The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V

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.

In terms of “[e]thical criticism,” as I’ve been attempting and asserting here as the primary mode of Mormon reading, this suggests that the writer is not solely responsible for how his or her text is read. Of course, they are responsible, as I observe in part four, for gaining their rhetorical balance before making their work public—for truthfully empowering their words with the essence particularities* of human experience, even if the truth of that experience is captured in the conduit of fiction or, in other words, told in a lie. Doing so invests the text with what Patricia calls “a meaningful vision of others’ accountability,” a vision that arises unconsciously from the text’s foundation in experience and through the writer’s desire to “get [something] across” to readers, even if that something is simply a shared experience with humanity.

Through this inferred vision, which ultimately boils down to the writer’s avowal of another’s agency, the inherently ethical burden of evaluating and interpreting the text transfers to the reader. In this ethics of reading, as J. Hillis Miller asserts, the reader has the obligation to “respect [the] particularities” of the text by subjecting themselves to that which makes it “different, unique, [or] idiomatic” and the associated opportunity to engage with and thus to experience the power of the text’s alterity.2 We may, however, shut ourselves off from this experience with otherness by passing hasty or uninformed moral judgments on a text. As Booth observes, “Too often in the past, ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ critics have assumed that their only responsibility was to label a given narrative or kind of narrative as in itself harmful or beneficial—often dismissing entire genres, like ‘the novel,’ in one grand indictment.”3 Under the guise of maintaining certain black and white moral standards, this mode of reading severely limits the company we might keep and thus the range of experience we might gain by learning to entertain the stranger, to listen to their stories, as Bruce Jorgensen suggests the truly Christian reader should.4 Only by allowing the self to be penetrated by the stranger’s otherness or, alternately, by expanding the boundaries of the self such that it might include, understand, and even embrace and integrate (to a degree) the other’s difference can we collapse the distance between Self and Other (including God) and unite as the race of God in any communally redemptive and healing way.

This isn’t to suggest that we should invite every stranger in that comes a-calling, for while some may be angels incognito, others may well be devils. And still others may be, well, both. That is, depending on our level of literary maturity, on our ability to deal with and to dwell in the ambiguities of moral paradox, a text may prove redemptive and soul-expanding to one person while at the same time proving destructive to another. Laura explores this concept in her post “Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?” in which she describes the different reactions the ladies in her ward book club had to Sorenson’s A Little Lower than the Angels. While she left the novel, she says, “with a heavy, but invigorated, heart,” some, like the recent convert who struggled to accept Joseph Smith and our polygamous past, never entered it at all; and others, like the woman who felt spiritually impressed “that she shouldn’t read it,” never made it past the front hall. William remarks that, in his eyes, each of these varied reactions “are valid” in the sense that “Mormons can have different reactions to a work of art—and all those reactions are Mormon” (italics mine). In other words, because all of us stand at a different line and embody a different precept on the continuum of lines and precepts that move us toward Godhood, we each need to acknowledge that this difference exists and validate our fellow travelers for what and where they are in this developmental process we call exaltation.

I’m not suggesting with this that we should be content with where we stand, individually or as a diverse community of Saints. While the Church’s bureaucratic organization thrives by maintaining a certain degree of contentment, by reinforcing the status quo, the process of eternal progress embodied by Mormon theology is one of continual subversion, reevaluation, and reconstruction of the central system motivating that organization’s growth: the eternal self. In this light, we must, while beginning where we are, push ourselves and our fellow saints to adhere to Mormonism’s true theological standard, a dynamic system that pushes us against our psychological, spiritual, intellectual, even our physical boundaries; that pushes us against the boundaries of the universe and our understanding of the universe as God deems to make us as he is—an exalted being that will progress and learn, pressing at the boundaries of an ever-increasing knowledge for the eternities.

So what does this imply about an ethics of Latter-day Saint reading?

As with any intellectual/artistic venture (within or without the aegis of Mormonism), this pressing of boundaries is the expectation we extend to ourselves—our writers, our scholars, our artists, and even our readers. And while, as Pratt has suggested, one thing that binds Mormon arts and letters up is the insistence on measuring everything against the standards of Mormon culture/theology, against the letter of God’s laws—something that becomes especially taxing or de-nobling, even unnerving for the writer/artist when it comes to depictions of moral paradox, sin, and evil—I believe that this expansive view of Mormonism and its eternal implications is one thing we must read within and against which we might fruitfully measure our artistic/intellectual endeavors, especially since art can provide such a profound and redemptive conduit to self-understanding, self-expression, self-expansion, and personal/communal healing. Such a view is faithful to the very foundations of Mormonism and the Prophet’s life and work and, as Pratt also remarks, “expansive enough to include all kinds of Mormons and their art” and their readings of art, Jack and Peter—hell, even Jerry Johnston—included.

Footnotes:

1. Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep. Berkely: U of California P, 1988. 8.

2. Qtd. in Booth The Company We Keep 9.

3. Booth 9.

4. Jorgensen, Bruce. “To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say.” Tending the Garden 49-68. Also found here.

* See comment #6 for my emendation of the post.

9 thoughts on “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V”

  1. Justin:

    Thanks for dropping by. But your comment is a little insulting. Why should we engage with your posts if you don’t want engage with ours?

    I frown upon drive by linkage. I’m going to let your links stand because at least they go to substantive discussion. But don’t do it again. And — stick around. You may find that the discussion of culture found here at AMV actually deepens some of the arguments you are trying to make over at Credo.

  2. Speaking of which, the following ties into William’s last post as well, but here’s another addition to Karl Keller’s list of reasons for “Mormonism’s lack or denial of a serious literary heritage”: lack of a uniquely identifiable culture (to play the devil’s advocate).

    My favorite television program right now is the NHK serial drama, Dan Dan. It’s an extended (to cover a season’s worth of plot) Japanese version of The Parent Trap, about twins separated at birth who discover each other on their eighteenth birthday.

    Watching Dan Dan gets me thinking about how culture can accentuate “the same only different.” I think a major selling point of anime is experiencing familiar stories couched in an unfamiliar setting that brings out unexpected, undiscovered aspects of the narrative.

    The “big C” culture aspects in Dan Dan are obvious. One sister (Nozomi) is a maiko (apprentice geisha), living in Kyoto’s Gion district. The dialect spoken by the Gion geisha is such that when playing Nozomi, Megumi has to stick to “Yes,” “No,” and “Thank you” to avoid giving herself away.

    Japanese concepts of family duty and honor are leveraged to an extent that would surprise American viewers. For example, when Japanese apologize for really screwing up, they will still kowtow. The visceral impact of this gesture cannot be underestimated.

    Legal differences. When Megumi first suspects that her mother might be her stepmother, she only has to pay a small fee and get a copy of her koseki birth certificate (which records maternity and paternity) at the local government office. Plot developments delayed in the American version are brought to the fore.

    Comparing the 1998 Disney version (which I quite like) with Dan Dan reminds me of the differences between The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. The latter is not just a “remake,” but an entire reimagining within the mythos of the American West.

    Ditto Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. But the Bruce Willis remake of the latter (Last Man Standing) is little more than a pale copy with the actors and sets changed.

    The point I’m getting at is summed up in a Bruce Jorgensen quote William links to: “Maybe Mormonism itself has no ‘essence’ but only a story.” The thing is, I’m hard pressed to imagine how a Mormon context would introduce that much of a “difference” here.

    Ironically, there are rich possibilities in a polygamous setting. But other than digging into esoteric theology, I’m not sure what dramatic “essence” a Mormon setting would offer. Is Big Love the only uniquely “Mormon” story that Mormons can tell to non-Mormons?

  3. Ironically, there are rich possibilities in a polygamous setting.

    Uh, yeah. Working on that, only, you know, sick and twisted.

  4. Eugene:

    Your comment caused me to rethink my usage of “essence” to describe the writer’s responsibility to capture the truth of human experience. Rereading what I originally wrote, I’ve emended it to read “the particularities of human experience” because, as you remind me, perhaps Mormonism has no essence (I’m still mulling this over and may have more to say in a future comment); perhaps it only has a story. And as a writer captures the particularities of the human story, of their attempts to “take up,” as Jorgensen says, Christ’s calls to action, the result takes on a redemptive, expansive power not possible when we deal in generalities.

  5. I’d argue that one reason for “the insistence on measuring everything against the standards of Mormon culture/theology, against the letter of God’s laws” is that this legalistic approach attempts to create a culture through force of will where none of substance actually exists.

    In The Path of Dreams, I incorporate what might be called “temple culture” (though frustratingly trimmed of any explicit references that could really illuminate that culture for non-Mormons, but which Mormons would consider heretical), polygamy, conservative mores, and Utah history into the plot.

    But you can push the polygamy/Utah history/conservative mores thing only so far. In Angel Falling Softly, the works vs. grace debate is not unique to Mormonism, and most of the “peculiarities” arise out of situational and social, not religious, culture of a type that could be found in, say, Lake Wobegon.

    If the goal is to “blend in” with mainstream Christianity, Mormonism loses the ability to contribute a unique perspective and becomes culturally irrelevant. As with Vanilla Sky, why remake the original if the remake adds nothing meaningful, consequential or new, except a bigger budget and a famous actor?

    Is the story simply exploiting quirks in the culture to set itself apart, or is it also saying something important about the culture? Or rather, is there a culture there substantial enough to have important things said about it? As things stand right now, I’m pessimistic.

    My alternate-universe solution? For starters, the temple marriage ceremony would become “semi-public”–to the extent that non-Mormons would be invited, and pictures of a Mormon wedding would finally become distinguishable from those of any generic Christian ceremony.

    Second, the church would forcefully declare itself to NOT be a Nicene sect, and to be thoroughly uninterested in the theological approval of the Nicene community, thus ending that debate forever, and creating a huge, unavoidable and unbridgeable rift in its place.

    Of course, I’m speaking from authorial self-interest. Conflict, not uniformity, makes for good fiction and interesting culture. Literarily, I want to pick fights, not play well with others.

  6. Very interesting post, Tyler. Sorry in advance for the block quoting.

    “The Church’s bureaucratic organization thrives by maintaining a certain degree of contentment, by reinforcing the status quo…”

    I know it’s of secondary importance, but I’m not sure what you mean by this. My experience with Church infrastructure is that it works best when it too is dynamic. Perhaps you can help me understand you here.

    “…the process of eternal progress embodied by Mormon theology is one of continual subversion, reevaluation, and reconstruction of the central system motivating that organization’s growth: the eternal self. In this light, we must, while beginning where we are, push ourselves and our fellow saints to adhere to Mormonism’s true theological standard, a dynamic system that pushes us against our psychological, spiritual, intellectual, even our physical boundaries; that pushes us against the boundaries of the universe and our understanding of the universe as God deems to make us as he is—an exalted being that will progress and learn, pressing at the boundaries of an ever-increasing knowledge for the eternities.”

    In arguing for education through the study of great books, Robert M. Hutchins says “There is a sense in which every great book is always over the head of the reader; he can never fully comprehend it… That is why these books are great teachers; they demand the attention of the reader and keep his intelligence on the stretch” (The Great Conversation, p. 47).

    In the light of these two comments, I am inclined to agree with Kent’s comments on his new post. Spreading familiarity with the best of Mormon (and all) literature is the first step.

    “I believe that this expansive view of Mormonism and its eternal implications is one thing we must read within and against which we might fruitfully measure our artistic/intellectual endeavors, especially since art can provide such a profound and redemptive conduit to self-understanding, self-expression, self-expansion, and personal/communal healing.”

    This is the concept I was feebly getting at with my comment on the last post about all truth being Mormon truth. I hope Pratt and I (and anyone else) can renew that conversation, if there’s more to discuss.

  7. Sorry to come to this late. Just catching up. As others have said, this is an interesting post, Tyler. Thanks for working up the series.

    “We may, however, shut ourselves off from this experience with otherness by passing hasty or uninformed moral judgments on a text.”

    The reader’s dilemma: How can I tell if I’m passing hasty or uninformed moral judgments? Because you say so? Anyway, if they’re moral judgments, how can they be hasty or uninformed?

    “In this light, we must, while beginning where we are, push ourselves and our fellow saints to adhere to Mormonism’s true theological standard, a dynamic system that pushes us against our psychological, spiritual, intellectual, even our physical boundaries…”

    This is all right for a personal vision of how to leap the divide, but why must we “push … our fellow saints to adhere to Mormonism’s true theological standard …”? Is this Tyler’s tragic tell? ;)

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