Review: Adam Miller’s “Rube Goldberg Machines”

April 24, 2013

rgmTitle: Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology
Author: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Philosophy/Religion
Year: 2012
Pages: 132
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-58958-193-7
Price: $18.95
[Note: Adam Miller is co-founder of Salt Press, an independent publishing outfit whose books were recently brought into the Maxwell Institute at BYU where I work. This book isn’t a Salt title, but I thought I’d mention the connection anyway.]
I watched Groundhog Day the other night. I’ve owned the DVD for years but never tore the plastic wrapping until Adam Miller put a bug in my ear via one of his theological essays. (It was just as good as I remembered it!) Miller, the theological film critic. I laughed when Phil, Bill Murray’s character, punched Ned Ryerson in the face at a busy intersection and I teared up as he fruitlessly pummeled the chest of a dying homeless man in a freezing alleyway. “Come on, pops, come on pops, don’t die on me.” Watching Phil struggle through incomprehension, laugh at absurdity, and find joy in relationships, reminded me a lot of reading Miller’s book. I’d already read great reviews of it, I couldn’t wait to get a copy. But I hit many more brick walls than I anticipated. This deceptively thin volume will take much more of your time than you might think. It felt at times like the alarm clock kept hitting 6:00 AM, February 2, and I was in for another round of difficulty. Not that all the essays were the same, but that they were each difficult in their own way. It’s way above my level to feel confident in doing this, but my review is an attempt to help readers like me have a better chance at making it through the book.
Of the book’s fourteen movements (pieces? Not essays, all; meditations, prose poems, songs disguised as analytic lists?) there were four that I really looked forward to re-reading. Not because they spoke of something I already knew I knew, but because they invoked something in me I had perhaps recognized before without being able to articulate it (“A Hermeneutics of Weakness”). Or because they took something I thought I was already well-familiar with and turned it on its head (“Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement”).
The other essays felt too dense or too winding or too indirect. A friend suggested that Miller be read poetically which isn’t to say it is less-than philosophy, but that it manages (or attempts) to capture things which our rational Tetris-language can’t capture. (Roundness, for instance.) But still, I think a reader needs to be somewhat familiar with aesthetics of a text in order to facilitate the co-production of a text in the act of reading. I needed more help than Adam offered, but you may very well not.
Miller’s style seems to have much in common with Continental philosophy (you’ll see Badiou quoted more than Ballard), a debated and sometimes political descriptor. You have to have a certain tolerance to make it through prose that sometimes seems deliberately obscure. But it’s more than stylistics that I think situates Miller, himself a professor of philosophy at Collin College, with that general school. Simon Critchley identifies Continental philosophy in general as being concerned with crisis, with the world coming to a point where it is unlivable in its repetition, which prompts a desire for something from outside to break through and redeem the whole.1 This desire is especially apparent in Miller’s “Humanism, Mormonism,” where he asks “How is something new possible?” (107).
The identification of the-thing-that-breaks-in-to-change-things is probably best explored in his “Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement.” Givenness, awareness of the grace of the present moment, a Buddhist reading of Mormonism. To the extent that Miller can be understood as a Continental philosopher, then, it seems that his “Something breaking in” would be the grace of Christ, which he insists already breaks through in each moment for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, skin to feel, tongue to taste. Again, Clarice Lispector, who I admit performed some unintentional redemption for Miller when I read her book right after reading his and thus better understood his project:

“The body is transformed into a gift. And you feel that it’s a gift because you experience, right at the source, the suddenly indubitable present of existing miraculously and materially. Everything gains a halo that is not imaginary….The truth of the world, however, is impalpable. It’s not even close to what I can barely imagine must be the state of grace of the saints. I have never known that state and cannot even guess at it. It is instead just the grace of a common person turning suddenly real because he is common and human and recognizable….I want to see if I can capture what happened to be by using words. As I use them I’ll be destroying to some extent what I felt—but that’s inevitable. I’m going to call what fallows ‘On the edge of beatitude.’ It starts like this, nice and slow:” 2

Miller’s “edge of beatitude” as I understand it is the recognition of the present moment as given by the grace of God. It’s the edge spatially, but also in its cutting quality. Such attention to the present infuses Miller’s work with a serenity. His serenity can be taken for confidence, but his is an incomplete confidence in that he hasn’t created a solid, air-tight and systematic theology of Mormonism here, nor would he anywhere. His essays share some similar themes but there is no obvious thread that connects them together. Miller seems to work toward what Clarice Lispector called “the secret harmony of disharmony: I don’t want something already made but something still being tortuously made… I write in acrobatics and pirouettes in the air—I write because I so deeply want to speak. Though writing only gives me the full measure of silence.”3 In other words, there’s something about Miller’s project that he apparently knows he may never arrive at fully, and even his captured glimpses may not be adequate when he writes them down. His work is phenomenological in its emphasis on being attentive to the experience of the here and now as a guide to engaging in philosophy. Atonement happens in everyday life. This is beautiful, I tend to feel it’s even true, but it seems different from anything Mormons hear at Church on Sunday.
There’s a strange tension at the heart of Miller’s entire theological project, an anxiety which I think his title captures well: the Rube Goldberg machine. Such a machine is an almost comically created machine with many interlocking parts which lead to some basic function at the end. (OK Go did a great music video on this score, if you have a second.) It’s as if theological project were fun and games, etc. I can say, for me, there have been daunting times when if someone were to suggest to me I was merely playing games and waiting for a little red ball to pop out at the end I’d be crushed. Maybe Miller would say such crushing is needed.
Still, a certain anxiety occasionally slips off the edge of the pages, especially in the pieces which directly reflect on what Miller’s doing: Mormon theology. It seems that institutional constraints may play a part in Miller’s hyper-humility, his too-insistent reminders that theology is “gratuitous,” “beauty for its own sake,” “diversion,” (xiii-xiv). I sense a deliberate paradox here; his “Benedictus” begins by asserting “The theologian is indispensable” and concludes with “[the theologian] is nothing” (1-2).
But while he calls theology gratuitous, he also equates gratuity with grace, thus perhaps situating it closer to the heart of his Christianity than I thought (xv). At the same time, it’s hard not to read such apparently dismissive descriptions of theology as the result of allegiance to a religious tradition that favors hierarchical revelation, where theological truths (we Mormons call them “doctrines”) theoretically come from the General Authorities rather than PhD philosophy types. Miller calls attention to this when he says theology “decides no questions beyond what the Brethren have settled,” Further, it “is not an institutional practice” (59), a point which he seems to contradict by later saying “theology is a collaborative endeavor” (62). Institution and collaboration don’t exactly map up, of course, but I think there’s enough overlap between them to call into question Miller’s view here. Ralph Hancock’s thorough review of the book—which I don’t agree with on every point but which I found helpful in trying to understand Miller’s work—signals the anxiety some Mormons will feel if they sense Miller getting too far away from what they understand to be Church doctrine. (Miller’s response to Hancock is excellent and clear.)
Miller proposes distinctions between the historical (“concerned with reconstructing past events”), the doctrinal (“the determination of what is institutionally normative”), the devotional (“the expression of personal piety”) and the theological, which is “intertwined” with those other things, but which stands apart as being “concerned with charity” (59). I never fully understood why charity was placed at the heart of his theological project, or just how such a placement shakes out in practical ways. I think Miller might agree that each of those classifications (history, devotional, doctrinal) are each already theological in some sense, hence “intertwined.” I welcome his call for more “creative engagement” with Mormon scripture and prophetic teaching through theology, but I wonder how far our creativity can take us without disconnecting from its root.  I’d like to see a book of Primary lessons written by Miller, because some of his claims so radically reorient common perceptions of the world as to seem impossible to incorporate into my consciousness enough to make a difference in the everyday life Miller so persistently invites me to focus on. That’s perhaps the best grace Miller’s work offers, even though his Rube Goldberg machine(s) seems unfinished to me.

“Everything comes to an end but what I’m writing to you goes on. Which is good, very good. The best is not yet written. The best is between the lines.”4

1. Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
2. Clarice Lispector, Água Viva (New York: New Directions, 2012), 80-81, the space is intentional. Lispector is an overlooked but brilliant Latin American writer whose work I stumbled on by accident and just happened to start reading right after Rube.
3. Ibid. 6. This also reminded me of James Faulconer’s Patheos blog, “Speaking Silence.”
4. Ibid., 87.