The Sacred and the Profane

We are often counseled not to make light of sacred things. For many that means staying clear of any expression of the difficult or intimate, to keep it ourselves so as to protect our individual understanding from public misunderstanding. To hide or shield the personally transcendent from less charitable eyes.

And yet as both storytellers and readers there is a real power in looking closely at what we believe (or perceive) and deconstructing the sensual or emotive experience so we can consider with less immediate passion. Brutalizing the moment so we can lay bare its parts and their connections, so as to better comprehend them both individually and collectively. It enables us to formulate not only what we believe, but why we believe it. A more qualified faith.

How, then, to understand spiritual experience—either for the good or the ill? How to preserve the sacred while still interrogating the experience to understand how and why it is has power? How to pragmatically understand its mechanisms so that we can approach the sacred again, but as an act of self-direction rather than sudden discovery?

How to help each other strive toward that intimate moment or transcendent insight while still respecting both the inherent sacredness of the experience and the reasonable variance of individual capacity to engage it on terms similar to our own? And how to entertain in the process?

Time on Task

Wait a minute…entertain? Isn’t the sacred precisely the opposite of the entertaining? The intimate is not a public laugh-riot or shared wink and nudge. It requires both context and state of mind.

One of the most basic theories of education is that (short of organic limitation) nearly anything can be learned if students will spend a certain amount of dedicated time on task. By focusing attention to a narrow concept for a sufficient length of time, the student is able to intellectually internalize the knowledge and adapt their physical apparatus (muscle memory, brain development) to its retention and recreation. In other words, learning take time—though perhaps less than you might at first think.

One of our challenges is that both mind and body tend to flit. We move rapidly from thing to thing and are easily distracted. Learning requires seven minutes of focused attention; our minds are built to switch every twelve seconds and our bodies to shift every fifteen. Creating immersion through entertainment enables us to maintain focus on a key concept by engaging the mind in that single task on several levels at once.

In other words, well-crafted story guides the mind’s natural tendency to flit along a directed path constructed to reinforce an inherent unity. Entertainment facilitates the time on task required for deep learning.

Reductio ad Absurdum

One way that storytellers deconstruct an idea is to take it to its ludicrous extreme so that we can shuck off the contextual protections and conceptual misdirections that obscure the underlying core. We make it grotesque precisely so we can appreciate its more reasonable, perfect form.

It’s a difficult and fraught technique. Often the grotesque image overpowers the thing it represents and becomes the focus rather than the vehicle.

Frankenstein’s monster was a metaphor of abandoned creation (as Man feels abandoned by God); the physical deformities that might be part of that creation were never relevant. And yet, the fiercely intelligent, focused rage of Mary Shelley’s creature against his creator are replaced in most peoples’ minds with the shambling, groaning, mindless rage of Boris Karloff. We think of ashen (or green) skin, neck bolts, and thickened traceworks of scars when we call up an image of the creature. In making it memorable, the entertaining illustration overwhelmed its intended use in story.

When I first read Orson Scott Card’s science fiction short story Kingsmeat, I was absolutely horrified and repulsed. Here was a character who was slicing body parts off of adults and children and serving them as meals to malefic aliens with a taste for exotic flesh. He was the human agent fulfilling the evil desires of incomprehensible aliens, and it was clear from the text that I was supposed to see him as a savior of sorts. By cutting off only part of each person, he preserved their lives against a future hope. Though he brought only terror and pain, he made it possible for each one to survive long enough to find ultimate redemption.

But that’s not how I see the Savior. He is not one who maims in helpless resistance to an unstoppable malignance pending hope of external salvation. He is one who carries salvation in himself as a matter of power rather than desperation; of action rather than passivity. In this case, the grotesqueness of the symbol got in the way for me and actively diverted me from its intended use to a focus on its mundane construction—and logical deconstruction. Though entertained, I found myself unwilling to follow the clearly intended conceptual path.

For a while, at least. Then I read an essay by Dr. Michael Collings on Christ images in the work of Orson Scott Card, and the story became useful as well as powerful. But only because a native guide who had already made the journey was able to direct my attention more effectively and lead me to appreciation.

Getting There From Here

Learning requires focus. Focus requires attention. Attention requires something interesting to consider that we find more worthy than other interesting things—at least for a time.

As storytellers we have a chance to invite readers to consider new ideas and share vicarious experience. We cannot create transcendent experience, but we can invite people to consider in ways that lead nearer to it. While not necessary, it’s often useful to exaggerate or engage in intentional grotesqueness for sake of getting and holding attention—or clarifying an idea.

As Mormons we are a missionary people. We are specifically enjoined to share both intellectual knowledge and more intimate understandings of spiritual things. So how do we share the thoughts of our heads and the understandings of our hearts without trampling the sacred? How do we come to understand those things unless we consider them with sometimes brutal intensity?

Where is the line between the sacred and the profane, and who has tread that line with grace in story or essay? Suggestions are appreciated so that we may all benefit from your discovery.

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4 Responses to The Sacred and the Profane

  1. Wm says:

    What comes to mind is how Alan Rex Mitchell mixes the sacred and the profane in Angel of the Danube.

  2. Scott Hales says:

    “Where is the line between the sacred and the profane, and who has tread that line with grace in story or essay?”

    Levi S. Peterson in “The Backslider” and Todd Robert Petersen in “Family History.”

    Despite what we often lead ourselves to believe, the line between the sacred and profane in Mormonism can often be very blurry. As Mormons, we often make sacred the banal without even realizing it–which opens the door, I think, to the possibility that the profane can be sacred as well under the right conditions.

    Levi Peterson succeeds in making the profane sacred because he does so in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, which is potentially less offensive, perhaps, than taking a more profanely sanctimonious route. If readers find themselves getting offended, they can always pass it off as satire.

    TRP’s story “Family History” takes itself seriously, though, which makes for a harder sell. I think the story succeeds, however, because it makes a case for itself–it foregrounds the mingling of the sacred and profane in mortal life–and therefore justifies its profane content.

  3. scott bronson says:

    I found John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany, quite moving both times I read it.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Part of the problem, I think, is that notions of what constitutes “profane” are so heavily culturally determined. Thus, for example, scatological references are often seen as profane. Deity pooping? Maybe, but it’s considered sacrilegious to think about it. (In our tradition, anyway. You get a lot more of that kind of thing in Hindu mythology, though I don’t know if it has the same kind of disrespectful undertones we would expect.)

    For that matter, in Christian theology inspired by Greek philosophy (as I understand it), all elements of divine physicality and corporeality are considered in some sense sacrilegious, or at the very least reflecting a lower-level understanding of reality. However, part of the genius of Mormonism is that proclaims a fundamental unity between the temporal/physical and spiritual — undermining that dichotomy.

    And so I have to wonder how much of our notion of the profane comes down to culturally influenced squeamishness. It’s all the more difficult to judge because our main instrument for detecting profanity is typically our own sensibilities — the very area where we are most likely to have heavy (and subconscious) cultural biases. Saying “It just doesn’t feel right to talk about God that way” really doesn’t say anything except that *someone* drew a line in that place. But was it us? Our culture?

    In contrast, I suspect that scholars of religion such as Mircea Eliade (author of a study titled The Sacred and the Profane that I found profoundly insightful in explaining our own LDS temple experience) may use profane in a more specific sense, as indicating spaces that are not infused with higher meaning: not the grotesque but the everyday. And yet, if the divine truly exists, who are we to say that there is *anything* that is incapable of being suffused with it? Perhaps it’s another reader-response type of thing: not sacred versus profane content, but rather sacred and profane readers, or readings. If that makes sense…

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