Toward a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part I: The Charlatans of God

In the first of three guest posts leading up to the launch of a proposed website dedicated to displaying and developing talent in Mormon speculative fiction, project instigator Mark Penny waxes poetic over the role of speculative fiction writer as disciple of Christ in the community of Zion. To participate in a discussion of the project, click here.

Brothers and sisters, it is a great honour to stand before you today and talk about speculative fiction. In this video, sonosopher and general weird guy Alex Caldiero refers to Joseph Smith, inspired translator of our origin epic and deputy founder of our religion, as “a charlatan of God.” A lot of people would be insulted by that slippery epithet, but I kind of like it. In fact, it inspired a poem, which you may go home and read here after the meeting.

The Book of Mormon contains three instances of unfortunate wording. The first involves Abinadi, the priests of Noah and a statement about the Father and his Heir [1] which, for convoluted incomprehensibility, rivals Bilbo Baggins’ famous quip in chapter one of Tolkien’s fabled English epic [2]. The same basic confusing idea gets repeated later [3], so that makes two. The third involves superconvert and ex-wayward prince, Ammon ben Mosiah, his tawnier counterpart, King Lamoni, and the naughty word guile [4]. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go home after the meeting and read that rice-papered or blue-jacketed piece of fifteenth century technology you keep hauling around on Sundays.

I never could trust the word guile, especially after the Lord’s remark that Nathanael was an Israelite in whom was none [5]. And yet, when we come to it, guile is the storyteller’s stock-in-trade. A good fictioneer oozes it from face and fingers. Why should we believe your patent lies if you can’t trick us into doing so and then make the lie so delicious to our tastes that we secretly wish it were true?

That brings us to the grand-daddy of tale spinners, the father of all lies, that silver-tongued slitherer who, in that other origin epic, beguiled the first gossip [6] and, according to more optimistic versions of events, set the Rube Goldberg machinery of salvation on the move. Satan tempts Eve. Eve has choice. Eve chooses fruit. Fruit brings mortality. Mortality brings corruption. Corruption necessitates sacrifice. Sacrifice enables salvation. Salvation enables exaltation. Exaltation enables creation. Creation enables temptation. Temptation enables choice. And so round we go, worlds without end.

Adam falls, begetting Christ. Christ falls, begetting salvation. But before falling, Christ tells a few stories. Not the straightforward, unimaginative accounts of sordid historical incident Adam seems to have preferred, but fanciful anecdotes about events that probably never happened but quite credibly could. Yes, the Master Teacher also dealt in fabrications, beguilingly simple and simply beguiling little flashes of fact and fancy that we keep reading and repeating two millenia later because they are delicious to the taste and desirable to make us wise.

Perplexed by the conflicting narratives of his age, along comes the semi-literate ploughboy to find out where God stands on all this talk about heaven, hell and who goes where. He comes out of the experience telling what look like very ambitious fibs: dark assailants, beings descending in light, messengers bearing coordinates to ancient books, long lost secrets revealed, talismanic translations, golden-age powers restored. It’s the stuff of legends, dreams, high fantasy. It’s history meets mythology. It’s scripture.

Was a time, says somebody [7], when the three great antagonists of our day–science, magic and religion–were not three but one, when reasoned inquiry, words and gestures of supplication and command, and god-given wisdom and order hung together like three-stranded DNA. In the doctrines, ordinances and principles of Mormonism we see an effort to recombine them. You can squirm, but you cannot hide from this bald fact. Does not the Book of Abraham attempt to set us straight on astronomy? Do not naming and blessing, baptism and confirmation, blessing the sacrament, ordination, setting apart, endowment, sealing, consecration of oil, blessing of the sick, dedication of homes and graves seek through binary combinations of speech and touch to invoke or persuade the spirits, the gods, the animus? Do not the commandments and words of wisdom seek to show us the way to peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come?

But I am preaching to the snake-oil choir, which trains its skeptical eye of faith on the the deathless betterment of homo sapiens, and ponders the natures and fates of analogous species on analogous worlds where the same things are said to have been done. You have all been dipped in Joe Smith’s baptismal elixir of redemption and scathed by the healing fire of confirmation. You know that to believe is to perceive beauty, but is not to know. You know that we cannot know through the veil. We can only feel sure. The Spirit may comfort and constrain us, but this is still borrowed light, which may fade and which can only show us shadows of the things we hope await us on the other side of time and of the force-field boundary between estates. To really know, we must die, must shed this skin of night and don the skin of glory. We must see as we are seen and know as we are known, breaking through the dark glass and standing face to face with beings whose murky image we have striven to engrave in our countenances. What a fuzzy likeness I expect we shall see in the mirror on that day!

So who are we and why are we here? And where is this patter going? I speak now to the blithe lunatics in the back and the paranoid shopkeepers who mind them [8]. We are the liars, the magicians, the charlatans of God. With our words we weave worlds that flare and fade. We peer through crystal balls of spastic insight, seeing deeper into what is and was and may be than the tale seekers we serve, but not to the very depths. We are not preachers, prophets, apologists or propagandists, and yet we invite to be wiser and to see what may come; we speak for our people simply by lifting the pen, and we call our hearers to greater deeds of faith in daily life. We are contradictory beings who hunger and doubt, who press forward second guessing, who build on stone and build with sand. To quote an esteemed colleague who seems to have borrowed half my brain,

stories allow us to take the idea of faith out of the box we keep it locked in. We can pull it out, play with it, read the stories, ask ourselves questions, and have a rollicking good time. Because while what is True mattereth much, what is possible must also matter. [9]

Yea, verily, and even so.

Some are poets. Some are plainer spoken. Some keep the madness in steel chains. Some let it roam the house. But we are all, by our nature, conscripts in this war called mortality, to save or to slay, by activity or idleness to aid one side or the other. We are lowly seraphim whose swords guard the way and light the danger.


1. Mosiah 15:1-5 Seriously. You can only exegisize this masterpiece if you come at it at an angle from the outside. Personally, I think Abinadi was having a little fun with his opponents. He may also have been less than fully focused on each word, phrase, clause and sentence. And I’d almost bet he never expected to expand on the minutes in his memoirs.

2. Tolkien, JRR. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 1: A Long-expected Party.

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

3. Alma 11:38-39 for example, though I know I saw a nastier one somewhere even further back just this last week, but I can’t seem to find it now. I thought it might be in one of the English passages I’ve recently read to my kids at bedtime, or one of the Chinese passages I’ve recently read with my family before bedtime, or one of the Russian passages I’ve recently read by myself after bedtime, but I’ve checked and it’s not in any of those places. But I did read such a passage! It hit me really hard. Any scriptorians with the reference?

4. Alma 18:23

5. John 1:47

6. Beguile: Genesis 3:13, Moses 4:19, 2 Corinthians 11:3
Gossip: No, “gossip” is not usually a nice word to use about anybody, let alone the “mother of all”, whom we like to think of, along with Mary, mother of Jesus, as pure and holy in every respect save her mortality, but in this piece I am speaking poetically and the word has interesting permutations, both etymological (godsibb) and associative (storytelling), which fit it well for the place I put it in. To be fair, Adam gets a much sounder drubbing (from the present community’s perspective) when I talk about his less-than-creative narrative style. Besides, I think we can safely assume that Eve and her daughters had many little conferences about men and the various goings on in their homes and communities. And I don’t think all so-called gossip is necessarily destructive. Much of it is, to be sure, but a little benevolent feminine discussion of community members and events can be a kind of balm to both individual and community. Keep it benevolent, girls–and guys.

7. I swear I’ve seen a reference somewhere. I thought it might be Frazer or Malinowski, but I haven’t been able to locate a quote or paraphrase. I’d be much obliged if anybody could provide one.

8. Penny, Mark. Blog post.

I’m a pretty big believer in letting the subconscious have its way in fiction and poetry. Originality, insight, interesting plot twists, arresting metaphors and stunning turns of phrase seem to spring better from the blithe lunatic that broods in back than from the tense paranoiac eyeing customers in front. Yet if the product of the pen is to resonate with other minds, something must often be done to smooth out debilitating idiosyncrasies, to make the language and action legible to the last extent, to make the experience meaningful and worthwhile for the tense paranoiacs manning other shops.

9. Jepson, Eric W. “Monsters and Mormons and the Deseret Book”, (2011-10-30). Monsters & Mormons (Kindle Locations 233-235). Peculiar Pages. Kindle Edition.

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12 Responses to Toward a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part I: The Charlatans of God

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    In the spirit of advancing potentially interesting project, I applaud your effort to enlist Mormon writers as fictional charlatans of truth (or true charlatans of fiction?).

  2. Interesting discussion. So… “guile.” Or “parable?”

    There are actually a lot of people in the LDS congregation who do not read fiction because it is not true and therefore, not redeeming. I can’t tell you how many people come by my table when I’m signing and the first question they ask is “is this a true story?” True is important to LDS people…

    I see fiction as redeeming in that a real soul does not have to be in peril if you’re making up a story, but a reader can still learn a lesson from this imaginary person’s mistake, or experience. A parable is a very holy thing. Why should people have to endure horrors for us to learn from them? And why should real atrocities have to happen in history for us not to repeat them? THat’s my argument for speculative fiction :)

    • Mark Penny says:

      Good argument. But I don’t think it’s guile or parable. Guile is inherent in parable, placed there for the very reasons you give.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Arguably, guile is merely (unpoetically) the fact of drawing someone into an unintended acceptance of your primary argument by getting them to accept a critical secondary point as a precursor to trapping them with the inherent logic and implied conclusion of the primary point.

        In other words, (more poetically) leading them down the garden path.

        Which says nothing about intent, only method. If your intent is to deceive, you’re the serpent; if your intent is to reveal truth to the dubious mind, you’re the savior (generic, lower-case) or one of the better (and more trustworthy—not at all the same as better) storytellers.

        (Which also says nothing about whether the arguer is either right or wrong in an absolute sense—only whether the intent of the argument is to induce choice against self-interest or in support of it.)

        My struggle is still with the idea of the Christ falling. I hope you mean only that he died (as in fell in battle) or was temporarily separated from God (fell from under His protection in order to exert his own inherent authority and power [which power or authority Adam never had]—a real and necessary separation from God the Father). Because I cannot accept the idea that he either failed or transgressed the laws of God (as Adam and Eve did; the laws of Man are a different discussion). Same word; radically different meanings and implications.

        Understanding that there is no poetry in my soul, that one phrase caught me short and killed my momentum (an immovable object far in excess of my infinitely resistible interpretive force).

        Fun to unpack, in any case.

        • Mark Penny says:

          What in all our experience together leads you to believe I could mean “Christ falls” in any way but Atonement?

          By “killed my momentum”, do you mean you didn’t read past the first sentence of paragraph five?

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Because of its structural placement directly behind “Adam falls” in an intentionally parallel construction. The second usage picks up the first’s flavors pretty much by design. Not as a replacement for the idea of atonement, but as extended contextualization of the word falls—which has a very specific meaning in context of Adam.

          That general construction (Christ falls) is not particularly common, and the parallel construction with Adam’s fall even less so. Which thus seems to to beg the interpretive question.

          For me. Remember: no poetry in my soul; inopportune literalist; humorless one.

          And clearly I didn’t think you intended it that way (even though I think the text absolutely allows it to be interpreted that way), which is why I offered (one reader’s) question in near- real-time in an effort to clarify for my own peace (with the hope that it would thus assist any other inopportune literalists who may not have learned to trust the author yet). I thought it (much) fairer than simply walking away as a result of my cognitive hitch.

          I read the whole piece and its footnotes (scrolling up and down and re-reading sentences and paragraphs—and following the [very helpfully] supplied links to scriptural references to make sure I caught more of the intended flavor of the note on the text), then re-read it again so I could appreciate the flow and savor an energetic and clever presentation that I could never hope to replicate in my own writing.

          *I* hitched on the construction each time I read (six or seven times in all) because in the absence of poetry (intuition) in my soul I have to rely on brute force logical deconstruction with consideration of each interpretation that I can cook up from my own experience (and yes, I’ve had conversations with Mormons who question both the literal divinity and sinlessness of Jesus, while still claiming to accept the reality of the atonement; while *not* one of my private heresies, it seems to be a not uncommon element of other peoples’).

          It’s one of the hazards of being me. So I asked for clarifying confirmation rather than persisting in potential darkness.

        • Mark Penny says:

          All I can say is, you are one diligent reader, and I thank you.

          I will pray for your soul.

        • Mark Penny says:

          You seem to have caught on to what I was channeling vis-a-vis the cosmopolitan nature of storytelling. Both sides use it. Which side are we on? It always involves fiction. Where does our fiction lead the reader?

    • Mark Penny says:

      Speaking of redeeming, I guess part of the point of “Joe Smith’s baptismal elixir of redemption” is to say that the ordinances are, in some ways, fictions. Yes, they have saving power, but their real power lies in their ability to motivate change and effort. Without works, they are dead. Baptism, confirmation and all the rest are just pretty stories until we get up and do something with them. Hence the fairly recent instruction that priesthood blessings should only be given when requested in faith.

  3. Mark Penny says:

    For those who like to watch buildings go up, I’ve started a sandbox called Lonely Serpahim on DrupalGardens, our probable host, at least to begin with. Come on and shake the scaffolding.

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