Richard Rust: Thoughts on a Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism

"Virtuous, Lovely, or of Good Report"

Thoughts on a Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism

Richard D. Rust

A paper presented at the Literature and Belief Colloquium at Brigham Young University, March 31, 1995 in a panel entitled, "Toward a Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism."

When I saw the call for papers for this Colloquium, the topic "Toward a Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism" immediately caught my attention. This was an entirely new idea for me; somehow it had never occurred to me that there was or could be such a criticism. Subsequently, this topic has stirred me to meditate on characteristics of what I would see as a Latter-day Saint literary criticism, especially as I have experienced aspects of this criticism in my own life and work. If there is a Latter-day Saint literary criticism, this is what, idealistically, I think it would look like. In providing this definition I am prescribing rather than describing. What I have to say is simple, but I think the implications of it could be profound.

After reflecting on it, I would define Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism as inspired evaluation and judgment of (in Ralph Waldo Emerson's phraseology) "the record of the best thoughts" expressed in poetry, drama, and prose, both fiction and non-fiction.1 It would not simply be literary criticism practiced by a Latter-day Saint; rather, it would be criticism founded on distinguishing and essential characteristics of a Latter-day Saint and would focus on both literature and methods of criticism implied in scripture and latter-day prophetic statements. I believe such a criticism is both desirable and possible, even on a personal basis for someone like me whose total professional life is connected with secular institutions.

A guide for my thinking (and feeling) has been Hugh Nibley's ideas about the Mantic which he defines as "belief in the real and present operation of divine gifts by which one receives constant guidance from the other world. . . . The Mantic accepts the other world, or better, other worlds, as part of our whole experience without which any true understanding of this life is out of the question." From a Mantic perspective, to understand and evaluate literary creation is to be in touch with divinity. The Sophic, on the other hand, has a "cool, critical, objective, naturalistic, and scientific attitude."2

I have also been stimulated in my thinking by George Steiner's ideas in Real Presences and David Walsh's in After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom. Steiner says, for example,

All good art and literature begin in immanence. But they do not stop there. Which is to say, very plainly, that it is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and "the other." It is in this common and exact sense that poiesis opens on to, is underwritten by, the religious and the metaphysical. The questions: "What is poetry, music, art?", "How can they not be?, "How do they act upon us and how do we interpret their action?", are, ultimately, theological questions.3
Steiner asks rhetorically,

Can there be a secular poetics in the strict sense? Can there be an understanding of that which engenders 'texts' and which makes their reception possible which is not underwritten by a postulate of transcendence, by Plato's "aspiration to invisible reality"?4
For his part, Walsh speaks of "reappropriation of transcendent spiritual truth within the postmodern catharsis."5

In considering what is essential about the Latter-day Saint part of a Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism, I like Joseph Smith's definition. When asked by President VanBuren how the Latter-day Saints differed from other religions of the day, Joseph Smith told him that, in essence, we have the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.6 As a corollary of this, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that "no man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations."7 The word "saint" also connotes one who is consecrated or separated for a sacred purpose and has entered into the Christian covenant by baptism.8

Certain ways of viewing God, oneself, and the world are shaped by a consecrated perspective, by saying, "How great Thou art" rather than "How great I am." For example, in my ecclesiastical position as a bishop, if I can help one of my members understand and internalize the concept of stewardship, he or she is much more willing to live the law of tithing.

As for the word "literary," I see it as pertaining to belles-lettres of various genres which as imaginative writings are memorable, have the ability to capture a reader's attention, can influence feelings or emotions, and have the capacity to do justice to the complexity of life.9 As Edith Hamilton says in The Greek Way, "Great literature, past or present, is the expression of great knowledge of the human heart."10 "A good book," according to John Milton, "is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." As Matthew Arnold says regarding poetry, it "awakens in us a wonderfully full, new, and intimate sense of the mystery of the Universe."11 When I read great literature, I can identify with the person in this poem by Emily Dickinson:

He ate and drank the precious Words--
His Spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust--

He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book--What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings--
[J. 1587]

The words "critic" and "criticism" have root meanings of "discernment," "decision," and "judgment." Criticism involves "the analysis, interpretation, evaluation, and classification of literary works, or, in Matthew Arnold's words, 'a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.'"12

As I see it, the concepts of Latter-day Saint, literary, and criticism are linked together. "Judge righteous judgment," the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible says (Matthew 7:1). Life, from my perspective as a Latter-day Saint, involves constant evaluation and the making of meaningful choices. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi states that because human beings "are redeemed from the fall, they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon. . . . And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself" (2 Nephi 2:26-27).

As a Latter-day Saint, I affirm as a belief, "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, [I] seek after these things." Good literature is an important thing I seek after. A corollary of this in respect to criticism would be, ""If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, [I] advocate these things." The obverse of this is, I choose not to seek after things that are evil, ugly, dishonorable, or destructive. I realize those things exist; I encounter them increasingly in the world around me. But I don't actively seek after or promote them, just as I am committed to follow prophetic counsel not to view R-rated movies, pornographic magazines, and the like. There is plenty enough in the world of literature that is "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" to occupy my time and attention. I like Henry David Thoreau's idea: "Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all."13 This correlates beautifully with Doctrine and Covenants 88:118: "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." Certainly, there is more praiseworthy literature (plus other "best books") than one can read in a lifetime. (Of course the deeds portrayed in that literature--including the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Shakespeare's works, Homer's epics, and Milton's Paradise Lost--may not be praiseworthy, indeed, may be downright evil. But the motive behind that literature is not to entice the reader to commit evil. When immorality is portrayed, in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter for example, it is not done with a prurient purpose.)

Thinking about this topic has caused me to consider if some of my experiences have been consonant with a Latter-day Saint literary criticism as I have been defining it. Of course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I am implicitly not permitted to use some of the words found in the Articles of Faith such as "believe," "God," "sins," "faith," "repentance," "authority," "obey," "honest," "true," "chaste," and "virtuous." Still, in the privacy of my scholarly research and writing, I seek for, and have received, much inspired guidance. Further, I pray before each class I teach, and I almost always experience some manifestation of divine help--such as being able to turn to the exact passage that answers a student's question. At times, however, I have been surprised at responses to my teaching. In one instance, after I had taught a unit on Emily Dickinson, a student came up to me privately and said he discerned from the way I taught that I had religious convictions--even though I'm careful to avoid any expression of faith in the classroom. In another instance last summer, a self-proclaimed agnostic in a group of Swiss teachers I had brought to the United States persisted in asking metaphysical questions. At the end of the semester, he told me how much our experience in the class had moved him toward belief. While I wasn't able to identify what I had done to help bring this change of heart, I do know there were times as I sought the Lord's help in my teaching that I felt inspired in how to direct the class. For instance, while teaching Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person," I was prompted to quote and connect to the story Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus" with its memorable lines, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . ." It was a deeply felt moment for me, and I think it was for a number in the class as well.

At other times, though, I have been careless in what I have chosen to teach and to say. Shamefacedly, I recall reading aloud in class from a contemporary novel and saying vulgar words I had never said before. Just as I read these words aloud, I glanced down at the front row to meet the eyes of a Latter-day Saint woman who was taking the class. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Since then, I have been more circumspect.

Just as there are many attractions in the great and spacious building that the better part of me is striving to avoid, so as a Latter-day Saint I can choose not to get caught up in popular literary studies on themes such as lesbianism, prostitution, and eroticism. My view is that dwelling on those themes is like a Latter-day Saint's dwelling on gratuitous violence and promiscuous sex--it may be exciting and entertaining, but it drives the Spirit away. As a specific example, the 1993 prize-winning article in American Literature, the most prestigious journal in my field, was "New English Sodom" by Michael Warner. John Winthrop's "Modell of Christian Charity" becomes in Warner's essay, "A Modell of Christian Sodomy," and he calls the covenant aboard the ship that brought the Puritans to Massachusetts Bay "The Covenant of Sodom." He ends by attacking the Bowers v. Hardwick law against sodomy and sees prosecution under that law a continuation of "New England's legendary history in support of a homophobic and heterosexist agenda."14 My most recent copy of American Literature contains an article insinuating, while at the same time providing no real proof, that Mark Twain engaged in sodomitic acts.15 At a recent conference at the University of North Carolina, one of our brightest English graduate students presented a paper entitled, "Reading Onan: Women, Reading, and Masturbation in Eighteenth-Century French Painting." And so on.

Similarly, Erotica, a current film about a strip-tease club, recently won a prize in Canada and has been touted on the Public Broadcasting Service. The producer of the film said he was helping people by exploring sexual fantasies and that the only evil was that of people who passed moral judgments on his film. Likewise, the Academy Award winning film Silence of the Lambs which treated sex and cannibalism was, according to film critic Michael Medved, skillfully wrought but morally degrading. But I can choose not to see these films, just as I can choose not to dwell on topics in a manner that would offend the Spirit of the Lord.

While I see the importance of inspired judgment in the selection of materials, it is the intent and approach that matters most. I have found that teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has been an uplifting experience for both me and my students. On the other hand, when my son's tenth- grade high school teacher taught Romeo and Juliet he spent much of his time talking about sexual innuendos in the play. My son was distressed by what the teacher was doing, and the way my son described it, I felt the teacher was in effect seducing his students.

While some may say what I am describing limits freedom, I believe that it enlarges it. On the other hand, what some tout as freedom, I see as license to degrade or harm, For instance, a recent Wall Street Journal article (March 7, 1995) reported that students walked into a Psychology 100 Class at California State University at Sacramento expecting a guest lecture on issues like TV violence. "Instead, Joanne Marrow, a tenured professor and lesbian activist, launched into a lecture on one of her life's goals: to empower women to masturbate so they can overcome the 'hardship' of sex with men." In the outcry that has followed, the reporter adds, "many of Ms. Marrow's peers in the psychology department [at Sacramento] have rushed to defend her lecture as one protected under the umbrella of academic freedom." From my perspective, the greatest freedom (and it is a paradox because it means self- restrictions) is the freedom to choose good and to choose to avoid evil. Not academic freedom but spiritual freedom is at issue here. Part of being a Latter-day Saint is striving to choose the right, to let the Spirit be the guide. In an essay on LDS literary criticism I rediscovered recently, Robert K. Thomas says, "If we accept accountability, we must become critics--and not simply literary ones. We must learn to choose the best in every area of our lives."16

Let me reiterate what I see as three main principles in Latter-day Saint Literary Criticism. First, it is inspired criticism based on study and faith. "Study it out in your mind," the Lord enjoined Oliver Cowdery; "then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right" (D&C 9:8). Second, the LDS critic seeks after the good, the true, and the beautiful--another way of putting the thirteenth Article of Faith. Third, the critic as inspired judge and evaluator would have an obligation to help make his or her insights available to others. What I have in mind is somewhat like Emerson's thoughts about the poet (for which in the following quotations I'm substituting the word "critic").

For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted and at two or three removes, when we know least about it. The [critic] is the person . . . who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart. The condition of true naming, on the [critic's] part, is his resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms, and accompanying that.17
There is a completeness about the type of criticism which I am defining. Pray over your flocks and fields, Alma admonishes me, and my flocks and fields include my writings and classroom teaching. I read in the Book of Mormon that I should let all my doings "be unto the Lord" and should not "perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place [I should] pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate [my] performance unto [me]" (Alma 37:36, 2 Nephi 32:9). In conducting literary criticism, the Latter- day Saint scholar or teacher would pray concerning his or her criticism and would strive to be an inspired intermediary between the literary work and its audience. He or she would willingly grapple with great life issues; the critic would acknowledge Herman Melville's "power of blackness" and not be limited to William Dean Howells's "the more smiling aspects of life." And although I examine the dark view Melville takes in his novel Pierre that "profound Silence" is the "only Voice of our God," I can know for myself that there is a God.18 While I can be open to change in literary criticism and taste, I acknowledge with President Gordon B. Hinckley that "The Church stands as an anchor of truth in a world of shifting values and standards."19 I can "seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118), knowing, as the Doctrine and Covenants puts it, that "intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; [and] light cleaveth unto light" (D&C 88:40).


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Address at the Opening of the Concord Free Public Library," in Miscellanies, vol. 11 of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 501-02.
2. "Three Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic," in The Ancient State, 316.
3. Real Presences (U of Chicago Press, 1989), 227.
4. Real Presences, 225.
5. After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 37.
6. History of the Church, 4:42.
7. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 328.
8. See the LDS Bible dictionary under "saint."
9. Leland Ryken finds these characteristics in biblical literature in How to Read The Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1984), 23.
10. The Greek Way (New York: Time Incorporated, 1963), 3.
11. Frederick W. Roe, ed. Matthew Arnold (1934), 135.
12. The Harper Handbook to Literature, ed. Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 129-30.
13. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 98.
14. Michael Warner, "New English Sodom," American Literature 64:1 (March 1992), 40.
15. Andrew Jay Hoffman, "Mark Twain and Homosexuality," American Literature 67:1 (March 1995), 23-50.
16. Robert K. Thomas, "The Appreciation and Criticism of Literature" in Out of the Best Books: An Anthology of Literature, Volume I: The Individual and Human Values, ed. Bruce B. Clark and Robert K. Thomas (1964), I:4.
17. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet," in The Portable Emerson, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Viking Penguin, 1981), 242, 243, 255.
18. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern U Press and The Newberry Library, 1971), 208.
19. Church News, Mar 18, 1995, p. 10.

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