true seed, or a good seed”: A Brief Note on Narrative Ethics

(My thoughts in this post may not break new ground in narrative studies or be foreign to readers of AMV. I share them, however, as part of my continued project to elaborate a uniquely Mormon vision of language by exploring what uniquely Mormon texts, LDS scripture in particular can teach about the value and work of words.)

In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.

My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—if it be a true seed, or a good seed—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics.

The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”

The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.

Thoughts?

On the Mormon Vision of Language: Ministering Grace with Words

In this week’s ruminations, I springboard off an article about communication that appeared in the August 2013 Ensign and explore what it means to corrupt and to edify with words.

Thoughts? Sound off in the comments.

(Direct link to the audio file.)

(All posts in this series. // All audio files from this series.)

On the Mormon Vision of Language: Laying on Hands via Language

In which I springboard off a moment from Man of Steel and explore what it means to touch people with the products and processes of the mouth. Again, I mention some things that are specific to the course I’m teaching, but you should still get the gist of what I’m talking about.

Sound off in the comments.

(Direct link to the audio file.)

(All posts in this series. // All audio files from this series.)

On the Mormon Vision of Language: The Word, Him Who is the Advocate

After my hiatus, I’m back with more ramblings on re: language and Mormonism (and the language of Mormonism). This week I spend some time exploring a moment in LDS Church history when the Word stepped in to save the day (as, frankly, He will). I mention some things that are specific to the course I’m teaching, but you should still get the gist of what I’m talking about.

Sound off in the comments.


(Direct link to the audio file.)

(All posts in this series. // All audio files from this series.)

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.” Continue reading “On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)”

On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)

I’ve taught first-year writing at BYU-Idaho since 2010. The curriculum for the course I teach includes a student essay titled “Medical Student” by Margaret Parker. The essay is a well-written, day-in-the-life narrative profiling one aspect of the intense life lived by a med student named JD; this intensity is conveyed through the narrative’s fast-pacing and through some mild profanity. Because this life experience is likely completely foreign to BYU-Idaho’s student base, “Medical Student” appears on the reading list as part of a course unit called “Thinking about the Other.” The unit claims the following objectives:

This unit invites you to reflect on the question–who are they?–insofar as it can be answered by examining the beliefs, values, and experiences of other individuals whose perceptions of “reality” differ from your own. The assumption underlying this unit is that before you can engage in constructive communication about academic, social, and political issues, you must be able to understand and accurately report the experiences and positions of others.

At the end of this unit, you should be able to conduct effective primary research, such as observing and interviewing, to understand and accurately communicate the experiences and positions of someone whose perceptions differ from your own.

Within this context, “Medical Student” is meant to stretch students’ thinking about the people with whom we share this world, especially those who don’t share Latter-day Saint values. Some students (not a lot) struggle to get past the essay’s profanity and have approached me with their concerns. Which is fair enough: if they don’t want to read the essay, that’s their prerogative. One semester, though, a student had major concerns about it, which prompted her/him to worry about the school’s spiritual standing. The response escalated beyond anything I had previously experienced (I won’t go into details) and it prompted me to pray and think deeply about such concerns and how I might best address them with future students to encourage them to look at their education within the context of gospel values. The following letter grew out of that experience. I’m sharing it here because it explores a way of looking through the lens of Mormonism when we read texts that come from outside the Mormon literary tradition. Continue reading “On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)”