“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.


Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Influence of Fiction

The beginning of the Home Literature movement brought with it a moderation of the harsh rhetoric that condemned all fiction, in favor of a view that some fiction could be true when it described events that were typical or that reflected the way that people acted in reality, and when, of course, the work promoted the prevailing moral code. I included an excerpt from the Young Woman’s Journal that makes this point several months ago, but the following article from the Contributor is several years earlier. I’m not sure exactly when this view was introduced or who first made this claim, but whenever it was, it does mark a clear turning point in how Mormons perceived fiction.

But after making that observation, the author of this extract goes on to make some wonderful observations about the impact that fiction has on the reader.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Jedediah Grant on Learning

Jedediah M. Grant

One frequent and misguided claim about Mormons is that we are anti-intellectual; that somehow we reject learning. While I can’t agree with that characterization, I do think that there is a complexity to the issue. Theologically, mormonism is actually highly supportive of intellectual pursuits–but tempers that with an overriding constraint; spirituality. In addition, Mormon culture adds its own wrinkles to this attitude, with clear anti-intelectual elements that are justified by the theological constraint.

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Avoiding Randy Bachman Syndrome

Mormon culture too often loses something when LDS authors and artists choose the national and international market over the LDS market. I call this the Randy Bachman Syndrome.

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