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