Mormon America III
Bill Long 1/4/05
Mormon Thinking and Thinking Mormon(s)
When Ken Jennings was involved in his magnificent run in Jeopardy in 2004, in which he won about $2.5 million, I remember people being amazed, and not a little scared, with Jenning's seemingly limitless memory and recall of factual material. It brought to my mind, however, an experience I had in the early 1990s when I was doing some research on teaching the Renaissance and Reformation to college students. I ran across two volumes by the Brigham Young University history professor DeLamar Jensen on these subjects and proceeded to read them. But, as I turned page by page I saw that the books, instead of being an analysis or even a description of thought systems, were more like a catalogue of facts about the great thinkers, artists and writers of the period. In other words, what was offered to me was a mass of neatly-arranged data about the periods and people, written in a conversational style. At that time, I remember thinking to myself that there must be something about the LDS manner of thinking that focuses on data and factual recall rather than analysis, probing of motivation or, even more dramatically, the "dark side" of human existence.
It is not as if I am a stranger to or unsympathetic to mastery of data. Indeed, in a number of ways I am more at home among data-masterers than purely speculative thinkers (even though I do my share of the latter). I memorized early and extensively. I so studied and learned the precise text of the Bible that I got the highest score ever on the Bible Content Exam administered to future Presbyterian ministers. I have memorized thousands of verses and lines of poetry and prose. I can recall immense amounts of detail regarding people's biographies, writings and ideas. Indeed, my detail-mastery orientation has given to all of my work an intensely historical character.
Data is fine, as far as it goes. And, to be sure, I think it goes very far. I think that this current generation of students is immeasurably impoverished because they were not "forced" to memorize things as they grew up. They therefore think that textual mastery and creative thinking are incompatible. Indeed, it works precisely the other way. Creativity begins when you internalize how thought "flows."
The Case of a Thinking Mormon
The question, then, is whether people who are data-oriented have room for other kinds of thinking in their midst. As the Ostlings say, in analyzing various areas of LDS artistic creativity: "A characteristically literal turn of mind combined with dogmatic Mormon ideals and a certain cultural isolation results in highly sentimentalized representational visual arts...Something similar undercuts Mormon efforts in the high arts in general; art is confused with propagands, never with a quest; preconceived answers prcede questions. In Mormon culture art is inspiration or entertainment, not exploration (p. 145)."
Brian Evenson discovered that this was the case when he was subjected to pressure and harassment as a professor in the English Deparment at BYU in the early 1990s. He had just come out with a book entitled Altmann's Tongue, which contained graphic accounts of apparently gratuitous violence. A passage easily accessible on the Internet has the following:
"After I had killed Altmann, I stood near Almann's corpse watching the steam of mud rising around it, obscuring what had once been Altmann. Horst was whispering to me, 'You must eat his tongue. If you eat his tongue, it will make you wise,' Horst was whispering...I knocked Horst down and pointed the rifle, and then, as if by accident, squeezed the trigger. One moment I was listening to Horst's voice, his eyes brilliant--'the language of birds'--and the next I had killed him."
While it is unclear in my mind whether Evenson was actually terminated from BYU or left of his own accord (his resignation letter, on the Internet, suggests the latter), it was his exploration and probing of the dark side of human nature that ran afoul of the church authorities.
In an interesting interview, Evenson describes the way the LDS church relates to literary work as follows:
"For most Mormon writers, religious belief comes into the literary work superficially--the situations are Mormon, the responses are didactic, the stories are meant to teach easy lessons. The belief system is like a glaze shining on the surface, obscuring the art, and the reader gets the impression that the stories are simply an extension of the Mormon conversion effort."
Though many people think that the current problems in the Catholic Church (exposing of priest sexual abuse of children) are problems that "just caught up" with the Church, I have a different take on it. I think priest sexual abuse became an issue recently because this is the first generation where there is a wide array of educated Catholic people who simply will not take "No" for an answer when the priest says "No." They are no longer easily compliant when authority speaks. Thus, they no longer decided to "keep quiet" about decades of widely-known abuse.
Will a similar experience happen to the Saints? This is the first generation where wide numbers of LDS people have undergraduate and graduate degrees. Normally with these degrees comes increasing interest in probing ideas, in questioning authority, in making authorities justify their behavior. But I think there are a number of reasons to believe that exposure to higher education will not bring the same result for the Mormons. Mormon identity is so close to the springs of personality that questioning duly-constituted church authorities is simply not a possibility. And, indeed, when it is done, disfellowshipment or excommunication can rapidly follow. There will always be the cases of Brian Evenson look-alikes, but for the foreseeable future, critical examination of texts, the darker side of human existence and the central tenets of faith will not be permitted in the LDS Church.
After all, the Church is growing by leaps and bounds (apparently). Why change course? It is true that creative and questioning minds often tend to try to expose authoritarian inconsistencies, but I believe there are far more people in the world that want safe and easy answers than those who want to probe religious uncertainties.
I don't suppose I will be invited to many LDS congregations to discuss my new book on the Book of Job and human loss.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long