When I don’t have other things occupying my mind (and often when I do), I think a lot about language and kinship, about the potential of words to forge new relationships among people and between people and things and thereby to shape new neural, emotional, physical, and social worlds. Because I believe that language has this cosmoplastic capacity, I’m convinced that it has the potential—more than violence and threats of violence—to lead us to better, more sustainable versions of ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a species.
In light of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, I needed to remind myself of my convictions, which inform my writing and my teaching; so, egoist that I am, I turned to an essay I had published on the topic in Sunstone last year: “‘An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life’: Three Meditations on Being-with Others.” The essay explores the implications of a question Adam Miller asks in Letters to a Young Mormon: “The question is, will we greet [the] passing [of everything and everyone we know] with a closed fist or with an open palm and a consecrated life” (75)? My response to Miller grapples with the ethics of state-sponsored violence, lyrics from Emma Lou Thayne, and Enoch’s vision of a God who weeps over human violence.
This week, I meditate on a pattern that appears in various places throughout the scriptures: a person is called upon by God to do something the person doesn’t think he can do; God says, “Whatever,” and proceeds to prepare the person for the task.
I explore three different examples of the pattern at play, although there are surely more. Feel free to give them a shout out in the comments.
At the beginning of May, my wife and I moved our family from Idaho to Utah. The bishop of our new ward wasted no time asking us to speak in sacrament meeting. At our monthly ward social—ice cream at the park down the street—he stood next to me, made some small talk about running (an interest we both share), joked around a minute with another brother in the ward who had just that morning completed the Ogden Half-marathon (our bishop had run in it, too), then said, “Hey, I’ve got an opening in two weeks for sacrament speakers. Would you and your wife be interested in addressing us?” (Or something like that.)
Now, I enjoy public speaking. In fact, despite the nerves that churn my guts the hours before I speak, I love it. (Consummate performer Alex Caldiero once told me to embrace the nerves; they’ll make you a better performer. My dad—a skilled public speaker—used to say something similar.) My wife appreciates public speaking, too. So we gladly accepted the invitation and set to work preparing our sermons. Knowing that Mormon Arts Sunday (see also here) was on the horizon, I wanted to integrate some Mormon art into my remarks. I waffled around with several ideas the ten days after the bishop asked us to speak, but my thoughts didn’t congeal until a couple mornings before we would stand to speak. I woke up that morning with the idea that I should tap into the oratorical tradition of our forebears and, relying on the promise of preparation, weave a narrative as I stood before the congregation.
This, I thought, is the oral poet’s art.
Elsewhere, I’ve described this art in terms of what I call “poetry’s communal moments.” Here’s a rundown of what I mean: Epic poems, which narrate the heroic journeys and deeds of a protagonist whose life and character exemplify the values of the poem’s originating society, were traditionally composed orally before a live audience who had gathered to experience or to re-experience the hero’s adventures. (I say re-experience because many listeners would have been familiar with the legends and story cycles around which the poet wove his* particular narrative). Giving the event varying degrees of attention and receptivity and moving with the crowd vicariously through the hero’s adventures, listeners could participate with the poet in the story’s creation and elaboration. In the process, depending on how much attention listeners gave and how receptive they were, they could also likely feel the poet’s language deeply, viscerally, as his voice washed over the crowd and resounded with their flesh, exciting the passions and evoking the senses’ response. In these cultural circumstances, poetry and the process by which it was made were shared by the community and rooted in the connection among poets’ and listeners’ bodies. During poetry’s communal moments, which enacted the essential kinship between poets and listeners, both parties in the transaction may have had their individual and communal values and desires both validated and kept in check as, through the performance event, they mutually recognized and committed to emulate the hero’s strengths and learned how not to be via the hero’s shortcomings. In this way poetry traditionally functioned as a physically offered and physically received means by which community members might gain shared experience and might confirm and maintain individual and communal values and desires.
Relying on this art of oral composition—as practiced in early societies, as in early Mormonism—and on the communal promise it carries, I celebrated the process of language-making with our new ward and at the same time sought to raise awareness of responsible language use. I considered it a good way to recognize Mormon Arts Sunday. It may not have been an explicit recognition that, yes, we have awesome Mormon art and I may not have explicitly referenced Mormon artists (literary or otherwise); but my efforts were a recognition that latter-day scriptural narratives provide us with a unique vision of language and that the art of sermon-making among Mormons should be embraced as a means of weekly communion. At least that was my hope.
Since Mormon Arts Sunday is this weekend, I wanted to honor it with the celebration’s founding forum by sharing the audio file of my sermon, which I’ve titled “Words, Eternal Words.” Here it is (all 26:10 of it):
I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:
MS: First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.
FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university. The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself. The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated. Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends. I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind. Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building. What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting. And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more. That being said, I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.
However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful. I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me. I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room. It is still there. The wounds are still palpable. However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.
Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young. I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer. Terryl was seated on the back row. I was seated on the front. He was self-effacing. I was not. We were married a year later. He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak. Continue reading “Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_”