The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part III

This is the third post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part two, “In Exchange for the Soul”, I extend the paradoxes of existence more deeply into the realm of literature, exploring how our literary experience with them can become an “intelligent affirmation” of and engagement with the moral universe. I also continue my deconstruction of Johnston’s review and assert that he perpetuates a subtly dangerous stance by punctuating his reading of the state of Mormon letters with pecuniary examples drawn from the scriptures.

III. The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters

The dangers of taking or enabling this commodified position are evident in the spiritually and ethically crucial dialog that occurred between Christ and Satan just after Christ walked from the wilderness, having fasted forty days and forty nights in an effort to commune more closely with his Father. In these inaugural moments of his mortal ministry, Satan tempted him to conveniently satisfy his gaping hunger by making bread of stones and, when that enticement failed, to prove his messiahship to a growing crowd of temple worshippers by leaping from the building’s pinnacle into the protection of the angels bound to do his bidding. Once these persuasions fell short, however, Satan became desperate: following Christ to the peak of “an exceedingly high mountain” from which was seen in vision the glory of “all the kingdoms of the world,” the tempter said, “All these things will I give unto thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”1 Jeffrey R. Holland (then president of BYU) says of this moment that

Satan [made] up for lack of subtlety here with the grandeur of his offer. Never mind that these kingdoms [were] not ultimately his to give. He simply ask[ed] of the great Jehovah, God of heaven and earth, “What is your price? Cheap bread you resist. Tawdry messianic drama you resist, but no man can resist this world’s wealth. Name your price.” Satan [thus] [“¦] proceed[ed] under his first article of faithlessness–the unequivocal belief that you can buy anything in this world for money.2

The true irony of this proposition could not have been lost on Lucifer, son of the morning, one of God’s brightest sons who fell eternally from grace because his vision and intellect were clouded by pride. Was this mere posturing, then, an adversarial drama enacted by Satan to illustrate and overturn the demands of redemption; to show Christ that this process of saving souls wasn’t going to be child’s play, that it would eventually require the last full drop of someone’s infinite and eternal blood in exchange for the unremitting and embittered deference of evil; and to offer Christ the convenient course to his Messianic throne as rightful King of the Jews?

Perhaps. Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part III”

Getting the Word Out: Reading Until Dawn

Call for Submissions

Sensing a lack of critical (as in the literary sense) approaches to Stephenie Meyer, her work, and their cultural connections in the general Twilight discourse, I’ve put together (with Laura Craner’s editing help and William Morris’ technical assistance) an online, open access literary journal in an effort to bridge that gap. It’s called .

Knowing that there are people out there who can bring critical insight and textually supported readings to this conversation, we’re extending an invitation for critical essays to be published in the first issue, “The Persistence of Stephenie Meyer”. Whether you consider yourself academic or amateur, you can submit as many essays as you want.

What We’re Looking For

We’re looking for well-written essays that thoughtfully explore the Twilight novels and their reception and that contribute critical dimensions to our understanding of Meyer’s work and her place in contemporary American, world, and even, since Meyer has been so open about her Mormon-ness, Latter-day Saint culture and literature. Contributors need not be LDS or be major fans (or detractors) of Meyer’s work. We’re simply looking for submissions that say something interesting about the novels.

Submissions, Issue Close Date, and Contact Info

If you’re interested in contributing (or know someone who might be), please refer to this Introduction to catch scent of our rationale and submit your essays (of between 2,500 and 5,000 words, in Microsoft Word, RTF, or WordPerfect format, and according to MLA bibliographic guidelines) according the procedures laid out here. Please include a brief bio statement to be published with your essay.

The essays for the first issue will be published as they’re accepted and the first issue will be closed on January 15, 2009.

Any questions can be directed to me at readinguntildawn@gmail.com.

Why this book? (a question about Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven)

I try to avoid reading with an agenda. I try to let my mind be open to the words and their flow, let them wash over me and sweep me away to new perspectives, ideas, and feelings. Some books feel like a babbling brook–lots of chatter but no real pull. Others feel like a hurricane– the prose buffets me with overwhelming force that leaves mental and emotional devastation in its wake. (By the way, my prayers are with those in the South right now. God bless you all.) No matter what the force or style though, I try to be open when it comes to reading. I try to jump in with both feet. But with Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven I was unable to do that. A question kept my mind bobbing around: why this book?

There was a lot of buzz about On the Road to Heaven when it first came out. And then again when it won both the AML award and Whitney award for novel of the year. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t shake my questions: What was it about Newell’s autobiographical novel that so many people liked? How did he please both the literary/academic crowd (as the AML is perceived to be) and the mainstream fiction crowd (as the Whitney’s are perceived to be)? Or in other words, why this book?

My question made me fairly skeptical as I thumbed through the first few pages. So did his strange choice of genre (What is an “autobiographical novel” anyway? Aren’t a lot of novels autobiographical? How was this supposed to be any different? [This wikipedia entry helped with those questions.]). And, I don’t know if I should admit this out loud but, I’m not a Kerouac fan. I’ve never actually finished one of his books. They just seem so contrived. And if this book was an homage to those books then I was not sure how I was going to get through it. Continue reading “Why this book? (a question about Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven)”

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part II

This is the second post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part one, I introduce the dissonance between Mormon theology and Mormon culture, pointing specifically to how the artifacts of that culture–particularly our letters–often fail to engage the eternally rich and redemptive ethical dilemmas raised and embraced by LDS theology. As a case in point and as a springboard into discussing the greater questions arising from this dissonance, I deconstruct Jerry Johnston’s Mormon Times review of Eric Samuelsen’s play Inversion and suggest that the binary Johnston propagates favoring literary tidiness over ambiguity tragically reduces the Mormon quest to know God through the workings and weaknesses of human language1 into barely more than an immature attempt to avoid the discomforts of existence in a paradox-filled universe.

II. In Exchange for the Soul

One of the most tragic of these paradoxes, as Eugene England points out, is “the struggle to maintain individual integrity, to be true to ourselves”2 in the face of the demanding responsibilities and expectations laid on us through our chosen affiliation with and participation in Christ’s Church. Denying this paradox its place in our discipleship and our arts and letters, even if ignorant of our refusal, we ultimately subvert the work of God as he moves to convert us into his own exalted lifestyle, to mold us into his own glorified image. Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part II”

Short-short story: Sister Watson challenges the Elusieve Decapede

I had trouble sleeping last night and wasn’t in the mood for any serious writing in my head so I came up with a few phrases that then turned into a short-short story on the bus this morning. Fittingly, the only paper I had on me was a rather large LDS Church magazine renewal envelope that had been inserted into our September edition of the Ensign and was in my bag to remind me to do the renewal online. So I tore open the envelope and wrote on the blank inside and, yes, this is a first draft with a couple of edits done just now in WordPress, but I don’t see myself taking it further. It’s not much of a story, but it’s a first attempt at exploring some issues that I find fascinating and a little scary (and that I’m actually not all that worried about, because we’re decades away from them). ~Wm

The way she pressed on through his miasma of reluctance amused him even as he was baffled by her insistence that he must incorporate himself without delay for some outmoded buried alive ritual involving water and that it couldn’t wait for the next time he condescended to take on flesh (which would probably be never — 11 being a nice number to stop at) and yet he let her go on even though she was so annoying that he wanted to flick her away streaming layers of avatar behind her — send her packing back to her plane full of meatspacers with low budget rendering and didn’t the Mormons have money for better gear or maybe they had been too slow converting their physical holdings to virtual ones but he was too lazy to look it up and perhaps it took more resources than he thought to make their massive temple virtually unhackable (and my but how he still enjoyed that worn out joke — the only nostalgia he allowed himself these days) and maybe it would be amusing to toss a leg or two at it for another attempt and now he was kind of bored with the earnest tone and yet there was a certain gleam in her voice as though she though she thought she was getting through to him or maybe even making fun of him for letting his guard down and allowing her cheap filter buster to bring her through to his magestic presence because he was in a weird mood to see what the code would drag in and he even batted away a particularly nasty amoeba that had trailed in behind her and was about to swallow her and maybe he should just swallow her and really did they think that he was going to hand over ten percent of his processing power and didn’t she know that he had started religions with more adherents than the entire LDS — meatspace included — and yet he would like a peek inside that temple although maybe they hadn’t changed the ceremonies much since the last leak and still she rambled on and he could tell she thought this latest tactic was her ace in the hole but really why would he want to die on the off chance that he could become a god in some other ‘verse when he pretty much already was one.

This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis (a review and interview)

“Imagine if you had witnessed something horrific. Imagine if it had happened to your friend. And imagine if you hadn’t done anything to help.”

The world of LDS literature is rife with can only be termed “issue novels”. Whether they are out to take on drug abuse, polygamy, suicide, racism, or even date rape, issue novels pick a socially difficult topic and discuss it. The aim of these novels seems to be to bring awareness to an issue and to help those dealing with it do so in a faithful manner. Some of these novels turn out distastefully didactic. Others, however, open our minds to new points of view and provide much needed catharsis. This is What I Did: by LDS novelist, Ann Dee Ellis, is one of the good ones. Continue reading “This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis (a review and interview)”

The Art of Friends, Not Rivals: Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer

Several months ago my lovely wife Anne and I had the privilege to go to a retreat hosted twice a year by the Mormon Artists Foundation. Founded by James Christensen (rightfully famous for his art of fantasy and his fantastic art) and Doug Stewart (playwright of the groundbreaking Saturday’s Warrior), it’s always one of the chief highlights of the year for my wife and I. An uplifting experience, not because of the number of recognizable names on the roster (which was a little intimidating at first, until their relaxed manner and cheerful comradery told me that they were only human and weren’t looking down on my comparatively pitiful contribution to Mormon Arts), but because of the focus it brought to the spiritual aspect of our art, and the complicated ways our religion informs and doesn’t inform our Art. It was a true inspiration to see all of these gifted Mormons from the visual arts, literature, film, drama and music band together for a weekend of reminding each other why they’re artists and why they’re Mormons, and what a wonderfully strange and beautiful mixture that is. Continue reading “The Art of Friends, Not Rivals: Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer”

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Part I

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Exposing the Achilles’ Heel of Jerry Johnston’s Commodified Theology, or An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading–Part I

(The title’s a mouthful, I know.)

This is the first post in a five or six part series (to run on Thursdays) that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. Working within a framework of the redemptive paradoxes inherent in Mormon theology and the moral universe it embraces, the series attempts to probe the place of this ambiguity in the central, recurring conflicts in Mormon letters (particularly in light of the debate between those who think Mormon literature should primarily serve orthodox, didactic purposes and those who think it should provide a more challenging aesthetic), to present an economic reading of why much popular Mormon literature remains in the former camp, and to show how one contemporary Mormon writer has attempted to transcend this paradox–and thus to serve a more deifying need–in their own writing.

I. (Mis)Reading the Mormon Tragic Quest

In his recent review of Eric Samuelsen’s new play Inversion, Jerry Johnston introduces what is and should be a demanding discussion on the ethics of Mormon literature, then bows out before giving the dialog due course or even before acknowledging that he only tells part of the story. Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Part I”

Shawn Bailey takes third place in Irreantum Fiction Contest

The Association for Mormon Letters has announced the winners of the 2008 Irreantum Fiction Contest and the new Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest. I’m pleased to note that AMV’s own Shawn P. Bailey was awarded third place in the fiction contest for his short story “Outside.” I had the pleasure of reading a draft of “Outside.” It’s a very good story. It’s about a young Jack Mormon who meets a rich, conservative, younger LDS guy who is dying of cancer while working to landscape the grounds of the Bountiful temple before its open house and dedication. It involves an awkward family dinner and more notably a trip to Wendover on the “fun bus.”

Congratulations, Shawn. And with Irreantum seemingly back on schedule hopefully you all will be able to read “Outside” and the other award-winning stories somewhat soon. Continue reading “Shawn Bailey takes third place in Irreantum Fiction Contest”

Speaking Anecdotally

When I first started taking Portuguese literature classes, I came across a literary form I wasn’t familiar with, the Crônica. A short short story meant for publication in newspapers, the Crônica may be the chief form of short fiction in Portuguese. Since these stories are almost always told in a chronological order, are based on everyday life and are often slightly critical, they might be best compared to the Anecdote (although they are generally longer). [In Portuguese, the term Anedóta doesn’t exactly mean the same as our anecdote, but instead is limited to humorous stories.]

I guess what surprised me most about the Crônica was that it never seemed like a separate literary form to me. I thought it was simply a short story that appeared in the newspaper, no different from other short stories. In this sense also, I think it is like the Anecdote, a form that is sometimes lost or ignored because of its ubiquitousness, and because it is so often contained in other forms.

In the LDS context, I think the Anecdote is probably one of our most prevalent forms of literature, regularly used both by prophets and most Church members. Continue reading “Speaking Anecdotally”