Reading Mormon Stories.
An Ethical Dilemma?
Neal W. Kramer1
WE MORMONS ARE SURROUNDED by stories. Stories by Mormons. Stories about Mormons. New stories. Short stories. Anecdotes. Rumors. Jokes. Gossip. In fact, Mormonism itself often seems as much an unfolding, continuing narrative as anything else. Joseph in the grove. Joseph at Liberty, then Carthage. Brigham in Emigration Canyon. Lorenzo Snow in the Salt Lake Temple. Ezra Taft Benson's mission of compassion to the European Saints following World War II. And so our stories abound. But, caught as we are in the narrator's spell, what controls do we have against narrative exaggeration? What happens when the "facts" and the narrative don't appear to correspond? Or do what we call the "facts" have prior claims against the "inspirational" and "faith-promoting" stories that are thrust daily upon us by peddlers of "Mormon" products? Can such books, tapes, and videos be fairly evaluated? Or ought we even to question the integrity of such inspirationally motivated products?
Most literary scholars, trained as we are to define quality, like to think that all stories should be read with some caution. That is, we believe there is a way to measure or analyze how and why some stories are better than others. Even though we can't always agree on criteria for evaluation, we do tend to agree that not all stories are equally valuable. Some are better crafted than others. Some have a more direct bearing on contemporary social problems. Still others make Powerful claims about how we ought to believe. Some stories even invite us to change our most basic behaviors. And these are the kinds of stories that I want to talk about: stories that claim to offer high values and positive ethical models for behavior modification. These seem to me to be among the most important claims Mormon stories make. "Read me or listen to me," they almost shout from the shelves and from behind the plastic shrink wrap, "and I'll make you a better Mormon." Certainly the popularity of these stories with Latter-day Saints would indicate that we think the stories are good for us. But how may we critically evaluate such claims?
Wayne C. Booth, in his recent book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, offers a nondogmatic and critically satisfying approach to evaluating the ethics of stories. He calls it "coduction." Coduction begins our appraisal of the ethics of a particular story with our prior experience of other stories. The wider one's acquaintance with stories, then, the richer possible comparisons become. Thus, coduction is always comparative and never absolute, a virtue of pluralism.2 Even with the idea of ongoing comparison, though, we must have some standard of internal and external measure for evaluation. Under the rubric of "friendship," Booth offers seven broad categories of coduction against which we may measure the positive or negative virtues of ethical offers made by specific stories: (1) quantity/concision, (2) reciprocity/hierarchy, (3) intimacy/cool reserve, (4) intensity/slack "charm," (5) tight coherence/explosive disunity, (6) otherness/familiarity, and (7) breadth of range/concentration.
While each category seems to represent a range of effects that might imply one of the two poles as better than the other, Booth recognizes that in different stories one or the other pole might be the better choice, though Aristotle's notion of balance is extremely important in setting up the contrasts. Too much or too little is the key to this measure. He also does not mean to codify any particular experience as inherently better or worse than another; as we continue reading, our relative evaluations of stories will fluctuate.3 This comparatist model should help us to evaluate what appears to me to be the most common Mormon story: the anecdotal account of a miracle, or experience with the Holy Spirit
For the purpose of this essay I've chosen to examine four stories: "Death in a Foxhole" by Paul H. Dunn, "An Unusual Boy" by Matthew Cowley, the healing and conversion of an opera singer from "The Patterns of My Faith: Surprises of the Spirit" by Richard Cracroft, and a woman's ability to learn to forgive from The Lord's Way by Dallin H. Oaks. These four are generally representative, I think, of the genre of miracle stories that enjoin changes in our own conduct.
My justification for choosing these stories is quite simple. They are extremely popular with Mormons
generally, and the people who buy these books or check them out actually read them, though more and more
we like to listen to or watch and be inspired by audio and video tapes, as well. The storyteller has become
easily the most popular fireside speaker in our culture. Certainly Paul H. Dunn was extraordinarily popular
with young people because of the way he could tell story after story. Elder Dunn's devotionals have always
been the best attended and most enjoyed at Ricks College, where I teach. Students can often remember the
themes of his speeches weeks and even months after he has gone. Our multiple library copies of the three
volumes of Outstanding Stories by General Authorities, which contain twenty or thirty of Elder Dunn's stories,
are well used and worn. To a teacher whose assignments are forgotten as soon as they are turned in and whose
lectures seldom leave the classroom, such success is enviable indeed. In someone also vulnerable to a touch of
cynicism, like me, such enormous popularity demands a little critical skepticism, so let us turn then to the
seven categories and evaluate these four stories.
When speaking of stories, we commonly talk about "how much they have to say" as a partial measure of excellence. Richer, more valuable stories tell us more about what it means to be human. They reward us amply for time spent engaged as readers, especially during the time we are reading, and they invite us to return for enrichment again and again. An example of stories with less value might be the short commercials on TV, with their implied narratives and sparkling punchlines. They are wonderfully funny for twenty seconds, but the aggravation caused by innumerable repetitions makes me want to be less and less "like Mike."
None of the four stories I examined is particularly long. Many of them were originally part of public addresses and so provided support for a larger rhetorical purpose. But they do stand alone. Interestingly enough, the stories do not appear to want to describe the workings of the Spirit in analytical detail. Instead, they try to recreate a series of emotions and to transmit them as accurately as possible to an audience that was not present at the original event. In essence, then, the audience should feel the power of the experience but not think too hard about what it might have consisted of in its larger detail. If the story can be concentrated into a narrative that lasts no longer than five minutes in the telling, so much the better.
Since these stories are often written down, we can assume that their authors hope we might be able to return
to them for further inspiration. And unlike those irritating commercials I mentioned, it is easy to hear or read
such stories a number of times without becoming too jaded. I think it is proper to mention, though, that
anthologies of these stories quickly do become repetitive and somewhat boring. Quantity of time spent or
amount of analysis is not an issue, then, with these stories; but the intensity of emotion created by a taut, brief
narrative is essential to their success.
Some writers imply that we, their readers, are essentially their equals in imagination, intellect, etc. Others want us to know from the very beginning that we readers are their inferiors and have come to worship at the throne of genius. The extreme of reciprocity is the writer who is highly honored that we would even bother to open a work to its preface. The extreme of hierarchy might be described as an almost intolerable arrogance. I think of writers like Milton or Samuel Johnson here.
The writers of inspirational stories fall somewhere in the middle. The four authors of the stories I've considered here might be ranked in the following order, from most reciprocal to most hierarchical: Cracroft, Cowley, Oaks, and Dunn. Cracroft presents himself as one of us, as amazed at the workings of the spirit in his life as we are. His persona is very much the English teacher in the light blue leisure suit, who just happens to be the president of the Switzerland Zurich Mission or the one who used to sign your temple recommend. There is no attempt to insinuate himself into the center of the narrative, though his skill as a writer and his obvious craftsmanship do belie this persona somewhat.4
Elder Cowley is especially interesting in this regard. He is the apostle of miracles, yet he must seek out a friend, a young nameless bishop, to take to the hospital with him, "for I think his faith is greater than mine."5 The center of this story is a young boy, but the narrative is all Cowley. One cannot help feeling that while the youngster is remarkable in his faith, the author is equally remarkable in his priesthood power. The humor and self-deprecation dazzle in a way that must call attention to the superiority of the speaker. And we know he is an apostle.
Elder Oaks recounts the experience of a wounded Latter-day Saint in need of the healing balm that comes from learning to forgive. This woman, a victim of sexual abuse, is presented as noble in her desires and her faith as she is spiritually healed of her anger toward the brother who abused her.6 Elder Oaks stays very much in the background, but the solemn style, overt seriousness, and context of the story leave little doubt of his authority in these matters. He speaks as one with authority, somewhat distant and careful to protect his special position. And it is entirely appropriate to the circumstances.
I'm a little uneasy in characterizing Paul Dunn as the most hierarchical of the four writers. He seems so
friendly and familiar when he speaks. But in the story of his friend's death in a foxhole in the South Pacific,
the narrator takes center stage. Harold's last words are ultimately less important than the report of the
storyteller that "I was able to fulfill that commitment."7 The narrative has a touch of the self-aggrandizing about
it. Elder Dunn must share the spotlight with his friend, and perhaps that is why he has falsified some of the
details.8 The narrator is just intrusive enough that we unconsciously find ourselves admiring him for having
had the experience instead of feeling the spirit the story was supposed to communicate. So we end up praising
Dunn, obviously superior to us, and inevitably distant because of it.
Some storytellers want to invite you into their very souls, as it were. They want you to know everything about them, to become bosom friends. Others would rather have you stay away; their very tone of voice erects barriers, replete with spiritual "No Trespassing" signs. They are quite formal and reserved, preferring to stay at least an arm's length away. But extremes tell the real story. Too much intimacy violates the readers sense of self. Too close, too cloying, somewhat sycophantic. And too distant leaves us feeling cold, unwanted, unnecessary, almost as if the author thought people like us might try to eavesdrop and so has taken every precaution to keep us out.
Each of these Mormon stories wants to produce intimacy rather than distance. Each writer hopes the
narrative will help to reproduce a spiritual experience by which all the members of the audience will be drawn
closer to God. But there is a sad and unintended paradox associated with this desire. If the readers cannot
reproduce an account of a similar Personal experience in their own minds, instead of being drawn closer to the
spirit of the story they can be forced away. Instead of inviting spiritual abundance, the narrative creates
spiritual distance. The reader feels his or her own spirituality to be so much beneath the author's that no connection can be made, no intimacy shared. At this point the tabernacle podium becomes an unhappy symbol of
the special spiritual power of Church leaders in contrast to the spiritual weakness and near depravity of
To describe the level of intensity a reader brings to a text, or the level of engagement a text demands of a reader, is very difficult. Part of what keeps readers with a good story includes development of characters and action that are riveting enough that we simply can't put the story down. Sometimes it includes skillful use of imagery and figures of speech. At other times it might include well-crafted and carefully constructed arguments of the sort we might find in a dialogue by Plato or lengthy philosophical digressions in novels by Thomas Mann or Boris Pasternak.
Mormon inspirational stories all try to generate intense emotion in their readers. We recognize that emotion and the Spirit go together and hope that the emotion generated by our stories will invite the Spirit and edify. As you probably have gathered from what I said above, the notion of ethos or authorial character is critical to any evaluation of a text inside these categories. What sort of author is implied and how does that affect my relation with the text? A variety of characters can generate keen emotion and desire. Singers, poets, comedians, entertainers, salesmen, pitch-men, political candidates and preachers can all whip a crowd into an emotional frenzy. They can generate desires in me that I have never felt before.
How intensely do I want to feel emotion and be moved toward an author? What about the seductive charmer, whose ability to make me have brief, but powerful desires, might be able to convince me to do almost anything just once? This category frightens me the most. I am sentimental, easily moved to tears and ready to believe that a good weep with my fellow Saints is the best ratification of the Spirit I can find. If I can make my students cry with me, I must be a good, spiritual teacher. In fact, the students who cry with me always give higher teacher evaluations than those who don't.
The four stories I have considered do not rush toward easy sentimentality. They are good stories that keep me with them from beginning to end. They make me want to trust the narrators. In fact, they sometimes make me want to be just like the implied narrators.
But Paul Dunn's foxhole story is unnerving. That touch of ego that slips into the picture begins to resemble a sleazy "charm" that I associate with the salesman who knows I should buy a car from him because he would never lie to me. Worse than the implied author of the foxhole story, though, is the Dunn clone. We all know him from firesides, tapes, and devotionals. The rhetorical pyrotechnics are everywhere. The jokes are a little too long and too funny. The stories of immediate conversions of members of heavy metal bands at the funerals of dead teenagers and the power of God manifested so plainly at the scene of mass murders have a modern seductive charm about them. They are so much like TV and popular music. They are so stimulating and never boring. That's how the Spirit works. Or is it?
On a very minor scale, these stories that I associate most with seminary teachers and other CES employees
create their own little cults of personality. After hearing such a story, instead of commenting on its content, we
might say something like "Boy, he's a great speaker." That is the purpose of the story: To leave us with a sense
of how remarkable and popular that real author is. And herein lies the ethical problem. The charmer puts
himself ahead of any other purpose, while claiming to invite the Spirit and edify the audience. Elder James E.
Faust gives this account of flattering charm: "Satan is the world's master in the use of flattery, and he knows
the great power of speech."9 In another context, Murray Kempton put it this way: "Charm is the ultimate
refinement of Satan's work." Quoting Andrei Konchalovsky, Kempton continues: "Spiritual tragedy occurs
when you realize that you have been seduced" or Booth might say charmed--"because you are implicated in
your own victimization."10 Because we confuse sentiment and spirituality under the influence of seductive
charmers, we often mistake tears of adoration for tears of joy. I know I do.
Tight Coherence/Explosive Disunity
Some stories exhibit deep contradictions and paradoxes, hoping to convince us that they are essential to any sincere or authentic narrative. Others provide us with tight coherence, a sense of almost absolute adherence to order and form. For them, nothing is ever out of place. You follow the pattern and the results are as regular as clockwork.
These Mormon stories all present their actions as consistent and coherent. In fact, coherence is crucial to their success. The narratives must conform with patterns of righteousness and follow the rules of inviting the spirit because they are all at root faith promoting. We need our faith to be normalized. If we obey the commandments, we want to know that spiritual signs will follow our belief. These stories support our basic belief in the orderliness of the gospel.
Elder Cowley's story presents men and a boy of faith. In conjunction with their faith, the sick little boy is
physically healed. Our faith connects with theirs and as a direct and orderly result it is strengthened. Elder
Dunn presents a last request that is faithfully carried out. We see ourselves as more loyal to friends, more
trustworthy in dire situations, and more willing to sacrifice for our country when it calls. President Cracroft
shows us the surprises of the Spirit, and we are less surprised when they appear also to have happened to us
under similar circumstances. Elder Oaks logically presents an explanation of patterns and practices, supported
by a story that follows the exact pattern. These are stories that reflect the order of God's household.
Some stories present themselves as exactly the same kind of story we've always read and liked. If you pick up your fifth Robert Ludlum thriller, you are not likely to be disappointed by a strange otherness. Ludlum has a pattern, style, and character profile that hardly changes from book to book. His readers love him because he never changes. Barbara Cartland and Louis L'Amour are always safe bets for readers, because their stories are familiar, warm and safe to the already initiated. Other stories delight in moving us away from the familiar and safe. They desire to generate discomfort, to make us ill at ease. They want to challenge our sense of ourselves, to invite us to remake ourselves according to new models. I think here of Finnegan's Wake or The Sound and the Fury.
Mormon inspirational stories want to be familiar. If you have heard or read an inspirational story before, you can recognize a new one coming. They target an already LDS audience, with the goal of supporting traditional views of spirituality, celebrating the saving conventions of our society. The stories are simple and straightforward mimetic accounts of actual events, always with the same positive outcome. Whether the story is set in France, China, or Cache Valley, the conclusion will always be the same. One of the Saints will be in need of spiritual help. Often through priesthood power, a miracle will occur and our belief in the gifts of the Spirit will be fortified by our knowledge of yet another actual occurrence when the outcome of a crisis turned out to be exactly as we expected it would be. The stories calm our fears and invite us to revivify our belief in the orderliness of the simple and familiar.
Contained within the idea of the familiar, though, is also the idea of otherness. Again, the paradox of
reading these stories comes when our own experience is not congruent with familiar models. At that level,
these stories may become threatening. They challenge our well-being, our sense that God's desires for us are
the same as for all his children. Then these stories can become alienating and spiritually enervating. They may
even lead to a kind of spiritual self-deception, where we craft fictions according to generic patterns in order to
buy a sort of respectability in the community. This need to create self-affirming fictions is a part of our
society, and may partially result from presentation of miraculous experiences as common and everyday for all
Breadth of Range/Concentration
Think of the scope that the world's different stories might offer. The Odyssey brings a whole world in all its variety, contrast, and beauty to all readers. Yet it remains focused; it hardly ever seems to ramble. Other stories are very concentrated. After the metamorphosis, we stay in Gregor Samsa's apartment until he dies. But we can sense when a story is too broad. It simply covers too much and covers it poorly. And the reverse is also true. Some stories are too narrow. They trivialize events, making everything seem just a little too simple and plain. Why tell a story if it only recounts my fifth successful attempt at crossing a street on the green light today?
The four Mormon stories are all concentrated. Each takes place in a single space and tries to recreate an intersection between a spiritual reality and a specific temporal moment. The events described happen in a dressing room at the opera, a muddy foxhole, a hospital, and a private residence. But while there is concentration, a great breadth is also implied. For the stories indicate that the power of God is omnipresent. Wherever a member may be in need, the Spirit can penetrate and heal. And ultimately this breadth is always more important than the specific details of a given miracle. When we examine these stories carefully, we even discover that the careful detail we associate with the finest fiction is absent. These narrators don't want to detract from the spirit of the occasion by cluttering their accounts with too many details. In some ways, the interchangeability of the experiences validates the universality of the gospel and our belief that it is not susceptible to contingencies of time or place.
Having now been briefly through these seven ethical categories, we ought at least to have drawn some tentative conclusions about Mormon stories of inspiration. My strongest impression of these stories is their very conservative nature. They encourage us to cast our spiritual experience in simple narrative patterns that are both regular and conventional. They encourage us to see the activities of the Holy Spirit as relevant to all our lives in the same basic ways. They teach us to recognize times and places where miracles may be expected, even if they come unexpectedly. They discourage highly individual and esoteric spirituality. They indicate that our spiritual lives are controlled in part by communal and institutional needs more than by indi-vidual needs. In valuable ways these stories bring our worldwide church together and keep it in place by implying a standard of spiritual conduct that is relevant in all times and all places because it is so simple and direct.
On the other hand, the stories also present some rather disconcerting possibilities. Because the stories are so simple, they are easily counterfeited. Their easy reliance on intense emotionalism allows readers to confuse a variety of emotional responses with feeling the Holy Spirit. We value the presence of the Holy Spirit in our community so highly that claims to spiritual guidance enable those who may only have mastered a narrative pattern to have special purchase on our adulation and respect. We tend to value the simple over the complex and so are prone to appreciate appearance over substance.
All of these conclusions reflect the ethical dilemma hinted at in my title. For as the Church continues to
grow and spread across the world at its current rapid pace, I believe we will come to rely on these stories even
more than we do now. Their simplicity minimizes differences that could otherwise cause major rifts in both
the institution and the community but also masks the genuine diversity that could enrich our community. The
move we now sense taking place across the Church to simplify programs and limit centralized control may
ironically have just the opposite effect. It may turn out to keep us all similar and together in a simple harmony,
uncluttered by the diversity of the life experiences of our members and the contingency of our cultural
matrices. And that end would, I believe, hurt our ability to fulfill one of our basic Mormon responsibilities:
taking the gospel to all God's children. "For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the
fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language" (D&C 90:11; italics mine).
1Neal W. Kramer is an instructor of English at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, 25 January 1992 at Westminster College of Salt Lake City.
2Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction ( Berkeley and Los Angelos: University of California Press, 1988), 70-75.
4Richard H. Cracroft, "The Patterns of My Faith: Surprises of the Spirit," Sunstone 15, no. 4 (October 1991): 26-27. Additional quotations from this work are cited parenthetically by author's name and page number.
5Matthew Cowley, " He Was an Unusual Boy," in Outstanding Stories by General Authorities, Vol. 2, edited by Leon R.
Hartshorn (Salt Lake City:. Deseret Book, 1971), 64. Additional quotations from this work are cited parenthetically by author's name and page number.
6Oaks, Dallin H., The Lord's Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 173-74. Additional quotations from this work are cited parenthetically by author's name and page number.
7Paul H. Dunn, "Death in a Foxhole," in Outstanding Stories by General Authorities, edited by Leon IL Hartshorn (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 69. Additional quotations from this work are cited parenthetically by author's name
8Lynn Packer, "Paul H. Dunn: Fields of Dreams," Sunstone 15, no. 3 (September 1991): 41-42.
9"The Great Imitator," Ensign, November 1987.
10"The Charms of Terror," New York Review of Books, 30 January 1992, 18.