Today, a look at two books that offer a new level of sophistication in religious reading. One on a regional level, the other national.
HUA HU CHING: THE TEACHINGS OF LAO TZU; translated by Brian Walker; Clark City Press; 106 pages; $17.
Back in the '60s, when young Americans began dabbling in Oriental religions, the results were often a disaster. Hippie-think, Buddhism and a budding new age way of living stirred together in a kind of spiritual stew. The word "Zen" was tossed about like a Frisbee, while haiku poetry and meditation turned trivial.
Since then, serious people have been trying to sort things out and untangle the web of impressions. Alan Watts and Stephen Mitchell are two writers who've tried to fumigate the practice of Zen for us. But Brian Walker - with his translations of Lao Tzu - may have done the most to purify the teachings.
In the "Tao di Ching" Stephen Mitchell gave us a lyrical version of Lao Tzu's basic thought.
With the "Hua Hu Ching," Walker offers a companion volume of lesser-known but just as vital writings from the Chinese master.
This lyrical moment, is just one example:
The subtle truth of the universe
is unsayable and unthinkable.
Therefore the highest teachings are wordless.
My own words are not the medicine,
but a prescription; not the destination
but a map to help you reach it.
The Clark City Press has done a fine job in bringing out Walker's work with taste, intelligence, sensitivity and art.
BRIGHT ANGELS & FAMILIARS: CONTEMPORARY MORMON STORIES; edited by Eugene England; Signature Books; 348 pages; $19.95.
The first anthology of Mormon literature to reckon with was "A Believing People," now almost a generation old. The large, floppy paperback was an ambitious and gallant attempt to gather Mormondom's best creative writing. It was overlong, spiked high and low in quality and sometimes seemed to bend over backward to include high-caliber writers just to beef up the credibility.
Levi Peterson's collection "Greening Wheat" followed, showing how Mormom fiction writers had matured.
Now comes Gene England's collection of contemporary Mormon stories. And the nicest thing about this volume is so many names are recognizable - they're not just lonely, unfamiliar voices calling from far-flung outposts. We're in the mainstream now. Orson Scott Card and M. Shayne Bell - two science fiction celebrities - have stories here; so does Linda Sillitoe of "Salamander" fame. Walter Kirn and Judith Freeman - two writers with solid, national literary reputations - are also represented.
The jacket even bears a positive blurb from Francois Camoin, the post-modern writing guru at the University of Utah.
England gets high marks here for interesting material and for being sensitive enough to work outside of the Mormon boys club. On the downside, there's a lot of writing included from career academics and the collection cries out for translations from LDS writers in other cultures. And, as with all anthologies, each reader is free to argue that England has not chosen the best work of the people he's included.
Still, the good news is Mormon fiction has come a long way and England has found the stories to prove it. The writers are funnier, wiser and their voices stronger.
The bad news is so much of this writing remains locked in the regional closet. Despite a few forays into the world at large, Mormon writers - for the most part - remain trapped behind the beehive curtain.