Reading is an important part of Mormon practice. As is hearing. And speaking. These language forms, in their peculiarity, help create daily Mormonism, although they may not be reflected on often in their specific quality as language practices. Certainly without them, Mormonism would be a very different religion.
While there are many things we read, as part of Mormon life—scriptures, Church magazines, manuals, perhaps even blogs—here I want to focus on the writings of the Brethren, the General Authorities. How do we read them? Are there particular ways of connecting reader and text, of making the sentences leap from the page with sense?
In my life the words of the Brethren have a quality of holiness. I read lots of texts, as part of my ordinary existence as a scholar. Almost all the texts I go through do not have that same sanctity. The anthropologist in me wonders if that sanctity is, in part, created by the way I approach and actually read the Brethren’s words.
I am sure I am not alone, among Latter-day Saints, in feeling differently about the General Authorities’ writings than I do about other texts. As a result I suspect there are some distinctive Mormon practices around reading.
Brian Malley, in his book How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism, has made us aware of the importance of language use for creating the sense of an inerrant scripture among Evangelicals. The text, itself, does not possess the qualities attributed to of fixity and immutability. Malley locates those qualities instead in the way Evangelicals read the Bible and use the Bible.
While the comparative question of how Mormons read scripture is not the same as how they read the works of the General Authorities, right now I am interested in the use of General Authorities’ writings.
Unlike other texts, I was raised to approach the Brethren’s writings with an attitude of prayer, such that through them I could feel the Spirit’s whisperings. It seems to me that idea/act is an important beginning for comprehending an approach to reading.
I do not tackle my anthropology books with that same attitude. Rather I am looking at them for arguments and the mobilization of data, for interesting ways of bringing together theoretical/philosophical concerns and the understanding of people. I do not read fiction in the same way as either of the two above, unless I am reading for work. Then I carefully look at issues of form, symbolism, and development. Otherwise I read for story.
The image “prayer” for me captures not only the act of praying, but also a sense of gratitude and pleading. The gratitude enshrines a reverence that, per se, is generally not critical. Reverence and critical exist at opposite poles in this sense of reading. And yet in other religious traditions, such as Judaism, argument is an act of reverence. In my academic training I was taught to “tear texts apart” as an act of intellectual reverence. Yet my Mormon-ness experiences a distinction between reverence in my tradition’s religious sense and the ways I deal with academic texts.
A second part of a Latter-day Saint way of reading would seem to be captured in Nephi’s adage concerning scripture, to liken it to yourselves. This notion sets the Brethren’s texts in a different set of questions than those of internal coherence as a set of propositions in relationship with other literatures. Rather it locates them in a place of concern for the sacred story of one’s own life, in relationship to the sacred story of all of our lives as a search for exaltation. It is concerned with the questions surrounding God’s moving in our lives and our openness to that quickening.
For the moment I wish to look at a particular text, Elder Holland’s “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments”. Part of the reason I choose this text is because in a future post I want to use it to explore the question of Mormon erotics. But for now, as a laying of a foundation, I am interested in it as text and in the practices of reading it. I also choose it, because it was as I was preparing a paper on Mormon erotics, presented at the 2006 Salt Lake Sunstone, that I really became aware of issues of reading the Brethren. In that paper I brought an anthropological approach to reading where I looked at the text for what it might tell me about a particular culture, the Mormons. I was less interested in textual coherence than in juxtaposing Elder Holland’s text to the studies of ethnographers in places as far removed as New Guinea, Brazil, and the United States on comparative erotics to see what Elder Holland’s text could tell me about a Latter-day Sense of the erotic.
I wrote: “General Authority texts like this exist ethnographically in a difficult space: they have a kind of authority which impacts on individual Latter-day Saint lives, but they are not statements of how Latter-day Saints actually do things, as opposed to how they ought to do things. They also stem from the two kinds of lacunae Bourdieu described: they focus on esteemed actions and they take for granted that which goes with out saying. However, since Latter-day Saints live in the larger American society, these two lacunae become part of the way they reproduce themselves within the larger context and therefore are formative. Nevertheless, as we approach the text we must keep these things in mind.”
I then noted that “in his long preamble” Elder Holland establishes “his authority to speak and the responsibility it gives”. But as I think about it now, almost two years later, that preamble is not only an establishing of authority and responsibility, it keys the audience as to how they should listen, how they should understand the text. Anthropologists are now calling things like this metapragmatics, a fancy way of saying they tell us how the text fits into our classification of things and how we should approach it and comprehend it. A joke requires a different metapragmatics than does the constitution, say. An anthropology lecture is keyed differently than a testimony.
Elder Holland invokes responsibility on his part and on that of the reader, although he does not say so explicitly, when he writes “This responsibility to speak to you never gets any easier for me. I think it gets more difficult as the years go by. I grow a little older, the world and its litany of problems get a little more complex, and your hopes and dreams become evermore important to me the longer I am at BYU. Indeed, your growth and happiness and development in the life you are now living and in the life you will be living in the days and decades ahead are the central and most compelling motivation in my daily professional life […] It is with an eye to that future–your future–and an awareness of this immense sense of responsibility I feel for you, that I approach this annual midyear devotional message. I always need the help and sustaining Spirit of the Lord to succeed at such times, but I especially feel the need for that spiritual help today.”
Elder Holland is telling us to listen/read with the Spirit, because what follows is of the Spirit and Holy, since it refers to a future of salvation. In the texts he mobilizes notions of seriousness, as opposed to casualness, as attitudes people should bring. His topic is sex, but his preamble tells us these attitudes of seriousness and the sacred should apply to reading. But seriousness here is not the seriousness I as an academic might bring in my slicing and dicing of texts; rather it is the seriousness of the Holy in the Mormon attitude of approaching and experiencing the Spirit.
While writing my paper, anthropological analysis of Elder Holland’s text came to feel transgressive. It applied different cannons to reading. Even cutting and pasting parts of his preamble here feels troubled.
I felt /feel wary of falling into the binary Elder Holland set of “seriousness and spiritual” versus “casual and carnal”. I wanted to pen a different space for my academic, anthropological reading.
One final point: Elder Holland’s “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” was a talk first and an article second. It was probably written, like academic talks, before being spoken to the audience. Now it lives as an article mobilized in Latter-day Saint discussions of sex. This play, among speaking, writing, listening, and reading, is fraught with spiritual significance in Latter-day Saint usage and requires development, another time.
For now, I just want to pose for a topic of conversation and discussion this issue of how do we approach the Brethren’s writings? Is your experience like mine? Do you also experience reading differently when you read different genres? Is it something in the genre, or do metapragmatics cue you to read differently, like I argue happens with Elder Holland’s speech? How do you read the Brethren?