An Aid to Perfection: Some Thoughts on Literature and Mormons


Their pajama-clad bodies relaxed; their eyes focused again on the toy-strewn disarray of their bedroom. “Read us about another miracle,” urged Jeff, while Rich nodded his vigorous approval. I had scored again. It never fails. One story from the scriptures does more to excite the imaginations of my sons than all of my finger-shaking, long-faced sermons. I had just recounted the event in which Jesus restored the ear of the soldier whom the impetuous Peter had wounded. The boys loved it; and so did I, for I could tell these old stories, these unchanging truths, with an excitement and conviction that they could sense, an excitement urged on by the boys’ enthusiastic responses as they lay hoping fervently that I would postpone the inevitable “sleep tight” as l snapped off the light.

Musing on it later, I realized that I had witnessed, in my boys’ bedroom, the power of literature at work, the effects of an artistic recreation of a significant human experience. It was a power I had long been familiar with, for my father had told me the same stories, and I had rejoiced then, as I do now, in the power of literature that makes Nephi a reality to me as he confronts and confounds his older brothers; that makes Jesus a reality to me as he drives those cringing moneychangers from the temple; that makes young Joseph Smith a living truth to me as he walks, again and again in my mind, that country lane in the spring of 1820. The witness through the Spirit that I received then and enjoy now of the truth of these events is the Spirit of the Lord working through the power of literature.

The Lord knows the power of literature. His rich and profound parables and paradoxes (“He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it”) and figures of speech (“as a hen gathereth her chickens”) were integral to his preaching. It is, interestingly enough, these examples that were so clearly recalled from all of Christ’s words by the writers of the gospels when they sat down, pen in hand, to preserve the essence of the Savior’s message. Similarly, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants demonstrate that the Lord continues to couch his revelations in the vivid phrasing typical of the best literature.

I suppose that if we all had the faith of the brother of Jared we could be taught directly through the Spirit and there would be little need for holy scripture or prophets. But for many of us the veil is thick and we are weak and must rely on glimpses through the veil, supplied us by prophets and their inspired writings and by the inspired wisdom of men as it has been accumulated through the ages.

We often speak disparagingly of “the wisdom of men,” for too often men of learning have rejected the higher wisdom of God. Still, to throw out wisdom and truths as they have been written by good men is to deny that the Lord has inspired many men with rich and truthful and eternal insights that have survived the ages. President Brigham Young said that “much … knowledge is obtained from books, which have been written by men who have contemplated deeply on various subjects, and the revelations of Jesus have opened their minds, whether they knew it or acknowledged it or not.” (Journal of Discourses 12:116.) The Prophet Joseph Smith was admonished that we need to seek “out of the best books words of wisdom,” to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118.) The Lord further urged that we need to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” (D&C 90:15.)

Because Mormonism is a fusion of Christ’s command that we love God and love man, it sets at a balance our concern for this life and the next (a concern I encountered graphically last week as I hurried from the Provo Temple in order to hoe beets at our stake welfare farm). So it is not unusual that the Lord and the General Authorities, from the beginning of the Church to the present, have urged the Saints to excel in education, in acquiring the knowledge of the things of man, which are indirectly the things of God, for we are all his creations. Brigham Young recognized that we need to have one eye cocked heavenward and the other cocked earthward, when he admonished:

“‘Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?’ says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effect upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.” (JD 2:93–94.)

President Young also urged that “all men should study to learn the nature of mankind, and to discern that divinity inherent in them.” (JD 7:1.) These charges to the Saints clearly point up our duty: study our fellowmen, study everything; study good and even the effects of evil (though he does not urge a practice of the latter).

All of this goes far toward making a case for the study of literature, which needs little promotion, for it is at the core of all human knowledge and is one of the most delightful of human pursuits. What I like about literature is what I saw happen the other evening in the lives of Rich and Jeff: they were present at the entrance of the Garden of Gethsemane; they watched as Peter cut off the soldier’s ear; they thrilled to watch Jesus restore that ear. They had experienced vividly, though vicariously, a significant event. It became part of them. Just as Walt Whitman’s child who went forth every day became part of everything he saw, so that evening the power of literature re-created in the lives of two precious children an event that had occurred nearly two thousand years before.

As Latter-day Saints we are in the business of experience, understanding as we do that the quality of our preexistence and mortal experiences will shape the nature of our eternal experiences. And we realize, as Plato pointed out some four hundred years before Christ, that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Thus, experience that is unexamined, undigested, and unstudied becomes as naught. We must sap every last bit of truth from our experience to make it eternally valuable.

Such is the province of art and literature as the artistic verbal expression of significant human experience: to bring about the intensification, the clarification, and the interpretation of these collective and individual, mortal and premortal experiences. Art focuses its examining eyes on a portion of mortality. It trims out the dull, the routine, the insignificant (if there is such); it compacts and compresses the highlights of that experience into a story or onto a canvas or stage. The reader or viewer may then examine the experience and reject it totally or partially, or accept it and make it a part of him.

I have rejected much of the material I have read—rejected it in order to affirm through rereading and reliving such a work as Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau lived purely and bravely and nobly by Walden Pond. I also would like to so live. Similarly I have affirmed the life of Paul, the life of Alma, and I enjoy again and again the pure literary and spiritual exhilaration of how it must have been to experience a voice from heaven, or to witness prison walls tumbling down about me. I have delighted to find myself floating down the Mississippi River in companionship with that ragged immortal, Huck Finn, enjoying a freedom that hardly seems possible in my world of responsibility. Through literature, I am there. And these and countless other events have become part of me, just as that evening at Gethsemane has now become part of Rich and Jeff.

I treasure another dimension of literature, a dimension that makes literature an essential part of our lives: literature is an integral part of our cultural heritage. There is a body of literature and art that all men and women, educated and uneducated, know something of, for there are many books and works of art that form a common body of experience for us in what is called the Judeo-Christian culture. Almost everyone knows, for example, the important stories of the Holy Bible; nearly everyone knows something about William Shakespeare and Greek mythology, and this knowledge is significant to our culture. How humorous, for example, would portions of Huckleberry Finn be if the reader failed to recognize how badly the rascally King and Duke were confusing some of the great and memorable lines of William Shakespeare? Or how delightful would that scene be wherein Huck and Jim quarrel about the wisdom of King Solomon’s judgment about the fate of the baby with two mothers if the reader were unaware of the original version? Classics are an integral part of the warp and woof of our individual and collective cultural makeup. How well and how widely read we become determines to a great extent how well we can interpret the experience provided by our culture and by all cultures.

But we don’t get it all at once. We must work our way up the scale of literary sophistication, making new strides with each new book we read, strides toward intensification, clarification, and interpretation of the experiences of mortality. I like G. Robert Carlsen’s outline of the four levels through which he feels each of us progresses on the way to reading maturity: First, we read for escape and enjoyment; then we identify with the characters; then we read to understand the philosophical problems that confront man; and finally we come to an appreciation of the aesthetic side of literature. I think that perhaps there is even another level that those of special commitment might attain, but first let’s examine Mr. Carlsen’s criteria.

The first reason we read is for fun and for escape from the present; to lose ourselves in another person’s life; to reach out from the moorings to which we are tied in time and space to soar off to explore Mars with Ray Bradbury, or the depths of the sea with Jules Verne, or a treasure island with Robert Louis Stevenson, or merely to become acquainted with Mr. Tolkien’s hobbits. To lose ourselves is, then, the first step to joy in reading. It is a step that we never leave behind, for regardless of the degree of sophistication we achieve in our reading, we must always maintain this initial pleasure, or reading will become a bore.

As we mature, a deeper kind of fun emerges, for in living vicariously the lives of fictional or real characters, we can identify with them. We can step back and view life with a new objectivity. In the hectic pace of our own lives, we seldom take the time to study those directions in which we are moving or are being moved. In reading The Scarlet Letter we can watch vividly the effects of a guilty and unconfessed conscience as it destroys the Reverend Dimmesdale, and we are warned, for we know that we are weak. In the story of Samson we can watch what happens when a man allows lust to turn him from the Lord. In the story of the wealthy disciple of Jesus we can see ourselves rejecting the eternal riches offered by the Lord for a destructive materialism in this life. In Macbeth we can study the effect, from a safe distance, of greed for power as it works on the lives of a man and his wife—and we are finally relieved, as in waking from a bad dream, that we are not those miserable people. Still, we have learned from the experience, for literature has intensified and clarified and helped us interpret similar or very different tendencies in our own lives.

Through good books, then, we see portrayed in the lives of the heroes and heroines some of the same forces that are at work in our lives, and we find ourselves studying, as Brigham Young admonished, good and evil and their effects on our race. On this second level we can test our own problems by identifying with literary figures; we therefore experience a new detachment in evaluating our lives and our experiences.

As we amass more experiences and finesse in reading and appreciating good books, we begin more and more to explore the philosophical problems that confront mankind. Though we know that the gospel gives us ultimate answers, we also know that the Lord wants us to work out our own salvation, to discover new truths, to grow steadily toward that perfect day. On this level literature provides an opportunity for us to probe the universal “truths of the human heart” (Hawthorne), not scientific truths, but cosmic, eternal truths, higher truths that produce in us a deeper understanding of and love for our fellowmen, truths that impart to us a sense of community with those fellow beings as well as a moral obligation to care for them.

As we move away from our selfish concerns to love those around us and, ultimately, to genuine Christian love and concern for all men, we become aware of problems that prevent other men from enjoying the gospel. We wince at the life of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, but we learn, for we become aware of what it means to be a black youth reared in a sordid slum. We become more sympathetic, more sensitive, when we read of the plight of the persecuted Jew portrayed in Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. And on this level of awareness we continue to read Huckleberry Finn for delight and for self-identification but now we begin to see a new dimension, for we realize that Mark Twain depicts, in the sleazy river towns, the greed and banality and cruelty that are so much a part of too many lives. Again we are brought to examine our own lives, which we see with new, intense, clear, and incisive vision.

The mature reader of good books ultimately reaches a point where he appreciates literature on the three levels described and also on an aesthetic plane. He still delights in David’s triumph over Goliath, but his delight is heightened now by identification with David; by a richer understanding of the philosophical truths contained in the story; by the way in which the author of the story has used words that are just right for the idea; by the way in which the author has designed and organized and presented the story to get just the right impact; by the sense of artistry that went into the creation of the story. Appreciation at this level is much like the appreciation we feel on a crisp spring morning for the Creator of this earth, as we delight in the absolute rightness of the sounds, the colors, the design of his art.

For the Latter-day Saint I think that literature has another level that has special meaning. This is the level that President David O. McKay and Elder Richard L. Evans exemplified so clearly. Great and good literature is ennobling. It is the best that has been thought and said by the best men in any and every age, and Latter-day Saints, coming to literature with an eternal perspective, should clamber quickly to this level and steep themselves in these truths and insights as aids to achieving perfection, which is, claimed Matthew Arnold, “the pursuit of sweetness and light.”

Great literature exudes sweetness and light. Great literature must by nature deal with the old verities or truths of the heart, which William Faulkner has called “the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Great literature enables us to hold our heads high, to be certain in our hearts that, despite all, truth will prevail. Great literature cuts through the dross and accumulations of earthcrust that build upon our souls, and in cutting through to eternal truths, such literature allows us to focus on the many noble traits of man.

In the midst of cries that man is determined, great literature demonstrates with certitude, both in the act of creation by the author and in the lives of the characters portrayed, that man is a free agent, not determined but a determiner, one who can—and must—shape and mold his life through his own volition. Furthermore, literature demonstrates, through its symbolic power, that the mind is free, for literature enables us to project ourselves into the past, into the future, into eternity, and into infinity. At all stages it allows us to hold a “mirror up to nature,” to read therein our follies and successes, to realize the greatness and the drama of every single life that has ever existed on this planet or any planet. We can then, through reading the truths in the lives of others, intensify the experiences of our own lives, clarify our purposes, examine our inner values, and give an intelligent interpretation to our experiences—an interpretation colored by the overwhelming knowledge that each of us is, in fact, a child of his Heavenly Father.

Literature is not holy scripture, though holy scripture is literature. But who is to deny that the greatest and noblest of these works, written by the great and noble among men, have been created under the inspiration of the Lord, the creator of all? Brigham Young thought that such was the case. I believe he was right, for the great works of literature enlarge and interpret passages of scripture and make vivid and unforgettable abstract ideas such as, “Wickedness never was happiness,” “Men are that they might have joy,” “Love thy neighbor,” and “Thou shalt not kill”—ideas that we must clothe with meaning through our own experiences that we can better understand through great books and great art or even good books and good art.

Literature, its sister arts, and the creative process in general are significant aids to the Latter-day Saint, aids to reflection, to self-examination and self-understanding, to achievement of perfection. Through great literature and art, the discerning and thoughtful Latter-day Saint will receive new insights into the wonder that is man and the glory that is God.

[photo] Photo by Bonnie Bruggeman, Tarzana, California (contest winner)