Reader-Response Criticism and the Latter-day Saint Conversion Experience

Nathan N. Waite, “Reader-Response Criticism and the Latter-day Saint Conversion Experience,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 215–224.

Reader-Response Criticism and the Latter-day Saint Conversion Experience

Nathan N. Waite

In C. S. Lewis’s classic The Silver Chair, two British children, Jill and Eustace, together with a Narnian marshwiggle, Puddleglum, venture into Underland in search of good Prince Rilian. When they find him, they free him of the emerald witch’s enslaving enchantment. At the climax of the tale, the witch discovers the attempted rescuers and works her sorcery on them. In words reminiscent of postmodernist discourse, she attempts to confound their belief system. She calls into question their knowledge of Narnia, asking for explanations of the lion-god, Aslan, and the sun, two realities with which the travelers are personally familiar:

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to so called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. . . . Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow.”[1]

The question is not whether Jill and Eustace have seen the sun or whether they have seen Aslan. They have. The issue the witch raises is one of interpretation. How are the Narnians to know whether their concept or the witch’s is valid, or whether both are, depending on one’s point of view? How are we to know whether our concept of God or an atheist’s denial of deity represents reality?

Contemporary trends in literary criticism prove to be useful tools to understand the world. Reader-response criticism, especially as practiced by Stanley Fish, has alerted me to the danger of blindly accepting an interpretive community’s method of reading a text, and it helps me critique the functions of institutions in exerting hegemonic control. Extending these theories to my deeply held beliefs, however, I have found, like Jill and Eustace, that the two are ultimately incommensurable: if truth depends on position, Latter-day Saint claims to the truth are false; if God reveals truth to us today through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then contingency must break down at some point. Upon reflecting through study and faith, I have found the theory of interpretive communities to be inadequate in explaining the transcendent confirmation of the Book of Mormon and further experiences with the Holy Ghost. In this chapter, I will first outline Fish’s discussion of interpretive communities; then I will apply it to the Latter-day Saint conversion experience; and finally, I will propose an alternative and more adequate reading of the Latter-day Saint conversion experience, based on Reed Way Dasenbrock’s notion of prior and passing theory, and use it to defend the possibility of a universal interpretive community.

Contemporary literary theorist Stanley Fish has made a name for himself through convincing and seemingly self-evident rhetoric that questions everything from religion to the First Amendment. In “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” he convincingly argues that one’s reality is overdetermined by one’s interpretive community. In a famous example, Fish explains that he once taught a linguistics class followed by a religious poetry class. One day after the linguistics class, Professor Fish left an arbitrary list of linguistic theorists on the chalkboard and set it off with a box and a page number. He then told his poetry class that it was a religious poem, and they subsequently spent the hour analyzing its meanings. Fish points out from this anecdote that “it is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities.” He concludes that “skilled reading is usually thought to be a matter of discerning what is there, but if the example of my students can be generalized, it is a matter of knowing how to produce what can thereafter be said to be there. Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.”[2] Fish goes on to claim that there is no “bedrock level of objectivity”[3]: no matter if we interpret what was on the board as a list of readings, a Christian poem, or simply white marks on a black slate, our interpretation is “a social construct . . . delimited by the systems of intelligibility that inform it.”[4] One interpretation is no better than another, and every interpretation is predetermined by the interpretive community “readers” find themselves in. In Marxist language, then, a person cannot help but view the world in a way imposed by a system of ideology-enforcing institutions, such as the media, religion, and the family.[5]

The relativism that Fish proposes is a unique one: it is not simply that every contingency is equally right; it’s that one’s own contingency is right and all the others are wrong. If different interpretive communities are examined, ultimately one discovers “‘fundamental’ differences”—a point where you cannot “respect [a different belief] without disrespecting your own beliefs and commitments.”[6] In these conflicting viewpoints, it is impossible to reach a universal truth of human existence, if one exists, because we cannot step outside our own belief system—”there is never a moment when one believes nothing”[7]—so we can never see things outside the viewpoint dictated by our situation, the delimiting system that informs our experience.

I do not disagree with Fish’s insistence on contingent interpretive communities. Investigators do have to be introduced to the Latter-day Saint interpretive community in order to accept the truth of the restored gospel: “For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations . . . who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12). The foundation of a Latter-day Saint’s testimony (to ask God if the Book of Mormon is true) is dependent on interpretation: an investigator must recognize the promptings of the Holy Ghost as such. That same interpretive community gives us criteria for discerning between transcendental experiences and simple emotion. For example, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught that two tests for distinguishing between promptings of the Holy Ghost and mere “thought, preferences, or hunches” are the impression’s alignment with past revelation and the recipient’s alignment with commandments[8]—a prime example of the weight an interpretive community carries in determining meaning. Finally, I agree with Fish that “sentences emerge only in situations, and within those situations, the normative meaning of an utterance will always be obvious or at least accessible, although within another situation that same utterance, no longer the same, will have another normative meaning that will be no less obvious and accessible.”[9] President Boyd K. Packer said, “The skeptic will say that to bear testimony when you may not know you possess one is to condition yourself; that the response is manufactured. Well, one thing for sure, the skeptic will never know, for he will not meet the requirement of faith, humility, and obedience to qualify him for the visitation of the Spirit.”[10] Interpretive communities truly have fundamental effects on the possible interpretations that can be applied to life’s experiences.

Fish’s theory, however, denies that the Latter-day Saint conversion experience can fundamentally change a person when he asserts that we cannot fundamentally change our beliefs, saying we can only modify them within an imposed belief system. He says we each have an impassible divide between our interpretive communities. I disagree with the notion that there can be no common, fundamental foundation everyone has access to. As Reed Way Dasenbrock, whose theories we will explore later, points out, this leaves no room for “the possibility of learning from experience.”[11] He reveals that the world does “not neatly divide into those with whom we share a conceptual scheme, members of our interpretive community, and those with whom we don’t, members of other interpretive communities.”[12] There is overlap in beliefs and viewpoints. These overlaps help us debate and understand other beliefs and viewpoints. We now find ourselves in a pre-Fish, age-old dilemma, now reworded: What is the basis of our interpretive community? Is it man-made or God-given? Certain scholars have tried to create a man-made truth, telling us, “We live this life not to discover through revelation what transcendent truths exist, but rather to learn by creating contingent truths, having to live with them, exploring what serves us well and doesn’t,” and through this process, we create Zion.[13] Critic Bruce Edwards, however, sees danger in “finding common cause and common ground with certain critical currents out of professional opportunism or a spirit of political or methodological ecumenism.”[14] “What serves us best” is always politicized, and if followed, leads to endlessly warring interpretive communities. Edwards calls the contemporary theory of Fish and others a “challenge” that “can no longer be answered—if it ever could—by an appeal to any temporal, purely humanistic schema.”[15] The only adequate answer is God-given truth, an answer that allows for a universal common ground and the possibility of reaching past our own interpretive communities.

In introducing a religious viewpoint, I may be accused of taking a decidedly unscholarly stance. I would like to justify this position by observing that any application of critical theory is as much a “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21) as any article of faith. Critic Daniel Muhlestein demonstrates this by first applying a Marxist analysis of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” and then applying a Marxist analysis of his own analysis. He observes that although his first analysis concludes that the chimney sweep is the victim of hegemonic control by his master, that commentary itself is an expression of hegemony and “a product of ideological state apparatuses”[16] imposed by proponents of Marxist theory. In other words, it was an ideological force acting on Muhlestein that caused him to read “The Chimney Sweeper” in a Marxist way. He must take it on faith, then, that his analysis is based on true principles, not just political pressure, exactly as the religious believer must do. He concludes:

What I end up with, then, is a confession of the role of faith (both epistemological and religious) in my own metacommentary. But . . . I end up with more than just that. For in the process of making that confession, I have coupled it with the assertion . . . that every other kind of criticism requires precisely the same leap of faith; that that leap of faith is, like my own, necessarily a blind leap in that any evidence that can be marshalled to support the interpretive code being applied is always already a product of that code; and that while it takes a great deal of faith to accept Christianity as a master narrative of history and criticism, it takes precisely the same kind—and the same amount—of faith to reject it.”[17]

So, I may be using a faith-based theory, but I am not introducing one, since all theories are based on faith.

My aim, however, is not only to defend the faithful Latter-day Saint position as being equally valid as any other critique; I wish to go beyond establishing a “negative hermeneutics” of critical theory and demonstrate how Latter-day Saint belief supercedes any one interpretive community. I see evidence of an underlying universal interpretive community in the vast diversity of backgrounds of converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the rapid expansion of the Latter-day Saint faith worldwide. A quick perusal of Donald Q. Cannon and Richard O. Cowan’s Unto Every Nation reveals conversions of such diverse groups as revivalist congregations in Great Britain and Maori tribes in New Zealand.[18] Cannon and Cowan tell story after story pointing to the universal relevance of the Latter-day Saint message. If we are indeed trapped in incommensurable interpretive communities, as Fish asserts, how can Roman Catholic priests, former inner-city gang members, and Chinese atheists all find common ground in one interpretive community? Richard Neuhaus points to the answer when he states, “It is not the most important reason why I am a Christian, but one reason I am a Christian is that Christianity makes more sense of more facts than any other way of construing reality that I know of.”[19]

Based on the work of Donald Davidson, Dasenbrock has developed a reader-response theory in opposition to Fish’s. The fundamental difference between Davidson’s and Fish’s theory is that Davidson’s model allows for “the ability of the interpreter to change.”[20] Dasenbrock agrees that we bring beliefs and views to bear as we interpret the world around us, and therefore “no interpretation can be said to be neutral or objective.”[21] Davidson and Dasenbrock call this set of beliefs a prior theory. As we experience the world, we imbue everything around us with “interpretive charity” (not so much a Christlike attribute as an ideological imperative): we try to fit texts and experiences into our prior theory. Quoting Dasenbrock: “For Fish, this is the starting and the end point of the interpretive process . . . as there can be no distance between us and our beliefs.”[22] For Dasenbrock, though, this doesn’t describe what actually happens: “Interpretations are not always self-confirming; interpreters do not always produce interpretations utterly consistent with their prior beliefs and theories; theories are sometimes adjusted to fit experience rather than vice versa.” [23] Davidson’s model, then, not only includes prior theory but also anomalies, which do not fit our prior theory and cause us to rethink it, resulting in passing theory, “a modified version of the prior theory adjusted what we have learned about the other.”[24] Dasenbrock explains the result: “If an interpreter adjusts a prior theory to construct a passing theory to interpret an anomalous utterance, what happens next? With what theory does one subsequently face the world? . . . First one could incorporate the adjustments one had to make to one’s prior theory into one’s beliefs or future prior theory. . . . But one could also write off the passing theory as appropriate only to an anomalous situation and not incorporate it into one’s future prior theory.”[25] Our perspectives in life, then, are not reduced to an all-powerful interpretive community; we adjust our belief system based on what we encounter.

This model explains the Latter-day Saint conversion experience more completely than Fish’s reductive interpretive community model. If Fish is right, then only people whose prefabricated belief system allows for transcendence will accept the promptings of the Holy Ghost and come to have a testimony of the Book of Mormon. But for nearly two hundred years, Latter-day Saint converts have described a “change of heart,” a new way of looking at the world, a repentance. How can so many interpretive communities be sufficiently flexible to allow such a fundamental shift in viewpoint? The vast diversity of interpretive communities that Latter-day Saint converts come from do not fit Fish’s mold.

Investigators bring to the table a lifetime of complex beliefs, viewpoints, and experiences, which constitute a prior theory. When truth-seekers pray and ask for a confirmation, if they experienced nothing, there would be no challenge to their prior theory, and future prior theories would probably include a denial of transcendent experiences. If, on the other hand, they experience something out of the ordinary, they must reckon with this anomaly. They may write off any thoughts or feelings that come as an anomaly and continue as before, prior theory intact. Or the experience they have may cause them to posit a passing theory allowing for transcendent experiences. As time went on, if this experience were reinforced by further transcendent occurrences, the prior theory would become stronger. The result is an agreement between belief and experience, an agreement “not created—as Fish would insist—by the interpreter overwhelming the text [or experience] by his or her beliefs and values, but by adjusting them to the demands of the interpretive occasion.”[26] In other words, we can progress toward a more transcendent view of the world. We are not doomed to read experiences based on our interpretive community. We can learn.

I would venture one further point, wholly based on my personal belief system, which suggests the possibility of a universal interpretive community, a prior theory that every human being shares. It is explained in the doctrine of a premortal life: “In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan.”[27] If Latter-day Saint doctrine is true, we were all introduced to God’s plan, and we all “shouted for joy” at the opportunity to come to this life (Job 38:7). That doctrine further teaches that we “received [our] first lessons in the world of spirits” (D&C 138:56)—our first introduction to an interpretive community. Somewhere latent within each of us, then, this prior theory may exert a force on our belief system, shading whatever interpretive community this life offers us. This model suggests that when we encounter a transcendent experience, it does not really challenge anyone’s prior theory, it reinforces an earlier theory, the original prior theory that is searching for confirmation.

In The Silver Chair, Puddleglum puts more trust in his prior theory than in the witch’s passing theory. Doing a “very brave thing,” he stomps out the enchanting fire and confronts the queen, not declaring what he knows to be true but accepting his contingent position and embracing the faith that position requires. In very British fashion, he declares:

One word, Ma’am. . . . I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, . . . we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland.[28]

The Silver Chair is certainly about interpretive communities. From giants who see the world in miniature to underworlders who despise life aboveground, C. S. Lewis shows the reader many prior theories. In the end, however, what matters is the prior theory that aligns with God. In the final chapter, Jill and Eustace find themselves in Aslan’s country, and all questions of contingency disappear. There is a real sun, a real god, and real truth.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 157.

[2] Stanley Fish, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” Falling into Theory (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 270–71.

[3] Fish, “How to Recognize a Poem,” 273.

[4] Fish, “How to Recognize a Poem,” 276.

[5] See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 146.

[6] Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1999, 66.

[7] Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in This Class?” in The Stanley Fish Reader, ed. H. Aram Vesser (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 53.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1983, 27.

[9] Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in This Class?” 44.

[10] Boyd K. Packer, “The Candle of the Lord,” in Ensign, January 1983, 55.

[11] Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Do We Write the Text We Read?” in Falling into Theory (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 286.

[12] Dasenbrock, “Do We Write the Text We Read?” 283.

[13] Scott Abbott, “Will We Find Zion or Make It? An Essay on Postmodernity and Revelation,” in Sunstone 17, no. 3 (December 1994): 18.

[14] Bruce L. Edwards Jr., “New Critics, New Readers, and the Assault on Objectivity,” in Literature and Belief 5 (1985): 36.

[15] Edwards, “New Critics, New Readers,” 35.

[16] Daniel Muhlestein, “(Re)reading ‘The Chimney Sweeper’: Western Marxism, Christian Faith, and a Negative Hermeneutics of Christian Demystification,” Literature and Belief 13 (1993): 91.

[17] Muhlestein, “(Re)reading ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’” 91–92.

[18] See Donald Q. Cannon and Richard O. Cowan, Unto Every Nation: Gospel Light Reaches Every Land (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 6–10, 164–73.

[19] Richard Neuhaus, “Why We Can Get Along,” First Things 60 (February 1996): 29.

[20] Reed Way Dasenbrock, Truth and Consequences: Intentions, Conventions, and the New Thematics (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 74.

[21] Dasenbrock, “Do We Write the Text We Read?” 284.

[22] Dasenbrock, “Do We Write the Text We Read?” 284.

[23] Dasenbrock, Truth and Consequences, 76.

[24] Dasenbrock, “Do We Write the Text We Read?” 285.

[25] Dasenbrock, Truth and Consequences, 76.

[26] Dasenbrock, “Do We Write the Text We Read?” 285.

[27] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995, 102.

[28] C. S. Lewis. The Silver Chair, 158­–59.