This is the final post in a five part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part four, “Maintaining Rhetorical Balance”, I cite Karl Keller’s suggestion that Mormonism’s lack or denial of a serious literary heritage stems from three delusions: 1) our Puritanism, 2) our paranoia, and 3) our apocalypticism. Adding these delusions to the Mormon culture industry’s commodification of Latter-day Saint culture and theology, I suggest that these positions are symptomatic of a general failure to engage the world (which is ultimately our means to exaltation) and Mormon theology and thus to bear what Eugene England calls the “difficult burden” of “describ[ing] a unique set of revealed truths and historical and continually vital religious experiences and to do so both truly and artistically.” I conclude by asserting that only by seeing language as experience and by moving to capture the truths of human experience in language can writers strike a spiritually real rhetorical stance, maintaining integrity of character and experience even as they move beyond the familiar, the convenient, and the comfortable to engage readers in lives and universes beyond the limits of their own.
Since the underlying concern of this series has been with the ways in which Mormons–especially Mormon critics–read or misread Latter-day Saint literature, culture, and theology, I turn now to the “or” of my tragically long title, “An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading” and attempt to infer some conclusions about where I think the Mormon reader/critic stands in relation to our letters. (After reading William’s series on the distinction between the terms Mormon and LDS, I’m not sure what my usage here says about me and my particular terminological inclinations. But I sure am self-conscious about them now. Thanks for that, Wm”¦)
V. Assuming Responsibility
The ethical implications and textu(r)ally redemptive possibilities of the rhetorics people use to explore human experience and to communicate with and to persuade others center in the acts of reading, a series of unique performances that exist only in the intersection between writer, reader, and text and that flow from the ethos of each transactional party. This ethos, as Booth has it, emerges not only in a person’s moral integrity, but it’s further expressed in the patterns or “habits of choice” we fall into in every domain of our lives.1 The way we read, then, as the way we habitually choose to live is a complex extension and expression of our character. Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V”
This is the fourth post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part three, “The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters”, I briefly examine a New Testament narrative–Satan’s temptations of Christ–first of all, to underscore the dangers a consumer-based outlook on Mormon theology poses to Mormon culture and on the essential relationship between self and other, individual and community, and, second, to suggest a way to transcend this paradox, namely by inconveniently pushing at the boundaries of established or misinterpreted cultural conventions (of action, knowledge, language, etc.) and thus expanding the limits of personal and communal understanding and potential.
As I conclude, “This vision of doctrinal expansion and spiritual cooperation as acts of theological creativity ties very closely to Mormonism’s cultural and artistic development because the depth and breadth of our theological and experiential perspective and the vigor with which we explore, express, and develop it in our lives, our writing, and our reading (often an unconscious act) determines the vitality and the efficacy of our community’s literary testimony. Because of my belief in this vision, I sense that Mormon literature and criticism haven’t yet grown past the awkwardness of adolescence into a full and necessary articulation of their essential greatness, a mature literary and critical character founded in Mormonism’s theological complexity and prophesied, promised, and hoped for by LDS prophets, seers, writers, and critics alike.”
IV. Maintaining Rhetorical Balance
Karl Keller insists that Mormon culture’s literary immaturity arises from three distinct delusions, conventions we cling to that keep us from fully experiencing words and with which we have historically “denied ourselves a literature.”1 Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV”
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”
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”
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”