Monday, July 13, 2009

Airing the Rhetorical Laundry: Some Thoughts on Mormon Oration and Audience

Luisa’s thought-provoking and inspiring svithe inspired me to finish this post [and to buy two books that I’m going to be using, I think, for my dissertation], which I started last week, but gave up on for whatever reason. So blame her if you must...

And if it is, perhaps, too steeped in hyperbole, don’t blame Luisa. If you must blame someone, blame Theric; he can take the heat.

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I just finished a delightful (yes, I said “delightful”) little essay in the Spring 2006 issue of Dialogue: “Mormon Laundry List” by Julianna Gardner Berry.* Berry speaks about what I've come to call the Mormon Rhetorical Problem**: Despite our expansive theological witness that “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” and that humans are beings of eternal intelligence, co-existent with God and heirs to eternal glory, much of our language seems to betray a lack of faith in that ideal.

In rhetorical terms, this manifests itself in a surprising lack of faith in audience, which further manifests itself in the fact that, as Berry observes, “Mormons love telling each other what to do more than any group I know.” Unqualified and subjective as this observation may be, I sense strands of its proof in the cultural pudding: the hundredth sacrament meeting talk in a row that lays out exactly how (“In just nine easy steps…”) I should exercise my faith or serve my neighbor or become self-reliant; the marriage and family relations class that tells my wife and me we should teach our kids faith by teaching them faith, repentance, baptism, reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost, and keeping the commandments (family scripture study, family prayer, family service, and family home evening—on Monday nights only, please--included); the Elders’ Quorum lesson—no class participation included—that emphasizes reaching our full potential by setting personal goals, which we can effectively set and keep track of and report on by following “this ten-step process I got on my mission.” And on. And on. And on.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize the value of sticking to the small and simple things we’re taught, of learning to do them well so we can draw closer to God—I’ve still got a long way to go before I get these first principles down pat. And sometimes admonition comes along that isn’t cliché or trite or patronizing (like Luisa’s advice for developing a Christ-like attitude). And sure, drawing up lists of these small and simple things is easy, especially because seeing all the bulleted points in white and green (on a chalkboard, see; or in my ward, on a piece of paper printed out in a font that’s much too small for those on the back row to read when the teacher magnets them to the chalkboard—I say, just let them use chalk!) makes the gospel seem so functional and pragmatic. And if Mormon culture is anything, it’s become increasingly pragmatic, almost business-like.

But at what cost does dumbing down or pragmatizing or business-meeting-izing eternity come?

As Berry asks,
Do we need a weekly flogging with instructions? Will those who falter be buoyed up by a roster of requirements? God evidently trusts us more than we trust each other to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Morm. 9:27). Is our prevailing sense of one another that we’re all so wayward we can’t get past the remedial course? (Emphasis mine.)
Then this:
Lest I be misunderstood, I feel the tedious need to explain that I’m a card-carrying, calling-filling, sacrament-taking, choir-singing member of the Church, one who is more or less up-to-date with her laundry.

Though Mormons have always loved to admonish, I sense that the [Mormon] Laundry List has become more entrenched in the last decade, as talks are prepared in Microsoft Word, with the benefit of bulleted lists. Our many MBAs, trained in presentation skills, believe that all knowledge can be conveyed through PowerPoint. I cringe when sacrament meeting speakers emphasize their “takeaway message” or when missionary-themed conversations include the word “branding.”

In a larger cultural context, the impact of technology on language is partly to blame. Mass communication that isn’t pure tabloid has become technical writing, a slick how-to manual. Estate planning, quality parenting, weight loss, and cholesterol reduction can all be achieved in three easy steps. Why not, then, our eternal salvation?
While I must confess that I prepared my last sacrament meeting talk in Microsoft Word and that I used PowerPoint in a Gospel Doctrine lesson once to illustrate chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to a group of sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds (in which class, I assure, the doctrines of Christ took precedence over the PPP), I must also confess that I fear we’ve lost something of the gaze-into-heaven-for-five-minutes rhetorical tradition of our forebears, that we’ve lost faith in the power of the word, of true doctrine, of pure testimony to literally change lives.

Perhaps I’m being naïve or too idealistic to believe that more responsible use of language can really change us. But as a believing Mormon who tries to keep up on his laundry, I’d like something a bit deeper every now and then, like a little bit more faith in the Mormon audience and the rhetorical principles that can be derived from Mormon theology---in the power of human language (which is, after all, good enough for God---at least for now), for as Berry concludes, “Our scriptural canon is so broad and our theology so lofty that we should have no shortage of pure doctrine for an eternity of talks and lessons, with exhortation trimmed to a minimum.”

And all I can say to that is amen, Sister. Amen.

Now off to do the laundry.

No. Really. I need some clean socks.

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*The link is to the web page for the electronic offerings from that volume; both PDF and HTML versions of the article are available, though you'll have to link to the full text and scroll down after linking through to find Berry.

**By no means are such questions of oration and audience entirely unique to Mormon culture, though they do bear specific implications for Latter-day Saints in terms of Mormon eternalism, as I discuss it here.