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Miller, "Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology" (reviewed by Harlow Clark) Options · View
Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 1:33:41 AM

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Title: Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology
Author: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Theology / Philosophy / Religion
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 132
Binding: Trade paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-193-7
Price: $18.95

Reviewed by Harlow Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

"The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; [his] learning instructs, and [his] subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased."

Samuel Johnson's assessment of the metaphysical poets from his life of Cowley is one of my favorite quotes. I want to use it as a cover blurb for my first book of essays. It's not only a good description of my own practice of ransacking art and nature for examples, but is a pretty good prophecy of the literary landscape 250 years after Johnson. Thanks to metaphysical descendants like Pound, Eliot and Joyce, even people who never got past "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan, having been born of goodly parents, they took him for a birthday ride a long the river run past Eve and Adam's to buy a nicens moocow" know where to find the stream of consciousness.

I read a more modern version of Dr. Johnson's complaint 20 or 30 years ago in a review of a book of Rube Goldberg's cartoons. The reviewer allowed as how Goldberg was talented, but tiresome at times, and while his devices were clever and funny they were often overly complicated and didn't really merit serious attention for the most part.

Or maybe the reviewer was just stating a minor reservation, but if someone says, "This piece of legislation is a Rube Goldberg device," we know it's not a compliment. When I was reading Adam S. Miller's "Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology" in the dentist's office the office manager asked what it was about. "Mormon theology." "Pro or anti?" she asked.

That was also my first reaction when I saw the title, but where she probably meant pro or anti-Mormon, I wondered if it might be a critique of Mormon philosophers and their failings, something akin to John Gardner's "On Moral Fiction."

So it was refreshing to see this sentence from James Faulconer's blurb, "Successful Rube Goldberg Machines do ordinary work, but they do it in complicated, funny, beautiful ways."

And like the metaphysical poets, Goldberg's devices witness that even simple things are part of a great complex of connections and examples, and if we had to create machines to do things we consider very simple they might not be so simple. Consider Miller's description of theology:

"But there is a kind of joy in theology’s gratuity, there is a pleasure in its comedic machination, and ultimately—if the balloon pops, the hamster spins, the chain pulls, the bucket empties, the pulley lifts, and (voila!) the book’s page is turned—some measurable kind of work is accomplished. But this work is a byproduct. The beauty of the machine, like all beauty, is for its own sake" (xiii).

Gratuity, grace, grace notes. After a short "Benedictus" Miller gives us 118 "Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement" introducing themes that come up over and over, particularly the theme of givenness, of receiving. I have spent almost 9 years of Sundays clerking for the branch president over at the care center across State St. from our stake center, about half those years also teaching Sunday School every other week. The surrounding wards and stakes take turns sending us speakers and deacons and priests and musical numbers.

A member of the branch presidency walks around with each deacon, one in the congregation, another room to room. Those whose hamsters can't spin quite fast enough to lift hand to mouth, he feeds. "If I'm asleep you wake me. I have to take the sacrament," one resident told my first branch president (whose funeral started my year).

Yesterday the main speaker, Bro. Sellers, said, "When I was 10 years old I had the opportunity to speak in church, and I prepared a talk and the girl who spoke before me gave my talk. I was 10 years old. I didn't know what to do. I looked at my mom and she said, 'Just say thank you and sit down.' That happened to me, so thank you, sisters," he said to the youth speakers.

Then he talked about the phrase "receive the Holy Ghost." "Four important words," he said. "It's not passive. It doesn't just happen because they place hands on our head. We have to receive the Holy Ghost."

Miller's grace notes end the same way. Receiving the given, the mundane, the ordinary is a gift we can give the giver. Both gift and receipt are acts of grace, and he goes on from that beginning to explore different aspects of givenness and grace and the mundane. Some of the essays, particularly "The Gospel as Earthen Vessel," are fairly abstract and technical, but they are worth wading through, and if you feel "a bear of very little brain" while reading them, keep in mind that the book proclaimed itself a rube first, and sees no shame in anyone else being a rube. (Aye, there's the rube!)

I found "A Manifesto for Mormon Theology" particularly moving in its declaration that doing theology is an act of charity. Miller expands on this in the last third of the book, talking about the weakness of the word, the word proclaimed without argument, but nonetheless able to deliver Ether and others who follow him in time but precede him in narrative from prison.

And just as each chapter works as a Rube Goldberg device, moving from the elaborate to the simple, so does the book, beginning with a hamster turning a page, and ending with a word on the page, and a reader reading the word, and another reader reading over the shoulder.

What you are reading, and who is reading with you, I'll leave you to discover. It's easy. Just plant this seed and watch it grow into a tree. Watch the squirrel pick the nut and toss it to another squirrel. Watch the nut pop the balloon in passing, and the hamster run in the hamster run past Eve and Adam's from swerve of shore to bend of page.
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