The Mormon fiction writer and self-censorship

10.6.15 | | 14 comments

Back in July I made the claim that most Mormon writers shouldn’t worry about the spectre of excommunication (and then complicated that with several caveats). Not everyone agrees with that assertion. And, to be sure, the climate for Mormon fiction writers is unevenly distributed and could change (and please note again: I’m talking about fiction writers — nonfiction is a different thing entirely). But assuming I’m right about that, does that mean the Mormon fiction writer is completely free to write what they want to write? Or will be they be tempted (or perhaps even coerced) into self-censorship? And is self-censorship always a very bad thing to do? What follows may be obvious, but I hope that by structuring my thought this way, it’ll be of some use in teasing out notions of self-censorship and Mormon fiction writing.

Writing is Communication

Writing fiction is an act of communication. But it’s a special act of communication: it’s one in which the author is demanding (or at least suggesting) attention. It’s saying: this is something I have created that is worth spending time (and money) on. It is an act of one-way communication, and the author sets the terms of the communication. Granted, especially in the age of the internet, readers can react to the work directly or indirectly with the author, but that’s not the same act of communication as what the novel or story or poem demands. There’s a level of formality in presenting a completed creative work. But the very nature of that process, that one-way act of ego means that the author has ultimate control of what goes in and what doesn’t go into a work. What doesn’t go in is self-censorship. It also may simply be good communication and good artistic creation.

All Writers Are Part of Communities

That writing is communication is especially true because very few writers create (or publish) in a vacuum. For all their introvertedness (a cliche, but one that so often fits), fiction writers are part of various communities and usually want community approval (or at least attention) for their creative work. Otherwise they’d write only for the drawer. Certainly, it’s complicated for writers in that they may prefer certain communities pay a certain kind of attention to their work over other communities (and other kinds of attention). And some communities you are born into and some you fall into and some you consciously choose. We all have family members, friends, peers, agents, editors, critics, community members, fellow fans/enthusiasts, neighbors, etc. It’s a complex melange that is constantly in flux. But being situated in communities means that there’s no such thing as a pure creative work-to-reader transaction. The creation, contents, packaging and distribution of creative work all happen within a welter of community concerns, attitudes, histories and relationships.

Mormon Writers & Community

I have mixed feelings about claims of Mormon exceptionalism. But I do think that in some ways Mormons may present a special case (or at least a different case) when it comes to self-censorship and community. It’s possible that issues of self-censorship might be more difficult for some Mormon writers to navigate. But I don’t know about that. While it’s true that Mormon writers may have to worry about busybody ward members and concerned bishops and inflexible stake presidents, it’s also true that very few writers are not part of a community (or communities) that have certain ideologies, sacred cows, discourse boundaries, etc. plus those who formally or informally boundary police the community. Very few writers have relationships only with people who think exactly like them. In very few instances is art going to not lead to the potential for friction. This is especially true of minority literatures where, like in Mormonism, you have communities that because of their minority status are concerned with how they are being presented outside of their community.

The big exception, of course, is that while other communities may shun or ignore writers who offend them, because Mormonism as a culture is interwoven so deeply with the LDS Church, the act of excommunication is somewhat more draconian than the way other communities police their boundaries. Although as I wrote in my previous post, it’s not clear that it’s something to be actively feared. And, of course, how draconian it feels as a threat is dependent on the fiction writer’s interest in remaining in good standing with the Church.

All Writers Self-Censor

Because writing is an act of communication and all writers are parts of communities, I believe that all writers self-censor. Self-censorship happens along many lines. Sometimes it’s self-censorship driven by fear of how people  will react to their work if it is published un-self-censored. Sometimes it’s self-censorship where the author realizes that they don’t actually want to communicate what they originally had thought they wanted to communicate or they need to do it in a different way because by doing so they will be able to better communicate with their audience (sometimes that comes because of feedback from a good editor). Sometimes it’s not a matter of fear of how people will react, but the realization that what your art may be pushing you towards isn’t going to lead to a fruitful ongoing relationship with people (or with the field as a whole or with your personal artistic legacy). And beyond that, I also believe that writers self-censor in what experiences they intake that fuel their creativity, and what projects they choose to focus on, and what forms they pour their creative energies into, and what world views (ideologies) they have active in their brain. All creative endeavor comes down to individual acts of selection that create a unique work. While there are times when that process is more self-conscious than others, and I do think that the initial act of writing fiction is usually better when it isn’t quite so self-conscious, the fact remains that all writers self-censor.

But What About Artistic Integrity?

What about artists being true to themselves? By giving into self-censorship aren’t they violating artistic integrity? Maybe. Like most things, it’s a matter of degrees. Some self-censorship could be a rather damaging violation of artistic integrity. But I think that’s less likely a problem than we might think*. Besides: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I believe that art comes from struggle and conflict and that means it inherently doesn’t have integrity—it’s not a gestalt, a whole. It’s a process, a dialogue. And there might be formal or ideological or poetic or psychological concerns or models that work themselves into the struggle of creation that are actually leading your work in the wrong direction. Sometimes the ingredients in the alchemical process aren’t the right ones (or the right amounts). Changing up those ingredients might not be self-censorship. They might just be self-correcting.

And the problem with creating art is that it’s so easy to be dramatic and self-indulgent about it. To feel like what you have to say needs to be not only said but heard and only in a way that is true to your particular vision (at that particular point in time). The problem with that is that all of us who write fiction** are damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills using a set of vocabularies, syntaxes, narrative shapes, etc. That are also limited. And the problem with that is that our fiction goes out to damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills to interpret it. That’s what’s so scary about it and also what’s beautiful about it. It’s good to have a well-wrought final product. But I doubt that any final creative products are works of pure integrity.

And note that I haven’t touched yet on market concerns and how those impact fiction writing. That’s another seit of concerns that warps works of fiction (although very often not as much as one would think and sometimes in ways that are just fine). Note also that this post is only about self-censorship. Actual censorship is a different topic albeit one that can cause writers to self-censor***.

There Will Be Offense Taken

All of the above means both that whatever you do, you’re going to offend someone somewhere. And that whatever your artistic vision, there’s no shame in being mindful of your relationships, of your communities. If you care about people, take care not to offend them (or to make sure that the relationship is such that you’ll be able to work through the offense). Or: don’t worry about other people. Unless you want to. The choice is yours.

For me the question of self-censorship is an insidious one because it lures the artist too much into self-indulgent romantic notions about authorship and creativity that needlessly create friction between the artist and those around them. Presenting fictional narratives is a fraught, hubristic act. Things could (will) get messy. Do the best you can to make sure what you’re presenting communicates what you’re trying to communicate in the best (most beautiful, most rhetorically effective, most formally interesting) way possible and don’t worry about the rest. Until you need to worry. And then either dismiss the criticism or take it in and learn from it. Either heal and nurture the relationship or let it go. Self-censorship is not this one-time thing that violates a potentially perfect work of fiction. It’s editing. It’s an act of communication and community negotiation. It’s doing the work.

Self Censorship & Inspiration

So that’s where I’m at on the the issue of self-censorship. But I have a specifically Mormon wrinkle to add (although this may also be useful other people of faith): Let me first acknowledge that I have an instinctive distrust of writers who talk about inspiration. Not that I don’t think that it doesn’t happen (I believe that it does), but because I think it’s too often used as a label to short-circuit criticism of work that is amateurish, sentimental and/or didactic. It sets up the readers. How can you argue against inspiration? (Incidentally, the same is true of self-expression. How can you argue against expression of self?). Heck, even if it isn’t couched in terms of inspiration, I have a distrust of any special claims (this is for the good of, this accomplishes, every person like this/who is this must read this…) made on behalf of ideological work that a story is supposed to do.

But while I have an instinctive distrust of talking about it, I also believe in seeking it. It seems to me that Mormon fiction writers shouldn’t worry about self-censorship during the initial act of creation. They should create what they feel compelled to create. However, it also seems to me that they should seek inspiration before/as they create, and they should (as we’re asked to do with other choices in life) test the final work against inspiration. If that process then causes you to go back and edit the work, then do it. In other words: revelation is a way to short-circuit worry over self-censorship. If one feels good about the work as is, then it is what it should be. If one doesn’t, then changing/editing it isn’t self-censorship—it’s acting on inspiration. But here’s the trick: you must be brutally honest with yourself in the process and you have to be worthy (and, yes, that’s a loaded word; I leave what that should mean up to the individual author). You have to strive to be humble about and a skeptic of your own work. Not an easy thing to do. But I believe that it’s worth doing (even though I fail to do so over and over again and too often feel buffeted by various ideological and aesthetic winds).

But Wait: One More Thing

I’m not going to end on such a sappy (although valid and sincere) point. I have one more thought for Mormon fiction writers: self-censorship is only a problem if you have an interesting point of view. It’s only a problem if you’re suppressing or marring work that is unique and truly interesting. It’s only important if something valuable is lost when you self-censor. Most fiction writers aren’t that interesting. Before you worry about self-censorship, worry about that. I’ll expand on that harsh-seeming pronouncement in my next post: Mormon writers and courage.

* I speak mainly about U.S. Fiction writers here. The United States has lax libel laws, fairly strong freedom of speech laws, and diverse marketplaces for distributing creative work. The situation may be very different for Mormon fiction writers of other nationalities.

** And really all of us who tell stories (which means all of us).

*** Censorship and Mormon fiction is an interesting topic and were it pervasive, I could see how it could lead to widespread self-censorship among Mormon writers. We’d need verifiable data points to determine that. All those I’m aware of only pertain to employees of the Church (including CES/BYU). Andrew Hall’s comment on the post on excommunication provides a few data points. I have heard of a couple of others. But the boundaries on those aren’t clear and times change, and it’s also not clear what bearing that should have on Mormons who aren’t employees of the Church. I’d also note that employees of other major socio-cultural institutions often face some of the same issues.

Liner Notes for Fast Offering

9.7.15 | | 2 comments

My short story “Fast Offering” was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Dialogue (if you’re not currently a subscriber you can buy a PDF copy of the story or issue individually — or even better sign up for a subscription and get access to it right away as well as to all of Dialogue’s archives). Electronic subscribers got access to it a couple of weeks ago. Print subscribers should soon receive their copy (if they haven’t already). Whatever way you access it, note that the issue also includes poems by AMVer S.P. Bailey and Emma Lou Thayne plus a bunch of other great writing.

The following liner notes to the story don’t contain any spoilers:

1. “Fast Offering” is the most traditional Mormon short story I have written: it’s solidly in the faithful realism school of Mormon lit (e.g. contemporary literary fiction that deals directly with Mormon [often Utah Mormon] characters and assumes that the LDS Church is true but complicates what that means for the lives of the fictional characters depicted) and features a setting—a small southern Utah town (Kanab) in the early 1980s—a situation-adultery—and a character—a precocious deacon—that scream faithful realism so much that I almost didn’t send it into Dialogue. This is not a William Morris story, I thought, with a bit of chagrin. But, of course, it very much is. I just had a moment of denial about it.

2. I didn’t plan on writing this story. It snuck up on me. Indeed, the idea for it came to me a few months after I had decided to take a break from writing Mormon fiction except for the occasional Mormon Lit Blitz entry. What caused me to fall off the wagon? I read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro in June 2014. Two things from that reading experience infected my mind and wouldn’t leave without the exorcism of writing the story: 1) the detailed, merciless attention Munro pays to the emotional lives of her characters and 2) the way that she is willing to switch point of view characters in a short story. I probably could have fought off the first. The second, however, was a formal experimentation thing and that’s like catnip to me and all of a sudden my mind came up with a uniquely Mormon way to transition point of view changes throughout a fairly standard literary fiction short story. The idea occurred in June. I wrote 1500 words of the story, sat on it for a few months, and then wrote the rest of it in October and November.

3. The story originally had two more point of view characters and was 3,000 words longer. Dialogue Journal’s wonderful fiction editor Heather Marx suggested that I pare down the povs and reduce the story down to a more traditional ~6,000-word length. She thought it needed to be more a short story and less the start of a novel. She was right. So I made the cuts. I’m very pleased with the end result. I may also have plans for the characters I axed. But right now I’m not focusing on Mormon fiction. I’m back on the wagon and writing only genre fiction. Of course, you never know what might knock me off it again.

4. “Fast Offering” takes place in Kanab, Utah, in the late spring of 1981. The main character Welden Shumway lives in the third ward of the Kanab Stake. I lived in the third ward of the Kanab Stake in 1981. The story isn’t autobiographical in the sense that I was only 9 in 1981, the adulterous couple and the house they live in are completely made up, and I was pretty happy to live in Kanab when I was kid and, other than a vague idea of attending BYU, never thought about whether I might need to leave the town up some day up until we moved away the summer I was 12. On the other hand, many of the physical details are pulled from memory. And the overall sense of what small town Mormon life is like is somewhat autobiographical, although it’s also been warped by the passage of time as well as my reading of Mormon fiction. This story might be as much Doug Thayer fiction as it is William Morris memory. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

5. After reading through the prior four points, I’m frustrated by the reluctance I sense, that it’s almost an apologetic, as if I have to explain the existence of the story because it conflicts with my own personal sense of who I am as a fiction writer and a voice in the world of Mormon Lit. There might be something to that. But I think there’s something else going on. “Fast Offering” feels like an inflection point for my Mormon fiction writing (that, remember, I’m not actively pursuing at the moment). I don’t think that it’s all that different from the stories in Dark Watch and other Mormon American stories (now available—your purchase supports my Mormon alternate history anthology) — not on the reader end. But on the author end it felt very different. And it’s frustrating to me that this is the story that feels like that. Partly because it is somewhat autobiographical; partly because it is faithful realism; partly because I don’t necessarily like the characters I write about in the story (even though I love them). It feels like both a step backward and a step forward.

6. Stay (patiently) tuned?

Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon
(as literature)

9.1.15 | | 3 comments



The Bay Area Mormon Studies Council has, over the last few years, provided its namesake area with scintillating presentations from such varied speakers as Amiee Flynn-Curran (on her 16 months of anthropological fieldwork in the Oakland First Ward), Warner Woodworth (on “Building Zion: One Family, One Village at a Time”), Adam Miller (something to do with his books—I was bummed to miss this one), Kristine Haglund (mostly about Dialogue, as I recall), and more. It’s been a good run.

A few times they’ve cobranded with the Oakland Stake, for instance inviting the Givens to speak, and having Richard O. Cowan help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Oakland Temple.

Sunday night another BAMSC event held at a church building: Bob Rees speaking on subjecting the Book of Mormon to literary analysis.

Bob, of course, is well qualified to the task, having made a career of analyzing lit of all sorts, including essays comparing the Book of Mormon to contemporary publications and Milton (forthcoming).

We arrived a bit late, just in time for Bob to win me over to his side by declaring Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon the most important book on the Book of Mormon since Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. This is not hyperbole, Bob insisted. He compared his reading of Hardy to Keats’s reading of Chapman.

He also gave space to the Book of Mormon’s critics including Mark Twain’s “tired witticisms” which always get a chuckle when delivered by a friendly party.

The wisest decision made in his presentation was more

Once I Was a Beehive

8.18.15 | | 14 comments


I left Utah just as the Mormon-movie craze was collapsing into a heap of half-baked, opportunistic, unfunny, quote-unquote comedies. No longer in Utah, Mormon movies became harder to see, and I haven’t often felt the effort was worth it.

I know, I know. Me of all people! I should know better than to be dismissive! But I’m still having my standoff with Netflix and they’re not in local theaters or my public library and I’m a little too cheap to spend twenty bucks on a movie I might not like. So I just haven’t seen many. Never mind that I am watching movies, I’m not watching many “Mormon” movies.

The only recent Mormon flicks (last five years?) I’ve seen are Freetown and Once I Was a Beehive.

The trailer for that latter film worried me immensely. An essay by one of the filmmakers made me much more hopeful. But hey—I’m in California. What’m I gonna do?

But I couldn’t just forget about it because I was particularly interested in this film. Not because I’d just been to Girls Camp myself for the first time (though maybe that) but because I find stories about girls between the ages of, say 15 and 25 to be particularly compelling right now, both to read and to write. So I wanted it to be good. I wanted to hear it was good and to feel obliged to see it. And then I wanted to like it. Which seemed like a lot of unlikely steps.

Happily, even before I read anything about it, Excel provided me with a password-protected link to let me watch the film online. And I’m relieved to report that notwithstanding its flaws (which I will not ignore), this movie is more

Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien

8.14.15 | | 3 comments

Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780988323346
Price: $14.95
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.

Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.


CFP: Announcing a New Anthology of Essays on Mormon Literature

7.28.15 | | 6 comments

596219Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. As the first anthology of Mormon literary criticism, it was an important step forward in the development of Mormon literary studies and served a generation of scholars well.

Unfortunately, while the essays in Tending the Garden remain useful, the volume itself has become outdated. Over the last two decades, Mormon literature and literary studies have evolved in surprising ways, thanks in part to the ongoing efforts of the Association for Mormon Letters and the rise of the internet. Indeed, as foretold by Lavina Fielding Anderson in her preface to Tending the Garden, the internet has allowed discussions of Mormon literature to extend beyond the borders of the Wasatch Front, introducing fresh insights and enabling a more global understanding of Mormon literature. Moreover, it has allowed scholars, authors, and enthusiasts of Mormon literature from around the world to feel a sense of community and engage actively in the ongoing development of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies.

In light of recent anthologies of short Mormon fiction, Mormon poetry, and Mormon drama, I am putting together a new anthology of Mormon literary theory and criticism to be published by Peculiar Pages. The first part of the anthology will collect essays from the last twenty years about theoretical and practical approaches to writing and analyzing Mormon literature, while the second part will collect essays from the same time period about specific Mormon texts or literary trends.


Mormon fiction writers and the spectre of excommunication

7.15.15 | | 25 comments

I recently had a Twitter conversation with Mette Ivie Harrison about an experience where at an author appearance in Logan she met an LDS author who was afraid to be honest about their Mormonism in the current climate because of the possibility of excommunication. I’m not going to repeat the particulars of the conversation because I don’t think it’s fair to transport the context of a Twitter conversation with its character limit constraints to the longer form of blogging. So instead I’m going to start with an observation and then a claim based off of that observation.

The Observation

Most Mormon fiction writers who leave the LDS Church do so because they become alienated from it. That’s not a good thing or (I hope) an inevitable thing. It also often leads to active members of the Church dismissing their work, which is often (but not always) unfortunate, especially since I think Mormons should seek to develop a better of understanding of the Mormon experience when it doesn’t match up with their own.

But for this post I want to stick with the formal relationship of an author with the LDS Church. The reason for that is that over my 17+ years of interacting with the Mormon literature community, I’ve periodically seen a conventional wisdom expressed in various ways that the great Mormon novelist will inevitably be excommunicated. Or more generally: LDS writers can’t write candidly about the Mormon experience because then they’d be excommunicated.

The Claim

I’m going to make a claim about this fear and then complicate it. The claim is this: Mormon fiction writers don’t need to worry about excommunication because of the content of their fiction*.

Complication 1: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction exists alongside with affiliation with other activities/groups that could lead to excommunication. That is, it’s possible that fiction could be used a data point in showing that the writer is actively working against the LDS Church, but if the concerns are limited to what is represented in the fiction then all current evidence suggests that

Complication 2: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction isn’t well-wrought fiction. That is, if you’re writing polemics against the LDS Church or crossing hard boundaries (certain depictions of the temple or LDS Church leaders) then, yeah, that could be a problem. But that’s not good fiction. And that’s not honest fiction either.

Complication 3: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about fellow members reporting their fiction to LDS Church authorities. My understanding is that this happens (or happened — I have no idea if it’s ongoing) to Orson Scott Card quite a bit. If one is a believing, active LDS in good standing, then this won’t be an issue. If one is not, then it could be because it could precipitate declarations of honesty on the part of the author that could lead to disfellowship and potentially excommunication.

Complication 4: Mormon fiction writers who specifically write for the LDS market** need to worry about their relationship with the LDS Church. I believe that hypocrisy is deadly for writers of all stripes and active LDS who become disaffiliated*** from the Church should stop writing for the LDS market. I recognize that that’s a harsh stance with difficult social and economic consequences and deserves a longer treatment (which I may attempt at some point).

Complication 5: All of the above is in relation to Mormon fiction writers who specifically write about Mormonism and/or target the active LDS audience. I’m trying to think of a scenario where writers who don’t write Mormon content could find themselves in a situation where their fiction impacts their Church membership. I suppose Mormon writers of erotica could be at risk for excommunication. I don’t know how much of a risk, although I imagine it would largely depend on what kind and how out they were as an erotica writer.

So except for Complications 4 and 5, I don’t see how the Mormon writer of fiction with doubts, fears, stances that differ from the LDS Church, etc. is in a different position from any other member with doubts, fears, differing stances, etc. And 4 and 5 relate to specific marketing categories an author has a choice to engage in or not. In other words, excommunication shouldn’t be a worry for LDS writers vis a vis their fiction.

But all the above is specifically only about the content of the author’s fiction in relationship with the Church. When it comes to the act of writing fiction itself, a different dynamic may be in play. Because while excommunication is something that either happens or doesn’t, there is a complex matrix of personal, familial, and social relationships and beliefs that impact the Mormon writer when they go to write fiction. That’s what I’ll be exploring in my follow-up post: Self Censorship and the Mormon Author.

For now, I’m interested in discussing:

1. Any complications I have missed
2. Any complications I have I downplayed too much
3. Why the fear of excommunication persists among Mormon authors even though none have been excommunicated for their fiction****

*For non-LDS readers, excommunication is a formal process by which members of the LDS Church may be restricted from some aspects of Church membership or lose their membership in the LDS Church. It is generally reserved for acts like adultery, murder, felony crimes, etc., but there have been a few instances when members of the Church have been disciplined for what they have said. Largely, that is because they have specifically arrayed themselves against the Church, but they’re also complicated cases with, naturally, differing views on the ultimate reasons for the excommunication as well as a variety of dynamics and individualized situations and information that often is not public. For more, see Church Disciplinary Councils at

**This is where the LDS vs. Mormon terminology is useful (even though I dislike dogmatic usages of the two terms in opposition to each other) in that by LDS market I mean the publishers and retail outlets that specifically market to faithful, active members of the LDS Church. The Mormon market, in my view, includes the LDS Market but also brings in any and all publishers, retailers and audiences who are interested in work about the Mormon experience.

***I am not going to attempt to delineate what level/type of disaffiliation should trigger a voluntary removal from the LDS market. That’s a matter of individual conscience.

****As Andrew Hall reminded me on Twitter, Brian Evenson did lose his position at BYU because of concerns over his fiction and Neil LaBute was disfellowshipped for his portrayal of Mormons and violence in his fiction. Both eventually became disaffiliated from the LDS Church.

“If it be a true seed, or a good seed”: A Brief Note on Narrative Ethics

7.8.15 | | 2 comments

(My thoughts in this post may not break new ground in narrative studies or be foreign to readers of AMV. I share them, however, as part of my continued project to elaborate a uniquely Mormon vision of language by exploring what uniquely Mormon texts—LDS scripture, in particular—can teach about the value and work of words.)

In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.

My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—“if it be a true seed, or a good seed”—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics. 

The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”

The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.