Welcome to the fifteenth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark's collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we'll cover: "Whose Yoke is Easy?"
After this, we only have one more essay and the postword to go! Thanks for sticking with me.
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week's essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark relates some troubling conversations and observations he has had (especially with BYU studentes and professors) that suggests that Mormons are falling for prosperity gospel-style justified actions and attitudes aimed at making money. He parallels that to the widespread consumption of Mormon art that he sees as kitsch and general anti-intellectual attitudes among the Saints. He then lays out an alternative approach to moving through and learning from mortal experience than focusing on easy money and easy culture which is the idea of Christ's yoke as being both easy and light. He makes the for this approach as the correct one for both education and art.
Best Lines: "If we could really generate a wide-spread and intense quest for the true and excellent in our economic lives, in our education and in our culture, I suspect we would have gone a long way toward countering easy in religion" (215).
Why: Because although it pretty much only got worse from the time Clark is writing this in terms of the overall cultural and socio-economic attitudes, the best we encounter in Mormonism---both in art and lived religion---seems to involve people who are, indeed, continually seeking for the true, excellent, and (I would add) compassionate, the truly charitable and the truly of good report.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: In the spirit of tackling the difficult: if you haven't tackled Maurine Whipple's The Giant Joshua yet, please do so soon. A free ebook version is available on the BCC Press website (check the top right corner) and print versions can be purchased from The University of Utah Press.
Also: Clark mentions Book of Mormon Oratorio in his essay as an example of a work of Mormon art that is challenging but worth engaging with. I don't how challenging it is, and I'm not much of a classical music or church music listener, but I do like to write on Sundays to Mack Wilberg's Requiem [ Apple Music | Amazon Music | Spotify ]
Other Recommendation: A quick story: after I completed my master's degree in comparative literature, which culminated in a reading list of 35 works of world literature I had to read and be prepared to discuss in some detail, I went for a full year of inhaling science fiction and fantasy novels (with a handful of mysteries and romance novels thrown in). Some of those novels are amazing, complex works of literature. Most are not, although almost all of them are still worth reading. But the point is that after that binge, I tried to read a literary novel and a work literary criticism and some other academic books again, and I had a really hard time with them. I was too used to the pace of commercial fiction. So over the course of the summer this happened to me, I kept reading commercial fiction, but I'd intersperse it with literary fiction and non-fiction, and built back up my ability to read across numerous genres and modes of writing. And it's a practice I've kept up even though it's getting close to two decades since I graduated.
Now, I want to be clear that I think popular fiction is valuable. And it also requires its' own set of reading protocols, esp. science fiction and romance, which can take a bit of work to grok before you can truly savor the experience of reading books in those genres. But it's easy to get stuck in a groove of the familiar. And our patience and facility with other reading experiences is something that can atrophy. I know that many of us found the pandemic eroding some of that patience and facility.
So I'm going to suggest you attempt a difficult work of literature in the near future. It's time to build/rebuild a more robust approach to your reading.
Am I going to recommend Ulysses or Beloved or Kafka's unfinished novels or Book of the New Sun or Middlemarch (again)? No, I'm not. Instead, I'm going to recommend you acquire (if you don't already own it) and read the work of literature that seems daunting to you, but you've always wanted to read. Take it slow if you need to. See if there are any companion books or website with annotations that might be useful (there often are). But put in the work. It might not end up being worth it. You might hate the book in the end. But chances are very good that you won't, and whatever happens the exercise in and of itself will, hopefully, lead to you becoming a more omnivorous reader. Which is a way of life I highly recommend.
William Update: BCC Press has published my collection The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories. At the moment it is only available from Amazon in ebook and trade paperback. It contains 18 stories and more than 50% of the words in the collection are unique to it. And, yes, all of the stories are strange, and all of them are Mormon.
I'm delighted with the reaction to it so far. I'm still incredibly pleased with the cover. I may have more to say about it in the future here in this newsletter and elsewhere.
I suppose, in the spirit of subject of this deep dive, I was only able to write or complete some of the stories once I found the right form for them.
Clark opens this essay talking about his experience viewing a performance of Star Child, the sequel to Saturday's Warrior and compares that experience to hearing a recording of Robert Cundick's Redeemer in the same location. He writes that his experience of the latter was "something close to spiritual rapture"; whereas, with former he "felt distress at the audience's too-easy appreciation, standing ovation and all, for the cliches of character, language, and music" (201).
In fact, Clark felt the contrasting experiences so deeply that a few nights after watching Star Child he awakes early in the morning and begins composing this essay, by relating his experience with Star Child to other experiences he was recalling at 4 a.m.---most of them having not to do with art, but with financial schemes and a hyper-focus on getting rich.
To put it in contemporary terms: Clark composed a Twitter rant in his head one morning and decided to commit it to paper.
I don't bring this up to castigate the author, but because, although I've been hard on Clark at times in these emails, this helped me understand him a bit better. Some of the messiness of thought, the conflation of experiences and literary works and half-baked doctrine and sociology are part of his process. That doesn't let him off the hook. It doesn't mean I won't have my quibbles. But it is illustrative of the way he approaches Mormonism, art, and life.
I mean, to a certain extent, we all do this. We all conflate and collapse aspects of our intellectual, artistic, spiritual, and religious selves. But for Clark, there is this sense that making it all one thing, the yearning for a cohesive self existing in a society composed of individuals who aligned with you along lines of taste, belief, and values still seemed possible within the context of American society and the structure of the modern LDS Church. I like that hope even as I critique it and like, especially, that Clark continuously engages in straightforward rhetorical efforts to demand more of his religious compatriots. I tend to take a more... elliptical approach.
To loop back to his central argument: Clark mentions something Alan Keele (a professor of German at BYU and a key researcher of and writer on Helmuth Hübener) said to him about My Turn on Earth in comparison to Die Frau ohne Schatten: "You cannot ... put sublime materials in trivial form and have anything but trivia left" (201).
Clark takes this basic idea and extends it to both the making of art and the making of money and then extends it further to Jesus Christ's claim in the New Testament that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
That could easily turn into a "kids these days don't know how to work" tirade. It doesn't, even if all the words he spills on financial misdeed and BYU students (and faculty) who think the chief aim of education is to make money don't quite gel in as sophisticated a way as I'd like.
Really, what it boils down to is that Clark is fretting about the state of (Intermountain West) Mormon culture. Indeed, he is not willing to let Mormon culture off the hook even though part of him wants to point all the blame on the broader American culture.
For example, thinking about "dishonest" works of Mormon culture and schemes by Mormons to make money, Clark writes: "No, my night vigil told me, it is our very Mormoness that is involved; it told me that these things are all of a piece: and it forced me to ask, Is there something at the heart of our culture that generates what Hugh Nibley calls our insatiable appetite for kitsch?" (204)
He hears the cynical response to that: it's the LDS Church. And so he concedes:
"And to an extent the answer would have to be right: the Church is too much a part of our personal lives, too deeply part of what distinguishes us as a culture, not to be part of any deep cultural problem" (204).
But for him, it's less the Church per se as an attitude towards it and everything else:
"Everything I've been fretting about thus far has involved an easy version of life: of money, of education, of culture, of religion, of whatever" (205).
Clark acknowledges that this emphasis on the easy is pervasive in American culture and life, but as much he wants to put all the blame there, he notes, "we Mormons have our own peculiar version of it" (205).
He goes on to discuss how things like an emphasis on staying out of debt and food storage has led to a "twisting of values" (206) such that the focus is on the end result of financial prosperity; viewing the use of arts "as essentially utilitarian" (207) and in the service of promoting faith; reading the scriptures for life lessons that can be boiled down into mundane truisms; expecting higher education's primary purpose to be earning a credential that will unlock job opportunities; missionary work accomplished via a sales model, etc.
This easy model seems to be justified in some circles because Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But Clark points out that in populist Christianity (Mormon or Evangelical), it's only the easy that's preached. He writes:
"First note that it is a yoke and a burden. Next, note that He is speaking to those that are heavy laden, presumably with sin and sorrow, since He he has just denounced the cities that rejected Him. His yoke and burden are easy and light, then in comparison to the yoke and burden of sin and rejection. ... His yoke is easy because in taking it upon ourselves we discover or create in ourselves new capacities for compassion and sensitivity and love and joy in our service to one another and to Him" (209-210).
Clark then goes on to discuss how to counter the easy in these domains of economic life, education, gospel study/practice, etc. Which boils down, basically, to putting in more work and being more authentic in your approaches to them. He does acknowledge, though, that the antidote is a little more complicated when it comes to the arts.
"I'm afraid that in art and culture mediocrity feeds upon itself. Rather than raising taste, it simply feeds the taste for mediocrity ... the shallow and sentimental will seldom nourish any taste except that for the shallow and sentimental" (214).
This is another instance where I largely agree with him (see my story in the other recommendations section of this email), but I would add some nuance, such as:
Notice also that Clark uses that very Mormon term nourish. What if we teased out and complicated the metaphor that verb implies?
If works of art contain nutrients---if art can nourish---then too much or too little of those nutrients could have negative effectives; some nutrients are more effective in combination with others; some works may have little nutrients but may still be better than nothing; some nutrients may be combined in a work with so much (bad) cholesterol and salt that the beneficial effects are negated; at some points in your life you may need more of one type of nutrient than other, etc.
I doubt Clark would disagree with the broad strokes of my complication. And, in fact, it bolsters his overall point:
"If we could really generate a wide-spread and intense quest for the true and excellent in our economic lives, in our education and in our culture, I suspect we would have gone a long way toward countering the easy in religion" (215).
Countering the easy is important to Clark because he wants everyone to have a richer spiritual life, and he knows how hard it can be to love others (as Christ has commanded us to). He knows of "no shortcuts to the sublime by way of the trivial" (216).
Clark's focus on excellence, and the hard work it requires, is not misplaced. His overall concerns about the attitudes of many U.S. Mormons towards art, education, and wealth are definitely not misplaced. And, in spite of the fact that there are bright spots, things have worsened in the intervening years
At the same time, this speech/essay doesn't quite hang together for me. It's precisely in the specifics of the snap conclusions he makes about and logical leaps he makes across his subjects (from art to education to economics to scripture) and in the complications of the works (Star Child vs. Redeemer) and in the institutions he sets against each other where I think the most interesting material, the most, to borrow his term, nourishment is to be found.
Thanks for reading!
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