Mormon Shakespeare’s and Miltons

December 11, 2003 | 23 comments

The mysterious Metaphysical Elders (not to be confused with these guys) also discuss the perennial favorite: why aren’t their more Mormon geniuses, if the gift of the Holy Ghost is really on us? See here, and here, and here.

They cite this essay. Good essay. It is, how shall I say, a good essay.

I have much to say on this topic, and there is much more than I can say, but I am pressed for time (And therein lies part of the tale). So I will favor us with a single observation:

I think Mormons for too long have had a narrow conception of Art. We live in times that themselves have a very narrow view (Art is about challenging authority and asking questions) and we have adopted a view in response: Art is about affirming our authoritative beliefs and answering the questions.

I think its truer (although Heaven knows my understanding of aesthetics is still threadbare) to say that Art functions much like the Spirit does in D&C 50:21-25 : whereas ordinary communication can normally only give a remote and outlined access to experience, truth, and beauty, the Spirit adds the thing itself to the conversation. Art, to a lesser degree, does the same.

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23 Responses to Mormon Shakespeare’s and Miltons

  1. dp on December 11, 2003 at 5:05 pm

    I think Adam hit the nail on the head when he said “but I am pressed for time (And therein lies part of the tale).”

    The greatest inventors, artists, and genuises, in many instances only reach their heights of excellence because they devote their life to their talents. Many of them have a religious zeal about their pursuit. As such, the life led by many of these high achievers might be considered to be incompatible with that of an active Latter-Day Saint.

    In many instances, artists simply cannot provide for their families sufficiently, necessitating a full-time job unrelated to their talents. This part-time pursuit of artistic excellence must then be balanced with Home Teaching, Family Home Evening, magnifying their callings, etc.

    I see that these thoughts are echoed in the Dialogue essay linked to above, and though I could comment further, I think it has been better said already in that essay.

  2. Nate on December 11, 2003 at 5:15 pm

    Adam: I actually was not terribly impressed with the Dialogue essay. Don’t get me wrong. I hits on some good points, I thought that it was well written, and I like the tone. The problem is that as near as I can tell every idea that it put forward has been recycled for at least the last 15 years and probably more like the last 20 years. This doesn’t mean that the ideas are wrong, or even that it isn’t worth repeating them. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to long for something more.

    I think that the Scientist over at Metaphysical Elders is on to a more fruitful line of inquiry, namely are their theoligical and intellectual (as opposed to merely social) reasons that Mormons are more at home in some fields rather than others. Another way of looking at the issue might be to ask the question of what areas, given our theology, thought, and history, are we most likely to make important contributions to.

  3. clark on December 11, 2003 at 5:22 pm

    I’ve always thought most geniuses were unwarranted b*st*rds. Even one of my heroes, Richard Feynman, would attempt to sleep with his friends wives and had a few antisocial aspects to his personality. The only real “great” genius I can think of is Gauss. (As I recall no one had done his temple work so I submitted it and did it — I don’t recall how I managed it)

    Anyway, I’m of the opinion that to be the kind of genius some are looking for you are borderline insane in certain ways or at least very anti-social. It tends to take a personality that is hard to reconcile with the gospel.

    That’s not to say Mormons can’t be good scientists, philosophers or whatever. But I suspect the active ones will be stuck at the second tier at best.

    Of course some might disagree with my cynicism.

  4. brayden on December 11, 2003 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks for pointing me to the Rector essay. I believe it has a very clear answer to the question you pose: 1) time, 2) lack of unconventionality, 3) dogmatism, and 4)ineffective use of the Holy Ghost. All excellent points.

    I love the point made by Pulitzer-prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulhrich when discussing her experience with religion and the rigors of academic life. She says: The price [I pay] is in being mistrusted in some LDS settings and circumstances. But I think there is real strength in “not fitting in.”

    Academics, by nature, are a little different than the rest of the crowd. We are trained to be different. Creativity is rewarded and skepticism is highly regarded. Those are two things that, at least in the intellectual sense, are not as valued in Mormon culture.

  5. Nate on December 11, 2003 at 6:09 pm


    You will forgive me if I am a little bit skeptical about the claim that academia uniquely rewards creativity. It seems that those who differ from prevailing methodological or theoretical norms within their disciplines tend to be sanctioned as “unprofessional.” This may all be for the best, since most deviations probably represent schlock. On the other hand, it is not true that vocations such as law or business are the imagined realms of lock-step conformity that dance through the heated imaginations of academics. (Although, to be sure, there is a great deal of conformity.) Imaginative entrepreuners are frequently rewarded, and one might even argue that the incentives in the business world, particularlly the bits of it not governed by de facto tenure arragments, are even better set up to foster creativity. Of course, it may not be creativity of the kind that academics care about…

  6. brayden on December 11, 2003 at 6:34 pm

    Perhaps you’re right Nate. I’m not so sure that both academics and businesspeople can’t be creative, just in different ways. In academia there is a very keen selection mechanism – publications. To take a very idealistic view of the academic world, to achieve a high-level of success one must first generate an idea that is recognized as being distinct and new and then successfully see that idea develop into fruition. The competition among academics promotes creative efforts, at least early in the career. Now of course, the same could be said of entrepreneurialism. A successful business must develop its own niche in order to stay afloat. However, is that the kind of genius we are talking about? I don’t think so; a lot of Mormons are successful in business, but I’m not sure we would say they are examples of genius in the same sense that the Rectors or Adam intend.

    Now, given that I was discussing the idealistic version of academia, let me come back to earth. Most academic writing is fairly bland and tends to propagate past findings and theories rather than expanding and truly engaging in creative thinking. In that sense, all academics are really standing on the shoulders of giants. But does that mean there are no geniuses among them? Obviously not. The genius is the person who is able to build upon past research/thinking in a way that expands the paradigm or, in rarer cases, even causes people to question the paradigm. Mormons are not well known for doing this.

    Let me suggest one more thing – perhaps the reason there are fewer Mormon “geniuses” out there is because there are simply fewer Mormons in general. It could just be that our population is still smaller in proportion to other religious groups. If this is the case, we would expect to see more Mormon geniuses over time as our population increases.

  7. Jeremiah John on December 11, 2003 at 6:50 pm

    While right now the time-strain of family and church callings feels real to me, I don’t buy it as an excuse for the community as a whole. We can have a Steve Young who works every fall Sunday and waits to have his family until after he’s got his Super Bowl ring and MVP award, but all our artists, scholars and writers need to give their kids baths and do their home teaching. I don’t want to judge Steve Young or necessarily say we should be missing church for our intellectual pursuits, but it’s a matter of priorities. Do we as a community feel as proud to hear about a Mormon Pulizer winner as we do to see a Mormon NFL player? I don’t think so. We may not be much worse than Americans generally on this issue, but we should be because we believe that the glory of God is intelligence.

    My parents and in-laws may be proud that their son (/in-law) is trying to become a scholar, but the other Mormons in my family generally feel the need to ask: so when are you going to have a job? Or more positively: wow, a college professor, that’s probably nicer pay than a K-12 teacher.

  8. Nate on December 11, 2003 at 7:15 pm

    I am sympathetic to the sorts of points that are being made here. However, I am also just a bit skeptical. The reason is that these discussions end up looking very much like a lot of intellectuals complaining about how intellectuals are not properly appreciated. I can’t help but think that when we (and I count myself as a Mormon intellectual of some sort) talk this way, at bottom there isn’t some belief that goes something like this:

    “These people don’t sufficiently value and praise me! There must be something wrong with them…”

  9. cooper on December 11, 2003 at 7:19 pm

    Genius is relative. I simply have a non-award, non-public accolade type of genius. I think we all do. Academia measures genius through the use of standardized tests and formulas. Everyone will agree (possibly) that tests do not tell the whole story.

    Maybe the question we should ask is where is the value added Mormon? Many LDS people have contributed immensely to the world population as a whole. Maybe not so significantly as a Pulitzer, but still significant in humanitarian measurement.

    When we begin to value people by the outward accomplishment, we devalue their true contribution to society as a whole. I would hope that someday we could measure a professors worth higher than a “gate draw” football player. Also, a nurses contribution to the healing arts, or the social worker, or the aide, or the special ed relief worker and not just the doctor for his contribution. We have all laughed at the comment ” Want fries with that?? or paper or plastic? As you can see, each has conributes to make society better (I don’t want to bag my own groceries!) and value cannot always be measured in money or awards or academia.

  10. cooper on December 11, 2003 at 7:30 pm

    One other thought. Both Milton and Shakespeare were dead before they became valued!

  11. brayden on December 11, 2003 at 10:27 pm

    I hope I didn’t sound whiney about this. I have no room to complain. I love my job and do not expect any kind of external recognition or award. I’ll settle for a few good publications and maybe a couple of ah-ha looks from my students.

    One of my professors once said something like, The problem with the Church mentality is that we’re all so darn special that no one is! My translation: sure, we all have talents, but some have very special talents. We should appreciate those special gifts that God gives us and hope that everyone can develop them appropriately.

    Geniuses tend to be people who have utilized their talent so uniquely that they end up changing society significantly (that’s not a sociological definition of genius; it’s just my own). Given that definition (take it or leave it), my guess is that a lot of special people go unnoticed because either 1) they never really put their talents to use in the right way or 2) society simply wasn’t ready at that time to embrace their vision or innovation. It’s for reason #2 that we see so many geniuses go unrecognized until after death.

    I think this discussion originally started off with the idea that people in the Church often fail to get past problem #1. Perhaps that’s a true problem. Or….perhaps there some of #2 going on too. Only time will tell with that one.

    I hope I didn’t get the discussion off track too much with my earlier rant on academia.

  12. Jeremiah John on December 12, 2003 at 2:42 am

    This discussion was originally about why our community does not produce as many intellectually exceptional people as it should. My point was that much of it has to do with the way we look at intellecual achievement in general, as well as vocations and insitutions which try to produce this kind of achievement. I’m not talking about standardized test scores, PhDs, tenure track jobs at famous universities, or number of publications. I’m talking about truly exceptional achievements and the kinds of environment from which they emerge. Of course I am not one of those exceptional talents that somehow has yet to be recognized, but I am part of one intellectual environment–university teaching and academic scholarship–from which these kinds of people often, but not always, emerge.

    This argument is not made worse by the fact that I made it and it may benefit me. You may question my motives, but that is an attack on me and does not address the argument. I may be indeed be embarassed to be an “intellectual” criticizing anti-intellectualism, because it may seem to be prideful and self-assertive. Then again maybe this is the whole problem; maybe we as Mormons shouldn’t care about something as prideful as hoping to be or to produce a Milton or a Thomas Aquinas (or more modestly: even an Annie Dillard or an Orson Scott Card?). I can entertain that argument, but the basic premise of this post seems to imply otherwise.

    There is no doubt that we should beware of pride. Pride tempts us even more when we begin to think we are free from it. It usually feels less prideful for me to say I want to be a scholar because I get summers to spend more time with my family, because it often comes with nice job security, or because I find it fun, than to say that I chose it in large part because I value learning for its own sake. But when I think about it I’m not so sure.

  13. Logan on December 12, 2003 at 10:25 am

    As a budding businessman, I want to chime in and stick up for creativity in business. Certainly not everyone in business could be considered a genius, but some could. What about Bill Gates, or maybe Jack Welch or Warren Buffett? Were they members of the church, they could probably come close to fitting into our perception of “genius.” Also, people such as Huntsman or Marriott have probably risen as high in their own field as most any Mormons have.

    So, maybe it’s not exactly the same thing as academic genius, but it takes a certain brilliance to rise to the pinncale of the business world. I for one would be very proud to claim as one of our own a world-changing businessman.

  14. Nate on December 12, 2003 at 11:18 am

    Jeremy: Sorry if my post came off as sounding too ad hominem. I was just trying to figure out what these sorts of discussions make me a little uncomfortable. That’s all…

  15. Jeremiah John on December 12, 2003 at 1:57 pm

    Nate: No problem. These discussions make me comfortable as well, because I am trying to stick up for something of which I am a part. But if I accept for the sake of argument the idea that intellectual achievement is important for our community, then I am led to the conclusion that university life and establishment scholarship has a special importance to the community. Being a professional scholar is not essential to the kingdom, to be sure, but it’s not just another career choice. The same goes for people who make intellectual contributions outside of their primary careers–this is not just another pasttime from the perspective of the community.

  16. Jeremiah John on December 12, 2003 at 1:58 pm

    Nate: “These discussions make me UNcomfortable”, I meant to say!

  17. clark on December 12, 2003 at 3:34 pm

    Business men certainly can be geniuses. I’m not sure I’d count Bill Gates among them. He’s a great businessman, helped enormously by the influence of his parents. But realistically the success of Microsoft had a lot to do with the amazing incompetence of their competitors in the early 90′s along with rather ruthless business decisions by Microsoft. (Largely considered of questionable ethics)

    Now if you spoke of a Alexander Graham Bell or many others, I’d consider them geniuses. And with Bell I definitely think that more a business genius than scientific. (Which isn’t to discount his scientific abilities)

    Business genius is often akin to military genius in many ways. And of course that genius may well entail the ruthlessness that I think Gates showed. But I also think discerning genius in business is much harder. Howard Hugh’s I’d give the genius award to whole heartedly. (Although he also exhibits my point about questionable stability among geniuses)

  18. clark on December 12, 2003 at 3:39 pm

    Regarding scholarship just being an other career choice. I strongly disagree. What has had more impact on ethics *as practiced*? Religion or engineering? I’d argue the latter. It enabled people to have the security to live the golden rule. (Whether that is as much of a test in the LDS sense is a different matter)

    What has helped more people? A few being nice? Or improved methods of food production, storage, and transportation? In a way, has anyone in history affected more people for the good than Isaac Newton? Think about the huge implications of the laws of mechanics in every facet of life.

    Of course Newton was a bit of a nutball and anything but a nice person. But he gave more people a better life over the next 300 years than I think we can possibly imagine.

    So I don’t think scholarship can’t be discounted. I think though that the true progress comes from those nearly mad and often fairly anti-social. I remain convinced that the line between genius and madness is fairly narrow. Few people I’d consider geniuses (of any stripe) are people I’d consider ideal in an LDS judgment.

  19. Adam Greenwood on December 16, 2003 at 6:43 pm

    As for the argument that geniuses must be mad, I offer you a counter-example: me.

    Second, as for the different value given to Mormon artists and thinkers as opposed to Mormon athletes, Jeremy might be on to something. All that really tells us, however, is that most Mormons are like most Americans–they don’t have the inclination for intellectual achievement. And even so, I bet if one of us won the Nobel prize for something or other you sure would hear about it in class, esp. if we gave accessible firesides like Steve Young.

    Now, forgive my unbelief y’all, but I’ve never been all that impressed with Steve Young. He skipped out on a mission so he good be a better college qb. He was a good college qb so he could be in the NFL. Being in the NFL meant postponing marriage and other forms of service, not to mention playing on Sunday, but that’s OK, because being in the NFL means you get to . . . be on Fox’s NFL Sunday. Wow! That’s sure rolling forth the Kingdom.

    Nope, Eli Herring’s the man for me.

  20. Adam Greenwood on December 16, 2003 at 10:57 pm

    This is an article that backs up my point that secular arts have also been narrowed. I did think it odd, though, that the author’s solution was to have more “conservative” art to balance out the PC art. Gaa! I’m not saying that art must be political, but it can be so much more than political.

  21. Matt Evans on January 5, 2004 at 11:59 pm

    It’s been intimated in earlier comments, but regarding the exact standard posed by the thread title, all of America has yet to produce a Shakespeare or Milton, too.

    And while this doesn’t answer the larger question of why there aren’t more Mormon geniuses, Harold Bloom’s gushing views of Joseph Smith show that Mormonism has produced at least one to rival Shakespeare and Milton:

    “I myself can think of not another American, except for Emerson and Whitman, who so moves and alters my own imagination. For someone who is not a Mormon, what matters most about Josesph Smith is how American both the man and the religion have proved to be. So self-created was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and takes his place with the great figures of our fiction, since at moments he appears larger than life, in the mode of a Shakespeare character. So rich and varied a personality, so vital a spark of divinity, is almost beyond the limits of the human, as normally we construe those limits. To one who does not believe in him, but who has studied him intensely, Smith becomes almost a mythology in himself.” – Harold Bloom, The American Religion, p. 127

  22. brayden on January 6, 2004 at 12:14 am

    Bloom also adores Cormac McCarthy, who I see as one of the greatest American authors – rivaling Twain, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. Sorry but I couldn’t resist inserting my own literary bias in the discussion.

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