August 31, 2007

Pelagius and the fools


We [Stephen Carter and Eugene Woodbury] propose that narrative fiction constructed in a Mormon context and for Mormon audiences often strays from conventional storytelling in several ways. Principal among these is the negation or diminution of the "second act." These stories skip from the first act (the set up) to the third act (the reassuring resolution), leaving out the struggle in between.

One explanation is that the hero's journey (as defined by the Campbellian monomyth) and the struggles he encounters present an unacceptable challenge to authority. Even the need for a journey suggests a rejection of the answers the gospel has provided. In other words, when the prophet speaks, the quest is over.

This missing "second act" also hints at a Calvinist mindset taking over Mormon letters: there is no need to wrestle with angels (as does Jacob in Genesis) or to protest bitterly to God (as does Job), because the proper resolution of our struggles has already been determined. Our fate is in the cards, and God always holds the winning hand.

The obvious exceptions are those Manichean contests in which a theologically-untroubled protagonist, in Hamlet's words, "takes up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing ends them." Hence the travails of the Willie and Martin handcart companies are depicted not as the product of human failure (which might problematically identify God as an unindicted co-conspirator), but as a heroic battle against cruel and insentient nature.

Coupled with the impulse to mollify an established set of authoritative truths is the growing rejection of what I call the "neo-Pelagian" theology that Joseph Smith restored, summed up in the proposition: "By grace we are saved, after all we can do." This challenge to "work out our own salvation" should be embraced, not as a challenge to divine providence, but as an invitation to play God's fools.

A 19th century transcendentalist who belongs alongside Emerson and Thoreau,(1) Joseph Smith resurrected the Puritan ideal of the "city on the hill,"(2) paralleling utopian movements such as Brook Farm. At the same time, he daringly attempted to mend the 16th century Catholic-Protestant rupture and bridge the long-buried 4th century Augustinian/Pelagian divide.

In doing so, Joseph Smith--quite inadvertently--created rich, new fields of possibility in Christian narrative fiction--fields that have shown particular promise in the science fiction and fantasy genres. But fields undermined by the loss of theological topsoil tilled from the revolutionary ideas of its founding prophet.(3)

Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine and resided in Rome during the late 4th century. There he developed a theology of salvation that would be declared heresy two decades later at the Council of Carthage in 418.(4)

Instead Augustine's views of the Fall, original sin, and grace became official Christian orthodoxy. The opposing stances taken by Pelagius and Augustine do remain alive in Buddhism, in the debate over whether the Buddha himself is possessed of salvific power that can be accessed through faith, or whether he serves primarily as an exemplar to the penitent.(5)

Pelagius, in contrast, has all but disappeared from history.

But in the spring of 1820, he found an unlikely champion in the person of Joseph Smith, whose answer to both questions was: Yes. Smith went on to define a brazenly syncretic theology that would be received by the Christian community about as graciously as Pelagius's teachings were fourteen centuries before.

Joseph Smith's boldest step was to give every member of the human race a personal stake in his own creation and salvation. The most definite pronouncement of this doctrine was made in the King Follett sermon: "Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it."

Or as Shakespeare has King Henry lecture his soldiers: "Every subject's duty is the king's, but every subject's soul's his own."

Ask an informed Christian what disqualifies Mormonism from Christian fellowship and he will likely refer to the doctrine of eternal progression.(6) The leadership of the Mormon Church seems to have taken these criticisms to heart as well, resulting in contradictory public pronouncements on the subject.(7) Call it the revenge of the Augustinians.(8)

To be sure, Pelagius was an ascetic, out of the Stoic tradition, and Joseph Smith was not. "The great principle of happiness," he wrote, "consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."

Thus any doctrine he promulgated had to lock spirit and matter and grace and works together in an eternal whole, much in the same way that Grand Unified Theories in physics reach back to the first moments of creation, searching for the all-encompassing formula that reunites all observable physical phenomenon.

Expanding on John 3:16, Joseph Smith first posited 2 Nephi 25:23: "It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." This is the general theory. Eternal progression implies eternal struggle. The specific theory is found in Alma 12:24:

[N]evertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead.

There is actually a third critical formula in Joseph Smith's Theory of Everything, that of salvation for the dead. This doctrine I consign to the field of eschatology. Still, I'll skip briefly to the eschatological beginnings. Joseph Smith, this time echoing John Milton,(9) observes: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:22-25).

Unfortunately, the problem with archetypes is that it's easy to remember the mythology and forget the original point. In the Biblical story God's greatest act is to permit Eve to be tempted, and then to act on that temptation, and then to live through the consequences. Joseph Smith portrays an upwards "Fall" in the evolution of the human race.

"This is good doctrine. It tastes good," he boasted, in the much the same way that mathematicians describe their theories as "elegant." In other words, here is the way the story should be told.

The story begins with a big bang, a fall from grace. An inciting incident, through which we enter a probationary state that tests our mettle. During this time, all forward progress is achieved through conflict. In the final resolution we reap the rewards of that behavior. The chickens come home to roost in proportion to the force with which they were sent flying.

Except that what I just summarized is not scripture or theology, but screenplay structure as explained by Robert McKee in his book Story.(10) According to McKee, the most important element of story structure is (and I paraphrase): the probationary state, and the necessity of opposition in all things. The narrative can only move forward through conflict, meaning hard choices. And hard choices ipso facto cause suffering (if they didn't, they wouldn't be hard). Grace--in the denouement--only comes after all we can do.

As children's literature critic Jenny Sawyer notes, "It's the hero's struggle--and costly redemption--that matters."(11) Or as my sister Katherine sums up in her review of Spider-Man 3: "The audience is willing to let the hero suffer." She cites Edmund from C.S. Lewis's Narnia books as an example, explaining why he is not a victim or a poor little boy, but the favorite character of many readers:

Lewis understood what silly adults and the Spider-Man 3 screenwriters failed to grasp: that . . . in order to take someone seriously, you have to take their actions seriously, as well as the consequences of those actions. Lewis takes his children protagonists seriously, which must be very refreshing to the average child.(12)

Which is why the attitude, "Well, he learned his lesson. He's sorry. Hey, you know, bad things happened to him too, so let's just let the whole thing drop," just doesn't work in terms of good storytelling.

As I noted earlier, Mormon authors have proved quite successful in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Not only because Mormon theology supplies the material and primes the creative pumps, but because the genre provides that degree of aesthetic distance that keeps those worrisome struggles from cutting too close to the bone.

Story evolves out of a "what-ifs" leading to conflict that must be resolved by the protagonist. And while man vs. nature and man vs. "the other" are standard sources of dramatic conflict, they don't well serve stories that evolve out of contemporary, suburban lives without degrading into utopianism (i.e., "we were a perfect little family until you came along").

This is the Mormon version of what Moira Redmond calls "Dreadlit," or young adult literature full of "utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons--actual and moral--in the most punishing ways possible."(13)

This is not a problem confined to Mormon letters. "What is wrong with the modern literary novel?" asks Julian Gough in May 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine.(14) "Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?" The reason, he argues, is that "western culture since the Middle Ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic."

Which wouldn't by itself be such a bad thing, except that most "serious" fiction "contains not so much tragedy as mere anxiety. Pushed to look for tragedy in lives that contain none," Gough observers, "to generate suffering in order to be proper writers, they force themselves to frown rather than smile."

Lost in this perpetual winter of discontent is a sense of humor about human fallibility. And here Gough unwittingly draws a line straight to Joseph Smith. Hearkening back to the ancient Greeks, he notes that while tragedy was the "merely human" view of life,

comedy was the gods' view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it . . . . And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies. [emphasis added]

I find this perspective highly amenable to a Mormon theology that posits a God possessed of human empathy, a God with a rich sense of been-there, done-that sensibility and humor. But we've been seduced by the same temptation. Concludes Gough, "If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode."

To be sure, as Robert McKee observes in Story, laughter is not an emotion. Rather, laughter is a reaction to incongruity. A tragic fact is a settled fact; humor is up in the air. The human comedy is a Hail Mary pass thrown into the end zone. A religious philosophy that acknowledges only settled facts on the ground can never be funny. Or compellingly dramatic.

The Bible is full of wry and bawdy humor. But we've been programmed to ignore and misinterpret it. In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood notes that

we habitually think of [Jesus] as mild in manner, endlessly patient, [and] grave in speech . . . [but] a prosy literalism misses the wry humor . . . and the point of the teaching.(15)

Though his actions, in fact, Christ lived the life that Gough wishes to reclaim for the novel. The novel, insists Gough,

cannot submit to authority. It is written against official language, against officialdom, and against whatever fixed form the novel has begun to take--it is always dying, and always being born.

But this is tricky business, he admits. Humor with teeth--humor that engenders struggle--got Rabelais, Voltaire, and Cervantes (and Salman Rushdie) in trouble with the church and the law. And yet popular literature also suggests a way around this paradox. In a recent analysis on what she calls "bad-tempered doctors with hearts of gold"--Cox (from Scrubs), Becker (from Becker) and House (from House)--my sister concludes:

What makes all three of the doctors interesting to watch is that all three of them act the role of "fool"--not a fool in the Ben Stiller sense--but a fool in the Shakespearean/King Lear sense. They say things other people don't admit or want to hear.(16)

As it says in Moses 6:38, "There is a strange thing in the land; a wild man hath come among us." A deep and abiding longing for such "wild men"--mouthing off, telling tales out of school, tweaking God's nose--can be detected in the wistful longing with which Mormons share J. Golden Kimball stories, knowing that his kind will never come again.

Or to paraphrase Gough, the Mormon novel "needs the barbarians. It secretly yearns for them." Because without them, the audience is unlikely to stay through the second act, and so will not grasp that illustrative moral that the author so desperately wishes to elucidate in the stunning climax and the reassuring conclusion to the story.



This essay was the second of two papers presented with Stephen Carter at the 2007 Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium and later at the 2007 AML Writing Conference. It is based in part on "To the contrary."

1. What Richard Bushman terms "19th century radical Mormonism . . . willing to challenge virtually everything in American culture." Transcript of the Pew Forum Biannual Faith Angle Conference on Religion, Politics and Public Life, May 2007. [return]

2. Ibid. "What is not recognized about Joseph Smith is that there is a very deep strain of what I am calling 'civic idealism' in him, by which I mean the construction of a new kind of urban society that would embody Christian principles more thoroughly." [return]

3. Ibid. "Mormons resisted high Calvinist theology in the 19th century. They were, like so many other groups, trying to differentiate themselves from the evangelical culture of the revivals, which basically came out of a Calvinist view of depravity. Mormons don't like the idea of depravity. So that led to an emphasis on works. You are capable of choosing the good, and God will recognize and reward choosing the good. In the late 20th century, that is reversed . . . . Right now, grace is getting more and more powerful among the Mormon teachers." [return]

4. "Pelagius and Pelagianism," The Catholic Encyclopedia. [return]

5. Eugene Woodbury, "Japan's Buddhist Protestant Reformation." [return]

6. Bushman, op cit. "Things [other than polygamy] are more likely to be scandalous to the theological order of the larger Christian community. For example: the ideas of God having a body of flesh and bone, existing in time and space rather than outside, and having once been a man like ourselves. That sort of business just drives other Christians up the wall." [return]

7. As Eugene England puts it [no reference], "There seems to be at present a bad case of loss of nerve, of preferring negative, safe religion to the positive, adventuresome kind championed by the founders of Mormonism."

In his 6/11/07 appearance on Radio West, Robert Millet put so much distance between the church and the principle of eternal progression that I was reminded of the famous scene from Tootsie. Asked how far he can pull back from a close-up of Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman in drag), the cameraman responds, "How about Cleveland?" Millet's explanation that the subject "never comes up" in his BYU classes suggests a theology beholding more to populism than to orthodoxy.

Millet's reticence is understandable (though he is on record teaching this very same subject), as he is simply echoing Gordon B. Hinckley. In the transcript from his 4 August 1997 Time Magazine interview, Hinckley said of Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet:

I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it. [emphasis added].

But in a 20 July 2007 interview with Helen Whitney published on the church's official website, Dallin Oaks prevaricates several orders of magnitude less:

One of the succeeding prophets said: "As man is, God once was. And as God is, man may become." That is an extremely challenging idea. We don't understand, we're not able to understand, all [about] how it comes to pass or what is at its origin, but it explains the purpose of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [emphasis added] [return]

8. Which is not to say that the average Mormon would accept this particular interpretation. For a discussion of the transition in Mormon theology away from Joseph Smith and towards a more mainstream (though rather half-hearted) Augustinian/Lutheran belief system, see Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy by O. Kendall White, Jr. (Signature Books, 1987). [return]

9. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 12: 473-476:

          Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring

Compare Moses 5:11:

Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. [return]

10. Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Regan Books, 1997. [return]

11. Jenny Sawyer, "Missing from Harry Potter--a real moral struggle," The Christian Science Monitor, 25 July 2007. [return]

12. Katherine Woodbury, "Spider-Man, Angst, Redemption, and All That Good Stuff." [return]

13. Moira Redmond, "Tales of a Seventh-Grade Scare Tactic: The new Gothicism of children's books," Slate, 29 May 2002. [return]

14. Julian Gough, "Divine comedy," Prospect Magazine, May 2007. [return]

15. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, Harper & Row, 1975. [return]

16. Katherine Woodbury, "Cox, Becker & House." [return]

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