For the past year each Monday afternoon my “Literary BMGD” posts have appeared each Monday — perhaps confusing some readers who have wondered exactly what these posts were all about. And those who clicked on them to read what they had may have been surprised to find that they were… poetry. What exactly is BMGD and why poetry? If I am going to continue these posts, I should probably explain:
My initial (and continuing) experience blogging has been on A Motley Vision, which discusses Mormon literature and culture and its prospects. There, as well as here, I have explored, along with many others, the role that culture should play in Mormonism. In my view, the project of creating Zion requires a zion culture, which itself requires strong, worthy literature that speaks to Mormons, and non-Mormons as well, and helps them in their struggles to become more Christ-like. Such a literature has long been predicted for Mormonism, perhaps most famously by Orson F. Whitney:
“Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study, and also by faith.”
Why did the Lord so instruct His Prophet? Why did the Prophet so teach his people? It was because God had designed, and His Prophet had foreseen a great and glorious future for that people. Chosen himself in weakness, so far as this world’s wisdom was concerned, as a foundation stone of the mighty structure which is destined to tower heavenward, reflecting from its walls and glittering spires the splendors of eternity, he knew there must come a time, unless God, who cannot lie, had sworn falsely, when Zion, no longer the foot, but as the head, the glorious front of the world’s civilization, would arise and shine “the joy of the whole earth”—the seat of learning, the source of wisdom, and the centre of political power, when side by side with pure Religion, would flourish Art and Science, her fair daughters; when music, poetry, painting, sculpture, oratory and the drama, rays of light from the same central sun, no longer refracted and discolored by the many-hued prisms of man’s sensuality, would throw their white radiance full and direct upon the mirror-like glory of her towers; …
Joseph saw all this; he knew it was inevitable; that such things were but the natural flowers and fruits of the work which God had planted. The roots of the tree might not show it so well—their mission is to lie hidden in the earth despised and trampled on of men—but the branches in a day to come would prove it. Joseph knew, as every philosopher must know, that purity is the natural parent of beauty; that truth is the well-spring of power, and righteousness the sun of supremacy. He knew that his people must progress, that their destiny demanded it; that culture is the duty of man, as intelligence is the glory of God. …
“Home Literature,” The Contributor, v9 n8, June 1888
Whitney went on to say in this discourse that Mormonism would “yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”
I’m enough of an optimist to see progress in what Mormonism has produced. I don’t yet see those Miltons and Shakespeares—I don’t see a Nobel in Literature soon—but I do believe that Whitney is right. This ascendant literature should be our expectation.
But I think that we haven’t completely caught the vision of what Whitney was saying, and that, in some ways, our reaction has been impatient. We have taken what Whitney says and thought that it meant Mormon culture could somehow take a short cut to greatness. And in the process we have forgotten what our culture has already produced—because it hasn’t yet reached what Whitney described—and dismissed what is being produced now—because our expectations are formed by our, at heart non-Mormon, national cultures.
Those who are expecting a Mormon Milton or a Mormon Shakespeare now are wrong. Both Milton and Shakespeare arose in cultures that had already spent hundreds of years exploring their understanding of life and what it then meant to be English. Their environment included many other works, some good, others horrible, that informed Milton’s views and Shakespeare’s understanding. Milton and Shakespeare did not arise in a vacuum! I’m not sure our culture is there yet.
Yet somehow we expect Nobel-quality Mormon works without supporting and building a culture from which such works can arise. It seems clear to me that we won’t have great Mormon works until we have enough people who know what Mormonism has and is producing. We have to be patient with our culture, nourish it, develop it. We have to find and share with each other works that speak to the Mormon view and Mormon understanding of the world, regardless of who wrote them.
So over the past year I started sharing Mormon poetry, in a way that I thought would be culturally useful. The BMGD — Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine — posts are simply Mormon poems that fit into the Gospel Doctrine lessons. What better place to add a bit of Mormon culture than in our Sunday School lessons?
The poems are usually short—the main reason for posting poetry instead of short stories. I try to provide some assistance in how the poem fits the lesson and how it might be used in the lesson. Most of the poems are unfamiliar to even educated Mormons, but their themes are clearly not.
I don’t expect everyone to like the poems. I don’t think all of them are great poetry, or even good poetry. But, to be honest, I’ve heard worse poetry quoted in General Conference, to say nothing of what sometimes crosses the pulpit in an LDS wardhouse. To be honest, I don’t think that quality is a requirement for what is read across Mormon pulpits. What is a requirement is that what is read speak to Mormonism and our doctrine, and somehow convey the spirit. And to be honest, much of the beloved poetry in Western culture isn’t necessarily good in any academic sense as it is something that conveys to the reader some sense of truth of value. I think those hung up on some idea or expectation of quality should perhaps be a bit more kind and humble, and find the enjoyment that often comes from reducing our unrealistic expectations of others.
So, starting next week I will continue my series — this year the DCGD — Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine — posts. AND, I plan on adding a series twice a month of poems that will go with the Lorenzo Snow manual used in priesthood and relief society [I might as well, since I generally teach in priesthood.] — call it the Literary PhRS posts.
As always, I welcome feedback. And I’d even be willing to accept submissions—or authors could add their poetry to the comments on a post if they think it would work with the lesson.
I, for one, have loved your Literary Gospel Doctrine Posts. I’ve even used some in my “real” lessons–including the one I’m giving this week! I’m very glad to hear that they will continue.
Thanks, Carl. I’m glad to know that they are useful for someone.
I think what your doing is a great service, but it’s good you are being modest about expectations. For one, do you think there have even been any Miltons or Shakespears outside of LDS culture in the last 50 years? I haven’t read a lot of Nobel prize winning literature, but what I have read doesn’t approach Shakespeare. Would you agree, or am I simply worshiping dead prophets rather than living ones? Or is there something that has diffused and diluted our culture to a point that any literature created will cease to have the power and influence Shakespeare has had, so we don’t recognize it?
I do think that Joseph Smith was a “Shakespeare,” not that his literature is great in that way, but his revolutionary theological constructs and incredible output is on a similar “genius” level.
nate, I think 50 years is too short. Moby Dick has only been considered a classic since its discovery in a used bookstore in the first years of the 20th century, much more than 50 years after it was published. In the late 19th century, it wouldn’t have been included in any canon. So I don’t think we will know if there “have even been any Miltons or Shakespears outside of LDS culture in the last 50 years” for a while yet.
But, more importantly, I think this misses my point. It doesn’t matter if the work is a “Milton” or a “Shakespeare” or not. It does matter if the work speaks to Mormons and to our culture. I’ve found MANY of the early Mormon poems that speak to me. I don’t have any illusions about how great they are. In my relatively poor ability to judge these things I can tell that they aren’t great works of literature. BUT, they do speak to me, and because they do speak to Mormons today, they can be a great addition to our worship and culture.
“It doesn’t matter if the work is a ‘Milton’ or a ‘Shakespeare.'”
Exactly! This aspirational quality in LDS culture has bothered me for some time. (Ever since I gave up my own pathetic delusions of grandeur.) If we have a Milton, it will be an accident of grace, not because this is one of the missions of Mormonism.