Storytelling & Community: Don’t Judge Them to Death

On my way home from teaching, I pass an empty lot in the middle of my town’s business district. The local funeral home rents the space and posts one of those Clever-Saying signs that usually adorn the parking lots of evangelical churches in my area. This week the slogan read: Love people to life. Don’t judge them to death.

After my brain performed its automatic hatchet job on the structure of the couplet, reversing the two sentiments for clarity, it settled down long enough to reflect on the message. Needless to say, the couplet put me in mind of the oft quoted Biblical verse, “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:10). I suppose that was the point.

Am I the only person who has a scripture as a pet peeve? Because Matthew 7:10 just strikes me as wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but off. Incomplete. Like someone left something out. My life experience simply doesn’t support the verse because every day I am required to make a myriad of important, practical, and often spiritual or ethical judgments as I strive to follow the Lord. In my efforts to be a decent parent, I must teach my children to judge between good and evil behaviors. Part of doing this requires me to sometimes point to the things people do, even to who they have become, and verbally express what amounts to a judgment: “Don’t do that. Don’t become that. It’s not the best way.” The Lord himself advises us to choose everyday whom we will serve. In my eyes, that commandment is as much about making judgments as about making a decision.

To demonstrate my point, consider our experiences within our fledgling Mormon literary community. We are all judges, all critics of one type or another, and critical thought is founded on the ability to analyze, to evaluate, to judge. Some of us are tasked with the job of editing and, within that realm, must judge between works of literature, offering publication to some, rejecting others. No one reasonably expects the editor or the critic to refrain from judging a writer’s talent, skill, and execution; no one would expect readers to refrain from judging the stories they consume; and no one would ask the writer to please write stories in which judgments are not made, either by the characters or by the readers. Judging is how the world–including the literary world–functions.

We have to do back flips to harmonize “Judge not that ye be not judged” with the requirements of daily living. Or so I’ve always felt. But as I drove the rest of the way home, reflecting for the zillionth time on this troublesome New Testament verse, I had an epiphany. It was like I’d highlighted the word “judge” in my thoughts, right clicked on a mental mouse, and selected “Synonyms” from the drop-down. The word “condemn” appeared in my consciousness as a substitute for “judge.”

Condemn not that ye be not condemned (Lisa 1:1).

Yeah. I like that. Okay, sure. “Condemn” may not be, in most cases, a perfect synonym for “judge.” And I have no idea if “condemn” is a derivative of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin word that has been translated as “judge.” But I do know that this edited verse fits well with my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Judging isn’t the problem. The problem is when we issue a final verdict.

Again, we are expected to judge between good and evil–even shades of good and evil–but not to condemn our fellow man, not to issue an edict on his value, or worth, or redemptive potential; we must never cease believing in a person’s ability to improve, repent, to work good in spite of failings. We should lift up, encourage and never condemn. If we move beyond the judgment of right vs wrong and into casting about our condemnations of others, we merit condemnation ourselves, considering we are no more perfected than our brothers and sisters. If they stand condemned, certainly we will as well. This satisfies my understanding.

But I hardly intended for this to be a religious post. Rather, I wanted to express how this epiphany impacted my thinking about Mormon letters. You see, after reading the sign, I reflected on ways I may have condemned within the circle of Mormon lit. I’m ashamed to say I have done just that. Once upon a time, I was proud college graduate, a classically trained member of the literati, and a self-proclaimed critic with little patience for anything but “genuine” literary art. I read nothing by Mormon authors, assuming them trite, unrealistic, banal. In a very real way, I condemned Mormon literature on the whole. You’ve probably heard some members of our community let fly some pretty fiery darts of condemnation: Faith-promoting literature lacks substance. Mormon romance literature is silly and unrealistic. Mormon Speculative fiction is escapist fluff. Literary fiction is boring. Poetry should go the way of Latin. And so on. Each is a condemnation of the “other.” According to Lisa 1:1, the condemnation we sow will be the one we reap.

That assertion, I think, moves beyond the kind of nanner-nanner-nanner-ism of schoolyard logic that it implies. I am presently reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series with my nine year old son. As fellow fans of the series know, Camp Half-blood is a training facility for the world’s demigods. The camp has an overarching structure and purpose, but it is comprised of a series of cabins which house the offspring born of the various Greek gods and their mortal lovers. Each cabin has its own set of demigod strengths, but they also have very different desires. One cabin is dedicated to war strategy; another to the strategy of love, and so on. But each cabin must learn to work in unity with the other cabins, and to support them, even encourage them to develop their strengths, if Olympus is to be saved from destruction.

This reminds me of our Mormon literary community, with the cabins representing each subgenre within the larger genre of Mormon literature. Writers and readers of the various subgenres–romance, SFF, lit fic, etc.–should strive to support one another and cease to condemn because, if we condemn, we are, in essence, condemning ourselves. We may not be demigods, but I dare say our purpose is as singular as theirs–not to save Olympus of course, but to promote the well-being of Mormon literature. I make no call for members of our community to cease judging the merit of any given work by an LDS author or about the Mormon experience. Rather, I suggest that we should celebrate our genre differences as evidence of our scope, breadth, and strength. We should stop wasting our energies condemning the “other” within our group lest, in issuing that final verdict, we close our own casket. Indeed, condemn not that ye be not condemned.

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7 Responses to Storytelling & Community: Don’t Judge Them to Death

  1. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Great insights, Lisa. Thank you for sharing.

    Just a comment, though, about that scripture. If you look at the footnote for that verse (in the LDS edition), it says "JST Matt. 7:1-2 Now these are the words which Jesus taught his disciples that they should say unto people. Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgement."

    Which I think fits nicely with your "condemn not" take on the idea, especially if "righteous" implies "with the pure love of Christ."

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    (sorry for the tome; I’m far too lazy to cut this down to reasonable length; judge as needed…)

    At the risk of completely missing the point and diverting to a tangential rat-hole on interpretation of scripture, I wanted to add a thought or two.

    I think Kathleen’s reference to the JST is critical here. First, because it adds the idea of judging righteously; and second because the JST suggests that righteous judgment is not only allowed, but is explicitly intended (and perhaps even commanded).

    Maybe this is wresting the words too much, but I think it’s also important to separate the idea of discernment from the idea of judgment. In modern English we conflate those two ideas, but I think they’re very different concepts.

    Judgment is reserved to those with authority and keys to judge (judges in Israel, etc.) in a specific setting or context and over a specific law, where discernment is an ability to detect the truth in/of a thing (any thing) for any observer in any context. In fact, discernment is specifically listed as a gift of the spirit, which suggests it is open to anyone solely on the basis of righteousness.

    So while any observer can discern truth, meaning, or value to themselves of a thing (though not all are granted discernment as a spiritual gift), only a select few are endowed with keys and authority to judge the absolute truth of a thing.

    Which is more or less what you said. I just got there by a different route.

    As Mormons I think we have a special struggle with that idea. We accept the idea of authority to judge residing in the hands of a few, but we also see ourselves as constantly sifting and evaluating at the same time that we are all called to watch over the flock always and attempt to teach righteous principles to every other person. More importantly, we believe that specific keys and authorities have been restored to us to make righteous judgments for and on behalf of this generation.

    It’s no wonder we so easily move from discerning the truth or reality of a thing as a matter for our personal standing and understanding, to making a blanket evaluation of a thing as a matter of Truth revealed to us by the spirit that applies equally to all.

    It’s all about authority. We may all discern for ourselves, but only a few judge for us all. Even bishops are only judges over their own flocks, not all flocks. And sometimes even then the law may apply differently in different circumstances. Thus the need to distinguish judgment from *righteous* judgment.

    Insulin, for example, is a life-saving medicine to those whose bodies do not properly produce it on their own (like my mother, grandmother, next door neighbor, and cat), but is a deadly poison in even small doses when administered to those whose bodies already produce it in proper proportion. Even among diabetics, a dose fit for my mother could easily be toxic to my next door neighbor–and would likely be fatal to me.

    It’s an easy thing to conflate discernment and judgment. Which is why it’s so important that we consider each and every evaluation, and understand whether we have been endowed with keys and authority to judge the full and absolute value of that thing in that context, or if we are acting under a lessor authority (or lack thereof).

    For me, literature is very much the same way. I have the right to discern for myself the personal utility of any story, and the mandate to share my experience with others. But I do not have the authority to declare the thing itself as unfit for all, no matter how little use or value it provides to me.

    Right now my wife finds interest in romance fantasy, which I would find nearly toxic, and almost certainly painful. At the same time I’ve spent the last two weeks reading old woodworking magazines from cover to cover–a practice that would at best bore my wife silly.

    We have each discerned properly for our own selves and contexts. We should both refrain from judgment, however, because in this case there is no way to judge righteously, since perceived value in literature is not an eternal principle requiring judgment of one having authority.

    Which may be why the translators of the KJV bible left out the "righteous" part; it was implied by the fact that judgment is a limited act reserved to a select few with specific keys and authority. Or maybe they just flaked, which is why Joseph Smith’s discernment in expanding that meaning for us is so very important.

    Not really an argument; just a thought exercise inspired by your words. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Melinda W. says:

    I read a few verses from the Book of Mormon that explains righteous judgment. It actually goes right along with how Lisa concluded it means not to condemn, because we may then be condemned ourselves.

    From Moroni 7:14 et seq:

    [i]Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
    15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
    16 For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
    17 But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.
    18 And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.[/i]

    I’ve also changed my judgmental comments about writing that I don’t personally enjoy reading. I’d run off at the mouth about how silly a genre was, or how lame an author was, only to find out that someone in the group really liked that genre or author. Very embarrassing. In fact, I did it again this weekend, griping about how much I hated 1984 by George Orwell, only to find out that someone I was talking to enjoyed it. Oops again.

    My writing has also changed significantly over the years. While I started out thinking I would appeal to the crowd who enjoys higher literature, it’s turning out that I write books that people who read romances and family dramas will like. My content makes my books inappropriate for Deseret Book, but honestly, the Mormons who shop at Deseret Book are going to be part of my target audience (although some of them will be mightily offended). So now I read books from Deseret Book. And you know, they’re good and I like them. Not all of them, but enough of them to not be judgmental about the ones I don’t like.

    (I hope this doesn’t post multiple times, as I had trouble getting it to post at all.)

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Enjoyed reading these comments. I do think that Mormons have a pretty clear understanding of the "judge (un)righteously" concept. It had been awhile since I read that passage from Moroni, considering I’m really good at starting a new read of the BofM, but not so good at finishing. It was nice to reread. And I’m familiar with the JST explanation, but really, that doesn’t set right with me either. I mean, "Judge not unrighteously that ye be not judged"? Well, even if I do judge unrighteously, I expect that Christ will still judge me righteously. And it seems to me other people will pass their judgements, righteous and otherwise, whether or not I judge righteously. So yeah, the verse is an odd one and one I’ve seen misused in the non-LDS world.

    I appreciate Scott’s astute tome. Why shorten when long works so well? I liked the way you separated discernment and judgement. Someday I may steal some of these insights for a SS comment so I sound smart.

    And Melinda, boy, you and I have made the same walk. Maybe this is why this topic hits me. I’ve been guilty of literary snobbery and I hate that about myself. Christ expects us to look at his children and find the joy and good and wonder in every soul. Certainly, then, if we aren’t to disdain his children, we shouldn’t disdain their creation. Now, again, judge rigteously, discern, whatever you wanna call having an opinion, but let’s celebrate one another.

    I think it was Moriah who recently said something about discussions that have lead her to think of Mormon literature as a genre itself. I’m coming around to that way of thinking–of lumping Mormon speculative fiction and romance and literary fiction into one category–since that is likely the way the mainstream will view our canon. Okay, fine with me. So yes, let’s work together within what I called our subgenres to improve, to shine. And yes, let’s criticize (in the literary sense)and workshop–and let’s have our own opinions and tastes. But I’d like to think that we’re becoming a community that also has one another’s backs.

  5. I gave a presentation at the BYU grad conference a few years ago talking about the four kinds of children in the Passover Haggadah and Mormon art. Basically, I think that we should think in terms of multiple aesthetics based in multiple types of audience needs rather than in a single metric of good and bad. If you’re interested, you can listen to my presentation at: http://www.box.net/shared/bogehq0qxr

  6. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    James, I, for one, would much rather have you post a version of that presentation as it applies to Mormon literature.

    I have to confess that I am very curious to know what the four kinds of children (or audiences/readers) are from your presentation.

  7. Very nice original blog and very nice follow-up comments. Like Kathleen, I would love to see James’s thoughts in (electronic) print form. (I hate listening to presentations online.) I also think that many of our judgments of other genres are due to different aesthetics — different beliefs about what literature "should" be doing. The notion that different types of literature have different purposes, each of them (or perhaps only most of them) valid, seems remarkably hard to apply in practice.

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