An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘literature’

Poets As Well As Prophets

Tom Roger’s recent article in Dialogue ,”‘A Climate Far and Fair’: Ecumenism and Abiding Faith,” scores a bull’s eye for 21st century Latter-day Saints. He cautions Mormons that “In our earnest striving to be ‘not of the world’ (John 17:16), we risk insulating ourselves from much that is ‘virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy’ and thereby disqualify ourselves as participants in the grand human conversation.”

Rogers is of my generation, the David O. McKay era when General Authorities quoted Shakespeare, Emerson and many other non-LDS poets and philosophers.  A time when we remembered Joseph Smith’s teaching that “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism’ is to receive truth let it come from whence it may” [italics added]. A time when Latter-day Saints felt free to look beyond Mormon culture for truth and light.

Rogers recommended, half-seriously, that the four-year cycle of Gospel Doctrine texts be expanded to five years and include Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “as a cautionary manual in courtship and marriage.” Now I haven’t revisited this novel recently, but thirty years after reading it, Anna lives in my mind. While reading about her infatuation with Vronsky, I wanted to shout “Stay away from him, you imbecile! Can’t you see where this is leading?” Of course, Anna couldn’t see. “Harmless” encounters morphed into an illicit affair destroying her marriage and ultimately her life.

Reading and discussing a novel with realistic characters in believable situations would likely impact Latter-Day Saints’ moral decisions far more than reading Alma’s warning to his son Corianton about the harlot Isabel. Neither Corianton nor Isabel is well-developed enough for most of us to relate to emotionally—and rash actions originate in the emotions.

But why limit our church exposure to great works of literature to a fifth year cycle? I remember when the Relief Society course of study included a monthly literature lesson.  One year sisters studied the full text of Hamlet. Later, a multi-volume anthology of great literature, Out of the Best Books was published for use as a Relief Society manual. Why do we now restrict our lesson material to LDS scriptures, quotes from General Authorities, and Ensign articles?

Vicarious experience beats firsthand experience when it comes to learning about any kind of evil—selfishness, dishonesty, substance abuse, using people. Gifted writers with inspired insights into human nature help us explore the minds and actions of persons wrestling with conflict between themselves and others or within themselves. Dead, white, male authors whose characters still live within their pages include Dickens, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. Contemporary American authors with much to teach us include Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Yes, Morrison and other contemporary authors include sex in their stories—but so did the Old Testament authors. Sex is part of life and pretending it doesn’t exist outside of holy matrimony doesn’t help us deal with real situations that may arise in our lives or the lives of family and friends.

A wise person once stated that humans need poets as well as prophets. Prophets exhort us to keep God’s commandments. Poets, playwrights and novelists touch our hearts with the understanding of what it means to be human and make it possible to keep the most important of the commandments—to love others as ourselves. Let’s spend some of our daily study with poets as well as prophets.

The Bishop Says . . . .

A recent blog referred to a concerned bishop whose ward members talked more about Twilight and Harry Potter than about Jesus and gospel principles between Sunday meetings. Comments on this blog made me think of recent messages my own bishop has delivered to our ward family. Among other things, we’ve been warned against the dangers of online porn and of living beyond our means. Since they miss my own shortcomings, I really don’t object to these messages. It’s a relief to sit smugly while others squirm about a) accessing the Internet for vicarious moral transgressions, or b) shopping addictions (for less erotic persons).

I don’t even mind when the bishop talks about food storage although three Clorox bottles of water in my storeroom will definitely not provide sustenance for George and me in the event of a global meltdown. With any luck, natural death may deliver us before “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

 But in the highly unlikely event that the bishop should ask my advice for admonishing our ward, what topic would I choose? Definitely not one of my favorite sins. Forget about forbidding R-rated movies and trashy television shows like Desperate Housewives. Give me a positive message. I want to hear the bishop counsel his flock to do things I enjoy.

How about suggesting family read-aloud time? Granted, I no longer have children at home to read to, but my grown children still talk about enjoying the adventures of hobbits, Pippi Longstocking, Swiss Family Robinson, even Odysseus. And they all grew up to be, not only avid readers, but adults with a lively interest in the world and empathy with people outside their own ethnic-religious circle. I suspect Huckleberry Finn and Jim had as great an impact on their moral development as Helaman’s stripling warriors

And let’s not limit it to families. I’d like to see our bishop admonish us adults to spend time getting acquainted with people outside our Mormon circle through wider reading. For starters how about memoirs from other cultures? A few suggestions I’d make are: Angela’s Ashes (Catholic Ireland), Dreams of Trespass (Moroccan family life), The Spider Eaters (Maoist China), Bread Givers (Jewish immigrants), The Road to Mecca (a European Jew’s conversion to Islam), Dust Tracks on the Road, (African-American), The Woman Warrior (Chinese-American)  and Reading Lolita in Tehran (Iranian). These are stories of people we will never meet in sacrament meeting, but their acquaintance will enrich our lives.

If you know my bishop, pleases let him know I’m ready to help. I’ll even contribute a recommended, age-appropriate list if our bishop choses to promote family read-aloud time.

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