Rereading “Prophets and Assimilationists”

This is possibly the first in a series of posts that respond to and reevaluate essays in Orson Scott Card’s A Storyteler in Zion: Essays and Speeches. 

Shortly after I returned home from my mission, I purchased a copy of Orson Scott Card’s A Storyteller in Zion: Essays and Speeches at the BYU-Idaho bookstore. I was already semi-familiar with Card’s work from reading Saints and Folk of the Fringe before my mission, and, because I wanted to write fiction, Storyteller seemed like the go-to text for learning how to write fiction as a Mormon. I must not have read much of the book, though, because most of the essays in the table of contents seem new to me today. Was “Walking the Tightrope” really in there before?

The exceptions are Card’s essays “The Problem of Evil in Fiction,” which was fundamental in my early education in creative writing as a Mormon, and “Prophets and Assimilationists,” which resonated a great deal with me as a recently returned missionary. Specifically, I was impressed by Card’s unequivocal condemnation of those who chose the “World” and its standards over the “Church” and its standards. Also, his denunciation—practically an exposé, it seemed—of contemporary American literature and critical theory rang true. For me, Card wrote as a real Mormon iconoclast. When he asserted that “the true revolutionaries within the Church are those who are radically orthodox, not those who are loudly assimilationist,” I was ready to take up the cause and follow him (155).

Rereading the essay more than a decade later, I am still impressed by Card’s passionate defense of radical orthodoxy, but I don’t feel the same fervor to second his opinions about Mormon assimilation as I once did. I see now, after all, that “Prophets and Assimilationists” is less a carefully-crafted essay than a rather anecdotal response to what we might call Free-Press Mormonism, making the essay something of a forerunner to the twenty-first-century Mormon blog post. As such, it relies more on emotional reaction than solid reasoning. It is an essay of and for a particular moment and nuance seems to have been the price Card paid for the moral urgency of his tone. Furthermore, it is grounded on a number of assumptions that seem weak or inaccurate. For example, Card posits a clean line between those who follow the counsel of prophets and apostles and those who seek, as he puts it, “to change gospel ideals and customs until it is possible to be a ‘Mormon’ without ever having to go through the embarrassment of being different from the non-Mormons they admire” (153). For Card, people seem to fall into one or the other camp based on their spoken or unspoken desires, with apparently no middle ground. It is simply either Church or the World.

In framing life this way, Card is particularly interested in artists and intellectuals and their relationship to the Church—because, he feels, these groups too often fall prey to the lies of worldly ideas and aesthetics. Among the most guilty in this respect are creative writers and other literary-minded people, whose dabbling in postmodern theory—Card specifically calls out deconstructionism—are an affront to the simplicity of revealed truth. Indeed, during a long section in the middle of the essay, during which Card tries to explain why a monolithic “academic-literary establishment” has rejected science fiction, his criticisms of postmodern fiction and critical theory almost adopts the tone of a conspiracy theory:

The academic-literary establishment teaches students to value only those stories that must be carefully explicated and decoded by those ordained to the high priesthood of literature. They have persuaded most Americans that any story that does not require their mediation is trash.

All the arguments and conflicts within the academic-literary establishment are simply efforts to rise higher within their hierarchy. For instance, all the obfuscation of the deconstructionists can be boiled down to a few clear concepts; but by masking their ideas in a daunting, untranslatable, circular, self-referential vocabulary, the deconstructionists have been able to pose an even higher priesthood—Gnostics who pretend to know a Mystery, which gives them power over those who don’t know the proper incantations. It is a mass of confusion, designed not to be understood.

I looked at the critical theories of the academic-literary establishment and realized that, with a few exceptions, they were worthless, good only for decoding a certain narrow group of stories. Their theories were incompetent to explain the workings of most of the stories throughout all ages of the world—so they dismissed those stories as not worth reading.

Of course, all of this is rather vague—and, for aspiring scholars who respect Card’s authoritative voice, it is dangerously so. As one who formerly shied away from critical theory, partly because I bought into conspiratorial attitudes like those above, I can only say that Card’s views on the academy and its theories, as articulated in this essay, misrepresent the worth of these institutions and schools of thought to Mormon scholars who aspire to studies in the humanities or social sciences. Card, in a sense, acts as the xenophobe who, fearing that his children will become “tainted” by playing with the other kids in the neighborhood, feeds them lies and half-truths about their neighbors, prejudicing them against what he can only see as a potential threat. Rather than teaching them how to engage and interacts with Others, he scares them away from the possibility, denouncing anything the Other has to offer as “worthless.”

I’m probably casting Card in an unfair light—something that seems to happen a lot to the always-outspoken Card, especially within the last decade. In essence, Card’s basic argument—that Mormon artists need to stop privileging artistic fads and find their own aesthetic, informed by their own values—is something I can largely buy into. What troubles me about the essay, though, is its anti-intellectualism—its apparent suggestion that what the world has to teach you lately about art is “worthless.” Granted, Card’s use of the word “world” seems to be shorthand for “only that part of the world that is a wicked influence on the inhabitants of Zion,” but that is never spelled out—or when it is, it is spelled out with an inaccurate and unfair caricature of the academy and critical theory. Consequently, things of value for Zion or the Church that come through strategic assimilation with the modern world get bulldozed over.

(Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Card associates Mormon/Zion values with the populist and humanizing aesthetic of science fiction, which he ties to older storytelling traditions, like myth and legend. Realism, on the other hand, along with fiction with a “flamboyant and distracting style,” gets lumps with the World and its dehumanizing values.)

Perhaps it is possible that art and artists can develop within a vacuum, but I imagine that their development will eventually plateau without exposure to new ideas and practices. Card would likely agree with this notion, yet the rhetoric in “Prophets and Assimilationists” suggests the opposite—that Mormon artists, specifically, are better off if they look with suspicion, rather than curiosity, on anything new or different that the World has to offer. Forget experimenting on the word of critical theory to discover its offering of truth. It’s a game for academics—and it’s all worthless.

In my mind, the shortcoming of “Prophets and Assimilationists” is its failure to acknowledge a need for balance in our interconnected allegiances to the Church and the world, broadly defined. For me, learning to discern between the truly good and the truly bad is key to finding this balance. Sadly, Card’s essay lacks an evident trust in the Mormon people’s ability to discern and choose the right. Proper discerning, after all, requires the ability to read a situation (or text) and understand and process it in light of its context. This is no safe and easy skill, even for artists and intellectuals, since gaining experience with discernment requires that we open ourselves up to new challenges and ambiguities that could threaten to upset the balance.

In many ways, the situation Card describes in “Prophets and Assimilation” has only intensified in the last quarter-century as the information age has facilitated assimilation and created more critical space. This has, in turn, fostered a climate where it is much easier to find oneself (and/or lose oneself) in a “war of words and tumult of opinions” that makes staying balanced so difficult. The emotional response to such a development is often to draw a line in the dirt and demand that everyone choose a side and ignore the others. A better response from all of us, however, might be to drop the extreme logic and rhetoric of Card’s essay and emphasize the role of charity in discernment, cultivating a compassionate approach to all interactions and engagements in and out of the Church. Rather than focusing on how a vaguely-defined “World” can harm us, that is, focus instead on the good it has to offer—how it can enrich our lives and inform our beliefs and values. This is a riskier approach, admittedly, but I think it is one that can make better people and stronger Latter-day Saints.

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9 thoughts on “Rereading “Prophets and Assimilationists””

  1. In hindsight we should have seen OSC’s turn to the right politically as inevitable rather than a surprise.

    The thing with being afraid of being tainted by the world is that contamination is impossible to avoid. And if not challenged, it intertwines too closely with ones personal worldview, which then changes how one looks at the gospel (or more often: how one looks at the things about the church and/or its members and/or its leaders that you don’t like). This, to me, is why family, church service/worship and art are all incredibly important. They create spaces/experiences/relationships that are either less contaminated by the philosophies and desires of mortality or are can more productively process them — things that are not fully cut off from the world but are more resistant to the corrupting aspects of it. But they also cannot be static, inert things (which is why drawing a line doesn’t work). Line upon line and precept upon precept and all that, but all that is always in relation to what’s going on around us (the the need for continuous revelation — and: new art).

    1. I agree completely with what you say here–and I think the news of this week is raising all sorts of new questions–or, more likely, old questions rephrased–about the space between “Zion” and the “World” or “prophets” and “assimilation.”

      I think artists generally assign great value to the freedom of expression, so they tend to be prone to resist any counsel that restricts that freedom even slightly. At the recent AML conference, there was talk about how best to push boundaries–meaning, in one sense, how best to get away from a tradition of self-censorship as a means for achieving a broader Mormon readership. This could be the wrong way to think about artistic production in a Mormon context, because it fosters a kind of us/them mentality that, in many ways, runs counter to Mormonism’s Zion ideal. I think the truly revolutionary Mormon artists will be the ones who figure out how to express themselves fully without dividing the body of Christ, so to speak. Nephi Anderson provides a model of this kind of artistic production in Added Upon…and I think that will be the subject of a future post.

  2. Thank you, Scott, for defending realism in Mormon fiction, as well as fiction with a “flamboyant and distracting style.” I think Card too narrowly defines what “works” in fiction here. Some authors with a deceptively simple, straightforward style often write great literature, true. Others, whose styles lean toward obfuscation (often intentionally) or, even if clear, write sentences rife with levels of meaning, do make the reader work a little more, but they also produce structures that have rooms yet to be discovered upon rereading. The struggle between the two extremes has been one of my wrestles over the years in my own writing. Anyway, I just think it’s unfair to say that there’s one preferred way to write a work of fiction.

    1. Yeah, I think Card mostly sounds off against realistic fiction because his own genre of choice–science fiction–was not being taken seriously by the academy in the late 1980s. Still, I don’t see why realistic or flamboyant fiction has to become Satan’s tool. It seems to me that both Card (ca. 1989) and his science fiction-hating professors need to keep an open mind about the value in literatures they generally don’t read.

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