Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

The Thirteenth Article of Faith as a Standard for Literature

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

The Thirteenth Article of Faith as a Standard for Literature

Article excerpt

In 1842, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, outlining "the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-day Saints."1 That letter concluded with thirteen "Articles of Faith" that were later published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons. In a general conference of the Church in Salt Lake City in 1880, these articles of faith were canonized as scripture for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Written in words drawn from Philippians 4:8, the last sentence of the thirteenth article of faith reads, "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."2 For Latter-day Saints, the question of what to read and what not to read is very important. We live in a world that is flooded with information. It comes to us as text messages, blogs, magazine and journal articles, email, internet posts, and books of all kinds. Navigating this flood is difficult given its volume alone. To this issue of quantity, adding questions of quality-what we should or should not read for our own best health-makes matters ever more difficult. When it comes to judging the literature we read-novels, stories, poems, and so forth-I propose that the thirteenth article of faith is the best standard available to us, a standard that can readily anchor principles of literary quality in reason, scripture, and doctrine.

David J. Whittaker, writing in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, addresses the thirteenth article of faith: "The final declaration provides a broad perspective for life and an invitation to the LDS approach to life."3 I would like to state in the same spirit, one of a "broad perspective." The analysis that follows relies on straightforward dictionary definitions of significant terms, mostly taken from Webster's first edition dictionary of 1828 (American Dictionary of the English Language) with some definitions augmented by the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. The thirteenth article of faith, when applied to the judgment of literature, may just surprise us with its liberality if we strip away our cultural amplifications and simply look at what the words themselves say. In fact, I believe that the thirteenth article of faith may be a most valuable aid in helping us avoid the Book of Mormon sin of "looking beyond the mark" ( Jacob 4:14).

The last sentence of the thirteenth article of faith begins: "If there is anything virtuous . . ." The primary definition of virtue in Webster's 1828 dictionary is strength.4 Thus, to be virtuous is to be strong. Other connotations include "bravery," "moral goodness," "excellence," "efficacy," and "chastity." The English word virtue comes from a Latin word meaning manliness or excellence, from vir, meaning man. The word virtuous also means good or excellent, as in the related words virtuosity and virtuoso. The work of a virtuoso exhibits "masterly ability, technique, or personal style."5 What kind of literary work would be considered strong or brave? A work that exerts persuasive force, that is tough, courageous, and uncompromising in its argument. Such a work would not be a milquetoast effort to reaffirm a reader's worldview. Such a work wouldn't comfort the reader with the familiar. Think about the works you've read that were bold or challenging, that moved you to considering new perspectives. Such works are virtuous.

What about a morally excellent work of literature? A primary definition of moral includes the statement: "Concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character."6 Think of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Arthur Miller, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie. Think of Levi Peterson or Eric Samuelson. A novel that examines "the goodness or badness of human action and character" has to depict both. If that novel is morally excellent, it has to depict both very well. By contrast, a novel cleaned up and dressed in its church clothes, prepared for success in the commercial Mormon bookstore, closes its eyes to the "badness of human action or character. …

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