The Marvin Peake’s book opens with the 77th Earl of Groan about to judge elaborate wooden carvings. The people that live outside the walls of the sprawling castle Gormenghast live for one purpose, to have their art chosen and placed in the Hall of the Bright Carvings. The carvers live in squalor. They are bitter and angry. Dark of mind and heart. However, they make art from the wood that grows in the surrounding area. The carvings are of such wonder and rarity that to see one is to fall in love with it.
However, to the Earl, Lord Sepulchrave, it is just a ritual that must be disposed of, which he does. Without regard to any actual merit he selects three carvings and goes back to the castle to perform the next ritual in the endless stream of rituals that make up his day. The Carvings are hauled to the Hall and placed on display in a dusty room with a fulltime caretaker. A room that no one visits. Ever. According to ritual, those carvings not chosen are burned to ashes.
The great holdings of Gormenghast are ruled by rituals that stretch back into the distant past so far that their meaning and intent is gone. They are carried out faithfully, if without joy, by the Earl, directed by an aging master of ritual who with single-mindedness dictates the daily actions of the Earl in the performance of his duty.
The emptiness of the rituals is reflective of Gormenghast castle itself. A vast and crumbling structure of such labyrinthine complexity and size that it stretches from horizon to horizon. Most of the wings are in shambles and only those sections where people are living are kept somewhat clean and minimally repaired.
By the end of the book, rituals that have been in place for hundreds of years are utterly destroyed. Destroyed because meaning had been lost. They had been enacted faithfully for many years, devoid of insight or meaning. Their original purpose masked by the ossified objects they had become. Without a renewal of meaning—without an injection of newness or life, they had become so stiff with arthritic deposits that they had become fragile and as such were easily fractured into shards when the first challenge to their continuity emerged and shattered their fragile existence.
What keeps ritual alive and vibrent?
Is there a lesson here for us? In our church what allows its procedures, policies and such to survive? Are they in danger?
I think the Bott affair suggests this type of ossification in just the way he related with past leaders of the church. It’s not uncommon to find certain people who hold the beliefs of past prophets and apostles up as something that we too are demanded to believe, ignoring the cultural context in which those men were raised and which colored their Weltanschauung. Like the rituals of Gormenghast the context for these views as been lost, so they are not only held up for current consumption naively, but yanked from the world in which they were embedded and an attempt is made to hammer them into spaces for which they should never be pressed into service.
For example, Gary R. at “No Death Before the Fall” often strings together long pieces of text from past general authorities as evidence that these ideas should direct our belief today. Evolution and such are often the sort of things that are excavated from the past and held up as exemplary perspectives and attitudes we should hold today. Because a general authority held that evolution was an abomination, or that another had deep culturally derived prejudices, that we should hold those views today is a mistake of the worse kind.
This miss understands the nature of an open canon and continuing revelation. It posits that these things mean only accumulative changes—that new revelations are just another line carved on a long list of doctrines also chiseled into stone and read literally and simply. This misses the point of an open canon. In an open canon, revelation is not just additive it is transformative. It recontextualizes all that has happened before. It makes all things new even the way things were read in the past. Everything must be recast. It opens new possibilities and rewrites and reinterprets that which came before. So much so that that which came before must be understood in entirely new ways. Literalistic, entrenched, and ossified readings kill the spirit of what continuing revelation even means.
In any organization, even our church, the danger of heading to Gormenghast is always one of the hazards that tempt us away from fresh vibrancy. This occurs most often when certain things are held as inviolate despite an imperative to reinterpret them in light of new information.
We believe in continuing revelation. There is nothing in that idea that suggests that new and vibrant expressions cannot or should not replace old perspectives that were clearly wrong, harmful and misguided, but perhaps charitably understood as motivated by prevailing attitudes and perspectives of the past beyond which we’ve moved. Bruce R. McConkie perhaps said it best upon the revelation giving the priesthood to African-American men:
“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.” 2
This is the effect of new revelation. Nothing is inviolate and gets to remain the same. Everything is changed. Including the way we bring things forward from the past.
1. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake, 1946. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London
2. All Are Alike unto God, BRUCE R. MCCONKIE, Bruce R. McConkie was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this address was given at the CES Religious Educators Symposium on 18 August 1978.