Beyond Prescription, Part 4

Liberating Paradox(i)es: Tensions, Texts of Comparison, Twitter, and Emma Lou Thayne

After finishing with a reading of Timothy Liu’s short poem, “The Tree that Knowledge Is”—a reading based in and flowing from a nodal model of Mormon culture—I fully intended to move into an extended exploration of Waterman’s suggestions for Mormon criticism: 1) read with an eye toward the plurality of modern identity, focusing particularly on the tensions this multiplicity creates within the text and between the text and the culture it springs from (which opens the way to engage Terryl Givens’ critical taxonomy from People of Paradox) and 2), “[i]nformed by cultural studies/new literary historicism methodologies, […] place […] [Mormon literature] in conversation with a number of other contemporary texts to examine ways […] [this literature] help[s] explain Mormon—and […] [any other aspect of cultural identity]—experience at a certain historical moment.”

But my intentions have changed, partially because of several Twitter-sations I’ve been involved in lately with MoJo (@MoriahJovan), Theric (@thmazing), and William (@motleyvision) about Mormon lit. In fact, Saturday I came to this realization (in a series of Tweets): after wondering how the Mormon literary community has “been having the same critical conversation for 30 years,” I pursued the thought that part of this may stem from the relative invisibility of the community’s non-prescriptive critical cache—that is, the offline venues through which Mormon literary criticism has developed/been presented and published. Dialogue, Irreantum, and Sunstone contain some of this work, but I sense I’m missing something because I don’t have access to the thirty years worth of proceedings from the AML annual meeting. Continue reading “Beyond Prescription, Part 4”

Beyond Prescription, Part 3.5

Note: This is just a teaser, really, to prepare you for Part 4. (Coming next week.)

That, or it’s mid-term week and I haven’t had time to flesh out the next post.

Either way. On to Part 3.5.

Roughing Out a Theory and a Course in Mormon Lit

i. The Theory

As I was scripturing this morning in Jacob 5, I was struck (as I’ve been struck before) by verse 48: After the master of the vineyard laments over having done so much for his trees that have, nonetheless, been corrupted, “the servant said unto his master:”

Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard–have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, I say, is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?

And then by verse 66:

For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard; wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire, that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard; and thus will I sweep away the bad out of my vineyard.

Today’s reading of these two verses in particular brought to mind two things: 1) the nodal model of Mormon religion/culture that I sketched out in and 2) a line from my patriarchal blessing that encourages me to pursue a vocation that will parallel my mission for the Father on Earth. Continue reading “Beyond Prescription, Part 3.5”

Beyond Prescription, Part 3

I take up today where I left off .

Liberating Paradox(i)es: Nodes, Networks, and Timothy Liu’s “Tree”

I recognize I may be preaching to the choir here (in the radical middle) by advocating such a pluralist view of Mormon culture–one, I should confess, that I hope can encourage more space in the Mormon critical community for the whole spectrum of Mormon identities and literatures, to the end:

a) of fostering critical dialogue that transcends, while leaving room for, prescriptive polemic; that moves beyond, while acknowledging the potential validity of, readings that justify (or not) the virtue, praiseworthiness, etc., of texts that push the Mormon moral envelope; and because such (con)textual expansion exposes critics/readers to varying forms of literary greatness and goodness of character, beyond the Mormon letters almost singular obsession with turning to the historio-cultural singularities of Shakespeare and Milton as the standards against which to judge whether or not our literary community has arrived (will we ever overcome this Mormonized anxiety of influence?) Continue reading “Beyond Prescription, Part 3”

Beyond Prescription? Part Two

I take up today where I left off .

More or Less Mormon? The Problem(atizing) of Mormon Identity

In his 1997 Dialogue article, “‘Awaiting Translation’: Timothy Liu, Identity Politics, and the Question of Religious Authenticity,” Waterman interrogates the notion of a coherent Mormon cultural identity, a religious sense of communal self constructed around nineteenth century Mormonism’s flirtation with nationhood and ethnic identity separate from that of the nineteenth century American mainstream. This “incipient nationality,” Thomas F. O’Dea observes, was born of the “combination of [Mormonism’s] distinctive values, separate and peculiar social institutions”–as, among other things, its lay ministry and its insistence that humans can receive direct revelation from God–“and [its] geographic segregation” from the rest of America (qtd. in Mauss 291 [from this]). Such “protonationality,” as Armand Mauss labels it, was “strengthened by three ‘Mormon wars'”–the 1838 conflict with neighbors in northwest Missouri, the 1844-46 conflict with neighbors in west Illinois, and the 1857-58 conflict with the Federal Government over Utah Territory–and “”˜constant … conflict’ with the [world] outside [Mormonism] to produce a total Mormon cultural environment and worldview that became ‘progressively more distinct'” (291).

Yet this distinctness faded some as Mormonism made inroads into secular American culture, assimilating, to a degree, in order to accommodate the organization’s need for expansion: if the culture of the saints had stayed too peculiar, refusing engagement with what O’dea labels “modern secular thought” in order to be wholly separate from the world, the institution may have remained indefinitely stagnant and small. Continue reading “Beyond Prescription? Part Two”

Beyond Prescription? Problematizing Mormon Identity and the Future of Mormon Literary Studies

Note: What follows is part one of a serialized essay in/on Mormon literary criticism. It was catalyzed by William’s series on the radical middle and some other recent posts elsewhere dealing with the problem(s) of Mormon literature (that litany of links is just a sample). My hope is that this series and any ensuing discussion will be something of a departure from “normal” conversations about Mormon lit and that it can open up new ways of reading as a Mormon.

Feel free, of course, to talk back with me as this four to five part series unfolds. The “theory” I posit is still very much in progress.

Look for part two sometime Thursday.

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Beyond Prescription? Problematizing Mormon Identity and the Future of Mormon Literary Studies

[T]he multiplicity of religious and irreligious practices engaged in […] by those who lay claim to the nominations “Mormon” and “post-Mormon,” much less “Jack Mormon,” […] boggles the mind.

-Bryan Waterman


These past several months I’ve been wrestling with myself, with the Heavens, trying to gain some hold for my intellectual desires and work in a broader conceptual universe. This struggle has really just been an extension and intensification (due to the academic path I’ve been negotiating recently) of my continuing quest to find what Wayne Booth might call “a plausible harmony” between “my many selves.” Among others, the believing Mormon, who seeks greater communion with God by trying to live by His laws as voiced by His prophets and to serve with faith in what he considers God’s church (no matter the institution’s flaws); the husband, who has obligated himself through what he considers unbreakable promises to honor his bride, her potential as a human being, their combined potential as wife and husband, and the fruits of their eternal marriage; and the poet, teacher, and literary scholar who is compelled by the incessant prodding of vocation to share his rhetorical gifts with the world–you know, the whole don’t-hide-your-light-under-a-bushel deal.

My continued challenge is learning to balance these passions, to engage with each in an honest, quality, pleasing, even–ideally–transformative experience for the parties involved. In short, I yearn to make a positive difference in the world (though I admit the intangibility and the potential “O, that I were an angel“ discontent of that desire), to create a space in which I can identify with and influence others, in which I can allow their voices, their stories, their selves, to gather, to mingle, to develop, to expand into and revise the stories I came from. Continue reading “Beyond Prescription? Problematizing Mormon Identity and the Future of Mormon Literary Studies”