Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mormon Paradoxes (i.e. literary fodder) part 1

Too often an LDS perception of art is equated with didacticism: we create because we are trying to teach. This desire to teach can often lead to pride, which leads to a loss of the Spirit. Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian Formalist who has had significant thought on my thinking and passion about the arts, wrote about poetry as being wrought with paradox. Something is poetic, because it is at ends with itself. This creates a place where the experience of the art cannot be considered didactic, yet the audience is forced to manage their way through the disparity. Among other things, it simply makes for a richer experience. (I've over simplified Shklovsky—and perhaps misappropriated him—but what follows is what I'm really concerned with).
In my view, an LDS world view is wrought with conflict and contradiction. This is the beginning of a list of these complexities inherent within Mormonism which should enrich our art.


1. That Paul says the Spirit is life but the flesh is death (that we are to overcome the carnal sensual natural man), yet the first and most foundational commandment given is to multiply and replenish the Earth. The only way to do this is through embracing the flesh (I'm not talking about marriage at all. Of course this is only to happen within th bonds of marriage, but it is a commandment to 1. get married, and 2. cleave unto our spouses). The goal (Spirituality and Eternal Lives) is only attainable through the only thing that is set in opposition to it (flesh is in opposition to the Spirit, yet only through being sensual, carnal, and 'natural' can we fulfill the commandment of the Spirit to obtain Eternal Lives).

2. Mainstreaming vs. being a peculiar people

3. Being learned and reading the best books vs. being humble and ignorant (like Adam and Eve), as a child—submissive, easy to be entreated, obedient.

4. Prosperity in the land vs. giving away all we own to follow the Savior (the eye of a needle vs. the Nephites promises).

5. The desire to teach vs. the desire to bare testimony. The desire to entreat to a change of behavior, versus express about our own behavior.

These are a starting point. I welcome your additions. What paradoxes do you see in Mormonism?


Adam K. K. Figueira said...

This might be an outgrowth of your #2, but what about the command to bring others out of darkness while not straying from the light?

Bryan said...

In response to #1, I would posit that there has been a strong movement within the Church to move sexual intimacy from a carnal act to one of profound spiritual significance. There's Doug Brinley's book "Between Husband and Wife" and Elder Holland's "Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments," just to name a few off the top of my head. I think a lot of it is determined by the context (marital and otherwise) in which the act takes place. It would seem, though, that the LDS doctrine of "eternal lives" indicates that however perverted the act has become over the centuries among certain groups of people, in the beginning it was not intended to be so.

I don't know how sexual intimacy is achieved in heaven, as in if it retains the basic mechanics of the act as it is performed on earth, or if it consists of spiritual mind-melding of some sort. Maybe a combination of both; maybe none of the above. So I'm not sure if it's really a paradox at all.

Trevor said...


I don't mean to reduce all sexuality down to carnality. That isn't my intention at all. It is a holy covenant above all and should be treated that way.

But I hope that we are all aware there is inherently a physicality and carnality (meaning desire-driven) to it.

Before I was even engaged I remember hotly debating the nature of sex in a Temple Marriage with a friend several years older than me and father of three. He said that you don't sit down to read scriptures before you engage in physical intimacy with your spouse. I was appalled. I cited Elder Holland's talk among others and thought him naive and unspiritual. So when we got married and got used to how difficult that whole part of marriage is, we decided to prove this friend wrong. I would say that those things are very healing and very sacred: that two people can grow closer through that union than through any other if that union is holy. But I've changed my mind about it being wholly spiritual. There are inherently needed some degree of desire and arousal for the whole thing to work. I think of all of it as a great blessing from God, and am deeply humbled by its perfection.

Sunday School: Purpose of coming to earth? To get a body. Without it we couldn't become like our Heavenly Father. I think there's more to it than we think.

I'll just say I've found a paradox which causes things which could turn into stumbling blocks. You don't have to see that same thing, though. Your perception probably leads you to see things that I currently don't. I hope you'll share those things with us.

Bryan said...

Oh, absolutely. Without desire and arousal in the first place, it's pretty difficult for the experience to be mutually beneficial for husband and wife. But I think we would agree that there's a difference between "wholesome" and "unwholesome" desire, the latter being rooted in purely selfish gratification, fantasizing about other partners, or seeking to enforce dominion or authority over the other person (shades of good ol' D&C 121). So I look at intimacy as a spiritual experience in terms of it being an expression of love and commitment between two people, with physical (fleshly) pleasure being part and parcel of the whole deal. One might say it's the only act you can remove the temple garment for that makes you more holy (more like our heavenly parents) than you were before. I think that's what Elder Holland was getting at in his talk.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

I hope I'm not interrupting, but this whole discussion reminds me of this verse:

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy.
Doctrine and Covenants 93:33

Given the above, it makes sense that the most sacred/joyful/godlike act we can participate in as mortals involves both physicality (element) and spirituality. But that doesn't mean that it's without paradox.

Incidentally, I think this is an area in which LDS cinema can really set itself apart. If we can learn to portray this one well, then not only can we express a truth, I think we can counteract much of the pure carnality that we see in popular productions today.

Maybe this is reflective of my weaknesses, but I haven't noticed many things Satan is trying harder to undermine than this sacred relationship between husband and wife. It seems to be at the very heart of his efforts against the family. Because film is such a powerful medium and distribution options being what they are, I think we can use this concept to really strike back, so to speak.

The challenge is in how to portray something that, to my mind, is too sacred for the screen in such a way that the message can get through. I favor boldness, even directness in this arena, but never obscenity. Although dialogue can be useful for this sort of thing, I find imagery so much more lasting in its impression. I know it's not a choice between the two, but...

I hope I'm not getting off track.

Back to you.

Anonymous said...


Have you heard of or read Terryl Givens' People of Paradox?

Trevor said...

For the record, the purpose of the post was to speculate paradoxes which Latter-day Saints could expand upon/explore/question through their art. You may not agree with some of these paradoxes, and you have the right to, but that's not my point for the post.

Our art, I believe, would be enriched by acknowledging paradox and exploring it there. This tension makes the work of great artists last and have great impact. The desire to seek unity is interesting... even holy (the word of the most holy act, "at-one-ment", suggests a unifying)... but it is not always right. It can also lead to a pre-emptive "all is well in Zion" call.

While we are challenging, discussing, pondering, we should have clear a few things to discuss, explore, and ponder about. This is my goal.

What other paradoxes do you see. I think there is a lot more we could add to this list.


I feel silly even thinking about your question. I do know who Terryl Givens is, and have read much of By the Hand of Mormon, though I'll admit that I haven't finished, and doubt I will be able anytime soon.

I've even heard of People of Paradox, but know nothing more than that I'd very much like to read it from the title and what I've read and listened to by Givens.

could you shed more light on it for me?

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

I came across something that made me think of this paradox: that we claim to be the only true church built on revelation, but acknowledge that personal revelation is available to people of any faith.

In other words, God gives us the only authorized prophecy/priesthoods yet is no respecter of persons.

Trevor said...

That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about, Adam.

That's something to fill Volumes and VOLUMES.

How do we negotiate this?

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

You know, I recently attended a sacrament meeting in which one of the young men speaking quoted Buddha. I was surprised how offended people weren't. I expected that to cause a stir.

I've never heard Buddha quoted from the pulpit before, but I've noticed many instances of the general authorities using the writings of non-LDS authors to teach various doctrines and principles. I even remember one instance where a general authority corrected a well known non-LDS poet.

Thinking of what you said in another post about General Conference being perfect cinema, maybe we can get some clues about how to handle this particular paradox from the way the brethren treat authors/artists of other faiths and their works.

Bryan said...

Perhaps the post would have been better titled "Paradoxes a Mormon Might Perceive," or some such idea, rather than "Mormon Paradoxes," which imply institution-wide doctrinal conflicts the Church has yet to resolve.

A Mormon might perceive a paradox regarding issue #1, but it is an issue the Brethren and others have addressed in official Church events/publications. Therefore, speaking in terms of the Church, the paradox is resolved. At least, that's how I look at it.

I agree with everything that has been said regarding how paradoxes can be explored (and exploited) by art. It was never my purpose to eliminate or explain away all of the paradoxes that have been discussed so far, nor to cup my hands over my ears and shout "la la la la la" at the top of my lungs, or some other gesture implying "all is well in Zion, nothing more to see here." That my remarks should ever be taken to imply even the beginnings of such an act (else, why was it even mentioned?) is very troubling to me.

Moving on.

Adam, I'm not quite grasping the paradox in the last two comments you made. Could you elaborate a bit more on these?

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


I'm happy to elaborate, but first I wanted to say something about your last comment.

I think you pointed out an interesting aspect of these paradoxes, namely that many of them are not so confusing from a gospel perspective. I've said before that all truth is found in paradox. I think that's a natural extension of the requirement for opposition in all things, but divine understanding can make their cooperation comprehensible, even to us. Even in understanding however, the paradox, in my mind, is not reduced or resolved. We simply understand how the tension between its elements works to fulful God's purposes. The truth is stable because its principles are in opposition like gravity and inertia.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Trevor, but I think that tension is the thing you are looking to to enrich our art.

As far as my last two comments go, what I mean is that God is no respecter of persons, but He grants those of us in His church great favors. Some critics say that we can't have an exclusive claim to authority because God would respect the good intentions of any who act in His name. Even Christ wouldn't forbid a person who spoke in His name, even if that person was not among his congregated followers (see Luke 9:49-50).

The scriptures are full of people who are "highly favored of the Lord" like the brother of Jared, but if God is no respecter of persons, how can He favor anyone?

Also, "And he loveth those who will have him to be their God" (1 Nephi 17:40). Does this mean that He doesn't love those who won't have him? I've heard the Brethren teach that the love of God is conditional and Joseph Smith taught that men can gain the knowledge that they are "the favorites of heaven." This is the paradox.

Again, we understand this in the light of the "law irrevocably decreed in heaven"(Doctrine and Covenants 130:20). Knowing how and why it works doesn't diminish its counterintuitiveness or make it less of a paradox.

Also, I mentioned that all men can have direct personal revelation, but only the Prophet can speak the word of God for all men. Does one revelation discount another? Our discussion about ratings on the Fight Club post is relevant to this paradox. If (for the sake of argument) the Prophet did command that we not see R-rated movies, but the Spirit prompted us to see one, could we follow the Spirit and still in good conscience say that we sustain the Prophet?

We know the answer to this question, but it's still a paradox.

I hope this answers your question

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Because I said I would, I want to list another paradox here.

We are taught to be valiant defenders of Christ, family, and liberty, but also to turn the other cheek. Missionaries should use the scriptures to teach, but not Bible Bash. We are to use boldness, but not overbearance.

Some of these things may have more to do with a "fine line" or a contextual decision than with paradox, but I think the paradox is there too.

Abinadi personifies it. In the very act of allowing himself to be slain, he took the most courageous stand against the wickedness of King Noah possible. His blood sealed his testimony with force great enough to shake even Alma, a wicked priest, to the core.

The Ammonites laid down to be slain, but their sons swore to "fight in all cases." Captain Moroni also was a defender. I wrote a pretty long post about this on my blog, Anew, but there I discussed it in the context of business strategy.

So I guess the paradox is not that sometimes we do one and sometimes the other, but that the same act can actually do both. Just as in allowing the believing people of Ammonihah to be burned God demonstrated both mercy and justice, we can show both fierce defense and humble submission/non-aggression by the way we respond to opposition.

Trevor said...


I'm of course fine with the title, though your suggestion is noted. I think you're assuming that the word "Mormon" holds an institutional meaning, whereas I think that the word is far more colloquial than 'LDS.' Both, however, suggest in my mind the theology in practice.

That being said, I thought that my discussion of Shklovsky was clear enough about seeking the tension rather than trying to solve it, but I see now that it could have been more clear.

But again, this desire to resolve tension is what fascinates me.

Shklovsky was about finding paradoxes in already existing works as a key to understanding them and further appreciating them, but I'm suggesting from a prosumer perspective (as well as a reader's context) that we acknowledge what paradoxes already exist in a life governed by The Old Testament, New Testament, Pearl of Great Price, Docterine and Covenant, and (most richly) close to 200 years of teachings of prophets, seers and revelators (not to mentions simply wise, righteous men and women guided and inspired by the Spirit of God).

I wrote a bit more about the paradoxes simply contained in the last (and maybe greatest thus far) General Conference.

The use of the word 'tolerance' is example I'm referring to.

Paul doesn't always agree with Nephi, or Peter (or sometimes even himself). Nephi doesn't always match up with Moroni, and Moroni and Alma seemingly contradict themselves within the same verses sometimes.

This doesn't mean they are wrong in the slightest (any of them, ever). It just means that mortality, or imperfect language, or both hinder our understanding.

This is why the Spirit is so key. Sometimes the Spirit speaks in words, but sometimes it doesn't. It transcends it. Sometimes it bypasses our language centers and speaks to our spirits. (Oliver Cowdery's description of the first vision is a wonderful example of this, in my opinion)

I believe that anyway. I've felt it.

The reason I'm mentioning this is that those paradoxes, or contradictions, or things which cannot be explained by language, are opportunities to be taught from on high and seek guidance from God. I don't think we should run from those opportunities.

And I DON'T think we should put, OR TRY TO PUT, them into words. I don't think we should try to resolve them, but search for God instead.

Anonymous said...


I recommend that you get on and order People of Paradox right now (unless you are really strapped for cash). It is required reading for someone like you (a Mormon "artist," if you will).

Givens talks about four paradoxes in Mormon thought, and then he discusses how these paradoxes play out in Mormon intellectual thought, architecture, music and dance, theater and film, literature, and visual arts. He has two chapters for each of these genres, split historically (1830-1890 and 1890-present).

The four paradoxes are authority vs. radical freedom, searching vs. certainty, the sacred vs. the banal, and election vs. exile.

I haven't read the whole thing -- I've read about half of it so far. But it is excellent. Seriously, you really need to read it.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Not to revert to an old subject here, but I was reading the parable of the ten virgins and I thought of another paradox I thought was worthy of listing here. That is that we are commanded to prepare for the future, but also to take no thought for it. I know some of the relevant counsel here applies best to missionaries and other full-time preachers, but there may be a good subject somewhere between year's supply and "sufficient is the day." I may not have expressed that very well, but you get the idea.