“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.


Part 2: You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know…

William Blake’s The Temptation and Fall of Eve


Part 1, wherein I muse upon the similarities between Darwinism and creationism, may be found here. In Part 2, I muse some more.

And yet . . . and yet. The longer I lived, the more I recognized that I had a tendency to settle into patterns of thought and behavior and into known, comfortable surroundings and not budge unless some act of God demonstrated to me that I could not survive—psychologically, at least—dramatic changes in conditions unless something gave. What had to give? Me. I needed to take another step outside my comfort zone and adapt to the new stresses on the old habitat. Based on my own desires for peace and quiet, I came to suspect that, barring a radical change in that Everlasting God whose power made and sustained Eden, the first breeding pair of hominids would likely have stayed in their garden stasis forever, all innocence and naked ignorance. Our own continued, expressed wishes for a return to the Peaceable Kingdom confirm how deeply that environment still interests us. So I suspect that had not some serpent of change appeared in paradise and coiled itself around Eve, triggering a sudden shift in direction for mankind and precipitating all that “sweat of the brow” stuff,  leading to the production of copious offspring capable of adapting to environments down through the generations, we might still be who we were—whatever that may have been.

Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist, linguist and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, sees the Old Testament as a “celebration” of the kind of commonplace yet horrifying (to modern sensibilities) violence that characterized mankind’s behavior during early stages of its social evolution. Continue reading “Part 2: You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know…”

Part 1: You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know …

This two-part post is from a chapter titled “Gardens” in my book Crossfire Canyon, under construction. I haven’t posted on AMV for a while and thought I’d run this out there.

As a reliable account of the origin of life on Earth, the Old Testament story of the Garden of Eden may itself stand only a hair’s breadth from being cast out of the paradise of credence. “It didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened that way,” scientists say as they pronounce the Eden story indefensible. Over the last century and a half, they have promoted science-based and evidence-supported stories to supplant the Creation Story: narrative strains of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, the yet-developing evolutionary tale.

The degree of interchangeability between the two storylines could be framed as a boxing match between contraries—Creationism v. Darwinism—with each side claiming to have landed multiple knock-out punches. Or perhaps, given both sides’ claims to Higher Truth, the contention is more like a jousting tournament. Despite the pageant’s being over a hundred-and-fifty years old, sterling knights on either side continue to try to unhorse each other, resulting, at times, in such heated language as to lay the nobility of both sides open to doubt. Rampant name-calling and disrespecting of persons abound, along with the dusting-off-of-feet on each other’s narrative grounds. Continue reading “Part 1: You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know …”

Evolution, useful fictions and eternal progression

I have some more speculative, more specifically Mormon thoughts that follow up to my post about Michael Austin, useful fictions and anxiety.

Let’s assume, and I realize that not everyone is going to agree with all of the following assumptions, but assuming that the LDS worldview is correct and that God created the world as a mortal probation for his spirit children to become embodied and progress and assuming that evolution as currently understood is the mechanism by which physical creation was accomplished and assuming that most or some of the current thinking on cognitive science as it relates to narrative is correct, what does that tell us about the importance of narrative to the plan of salvation?

Okay now that I lay it all out like that, I’m not entirely sure that I have a tidy answer. But a few things occur to me:

1. Progression is bound up with narrative. Narrative is essentially translation so that we can make sense of things and then because we are human, we try to take that translation and make it operative in our lives so that we are better suited to exist in mortal, time-bound, physical life. I suspect that that act of translation is important not only in how we relate to the physical world and society but also how we relate to the Holy Spirit. In fact, I suspect that the difficulties of translation are both connected to and emblematic of the difficulties of translation between spirit and body (I use between, but it very well may be “among”). The mechanics of evolution both demonstrate and interfere with (hopefully productively interfere with — there must be resistance or there is no growth) that process. The fleshy tables of our hearts must be inscribed and such inscription somehow also inscribes our spirit, changing it (if we are doing it right) for the better. Continue reading “Evolution, useful fictions and eternal progression”