Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on writing

4.21.13 | | 5 comments

0--BrighamYoung1The idea that the audience might somehow control what the author writes could be considered a kind of post-modern concept, given the traditional view that literary works originate with authors and are then transmitted to readers. Somehow there is an assumption traditionally that the author is independent of his audience.

Of course that has never really been true, and even early in the development of literature authors acknowledge that they crafted their works to suit their audience and patrons. Still, the idea that a work might have been written quite differently had it been composed in another place and time can be somewhat jarring if you haven’t thought much about it. And, I suppose, it can be even more jarring if the works you are thinking about are considered scripture.

And it is still another thing when you dare to take the step of putting scripture in your own words. Previous attempts to do this for the Mormon audience without having a prophetic imprimatur have not always been accepted. I came across one of these attempts and the accompanying criticism years ago in Lynn Matthews Anderson’s Easy-To-Read: Book of Mormon. Fortunately, the criticism hasn’t deterred everyone, and Michael Hicks has produced his own work in this vein, the The Street-Legal Version of Mormon’s Book, which I learned about in a recent podcast. [While I’m not suggesting that either of these are a substitute for the Book of Mormon (far from it really), I am suggesting that there is value to exploring the meaning of scripture in this way — as long as it doesn’t supplant the original.]

Brigham Young was cited in the podcast to describe how scripture might be different for different audiences, and that led me to the following:

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The Kingdom of God

By Brigham Young

It was remarked this morning that the Book of Mormon in no case contradicts the Bible. It has many words like those in the Bible, and as a whole is a strong witness to the Bible. Revelations, when they have passed from God to man, and from man into his written and printed language, cannot be said to be entirely perfect, though they may be as perfect as possible under the circumstances; they are perfect enough to answer the purposes of Heaven at this time.

When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. He spoke to the children of Jacob through Moses, as a blind, stiffnecked people, and when Jesus and his Apostles came they talked with the Jews as a benighted, wicked, selfish people. They would not receive the Gospel, though presented to them by the Son of God in all its righteousness, beauty and glory. Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to rewrite the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be rewritten, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiffnecked, the Lord can tell them but little.

“The Kingdom of God,” Journal of Discourses, v9, p. 310-311
Remarks by President Brigham Young, made in the
Bowery, Great Salt Lake City, July 13, 1862.

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When we talk about scripture, of course, this idea can be tricky. It raises the question of where we draw the boundary between what is scripture and what are our attempts to interpret the mind of God. Authority becomes much more important, since without it, deciding what is scripture and what is an attempt to simply understand scripture through writing is much more difficult.

Perhaps most importantly for those here on AMV, is what this can mean for non-scripture. If something that is held so inviolate as scripture would be very different if written today, then wouldn’t works with less import also be different if written in a different time and place?

Of course, that is exactly what happens. Stories are told and retold to fit different times. We bend and twist them to say things that are sometimes diametrically opposed to other versions of the story, or even completely unrelated to the original story. Romeo and Juliet becomes West Side Story. Pride and Prejudice becomes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Perhaps the story is just a vehicle for ideas.

None of this is new, of course. Even scripture quotes itself, retells the same stories and recasts what has been said before. I guess the only thing new here is hearing it said by Brigham Young.

5 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on writing

  1. Th.

    .

    Brigham Young just gets better and better. I really need to pick up that new biography.

  2. William Morris

    Agreed. I’ve made this point often in Sunday School, but it’s nice to know I have back up from Brother Brigham: “When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities.”

  3. Sarah Dunster

    Scripture, I have always thought, is a Urim and Thummim. The spirit brings a message to you through the words on the pages that applies specifically to you, and is gospel to you. I think great literature acts in that way, too. Harry Potter, for instance. (just kidding.) (no, not really.) I love how a great story will have so many facets and themes woven through it that, in reading it, you sort of see a reflection of yourself–your life, your struggles and issues–and find examples that are comforting and instructive and moving. So maybe it is true that something might be written differently at different times but it’s also true that stories are read differently by different people at different times.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Sarah, I think that is exactly right. And it is a wonderful fact — our maturity (be it intellectual, emotional or spiritual) transforms the texts we read into much more than what they were when they left the pen of the writer.

    That makes scripture more than it was and it makes even “simple, trite” Mormon literature stories of the late 1890s into works that mean something for the Mormon experience.

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