Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What is Religious About Literature?

     Religion. It addresses questions of existence: Where did we come from? Why are we here? It is concerned with human morality: What is good? What is evil? What lies in the between, in the morally gray? Is there even such a thing? Religion seeks to “explain, to justify, to reconcile, to interpret, to [give] comfort.”[1] And all these things, are they not the same things that literature attempts to do? Therefore, the answer to the question of what is religious about literature is a fairly simple one in my own personal view. What makes literature religious is its ability to transcend us; to elevate the human mind (such as religion does) to higher places where questions of existence, of morality, of the universe, of the overall human experience, are explored.
     Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, Austen, Hugo, Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Twain, Orwell, Wild, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck—all are authors of great literature. They are explorers of human emotions (passion, love, fear, hate), of mans’ freedom of will, of sin, of righteousness, of deliverance, of identity, of reason, of insanity—of the human experience. What can be more transcending, more religious than the exploration of these things, the things that make up life? This is what is religious about literature—the examination of life and the transcendent and elevated place our minds can reach through the truths discovered in this examination.
     If literature can be religious, it would make sense to suppose that religion can not only help us see how literature is religious, but encourage the idea that literature—good literature—is religious. Mormonism, in my own opinion, does in fact do this. As a Mormon myself, I think I can say that Mormonism not only aids us in seeing that religious dimension to literature, but actually encourages us to be enlightened, influenced for good, and elevated to higher places by wholesome literature.
     Our scriptures state, “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”[2] Wherever we can find truth and wisdom, God encourages us to seek after it. Our leaders of the church have also made it clear to us that “In the kingdom of God, the search for truth is appreciated, encouraged, and in no way repressed or feared,” and that “Church members are strongly counseled by the Lord himself to seek knowledge.”[3] With these encouragements then, I believe that Mormonism does indeed allow us to see a religious aspect to literature, and for that I’m grateful because literature is truly wonderful, inspiring, elevating, and religious through its ability to transcend and lift us to higher places by exploring life, the human experience, and all that goes with it. It imparts wisdom and truths to our minds, and for that it’s great and worthwhile of our time.    

1. “Religion and Literature.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College. <>.   
2.. Doctrine and Covenants 88:118
3. Elder Marcos A. Aidukaitus. “If Ye Lack Wisdom.” April 2014 General Conference.  


Monday, April 20, 2015

Inherent??? Duh???

What is religious about literature? Obviously some literature is overtly about religious belief or experience. But is there anything inherent to literature that is also inherent to religion? Does Mormonism aid us in seeing this dimension to literature?

After reviewing all the prompts I decided on this one.  The honest reason why I chose this prompt was because out of the four this was the only prompt I felt most unsure about answering. I wasn’t positive what my answer would be right away unlike the others questions provided. In honor of my last semester I wanted to turn to “soul searching” and a little bit of research to answer this deep question.
Literature and religion have one of the most important things in common. They are or should be the most apparent things in our lives daily. Every day we are constantly reading, whether it’s a news article, Facebook post, or a reading assignment given in class. More than ever I have seen and been exposed to the more modern types of literature, such as the blog post we conducted in our course. This has helped me to start seeing different connections to literature (old or modern) and religion.

Disclaimer: Now before I start babbling my own words I want to share something simple but was profound to me.

A simple Google search led me to a BYU website named Literature and Belief. Here I found SEVERAL analyses of literature and their inherent connection with religion. As I scrolled through these articles I realized that at one point of another I had read many of the original pieces of these analysis during my four years as an undergraduate in the English department. And then I was shocked. Where had MY mind been this whole time while I was reading? I had done several analyses on these pieces, and sure I probably compared them to Mormonism of some sort because I attended BYU but not in the same way these authors connected them to religion. "Rereading 'Christabel',” by Daniel K. Muhlestein is an article I found on this website. Now, I have taken a course in which I was required to read Christabel and it was one of the most interesting pieces of literature I had ever analyzed due to the many critics who had their own interpretations. In class we discussed the most prevalent religious hints in this piece however, we did not dig as deep as Professor Muhlestein. During his essay he discusses the transformation of this piece from a Christian poem to a more anti-Christian poem. When I finished reading his piece I was mind blown. I mean MIND BLOWN. He summarizes his piece by saying that this poem was neither a Christian or anti-Christian piece but rather a piece about families, and trails, because of society’s expectations. (I know this is going to be a longer blog post but I can’t stop writing) Professor Muhlestein was able to disfigure this poem that was arguably about Christianity and now all at the same time and bring it to one idea that the Mormon Church is founded on, families. Now, these were not his intentions nor did he ever mention Mormonism however, why was it he brought it back to the foundation of our gospel? Because he couldn’t help it. He didn’t even know he was doing it. We can’t help the influence that appears in our writing from the background of our childhood and beliefs. This is WHY AND HOW religion is inherent to literature. Because authors can’t help be influenced by their beliefs even if they are intentionally trying to avoid adding them within their works. They are still there. And they are apparent to those who are looking for them.

And This is What I Believe Our Class Did This Semester. We were those eyes in search of those perfect little secrets.

One other thing I would like to mention is "Born Square: On Being Mormon, Western, and Human,” by Eugene England. In the first few pages he explains his own connection he has with landscape and his faith Mormonism. But I don’t have any more words for my blogpost . . . so I’ll have to skip this. But I did FIND this SO interesting.

Back to me babbling and I promise I will keep it to 4-6 sentences because I know I am well over my words for this post. (please don’t doc me for going over I just couldn’t stop typing) Back to discussing how we READ everyday regardless the genre. This is when I would like to say that being Mormon has aided me in seeing religious context in my everyday reading. Whether it is a religious or not I find myself finding connections to my religion. And I like it. I think that is how it is meant to be. And how I would like it to stay

Mormonism: In Pursuit of Meaning

Essay Option #1: How is Mormonism literary?

The characteristic of literature that I feel is most relevant to my life is how it attempts to understand and find meaning within specific areas of the human experience and the cultures that surround it. I think this is a powerful and vital role that literature plays in our society and in our individual lives. Literature is a tool for learning. As a Mormon, I've felt my religion compel me to learn and understand my place in this world and in eternity. There are so many literary aspects to life in the LDS church.

Every Mormon congregation is full of people trying to understand the events that surround their lives. Trying to understand why things happen and what they mean for each of us is an integral part of being LDS. This mirrors the way that literature explores ideas and looks for meaning through stories, characters, poetry, fiction, and non fiction. My favorite reading this semester was our study of Fire in the Pasture, a collection of poetry written by Mormons. Through their poetry, these people attempted to come to terms with difficult and complex ideas: Christ's sacrifice, motherhood, the death of loved ones, ancestors, family life...the list goes on and on. Even though I believe we have the blessing of a true gospel that helps us understand the answers to difficult questions, we still feel compelled to look deeper and gain a more thorough understanding of our experience as human beings and children of God. This effort to search, to learn, to discover patterns, to see beyond the trivial events of life and find true and real meaning is what studying literature and being Mormon is all about. This is what makes Mormonism literary.

Mormonism places a huge emphasis on scripture. Both the Book of Mormon and the Bible are considered by many, inside and outside our faith, to be works of literature. When I made the decision to make English my major, I did so partially because I knew that the strategies and skills I would learn would help me to better understand the scriptures. Studying great writing as a full-time college student has exceeded my expectation in this regard and I've come to realize that the very foundation of our faith is based on a strong literary experience with the scriptures. Only after Joseph Smith studied and pondered a verse in the Bible did he realize he needed to pray about which church to join, leading him to the revelation that would initiate the formation of the LDS church. This same process is key to each member's journey in the faith. We place heavy influence on the sincere and diligent study of the scriptures, and we believe in the power it has to lead us to act and do God's will. I've felt my study of literature enhance this principle and I've had similarly powerful experiences from secular books as well. Studying, learning, and acting is a process that Mormons  try extend to every part of our lives.

As mormons our history, theology, and everyday lives lead us in a literary path. I truly believe that the mormon experience is a literary experience.

The Future of the "Mormon Novel"

Nephi Anderson forged the path of the Mormon Novel with Added Upon. While the work was revolutionary in it's own right, it soon gave way to works of more palpable aesthetic and further creativity such as Mountains Between Us and Will Wonders Never Cease.

I certainly hope the pioneering will not end with these works. Instead, I hope we will continue to improving and expanding the tradition, particularly in the following areas:

Mormon-inspired National Market Novels:
Should LDS literature only be for LDS people? 
Maybe not.
Can people outside our culture still appreciate and understand the experiences and feelings of Mormons? 
I think yes. Mormons have a lot to offer. 

I appreciated, in words of Luisa Perkins, novels that are "profoundly LDS, but not overtly LDS." Since authors in general are (obviously) inspired by what they personally see and experience, it makes perfect sense for LDS authors take the peculiar aspects of their rebellion, lives, and cultures ro inspire novels. Orson Scott Card used our LDS heritage to inspire Seventh Son. Our beliefs in Joseph Smith and restoration are intriguing and spectacular--what else goes in a novel-writing formula?
Going along the same vein, Luisa Perkins explored the possibilities tied with our beliefs in body and spirits and took creative libertiesto complicate and push ideas of spirit and body further. Perkins published her novel with a LDS Publishing company, but like Card, she wrote a Mormon-inspired story that didn't require a Mormon reader.

Mormon Characters for General Audiences
Even better, I recently read LDS author Emily Wing Smith's Back When You Were Easier to Love published by Penguin Group. This book feature an LDS girl, struggling to fit in with Mormon culture in Utah, but it was written to a wider audience (as obvious by the publisher). This book was more masterfully written than many of the other Mormon novels I've read this semester, and I have no doubt a non-LDS reader would enjoy it just as much as an LDS one.

Along the same lines, A.E. Cannon wrote a successful historical fiction novel featuring a newly-converted LDS girl traveling from England to Utah to join the saints. Though I've yet to read it, I know the novel focuses her experiences on her voyage, caring for a baby who's mother died on board. Doesn't that sound appealing to more audiences than the LDS one? I'd hope for more of this kind of novel. If there's books about Jews and Catholics and Muslims enjoyed by people of all faiths, why not Mormons too?

National Market Worthy Novels for LDS Audiences:
Now, it does make sense that some explorations would be bogged down with Mormon culture explanations and are therefore best written for a specifically LDS audience. I don't think there's anything wrong with this genre, and it some cases it might be prefered. However, I can't stress enough that wish the stylistic crafting will continue to reach higher standards. As someone interested in publishing YA, I've taken classes severally creative writing classes from nationally published authors and read as much as I can to become a better YA writer.

Of course, I've still got a long way to go (hoping to find an agent for my first novel by December), but even with my small experience, I can recognize the major writing flaws in many of the books we have read (see my Jenny Proctor post for more specifics). While I liked each book, I couldn't fully enjoy the majority of them because of the rookie mistakes that I've trained to see and correct.And even though other people not as interesting in publishing may not be able to name the problems coming up in these novels, they still affect the how they feel about the novel.

It's not that these authors are bad writers, but in my maybe-not-humble-enough opinion, they are not ready to publish. They need to hone their craft further: mastering show don't tell, developing character, trimming wordiness, correcting unnatural dialogue, etc.

Why wouldn't we want future Mormon authors can write to skill level of nationally-published authors?

Truth, Beauty, and The Good

This semester I have spent a lot of time learning about the curriculum of the Truth, Beauty, and The Good, in relation to literature, religious pursuit, and life in general. Truth is also known as the meaningful life and primarily deals with epistemology or how we know what we think we know. Beauty, which is the rich life and stands out to us in form and aesthetics, and can act as an access point to Truth. Both of these correlate with The Good, which is known as the life of authentic happiness and is primarily seen through ethics. When combined, Truth, Beauty, and The Good for our ontology, or who we are and what it means for us to be and not just exist

The reason I give you this quick introduction to Truth, Beauty, and The Good is to better articulate what I believe is the authentic and innate connection between religion and literature. 

One of the first concepts that struck me while studying Mormon literature, was that in the early stages of LDS Literature, specifically Added Upon, the work and author seemed to be more concerned about portraying Truth than they were interested in portraying Beauty. Although I think this tactic accurately accomplishes its goal (yes, I can definitely see Truth in the book) it made it difficult for me to want to read the book because it was not first beautiful. This example highlights on of the main differences but also similarities between literature and religion. It seems to me, that in general, religion is most often primarily worried about Truth and The Good. Wishing for its devotees to live ethically and understand why they believe what they believe, is religions primary goal. On the whole, this approach works. It gives its followers a sense of the meaningful life of authentic happiness; at least, that is what I have felt from my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Similarly, literature also deals with Truth, Beauty, and The Good. But, its priorities are slightly different. Usually primarily focused on Beauty, literature uses Beauty, via aesthetics and form, to enlighten us to principles of Truth and The Good. All good literature leaves me feeling expanded in regards to questions about what I know and how I think I know it and what I believe to be ethical. In this way, literature often accomplishes all three aspects (Truth, Beauty, and The Good), whereas, religion often goes straight to the heart of the matter of Truth and The Good, hoping that it appears beautiful to the members. 

Both religion and literature seem to want to enhance our lives, although they often go about that goal in different ways. The only time that their different tactics present a problem, though, is when religion and literature try to join forces while still tugging their own directions.   

A perfect example of this tug-of-war is Mormonism and its efforts to create inherently religious literature. In many of the books we read this semester, I found myself always coming back to the same problem. The lessons and experiences of the book could be so impactful if they were portrayed with Beauty instead of just Truth. Religion doesn't necessarily need to present its information beautifully because easily-comprehended information ensures that everyone understands the doctrines taught. But literature, in order to be effective, must be beautiful. Obviously Beauty can be manifested in a number of ways. This doesn't require a prescribed style, but rather the qualities that will strike the reader because of the inevitability of what is written. Literature is less forceful than religion. The beauty of literature is that it embeds Truth and The Good subtly; it takes external reality and filters it through the internal workings of the human mind and soul. This is beautiful. Because of this Beauty becomes the access point to infinite amounts of Truth and The Good. Because literature is subtle, we can discover the truths that affect us, not just the truths that are prescribed and explained. 

Mormonism has a great potential to create literature that embeds immense possibilities for Truth and The Good. But in order to succeed, Mormon literature must not ignore Beauty. We must be prioritize Beauty and then, without doubt, the Truth, The Good, and the authentic happiness in our meaningful lives will be embedded into the pages of what we write. Others will find it through Beauty, and they will believe in the treasure they found.   

The Evolution of the Mormon Novel

Since the early beginnings of the LDS Church, Mormon literature has come a long way. I’m sure that the early members of the Church never expected to see such a huge growth in Mormon literature. In the beginning, it seems that members of the Church wanted to advocate Mormon theology. Novels such as Nephi Anderson’s “Added Upon” were written to explain Mormon doctrine in a new way. Anderson and other early Mormon authors wrote with the larger intent to instruct rather than to simply entertain.

As the years passed though, LDS authors began to realize that their audience wasn’t necessarily looking for another instructional story. Although religious literature can be very beneficial to society, that is only one genre of literature. Many people are looking for good, well-written literature, not just didactic tales but entertaining stories that they can talk about. Mormon authors can greatly enhance any genre by adding good, clean stories that provide more than just an explanation of Mormon doctrine.

There seems to be a difference however between Mormon literature and literature written by Mormons. Mormon literature seems to encompass literature that only members of the Church would come across and read. Stories such as Douglas Thayer’s or Jenny Proctor’s seem to fall into this category. The writing of Mormon literature itself has greatly improved over the years, but there seems to still be a disconnect between author and a wider audience. On the other hand, literature written by Mormons, which is literature not explicitly connected to the LDS faith, has had great success in recent years. Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer, and Obert Skye, to name only a few, have all found a wide readership outside of the Mormon world.

really, really good at literature.

Literature is religious by virtue of how it is approached by those who, simply put, are really, really good at it. We do not start out understanding the complexities of Oedipus or the subtleties of Hamlet. Nor do we start out understanding the eternities or what the Atonement of Christ truly is. But once we get to the point of being experienced in looking at literature and looking at religion, then we can better understand it and see deeper meanings than we ever could have if we would have stayed reading Go, Dog, Go or just watching bible videos.

To begin this comparison, we can look at how we as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begin to be ‘religious’. We start in nursery, being more or less babysat by people in our ward. They teach us lessons of Christ that