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

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“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.

Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist

Amber Gilchrist is an independent writer of fiction that is unapologetically LDS and aimed at a general audience. When I set into reading her newest novel, The Librarian Shoots a Gun, it was with the intent of studying how she grounds her general readers in LDS culture–what she feels a need to explain, and how she does it without interrupting the flow of her story. Continue reading “Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist”

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.)

Revisiting The Reluctant Blogger

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Reluctant-Blogger-The_2x3Those of you with excellent memories or a fetish for reluctant bloggers may recall that two years ago today I posted, simultaneously here at AMV and over at MMM and at the AML blog, three takes on Ryan Rapier’s then recent novel. In writing this post, I’m intentionally not reviewing those reviews, but I suspect if you added them up and divided by three you would get a moderately negative take. And if I were to reread them now, I would probably remember all the things I complained about and I might lose my way in this remembrance of the novel.

See, for all its flaws of structure and point of view, I still think about the characters of The Reluctant Blogger all these years later. I think mostly of the protag’s father’s second marriage and of the pain the protag causes his love interest. These things—or, rather, these people are still with me. I think of them regularly.

And, in my opinion, the most important aspect of good fiction is characters who live on in the mind. It’s why Jane Eyre might be my favorite novel. Because I still think about Jane. I love Jane. She’s, like, my very good friend.

And The Reluctant Blogger also provided me with new friends.

So with that in mind, regardless of whatever I’ve said in the past, I recommend it.

His Right Hand (the conflicted review)

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Not so many pages into my reading of Mette Ivie Harrison’s new sequel to The Bishop’s WifeHis Right Hand, I decided I was going to write two reviews of this novel: His Right Hand — The Positive Review and His Right Hand — The Negative Review. I wasn’t sure which I would publish first vs which I would let sit on top, but it seemed like a good method to praise what I like and discuss directly what I don’t.

But I can’t write those reviews. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I’d realized that the good and the bad of the Linda Wallheim mysteries are too interwoven to cleanly separate. My concern, however, is that by interweaving them I will be giving the negative more weight. We’ll see how it goes. Ready? Continue readingHis Right Hand (the conflicted review)”

On subtlety, briefly

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Earlier this week Slate published an article which declared that subtlety sucks and it’s time for more heavy-handed art. I’m not going to address the nuances of this argument (besides, others are already kicking back), but I have been thinking about this, largely for work-in-progress reasons (which will be #2 in the following list). Continue reading “On subtlety, briefly”

“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?

A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

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When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.