Toward a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part I: The Charlatans of God

In the first of three guest posts (on Dawning of a Brighter Day) leading up to the launch of a proposed website dedicated to displaying and developing talent in Mormon speculative fiction, project instigator Mark Penny waxes poetic over the role of speculative fiction writer as disciple of Christ in the community of Zion. To participate in a discussion of the project, click here.

Brothers and sisters, it is a great honour to stand before you today and talk about speculative fiction. In this video, sonosopher and general weird guy Alex Caldiero refers to Joseph Smith, inspired translator of our origin epic and deputy founder of our religion, as “a charlatan of God.” A lot of people would be insulted by that slippery epithet, but I kind of like it. In fact, it inspired a poem, which you may go home and read here after the meeting.

The Book of Mormon contains three instances of unfortunate wording. The first involves Abinadi, the priests of Noah and a statement about the Father and his Heir [1] which, for convoluted incomprehensibility, rivals Bilbo Baggins’ famous quip in chapter one of Tolkien’s fabled English epic [2]. The same basic confusing idea gets repeated later [3], so that makes two. The third involves superconvert and ex-wayward prince, Ammon ben Mosiah, his tawnier counterpart, King Lamoni, and the naughty word guile [4]. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go home after the meeting and read that rice-papered or blue-jacketed piece of fifteenth century technology you keep hauling around on Sundays.

I never could trust the word guile, especially after the Lord’s remark that Nathanael was an Israelite in whom was none [5]. And yet, when we come to it, guile is the storyteller’s stock-in-trade. A good fictioneer oozes it from face and fingers. Why should we believe your patent lies if you can’t trick us into doing so and then make the lie so delicious to our tastes that we secretly wish it were true?

That brings us to the grand-daddy of tale spinners, the father of all lies, that silver-tongued slitherer who, in that other origin epic, beguiled the first gossip [6] and, according to more optimistic versions of events, set the Rube Goldberg machinery of salvation on the move. Satan tempts Eve. Eve has choice. Eve chooses fruit. Fruit brings mortality. Mortality brings corruption. Corruption necessitates sacrifice. Sacrifice enables salvation. Salvation enables exaltation. Exaltation enables creation. Creation enables temptation. Temptation enables choice. And so round we go, worlds without end.

Adam falls, begetting Christ. Christ falls, begetting salvation. But before falling, Christ tells a few stories. Not the straightforward, unimaginative accounts of sordid historical incident Adam seems to have preferred, but fanciful anecdotes about events that probably never happened but quite credibly could. Yes, the Master Teacher also dealt in fabrications, beguilingly simple and simply beguiling little flashes of fact and fancy that we keep reading and repeating two millenia later because they are delicious to the taste and desirable to make us wise.

Perplexed by the conflicting narratives of his age, along comes the semi-literate ploughboy to find out where God stands on all this talk about heaven, hell and who goes where. He comes out of the experience telling what look like very ambitious fibs: dark assailants, beings descending in light, messengers bearing coordinates to ancient books, long lost secrets revealed, talismanic translations, golden-age powers restored. It’s the stuff of legends, dreams, high fantasy. It’s history meets mythology. It’s scripture.

Was a time, says somebody [7], when the three great antagonists of our day–science, magic and religion–were not three but one, when reasoned inquiry, words and gestures of supplication and command, and god-given wisdom and order hung together like three-stranded DNA. In the doctrines, ordinances and principles of Mormonism we see an effort to recombine them. You can squirm, but you cannot hide from this bald fact. Does not the Book of Abraham attempt to set us straight on astronomy? Do not naming and blessing, baptism and confirmation, blessing the sacrament, ordination, setting apart, endowment, sealing, consecration of oil, blessing of the sick, dedication of homes and graves seek through binary combinations of speech and touch to invoke or persuade the spirits, the gods, the animus? Do not the commandments and words of wisdom seek to show us the way to peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come?

But I am preaching to the snake-oil choir, which trains its skeptical eye of faith on the the deathless betterment of homo sapiens, and ponders the natures and fates of analogous species on analogous worlds where the same things are said to have been done. You have all been dipped in Joe Smith’s baptismal elixir of redemption and scathed by the healing fire of confirmation. You know that to believe is to perceive beauty, but is not to know. You know that we cannot know through the veil. We can only feel sure. The Spirit may comfort and constrain us, but this is still borrowed light, which may fade and which can only show us shadows of the things we hope await us on the other side of time and of the force-field boundary between estates. To really know, we must die, must shed this skin of night and don the skin of glory. We must see as we are seen and know as we are known, breaking through the dark glass and standing face to face with beings whose murky image we have striven to engrave in our countenances. What a fuzzy likeness I expect we shall see in the mirror on that day!

So who are we and why are we here? And where is this patter going? I speak now to the blithe lunatics in the back and the paranoid shopkeepers who mind them [8]. We are the liars, the magicians, the charlatans of God. With our words we weave worlds that flare and fade. We peer through crystal balls of spastic insight, seeing deeper into what is and was and may be than the tale seekers we serve, but not to the very depths. We are not preachers, prophets, apologists or propagandists, and yet we invite to be wiser and to see what may come; we speak for our people simply by lifting the pen, and we call our hearers to greater deeds of faith in daily life. We are contradictory beings who hunger and doubt, who press forward second guessing, who build on stone and build with sand. To quote an esteemed colleague who seems to have borrowed half my brain,

stories allow us to take the idea of faith out of the box we keep it locked in. We can pull it out, play with it, read the stories, ask ourselves questions, and have a rollicking good time. Because while what is True mattereth much, what is possible must also matter. [9]

Yea, verily, and even so.

Some are poets. Some are plainer spoken. Some keep the madness in steel chains. Some let it roam the house. But we are all, by our nature, conscripts in this war called mortality, to save or to slay, by activity or idleness to aid one side or the other. We are lowly seraphim whose swords guard the way and light the danger.

Notes

1. Mosiah 15:1-5 Seriously. You can only exegisize this masterpiece if you come at it at an angle from the outside. Personally, I think Abinadi was having a little fun with his opponents. He may also have been less than fully focused on each word, phrase, clause and sentence. And I’d almost bet he never expected to expand on the minutes in his memoirs.

2. Tolkien, JRR. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 1: A Long-expected Party.

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

3. Alma 11:38-39 for example, though I know I saw a nastier one somewhere even further back just this last week, but I can’t seem to find it now. I thought it might be in one of the English passages I’ve recently read to my kids at bedtime, or one of the Chinese passages I’ve recently read with my family before bedtime, or one of the Russian passages I’ve recently read by myself after bedtime, but I’ve checked and it’s not in any of those places. But I did read such a passage! It hit me really hard. Any scriptorians with the reference?

4. Alma 18:23

5. John 1:47

6. Beguile: Genesis 3:13, Moses 4:19, 2 Corinthians 11:3
Gossip: No, “gossip” is not usually a nice word to use about anybody, let alone the “mother of all”, whom we like to think of, along with Mary, mother of Jesus, as pure and holy in every respect save her mortality, but in this piece I am speaking poetically and the word has interesting permutations, both etymological (godsibb) and associative (storytelling), which fit it well for the place I put it in. To be fair, Adam gets a much sounder drubbing (from the present community’s perspective) when I talk about his less-than-creative narrative style. Besides, I think we can safely assume that Eve and her daughters had many little conferences about men and the various goings on in their homes and communities. And I don’t think all so-called gossip is necessarily destructive. Much of it is, to be sure, but a little benevolent feminine discussion of community members and events can be a kind of balm to both individual and community. Keep it benevolent, girls–and guys.

7. I swear I’ve seen a reference somewhere. I thought it might be Frazer or Malinowski, but I haven’t been able to locate a quote or paraphrase. I’d be much obliged if anybody could provide one.

8. Penny, Mark. Blog post.

I’m a pretty big believer in letting the subconscious have its way in fiction and poetry. Originality, insight, interesting plot twists, arresting metaphors and stunning turns of phrase seem to spring better from the blithe lunatic that broods in back than from the tense paranoiac eyeing customers in front. Yet if the product of the pen is to resonate with other minds, something must often be done to smooth out debilitating idiosyncrasies, to make the language and action legible to the last extent, to make the experience meaningful and worthwhile for the tense paranoiacs manning other shops.

9. Jepson, Eric W. “Monsters and Mormons and the Deseret Book”, (2011-10-30). Monsters & Mormons (Kindle Locations 233-235). Peculiar Pages. Kindle Edition.

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