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 the Mormon Vision of Language: “Thou Hast the Words of Eternal Life”

After spending some time in the Books of Moses and Mormon over the past several weeks, in this installment I turn to an episode from Christ’s life and explore what it can teach us about life-giving language.

Per usual, your thoughts are welcome in the comments.


(Direct link to the audio file.)

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

The Makar, Making, and Mormonism: Tyler’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

Muta Poesis
Muta Poesis, from Le vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni by Giovanni Bellori (Rome, 1672)

Each year, my wife and I look forward to making a pilgrimage to Orem, Utah to attend the annual Association for Mormon Letters Conference. I’ve also made it an annual practice to share my conference proposal once I’ve submitted it. In 2012, I proposed and presented “Situating Sonosophy: De/constructing Alex Caldiero’s ‘Poetarium'” and in 2013 I proposed “Performative Poesis and the (Un)Making of the World,” although my presentation was eventually titled “The Tongue as Tree of Life: Meditations on Words and the Word and the Making of the World.”

This year the conference, which will be held April 11-12 at UVU, is titled “New Faces of Mormonism: Are We Changing the Way We See Ourselves?” (*) Yesterday I submitted the following proposal, which is relevant to the Church’s recently released statement on what it means to become like God:

Alex Caldiero’s Performative Poesis: The Makar, Making, and Mormonism

Alex Caldiero’s work emerges from a rich performance ecology that consists of many different influences. One of these is the figure of the pre-modern bard, whom Caldiero calls a makar (mah-ker). Makar is the Middle English antecedent of maker, although makar is still active in the Scots language where it’s used in reference to a poet or bard [see here, especially]. Caldiero may have assumed the title in an attempt to establish kinship with a primitive (prime-itive) culture, its language, and its poetics. He may have also taken the name to skirt around the social and cultural limitations related to calling oneself a poet, including the stigma attached to practicing an art that some say is dead and that others associate with greeting card sentimentalism or the horrors of high school English. By moving to avoid these limitations (albeit at the cost of having to endure others [like being what Scott Carrier calls a “categorical conundrum”]), Caldiero becomes better able to critique common conceptions of poetry while he at the same time foregrounds the term’s origins: the word poetry derives from the Greek concept of poesis, which signifies the process of making.

Caldiero’s self-affiliation with Mormonism brings an additional level of signification to his focus on making. In particular, his poetics seem to be in conversation with Mormon theology’s teachings about Deity; these include the following:

  • First, that the Gods are Makers: they create and they procreate.
  • Second, that God isn’t a singular Entity acting as lone Creator but is part of a coterie of creative Beings acting in concert, a Community of Gods.
  • Third, that the Makers have created and peopled not just this world, this universe, but many worlds and many universes.
  • Fourth, that Creation doesn’t occur ex nihilo: rather the Makers build things from materials extant in expansive cosmos.
  • Fifth, that Creation unfolds in an eternal round: the Makers’ creative acts occur in the present progressive tense, that these Beings haven’t just created, they are creating.
  • Sixth, that humans are the Makers’ offspring; as such we have the making gene in us and by virtue of heredity and training, we can emulate our Parents and become Makers ourselves.

My paper will explore the relationships among Caldiero’s performative poesis (which he calls sonosophy) and the figures/ideas I’ve described above: the makar (the pre-modern bard), poetry as the process of making, and Gods as Makers.

(Cross-posted here.)

Remembering Paul

Paul Swenson. (Image credit)

Today is the anniversary of Paul Swenson’s birth. If my calculations are correct, he was born in 1935 and would have turned 78 this year. I’ve thought about him off and on since he passed, mostly because I know that at the time of his death he was working with Dream Garden Press to publish his second poetry collection. According to the bio note he passed along for inclusion in Fire in the Pasture the book was to be titled In Sleep and he was planning for its release in late 2011. I’m sure, among other things, his poor health pushed back the release, but his passing delayed it indefinitely. I’m not sure what’s happening with his literary estate now. But if anyone within the sound of this post does know what’s in store for the work Paul left behind (both published and unpublished), let me know. I’m interested in doing what I can to help archive, to sustain, and to promote his literary legacy. (You can contact me here.)

With that in mind, I wanted to commemorate Paul on his birthday by posting a couple clips of him reading his work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any online, but I did have some stored away on a jump drive in a collection of recordings I downloaded a few years ago from Sunstone’s Symposium archive when it still contained audio from past events. The two clips I’m sharing today were snipped from a session recording made during the 1997 Sunstone Symposium held 6-9 August at the University Park Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. The session was titled “Too Much Stuff Gone Down, Baby: Performance Poets at Play” and included readings by Paul, Alex Caldiero, Lin Ostler, Stefene Russell, and Laraine Wilkins. Paul read both of the following poems near the end of his set. The first is “Strange Gods,” which was originally published in Sunstone and later appeared in Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake; and the second, “Nothing Has Changed Since You Left,” is, as far as I can tell, unpublished. Continue reading “Remembering Paul”

“To Know the Names of All the Vital Things”


As I mentioned a little while ago
, my wife and I were asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting yesterday. At Theric’s request (and because I decided to approach the topic of Latter-day Saints and language and discuss Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth), I’m posting a slightly revised version of my talk here.

* * * *

“To Know the Names of All the Vital Things”: On the Virtue of Words and the Word of God

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

On June 16, 1844 at a meeting assembled in the grove just east of the Nauvoo Temple, the Prophet Joseph Smith stood to deliver one of his final sermons. Wet with rain, surrounded by apostates, many of whom wanted him dead, and sustained by the saints, he spoke plainly and courageously of the Christian Godhead and “the plurality of Gods,” truths that would in part lead to his martyrdom almost two weeks later.

Yet, his message was no different than anything he’d previously taught: “I wish to declare,” he said, that “in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods.”1 Using ancient and modern scripture to support his reasoning, he took the assembly back to the beginning, showing them the unbroken chain of exalted Beings that extends, Parent to child, across the thresholds of eternity. Pointing to the relationship between Christ and Elohim as his example, he asked, “Where was there ever a son without a father? and where was there ever a father without first being a son? […] [I]f Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He [Christ’s Father] had a Father also?”2 Continue reading ““To Know the Names of All the Vital Things””