Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ritualized Retellings

Ugh.  I have been reading up on the manual for class discussion this Sunday (because what else am I going to do at 12:30 on a Saturday night?) - the topic: Assasination of Joseph Smith

Not that I am even a super LDS history scholar, but reading those words was FRUSTRATING.  The way the people who opposed Joseph are portrayed as unprovoked mobsters, people who, for virtually no apparent reason, wanted to destroy this benign, wholly uncontroversial man and the benign, wholly uncontroversial religion he founded.  The reality was/is much much more complicated than that.  But over and over again, this almost strikingly biased language is used.  As I read, I became nervous about how I was going to deal with this lesson and the discussion which will follow, the JS love-fest, all that persecution complex stuff.

I mean, obviously I think JS was an inspired man.  A veritable genius.  He loved those within his community with a fierce loyalty.  At the same time, he was flawed, vulnerable, and really, really self-conscious of criticism.  That's probably why I like him, for the most part, because he had all these jagged edges.  My opinion though is that perhaps that he went a bit too far in certain aspects.  However, when you are creating a whole new religion, there's a little bit of trial and error in an attempt to discern things.  I don't even judge him for that.  But I do have a problem pretending that none of this occurred or that his actions were alwayssssssssss inspired.  The degree of suspicion between the different groups in that area at the time of the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith was unfortunate, and speaks to the impressive and wretched capacity of human beings toward fanatical fervor, toward the "othering" of those not in our tribe.  The local non-Mormons and former Mormons were suspicious of Joseph's controversial teachings, like plural marriage, as well as his tightening political reins, as evidenced - to them - by his destruction of the printing press and other actions.  Joseph was suspicious (also justifiably) of those people who opposed him.  The history is messy and unclear and - as FB would say - "complicated."  There was tons of suspicion and tension and ill-will and not much benefit of the doubt or level-headedness or any of that sort of thing going on.  Saying that he died for his "testimony of Jesus Christ" or of the gospel, as the manual would have us believe, is hardly the full picture. 

That it is deliberately set up that way really troubles me.  Somehow, it is easier for me to believe in someone when I see their flaws, their insecurities.  Somehow I prefer ambiguity and uncertainty.  I prefer to look at lots of different sides of something instead of just one.  And I feel like always, always, at least in the church context, we are looking only at one side.  The side where everything is beautiful (even when it's sad or messy).  The side where there are always answers, simple answers (even when the questions seem so complicated). 

So I was getting more and more worked up, lamenting the complete disregard of this whole realm of realities. Then I began to have this really interesting dialogue with myself.

Like, Katie, just think for a minute: why do we tell and tell and retell these stories?  Every story has a purpose and an intended audience.  The purpose of LDS church history narratives doesn't necessarily have anything to do with historical accuracy or acknowledging ambiguities.  No, the purpose is to reaffirm Joseph Smith's inspired role in the establishment of the religion.  This is why the account of his death (and other accounts too) are magnified to these epic, almost mythological proportions.

Then I thought of the *deer/hunter ritual: beautiful, choreographed, idealized. As SC Taysom writes: 
Although the details varied, all of the rituals involved a mimesis of the actual hunt, in which an animal is killed according to strict, elaborate and specific criteria that would be nearly impossible to replicate during the hunt itself. Before Smith [a different Smith, Jonathan Z. Smith, not Joseph], scholars viewed such rituals as attempts at magically prefiguring the actual hunt in the hope that like would beget like and that the “real world” hunt would match the perfection of the ritual hunt. [Jonathan Z.] Smith offered a new interpretation based on two factors: first, the notion that the power of the ritual comes from its dissimilarity to what actually happened on the hunt, and second, the idea that although the hunters themselves were intelligent enough to realize that the ritual and the reality never met, they continued to perform the ritual anyway.

The ritual, according to [Jonathan Z.]Smith, represented “a perfect hunt with all the variables controlled…Such a ceremony performed before taking on an actual hunt demonstrates that the hunter knows full well what ought to transpire if he were in control; the fact that the ceremony is held is eloquent testimony that the hunter knows full well that it will not transpire, that he is not in control.” So what good are such rituals? [Jonathan Z.] Smith suggests that through their ability to present a world in which “contingency, variability, and accidentality have been factored out,” they “display a dimension of the hunt that can be thought about and remembered in the course of things,” and that they further “provide a focusing lens on the ordinary hunt which allows its full significance to be perceived.”
Likewise, these perfectly ordered stories and retellings, too, have a role in our spiritual consciousness and practices (in addition to the messiness which is so readily apparent). Once again, we return to that tension between chaos and order.  Between control and abandon.  Like those forms that Plato would talk about.  The physical ones which we see and touch, and then the perfected ones that existed beyond our tangible reality, where thoughts and imagination can only begin to take us.  Maybe it's not even exactly like Plato's forms, but I saw a glimmer of a connection there for a moment.

A focusing lens on the ordinary hunt to allow its full significance to be perceived... 

*Although in that post, the author is talking about actual ritual itself.  Really so fascinating, and the imagery obviously resonated with me, as I still remember it after having read it like 2 years ago.  Now somehow it seems relevent to apply it to these ritualistic retellings we employ in our doctrinal narrative. 


Logan said...

The problem is that the idealized Joseph Smith Story is not just being told to people like you who know it's really more complicated, who possess a framework of "mythopoeia" in which they can accept it.

The Story is also being told to children and adults (like former me) who have no such framework, who indeed would be discouraged from such a liberal attitude were they to independently create it, and who later feel betrayed when they learn that the Story and the facts are not quite compatible.

To me this is the basic evil of all religion, that it is essentially anti-truth, at least as far as the teaching of children is concerned.

Anonymous said...

yesssss! storriesssss!! rittuuuaallllsssss!!!

well, logan, i relate a lot to what you're saying. there is this feeling of betrayal. and how can we avoid it? yes, as children, we were, as some might call it, brainwashed to believe certain things. some adults continue living life having on the same perceived blindfolds. but one thing i feel certain of is that there was definitely a point, in my experience, before which i couldn't really comprehend the messiness. and as an adult now comprehending the messiness, i, like katie, can really get behind rituals that help us to pass through the pain of betrayal and messy messy realities. yes, it is not a perfect system, but i just don't know how many children could really get behind complex symbolism, with which the mormonism worth keeping is rampant.

so i'm conflicted, obviously.

Mooney said...

To the church's credit, these lessons are becoming much clearer (possibly less biased?) than they used to be. For example, the lesson included the details that Joseph and Hyrum intended to run from the law, but were called back, and that Joseph, as mayor of Nauvoo, ordered the destruction of a printing press. The only detail that consistently gets left out that bothers me is that Joseph had a smuggled weapon and defended himself.

Mere said...

I miss talking with you about such things, my dear. You are always addressing things I hadn't thought much about -- but realize upon your mention that I should think about -- and giving me opportunities to widen my scope and remodel my perspective.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on things like this. I am always learning from you and I'm grateful for that.