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.

Some Reflections on the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference

As I mentioned in my last post, I was a presenter this year at the annual Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference in Provo, Utah. My talk, “The Role of the Novel in Post-Utopian Mormonism,” was scheduled first thing in the morning on the first day of the conference, but it had a decent turnout–despite the room temperature being at near-sauna levels. The other presentations on the panel, which was chaired by Bruce Jorgensen, were David Paxman’s “The Plan of Salvation: Why the Angels Rebelled” and Benjamin Crosby’s “Canonical Kairos: Demystifying the Conditions for Creation of Mormon Scripture.” Both were excellent, and we had an hour-long (or nearly hour-long) discussion following the three presentations. In many ways, I think Ben’s presentation, which drew on Covino’s distinction between generative and arresting magic-rhetoric to talk about the ways discourse works within the Church and on its member, provided a good foundation of ideas to guide the discussion.

Continue reading “Some Reflections on the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference”

Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched

Warning: this is less a review than a piece of literary criticism. There be small spoilers ahead.

It is probably not surprising that so many of the nationally-published, succesful YA novels by Mormon authors are about agency — Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killler, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Not only is it a key component of Mormon theology, but it’s also really what YA is all about. One comes of age when one can learn to (or be freed to or free oneself to) make choices (and accept the consequences). But as intensely as the three titles I mention deal with agency, none of them are about it thematically as much as Ally Condie’s Matched. From the title, which refers to the fact that reproductive unions in Condie’s dystopia are arranged/assigned, and the front cover (which features a young woman in a bubble); to the back cover, which includes blurbs with words like free will, choice, rebellion and controlled; to, well, all all those pages in between this is a book about agency.

Condie intensifies the issue of agency by doing what all dystopias do: create a claustrophic, circumscribed, controlled society. A key component to that is the restriction of approved materials for consumption by the populace — or in other words: correlation. I use that term, of course, in the LDS sense to mean a system of education via approved materials that are consistent across the organziation (or in this case — the Society).

Continue reading “Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched”

James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite”

I recently read The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood. I enjoyed it quite a bit even as I disagreed with some of his emphases and tone. In fact I would recommend it over his more recent book How Fiction Works (which I discussed last year).

In particular, I like that he focuses heavily on actual examples pulled from works of literature by great authors. Yes, sometimes the prose swelters, sometimes things are dismissed with a casual tone that doesn’t convince and the continual hammering insistence on realism sometimes get tiring, but on the whole it was a good reading experience. He’s especially good with the author’s he loves, writing mash notes to their work that are lovely and specific and do what good literary criticism does: makes you want to read (or re-read) the author’s work.

And in returning to the foreword, I found an interesting passage that relates to the whole issue of agency and fiction which I raised last week. After quoting Thomas Mann’s assertion that fiction is “always a matter of the ‘not quite'”, he writes: Continue reading “James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite””

Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism

I have been thinking lately about what I’d do if I had more time to engage in Mormon literary criticism. This is, of course, a spectacularly unproductive way of going about things. But it’s all I have time and energy for at the moment. And at the very least, it’s about the only thing I have going at the moment (most of my non-AMV but Mormon arts-related efforts are in writing creating fiction with a modest goal of producing 3k words per month*). Terryl Givens provided the field with some interesting formulations for Mormon criticism via his paradoxes. But his was more of a cultural studies/sociological approach, and I’m thinking more here in terms of straight up dealing with works of narrative art (both those currently out there and as themes for those who are looking to create more).

I have no idea if these would be productive avenues to pursue. Nor am I as well versed in the doctrinal and philosophical arguments — both those specific to Mormonism and those regarding the wider strains of Western/Christian thought — as I’d like to be. This list simply comes out of reading a fair amount of Mormon (mostly literary) fiction. I also note that there may already be fantastic articles and presentations out there that deal with some of these issues. Feel free to reference them in the comments**. Continue reading “Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism”