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.

Words, Eternal Words

"word is a word" from procsilas moscas on Flickr
“word is a word” from procsilas moscas on Flickr
At the beginning of May, my wife and I moved our family from Idaho to Utah. The bishop of our new ward wasted no time asking us to speak in sacrament meeting. At our monthly ward social—ice cream at the park down the street—he stood next to me, made some small talk about running (an interest we both share), joked around a minute with another brother in the ward who had just that morning completed the Ogden Half-marathon (our bishop had run in it, too), then said, “Hey, I’ve got an opening in two weeks for sacrament speakers. Would you and your wife be interested in addressing us?” (Or something like that.)

Now, I enjoy public speaking. In fact, despite the nerves that churn my guts the hours before I speak, I love it. (Consummate performer Alex Caldiero once told me to embrace the nerves; they’ll make you a better performer. My dad—a skilled public speaker—used to say something similar.) My wife appreciates public speaking, too. So we gladly accepted the invitation and set to work preparing our sermons. Knowing that Mormon Arts Sunday (see also here) was on the horizon, I wanted to integrate some Mormon art into my remarks. I waffled around with several ideas the ten days after the bishop asked us to speak, but my thoughts didn’t congeal until a couple mornings before we would stand to speak. I woke up that morning with the idea that I should tap into the oratorical tradition of our forebears and, relying on the promise of preparation, weave a narrative as I stood before the congregation.

This, I thought, is the oral poet’s art.

Elsewhere, I’ve described this art in terms of what I call “poetry’s communal moments.” Here’s a rundown of what I mean: Epic poems, which narrate the heroic journeys and deeds of a protagonist whose life and character exemplify the values of the poem’s originating society, were traditionally composed orally before a live audience who had gathered to experience or to re-experience the hero’s adventures. (I say re-experience because many listeners would have been familiar with the legends and story cycles around which the poet wove his* particular narrative). Giving the event varying degrees of attention and receptivity and moving with the crowd vicariously through the hero’s adventures, listeners could participate with the poet in the story’s creation and elaboration. In the process, depending on how much attention listeners gave and how receptive they were, they could also likely feel the poet’s language deeply, viscerally, as his voice washed over the crowd and resounded with their flesh, exciting the passions and evoking the senses’ response. In these cultural circumstances, poetry and the process by which it was made were shared by the community and rooted in the connection among poets’ and listeners’ bodies. During poetry’s communal moments, which enacted the essential kinship between poets and listeners, both parties in the transaction may have had their individual and communal values and desires both validated and kept in check as, through the performance event, they mutually recognized and committed to emulate the hero’s strengths and learned how not to be via the hero’s shortcomings. In this way poetry traditionally functioned as a physically offered and physically received means by which community members might gain shared experience and might confirm and maintain individual and communal values and desires.

Relying on this art of oral composition—as practiced in early societies, as in early Mormonism—and on the communal promise it carries, I celebrated the process of language-making with our new ward and at the same time sought to raise awareness of responsible language use. I considered it a good way to recognize Mormon Arts Sunday. It may not have been an explicit recognition that, yes, we have awesome Mormon art and I may not have explicitly referenced Mormon artists (literary or otherwise); but my efforts were a recognition that latter-day scriptural narratives provide us with a unique vision of language and that the art of sermon-making among Mormons should be embraced as a means of weekly communion. At least that was my hope.

Since Mormon Arts Sunday is this weekend, I wanted to honor it with the celebration’s founding forum by sharing the audio file of my sermon, which I’ve titled “Words, Eternal Words.” Here it is (all 26:10 of it):

(Direct link to the mp3.)

I welcome your response in the comments.

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*I’m not being gender-insensitive with my pronoun use. Rather, the role of “epic poet” would have been filled by males.