Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

My review essay on Jack Harrell’s recently released book, Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism, went live on the AML website yesterday. Since Harrell seems to position the book as a conversation starter (but really, isn’t that what all books are for?), I used my response to converse with the way he explicitly and implicitly addresses what in the review I call “a Mormon theology of the Word” and to consider possible ways of elaborating that theology into something more robust that can inform discussions of what Mormonism has to offer theories of language use. My notes on the book participate in my perpetual explorations of that topic. I’m posting the first section of my review here and linking to the full text in hopes of opening a channel for continuing the conversation that Harrell carries on in Writing Ourselves and that I pick up in my essay.

So, if something strikes you, even if you haven’t yet read the book, please comment below.

Here’s my opening section:

Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

i.
“The universe,” writer Jack Harrell claims, “is fundamentally absurd.” By nature, he argues, it’s out of tune and tends toward chaos. Enter God, an eternal personage who, by virtue of habits of being developed during an aeons-long process of development, seeks to call chaos to order, to resolve the discordant system. By Harrell’s estimation this makes God the ultimate Sense-Maker, the Source of meaning in a place that doesn’t of itself make sense. Addressing Mormonism’s “Creator-God” in an essay titled “Making Meaning as a Mormon Writer,” which is included in Harrell’s recent essay collection, Writing Ourselves, Harrell asserts that “God enters that corner” of the universe where “perilous chaos” reigns “and creates something from the raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is.” Then Harrell distills his claims about God-as-Creative-Being to a five word statement: “God is literally logos, meaning.” Drawn from the figure of God presented in the Johannine Gospel—”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” where Word translates the Greek term Logos—Harrell’s portrayal casts deity as the Supreme Rational Being whose creative power emerges from the significance inscribed on his being. Which is to say that meaning is in his eternal DNA. By this line of reasoning, which undergirds the main ideas Harrell pursues in Writing Ourselves, without meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated, God is naught and existence is absurd.

If God is meaning-embodied, to emulate God—as Mormons believe we’re made to do—is to privilege (above all things) meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated. Harrell suggests that Mormon writers should take this work seriously, as a matter of devotion to craft and to Christ, who as the Logos is, in Harrell’s words, “language and reason itself, making communication and meaning possible.” His parallel clauses suggest that, for Harrell, language is the province of communication and reason the province of meaning. It follows from my latter statement that to make meaning as a Mormon writer I must reason as God reasons. I must look “at unorganized matter,” at the absurdity and chaos of existence, and envision ways of bringing such foolishness to order, of shaping something logical from things illogical. We do this work every time we tell stories. Whether we compose them in writing or aloud, whether we’re working writers or relating events to a friend, we have a tendency to seek meaning in and to impose meaning on the happenings, the flow, and the structure of our lives. We may take this tendency as a given aspect of our being, as a characteristic developed during premortal aeons spent in God’s presence then carried into mortality. But must this be the case? What if we aren’t born predisposed to seek or to make meaning but we grow into the tendency? What if in terms of being as such—especially on the scale of eternal existence—meaning-making and reason are corollaries to more vital work? What if making meaning isn’t God’s—and by extension our—only or even highest purpose?

Read the full review on the flipside of this link.

On Poets & Poetry: Salt to the World

BYU Studies Quarterly just published my review essay on two recent poetry collections: Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt (Signature Books, 2013) and Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci (University of Tampa Press, 2013). Both collections are well-worth your time and they sustain and reward multiple readings. Here’s an excerpt, right from the middle of my review, to whet your lyric appetite:

Mormon theology demands that in all we do—language-making included—we attend closely to the environments we inhabit. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, then again in his sermon at the Nephite temple and to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. His utterance, reiterated across dispensations, calls his disciples to rely on his grace as they seek to build Zion: “You’re worried about where you’ll get your next meal?” he seems to ask. “How you’ll quench your thirst and clothe your nakedness? Well, look closely at the lilies. See how their relationship with the earth sustains their growth? They root in rich soil. They withhold their presence and their beauty from no one. They consume only as their needs demand and what they produce contributes—even in death—to the health and constant renewal of their environment, to which the species readily adapts. Can human institutions, which are prone to excess, say the same of themselves?

“Live, rather, like the lilies.”

Howe, it seems, has taken this imperative to heart (though perhaps not directly via Christ’s statement), using her poiesis as a way to sustain the world and to draw out her presence—as well as her readers’ presence—therein. Poet and professor Lance Larsen, who (like Howe) teaches at BYU, seems to have responded likewise, although the places he inhabits in his fourth poetry collection, Genius Loci, are more directly mobile than those Howe inhabits in Salt. Salt‘s geographies and the people and creatures who populate them are essentially in motion. But a persistent concern in Genius Loci is what it means to live in a world that doesn’t hold still—scratch that: not just to live in a world that doesn’t hold still, but to be fully present in that world.

You can read a PDF copy of the full review essay on the flipside of this link.

(Cross-posted here.)

“Woman of Another World, I Am with You”:
Reading the Divine Feminine in Mormonism

(Cross-posted here.)

It’s May, which means it’s time to celebrate (among other things) loyalty, Star Wars, nurses, Sally Ride, the end of the Middle Ages, and, of course, Mom.

“A Mother’s Love” by Lynde Mott
First Place, A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest

To that latter end, I’ve put myself to the task of reading and commenting on the poems featured in 2014’s A Mother Here Contest. You can read more about the contest via that link, but here’s how I see my project working: as an attempt (alongside and in conversation with the contest artworks) to “express the nearness of our Heavenly Mother” and to witness her presence in the cosmos (as coeval with Father) and in the intimate details of our lives.

As I mention, the project (which I’m hosting on FireinthePasture.org) will be two-fold:

1. I’ll post a recording of me reading one of the featured contest poems.

2. Alongside that reading, I’ll post a short audio comment (likely no more than four minutes long) in which I respond to the poem and explore what it says about the Mormon Divine Feminine.

My hope in taking this on is to expand the rich discourse that’s emerging re: Mother in Heaven and, in the process, to explore my own relationship with her. I’ve posted elsewhere about my experience talking about the Eternal Mother in a short sacrament meeting sermon. What I didn’t mention was how nervous I was when I stood to speak. I knew there was no silence officially mandated on the topic, but the cultural silence hung heavy in my ears and on my mind. As a result, just before I began speaking about her, my heart rapped hard on my sternum. When I introduced the idea that Mother stands beside Father as they carry out the work of eternity, though, I felt her presence and peace in a way I’ve never felt them before.

I’ve sensed that again as I’ve spent time the past week or so with the contest poems.

So: here goes—my first reading/commentary combo. A caveat, though: since May has 31 days and the contest only features 30 poems, what to do with the extra day? Rather than cut the month short, I found another poem to highlight: Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You.” I think it provides a fruitful beginning to this month-long engagement with the “A Mother Here” poems.


Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You”

Post 1/31 in my A Mother Here reading series. (I’m four days into the project now. Check out all posts in the series via the link embedded in the previous sentence.)

(Click/tap here to read the poem.)

Poem:


(Direct link to audio file.)

Commentary:


(Direct link to audio file.)


Let the 2nd Annual #MormonPoetrySlam Voting Begin!

Now that the busyness of Christmas has passed and the final performance in the 2nd Annual #MormonPoetrySlam has posted (see the event archive here), it’s time to determine the winner of the Audience Choice Award. For your consideration and reviewing pleasure, here are the eighteen entries, listed in order of appearance (you may need to hit “Read next page” at the bottom of the Storify to review all of eighteen).

To get straight to voting, click here. Continue reading “Let the 2nd Annual #MormonPoetrySlam Voting Begin!”

Love of Nature Nature of Love Month on Wilderness Interface Zone

WIZ Valentine6During February, Wilderness Interface Zone is launching its traditional month-long celebration of love and the natural world, Love of Nature Nature of Love Month.

To that end, we’re issuing an open call for nature-themed, love-laced writing and visual arts: original poetry, essays, blocks of fiction, art, music (mp3s), videos or other media that address the subject of love while referencing nature, even if lightly. By the same token, we’re interested in nature writing raveled up with themes of love.

If you’ve written artsy Valentine wishes to someone beloved—or perhaps created a video Valentine or made a live reading of a sonnet or lyric poem that’s original to you—or if you’ve written a short essay avowing your love for people, critters, or spaces that make you feel alive, please consider sending it to WIZ. Click here for submissions guidelines.

We hope you’ll join our month-long celebration combining two of the most potent natural forces on the face of the planet: love and language.

 

Utah’s Favorite Scrooge: Richard Wilkins Passes Into God’s Glory

Photo by Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700209340/Despite-living-in-Qatar-Richard-Wilkins-committed-to-role-as-Scrooge.html?pg=all

Richard Wilkins, who played Scrooge for 29 years at the Hale Centre Theatre in Utah, and a dedicated member of not only the theatre community in the state, but also a valiant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has passed away. The details are reported in the Salt Lake Tribune: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55356433-223/wilkins-family-law-legal.html.csp?page=2

I was friends with Richard Wilkins, as well as most of the members of his family. His daughter Claire and I were especially good friends (we went to Senior Dinner Dance together and she was a great, supportive friend to me). I met his family because Richard and his wife Melany cast me in a play at the Hale Center Theater when I was in Jr. High and I can look back at that moment as a great source continual blessings since then.

I will write a more personal tribute later, but I just wanted to take a moment now to recognize this tremendous figure in the Utah Theatre Community. Richard was a beautiful human being who I loved. My heart and prayers go with his family, who I also love.

Inappropriate book club questions

William riffs on the concept of inappropriate book club questions with examples from the work of Josi Kilpack, Margaret Young and Coke Newell.

Jonathan Langford emailed me the link to recently. It reads: “If you were a cannibal and were eating the protagonist from your novel, which side dishes would be appropriate? Explain.”

He suggested that it might be fun to a Mormon literary version. Here are mine — feel free to add your own via the comment box:

“The parents of the protagonist in Margaret Young’s Salvador drive her in a white van with a big red stripe and navy blue hubcaps to El Salvador. The mother calls it the Yankee Doodle Dan Van. Is that an appropriate use of our nation’s flag?”

“Explain why even though Kit in Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven joins the Church and serves a mission, his past as a mountain hippy makes him unfit to marry your niece and/or granddaughter.”

“Why does Doug Thayer hate rich people?”

“Is Josi S. Kilpack’s culinary mystery series against the Word of Wisdom? Shouldn’t it be more like Carob Brownie or Banana?”

“What do you think the ‘B’ stands for in Linda Hoffman Kimball’s The Marketing of Sister B?”