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.

A Personal and Rhetorical Review of The Crucible of Doubt

Givens, Terryl and Fiona. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Question for Faith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014. 168 pages. $19.99 in hardback, $11.99 Kindle. Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Back in 2012, Ensign Peak (an imprint of Deseret Book), published The God Who Weeps, also by Terryl and Fiona Givens, which I described in an earlier review as both “explain[ing] to non-believing readers just why Mormonism might reasonably appeal to intelligent, thoughful people” and issuing to potentially doubting Mormons “an implicit invitation and challenge not to leave the LDS Church without spending some time thinking about what the Church teaches and the value those teachings may have.”

The current volume is clearly intended at least in part as a follow-up to that earlier book. And yet the two are quite different, in several important ways. Unlike The God Who Weeps, The Crucible of Doubt both is more overtly directed toward members of the LDS Church (hence, perhaps, its lack of the Ensign Peak imprint?) and more specifically addresses potential sources of doubt that may trouble such readers. As such, the style is more personal and direct, the tone less abstract, though still both conceptually broad and intellectually rewarding. To illustrate what I mean, compare the following two quotes, both chosen at random by flipping open the two books:

“Most human hearts, we find, are made of penetrable stuff. Several catalysts to change open to our possible futures” (The God Who Weeps, p. 85).

“If God can transform cosmic entropy and malice alike into fire that purifies rather than destroys, how much more can He do this with the actions of well-intentioned but less-than-perfect leaders” (The Crucible of Doubt, p. 79).

The God Who Weeps cites a broad combination of poets, novelists, theologians, and other noteworthy writers from across and even beyond the Christian tradition; The Crucible of Doubt is equally quote-laden, but with more of an emphasis on Mormon leaders. Where The God Who Weeps summarizes its argument in five clear propositions, each spelled out in the Introduction and expanded upon in a later chapter, The Crucible of Doubt refrains from self-summarization. The God Who Weeps uses a chatty, less formal endnote format to cite its sources; The Crucible of Doubt employs standard endnotes. Continue reading “A Personal and Rhetorical Review of The Crucible of Doubt

A Worthwhile and Long-Awaited Story: The Agitated Heart, by Scott Bronson

Title: The Agitated Heart
Author: Scott Bronson
Publisher: ArcPoint Media, Orem, UT
Genre: Novella
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 201 (but only about 40,000 words)
ISBN13: 978-0-9743155-1-5
Price: $12.99 from Amazon.com
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. (Electronic review copy received from the publisher.)

This is a story that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read. Fifteen years at least, since I first started hearing about it under its original title “The Whipping Boy.” It’s good, people told me. The best unpublished story in Mormon literature. It’s a mystery why no publisher has ever picked it up.

Thanks to Scott Parkin’s ArcPoint Media and to Scott Bronson’s own persistence, that long wait is now over. And I have to say: the story pretty much lives up to its hype — with some quibbles that I’ll get to later.

(And now I have to stop and say that there will indeed be spoilers. Because I can’t possibly review this story the way I want to do without referencing the ending. Not that the ending is a particular surprise; it’s foreshadowed for essentially the entire story, and if hearing about the ending puts you off, you probably aren’t someone who should read this book. Just saying.)

Continue reading “A Worthwhile and Long-Awaited Story: The Agitated Heart, by Scott Bronson”

Newish stuff from Van Sciver and Hales

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Two interesting (and short) Mormon comics out in the last little while (or midsized while, if you consider their original appearances online). Scott’s book just dropped. Noah’s arrived last July. Noah’s is about a Mormon kid whose connection to that aspect of his identity has largely lost its definition. Scott’s is the ultimate in insider humor.

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MY HOT DATE by Noah Van Sciver

I was pretty much the perfect Mormon teen, I suppose. I didn’t swear, I showed up on time to Church, I went to seminary. Because I was a teenager, I imagined that was because I did these things myself. Of course, that’s nonsense. What if I had been thrust into young Noah’s circumstances? Continue reading “Newish stuff from Van Sciver and Hales”

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)”