10 July 2006

Out of the Best Books

UPDATE (7/11): Comments have been cleaned up, and some added in the meantime, so the number shown may not reflect what you saw last time you visited.

In a previous post I alluded to what I perceive as a quiet literary tradition in the Mormon Church. In preservation of that tradition a friend of ours gave a wonderful talk today, in which her source material consisted of equal parts of both scripture and ostensibly non-religious literature alike.

Her assigned topic was the Christian mandate to be peacemakers. Before the talk was over, she had quoted, in each case to a great extent, Emerson, Silverstein, and even Ben Harper.

This is risky business. In my experience, most members (and even General Authorities) who stray from the Church curriculum get in way over their heads—Shakespeare gets misunderstood and misquoted all too often from Mormon pulpits. Trite membership “poetry” lifted from the Ensign excessively passes as erudite verse. If you’re in a BYU congregation, you may even have to dodge the occasional Dave Matthew’s lyric. (In the most extreme example of this I know, a woman lip-synced Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” during a testimony meeting in Oregon…fodder for another post altogether).

On top of that, Mormons have the mandate, articulated by Marion G. Romney, to avoid “drinking downstream”. In other words, it is best to search for truth right from the source, as it were (i.e. the scriptures, conference talks), as opposed to other potentially polluted information. [Incidentally, we discussed this quote in Sunday School today. The teacher seemed to think, and I was glad, that Romney meant we should always check our understanding with the scriptures, but that we are not meant to restrict ourselves solely to the scriptures when seeking truth].

Despite all of this our friend appropriated her non-religious sources with grace and competence. Each quote was a beautiful literary synopsis that illustrated her point with an elegance that perhaps other Mormon curricula would have lacked.

I wish we could have this more. I believe it is possible.

For starters, modern-day revelatory scripture readily acknowledges that the Mormon church does not have a monopoly on truth. Doctrine and Covenants 109:7 says “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith”

A few years ago, I was perusing some books in my Grandparents’ basement. I came across a strange series of books. They had the appearance of Sunday school manuals, and they bore the peculiar title “Out of the Best Books”. In its five volumes were hundreds of excerpts from Emerson, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, and on and on. I asked my Grandma about it. In the 1960’s these books served as the curriculum for a Mormon Relief Society class. The series prologue stated that its purpose was to help fulfill of the commandment given in Doctrine and Covenants 109. My Grandparents both spoke fondly of the class. Apparently Grandpa studied the books along with Grandma. He even recited a poem he had memorized from one of the books, still fresh in his memory after 40 years.

I think of my Grandparents, each with their love of reading and considerable knowledge of good literature. I wonder how such a thing ever could happen given their lack of any college education. For one thing, our culture’s approach to literature was much different in the last century. Young students studied Latin and the Classics in the public school system. Literary reviews were a regular feature of pedestrian household magazines such as Reader’s Digest.

And in the Mormon Church there was a Relief Society class called “Out of the Best Books”.

Arguably, the Church is one of only a handful that puts any emphasis on non-religious literature. It’s one of the things that makes me proud of my Mormon heritage.

Why don’t we see more of that today? It would be nice if the Church would resist, as strongly as it does other forms of cultural decay, the declining stature of literature in our society. Regardless, I am confident that with or without a more formal emphasis, the Mormon literary tradition will continue, quietly but steadily.


foofah said...

I am with you. I really appreciate the literary tradition of the church. I didn't know about those books at Grandma and Grandpa's house...

So, Jonny and I both taught the third hour of church yesterday - he in Elder's Quorum, me in Relief Society. The lesson was on record keeping/journal writing. In preparing the lesson, we decided that we wanted to focus more on the personal benefits of keeping a journal. In that discussion, I wanted to include a discussion of how much truth we tell in our journals. To put it another way, how acurately should we represent the struggles we encounter in our lives? Sunday morning, while getting ready for church, I remembered one of my favorite quotes from "East of Eden." I wanted so badly to use it because I thought it was approriate, that it summed up my own personal feelings about life and our retelling of it, and that it would introduce another worthy source into our Relief Society discussion. The quote itself could be construed as a little harsh, particularly to those members who shy away from all things that seem negative. I find it a little unfortunate that some people cannot see the benefit of discussing difficulties and how they get through them, that they see it instead as complaining or griping. I think we have a lot to gain from sharing our honest experiences, even if its just writing them down in our journals. Of course this isnt to say that we should be discussing sins in detail or confessing transgression or whatever...hopefully, you get my point, especially after I've used far too many words to make it. :)

Anyway, you may be wondering what my point is. Just this: I wish I could have used the quote. I brought the book with me. But there were several women who raised their hands and made points about not wanting to ever write "negative" things in their journals. So, I shyed away from the qoute and on re-reading it today, I think I did the right thing, even though it makes me a little sad. What do you think? Be honest.

"There's more beauty in the truth, even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar."

Rural Murder said...

I wish the church would get back to a more intellectual approach regarding its rich theology. I wish we could go back to the time when it was okay to debate and discuss rather than just listen and accept. If all good things are of God, and if we should seek wisdom out of the best books, why are we still rehashing the same boring Sunday school lessons year after year? Why do we spend all of Elder’s Quorum talking about home-teaching, the next planned activity, and who we have to help move. The common responses to this (besides the fact that many members are content to never open a book in their lives) are that we are still struggling with the basics, milk before meat, only saving doctrines/principles are important, blah, blah, blah. Since the church has gone “worldwide”, it has traded an intellectual approach for a dumbed-down version of the gospel. The manuals are written so that not only can a new convert completely understand all the material, but so that he/she could teach the material to others. Anything not found in the manual or the standard works is deemed as outside the realm of the discussion. Instructors are encouraged to “stick to the manual”. The problem with this is that church becomes rote, bland, unchallenging, and uninspiring to those who want more. I have felt way more inspiration and spiritual enlightenment in reading the words of Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, DeLillo, etc. than in reading Ensign articles, conference talks, and the scriptures. Maybe I’m just hard-hearted. Anyway, here is a quote by Mark Twain that I’m sure you’ve read. He reviews the Book of Mormon from a non-believer’s point of view. It summarizes my feelings when it comes to reading scripture and why I prefer other sources of literature:
“The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so "slow," so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle -- keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, according to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.
The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James's translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel -- half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern -- which was about every sentence or two -- he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as "exceeding sore," "and it came to pass," etc., and made things satisfactory again. "And it came to pass" was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.”—Mark Twain (full of his usual wit and cynicism)

Anonymous said...

I have to say that in reading these three comments about the intellectual tradition in the Mormon church, I am torn about how I think would rank on this spectrum. I believe that many a self-professed intellectual sitting in sacrament meeting finds herself relatively disappointed with the lack of zeal with which congregations are addressed. It is clear that more attention should be paid to the talent of public speaking which one might think would be perfected by the lay-mormon due to the practice and familiarity of speeches the LDS faith provides. However, sadly, many of us might agree that somehow, the necessity for showing off that sort of talent either escapes us for reasons of modesty or inabilty. While I agree with the bloggo, there might have been a tradition of literary gold in the church, and to some extent that the higher leadership might reflect that, there is a serious deficit in the general worshipper's expression of their understanding of applicability of literature to the everyday life. In one way, one might see it as it comes to us via the onslaught of lowest common denominator mormon pop-culture entertainment. If Mormons have hold the finest works of art it would be a surprise to many of us who have noted such works as "The Hometeachers" or "The RM" and even the distinct shrill from Janice Kapp Perry or Lex de Azevedo. Thus, it strikes me that while the upper eschelons of Mormon leadership often quote from masters of literacy specifically and art generally, there is, as is often the case, little trickle-down to the lowliest of Relief Society sisters.

One might hearken back to the Marxist axiom of religion being the opiate of the masses or the bumpersticker of "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church." While it is arguable that the Book of Mormon is "chloroform in print," there is something to be said for the tradition which presents itself via Mormonism. There might be a purposeful sterilsation of the account of the ancients upon the surface. The crime, I think, is not examining what lies beneath the surface of the poison-book. I once encountered an academic Sheik who was struggling with her academic training as it reflected on her religion. She was very faithful but torn as to how she could remain so and still be critically thinking about her faith. I couldn't have sympathized more. I do think in church and I do pray in school. The value of mormonism is that the roots are deep and we do not have to accept the milk-before-meat and stick-to-the-manual jargon. It is easy to accuse those rote reminderers with cowardice for their inability to really struggle with their religion--and consequently really embrace it.

Michael said...

Welp, I never thought that post would generate so much discussion. What can I say? I'm crazy about you people!

I posted a response the other day, but quickly took it down, deciding I hadn't thought about it enough yet. So I ended up rewording it, but honestly not too much has changed. Here it is:

Jared, I agree with most of what you say. Quite honestly I've had a hard time staying interested in Sunday School and EQ since entering the intellectually lush world of graduate school. The re-hashing that happens in church is especially what really, really gets me. I don't know, I think I've found a new approach that is working for me personally, but I may defer explaining it for another post. And I am familiar with that Mark Twain quote, but thanks for posting it. I have had plenty of days when I can't help but wonder if he is right. In any case, the concerns he raises definetely merit rejoinder--and I'm probably not the guy for that. A student of Mormonism, yes, but an apologist? Not sure. The question of apologetics is entirely complex and perplexing in its own right.

Jen, let me say that I really liked that excerpt from East of Eden and remember being struck by it myself. I like that you thought of it in the context of your lesson.

I think my answer may run somewhat contrary to the gist of my original post. The problem with bringing in those kinds of sources to Relief Society and Elder's Quorum is that, unlike sacrament meeting talks or firesides, there is already a hard and fast curriculum. This is what Jared identifies as a problem, and I'll agree that it's up for debate. In the meantime, consider this excerpt from the introduction of the current RS/EQ manual:

"You may at times be tempted to set this book aside and prepare lessons from other materials. But your assignment is to help others learn the gospel through President Woodruff ’s words and the scriptures."

Also, were you able to find what other sources had said on the question? If so, and if they supported your idea, I think the quote may have supplemented the discussion nicely. Whatever the case, I like the following quote from President Kimball:

"No one has the right to give his own private interpretations when he has been invited to teach in the organizations of the Church; he is a guest, . . . and those whom he teaches are justified in assuming that, having been chosen and sustained in the proper order, he represents the Church and the things which he teaches are approved by the Church."

In my view this is a pretty good policy. I don't really go to church to hear people's private interpretations of the gospel--especially if they are sustained teachers. In this sense I guess I prefer a hard and fast curriculum for Sunday School and Relief Society (whether I particularly like said curriculum is another question altogether). As much as I like to share my interpretations and crave to hear others', these aren't exactly what I'm looking for when I go to church. That is what I look for when I blog or read LDS scholarship--and this aspect of my Mormon-ness is extremely important to me at this stage in my life. I guess in church I am looking to be enriched by other individuals' testimonies or personal approaches to gospel issues (and believe me, I feel like I come up empty handed more often than not), and I see the teacher as someone who helps facilitate the discussion from an official church standpoint. But man, have I ever heard some bizarre (read: wholely unintellectual) private interpretations in our ward's Sunday School; one private, totally unsubstantiated, interpretation about Eve's role in the fall I found so ridiculous that I got angry and left the class. So I think I would tend to err on the side of mutual consideration in the case of sharing private interpretations whenever I find myself in the position of a sustained teacher in the church.

As far as my personal response to your idea, I think I pretty much agree, depending on the audience. Steinbeck is right, provided the audience is sophisticated and mature enough to understand life's harsh complexities. There are things you may write in your journal that you will want your children to read only once they have attained a maturity sufficient enough to appreciate your perhaps equally complex approach to life's challenges. This is something I have learned from experience, as the child.

Taking a step back into the metacontext of the discussion, I think the same principle applies to your Relief Society lesson. Had I been teaching the lesson to a sophisticated university student ward (Stanford especially would be cool given the source), I think I may have been even more tempted to use the quote. But if your ward is anything like mine, and I think it is, you probably did the right thing.

foofah said...

Yeah, I think it was wise to not share the quote. I did use a quote from President Kimball that said "We should tell the truth in our journals but not focus on the negative." My interpretation of this, which I shared with the class, was to write truthfully and realistically about life and its struggles because there is great benefit for ourselves and our posterity in doing so. But focusing on the negative, i.e. complaining, whining, writing bad things about other people, etc, is probably not the kind of thing you want to pass down to posterity. (There is a whole other conversation, which I am only skimming the top of here, that Jonny and I have been having now for several days, relating to what journal writing is and does...but I'll spare you that for now.)

Mike, I like what you had to say in your follow-up comment. I think you make a valid point about what the cirriculum is for Sunday School and RS/EQ - that we are called and sustained to teach specific things. But I wondered at or wanted to clarify something you said. You don't go to church to hear someone else's interpretation of the gospel (especially an ordained teacher) but you do go to church to be enriched by people's personal approaches to the gospel. I guess I wonder where one draws the line. I think I see it, vaguely there in the sand - that there is a difference between one's interpretation of the gospel and one's approach to living it. I think the line blurs on some issues. But I suppose maybe it's the difference between sharing some weird (unintellectual, unsubstantiated) interpretation of Eve's role in the Fall versus discussing how Eve's choice has made some personal impact or served as a poignant example in a person's life. To relate it more directly to my lesson Sunday, perhaps it would be the difference between saying "We need to write in journals because its therapeutic" versus "keeping a journal bears many good fruits, one of which is the self-reflection it cultivates." Probably any one of you reading this would have a more succinct way of explaining this, and I am interested in your insights.

To be perfectly honest, your comment made me a little sad; this whole topic does, really. Mostly because I think you are right, but I wish it weren't so. There is wisdom in "sticking to the manual" for such a diverse group but I also think it makes a compromise. And I feel sad for the things that, in a more perfect world, could be gained from a more open conversation about the many beautiful layers of our religion. But I also recognize that there is a delicate balance that should be maintained, that people are at different stages of their understanding, some very limited, and that some people are very fragile. Those who consider themselves to have a higher or deeper understanding of their religion might also then be expected to (try to) posses the patience and the love necessary to allow for such differences. And yet it brings me back to the original thought: "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith."

Well, now I feel like I've talked myself in a circle and I admit, before closing this comment with a sigh and a shrug, to not being the intellectual equal of the other authors on this topic. sigh. shrug.

russ said...

As is the case with most things the usage of non-church materials in lessons is not an all or none proposition. When we come across an apparent discrepancy within the gospel(such as the commandment to seek words of wisdom out of the best books and teach them to one another vs. teaching only out of the manual) we usually just need to dig a little deeper or think a little harder.
Obviously, when we dig a little deeper we learn more and every time I have done this I have been brought back to the basic gospel principles. It's a little like when I did proofs in my highschool geometry class-even the most complicated of these proofs rely on a very limited set of postulates. So I have found with the deeper things of the gospel-they are always best and most easilly understood in the context of or because of the basic postulates. They can always be refined to a derivation based upon one or a collection of these 'basic' postulates through a type of reverse engineering. The real trick-as in geometry-is to learn to appropriately extend the basic postulates in a way to derive a new proof-our diligent study provides the vehicle for this and revelation the roadmap.
A few months back I had to teach Gospel Doctorine and I quoted from The Brothers Karamozov-something about life being paradise if we wanted it to be and that we did not have to wait for it to become so. I hadn't planned on the quotation(I was, however, deeply impressed at that momet to share it) but I had recently reread that part of the book and quoted it in response to something someone had said. In an abbreviated version, this is how I resolve the would-be contradiction in the class setting: Insofar as I have been seeking from the best books my life and thought process are influenced by them-those books have become part of the way in which I relate the gospel to myself. They are therefore valid to use-not so much as a doctorinal point but as a way to elucidate the doctrine itself. I believe this is so because many of the great minds, without the apparent influence of the gospel light, have taught and understood righteousness on a deeper level than many who have had the Holy Ghost since age 8 have experienced, or at least demonstrated. As an example, in War and Peace one character derives much more spirituallity from the Masonic Rites than many of us do from the restored cerimonies. Then it seems evident to me that one way of striving towards truth is to go where these great minds take us and then refine their ideas based on further light and knowledge we obtain both through study(logic) and through prayer(revelation). This makes the gospel simultaneously very generic and very personal. That is the miracle of the gospel of Christ-all can understand and accept due to its broad message and each individual can excel to the extent he/she develops his/her understanding and receptiveness to revelation.

russ said...

I wanted to make an addendum to my comment above.
Most of us like to think of truth as absolute but I think it is more relative-at least with our current mortal limitations. In 2nd Samuel David is upset with two men who killed his rival-whom he recognized as a righteous man-and has them killed in return. At this point David is still righteous and yet he sees his rival as righteous as well-there is a great lesson here.
The point is this: what one person takes for absolute gospel may sound like high treason to another and both may be correct, from their perspective.
Another comparison. It's a little like string theory(the theory that is supposed to be the one final unifying theory for physics and by extension all science according to many physicists) as explained in "The Elegant Universe", which was suggested to me by a BYU professor of the Ancient Near East. Anyhow, in this book there are competing theories which all share a basic framework(they have to be consistent with already known phenomena) some with 12 dimensions others with 4 or 17 some with open strings others with circular strings some with both. As the understanding became better from each viewpoint the theories began to converge. So it is with the truth-we all have the basics and we each have our own corner and I firmly believe that as we progress towards perfection our ideas of truth will converge naturally. This is not to say that we will all think alike or approach problems the same way-but we will be of one heart and one mind.
But this is why it's so hard to teach out of anything but the manual. Try to stand up in gospel doctorine and say, "Truth, as we percieve it, is relative, afterall, we cannot have a knowledge of all things as they are or faith would cease to exist." Though I believe this to be a correct principle I think it is one that needs to be arrived at by the individual therefore, I will not say it in that setting. That and I am a wuss.

Michael said...

Wuss is only one letter removed from Russ. Seriously though, you should throw that idea out there in EQ one of these days and then just pull out the popcorn. Let me know when you're going to do it--I have some good Kettle Corn in the pantry right now.

I like that thought, though, and it makes sense. I think you and I have touched on that a bit before.

To add, I think all academia inherently tends to model your idea of arriving at truth, which also ties into the idea espoused by a rough translation of the word "university"--the idea of arriving at one truth through the mastery of several disciplines. The reason I say that academia models your idea of epistimology is because I think most academics would acknowledge that the university is an ideal that has yet to be achieved.

I may be getting onto really shaky ground here, but I'll throw out this rather infamous Joseph Smith statement: "Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive." Of course, it doesn't take more than a nano-sliver of cynicism to dismiss that quote given the rhetorical context in which it was originally stated (Joseph attempting to influence Nancy Rigdon into bigamy).

But I do really like this quote...and I think it somehow ties into the idea here, although after several attempts tonight I have failed to articulate why in such a way that I find satisfactory. Any takers?

Whatever the case, this thought leads me to my main idea, which I will introduce by quoting Isaiah: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways...For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."

If this is a metaphor of truth existing on disparate planes, as likened to the idea that the view from heaven is more accurate than the view on earth (because it encompasses more), then it is indeed wonderful: when faced with Heavenly Father's omniscience we ought to be permitted to understand truth as a subjective inquiry, until we also have risen above the fray.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of university you put forth. I think the way I look at truth is one way that leads to openmindedness with a purpose instead of openmindedness as an end unto itself as many of our progressive(liberal) brothern and sisers see it.

Just an update, we had a general authority 'teach' sunday school in pocatello this last week. No book was opened-instead it was an open Q & A session. Kinda like-do as I say not as I do.

I realize this is part of their responsibility and actually think it was appropriate, but it is definitely something to think about in this whole discussion.

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