Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon

Part III: Poetry, Style and Literary Craft in the Book of Mormon

Often in Family Home Evening we would read from different translations of the Bible. Someone would have the KJV, someone else The Jerusalem Bible, another The Revised Standard or New English Version. We would take turns reading and the others would follow along in their translations, and sometimes comment on what we read. Shortly after my brother Kevin returned from his mission he read The Book of Mormon in Finnish and we followed along in English.

When we read Nephi’s lament at the death of Lehi in 2 Nephi 4 my father told us this was a psalm, and the only psalm in The Book of Mormon. I had begun noticing a lot of poetry in the Bible, partly because The Jerusalem Bible and others format the poetry as poetry, but thought there was not much in The Book of Mormon, except Alma’s “Oh, that I were an angel.” I know now there is a great deal more poetry in the Book of Mormon than Nephi’s psalm. Indeed, every time a writer says “Oh,” it is likely the start of a poem. Even without looking at chiasmus there is a lot of lyric poetry, including the Zoramites’ prayer on the Rameumptom and Nephi’s prayer on the garden tower. Continue reading “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon”

Critics as readers and Mormon literature

With the new year, I’ve been going through drafts and notes for AMV posts, and decided to begin by finishing this one which I started back in October 2007:

I recently read Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the text of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he presented at Harvard. There’s a lot that could be said about the lectures, which focus on questions of reading, fiction, truth and narrative. But what delighted me most about the book is that it confirmed (for me) something that I have long thought and experienced: criticism doesn’t kill the reading/viewing experience.

In 1984, at Columbia University, I devoted a graduate course to Sylvie, and some very interesting term papers were written about it. By now I know every comma and every secret mechanism of that novella. This experience of re-reading a text over the course of forty years has shown me how silly those people are who say that dissecting a text and engaging in meticulous close reading is the death of its magic. Every time I pick up Sylvie, even though I know it in such an anatomical way — perhaps because I know it so well — I fall in love with it, as if I were reading it for the first time. (p. 12) * Continue reading “Critics as readers and Mormon literature”

Mormon Fine Art and Graven Images

(this is the first in a series of six posts on the Pillars of Mormon Art)

…thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
(Exodus 20:4)

This little verse has caused more turmoil in art and in history throughout the monotheistic world than perhaps any other. It characterizes Islamic art, which for centuries has avoided the depiction of any living creature, for the fear that the artist who tried to create was usurping the role of the One true Creator. It characterizes the turmoil in Byzantium, it crops up again in the Protestant reformation, which sees Netherlanders whitewashing their cathedrals to separate themselves from their Catholic Belgian cousins. Its subsequent transformation into anti-religious fervor is the battle cry of the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, and the Communists in China. In more recent years, it rears an impious head as the Taliban government of Afghanistan destroys monumental Buddhist sculpture.

And faithful Latter-day Saints find themselves alternately sympathizing with both viewpoints.

Continue reading “Mormon Fine Art and Graven Images”

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V

This is the final post in a five part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part four, “Maintaining Rhetorical Balance”, I cite Karl Keller’s suggestion that Mormonism’s lack or denial of a serious literary heritage stems from three delusions: 1) our Puritanism, 2) our paranoia, and 3) our apocalypticism. Adding these delusions to the Mormon culture industry’s commodification of Latter-day Saint culture and theology, I suggest that these positions are symptomatic of a general failure to engage the world (which is ultimately our means to exaltation) and Mormon theology and thus to bear what Eugene England calls the “difficult burden” of “describ[ing] a unique set of revealed truths and historical and continually vital religious experiences and to do so both truly and artistically.” I conclude by asserting that only by seeing language as experience and by moving to capture the truths of human experience in language can writers strike a spiritually real rhetorical stance, maintaining integrity of character and experience even as they move beyond the familiar, the convenient, and the comfortable to engage readers in lives and universes beyond the limits of their own.

Since the underlying concern of this series has been with the ways in which Mormons–especially Mormon critics–read or misread Latter-day Saint literature, culture, and theology, I turn now to the “or” of my tragically long title, “An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading” and attempt to infer some conclusions about where I think the Mormon reader/critic stands in relation to our letters. (After reading William’s series on the distinction between the terms Mormon and LDS, I’m not sure what my usage here says about me and my particular terminological inclinations. But I sure am self-conscious about them now. Thanks for that, Wm”¦)

V. Assuming Responsibility

The ethical implications and textu(r)ally redemptive possibilities of the rhetorics people use to explore human experience and to communicate with and to persuade others center in the acts of reading, a series of unique performances that exist only in the intersection between writer, reader, and text and that flow from the ethos of each transactional party. This ethos, as Booth has it, emerges not only in a person’s moral integrity, but it’s further expressed in the patterns or “habits of choice” we fall into in every domain of our lives.1 The way we read, then, as the way we habitually choose to live is a complex extension and expression of our character. Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V”

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV

This is the fourth post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part three, “The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters”, I briefly examine a New Testament narrative–Satan’s temptations of Christ–first of all, to underscore the dangers a consumer-based outlook on Mormon theology poses to Mormon culture and on the essential relationship between self and other, individual and community, and, second, to suggest a way to transcend this paradox, namely by inconveniently pushing at the boundaries of established or misinterpreted cultural conventions (of action, knowledge, language, etc.) and thus expanding the limits of personal and communal understanding and potential.

As I conclude, “This vision of doctrinal expansion and spiritual cooperation as acts of theological creativity ties very closely to Mormonism’s cultural and artistic development because the depth and breadth of our theological and experiential perspective and the vigor with which we explore, express, and develop it in our lives, our writing, and our reading (often an unconscious act) determines the vitality and the efficacy of our community’s literary testimony. Because of my belief in this vision, I sense that Mormon literature and criticism haven’t yet grown past the awkwardness of adolescence into a full and necessary articulation of their essential greatness, a mature literary and critical character founded in Mormonism’s theological complexity and prophesied, promised, and hoped for by LDS prophets, seers, writers, and critics alike.”

IV. Maintaining Rhetorical Balance

Karl Keller insists that Mormon culture’s literary immaturity arises from three distinct delusions, conventions we cling to that keep us from fully experiencing words and with which we have historically “denied ourselves a literature.”1 Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV”