Words, Eternal Words

“word is a word” from procsilas moscas on Flickr
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):

(Direct link to the mp3.)

I welcome your response in the comments.

*I’m not being gender-insensitive with my pronoun use. Rather, the role of “epic poet” would have been filled by males.

James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus

William explains what James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus accomplishes and what he experienced reading it.

At the Sunday morning session of the October general conference Elder Jeffrey R.

Holland related the episode in the New Testament where the risen Christ appears to the Apostles and instructs Peter to feed his sheep . As he did so, Elder Holland modernized the scriptural language and provided context and interpolation that brought a fresh experience and added meaning to that episode of scripture. It was a powerful talk. And it put me in mind of James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus, in which he applies a similar approach to the whole of the Gospels.

But it’s not just the plain yet lyrical and evocative language that James brings to this novelization of Christ’s life that makes it such a success. It’s not just a translation compiled into a coherent narrative (although that aspect in and of itself is of value). Rather, it is an exploration of social movements and relationship dynamics and Jesus guides both of those into a situation where his teachings and ministry forge a small community that can survive his death, believe his resurrection and establish His Church.

A novel like that requires careful balance: too little context and it risks being insubstantional; too much and it’s plodding historical fiction; too much characterization (by examing the feelings and motivations of those in Jesus’s circle) and it bogs down; too little and we’re left wondering why his apostles and family members react the way that they do.

James gets the balance right. Continue reading “James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus”

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Edna L. Smith on Reading

Its likely not very hard to convince readers of A Motley Vision of the importance of reading. In fact, the idea also wasn’t controversial among the late 19th century Mormon critics of “light reading.” The critics just wanted children (and adults, for that matter) reading the Scriptures and non-fiction instead of most fiction. But while Edna L. Smith cleary was a critic of “light reading” in 1881, when this was published, much of what she said could be applied to reading in general, not just what she approved of.

Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Edna L. Smith on Reading”