November 11, 2011

Review: Stephen Carter, "What of the Night? Personal Essays"

Periodically, (usually when a collection is published) we see reflections on the literary genre of the "personal essay" in Mormonism. Here's mine. The footnotes provide links, which themselves provide further suggestions on the subject if you're interested. 

Title: What of the Night? Personal Essays
Author: Stephen Carter
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Personal Essay
Year: 2010
Pages: 168
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-9843603-1-4
Price: $14.95 (Kindle, $2.99)

Having grown up Mormon I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a “testimony” was. Like breath, sleep, and family, testimony’s a natural part of my life. The genesis is lost to me, but I can remember instances when my conception of “testimony” was sharpened. As a kid in Primary I learned that a testimony ought to be a list of things I know are “true,” and these things were all things I’d learned about at Church. Usually us Primary kids would also sneak a few extra things onto the end of our testimony lists, like the fact that we loved our brothers and sisters and dads and moms. As I got a little older I learned we could include a personal experience or two in our testimonies. I usually enjoyed listening to these ones a little more, but the list still came at the end as it should; the general thrust of testimony remained the same.

This changed a little when a seminary teacher parsed different ways we “bear” our testimony. He said we bear it by speaking it out loud, but he mentioned a few new things for me to consider. First, “bearing” testimony can also simply refer to the way we are, the way others see us. Jesus said to be the light of the world, so we bear our testimonies by loving and serving others, he said. Then he said sometimes we have to “bear testimony” as a burden—we have to bear the weight of it, bear up under the everyday struggles of life in faith. Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow.

Several years later this latter sense of “bearing testimony” came to mind as I read a personal essay by Eugene England called “The Mormon Cross.”[1] It was written prior to 1978, before the LDS priesthood was finally extended again to blacks, and England bore witness in this last sense, and said the Church itself bore the weight of a cross he hoped would someday be lifted. And in some ways that particular cross has been lifted, but when England wrote it he was still bearing up under great weight. That seems to me to be the predominant characteristic of current Mormon personal essays, which can be found in practically every LDS-themed publication—Dialogue, Sunstone, Segullah, even BYU Studies. Such essays, like England’s, relate personal stories including personal reflection, but not necessarily ultimate resolution as we typically read in official church publications like the Ensign. “Essay,” which I’m told comes from the French essayer, means an attempt.[2] Swimming deep in the perplexity rather than floating high above in the omniscient cloud, is the object. This is another way Mormons testify, and I'm happy we have independent publishers like Zarahemla Books to provide more outlets for testimony. (Minor complaint: I thought the font—large and typewriterish—distracts from the feeling the pieces are meant to evoke. The cover design is cool, though.)

The roots of this latter-day way of bearing testimony are said to run deep. In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism Donlu DeWitt Thayer points out that the current literary form of LDS personal essay was absent in the early days of the Church, despite the proliferation of written diaries and sermons. “By the middle of the twentieth century, however,” she writes, “the Church was essentially at peace with its external surroundings, and a few LDS writers opened the era of the Mormon personal essay.”[3] It’s interesting to think of such personal essays as fruits of the environment in which they grow, with all the influence that entails. Today’s best Mormon personal essays, according to Eugene England, are “rooted in the extremes of honestly revealed feeling and experience, from doubt and inadequacy and anguish to exalted faith and love and encounters with divinity.”[4]

It’s been about a decade since England passed away, but his description of the personal essay still holds up, even in a personal essay written about him, as found in Stephen Carter’s recent collection of personal essays, What of the Night? In “My Brief Tour of England: My Year With Gene,” Carter gives his first-hand account of being England’s office assistant (11-25). Constant phone calls and busy work under Gene’s command are offset by hugs and prayers, and later, cancer, confusion and death. Inspired by England, Carter has become a powerful personal essayist in his own right. In addition to completing an MFA and PhD from the University of Alaska—Fairbanks, Carter, current Sunstone editor, has won multiple awards from the Eugene England Personal Essay Competition.[5] His work was included among the “Best American Spiritual Writing” in 2006.

In this collection Carter seems to dwell slightly more often on the “doubt and inadequacy” side of England’s description as opposed to the “exalted faith and love” side, although his main aim is to “dwell in the tensions” (29). “The Weight of Priesthood” is a masterful rumination on his shifting understanding of the power of the priesthood (33-62). Several essays, in addition to the one about England, deal with death. In “Last Supper” (91-96) he tells the story of a couple killed by a drunk driver, and his prose sings: “Outside, the snow was frozen to the ground; the streets black and slick with ice, reflecting the glow of the streetlamps. Wayne and Elaine have left a centuries-old station wagon, a house with bread and milk still in the fridge, credit-card offers in the mailbox, and maybe no will” (93).

Negotiating relationships between those who leave the church and those who remain is another recurring theme. “The Departed” (115-130) laments for promising members who leave the Church, “Writing As Repentance” includes responses from friends who wonder how Carter can write what he writes and still care to remain Mormon (159-168). But “Smoke and Mirrors” pulled me in more than any other essay on this theme, from the first sentence, too: “Sometimes revelation works through a void. Like the day I realized that I knew next to nothing about my little brother” (62). I can’t relate the strength of this essay in a review, and I can’t spoil the ending, but it really resonated with me. Anyone who knows close family members or friends who have left the Church will find much to identify with here.

Back in 2008 Carter popped up in an online discussion about personal essays. He described his overall reason for writing. I’ll close the review with his description because I think it captures quite well what Carter tries to do in What of the Night? These are essays without many neat endings. Plenty of reflection without much ultimate resolution. But Carter bears his testimony throughout the collection, his testimony of the plan of salvation; the messiness and the hope:

“The essays I’ve published have taken months of my life. Ernest Hemingway’s quote: ‘Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed’ sums up my experience well…The reason to put writing in front of a lot of people is to say, “Here’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I’ve followed a line of thought (or an experience) through difficult territory. I’ve questioned myself; I’ve made false starts and hit dead ends. It’s taken me some time to find a way out the back of conventional wisdom and maxims to find something that resonates deeply with me. I know that you haven’t had my experience or followed this path, so I’m going to do my utmost to communicate it to you.”[6]
It's clear that Carter is doing a little more than just communicating his own experiences, though. This is where Mormon testimony bearing is most obvious in his approach. The fact that the essays most often include a message, a take-away, however implicit, indicates that he hopes his stories demand something of the reader, too. He doesn't always pull this off successfully, and I wasn't always convinced that a given point was true to my own experience in Mormonism. But that's because much of the time Carter is trying to figure out, even while expressing, his own place in Mormonism. And the bearing of such testimony seems very Mormon to me. I'm glad Stephen's still here.



[1] Eugene England, "The Mormon Cross," Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8:1 (Spring 1973), 78-86. England's book Making Peace has some great stuff too. It's available for free at Signature's online library.

[2] Kris Wright, “An Eye For an I: Looking at the Personal Essay in Mormon Literature,”, 6 February 2006.

[3] “Literature, Mormon Writers of: Personal Essays,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992).

[4] Wright, ibid.

[5] I believe this contest has since been renamed as the Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay contest through Irreantum.

[6] Comments section of Kristine Haglund, “Goldilocks and the Art of the Personal Essay,”, 18 December 2008.

November 6, 2011

Review: Conor Cunningham, “Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong”

Title: Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong
Author: Conor Cunningham
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Genre: Religion/Science
Year: 2011
Pages: 580
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-8028-4838-3
Price: $35
Conor Cunningham wants to “move beyond the silly impasse brought about by fundamentalism (whether secular or religious)” in regards to the legacy of Charles Darwin (xi). Many atheists and plenty of Christians “tend to sing from the same hymn sheet” on this point: that “Darwinian evolution threatens to annihilate religion at its very root” (xvi). Cunningham disagrees. While Daniel Dennett has called organic evolution a “dangerous idea,” Cunningham calls it a “pious idea.” To be more precise, Cunningham outlines his understanding of evolution as promulgated by “ultra-Darwinists,” which he admits is quite dangerous—not merely to religion, but to the scientific method generally as well. He argues that religious fundamentalists and fundamentalist atheists alike misconstrue what organic evolution entails, and he outlines the boundaries of their misconstrual. Finally, he offers a different way to conceive of evolution from a Christian perspective, that evolution itself can help us understand God and ourselves. In this review I’ll briefly explain Cunningham’s main points, explain why I think he could have done a better job, and offer a few suggestions for further reading. 
Cunningham’s Basic Outline:
Cunningham’s opening chapter is a fun exercise in intellectual history. He describes some precursors to Darwin to present a basic overview of the intellectual pool Darwin was swimming in when he developed his theory of evolution. He boils Darwin’s notion of evolution down to three main elements: variation, reproduction, and heritability (20). The next three chapters cover the main debates still raging within Darwinism: the idea that natural selection works at many levels (not simply at the gene, organism, or group level); the question of whether natural selection is all-powerful or whether it is one among multiple mechanisms shaping the material world as we know it; and whether evolution involves direction or is purely random. Throughout these chapters he discusses the danger of believing in the so-called “God of the gaps,” by pointing to yet-to-be-solved puzzles of science as the places where God can be detected. Such gaps change; this is not a firm foundation, he says.
Chapter 5 extends the discussion to wider applications of Darwin’s theory to fields like eugenics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. Here he takes a long pause to explain one of his most important points: the sketchy epistemology which an ultra-Darwinist account or evolution leaves us with. In a nutshell, if we’re merely material evolved creatures and our cognitive abilities are evolved too, then survival, not “truth,” would be the reigning principle in our thought. We could easily experience “true lies,” (215, 225).
Chapter 6 takes a glance at the “science versus religion” myth while dissecting naturalism, or the belief that all truth can be explained through analysis of and on the terms of the “material” world. Whereas methodological naturalism simply brackets the question on undetectable entities (i.e., provides explanations without resorting to God as part of the story), ontological naturalism goes a step further. Even philosophy must move aside: science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be” (266). Cunningham sees certain proponents of “Intelligent Design” operating under that same assumption—an assumption which he sees as inimical to religious faith.
Cunningham’s Rhetorical Approach:
Evaluating the rhetorical success of a book is one of the most subjective things a book reviewer can do. But the ways in which an argument is made often matter just as much, if not more, than the actual points themselves. The Lord may “looketh upon the heart,” but we’re often checking the outward appearance. How we say stuff can impact how people receive what we say. Cunningham is well aware of rhetorical issues, as when he praises the effectiveness of Voltaire’s satirical approach to Leibniz, (90-91). His own approach is often snappy and funny, as with his epigram, “Yabba dabba doo! –Fred Flintstone,” at the beginning of chapter five (179), which must refer to the way he describes Richard Dawkins’s understanding of human nature as being “Neanderthal” (236). While I chuckled about this, I also recalled his stated desire from his introduction to “move beyond the silly impasse” (xi). His snappiness is fun, but not very friendly.
Though Cunningham prizes seeking consensus (in fact, he corresponded with many self-proclaimed atheist natural scientists in the making of his book), he enters the fray with some barbs and jabs which will likely contribute more to war than discussion. In his introduction he points out that one logical end of ultra-Darwinism would be Holocaust denial (xvi), and while I think, on logical grounds he ends up sustaining this contention (220, 268), he could have named any human event there, so this seems like an unfair scare tactic.
In other words, I really liked what Cunningham was trying to do, but I didn’t particularly like how he tried to do it. Not only rhetorically, but organizationally. It seemed quite sloppy. Throughout this medley on evolution, science, and Christianity, Cunningham slips back and forth between intellectual history, philosophy, theology, advocacy, and criticism—all without placing enough signposts along the road for me and without much balance. His sometimes-funny-or-lyrical, always-verbose points can be found more concisely stated by other authors. (For instance, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article called “Religion and Science” which covers most of the important ground in much less space.) Interspersed throughout the book are discussions of all current hot topics in discussions about science and religion (memes, selfish genes, consciousness, emergence, brain science, etc.) but they appear at random. Cunningham’s final chapter is entirely an exercise of academic Christian theology, which I thought was interesting (he ties in ideas like Creation, the Eucharist and transubstantiation, forgiveness, atonement, etc.), but it somehow felt tacked on. Or perhaps the book was tacked on to it? Or I’m not quick enough to fill in the blanks.
Maybe this book is sort of like geekfan-type stuff—like the extended, live version recording of a band’s entire repertoire which die-hard fans must have, but that average listeners won’t fancy. For LDS readers in particular, Cunningham’s allegiance to the Nicene creed and creation ex nihilo won’t seem to suffice in reconciling Darwin with Christianity. Interestingly, LDS biologist, scholar, awesome-fiction writer Steven Peck has explored many of the same issues Cunningham discusses. At the end of this post I recommend a few of his pieces, alongside Cunningham’s book, which, for all its foibles, covers some fascinating ground. If you’re into that kind of stuff then you’ll enjoy Cunningham’s book. If you’re looking for an even-handed overview of the evolution/creationism debate, this book isn’t the droid you’re looking for. If you’re already part of the ongoing discussions, or if you feel like just jumping right in, Cunningham has a lot of great stuff in Darwin’s Pious Idea.
Cunningham’s BBC documentary “Did Darwin Kill God” can be found here, along with some other interesting discussions of the book.
Steven Peck, “Randomness, contingency, and faith: Is there a science of subjectivity?” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. Vol. 38 (2003): 5-24.
Steven Peck, “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit?,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought  Vol. 38 (2005): 36-64, .pdf available here.
Steven Peck, Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here.