Reading Project 2A.4 and Book of the Lamb Presentation

The fourth and final installment from A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon, Volume 2A.



Also, Volume Five: Book Fantasia should be out by the end of this week.

A preview of the chapter on the Book of the Lamb, given as a presentation in SLC this month, can be watched here:

Imagining the Book of the Lamb 

(many thanks to the folks who recorded and edited the file)




  1. Hi Daymon,

    It is becoming clear to me that you are describing Mormonism as an emergent, self-organizing system. You talk about how we should not regard it as a linear chain of influences, and you use phrases such as, “the emerging Mormon voice.”

    I wonder: What is the relationship between linguistic anthropology and complexity science? And are you familiar with the work of people like Victoria Alexander? She is one who is re-examining notions of teleology and attempting to “marry semiotics with the complexity sciences.” Up until now, her writing has primarily informed the way I think about systemic (impersonal) evil, as described by Daniel Boscaljohn; but I am also recognizing interesting parallels with what you are writing in your cultural history.

    For Alexander, “intentionality” is not a linear process, but an emergent one as in: “The emergence of meaningful patterned behavior, and the emergence of an author as a coherent self.” Alexander examines biological and artistic processes and looks at how things emerge, not from preconceived, detailed plans and blueprints (as DNA has been misunderstood until somewhat recently), but spontaneously from basic forms and simple rules. Speaking of those who create, she writes, “In retrospect, we get the feeling that what we have found is what we intended all along. Teleology is always retrospective.” Hence the tendency, perhaps, to tell tradition instead of history, or to write ideas back into journals that somehow failed to mention them when first written.

    “Poesis” is a word that Alexander uses, and I like to think of it as a kind of semiosis gone wrong, though not necessarily in a bad way. We find “accidental indices and icons, whose connections are not inherent.” Rather than indicating something actually present, it becomes a thing for a self-organizing system to grow out of. Poesis is creative; the discovery of unintended signals among the stochastic resonances, making things “fit a preconceived notion,” “the role of error–of misinterpretation, of presuming what is not the usual meaning.”

    “Teleological nature proceeds this way… round about, indirectly–making puns in chemical reactions, neuronal networks, and social interactions, using metaphor and metonymy to find coincidental patterns–until finally a trail has been blazed through the chaos, and we have purpose.”

    That sounds to me how Mormonism came to be, from what I have read so far.

    Now, the thing that concerns me in your Volume 2 (up to this point) is the part about the dehumanizing tendency of the “generic Mormon voice.”

    You made me recognize in Mormonism a kind of thing that seems to emerge in religion again and again: That is, the loss of the self. While reading about Wilford Woodruff battling demons in his bedroom, I thought, “He is a Buddha.” A curious synecdoche. Siddartha Gautama, as the story goes, witnesses suffering and experiences his share of it too. So he sits under a tree where perhaps he battles demons of his own. When he gets up again, he is no longer Siddartha Gautama, he is something else not entirely human. He is the “awakened one”; he has lost his *self* and no longer has a personal identity. Such a one, dehumanized, has escaped the cycle of samsara and can no longer suffer.

    So it was, as you describe, for those Mormonites, “once upon a time, men,” who came to voice the ubiquitous, eternal “ism.”

    I am uncomfortable with this theology of voluntary self-loss, where the person is subsumed by the ism. I am persuaded by Kirkegaard, who said that, “nothing, nothing, nothing, no error, no crime is so absolutely repugnant to God as everything which is official; and why? because the official is so impersonal and therefore the deepest insult which can be offered to a person.”

    But the Mormon self is lost in official sameness: there is a standard that is universal, to be taken up by all.

    Writes Alexander, “Finding yourself in the midst of it, you would experience no direction that is distinctive… no discernible difference anywhere and thus no variety… Sameness would be *like* nothing or as close to nothing as we can put into words.” Sameness, therefore, is “a kind of nothingness.”

    I have often thought of this religious loss-of-self as a type of nihilism. It doesn’t seem intuitive to think that, considering those who weep with gratitude on fast Sundays as they recycle words over the pulpit. It’s kind of a funny claim to make, but there you have it: we Mormons have bought “allegories without ideas… All the intricate, beautiful ritual and repetition–a stupendous amount of apparent diversity–is sameness, sameness all the way down.”

    According to Alexander’s teleology, purpose is emergent and nonlinear: “Acting purposefully cannot mean following someone else’s ideas… Nothing is purposeful that is the puppet of some other force. To be purposeful is not to be a tool.” And what do isms, programs, plans (of salvation!), and standards do to us? They turn us into tools.

    It is better to be an “organ,” a thing that is sustained by the whole and that also sustains it. The organ creates and is created by the system. So, is the “church” organic? Is it a living church?

    “We need to be careful,” says Alexander, “to make clear distinctions between self-organized systems that are still adaptable and alive, and self-organized systems whose directionality has become so entrenched that they have become incapable of responding to novelty or difference.” And then Alexander points out that allegory (poesis) was “once used to reinforce the Grand Narrative but is now used to sell soap, false happiness, and self-delusion.”

    “Without the contributions of artistic individuals [people who still have a self, presumably], the cheapest and easiest system is sure to emerge. And it has. We are inundated with cultural garbage. What emerges on its own is not necessarily good.”

    I think that’s something to consider. Can we be poetically, creatively engaged in “the church”?

    (Sorry for the long commentary. Usually when my comments get this out of hand, I just save them to my hard drive instead of inflicting them on others. 😉 )

    1. No need for apologies regarding this enlightening comment. I am not familiar with Alexander’s work, although I feel now that I should take it up, and plan to. I agree with the “emergent” description, and have read a little of the popular writing on complexity. that background is behind linguistic anth, as you insightfully inferred.
      The other matter, about loss of the self, is something I wanted to at least bring the background of the history, and I agree that it is as close to nihilism as you can probably get. Mormons even developed a theory of history and creation that mythologized a socially instituted loss of self program. Mormon theologians preached that spirits were not eternal, but spirit element was, and we were made from this element, but our identities were not ‘eternal,’ unlike the element. I think, however, and give my argument against this myth, that spirit and element are eternal, and that we as spirits were never created and never will not exist. the same can be said for element, although we are very different from it, being spirits.

      Maybe that myth takes us to the final question you pose about poesis and creatively embodying this abstraction called the church. I cannot see that term as doing anything other than proposing a false “top-down” model of poesis, although maybe I just need to think more about the problem. I think we can engage ‘the church’ as a priest might a demon, in order to exorcise its influence over our imaginations. Only when exorcised, I suppose, can it be turned to our creation, and not just ratify and sanctify the accidents of history. So although Woodruff maybe was like the Buddha (a wonderful insight) in wrestling with demons, he seems to have embodied them, as one often does when dealing with malicious spiritual forces.

  2. @pmccombs–

    Thank you for this Kierkegaard reference. I only studied him twice, once in an undergraduate philosophy course, once in a graduate Scandinavian literature course, but it has been many years. I want to read more of his work now.

    @Daymon Smith–

    I think this ends the reading project, correct? My husband and I completed “south” earlier this week. Thank you again. Yes, we do take it seriously, and it has been refreshing. We have an adult child who now wants to read it as well.

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