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.