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.

Review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship, by Tyler Chadwick.

I approached this review with a lot of trepidation. I am not a schooled poet. I took exactly three writing classes in college, and I haven’t read nearly the amount of poetry that someone who professes to be a poet ought to have. I have written many poems, but I didn’t really figure out what a poem was supposed to be, for me, until I took that one poetry class (Jimmy Barnes, BYU, “writing poetry”) about ten years ago. So beware and bear with me. I’m coming at this from a very unschooled angle.

Field Notes on Language and Kinship is, essentially (I think) an observation on poetry and the way it fits into LDS culture in particular. Chadwick explores, in turn, how to read poetry (don’t force interpretation, instead give way to the language), why to write poetry (poetry can “give shape to ideas… that might otherwise be too diffuse”), why to read poetry (poetry is often intended to be mediation—an act of “moving” and “softening” for a reader and for the poet, and thus might draw them closer to God, the gospel, or other redeeming forces/ideals.)

The first story Chadwick relates in the book is about his grandmother who loved to hike, and went on many difficult excursions during her life. At each hike’s summit, or endpoint, she would collect a rock and label it. She collected these rocks in a jar. And Chadwick inherited this jar—chose it from his grandmother’s possessions after she died. As a boy, it intrigued him—rocks from all of these high points of his grandmother’s experience.

I believe this book is a similar rock-collection for Chadwick, only instead of pieces of granite, he has assembled poems to mark high points, important conflicts, switch-points and turns in his development as a human being and as a reader and writer of poetry.  Each of the sections focuses on a different aspect of his own relationship to language and how it developed and was influenced by life events, whether that be his mission, his mentors in college, his explorations of Sonosophy, his wife’s first pregnancy, the birth of a child, a sister struggling with infertility, and of course the time and attention he spent putting together Fire in the Pasture. Continue reading “Review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship, by Tyler Chadwick.”

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

Overview
Part I: An Oral Document
In August 2005 when Pres. Hinckley made his invitation (which morphed to a commandment in some minds) to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year we found Rex Campbell’s narration of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price and started listening. Earlier that year (I think) at the Association For Mormon Letters symposium my brother Dennis Clark had suggested after a session on scripture that we might well consider the Book of Mormon as oral literature since Joseph dictated the translation. He also suggested, though maybe at a different time, that we ought to think about Joseph as a translator like any other translator, someone who knew the language he was translating from.

Ironically, while listening to Campbell’s narration I didn’t think a lot about
the Book of Mormon as an oral narrative. I didn’t start thinking about that
until I had started my second reading of Deseret Book’s 1980 1st Edition facsimile. Continue reading “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflecting on Changes in the Book of Mormon”

All the Great Lights

Note. The following is an excerpt from a collection of missionary-memoir short stories by S.P. Bailey called All the Great Lights. You can read the complete collection at S.P. Bailey’s website. And please comment here! Reaction to the story would be great. But it might also be interesting to engage in a conversation about self-publishing in this manner. Is it extremely shameful? Or just sort of pathetic? Does publication by some small Mormon press—or even Deseret Book—really ensure quality or add meaningful prestige? Another topic worth discussing might be the missionary-memoir genre and its place in Mormon letters. Other topics would be fun too. Please comment!

11. The Sickness

Elder Hargrave’s homesickness was palpable every day he spent in the MTC. There was something precious about him writing letters home or carefully opening his family’s many packages to him. Hargrave taped a tiny portrait of his girlfriend inside the front cover of his “white bible,” the book of mission rules most elders carry in the left breast pockets of their white dress shirts. He looked at that picture so often that some missionaries must have thought he was contemplating key rules like “[y]ou and your companion are to sleep in the same bedroom, but not in the same bed.” Continue reading “All the Great Lights”

Work in Progress: Elder Cannon Remarries

Kent and I have been hitting the “issues facing Mormon publishing and book/film selling” pretty hard over the past few weeks. And there is more to come — I recently finished reading Rapture Ready! and have a few things to say about it in relation to the Mormon market. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that I really enjoy reading and writing Mormon literature. I was going to write up some liner notes for my Irreantum Fiction Contest entry, but then I realized that the judge(s) might read this blog.

So instead I have decided to offer a glimpse of a work in progress. It was originally called “The Courtship of Elder Cannon.” Apparently I retitled it “Elder Cannon Remarries” at some point. It’s been almost a year since I last worked on it so I’m a bit rusty on where I was going with it, but I think it’s the next piece of creative writing I want to focus on. I originally envisioned it as a longish short story, but now I’m thinking of putting my money where my mouth is and try to write a novella.

I suppose this is rather self-indulgent on my part. And I know writers are supposed to be superstitious about not letting this stuff see the light of day until a full draft is complete (and even then only to a few readers). But I thought that I’d take a cue from the non-fiction author-bloggers and forward-thinking speculative fiction writers and go public with the project and provide a teaser of what’s been written so far.

So without further ado, here are the first 2,000 words of the first draft of “Elder Cannon Remarries.” Continue reading “Work in Progress: Elder Cannon Remarries”

Excerpt: And now for something completely different

. . . and hopefully a little fun. It’s been a rough week at Casa Karamesines, with illness ruling the household and PGK’s disabled daughter requiring much care day and night, and when PGK has a hard week she likes to put up something on AMV she enjoys doing, something that lightens her mind.

This is an excerpt from my much longer and (yet) unpublished essay, “Plato’s Alcove,” which won first place in the Utah Arts Council’s essay competition a few years ago. I enjoy writing these kinds of stories; they’re fun to play with. Adapted from the folk story form as they are, their language becomes approachable from nearly any direction. The essay from which I excerpted this story is about irony and beauty and how both may combine suddenly and unexpectedly in a dazzling flash to shift one’s world view. Warning: this is not a story about the origins of the world as per evolution or the OT creation story; this is a story about language, relation, and, as mentioned, irony, a much maligned and misunderstood trope. (Oh yes, and some readers with sensitive or out-of-joint noses may detect a faint whiff of environmental idolatry.)

In the desert one day I met Coyote, the Trickster-God. We greeted each other and sat in the shade. I opened my canteen and drank then offered Coyote a drink. When he thought I wasn’t looking he wiped the canteen’s mouth. Then he drank.

“Thank you,” he said, handing it back.

I gestured at the breathtaking view before us and asked Coyote, “Why is this place so beautiful do you think?”

He laughed and said, “I’ll tell you a story that explains everything.”

Used to be (said Coyote) Earth wasn’t like this. Earth wasn’t even earth. A great, watery business, it flowed together and apart, rising and falling. There were no plants, no coyotes, and no people—only Earth, and it couldn’t speak. Each day Sun called out to it but Earth stood silent. Moon signaled across the darkness but Earth made no sign.

Now a great Maker, Ma’i, Coyote, who goes from place to place and star to star, passing by Earth stopped to consider it. Seeing this sphere formed at the very limits of the laws he shook his head.

“What god did this?” he asked. “It’s the work of an imbecile!” To show his contempt he relieved himself on it. A seed passed through him in his scat and fell into the water. Then Ma’i went away.

Waves tossed the scat then struck one of the few drifts of land, casting scat and seed ashore. Instantly the ground doubled over on it and sank.

Moon and Sun continued to call to Earth but nothing happened. Then one day, something happened. The seed in Ma’i’s scat had sprouted! A green tendril rose up through the water and with this tendril, Earth found a tongue. The tendril became a mighty trunk. Its roots pulled together the drifting parcels of ground. Sweeping branches overhung every quarter.

The branches budded and burst into parti-colored flowers, each with a distinct odor and shape. The flowers ripened then dropped into whatever element lay below. Some fell into water, making various fishes and water-creatures. Others became land animals. Some falling through air changed into birds. Two flowers, each budding on separate branches, dropped into warm mud, plop, plop, making man and woman.

Thus Earth went from a sullen place to one of many utterances. Earth and Sun spoke in terms of life and to Moon Earth responded with silver tides. The tree died, but the creatures it produced multiplied like saplings in a willow thicket.

But of all creatures then living, First Man and First Woman (I’m skipping a bit here, said Coyote) were peculiar, because while there was no doubt they were of the tree they behaved as if they weren’t. Earth felt the relation and spoke to them in the sweetness of her fruits and the coolness of her waters. It caressed them with breezes and visited them in still places. Yet First Man and First Woman acted like they were they only thing in the world happening, which caused problems for everyone.

So Earth sent something more obvious by way of speaking to them, namely Strong Spirits. Like the blossoms that fell from the tree, each formed according to its element. There’s Desert Strong Spirit, Strong Spirit in the Sea, Star Strong Spirit, and so on. They tease Woman and Man, coaxing them beyond themselves, calling to them to join the rest.

Coyote finished his story and said, “Well, what do you think?”

“It’s just as you said. It’s a beautiful story and explains a lot.”

He nodded. Waving a paw at land and sky, he said, “This whole business is very ecological, economical, and remarkable, don’t you think?”

“Very,” I said.

“The Strong Spirit of this place has shown you this.” Then he said something that sticks in my head to this day.

“What do you suppose . . .” he began, then stopped. He coughed, “Ahem, ahem.”

“What?” I said. “Say it.”

“What do you think we’d do with our big brains if we weren’t all the time using them to get ourselves out of the trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into?”

I stared at the stones as if they had asked the question and not Coyote.

I said, “Why, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Coyote slapped his thigh.

“Exactly!” he said.