Making Meaning as a Mormon Writer

By Jack Harrell

THERE SEEM TO be two forces battling for the soul of Mormon literature. Both originated outside of Mormonism, and both tempt us to work below our station. If we take Mormon theology seriously, however, I think we’ll find an important wellspring that can push our writers and thinkers in substantive and innovative directions.

The first force is traditional Christian theology. It started with Jewish Biblical scholar Philo of Alexandria (20 A.D.–50 B.C.), who fused Greek philosophy and Judaism. He argued that God “does not consist in relation to anything; for he himself is full of himself, and he is sufficient for himself.” The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, built on that idea, claiming that God is “infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute.” This absolute God pre-exists all things and is the source of all things. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Everything that in any way is, is from God. […] God is self-subsisting being itself. […] Nothing except God can be eternal,” for “the will of God is the cause of things.”

This absolute God created an ordered and fixed universe out of nothingness in order to demonstrate his perfections. As the Prime Mover, God presides over a determined universe in which all things operate according to his foreknowledge.

This doesn’t sound much like the Mormon God whom we cast as an exalted person, not as an impersonal force; a father who loves his children; one who hurts when his children hurt and finds joy in their happiness. We think of God as someone who responds, who thrives when his children cooperate with him and with each other to bring about Zion. We believe in a God who must work within laws, processes, and time. Rather than seeing the universe as absolute and pre-determined, we see it as being shaped by choices—God’s and our own.

However, when we Mormons write our stories, we tend to slip into the universe of traditional Christianity.  What happens when we give in to this “grip of theological absolutism”?1 Consider the effect such a shift has on just one tool in the Mormon writer’s toolbox—the literary epiphany. An epiphany in the literature of Ancient Greece happened when a god or goddess cast off its disguise to reveal its divinity. The word was adapted to Christian usage to signify a manifestation of God’s presence in the created world. The literary epiphany occurs when a character sees through the mundane world into a shining truth.

In a perfectly-ordered and pre-determined universe, ruled by an absolute and omniscient God, what kind of epiphanies are available? Only revelations of what already is or will be—what is already known by someone, even if that someone is God. There are no surprises for an absolute and omniscient God. Nothing can be new. Go to a Mormon bookstore and look for the epiphanies—in fiction and nonfiction. What is usually revealed? That which is already known. The safe and familiar. Books that rehash and repeat known truths. “A trusted voice,” as the slogan goes. The traditional Christian worldview has influenced us here.

BYU music professor Michael Hicks, writing in 1986, identified the same characteristics of surety and safety in pop music, and correctly identified the driving force behind them: the market. Investors like to ameliorate financial risks. A strange, new musical venture or a far out novel just might yield a big profit, but it’s a long shot. Better to stick with the sure thing. So while “experimental music . . . seeks to widen perception, comprehension, and speculation. Pop is the art of the tried method.” Pop music can have value as “a healthy, occasional recuperation from thought,” but this recuperative from thought too often has become the primary mode of thought:

The needlessness of reiteration has been reinterpreted as necessity, according to the oft-repeated dictum, ‘we learn by repetition.’ Though we remember by repetition, we learn by perceiving. […] Learning requires constant exposure to the new.

Paraphrasing Ortega y Gasset, Hicks concludes, “We arrive at each new truth with hands bloodstained from the slaughter of a thousand platitudes.”2

Repetition, safety, and the “trusted voice” binds us to sameness. The God of traditional Christianity—the unconditioned absolute, with its unchangeable, determined universe—is not a God of risks. He is the God of the safe way, the sure thing. And, therefore, very attractive in the marketplace. Interestingly, this kind of god resembles Lucifer in the pre-mortal council where he presented his plan: the way to salvation would be made clear and mandatory; none would be lost. But God knew better, understanding that great souls cannot be forged without adversity and risk. Art is the same way. Where is it without risk? Where is literature without uncertainty? Where is the meaningful when all things are sure? Submission to market forces pulls us away from the reality of God’s plan and into the company of Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

We too often embrace this absolutist worldview in Mormon arts and letters. When we do, the meaning we make is redundant, familiar, and anesthetizing. We drift toward the time-honored but destructive marriage of money and easy religion. Inasmuch as we embrace it, we squander our power in arts, letters, and faith.

 

THE SECOND FORCE has roots outside both Mormonism and Christianity. Its various names include nihilism, existentialism, and postmodernism. This ideology argues that the universe is absurd, that there is no such thing as ultimate meaning—no such thing as God.  Our tendency to see ultimate order in the universe is simply an artifact of the way our brains work. We watch a seed become a shoot; a caterpillar become a butterfly; a child grow into an adult; we watch cultures clash and fall away, transforming themselves and one another. But these are not observations of actual nature, the postmodernist argues, but only a reading of nature, rooted in an insistent and naïve logocentrism.

We construct an idea of what nature is, cast it into language, and then treat that casting as if it had a direct connection to reality, as if our signifier had an unbroken relation to the thing it signifies. Though it purports to connect with reality, language is simply the human mind at play, creating an endless chain of signifiers that can never lead to their signifieds but only other signifiers. If we are so unable to connect with simple objects through language, then how much more deluded are we to think that our complicated theories can have any relation to reality? Indeed, Jean-François Lyotard aptly defined postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives,”3 a skeptical approach to any grand story claiming to make meaning of the universe. The postmodernist looks askance at the Enlightenment, the American Dream, Marxism, the Scientific Revolution, and traditional Christianity—any overarching story purporting to comprehend Truth. Postmodernism is “an attack on authority and reliability—in philosophy, narrative, and the relationship of the arts to truth.”4

 

WHILE MORMON CULTURE tends to embrace the worldview of traditional Christianity with its fixed and absolute universe, it mostly rejects postmodernism.  But Mormon theology has much more to offer than either of these philosophies. Mormonism gives us a universe that is meaningful but not determined, and a God who is trustworthy but not unconditioned. As an exercise in Mormon theology, then, let’s consider what we know about God’s creativity and apply that to the possibilities of writing from a Mormon perspective.

In 1842, while working on his translation of the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham, Joseph learned that in Genesis the Hebrew word translated in the King James Version of the Bible as “created” should be translated as “organized.” As we read in Abraham, “the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1). Through Joseph we also learned that the “elements are eternal” (D&C 93:33), that “Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created nor made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29), and that “all spirit is matter” (D&C 131:7). The distinction between organization and ex nihilo creation has far-reaching implications. The Mormon Creator-God is no magician pulling rabbits out of empty hats. Instead, he takes unorganized matter, which pre-exists his status as a God, and organizes it into worlds.5

In this light, consider the creation story in Genesis. On the first day, the scripture says, “the earth was without form, and void” (Genesis 1:2). As Joseph Smith said, “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter.”6 When “God divided the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4), he made a distinction, an ordering.

On the second day, “God made the firmament [or expanse], and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament” (Genesis 1:7). He made a division of materials and, “called the firmament heaven” (Genesis 1:8).

On the third day, “God said, Let the waters under heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear” (Genesis 1:9). Here creation was simply a matter of allowing things to gather. On that same day, God organized plant life, saying, “let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself” (Genesis 1:11). In letting the waters gather and the earth bring forth grass and fruit, God allowed natural processes to occur. This kind of creation involves waiting and patience as much as effort.

On the fourth day, when the stars were created, God said, “let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14). That same day, “God made two great lights,” the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:16). The stars, the sun, and the moon—themselves significant creations—were made for an additional purpose, to encourage the making of meaning among God’s children. “Let them be for signs”; in other words, let them be read and interpreted.

On the fifth day, God made creatures of the sea and air. He said, “Let the waters bring forth” (Genesis 1:20); he said, “let fowl multiply” (Genesis 1:22)—again, allowing natural processes to occur. On the sixth day, he said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature” (Genesis 1:24) and “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26).

These glimpses into God’s creative processes show him speaking, naming, making, dividing, distinguishing, gathering, and setting natural processes into motion. We see him making things “for signs,” to spark the further making of meaning. The creative periods themselves are named, called “days” by God. They had no names before. They came to exist as distinctive periods because God named them so.

In short, God enters a realm of chaos in which one thing is indistinguishable from another, and there he divides and organizes materials into discrete elements. This approach to God’s creative process brings up a disconcerting question. What if existence—raw, unorganized, elemental existence—is existentially absurd just as the postmodernists have said? What if the native condition of all things is devoid of meaning? What if the bowels of hell—the center of each black hole—contain only chaos? Perhaps any given corner of existence, before God visits it, consists only of unorganized matter. Perhaps any corner of existence which God leaves behind forever returns to unorganized matter, becoming the “unweeded garden that grows to seed” which Hamlet laments.

We are told that “intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence,” and that “light cleaveth unto light” (D&C 88:40). This moves me to assume that confusion cleaves to confusion, chaos to chaos. Therefore, when God goes out to yonder unorganized matter, he is, perhaps, going to a dangerous place, a wilderness where disorder and confusion reign, where things naturally devolve into disorder. Nonetheless, God enters that corner of perilous chaos and creates something from the raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is. God is literally logos, meaning.

When we behave as God’s children, we do the same things. We enter a wilderness and build a city, or we enter a blighted neighborhood and clean up, rebuild, and restore. From common mud, a potter makes a useful and beautiful vase. From wood and metal, a luthier makes a guitar, and from the chromatic scales of notes on a guitar, a musician makes music. From the disorder of the brain’s scattered thoughts, and from a host of random experiences, a writer chooses arbitrary signifiers and makes a story, poem, or essay. Thus, we create meaning and follow in the footsteps of God.

In Mormonism, even failure, that constant companion of the artist and writer, is not unknown to the God who lost a third of his spirit children to the War in Heaven. In the Mormon universe, failure, success, risk, fortune, uncertainty, freedom, and epiphany all play useful and Godly roles. The making of meaning through science, art, and literature aligns ideally with Mormon theology. Our desire to make meaning results from seeing the universe as God does. He looks at unorganized matter and envisions order. Then he brings it about. That characteristic defines him, and it should define us. When we make order in our creative endeavors, we live out “the common Mormon idea that man participates with God in an endless and progressive creative process.”7

I suggest that the universe is fundamentally absurd, but need not remain so. The universe becomes purposeful when we gather its elements and shape them into created meaning through story and work, art and science, and love. As long as we value meaning and growth and experience, our work will be consequential and new. We will not find easy answers or sure paths, only hard processes that must be maintained in an ongoing, living struggle. Let us do away with the easy answers of absolutist Christianity and its market-driven infiltration into Mormon culture. Let us resist the pressures of nihilism that tell us the ends of the universe must remain forever absurd. Mormon theology, if we learn to appreciate it, will show us far-reaching implications for art and letters—not just as a means to re-present what we already have, but as a way of expanding our understanding, joy, and divinity.

NOTES

 

1.  Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 106.

2.  Michael Hicks. “The Beautiful and the Darned: A Meditation on Lex De Azevedo’s Pop Music and Morality,” Sunstone 54 (1986): 12–17, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/054-12-17.pdf (accessed 10 October 2012).

3. Jean François Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Meaning,” translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.

4.  Christopher Butler, Postmodernism, (New York: Sterling, 2010), 143.

5.  Kent F. Nielsen and Stephen D. Ricks, “Creation, Creation Accounts.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Creation,_Creation_Accounts (accessed 10 October 2012).

6.  David M. Grant, “Matter,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Matter (accessed 10 October 2012).

7.  McMurrin, Theological Foundations, 13.