I have been outspoken about Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. Lots of good material in there—but the pages on race which we have discussed over and over on BCC and elsewhere are simply contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Steve’s post about not speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed has made me ponder some things. I know that I could never support any Church leader who said things which damaged the mission of the Church. I would be diplomatic in telling anyone that we do not teach the Curse of Cain or the appalling idea that racial differences indicate “spiritual degeneration”—but I would not simply let it stand because the speaker had a leadership position. Ideally, I would do it in person—though that can get difficult.
But that’s only the prologue.
I’ve been preparing to teach an upper level creative writing class, which I’ll do in the fall. I’ve read all of the stories I want to assign. I am a real fan of Saul Bellow, and wanted to include his “Something to Remember Me By.” But when I read it, I was very aware of the Bellowesque descriptions of a woman’s sexual organs. I have been thinking hard about this. Can I teach a brilliant story which has such graphic descriptions? To go a little deeper, I have no idea who will be in my class. Suppose I have a young man in my class who has been struggling with pornography. What if this story is simply too much for him—like a little bit of heroine to a recovering addict?
My solution has been to provide a warning (but will that also be an invitation?) about the story, and to also provide alternative reading, but to keep it in my syllabus. Perhaps I’m anticipating too much from my students. (It’s a long story; most will merely skim). I am personally unaffected by the images Bellow evokes, just astounded at his skill and at the unity of the story’s elements. Finally, the couple of pages devoted to sexual imagery (a prostitute seems to be seducing a kid, but ultimately just steals his clothes) are only a minor part of the whole story, which is rich with meaning and insight. I gained new thoughts from my reading of it, and plan on reading it again as I prepare to teach.
Remember that BYU and all Church schools are different than others. I know for sure that if one of my teachers said, “I thought this story—which is one of the best ever written—might do some moral damage to some of you who have less sophistication than I have”, I’d be offended—and then I’d go read the story. But I approach my classes with a rather maternal attitude. I become a midwife to my students’ creative work. Do I also help expand their imaginations by the stories I introduce them to? But shouldn’t they get to know Bellow? Shouldn’t they learn to see the whole story and not stop at a provocative paragraph?
I would toss all of Mormon Doctrine because of the two sections on race, which taint the whole thing. Those sections are not TRUE, and they do harm. But as to that Saul Bellow story and what I will be teaching in the fall… Ultimately, “Something To Remember Me BY” is a TRUE story, even a useful story—as much fiction is. (I often tell my students that fiction gets to the truth better than many texts purporting to be objective.) The question is, should we get to the truth through an alley which is simply too dangerous for some readers? Do I have a right to decide what my students are prepared to read and what they should approach with caution? If they don’t learn to read Bellow, have they kept themselves from some of the greatest literature in the world? As a corollary, do people who never learn to read well suffer by not experiencing the literary journeys of Dostoevsky’s Ivan, Morrison’s Sethe, or Twain’s Huck Finn? Do they settle for sugary kitsch when they could be sitting at Babette’s feast?
Put one more little thing into this equation: In our department, we get complaints from students and their parents about some of the material we teach. The complaints are sometimes sent directly to general authorities, not to us. We are required to provide alternative reading for the more sensitive readers.
Well, if Deseret Book were to do what I’m doing, Mormon Doctrine would carry a specific warning—not the generally worded disclaimer it now has. The harmful sections would be specifically identified, and alternative reading (like Lengthen Your Stride or The Rise of Modern Mormonism) would be provided. Right?