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.