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.