Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

My review essay on Jack Harrell’s recently released book, Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism, went live on the AML website yesterday. Since Harrell seems to position the book as a conversation starter (but really, isn’t that what all books are for?), I used my response to converse with the way he explicitly and implicitly addresses what in the review I call “a Mormon theology of the Word” and to consider possible ways of elaborating that theology into something more robust that can inform discussions of what Mormonism has to offer theories of language use. My notes on the book participate in my perpetual explorations of that topic. I’m posting the first section of my review here and linking to the full text in hopes of opening a channel for continuing the conversation that Harrell carries on in Writing Ourselves and that I pick up in my essay.

So, if something strikes you, even if you haven’t yet read the book, please comment below.

Here’s my opening section:

Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

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“The universe,” writer Jack Harrell claims, “is fundamentally absurd.” By nature, he argues, it’s out of tune and tends toward chaos. Enter God, an eternal personage who, by virtue of habits of being developed during an aeons-long process of development, seeks to call chaos to order, to resolve the discordant system. By Harrell’s estimation this makes God the ultimate Sense-Maker, the Source of meaning in a place that doesn’t of itself make sense. Addressing Mormonism’s “Creator-God” in an essay titled “Making Meaning as a Mormon Writer,” which is included in Harrell’s recent essay collection, Writing Ourselves, Harrell asserts that “God enters that corner” of the universe where “perilous chaos” reigns “and creates something from the raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is.” Then Harrell distills his claims about God-as-Creative-Being to a five word statement: “God is literally logos, meaning.” Drawn from the figure of God presented in the Johannine Gospel—”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” where Word translates the Greek term Logos—Harrell’s portrayal casts deity as the Supreme Rational Being whose creative power emerges from the significance inscribed on his being. Which is to say that meaning is in his eternal DNA. By this line of reasoning, which undergirds the main ideas Harrell pursues in Writing Ourselves, without meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated, God is naught and existence is absurd.

If God is meaning-embodied, to emulate God—as Mormons believe we’re made to do—is to privilege (above all things) meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated. Harrell suggests that Mormon writers should take this work seriously, as a matter of devotion to craft and to Christ, who as the Logos is, in Harrell’s words, “language and reason itself, making communication and meaning possible.” His parallel clauses suggest that, for Harrell, language is the province of communication and reason the province of meaning. It follows from my latter statement that to make meaning as a Mormon writer I must reason as God reasons. I must look “at unorganized matter,” at the absurdity and chaos of existence, and envision ways of bringing such foolishness to order, of shaping something logical from things illogical. We do this work every time we tell stories. Whether we compose them in writing or aloud, whether we’re working writers or relating events to a friend, we have a tendency to seek meaning in and to impose meaning on the happenings, the flow, and the structure of our lives. We may take this tendency as a given aspect of our being, as a characteristic developed during premortal aeons spent in God’s presence then carried into mortality. But must this be the case? What if we aren’t born predisposed to seek or to make meaning but we grow into the tendency? What if in terms of being as such—especially on the scale of eternal existence—meaning-making and reason are corollaries to more vital work? What if making meaning isn’t God’s—and by extension our—only or even highest purpose?

Read the full review on the flipside of this link.

Mormonism and the Arts at the Berkeley Institute: Fiction (lit)

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[background]

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Today’s readings are:

“Why Mormon culture is important to the future of Mormonism” by Wm Morris

“Name” by Heidi Naylor

“A Visit for Tregan” by Jack Harrell

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Please feel free to have your own seminar in the comments to this post.

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Other posts in series:

Poetry

Fiction (sf/f) — forthcoming

Reverence vs Chutzpah

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From Jews and Words (2012) by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberg:

We know you’ve heard this one before, but please bear with us:

So a Jewish grandmother walks on a beach with her beloved grandson when a big wave suddenly sweeps the boy underwater. “Dear God Almighty,” cries Grandma, “how can you do this to me? I suffered all my life and never lost faith. Shame on you!” Not a minute passed by, and another big wave brings the child back to her arms safe and sound. “Dear God Almighty,” she says, “that’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but where’s his hat?”

An oldie we know, but a true classic. What is this joke really about? Continue reading “Reverence vs Chutzpah”

“. . . the universe is fundamentally absurd, but need not remain so.”

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In the latest issue of Sunstone (the latest for me, at least—I always get the new issues a couple weeks later than everyone else), Jack Harrell writes a provocative and, for me at least, difficult-to-argue-with essay about Mormon writing. In fact, I’m tempted to describe it as a manifesto. Sunstone won’t put it online for a few months, but I want to talk about it now.

He starts with calling Mormon artists out for our attitudes toward “two forces . . . [which] originated outside of Mormonism, and [that] tempt us to work below our station” (6). For simplicity’s sake in this review, I’ll refer to these forces as absolutism and postmodernism, but I want to be on record as saying that postmodernism means a lot of things to a lot of people and if you don’t how it’s been oversimplified in this post, get over it.  Continue reading ““. . . the universe is fundamentally absurd, but need not remain so.””

New short fiction from Jack Harrell and Johnny Townsend

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Or newish, rather. Harrell’s collection () came out in 2010 and Townsend’s (Mormon Fairy Tales) in 2011.

(Obligatory notes: Harrell’s book was originally given by his publisher to Karen Rosenbaum who wrote about it in Dialogue and then passed it on to me; Townsend’s was given to me with the idea that I might eventually review it.)

I finished reading A Sense of Order (skip to review) in April and stopped reading Mormon Fairy Tales shortly thereafter. Since then I’ve been meaning to take my (copious) notes and write about them.

But I’m not writing this post because I’ve figured out how to write about these books together, but because I will never figure out how unless I do.

Continue reading “New short fiction from Jack Harrell and Johnny Townsend”

Irreantum 2010 Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest Winners

Another AML news item:

The Association for Mormon Letters is pleased to announce the winners of the
2010 Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay contest. A committee of
judges considered 47 entries and awarded three cash prizes as well as an
honorable mention.

Continue reading “Irreantum 2010 Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest Winners”

Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement

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This is the third and final entry in this series. The first part of our interview was about Ms Hallstom’s novel-in-stories Bound on Earth. The second was about her editorship of the literary journal Irreantum. This third portion is about the short-story collection, Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, that she edited for Zarahemla Books (review).

Dispensation:Latter-day Fiction

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Let’s start with what criteria a story had to meet to even be considered for inclusion. What were the ground rules going in to this anthology? Continue reading “Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement”