Have you ever noticed that no matter where you go, no matter when you are experiencing something, there you are?… I sit still, an anchored thing, as temporal changes roll past. From one perspective it looks like I am moving while the river remains still, but in truth I think it is time itself that moves rushing past me, dividing to flow around me.
—Dora Daphne Tanner, from The Scholar Of Moab
The past year has witnessed the opening up (discovery?) of new ecosystems on the Mormon intellectual landscape. I’ve noted elsewhere my satisfaction with some of the advances in historical scholarship. But here I’d like to focus on the brilliant and challenging work of Steven Peck and Adam Miller. This post is not intended as an in-depth, extended review of their work, but rather as a rumination on why I find their work so moving and important.
At the outset, the choice to review both scholars together is itself a kind of commentary. By placing their work side by side I am, at a minimum, inviting comparison between the two, suggesting that their writings in some sense belong together in evaluation. The thing under consideration here—the something that I see their work as sharing—could be most simply described as a fruitful combination of literary prowess and theological creativity. Which is to say that Adam (the theologian/philosopher by training) writes theology with unusual literary and poetic quality, while Steve (the biologist-cum-poet/novelist) writes literary fiction that is also extremely compelling (if mischievous a little bit hilarious) as theology. Each in his own way is a gifted poet and a compelling theologian (just last week, Steve published what might be the best Mormon poem I’ve ever read, a work of staggering theological creativity). And I’ll also note that Adam’s review of Steve’s book was probably my favorite bit of writing in the bloggernacle of the last year.
Both have a certain poetic sensibility, both have incredibly interesting things to say about life, Mormonism, and the universe, and both have recently written outstanding books. While he just republished his delicious novella A Short Stay In Hell, and I just purchased several copies of his recently released Rifts of Rime, in Professor Peck’s case I have in mind his ingenious, wonderfully strange The Scholar Of Moab. This is a terrific novel in its own right. It does everything a good postmodern novel should, and none of the things such a work should avoid. An artful combination of naturalism, magic realism, poetry, non-linear narrative, dark humor, and philosophical depth, there is also something very distinctively Mormon about the book. Like Mormonism’s keystone, this book is profoundly, obsessively self-conscious of its own constructedness as a narrative and a text. It beckons the reader with the mystery of its own historicity. I had a hard time putting it down, but also found myself reading deliberately slowly, and rereading, on the strength of the aesthetic power of the prose alone. (I’m told that incontrovertibly scientific wordprint studies performed by famous researchers have conclusively concluded that there are multiple authors to the text, none of which is either Steven Peck or Solomon Spaulding).
The conjoined two-headed, three-spirited philosopher/cowboy(s) furnished some of the book’s strangest, most compelling, and arguable most distinctly Mormon sections of the text. In these indecipherable written characters, magic runs up against the palpably real and mundane in a way that makes the reader genuinely question the distinction between the two realms (while in the world of the narrative, the conjoined twins also conjoin other binaries in a way that re-situates them along a messy, human continuum: faith/intellect, belief/doubt, religion/science, sane/insane, speaking/silent, gay/straight). William’s own self-described experience gets at deep, difficult questions that run through the heart of the philosophical (and the Mormon) imagination in a way that utterly de-abstracts them for a reader so deeply invested in their story:
We stand in relationship closer than any human beings really ought to. I’ve been there for all his experiences. We started with the same phenotypical brain at birth, genetically identical heads; we’ve had identical experiences, identical nature and nurture, yet here we are—he gay, me straight; he religious, me an unbeliever; he mad, me clinging to rationality by a thread. Can the universe depend so thoroughly on who is on the right and who is on the left? Is it all chaos, and hung precariously on such tiny breaks in symmetry?… Since Marcel [the headless third consciousness that controls the legs] experiences both of us inwardly, is he a more complete person? An entity of wholeness, combined of our two consciousnesses? Maybe he does not see us as separate entities…. But the self that I experience from all these competing “persons” is one complete thing, one consciousness. One consciousness. Me. Maybe Marcel is like that? Maybe he is the higher consciousness formed from our separate contributions, like the two hemispheres of a single brain. I am but one piece of his/her more comprehensive whole, providing input to his integrated self…. maybe this kind of coming together is something closer to what God is (if there be such a thing). Maybe God is just the integration of millions of such consciousnesses? Marcel is just a smaller version of God. A divine entity with only two such consciousnesses…
Professor Peck’s trinity is coarse and earthy, deformed and messy, freakish and unholy, yet beautiful and compelling, a relationship where the reader encounters the divine. Not dissimilarly from how Edward Babcock first encountered Deity (as related elsewhere by William):
He said: “God came to me. Not as a person, or a vision, or some manifestation of the senses.” Rather, he explained, he became aware aware of His presence—an “other” that he has formed a relationship with. A presence he has befriended in a mutual exchange of being-there-for-each-other. That is what I’ve never understood. I’ve been whit him my whole life. How can I have missed out on their close relationship?
God manifest not in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, not even in the flesh or the spirit, but in the relationship.
Adam Miller (who has been busy lately founding and running a splendid new independent academic press) recently published a collection of essays. Adam is a theologian. He is also healthily, even playfully skeptical of the value of theology. It isn’t false-modesty or cheap non-conformism, but rather a doubtful approach to the question of whether the divine can be apprehended or ordered according to a systematically rational system. Still, Adam is a very good theologian with evident philosophical training and an unusual intellectual rigor. If he is skeptical of the wisdom of seeking God in the realm of Platonic absolutes or the interplay of Kantian Categories, it is only because he finds God so immanently grounded in material reality, in the presence of the Present. The title Rube Goldberg Machines is an admission and a statement about the utility of thinking philosophically about the divine. Such machines (not unlike a great deal of modern intellectual theory-making) deploy absurdly contrived, deliberately over-complicated mechanisms to perform the simplest of tasks. But like the comical machines, theology itself can be, when approached with appropriate self-awareness and self-deprecation, tremendously fun, even joyful. There are a number of extremely gifted, serious theologians in the Mormon tradition, from the Pratt brothers and Roberts to Truman Madsen and Blake Ostler. There work is invaluable, and Adam would be the first to admit it. But while Adam’s theological writings probably have closest Mormon kinship with the work of the wonderful Jim Faulconer (Adam’s writing in my mind combines Faulconer’s hermeneutic aversion to systematic theology with Kierkegarrd’s demanding gravity and an invigorating dose of Nietzsche’s poetic indulgence), they are indeed fun. Not because they take you to fun places, but because the journey is a genuine (if challenging) pleasure.
Adam’s essay on Atonement (separated out into 118 numbered aphoristic propositions) shines a wonderfully original, provocative, but also thoroughly Mormon light onto age old questions about estrangement and reconciliation, intercession and submission, Father and Son, and repentance and resurrection. He works mightily to drag these questions from the realm of eternal abstraction and grand narratives into the brute, material reality of the humanly experienced present. This allows him to (re)frame and discuss the problem of grace-versus-works in a dramatically new and unexpected way. He draws some of the momentum he needs to re-set the stage by addressing Atonement in distinctively Mormon terms: the reconciliation and at-one-ness at stake is not just between Gods and humanity, or between spirits and bodies (though both are vital), but (and perhaps especially) between families and generations. Part of the payoff is that this approach enables him to creatively and persuasively synthesize the concerns over materiality and this-worldly community that drive liberation theologies with the other-worldly, eternity-oriented, occasionally mystical claims that animate more traditional creedal formulations. Perhaps best of all, if my own experience is at all telling, it is an essay that not only affects how the reader thinks or conceives of the nature and mechanism of Christian Atonement, but deeply affects the reader in the act of reading it. One reads in the fixed thrall of the words in precisely the way that the words describe and prescribe (a felicitous essay, to turn Adam’s own phrase).
A final point, on both writers. One often hears discussion about the longed-for truly Great Mormon Author. There are a number of truly fantastic Mormon poets and novelists and playwrights and philosophers and theologians and critics and essayists and songwriters. What I find so compelling about these two is that they embody what, in my mind, marks the truly great Mormon writer. A great Mormon poet is not merely a great poet who happens to be Mormon or even who also writes about Mormon things. A great Mormon poet does not simply bring the tools of great poetry or poetic theory to bear on Mormonism in some form or another. A great Mormon poet does something like the opposite: she applies the truths and depth and richness and insights and fabric of Mormonism to Poetry itself, enriches the poetic enterprise with the greatness of Mormonism. The Scholar Of Moab is not merely a great novel written by a Mormon that contains Mormon themes. It is a great novel that could only have been written by a Mormon. By a gifted and original and impassioned and Mormon-to-the-core Mormon. And Adam’s work does not merely apply the insights or axioms of materialist philosophy or Zen existentialism to Mormon questions, in an effort to enlighten Mormonism with good theology. Rather it enlightens the philosophical endeavor with Mormonism’s richness and singularity. It is a work of truly great theology that only could have been contrived (and perhaps only in Rube Goldberg fashion) by a brilliant Mormon.
Both Adam and Steve have an uncommon aesthetic gift with language, and both writers apply and multiply that gift to the great and genuinely pleasurable benefit not just of intellectual Mormons, but of serious students and fans of great literature, poetry, and theology everywhere.