Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine, the teacher read several quotations about leadership and forced us to guess from whence they came. The statements were things like, “[Leaders] must understand that the spirit of the law is greater than its letter,” and “It takes less courage to criticize the decisions of others than to stand by your own.” Congregants responded with guesses attributing everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Jesus Christ himself. The correct answer, as you probably surmise from the title of this post, is Attila the Hun. A little internet searching and I realized the teacher had probably read the book, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Weiss Roberts.
Now Attila the Hun isn’t exactly remembered fondly for Christian charity, but for his ability to conquer; or rather, to persuade others to bring rather gruesome and painful death to his opponents in order to broaden his ruling power. Pretty much the antithesis to the Christ figure. And yet my Sunday School teacher, a man well into his 80′s who is known in our ward to be . . . . Well, polite people would say he is overtly staunch in his approach to the gospel. Yet here he was, using quotations from Attila the Hun to demonstrate his point that we Mormons are to accept all truth, to consider it our doctrine, regardless of where it originates, just as Paul was able to see truth among the gentiles. The teacher explained that if we acknowledge the notion that truth can fall from the lips of Attila the Hun, it can come from any source, and it is our duty to seek it out, praise it when we encounter it, and further its impact in our lives and the lives of those around us. Point taken.
But there’s a problem. At least, there’s a problem with consistency and this particular teacher, who, let me say from the outset is my absolute, hands-down favorite “character” in my ward. He looks like a cross between Yoda and Spencer Kimball and laughs as readily as he admonishes. But his inconsistency is clear in this matter because he has, with some frequency (at least when I’m in the room), railed on the “publications of the intellectuals in the Church,” most specifically Sunstone, though Dialogue is not unscathed in his reproachful warnings. He is of the opinion that Sunstone, in particular, should be avoided at all costs, lest the devil devour your soul in the reading of it. Paul may have been right to preach to, listen to, and learn from the gentiles, but we are not right to preach among, listen to, or learn from Sunstone. Truth can exist in all places…except, of course, Sunstone.
Yet I can forgive this man his ignorance because of what I know about him. His career played out in the Public Relations department of the Church during the 1980’s and 90’s. His bend, then, is to be expected. I also understand that Sunstone‘s willingness to give the September Six a place to sound off was, both then and now, off-putting to many faithful Latter-day Saints, including him. It can be difficult to put negative impressions behind us, to reconsider positions we’ve fought for or against. So yes, it is easy for me to overlook his inconsistency and enjoy him, regardless. But it is less simple for me to overlook similar inconsistencies when I see them among our Mormon literary population.
While our literary fiction writers are not afraid of tackling the complexities of Mormon life, many are literally afraid to submit to Sunstone. I know this because I currently serve as the fiction editor for Sunstone. Before I go any further, let me borrow an expression from President Obama and say that I want to be perfectly clear: I may be Sunstone‘s current fiction editor, but I am not speaking for Sunstone magazine, the Sunstone Educational Foundation, the editor Stephen Carter or any of the Sunstone staff, none of whom have been given the slightest warning that I’m mouthing off here and few of whom I’ve ever met. I’m speaking only as a member of the grander MoLit community and as a subscriber to and occasional writer for Sunstone. However, my position at Sunstone has granted me license to recruit established MoLit writers for submissions. With the exception of one previously published writer, all have refused to submit.
When I ask why, each has indicated fear that s/he will be rewarded with some form of a church-sponsored reprisal, be that at their ward level (one writer expressed concern that a Sunstone credit might discredit him/her and his/her spouse from certain callings), or through BYU, which might fire or refuse to hire someone with so much as a single Sunstone short fiction credit. They tell me that they will submit to Dialogue, but not Sunstone. This astonishes me. I have had two stories published in Dialogue, one is essentially a falling-away narrative, and the other is unusually sensual for an LDS story. And yet every piece of mine that Sunstone has published has adhered to “the party line,” meaning the stories and essays have been downright faithful, even if they do have that “edge” we’ve come to speak of in lit fic circles. You know, characters with strong testimonies and no nudity. I’m a believing Latter-day Saint and so, when I write, those beliefs are part of my worldview. The Sunstone “machine” has always accepted that, either under editor Dan Wotherspoon or Stephen Carter. In fact, my observation as a subscriber shows that Sunstone’s fiction tends to be doctrinally conservative. I know the aim of the editorial staff is to find well-written fiction that focuses on the Mormon experience. Sunstone
wants to promote Mormon literary fiction. End of story.
These writers remind me of my inconsistent Sunday School teacher because I see a huge disconnect between the notion that they are bravely exploring the complexities of Mormon life, but don’t have the guts to publish in a venue that has supported Mormon lit fiction for decades. Why? Because they fear their own Church will somehow bully them. Ironically, that opinion, it seems to me, would be better grounds for withholding a calling or dismissal from a Church-owned educational job than would a publishing credit in a controversial magazine. I am annoyed, quite frankly, that these writers won’t
pick up the banner and fight for one of the few venues that actively seeks Mormon stories by Mormon writers. In my opinion, Sunstone epitomizes the lesson my Sunday School teacher attempted to teach because it does look into all corners of the Mormon mindset in search of truth. But if writers of faith won’t submit their artistic fiction, Sunstone can’t publish such pieces. In case you haven’t noticed, Sunstone has been publishing less and less short fiction—but certainly not from a lack of desire to. Editor Stephen Carter is well-known as a long-standing advocate of Mormon fiction and wants to publish strong lit fic. Sunstone magazine will not disappear, and the controversies about its open-thought policies won’t either, but if our writers can’t find the hutzpah to submit, the real fear should be that fiction in Sunstone just might vanish.
I’ve been called naïve for my absolute inability to believe some kind of conspiratorial underpinning exists regarding Sunstone, that there really are people in Salt Lake and at BYU with nothing better to do than send black ball notifications to bishops, or however it is these writers think the church will bestow their punishments for an ill-considered by-line. But I’m not naïve. After all, I’ve been publishing with Sunstone for years and have suffered no ramifications. That makes me experienced. I’ve certainly never gotten in ecclesiastical “trouble” for anything I’ve written. No one’s ever called my bishop and my bishop has never called me in. My experience demonstrates that a writer who artistically considers the Mormon experience is not foreordained to face a tribunal in the bishop’s office. In fact, please, if anyone out there has been fired from BYU, or any other church employment, for having short fiction published in Sunstone, I’d be fascinated to hear about it. If your bishop has released you from a primary presidency calling because you wrote a feminist story for Sunstone in which a mother, oh, I don’t know, maybe decides she likes working outside the home, tell me about that. I’d love to hear any first-hand anecdotes that prove or disprove the assertion, or myth, that publishing fiction in Sunstone will leave any kind of mark at all on your membership records.
<Heavy sigh> I realize I may sound a little worked up. I suppose I am. I am passionate about Mormon Letters and grateful for the venues that celebrate Mormon literary fiction. I am very grateful to Sunstone—to Dan Wotherspoon and Stephen Carter—for providing me publishing credits. I’m proud of those credits. Very proud. And I’m proud to have become a very small part of a magazine staff that lauds Mormon culture and creativity, especially when that creativity manifests in literary fiction. Again, what I write here is my own opinion and observation, and in no way represents any official stance at Sunstone. These are my concerns, my thoughts, my worries. And, because of them, I make this is my petition: If you have been a writer who has ruled out submitting to Sunstone (which is done through the contests), remember the lesson learned from my Sunday School lesson about Atilla the Hun–Truth exists in places you hadn’t expected–and please prayerfully re-consider your reasoning. Sunstone needs strong fiction and our literary fiction community needs Sunstone’s continued support. We shouldn’t want any of our venues to shrivel, but to blossom.