Teaching Dispensation: Finding Teachable Stories

My class “American Religious Landscapes” begins in less than two months, so I am in the process of re-reading Dispensation and selecting “teachable” stories. As I mentioned in aprevious post, I’m only going to spend a week (or three fifty-minute classes) in the anthology, so I’ll only be able to assign six or seven stories. I haven’t narrowed my selection down yet, but Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” Larry Menlove’s “Who Brought Forth This Christmas Demon,” Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work,” Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving,” and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves” will probably make the cut. I had originally planned to include Orson Scott Card’s “Christmas at Helaman’s House,” but then I read the story, felt it went on thirteen pages longer than it needed to, and decided against it.[1]
I’ve selected these stories, and not others, for a few reasons. First, I think they reflect the interaction between religion and landscape, or religion and geography, that is the focus of my class. I like, for example, how the avenues in Salt Lake City are featured so prominently in “Blood Work,” how they evoke the sense of order that Mormonism tries to wrestle out of the chaotic natural world. I also like how “Wolves” is, in many ways, a story about leaving an insular religious landscape and facing the dangers lurking beyond its borders.
Second, I think the stories mentioned above are more teachable than other stories in the collection. Stephen Tuttle’s “The Weather Here” and Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election,” for instance, may be excellent stories, but I get a headache thinking how I would even begin to teach them to students coming from largely Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Both stories, it seems to me, rely so heavily on prior knowledge of Mormon theology that I worry students will either not “get” them or simply misread them. Of course, that sort of thing happens all the time in literature classes, and I know misreading often reveals great new insights, but I’d rather give students stories about concrete Mormon experiences they can grasp. Besides, who’s really up to the task of leading a classroom discussion of “Calling and Election” with thirty or so non-Mormon freshman?
I’m certainly not.
Then there’s a story like Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther,” which is probably one of the best stories about Mormon women I have ever read.[2] On the surface, it’s a story that is fairly grounded in a common, concrete Mormon experience: the final dressing of a dead Mormon woman in her temple clothing. Beyond that, the story also touches on human relationships, particularly that between the mother and daughter-in-law, and some common Mormon themes: eternal marriage, family, sin, repentance, community, and mortality. Because other religions and belief systems have sacred clothing and share similar interests in things like marriage and sin, I don’t think “Clothing Esther” is an unteachable story. Spend thirty minutes on it with a group of non-Mormon freshmen who have just spent a week studying Mormon literature and I doubt you’ll lose anyone. Except maybe the kid who spends the entire class texting.
Still, as concrete as the story is, it’s also deeply embedded in the Mormon temple experience, which is concrete enough for temple-going Mormons, but something of a mystery to everybody else. Temple scenes, of course, are not unheard of in Mormon fiction. In the nineteenth century, for example, they were an essential (and deliberately terrifying) part of any anti-Mormon novel. But the temple rarely gets its due in Mormon fiction, either because it’s presented exposé-style, as we see in Brian Evenson’s The Torn Curtain or David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, or because it’s presented so abstractly or vaguely that we end up feeling the same way we do when a returned missionary enthusiastically describes an exotic food: we know it must be really, really, really good, but having never tasted it ourselves, we don’t know why.
“Clothing Esther” breaks from this tradition, in some ways, to offer readers some insight into the Mormon temple experience and its meaning to the women who participate in them. For Mary, the main character of the story, the temple experience seems to center on the Initiatory portion of the Endowment ceremony, possibly the only Mormon ordinance in which the genders are wholly segregated. Because Downing is aware that not all of her readers know the temple experience, and possibly to make the story more teachable, she provides this paragraph:
Inside each Mormon temple is a place which is like no other—a quiet veiled-in space where initiate blessings are granted, woman to woman; a place where two sisters in faith, two strangers, stand before one another, look one another in the eye and touch one soul against the other, fingertip to flesh, and repeat the words of a blessing and an anointing, the undefiled intimacy of which reflects the very depths of God’s eternal love for woman, and through her, for all his children. And Mary has been there. (268)
While this paragraph is admittedly abstract and vague in terms of describing the actual ordinance, it is quite explicit about the significance and meaning of the experience for those involved in it, especially Mary. Moreover, against the larger context of the story, it also makes the Initiatory ordinance a metaphor for powerful female relationships within Mormonism, especially between women like Mary and Esther, her mother-in-law.[3] The story, after all, is primarily about the way Mormon women stand in relation to each other, rather than to men, which is often the case in feminist Mormon literature. Esther stands before Mary rather than beside her.
Significantly, before suggests a face to face positioning, as we see in Downing’s description of the Initiatory, as well as a leader/follower positioning, which accurately characterizes Mary’s relationship with her mother-in-law. Throughout her life, Mary notes, Esther was the one who guided her path, “who taught her how,” often in a hands-on/hearts-on way. It is fitting, therefore, that Downing concludes her story with Mary choosing to think about the Initiatory ordinance, as well as the relationship between mother and child, rather than experience the “nightmare” of watching “her friends jointly push, pull, and shove the woman she loves into position amenable to dressing a corpse” (273, 274). For Mary, the Initiatory and motherhood are moments of “undefiled intimacy” where women can be before each other in every sense of the word. In many ways, they are the antithesis of the reverential and respectful—but undeniably coercive—defiled intimacy being played out over the corpse of her mother-in-law.
Think I can convey that to a class of non-Mormon college Freshmen?
Hence my dilemma: “Judging Esther” is one of my favorite stories in Dispensation, but I’m not planning on including it on my syllabus in the spring. Yes, I think the story is teachable, but I worry that teaching it would ultimately prove unsatisfactory. As a teacher, I want to take my students as far into a text as they can go, and since “Judging Esther” is grounded in the concrete and Downing takes the time to teach the reader about the temple and its meaning within Mormon society, I don’t think students would struggle as much with the story as they would with, say, “Calling and Election.”
But, lacking experience with Mormonism and the temple, would they be able to delve deep enough into the story to make it worth their while? Would they be able to grasp the significance of the Initiatory ordinance enough for the story to resonate with them? Or would they only kind of get it the way I, a white Mormon suburbanite in the twenty-first century, only kind of get a novel like Invisible Man–or, for that matter, most of the other stories and novels we’ll be reading in the class?[4]  

[1] Someday I need to write a post about my love/hate relationship with Orson Scott Card and his writing style. 

[2] If not the best.

[3] With this in mind, it’s not altogether surprising that Downing named her characters Mary and Esther after prominent and powerful women in the Bible. 
[4] And let me complicate matters further: to what extent do I, as a Mormon man, hit my own wall of understanding as I read “Clothing Esther”?  

12 thoughts on “Teaching Dispensation: Finding Teachable Stories”

  1. What's wrong with only kind of getting it?

    I mean, I only kind of get the stories Dubliners because I don't fully understand the social and political structures and milieus of the Ireland of the early 20th century. Or to put it another way: should non-endowed LDS not read the story because of the risk of them not fully getting it?

    But separate form that, I'd suggest that so many young people aren't really exposed to or comfortable with death and dying that they will find the story both fascinating and challenging and that in of itself will lead to productive discussion and writing without even getting to the temple references.

  2. Not getting it is part of any reading experience, of course, and I'm not trying to suggest that readers can't fully appreciate something they don't completely understand. My frustrations, I guess, would be from the fact that I'd want the students to “get” more of it than their unfamiliarity with Mormonism would let them. But I'm not sure that's possible without being familiar with the significance of the ordinance and the relationships being presented. So, my concern is that they would take less from the story than they would likely gain.

    Of course, I could be wrong. I'd like to hear Lisa's thoughts on her feedback from non-member readers of her story.

    As readers, my student would probably be drawn in by the elements of death in the story, and possibly be intrigued by the mystery of the temple, even though the temple doesn't really come across in this story as mysterious. Still, I'm not sure if that's the direction I'd want the discussion about the story to go. I mean, it's not really a story about death, is it? And it's not really about the temple either, although the temple certainly adds meaning to the story.

  3. You mention in your comment, Scott, that you, as a teacher and as a Mormon, want your students to “get” more out of “Clothing Esther” than you think their limited experiences as students and as non-Mormons would allow them to “get.” This, along with some things you say in your post, reads to me like you're wanting your students to read the text in a single, pre-determined way, that you want them view the text's Mormonism on your terms. But such a one-take perspective on the reading experience seems like a limited view of the interpretive and the pedagogical process, one that does a disservice to the text, to your students, and to the potential relationship that could develop among each student, “Clothing Esther,” the other Mormon stories you'll be reading, and the other course material. If it fits within the course milieu (after all, don't the temple experience, its surrounds, and the relationships bound up and developed therein constitute a vital religious/spiritual landscape for Mormons?), why not put “Clothing Esther” on the docket and let your students approach it on their own terms? As Wm. asks, “What's wrong with [them] only kind of getting it?” To which I'll add, “Or even of getting it differently than you intend for or would like them to get it?” Isn't part of the beauty of interpretation and of teaching that everyone brings a different understanding to the table/classroom and that each individual perspective can add to collective understanding of and relationship with the text at hand?

    Of course, I could be misreading you entirely…

  4. I think you make an important critique of this post, Tyler, and you've given me a lot to think about. I certainly don't want to restrict my students's reading of a text or force-feed an interpretation and leave them with the impression that it's the only valid one that could be applied to the text. Nor do I want presume that I understand the story better than my students because I'm a Mormon and they are not. That's bad teaching, obviously, and the kind of approach to literature that usually turns people away and makes them want to study something like, say, Physics instead.

    In some ways, this post (and the other “Teaching Dispensation” posts that will follow) is all about me trying to figure out how to teach texts that I am culturally invested in to students who aren't. To what extend do I use my experience within the culture to guide their reading? To what extent do I let them guide themselves via their own cultural perspectives? These are questions that go with teaching any text, really, but because I am so much more invested in Mormon literature–both as a Mormon and a scholar–I want to do the job right.

    Maybe, then, this post is about my fear of failure. I don't know how students are going to respond to Mormon literature, and I don't know how I'm going to respond to them responding to Mormon literature, so I'm following instincts to play it safe, pick stories that don't risk confusion and misreading. In a sense, that's kind of a cowardly approach to teaching, but it's certainly something that's on my mind (hence the post). And since this is my first time teaching Mormon literature, part of thinks that the cautious, safe approach is not a bad one.

    Like I say in the post, though, I think Lisa does a good job teaching readers about temples and temple ordinances to the point that they would be able to “get” the story in one way or another, even if not in the same way as someone familiar with the ordinance. Admittedly, the more I get feedback from you guys, the more I want to try the story out, see what the students come up with, get out of it, etc. As a teacher, I've got to be okay with students reading texts differently than I do. A class discussion is a discussion, after all, and should involve many different points-of-view.

    My question, perhaps, should be: How would you teach “Clothing Esther”?

  5. I would teach “Clothing Esther” precisely the way you will teach every other story you choose. Speak objectively of the temple, just like you would objectively mention Zionism if teaching The Chosen. Your students are astute and I feel confident those who aren't texting throughout class will “get it.” (Though some may find it slow for their tastes.) After all, the story is not “about” the temple, but, to tell the story rightly, it needed to visit the temple, the initiatory, the concept of relationships that extend beyond the grave. Perhaps, instead of answering specific questions about what the Initiatory is, ask them to look at the language. Ask what feeling they think Mary has about the temple? How does the language in the passage you quote here convey that feeling? How does the language in this passage compare to other passages in the story? Or rather, what other passages in the story have the same feeling to them? And teach the syntax, the strange, almost halting syntax. Why that? Make them think. The answers aren't related to the temple, but yes, are related to the sacred. Who among us doesn't understand the sacred?

    My experience with non-LDS readers and this story has been only positive. No one seemed to suffer for not being LDS or to have missed meaning. I think the “additional” meaning the Mormon readers get that others don't is minimal. After all, the story isn't about the temple.

    And we don't need to protect the temple. We should celebrate it. If this story feels to you as if it is reverent, let that reverence find an audience outside Mormonism. Its precisely the kind of story (in my unbiased opinion) that has the potential to build literary bridges: It does not require the reader to believe in order to accept the belief–and value the belief–of its Mormon characters.

    Over on lisatorcassodowning.com, I'm trying to work up a conversation about writing and representing the sacred, including the temple in Mormon literary art. The posts are relatively short and, as of yet, few. I'm in the wind up phase, I guess. I'm afraid I'll have to fall back on “Clothing Esther” more than once, so check over there now and then if you have an interest.

    Of course, I'd love to hear that you chose “Clothing Esther” but I'll understand if you don't. Still, your course can provide us with great information about what a non-LDS audience will accept when exposed to deeply LDS literature. I do believe “Clothing Esther” is accessible. My master's thesis looked at Potok's approach–how he found a mainstream secular audience with material that was deeply religious–and I intentially incorporated much of what I learned from that study into “Clothing Esther.” Furthermore, I wrote CE while attending a non-LDS writing group, so its only initial audience were the kind of evangelical Christians who tend to be suspicious of Mormons. They convinced me they were moved by it. So, yes, I'm hoping you teach it and very curious to hear how it goes.

    Don't be surprised to see your words show up lisatorcasso.com. Great diving board for me. 🙂

  6. .

    Something I would be interested in is what sort of interreligious dialogue breaks out when discussing stories like Lisa's (or any of the others, for that matter).

  7. Thanks for your thoughts, Lisa. Since we're starting the course off with “The Scarlet Letter,” I don't think you need to worry about the students finding your story too slow. I imagine they'll prefer it to Hawthorne.

    I'm still on the fence about teaching CE, but everyone's comments have made me want to teach it more. I am reassured to hear that your non-Mormon readers have been moved by it and have not found its use of the temple too inaccessible. Like Theric, I'm becoming interested in seeing what kind of “interreligious dialogue” breaks out during a discussion of your story and the others I'll be teaching.

    I think it's interesting that you bring objectivity into the discussion because I think part of what inspired this post is my own anxiety about how to handle something objectively that I usually handle quite subjectively–both in my personal life and my academic life. I mean, I'm invested in both Mormonism and Mormon Literature in ways that I am not invested in, say, Muslim-American literature. I'm interested to see how I end up dealing with/expressing/incorporating/stifling my own cultural investments.

  8. I understand, Scott. But as I said, IMO, you needn't say more about the temple than you do at any other time when speaking to non-members. I really don't think students will focus on the temple since the story is not about the temple or garments. Who reads books about the Hasidic and get hung up on the earlocks? The gamrent, for instance, is simply something I use to make the characters “other” enough to engage an audience in another story centering family and grief.

    When I wrote CE, I knew it would go out into the LDS world, but I didn't write it for Mormons. I wrote it, very intentionally, for the non-LDS. I could only hope it eventually got there, so yes, I'm deeply interested in hearing how students respond. I'll come to the AML conference when you write it up. 🙂 (A girl can dream….) Someday, though, I hope someone will take it on.

    Thank you for considering it and for writing such nice things on your blog about it.

  9. Two thoughts:

    1) The ghazal is a poetic form that makes meaning largely by manipulating complex stock symbolic sets to speak to cultural concerns that are a bit distant from the everyday consciousness of a modern American reader. I assigned my creative writing students to read three or four ghazals and spent about 15 minutes of class time on them. Some people glossed over them, some were intrigued but had no idea how to read them, and one student got so interested he went and studied ghazals on his own and started writing ones that channeled the combination of suffering and swagger I so admire in Ghalib. Sometimes teaching is just sparking: why not expose them to something that might spark?

    2) I would talk directly about how Mormons don't talk directly about the inside of the temple. That in and of itself is an important discussion to have in American religious landscapes. How does a quietness or indirectness serve an ideal of the sacred? How does Mormon reticence to talk about the temple compare with some Native American ideas about certain stories or places being restricted to certain times or ritual contexts? And how does a Mormon-American writer reconcile American traditions of free speech and full disclosure with Mormon traditions of silence around the most sacred?

    All I'd tell students about the temple–and I'd do this before they read–is that it's a sacred site where you can't even carry a cell phone, where words are spoken and stories told that can only be told right in that place and context. And I'd say: watch how Lisa dances around the temple, which is the unspoken center of the world in Mormon thought.

    Yeah…describing it that way, I'd definitely invoke Native American thought. Students should be able to access the idea of the sacred through brown faces. We Americans have just exoticized it away from the rational, productive world of the once-white, now “post-racial,” developed, democratic “West.”

  10. And let me complicate matters further: to what extent do I, as a Mormon man, hit my own wall of understanding as I read “Clothing Esther”?

    For a moment while reading your description I forgot you were a fellow, for what it's worth. That isn't to say you nailed it from a woman's perspective, of course, but I was moved by the story itself when I first read it and I was also moved by the discussion of it here. (I'm Mormon, so that doesn't really help regarding your present anxiety.)

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