What’s Adam Miller up to in Letters to a Young Mormon?

cover-miller-lettersLetters to a Young Mormon came out in 2013. It kicked off the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship’s Living Faith book series. I was the greenie at BYU’s Institute and it was thrilling to work on such an engaging and unique manuscript. We’ve published three more Living Faith books since then (I edit the series) and Miller kept on writing, too. His latest book is called The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction. It’s a nice foil to Letters, so I’ll risk spoiling some of the magic by dissecting it a bit here.

A common reaction to Letters to a Young Mormon goes like this: “I’ve never read a Mormon book like this before, what’s going on here?” (spoken alternately with thrill or distaste…) Yes, Letters includes many Mormon words but often uses them in surprising ways. I’m about to discuss the philosopher Bruno Latour, whose work has influenced Miller, so a word of warning: I’m not a trained philosopher and it’s possible that I completely misunderstand Latour.

Bruno Latour has a problem. He’s embarrassingly religious. In his book Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech he says he’s often “embarrassed” about things he hears at church. But he’s also embarrassed about things he hears spoken against those things when he’s away from church. As you might expect a philosopher to do, he diagnoses this as a language problem. The scriptures contain the words of life, he acknowledges, but they seem to bring death when they are merely rehashed or repeated. Latour wants them to be “renewed” instead. Otherwise, it can’t take root in his heart today and bear tangible fruit in his everyday life. The word is merely rehashed and repeated. Citing 2 Corinthians 3:6, he observes that rehashing and repeating help explain the Apostle Paul’s claim that “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life”—yet here we are with the written words of scripture nevertheless. (Latour, 16.)

So Latour says we must renew the scriptures, rather than rehashing or repeating them. To put this in Mormon parlance, he seems to be asking us to “liken the scriptures” to ourselves. He affirms that the scriptures (and religious language more broadly—even the word “God” itself) must somehow be made more relevant to us today. We seek “fruitful interpretation,” which requires translation across language and time. Without this, our scripture and religious language devolves into vain repetition. The letter killeth. So we translate. He also uses the word “transform.”

If you’re like me, you already feel a bit anxious about where Latour’s going. How do we distinguish fruitful interpretation from unfaithful paraphrase? Latour anticipates our anxiety, suggesting to me that he’s dealt with it himself. He puts it like this:

How can I be sure that the transformation I’ve performed has kept the meaning intact? What if I’ve lost the meaning along the way, dropped the substance for the shadow, mislaid the spirit every bit as much as the letter?” (Latour, 18.)

What’s his answer? Bad news. He writes: “Silence on the part of the teacher. There is no rule. No trick. You have to run the same risk every time” (Latour, 17). Latour goes on to propose criteria for testing the fidelity of a translation—he’s not interested in jettisoning scripture any more than he is in subjecting it to inflexible literalism. But much of his discussion hinges on the relationship between the world as it really is and the world as we can talk about it from our limited perspective using our limited language. Religious speech—no more or less, Latour says, than scientific speech in a number of interesting ways—leads to a “fundamental disappointment.”[1]

This disappointment happens because we want direct access to truth. He calls it “double-click communication.” Like an icon on the screen, you click it twice and the result appears before you (Latour, 22, I guess he’s not a Mac user). Double clicking “allows us to act as if we could do away with all mediation by acceding directly, through sheer transparency, to a shift that would not come at the cost of some distortion” (Latour, 36). We want direct access to truth, so some people become frustrated when they realize the inevitable distortion our language causes. Other people are misled, mistaking their distorted language for the unvarnished truth itself. For Latour, both are unfortunate positions to be in.

Latour says we have other options here:

Now, you can see that he choice is never just whether to keep on repeating like a parrot or to invent everything every time from scratch, ab ovo. [Google tells me that’s Latin for “from the beginning.”] And still less to modernize, adapt, localize. It’s more a matter of understanding anew, based on present experience, what the tradition might well be able to say, lending us as it does the words, the same words, but said differently. We don’t have to innovate, but to represent the same. The repetition of harping on the same old thing is opposed by the repetition of renewal: the first seems faithful but isn’t, the second seems unfaithful, yet it alone preserves the treasure that the other squanders while believing it’s preserving it” (Latour, 72).

There’s more to Latour’s story, I think, but if you’re familiar with Miller’s work, what I’ve laid out should be enough to suggest similarities. I believe Letters to a Young Mormon was written as an exercise of repetition of renewal. Miller takes Mormon words like “temple,” “sealing,” and “eternal life” and refills them—without completely emptying out the vessel first—in order to quench our thirst. Miller wants to revitalize religious language for rut-stuck Latter-day Saints while maintaining fidelity to the tradition as well as his own lived experience as a Mormon.

One of the big themes of Letters is that Mormons need to more carefully attend to the present because we encounter God here and now, not just later in mansions on high. In line with Latour’s reflections about the slipperiness of language, Miller points to the linguistic jujitsu of Doctrine and Covenants 19 where the Lord defines “eternal punishment” as God’s kind of punishment, implicitly defining eternal life as God’s kind of life. Miller writes:

What is eternal life like? It’s like this. It’s like now. Eternal life is always for now and never for later. Eternal life is a certain way of holding in our hands the hunger of a human life. It is a certain way of doing whatever you’re already doing. Eternal life is just like doing what you’re doing right now, but doing it the way God himself would do it…[It’s] like disagreeing with your wife. [It’s] like doing the dishes with your husband. [It’s] like reading to your kids. [It’s] like going to work or mowing the lawn. [It’s] like sitting in a chair. [It’s] like sleeping through the night or getting up before dawn. [It’s] like visiting your mother. [It’s] like eating a cookie. [It’s] like being born and getting old. [It’s] like dying. What are eternal lives like? They, dear S., are like you.”[2]

In line with Latour, Miller translates LDS gospel principles, he refreshes them in a way that remains true to our faith but brings us to a new understanding of how they can be applied.

If you’ve made it through this post and have also read Letters I’d really like to read your comments. In the next post I’ll talk about how I think Miller’s new book on David Foster Wallace compares.

 

NOTES

[1] As does idolatry, interestingly enough, as Miller outlines in The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), x–xiii.

[2] Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 76, 78.

Comments

  1. Love this and loved Letters. In some of his recent BCC posts about the Book of Mormon, Michael Austin has recently dissected a bit how Nephi performs Latour’s type of “renewal” reading of Isaiah. Joseph Spencer’s work also showcases this type of renewing of scripture through likening it to ourselves or showing how its authors likened earlier scriptures unto themselves.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    Out of curiosity how do you see Adam/Latour differing on these issues from other continental thinkers? So Heidegger for instance seeks a return to an originary encounter with the same object as opposed to the received indirect object given in society (Das Man). Likewise John Sallis years years ago had his book on Translation that touched upon many of these issues arising in the general continental tradition. (Including Paul Ricouer’s own book On Translation from around the same time)

    The problem of repetition while retaining a kind of authentic encounter with what the text is really about seems a long and distinguished issue. I think we see this in Joseph Smith’s own translations. Often they’re described (especially the JST) as midrashic since it’s not primarily focused on restoring some original text (which is itself but an intermediate step) but rather focuses on what the text references. That is to make a translation is to go to the objects themselves that determine the text one is translating. The fidelity of a translation must be to these original objects rather than this intermediate text.

    Distinctions between reference and these intermediary signs/texts of course is why Joseph as a translator is so frequently criticized. And arguably, especially with the Book of Mormon the issue isn’t only the original objects but how those objects have determined other texts. To give an example one might criticize the Book of Mormon for drawing on Paul in Romans in what appears to be an achronistic error. Or one might say that the underlying text is about something (faith). Faith itself as an object thus determines the passages in the Book of Mormon as well as Paul in Romans. The relation is such that to translate the one in terms of the other may indeed be faithful not just to the object in translation but in terms of communicating that object (faith) to the interpreter (the reader). This sort of consideration is seen as quite important in these traditions when considering the authentic/inauthentic consideration of the object. Yet to most traditions where the concern isn’t with the objects but linguistic fidelity of the intermediary texts this seems an alien way of thinking.

  3. Thank you Blair for the post. I am a big fan of Letters and I also enjoyed his book on DFW. I agree that you give voice to what Adam seems to be doing. Yes he is renewing Mormon language. He does seem to be breathing life into what we say to each other about our experience.

    In addition, I would say that in some ways he is helping me set down my strongly held normative approach to Mormon Theology while replacing it with a more descriptive or even dialogical model. Typically I have taking a very normative approach to Mormon theology trusting that the gospel as passed down by my leaders and lived in my life points me toward a very specific set of outcomes and experiences. The descriptive or dialogical model I suggest coming from Adam challenges this normative path and focuses on the process in which religion is engaged. Rather than existing within my religion and allowing it to dictate my own expectations about my life my religion becomes a useful instrument to redeem my life. By descriptive or dialogical I don’t mean less challenging. Adam doesn’t let up on the discipleship requirements for Mormons. But rather by loosening the normative strands on the theology he makes my religion a tool for a greater life rather than a high jump standard staring me down.

    For example, his discussion of maps or religion in our heads. I think as an active Mormon I have long believed that there is some strongly held normative status that is necessary for myself, my family, my ward, my leaders etc. to have the gospel work. This is my map, this is religion in my head. In this case my religious experience is often focused on measuring gaps, enduring painful consequences (because they are evidence of my failure to meet the standard) and emphasizing the favors God does for me. This approach, at least for me, often led to stress about the gaps between the standard in my head and the empirical evidence in front of me. What I love about what Adam does is he gives me tools to bring my religion to life in my body now. I think he does this by helping me to question the map in my head, he does it by helping to see that perhaps God has more planned for me than the story I tell myself (again a normative approach). In some ways his approach challenges the typical approach of identifying good things that come from God and bad things that come from other places and really just pushes the reader to redeem whatever is coming.

  4. MDearest says:

    “You have to run the same risk every time.” This is today’s mantra, as my current life is giving me a workout; forcing me to reject my comfort zones or curl up and die in them. Thank you for writing this distillation, it helps me in the labyrinth. I tend to use visual metaphors, I guess. As I read about repetition of renewal the image in my mind was that .gif clip making the rounds on the webs of the solar system orbits as a moving vortex. It occurs to me that I won’t be stuck forever in the bad place I’m in, and that I can improve the grace with which I move through it by trying something different which is motivated by a greater spark of — what? Presence? Love? I can pick one and be edified by whatever result there is, because chances are good I will revisit the same action again in the “future.”

    I bought a copy of Letters for one of my children, and I still have it in that stack of books. I will read it, right after some neglected gardening.

  5. Kami Nielsen says:

    I just finished “Letters” and thought it to be pure poetry. Adam is a thoughtful writer that had me thinking about doctrine in a new and refreshing light. You don’t have to be a young Mormon to appreciate this book. What a treasure!

  6. Daniel, I like how you put that, thanks.

    MDearest: yes, get to that book, it’s a quick read until you realize you want to read it a few more times.

    Kami: Good to hear. How did you discover the book?

  7. Clark: I am a dabbler only in that stuff.

  8. Anne Palmieri says:

    Love the book so much! I have purchased many copies of this treasure of a book and given them away. I will continue to do so. Kudos to all involved. I saw myself in the chapter on Work and our need sometimes to try to earn love and approval. One of my favorite of many quotes: ” Pursue love and pursue excellence-purse them with abandon, But you will spoil the joy native to each if you spend your life wanting to be love BECAUSE you are great…Uncouple your desire to be loved from your desire to be great…”
    I loved how he illustrated the problem of wanting to prove ourselves worthy of love when he was playing high school basketball not for the joy of it, but instead he says, ” My ambition was to use basketball as a crowbar for leveraging love. And this, win or lose, is no way to play basketball. In fact, it is no way to do anything.”