Numinous Writings

After I had written my last AML blog post I realized two things: (a) I had forgotten to list Sweethearts among some of the best loved edible writings … ever, those adorable Valentine’s Day confections, those little tasty love “tweets” and (b) the Old Testament has some noteworthy, if not kind of crazy at times, ideas about writing, as pointed out by William Schniedewind in his wonderful book How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel, the chief inspiration/blame for my last bit on edible writing. In this post I will do two things: (i) share some of Schniedewind’s Old Testament insights on writing and (ii) suggest that these insights have a continuing direct bearing on Mormon authors today. Please forgive my lack of footnotes below–using books on Kindle makes it impossible to adequately document your sources. I have no similar excuse, however, for the absence of substance in this post and my obvious cribbing from Schniedewind.

Schniedewind says:

 “Writing had a numinous power, especially in pre-literate societies. Writing was not used, at first, to canonize religious praxis, but to engender religious awe. Writing was a gift of the gods. It had supernatural powers to bless and to curse. It had a special place in the divine creation and maintenance of the universe. According to one ancient Jewish tradition, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as well as the art of writing were created on the sixth day.”

I’m reminded of several things here. First, some observers have suggested that the Book of Mormon has greater worth as a religious symbol than it does as an actual text to be studied. This is not without biblical parallel. Per Schniedewind, God’s writing on the two tablets on Mt. Sinai is the height of numinous writing. By God’s very finger, mind you. Their placement in the ark served as a “symbol, not as a literary text to be read and consulted.” Let’s not argue about this one, rather let’s just agree with the earliest critics of the Book of Mormon that the idea of its mere existence was considered a substantial theological claim that engendered both religious awe and outrage.

Second, I like the rabbinical idea that the writer’s avocation was created by God, whether scribe, poet, historian or storyteller.

Third, I view this as an aspirational goal: we should always strive to make our own writings numinous. Why settle for mere verisimilitude when our writings should cause a divine spark? The words in the stories we write should become flesh as if we had puffed the very breath of life into them.

Schniedewind also discusses the Book of Life and the role names play in it and in the Bible. He says:

“A person’s name was thought to contain something of the very essence of that person …. Writing down a name could capture this human essence …. Writing could have a ritual power even when humans wrote names down on a list. Just as in some cultures making an image or a picture could capture the subject’s essence (and then be magically manipulated), so in the ancient Near East (including Israel) writing down a name could be a ritual act used to manipulate a person’s fate.”

Ancient Israelites viewed their names being written, or having been erased, in more than a symbolic sense. Consider the Book of Life and other passages containing similar concepts (see Exod 32:32; Dan 7:10; and Rev 20: 15; 21: 17). Where do you want to find your name written down? In the Book of Life, of course.

What if the Book of Life is somehow not merely a symbolic concept? If not, it must be more than a mere list of the redeemed, more than a giant roll passed around during the class period of mortality. Perhaps some in ancient times conceived it as, I don’t know, a story? Here I can’t help but think about the kind of immorality we may grant to the characters who are written into our stories. Perhaps we are all writing small parts to be compiled in a grand anthology that will make up that Book of Life? If so, what more do we need to inspire us to write numinously?

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12 Responses to Numinous Writings

  1. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I have heard that the Book of Mormon, because it was translated by the gift and power of God, was venerated by early LDS Church members as an additional witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that its content wasn’t studied and preached from as content the way it has been in recent years. (That has changed, according to some, largely in part because of President Ezra Taft Benson’s conference talk so many years that called us to repentance on the study of the Book of Mormon).

    As for "numinous," didn’t Yoda tell Luke on Dagobah that (I hope I’m quoting correctly) "Numinous beings are we, not this coarse flesh" when he was trying to get Luke to believe in himself and the powers within him?

    I believe J.R.R. Tolkien also talks about the "numinous" in his "On Fairy Stories." So this posts gets support from the science fiction and fantasy community, at least.

    Thanks, Ed.

  2. Ed Snow says:

    Kathleen, thanks for those points. I originally planned on a book review, but got lazy and found these tangents more interesting. It’s an excellent book in many ways, going beyond traditional Pentateuch authorship studies and looking closely at epigraphic evidence as well as biblical texts about writing to discuss how the OT was put together. One of the best bible books I’ve ever read.

  3. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I think it would be fine if people want to put reviews on this blog. I can put reviews from here in the AML Review Archive as easily as I can from the the AML-list.

    Do you want me to do that with the relevant part (minus the Sweethearts) of your post?

  4. Ed Snow says:

    Let’s wait–I might do an actual review sometime.

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I look forward to it.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Ooohh. You people are smarter than I. I had to look up "numinous." Suddenly I understand Yoda. For the first time, I feel at one with the Force.

  7. Ed Snow says:

    Lisa, actually it was weakness in my piece, not defining "numinous" and relying in a lazy way on one of the quotes to kind of define it:

    "Writing had a numinous power, especially in pre-literate societies. Writing was not used, at first, to canonize religious praxis, but to engender religious awe. Writing was a gift of the gods."

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Yeah, I read that paragraph a couple times, but I wanted the nuances of the definition in full. So off I went to Merriam-Webster Online, which officially labels me a dork. Here’s the full definistion:

    Main Entry: nu·mi·nous
    Pronunciation: \ˈnü-mə-nəs, ˈnyü-\
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: Latin numin-, numen numen
    Date: 1647
    1 : supernatural, mysterious
    2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : holy
    3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : spiritual

    — nu·mi·nous·ness \-nəs\ noun

    The distinctions between definition 2 and 3 are interesting.

  9. Eric Samuelsen says:

    I knew the word ‘numinous.’ It’s related to ‘numminess,’ used by my kids to describe Annette’s chocolate chip pancakes. Which are also filled with a sense of the presence of divinity. God loves us: He gave us chocolate.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I think I’ll make some numinous chocolate chip pancakes Saturday morning. Inspiring comment, Eric. Thanks!

  11. Lee Allred says:

    [quote] If so, what more do we need to inspire us to write numinously?

    A bigger advance on royalties. :)

  12. Ed Snow says:

    Of course, explaining how to make our writings more numinous is a mystery, other than to read the numinous writings of others.

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