In Tents 5

Renounce Culture (War) and Proclaim Peace

June. That month when 33 years ago a group of elders coming back to the Hill Cumorah for lunch after mowing lawns at the Peter Whitmer Farm (readying the historic sites for Pageant visitors) were greeted with news from Jenny–the foreman’s daughter–that the blacks had received the priesthood. (I found later that we were not the only ones who did not quite believe the news at first.) A remarkable soul-lifting event, a lovely companion piece to something Spencer W. Kimball had written two Junes earlier, perhaps just as remarkable but less remarked on and arguably less embraced.

Two Junes earlier, that was the year we graduates wore cracked Liberty Bells on our tassels, the bicentennial, so you might have expected a First Presidency message on the blessings of living in America. Instead the June 1976 Ensign contained a stern rebuke about “The False Gods We Worship.”

We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44–45.)

I thought about this earlier this month, when teaching the Gospel Doctrine lesson on Matthew 24 / Joseph Smith–Matthew, the signs of the times. The lesson manual said that the first 20 verses of Joseph Smith — Matthew were a prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, and were fulfilled in AD 70. An arresting comment, considering how many discussions and seminary lessons and other lessons I’ve heard about the tribulations to precede the Second Coming. But here was the lesson manual saying the tribulations had passed. I mentioned that to the class, mentioned Jan Shipps’s idea from Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (“She’s probably the only non-Mormon historian ever to get a blurb from the Church’s public communications department.”) that new traditions replay the history of the tradition they sprang from, and suggested that the early Latter-day Saints had probably replayed the tribulations of the early Meridian-day Saints in Missouri and Nauvoo. And certainly the verse about praying that your flight occur not in winter could describe exodus from both Nauvoo and Missouri.

So if our mission is not to prepare for tribulation, then it must be to prepare for the Lord’s coming, and I talked a little about President Kimball’s essay. I’ve always been impressed with how solid is his sense that the Lord can fight our battles, that we don’t need weapons, we need faith. But whenever I think about the essay I can’t help but expand it a bit. How does the commandment “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16) relate to culture war?

Surely too large a topic for a blog post, but I do want to look at a few drawbacks to waging culture war.

First, the purpose of war is to wound, to cause casualties, to tear down, while the purpose of the Gospel is to give aid and comfort to our enemies so that they will no longer be our enemies and we can count our blessings together.

Second, in war there is always collateral damage, and we ought to remember whose hands hold the collateral and ask if we want to cause more wounds to the hands that paid our mortgage.

Third, consider this phrase from Alma 50:30, “they would have carried this plan into effect, (which would have been a cause to have been lamented).” Our grammar can tell us how to think about an event that never happened as if it had happened, as if we were in the future looking back on it. Our grammar can comment on how we would have felt if this thing that hadn’t happened had happened. Our grammar is very sophisticated in dealing with time and possibility. But our grammar cannot tell us if the words someone speaks are a figure of speech, such as exaggeration, or meant to be taken literally.

Years and years and years ago I heard a quote, I think from Harold B. Lee, that if the young people of the Church understood how great the blessings of the temple are they would crawl on hands and knees to marry there. Would we really? That question haunted me for years. I think it was only a year or two ago, while I was looking out the window on the way to the temple and thinking about crawling along the unsidewalked shoulder over pebbles and dirt and very hot asphalt that I thought, ‘that was a figure of speech to emphasize how much we would be willing to do to get there.’

I was not naïve. There are plenty of pilgrims who crawl the stations of the cross, or up mountains to monastaries, and the man I saw walking between Raymond and South Bend, Washington shouldering a wheeled cross is hardly the only man in Christendom to literally take up his cross.

Since our grammar can’t tell us whether someone is speaking literally or figuratively we need to rely on our cultural feel for idioms, but we still can never be sure whether someone is speaking figuratively or literally. Consider the humor in Matthew 5:30: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” That is, sin is so dear to you that giving it up would be like cutting off a hand.

But in III Nephi 12:30the Savior phrases it differently, “For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell.” I like the suggestion someone made in a priesthood meeting, that the Jews knew Jesus was using a figure of speech, but the Nephites would have taken him literally. Similarly, we never know when a war of words might turn into a war of swords, even though the pun is mightier than the S-word.

Fourth, we invite pride when we engage in war. Thirty years ago I took a writing class from Bela Petsco, who introduced me to Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. A theme throughout is the challenge of conveying a Christian vision to a culture with little regard for mystery. In one memorable paragraph O’Connor uses the same word President Kimball used to describe our idolatry, repugnant, then says the writer “may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to the hostile audience. . . . to the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (33-34).

It seemed to me at the time a nicely rationalized statement, that is a statement giving a good-sounding reason, but I’ve never been convinced that it was really a statement of O’Connor’s poetics, if only because storytellers don’t tell stories according to a theory, but according to the needs of the story, even when the story clearly has a theoretical or didactic point. For example, consider the Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19. Verses 24-5 read:

And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds.
(And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds.)

Where does that parenthetical expression come from? Jesus doesn’t need it to make his point about stewardship. Indeed it subtly undercuts his point, bolstering the claim of the servant who kept his pound in a napkin rather than investing it: “For I feared thee, because thou art an austere man” (verse 21). It’s there because the story demands it. The servants are the kind of people who would make that protest, just as Flannery O’Connor’s Bible salesman is the type of person who would steal the wooden legs and glass eyes of “Good Country People,” regardless of his author’s stated poetics.

Now that I’m a good decade and a half older than O’Connor was at her death her words seem to me more the vigorous, energetic words of a young writer eager for the culture war than of a mature artist. Had she lived another 30 or 40 years perhaps she would have asked herself if she really wanted to think of her readers as spiritually deaf and blind, if she really wanted to speak to them from an assumption of spiritual superiority.

Which leads back to the second reason, collateral damage. That’s a major theme in literary theory, from Sew-krates’ concerns over the effect of art on the simple-minded to Lionel Trilling’s hesitation to introduce his students to the devastation of modern literature, but I’m more interested in the collateral damage to artists of engaging in culture war. Here’s a question to ponder. The purpose of war is to inflict damage. Do we want to inflict damage on each other in the name of culture?

This entry was posted in Mormon LitCrit and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to In Tents 5

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Thought-provoking post, Harlow. Thank you. I’m picking up the vibe that you have concerns for the way the LDS culture is sometimes at war with itself? Yet you don’t exactly state that. Perhaps you mean the LDS culture at war with Mainstream American culture? Both situations, I think, exist.

    Perhaps I sense you are considering LDS culture at war with itself (or the LDS literati at war w. the popular Mormon readers/writers) because of the purpose you assign to war, namely to do damage. I can see how sometimes the LDS artsy-fartsy groups belittle popular LDS fiction, and vice versa. Each side focuses on the weakness they perceive in the other. An enemy stance is struck and that undermines all because, as you point out, the aim is to destroy. You’ve heard it: Romance published by Deseret Book rots the brain and skews the view of romantic relationships in an unhealthy way. Literary LDS fiction rots the spirit and skews the concept of truth. And so on. It makes no sense to me for any of us to attack the other. We write for different types of people and will not gain one bit from the attack.

    And yet , the purpose you assign war is simplistic and fairly easy to contradict; or to demonstrate that there is/are other purpose/s to war. For instance, some fight wars to defend and protect. These are the “good” wars. Not because war is good, but because the desire is to maintain a status quo rather than conquer. Sometimes we Mormons feel attacked by the outside culture. Think how many react to the Book of Mormon Musical, even calling it anti-Mormon. Why should we feel attacked because the South Park crew doesn’t share our reverence for, say, Joseph Smith? As soon as we take up the battle cry against a cultural statement that includes us, we become anti-something. We’ve made an enemy, alienated ourselves from someone, when we need not have. And gosh darn it, that isn’t what Mormons are all about, as anyone who knows the musical knows. We are about being nice, good, kind, and polite, with a little bit of proud mixed in.

    I’m writing very late at night and will decide if this says what I really and most want sometime tomorrow.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Lisa, thanks for your comment: “As soon as we take up the battle cry against a cultural statement that includes us, we become anti-something. We’ve made an enemy, alienated ourselves from someone, when we need not have.” That’s a pretty good summary of the dangers and consequences of war, cultural or otherwise.

      It is important, though, to distinguish between the types of war and the purpose of war. War can be offensive or defensive, but the purpose is always to cause damage. If I attack your country I desire to damage you, whether through taking your resources for my own use, or stealing your labor through slavery, or destroying your ability to get aircraft airborne, or destroying infrastructure, or even killing you. If you choose to respond through war you also desire to damage me, to make it as costly as you can for me to maintain my aggression.

      However, war or violence or damage are not the only possible responses to war. You can warn them in the name of the Lord (D&C 98:23-32), you can lay down your life before the invaders (see Alma 24), or you can behave as the Lamanites did toward the Gadianton Band (a jazz band my parents remember from the 1940s):

      “And it came to pass that the Lamanites did hunt the band of robbers of Gadianton; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them, insomuch that this band of robbers was utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites” (Helaman 6:37).

      That’s the only time anyone successfully defeats the Gadiantons, by converting them. In the end of the Book of Mormon the Gadiantons end up converting the people who are trying to destroy them through violence.

  2. Well, there is a bit of a “we need to educate LDS readers” attitude (I hear variations of it every so often in AML) that can become a little adversarial. As Orson Scott Card pointed out a few years ago, if you consider what a small percentage of “readers” (people who read because they want to, not because they have to) there are out there anyway, readers are already an “elite” few no matter what they choose to read.

    I submit that if AML wants to bring worthy literature to the attention of LDS readers, there has to be some appreciation for the sensibilities of those readers and what they would be willing to try reading that might be new to them, rather than proclaiming as worthy of reading something that might be way too far outside of their comfort zones, even though such works may be very worthy of reading.

    Don’t expect readers to go from milk to finely seasoned and prepared meat, because they won’t be able to stomach it no matter how delicious and nutritious it might be.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my two younger children (16 and 10-almost-11), and we just reached the chapter where Frodo and Sam go through the Dead Marshes with Gollum. He’s hungry and wants to share their food. And so they attempt to share the Elvish lembas with him, but he chokes on it. “Dust and ashes,” he calls it. Frodo comments: “I think this food would do you good, if you would try. But perhaps you can’t even try, not yet anyway.”

    There’s something inherently problematic about projects that are based on exclusion: on proving our worth by what we reject. And yet some things must be rejected. There is, I suspect, such a thing as poison in the cultural/artistic sphere. “If they right hand offend thee” indeed. All too often, though, it seems to me that we’re willing to condemn something as “dust and ashes” simply because it’s something we find no value in, or aren’t accustomed to — or have some personal hypersensitivity to.

    I’ve related the story before about my first roommate in college, a sweet small-town boy from Arizona who once shared with me his experience of being required to read a book for his high school English class that gave him a dark feeling, and of praying and getting an A on the test even though he never finished the book. I asked him what the book was. 1984, by George Orwell.

    I hope that by the end of my roommate’s college career, he might have been able to read a book like 1984 and see the many values in it. But for him as a teenager, evidently that book was dust and ashes. For me to insist that he simply needed to work a little harder at swallowing it would, I think, have been an attempt at unrighteous dominion on my part. But I can stand witness here that 1984 is a good book, and one worth exposing high school students to.

    War is almost always about control of finite resources, as I see it. Culture war is the same: control of funding, control of time, control of public attention. And yet in the eternities, time and space are boundless, and funding (hopefully) no longer relevant. Perhaps a recognition that all our cultural products and art belong to God (and an attitude of non-exclusive stewardship) might serve as well to defuse culture war as a recognition that the earth is God’s could help to defuse physical wars.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      There’s an extended metaphor of Frodo and Gollum that makes comment on it challenging (Gollum is a fallen being who once could tolerate Hobbit food just fine but has since lost the capacity), but it’s still fun to try.

      I think part of the problem is the binary approach. 1984 makes me feel bad, therefore it is evil—except that pain is a necessary part of recognition and eventual repentance. 1984 never effectively argues against the viewpoint of Big Brother, therefore it’s advocating for that viewpoint—except that the entire work is a demonstration of the horrible and inevitable result of then ends of Big Brother’s approach.

      In other words, that awful feeling was an exceptionally useful response to icky ideas presented as reasonable. The intent of the work was to make the reader at least wary (and perhaps afraid) precisely to deliver that (very moral) warning.

      I think many readers mistake consumption for acceptance, and mistake a tummy ache for food poisoning. While the dust and ashes may upset the system, that knowledge is in and of itself useful both for what does and does not happen, and it can only be obtained through consumption (if not acceptance). Understanding whether the upset comes as part of the author’s intent or in opposition to the author’s intent is instrumental in testing all things and holding fast what is good. Being distraught about distressing things is both proof and exercise of our ability to discern the difference, and is useful in an of itself in reinforcing good principles.

      I don’t think insisting that one consume distressing texts is necessarily unrighteous dominion if the reasons are laid out fairly—the benefit accurately associated to the cost. To me it only becomes unrighteous dominion if you insist that this text is the only way to obtain a particular insight or bit of wisdom, and the reader is judged unworthy for choosing another source. It’s our job to argue the benefit, not to judge individual worth.

      One of my private heresies is that there might well be many acceptable answers to a question (even if there is only one “most correct” answer), and that line-upon-line not only permits, but actively argues for an infinitely varied path to wisdom. The way markers may all be the same—you can’t get there except through this gate—but the approach to the gate can from many angles. As such, we should spend less time condemning others for coming by a different route and spend more welcoming each other to this milepost as we point (our) way to the next one.

      • Harlow Clark says:

        Thanks for the comments on 1984, Jonathan and Scott. I avoided reading it for years because I dreaded coming to those final words, “He loved Big Brother.” Then when I listened to Simon Prebble’s 8-hour narration a couple of years ago I found that those are not the last words. The last word belongs to “The Principles of Newspeak,” which, with one word does “effectively [argue] against the viewpoint of Big Brother, ” the word was, “Newspeak was . . .” That single word transforms “The Principles of Newspeak” from Orwell’s essay about the language Winston uses to a part of the story. It is the work of some nameless academic writing about Newspeak as a dead language of a collapsed society. Oceania couldn’t sustain itself or the language it used to control its people. And by implication, talking about Oceania in the past tense transforms the novel from a prediction of the future to a historical novel, a reminder that the novel we’ve just read couldn’t have been written in Newspeak, and that Newspeak’s inability to express the range of human experience means it doesn’t have adequate power to oppress. Or that the human spirit is so resilient that it can outlast even a society as cruel as Oceania.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    On a general note, the idea of declaring peace suggests that we let a lot of stuff slide—instead of raising arms against each other over the (often many, and functionally trivial) things we disagree with, seek instead to bind together around the things we agree on. Give the other guy space to have a different take, and leave him alone even when his take bothers you.

    It seems like the logical extension of teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves—whether speaking of political governance or artistic. I think we often conflate lessons on personal choice with lessons on outward governance, with the result that we sometimes perceive organizationally limiting the number of choices available as the moral equivalent of creating righteousness.

    Clearly I disagree. The need to prove ourselves through the choices we make requires that there be a diversity of choices to make, and that we fairly understand the nature and consequences of those choices. While choosing between whole and 2% milk is indeed a choice, that choice does not fairly represent the diversity of available liquid refreshment (or nutrition), and selections among the two choices cannot be said to fairly indicate that those given that limited choice have shown a clear preference for milk against choices they never saw.

    In other words, when your choices are limited so is the relative righteousness of those choices. Choosing good from the midst of evil proves righteousness far more than choosing good from a menu containing only good.

    Which is not to say that DB should publish evil, or that LDS authors should write it—enough of it is published without requiring our help. But it does suggest that as readers we ought to consider all of what’s available from time to time before retreating to our choice-limited bulwarks to defend against a perceived attack by a broader culture that doesn’t think enough about us to bother attacking us at all.


    On the more specific idea, it seems to me that artists attack (each other, the culture) as an assumed article of faith (afflict the comfortable). Ms. O’Conner’s dictum only justifies the shrillness of the attack without questioning the fact of it.

    So my counter-question is this: Is there art without attack? If not, then the question seems more a matter of vehemence and intent to destroy rather than merely injure; a question of rendering post-facto aid (within the work itself) as opposed to simply walking away when the attack is concluded. It seems like the Lord’s word is as often delivered as a sharp sword dividing asunder, but the difference is that He offers succor to those injured and balms to bind the broken heart. The time of judgment and leaving the injured to themselves will come—but not quite yet.

    I’m struggling to separate artists as special victims of the culture war. Is the argument that they should be able to attack with no concern for counter? Is the argument that artists should stand in solidarity against the real target—audiences—and not attack each other? Is the argument that there should be no culture war at all, which then begs what role artists would have?

    I don’t mean to be a troll, but I’m honestly struggling to understand the question and the hedges you’ve placed on it. I’m pretty sure I don’t know what you mean by culture war, and that makes it a challenge to respond.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Scott, you’re a perceptive reader. You picked up on an ambiguity in the definition of culture war. I don’t believe that we as a culture should engage in war, or we as artists, but I left my definition fairly vague. Here’s a mental note I made: “I don’t suppose I’m asking writers to do much differently, except not to think about what we do as waging war, and not to characterize it in those terms.”

      Writers haven’t always thought of themselves as on the attack and I’m not sure society has typically thought of artists as enemy. I suspect the account of artists as anti-social started with the modern period and the post-WWII teachers like Lionel Trilling and Leslie Fiedler (“No, In Thunder”) who pioneered modern literature as an academic subject.

      In “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” Trilling said he was reluctant to teach a modern lit class when his students requested one: you don’t point a howitzer at your students without estimating the damage you could do.

      I don’t know if Trilling thought about the implications of his metaphor as much as he thought about the implications of the enormous power he saw in modern literature. He probably didn’t need to. Most of the modernists were long-dead or very old. Nothing he said about them could affect them, certainly couldn’t get them called up before the stake un-Mormon activities committee. I looked at Trilling’s essay in my very first AML paper 20 years ago, and keep coming back to it, proposing different ways to look at the enormous destructive power of the literature Trilling said he both feared and was committed to.

      It fascinates me that The Book of Mormon, published at the dawn of the modern period, has all the characteristics Trilling identified as modern, particularly its insistence on the question are you saved or are you damned. I believe modern literature and art was called forth in the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland temple, a gift to the world for building the Son of Man a place wherein to lay his head.

      In one sense the destructive power of modern literature is a type of the power of God, the power Yahweh was trying to prepare the Israelites to witness after they came across the water, the power they feared.

      Yes, I mean that. I believe art and literature prepare us to enter the Lord’s presence. I wrote on AML-List recently that it’s a mistake to say that language precedes beliefs. This is because beliefs generally come from experience. The language we use to express our beliefs also expresses our experience of those beliefs, but language is not capable of recreating experience fully, including spiritual experience.

      This may sound like a severe limitation of language, but this limitation is what allows us to march through Dachau toward the blazing crematoria with the child Eliezer Wiesel and watch live children being thrown in from the other side without being utterly destroyed ourselves.

      The ability to experience horror indirectly has implications for our belief that the atonement covers the whole range of sins and sorrows and disappointments and victories and defeats, because literature depicts the whole of human comedy and tragedy, folly and wisdom, faith and doubt. When we read and write we can help each other take upon ourselves the sins and joys of all creation.

      Yes, I know that sounds polished and glib, so I’ll state it another way. Trilling’s image of the howitzer misfires when you try to apply it to how people actually partake of art. You can’t resist a howitzer. It fires and woe to you if you’re in the path. With a novel or essay or painting or play you enter into a relation. You can yield, argue, stop reading, stop looking, run away, or create your own art. The work of art does not force itself upon us like a howitzer. We always have a choice of how to interpret. Always. (Though we may not realize that till we hear an interpretation strikingly different from our own.)

      This multivalence of art is what gives artists a special place in a culture. By depicting a wide range of experiences art allows us to decide how we feel about the experiences, actions and attitudes depicted, about the complexities and perplexities of our world.

      But the same multivalence makes artists particularly vulnerable in a culture war. Because artists allow us to choose our interpretation rather than forcing an interpretation, rather than telling us how to feel, we may be unsure how the artist feels about the world they depict, and war is not very good at tolerating ambiguities. Or maybe I should say people at war are not very good at tolerating the ambiguities abounding in war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>