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

“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)




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


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


Other posts in series:


Fiction (sf/f) — forthcoming

Reverence vs Chutzpah


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.”


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


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


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

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”

Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement


This is the second in a series. The first part of our interview was about Ms Hallstom’s novel-in-stories Bound on Earth. This is about her editorship of the literary journal Irreantum. The third part, on the short-story collection she mentions below, will appear in A Motley Vision next year.



Describe what you see in submissions. Do you have plenty of work to choose from? Not enough? (You might mention the contest as well, how that plays in.)

We receive more submissions in some genres than others, and I think this has a lot to do with our contests. Over the last three or four years, we’ve received a pretty healthy number of submissions to our fiction contest. Each year we receive between 60-100 submissions, so that leaves us a lot to choose from and allows us to select the best-of-the-best.  It’s interesting, though, how the quality of submissions waxes and wanes: some years, we have so many good stories that we wish we could give a cash award to more than first, second, and third place; other years, the committee struggles to come to a consensus on which stories deserve a cash award.  Generally speaking, though, there are usually between 12-15 stories each year that are worthy of serious consideration, which is a good number.

The England Essay contest is newer and not as well-known as the fiction contest, but last year we received over 40 submissions, and I was extremely pleased with the quality of essays we received.  We could still use a lot more in the way of poetry and would love to see more unsolicited critical essays and reviews.


How much autonomy do you have as editor? Continue reading “Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement”

Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review, Part III: Poetry and Short Fiction 2008

Wm writes: Every year since 2000, Andrew Hall has put together a Year in Review for all of the major genres of Mormon letters.  AMV is pleased to bring you Andrew’s Year in Review for 2008. The review concludes today with a look at poetry and short fiction. Read the other entries in the series.

Part III: Poetry and Short Fiction

I am aware of two major poetry collections published by Mormon authors in 2008. Neil Aitken’s debut collection, The Lost Country of Sight, won the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Aitken, a graduate of BYU, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California. C. G. Hanzlickek, a judge for the Levine Prize, wrote, “It’s difficult to believe that Neil Aitken’s The Lost Country of Sight is a first book, since there is mastery throughout the collection. His ear is finely tuned, and his capacity for lyricism seems almost boundless. What stands out everywhere in the poems is his imagery, which is not only visually precise but is also possessed of a pure depth. The poems never veer off into the sensational; they are built from pensiveness and quietude and an affection for the world. ‘Travelling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father’s Voice’ strikes me as a perfectly made poem, but poems of similar grace and power are to be found throughout the book. This is a debut to celebrate.” Continue reading “Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review, Part III: Poetry and Short Fiction 2008”

Review: Vernal Promises by Jack Harrell

Jack Harrell’s novel Vernal Promises is one of the best works of Mormon fiction to appear so far. It’s about Jacob and Pam Dennison — a young couple with Mormonism in their past who find that turning away from their wild life and joining (or re-joining) the fold isn’t easy.

I haven’t felt inclined to write a full review of it — something with smooth transitions, a plot summary (click on the link above for a brief summary), and a clever beginning and ending, so instead, here are a few points about the novel:

1. Vernal Promises fall into the category that has produced the strongest literary works to appear in the LDS market: faithful realism, written in spare (i.e. un-baroque) prose with just a touch of the melodramatic — Angel oof the Danube, Benediction, Falling Toward Heaven, Salvador and many short stories fit into this category. In these works, the LDS Church is true, but the characters are flawed beings who sometimes have difficult believing, living the gospel and/or dealing with fellow Saints.

2. The content of the novel is quite tame by modern literary standards. There is very little swearing. There is some sex and violence, but it is not described in detail. However, I imagine that some Mormons would object to the frank depiction of drug use that occurs in the novel. Jacob Dennison — the protaganist — is an addict. He drinks, smokes marijuana and even experiments with acid and methamphetamines. His highs are described as highs — as pleasurable even (in the sense that altered states can be ‘pleasurable’). HOWEVER, Harrel doesn’t glorify drug use at all. Indeed, as Jacob gets pulled deeper into his addictions, the consequences — physical, emotional, spiritual — are dealt with graphically.

3. The most brilliant aspect to the novel is that it doesn’t simply contrast living the gospel with not living the gospel. At a couple of points in the narrative, Jacob tries to give up his sinful ways and zealously applies himself to staying clean and working hard. But it soon becomes clear that this is not a permanent solution. The stasis he creates for himself can’t hold. He eschews sin, but also refuses to fully accept Christ’s grace and the healing power of the atonement. In fact, this is one of the most powerful explorations of the atonement to appear in Morman art.

Here’s an example from early in the novel:

“He’d put five months of hard work into his religion … He knew the church was right, but that wasn’t enough to change him. Everything that felt natural and good and normal also felt wrong. The problem was, he didn’t want them to be wrong” (22).

4. Flannery O’Connor is mentioned in one of the blurbs on the back of the book. The comparison fits — indeed there is a scene in the novel that is quite O’Connor-esque. But it also shows that LDS novelists still need to find their uniquely Mormon solutions and moments. The scene in Vernal Promises almost doesn’t work. It maintains the shock value and heavy symbolism that’s a signature of O’Connor’s climactic scenes. It rises to the grotesque and in doing so illuminates. However, it is still a little too Catholic in tone and form (it even involves iconography), and because it is located in Mormonism, the presence of grace [which is what O’Connor was always looking for — and often succeeded in finding] isn’t as strong as I would like — a weakness of our theology [not in terms of actual doctrine — but in terms of literary representation. Obviously, I understand with, agree with and find comfort in the LDS view of grace], but also an acknowledgement that our authors are still coming to grips with a language that suits the beliefs, doctrines and history of Mormonism.

5. The portrayal of Jacob’s bishop is fantastic — one of the best parts of the novel. Bishop Gallagher is pragmatic and spiritual. He is a no-nonsense manager, but he also shows great compassion. And he extends himself to help Jacob and his wife, Pam, even though he doesn’t quite understand them.

6. Although the narrtive focuses more on Jacob, Pam is a major presence in the novel. She is kind and good and very real. And she displays something that seems to me is a common trait among many Mormon women converts — the desire to live the Gospel and become part of the body of Saints is bound up with the desire to also improve her and her family’s social stability and status. How this impacts her and her husband is an important part of the story [and the answer is — both negatively and positively].

7. One more thing to like is that the chapter titles have a Mormon or Christian resonance — “unstable as water,” “all we like sheep,” “a perpetual covenant.”

8. Read Vernal Promises.

NOTE: Jack Harrell teaches English and creative writing at BYU Idaho. Vernal Promises received the 2000 Marilyn M. Brown Award for Fiction from the Association for Mormon Letters. The award is given every two years to an outstanding unpublished novel that focuses on Mormon characters and themes.