Below Our Peculiar Surface

In her recent AML Blog post, Lisa Torcasso Downing echoes Jack Harrell’s recent call for Mormon writers to write “weird.” According to Lisa, Jack “meant Mormon writers must be willing to examine the complexities of our life, religion, and culture, to find the things that make us stand out from the rest of the world. We aren’t like other people and, if our literature is to be honest, it must embrace this fact.”

This instantly reminded me of a war of words that began with Cracroft’s review of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems and continued with Bruce Jorgensen’s To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say, Cracroft’s Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature and Gideon Burton’s Should We Ask, ‘Is this Mormon Literature?’: Towards a Mormon Criticism. Essentially, the debate was about essentialism. Cracroft felt we weren’t honestly expressing our Mormon peculiarities, Jorgensen warned against mantic elitism, and Burton just wanted everyone to be friends (more or less) and believed Cracroft and Jorgensen’s positions weren’t really at odds with one another. As these articles cover a good deal of ground on a topic essential for any LDS writer to understand, I consider them required reading. If you haven’t read them, I exhort you in the voice of Elder Scott to “repent now.”

For the rest of you, let’s return to Lisa’s excellent post:

Mormon writers must write our complexities, as Jack calls us to do, but we must do this with the courage of complete honesty. This honesty includes the way we approach the sacred. I do not mean the type of bare-backed disclosure that poses as honesty in the typical journalist’s expose. I’m certainly not speaking of writing out the temple ceremony for the sake of writing out the temple ceremony. It is as dishonest to approach the Mormon sacred with a gratuitous heart as it is to avoid the sacred altogether.

I agree with her injunction to seek an appropriate approach to sacred experiences in uniquely Mormon contexts, as well as her caution to avoid casting pearls before swine, or “bare-backed disclosure,” as she put it. She continues to say we have too often been concerned about getting in trouble by broaching the sacred in the written word despite being called upon to speak and testify of sacred things constantly. She may be right. The necessity of sharing our sacred peculiarities in a reverent, appropriate way is central to her post, and I have little critique of that claim. But what about the following statement?

Of course I don’t mean that the Mormon experience lacks universality. Of course our experience as human beings is much the same as others. We live, we love, we suffer, we fear and hope, we die. But there are undercurrents to our experience that are uniquely Mormon, that make us different, and that may very well someday swirl Mormon literature to the surface of the world’s consciousness.

Yes; we saints live, love, suffer, fear, hope and die (and sometimes in that order) just like anyone else. But if Lisa calls our peculiar religious context the undercurrent that may “swirl Mormon literature to the surface of the world’s consciousness,” I’m not sure I agree. Rather, I would say the apparent weirdness of Mormon experience is merely a superstructure. I am convinced the valuable and universally compelling weirdness Latter-day Saints possess as writers (and otherwise) lies in how we discern and interpret life, love, pain, fear, hope and death. I believe a saintly hermeneutic to be the substructure (or undercurrent) that would empower us to reach a universal audience.

Stories about a lonely polygamist, a seminary teacher with a tumor, or a missionary in mortal peril may garner national attention for their novelty, exoticism or sensationalism, but if they transcend those attributes and connect with a broad audience, it is because they effectively engage the universal truths to which Latter-day Saint authors have uncommon access to via the strange and supernal gift of the Holy Ghost. In other words, the only peculiarity we poses as Latter-day Saints capable of commanding the attention of the world for more than a brief moment is the peculiar insight we have to offer into who we are and why we strive through this vale of tears. How should we write weird? By infusing our words with divine hermeneutics born of the Holy Ghost.

In short, I agree that writing the sacred is essential. But this imperative has more to do with honestly writing from sacred insight than about distinctly (weird) LDS experiences. But I’ll give Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft the last word on this. From their intro to 22 Young Mormon Writers:

If the divine anthropology of Mormonism could be imaginatively realized in written words, the product might well be counted among the most significant literary expressions of our time. From Dante to T.S. Eliot, great writers have found their faith the sine qua non of their art. The same is true for the struggling Mormon writer. This is not to suggest that Mormon art should become noting more than the bearing of one’s “testimony.” It is to suggest that whatever is written, if it is ultimately to succeed, must be informed by that faith.

The writer need not forget that he must sweat for his bread, that he will be afflicted and tormented. But at the same time he must never assume that the sweat and afflictions are the ends of his existence. To assume such purposelessness is to deny the faith. And to deny the faith is to deny those deepest commitments which inform and fill out the essence of the man. And if the man is ill-formed and empty, how can he produce anything that is not itself chaotic and vacuous?

To concentrate on his own bruises, to be content with simple self-exposure as another failing human may touch our sympathy but not our spirit. To concentrate on his own heart, to work at self-expression as a struggling son of God may move us not only to hope, but to try. Pity is a good thing, but courage is better.

On second thought, why don’t I give you the last word. Put it in the comments below.