“To wander at will in the garden of the Lord,” or: an apologia for “Added Upon”

In my last post I looked at the “War in Heaven” as depicted in a late-19th century work of Mormon fiction: Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon. I want to respond to one of the comments from that post, but rather than humbly making use of the comments section there I decided to go ahead and grandstand a bit because my response to the comment gets closer to the root of what I really intended by writing that post, and what I hoped to see in the comments.

KaralynZ: “My mom had a copy of this and I read it several times growing up. I consider it as much of a useful source of truthful theology as ‘Saturday’s Warrior’ is.”

This seems to imply that Anderson’s book is useless, trite, or vapid (ties to Saturday’s Warrior are seldom complementary). I don’t mind a snarky or funny reply here and there, and such a reply comes pretty easy for Added Upon. Like I mentioned, the dialogue can be wooden, it’s extremely didactic, the characters can often be seen as cardboard props rather than complex persons, and in some cases it perpetuates what we see today as harmful theological ideas (e.g., less-valiance in premortality stuff). Why dig it up, then? Why bother with it? “Truthful theology” is all I bother with, after all!

The fact is, “truthful theology” or not, Added Upon has been a successful Mormon book (why?), though probably mostly forgotten now (why?). It has exercised some level of influence over the religious imagination of Mormons (how so?), including a few who are still around (like Christine Bowman and Daniel C. Peterson, though there are others). It’s also a snapshot of a particular time period in Mormonism (what does it show?). We can get a feel for how other Mormons have used the canon. By comparing its use of scripture to present uses of scripture we can tease out some interesting differences or offer new possibilities. This reminds us that the ways we use our canon aren’t static. We can reflect on the values we currently hold in comparison to values of Mormons in the past. Doesn’t that mean we could say something good about practically anything we read? Sort of, although praise can, depending on the context and content, be the most damning response of all. I’m certainly not saying we ought to never criticize. And there’s the old saw that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

There’s a famous quote—it’s really less a couplet than anything else: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” I’m suggesting the other side of the coin applies:

Some things that are false are very useful.

This isn’t to say that Added Upon is inherently false. It is fiction with the intention of identifying truth (I’m thinking along the lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s supposed quote, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”) Added Upon may very well contain a mixture of things we believe and things we don’t believe. It may offer correctives or gratitude that correctives have already occurred. But that’s the whole point. The book provides avenues for imagination, ideas to grapple with, and possibilities to ponder. As I tried to hint at in my previous post, Anderson carefully noted that his story was “suggestive only,” especially in areas “where little of a definite character is revealed.” In other words, he made use of his imagination to flesh out possibilities within Mormon thought. I think we all do this to some extent, and that’s why I love his additional comment:

“It is hoped that the mind of the reader, illumined by the Spirit of the Lord, will be able to fill in all the details that the heart may desire, to wander at will in the garden of the Lord, and dwell in peace in the mansions of the Father” (Nephi Anderson, Added Upon: A Story, (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1912), 3.

This poetic image struck me as a great description of how we often operate theologically. It encourages us to think and to imagine, all in the safety of the garden of the Lord—though there be snakes in the grass and forbidden fruits on the branches—with the hope of feeling free, but guided by the Spirit, ultimately arriving in peace to dwell in the mansions of God. I love that image and I want to remember it.

Feel free to be dismissive, but in my view you’re not only missing the point; you’re missing out.

Comments

  1. “There’s a famous quote—it’s really less a couplet than anything else”

    FTW

    Also, I completely agree. I think it’s fascinating to compare and contrast they way the Theological Myth is told, when, and by who. Compare Parley Pratt’s telling to Brigham Young’s telling to Nephi Anderson’s telling to McConkie’s telling to Cleon Skousen’s telling.

    Most of the same characters, many similar events, but the stories can be very, very different. I love that we have one Plan of Salvation, but presented in multiple mythological tellings setting the context for that story.

  2. This is why I love science fiction and fantasy.

  3. .

    I think Added Upon deserves your apologia.

  4. I credit Theric for finally convincing me to read Nephi Anderson, by the way.

  5. I feel special!

    I should have said as a preface was that when I was 12 and very impressionable and rather literal I took this as a literally truthful example of what the pre-existence was like as revealed to Nephi Anderson by the Holy Spirit. That previous sentence is not sarcasm in any way. Why would a book be published about the pre-existence if it wasn’t accurate? Even as fiction. I assumed the Brethren kept tabs on that sort of thing. (Obviously this was in pre-internet days.) Saturday’s Warrior was the same way for me. So I didn’t mean that slur *quite* the way you took it. I was presented with something that I took literally and no one ever disabused me of that notion. I had to grow up and look back and say, “What the hell, people?”

    I had a tendency to believe *everything* that I heard at church even the really crazy stuff. Maybe it was just my small rural ward, but people would quote things like Added Upon and Saturday’s Warrior in Sacrament meeting talks and there was no complaint. No one ever sat me down and said, “Look just because the Gospel is true doesn’t mean all the crazy stuff you hear at church is 100% factual, take X, Y and Z with a grain of salt.” And what I desperately need to here now is “Stand by the basic tenants of the Gospel and take or leave the rest of the wacko stuff no one can prove or disprove.” Because my family never had such a discussion with me now I have no idea who does and doesn’t believe some of the more esoteric Mormon folklore.

    Heck I also love C.S. Lewis “The Great Divorce” with its allegory of heaven but he’s got a big old disclaimer in the front stating, “this is fiction, this is allegory, this is not what I actually think heaven is like.”

    My experience with the church is people are very willing, even more so than other religions, to embrace things as doctrine which are, in fact, not. Why? Why is the LDS church this way?

    Also, watch what your kids read, people.

  6. KaralynZ, I really appreciate your reply and I want to talk about it with you, but not until tomorrow. Just wanted to let you know I saw the comment and look forward to exploring it more. :)

  7. I read “Added Upon” when I was about 14, and can honestly say that it was what led me to want to stay in the church. I recognized even then that it was overly sentimental, and had some flaws, but it was so much grander, so much more inspiring than anything that ever happened at church that I finally “got” the whole point of Mormonism. Or, at least what used to be the point.
    I also grew up in a small Utah town, but must have come from a more irreligious family because we knew that you couldn’t believe everything you heard at church. :)

  8. “It is hoped that the mind of the reader, illumined by the Spirit of the Lord, will be able to fill in all the details that the heart may desire, to wander at will in the garden of the Lord, and dwell in peace in the mansions of the Father”

    Why should the desire to be decent human beings require external motivations to happen? Even though the quote does seem less reward-driven than most religious inspirational quotes, it still centers on a selfish motivation for “good” behavior.

    I understand that this is a normal function of humanity, but I think we’d be more successful at achieving the goals desired by such quotes, if we stopped looking for those external motivating factors.

  9. Karalyn, good point, the ages at which you and I first read AU (and our respective times in the course of LDS historyness) definitely affect our readings of it. You would have wondered why an inaccurate book on the preexistence would be published, assuming it must be a reflection of LDS belief, “safe,” if you will. I don’t think Anderson thought his story was entirely fantastical, I think it reflects a good faith effort on his part to present the preexistence and overall plan of salvation as realistically as he could. He realized, though, that the way he pictured it reached beyond the canonical sources, so he made sure to provide the caveat.

    Also note at the same time that Anderson didn’t employ all of the now-fantastical elements of 19th century Mormon theology, such as the earth being created near the throne of God only to literally fall to its current place in space as a result of the Fall, or speculations about Adam and Eve being transplanted here as translated beings, bringing seeds to plant in the garden, etc. with them.

    I had to grow up and look back and say, “What the hell, people?”

    Right, and I’m encouraging something more like “why the hell, people?” instead. Or really, asking what it tells us about Mormonism then and now. Perhaps we can get some fresh possibilities to think about.

    No one ever sat me down and said, “Look just because the Gospel is true doesn’t mean all the crazy stuff you hear at church is 100% factual, take X, Y and Z with a grain of salt.”

    Honestly I can’t remember much if anyone ever said that to me, I have vague memories of my parents asking what I learned in sunday school and sometimes offering contrary opinions and stuff. So I realized there could be different views of things. I also recall hearing some things and just not thinking it sounded right. And on my mission I became more interested in distinguishing between rumor, faith-promoting and otherwise, personal opinion, speculation, etc. It sounds like you’ve learned your lesson over time, though no one sat you down and laid it all out.

    And what I desperately need to hear now is “Stand by the basic tenants of the Gospel and take or leave the rest of the wacko stuff no one can prove or disprove.”

    Or, stick by those basic tenants, and see what you can also make of the wacko stuff. What does it tell you about the hopes and dreams, or the fears and anxieties, of the people who share them?

    Because my family never had such a discussion with me now I have no idea who does and doesn’t believe some of the more esoteric Mormon folklore.

    Knowing who believes particular things is interesting, but thinking about why people believe such things, and what the alternatives are, and what these things show us about each other, can be really helpful. It sounds to me like you’re already doing some of that.

    Also, watch what your kids read, people.

    Or, watch how your kids read, people. I hope I don’t become controlling to the point of micro-managing my kids’s reading materials (whenever that time comes), I’m more interested in exploring ways of reading, the assumptions we bring to our books, the feelings they bring out in us, etc.

  10. EK:

    Maybe you’re getting too hung up on the phrase “mansions of the Father.” I don’t read a simplistic “be good so you can go to heaven” set-up in Anderson’s quote at all, especially in considering Anderson’s larger work. “Mansions of the Father” in his story (drawing on his Mormonism) don’t just exist at the end of the straight and narrow. The mansions also precede birth, and exist even during mortality because there is some intercourse between the two. If anything, Anderson collapses the distance between the mansions of the Father and our current mortal condition. Here’s why that matters, here’s how I read it:

    Anderson refers to three things he hopes we can do: 1) allow our hearts to fill in details with the Holy Spirit as a guide, 2) “wander at will in the garden of the Lord,” through pondering, speculating, learning, and imagining (which is an extension of 1), and 3) “dwell in peace in the mansions of the Father.” Notice that 3 is not made conditional on either 1 or 2, (if you do such-and-such then the result will be X). That simple action/reward scenario is a possible reading of the quote, but it seems to me that 3 could also be read as a possible (not inevitable) extension of 1 and 2, removing the “reward” connotation. Or, the way I personally read it, 3 can be understood as being concurrent with 1 and 2. In other words, in good Mormon fashion, Anderson smashes the sacred distance, because heaven is ultimately to be on earth, and not as rewarded individuals, but as united families and friends.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “goals desired by such quotes.” To me, the “external motivating factors” here are just as present, relevant, and necessary in the here-and-now as they are for any future heavenly kingdom. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky individualistic “screw the world and let it burn, as long as we are good we’re going to heaven” theology at all. But more directly touching to me is Anderson’s situating of intellectualism within God’s overall plan.

  11. Does anyone remember if the Job 38:4 verse which appears at the beginning of the text is the same one used at the beginning of the Tree of Life?

  12. “It is hoped that the mind of the reader, illumined by the Spirit of the Lord, will be able to fill in all the details that the heart may desire, to wander at will in the garden of the Lord, and dwell in peace in the mansions of the Father” (Nephi Anderson, Added Upon: A Story, (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1912), 3.

    I first came across “Added Upon” as a 17 year old convert who accidentally purchased it on the old Deseret Book Auction website. During the time I was reading a lot of old books, trying to figure myself and my faith out (like pretty much any YM or YW does). And this book was a great blessing to my life. It wasn’t like sitting under the pure doctrinal waterfall of Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ”, or like thirsting for nourishment from reading a work from Skousen. But it was enlightening, lively in its narrative, and fun like “Key to the Science of Theology” by Parley P. Pratt (why has no one blogged about how evil spirits stink? that’s a post waiting to happen). I accepted it for what it was, a work of fiction, and relied heavily upon the Spirit of the Lord to teach the truth and untruths contained therein. – It was a riveting read and experience in learning the Voice of the Lord in my own life as a teenager.

    This book was and is a classic in our Latter-day Saint culture, and I am thankful to Nephi Anderson to his contribution to that culture.

    I confess though, I wonder if in eighty years the younger generations in the Church will be “reflecting” on “Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites” like we are about “Added Upon” here. – I giggle at the thought.

  13. kentslarsen says:

    Blair, your post is right on target. It is simplistic to look at a book and dismiss it as “bad” when, in fact, we also need ‘bad’ literature.

    But, I also can’t resist pointing out that the book’s title is itself fascinating, when you consider that “added upon” is a very Mormon term. I looked at defining it last July.

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