Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon
(as literature)

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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 Continue reading “Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon
(as literature)”

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

(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.

Thoughts?

On the Mormon Vision of Language: The Word of Enoch

In this week’s ruminations, I circle back to the pattern I mentioned last week and delve a bit more into Enoch’s language use, as detailed in Moses 6-7.


(Direct link to the audio file.)

(All posts in this series. // All audio files from this series.)

Book of Mormon Tropes

Wikipedia is a big time waster. (Not, I suspect, news to anyone here.) One thing leads to another, each article hyperlinking to another half-dozen, until before you know it, you’ve squandered another precious hour (to borrow a phrase from Tom and Ray Magliozzi) tracking down details of Urdu phonology, or something similarly abstruse. (Actually, I have no idea whether Wikipedia includes anything on Urdo phonology… wait… there is is.)

Ahem.

So, yeah, pretty much everyone who spends time surfing the Web knows how addictive Wikipedia can be, or YouTube. But I think I’ve now stumbled onto the mother lode, the heroin-mainlining of Internet addictions, at least for us devotees of the various literary/narrative media. I speak, of course, of TV Tropes, described on Wikipedia as

a wiki that collects and expands on various conventions and devices (tropes) found within creative works. Since its establishment in 2004, the site has gone from covering only television and film tropes to also covering those in a number of other media such as literature, comics, video games, and even things such as advertisements and toys.

Continue reading “Book of Mormon Tropes”

Sundry Moldy Solecisms # 2 Thinking to Thank the Jews and Thank the Jews For

Title: The New Covenant, Commonly Called The New Testament: Volume I The Gospels and Apocalypse
Translator: Willis Barnstone
Publisher: New York: Riverhead Books
Genre: Scripture
Year Published: 2002
Number of Pages: 577
Binding: Hardbound in signatures
ISBN10: 1-57322-182-1
Price:

Title: The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version
Editors: Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Scripture
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 637
Binding: Hardbound in signatures
ISBN13: 978-0-19-529770-6
Price: $35

In II Nephi 29 Nephi pauses in the midst of an apostrophe to future readers who will reject his words to remind them of their debt to the Jews.
Continue reading “Sundry Moldy Solecisms # 2 Thinking to Thank the Jews and Thank the Jews For”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two

As outlined in my last post , Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and concepts like Carl Jung’s archetypes and “collective unconscious” seem to tie well into J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson’s conversation with C.S. Lewis that helped convince him to become a Christian… that the similarity between world mythologies and Christianity is because they are being drawn from the same source, a pre-existent memory, a collective unconsciousness that is guiding mankind towards the “true myth” of Christianity.

The Christ story, however, is not the only “true myth.” I’ve seen Campbell’s pattern not only pop up in religious narratives such as the life of Christ and Buddha and Muhammad (some whose historicity is obviously debated depending on your religious views), but also in the lives of more established historical figures… try applying Campbell’s pattern to Joan of Arc for example, and other epic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. You’ll find some striking consistency. One of the most perfect examples I’ve found, however, is the life of Joseph Smith. His life plays out like an epic myth, the kind of stuff which would be seem obviously constructed after the fact, if we hadn’t so many historical proofs to back up the basic outline of the story. Now, obviously, events like the First Vision are up for debate, if you’re not an orthodox Mormon, but other events like Liberty Jail (which I’ll figure conveniently in Campbell’s “Belly of the Whale” stage) are without question historical facts in the American religious narrative. So I find it interesting that this pattern can crop up is non-structured scenarios in history, which attests to the universality of the Hero’s Journey model and how it is not only a convenient way to plot a story, but also an immortal way to show the truth of how spirituality plays out.

Which brings us not only to the life of Joseph Smith, but the pattern he layed out about man’s existence, what Mormons like to call the Plan of Salvation. In the rest of my essay, I’ll go through Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and apply it first to Joseph Smith’s life and by then I think you’ll also see how the pattern applies to the Plan of Salvation and our individual journeys through mortality:

JOSEPH SMITH AND THE HERO’S JOURNEY

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the Hero is always first called to leave his past life of obscurity and day to day existence and chart into a world of wonder and danger, where the Hero is to obtain some great boon or accomplish some great goal, which generally will be to the benefit of his fellow man.

Joseph’s early life is a perfect fit to this sort of beginning. Joseph Smith, the young farm hand whose strong body is hired out for his labor, but has very little room for upward mobility in his life. From all outlooks, his best hope is to become a farmer like his father, if he can escape the crushing dillemmas and ill twists of fate that kept his parents from escaping the constant threat of crushing poverty. Like Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars, King Arthur as a lanky squire, or an obscure carpenter’s son from Galilee, Joseph Smith at first glance would be an unlikely figure to make any sort of impact on the world around him. Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero's Journey, Part One

File:Hero 1000 faces book 2008.jpg For the past several years I have had a connection that has been floating around in my brain which I’ve been itching to iterate. In studying things as far flung as psychology, C.S. Lewis, Mormon theology and history, literary/mythical archetypes, world religions, and diverse world histories, these disparate parts have led me to form a pattern to the experiences of C.S. Lewis, the life of Joseph Smith, but also to the Mormon concept of the Plan of Salvation.

I have been teaching about Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” in my high school creative writing class and so it has set me back on this track of thinking which has been boring its way into my everyday unconscious for a long time now. For those unaware of what exactly “The Hero’s Journey” is, it chiefly comes from a book Joseph Campbell wrote called The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Written in 1949, it was a very important book that set forth the idea that there are patterns and archetypes found in all sorts of disparate mythology, fairy tales, religious narratives, and folk lore. That all these stories from unconnected and far flung cultures follow one basic story. It is also a trend that can be found in epic literature and film, which is uncannily and unconsciously present in everything from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And many writers now purposely craft their tales to follow this pattern, George Lucas’s Star Wars being one of the most famous examples.

Prometheus Unbound (83).jpg
BYU Experimental Theatre Company's production of _Prometheus Unbound_

I also purposely followed this pattern with my play Prometheus Unbound several years ago (and have addressed it less directly in other plays such as Swallow the Sun and my new work Manifest), much because the idea has fascinated me ever since I was taught it in my high school sophmore honors English class. Ms. Drummond mentioned Carl Jung’s revolutionary studies in the early and mid 20th century about archetypes (a simpler overview here) and the collective unconscious. In my terms, archetypes are repeating patterns that happen in mythology and other stories, in psychology, in dreams, and even (at least from what I’ve been able to observe) in many points in recorded, literal history (try applying this pattern to Joan of Arc, for example). Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero's Journey, Part One”

Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon

Introduction to Textual Criticism
Part VI

Somewhere in some book I perused about existentialism is the comment that any philosophical movement that can contain both a devout Christian like Søren Kierkegaard and a devout anti-Christian like Friedrich Nietszche must be very broad indeed. I mentioned that once to Jim Faulconer, from whom I took several philosophy classes, and he said, “Nietszche wasn’t an anti-Christ. I don’t believe in the same God Nietszche didn’t believe in.”

As Jim said several times in class, the god of philosophers and theologians is wholly other than we are, so radically different that it makes no sense to suppose that we might someday become like God, and yet eternal life depends on knowing this radically unknowable being. If the radically unknowable version of God is the only version you know it may make sense to call yourself an atheist. For one thing is God is so radically different from you how do you have any way of knowing that your worship is authentic or acceptable?

Jim suggested that if Nietszche had had a different definition of God available to him, he might have had defined his relationship to that God differently–perhaps if he had known Kierkegaard. Continue reading “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon”