The presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have been good for Mormonism because they’ve brought Mormons and the Church into the national discussion. It’s been gratifying to see pundits correctly clarifying Church positions while debating evangelical critics. And it’s been good for the public to compare Romney and Huntsman. One is a Mormon who served as a stake president and has been faithful to the Church all his life. The other has not attended church since his youth, but comes from a prominent Mormon family and still calls himself a Mormon. This helps people to see that the Church isn’t a cult in the business of creating single-minded robots.
The Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign also has done a good job at showing diversity among us. (And if you haven’t seen The Colbert Report spoof on this, you should check it out: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/394360/august-10-2011/yaweh-or-no-way—-mormons—god-s-poll-numbers ) We are making strides toward healthily complicating our own image.
Why am I talking about politics in a blog on Mormon creative writing? Because we need a complex view of ourselves if we are to create meaningful Mormon literature.
I recently read Malcolm Cowley’s long introduction to The Portable Faulkner. Faulkner’s genius was that he captured the South in tragic decline. The South is fascinating because of two oppositional forces. First it is, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, “Christ-haunted” (as opposed to “Christ-centered,” O’Connor said). Second, it bears the ugly story of slavery, a story that includes the fall of Southern aristocracy which Faulkner, O’Connor, and others wrote about so well. This makes the South a place of both glory and rottenness. It’s that rottenness down at the core which makes it a rich subject for literature.
Mormon culture (and even American Western culture) has glory, but I don’t think it has anything like rottenness. Its past is marred, it’s imbued with foolishness, bravado, and even arrogance, but it’s the arrogance of a young culture. Even its arrogance is naïve and thus somewhat forgivable. Being foolish is not as profound as having horrors deep in one’s core. Yes, American Mormon culture does have the general pride and stink of the human race—every culture has that. Unfortunately, we Mormons are so unaware of this that it’s hard for us to bring to the surface our common lot with humanity.
The word culture (related to the word cultivate) involves social behaviors that are planted, nurtured, and prized. Art, music, and literature—whether high-brow or low—make up culture. So do other products of human work and thought, like traditions, customs, morals, social behaviors, and institutions. I would characterize the bulk of contemporary American Mormon culture as “glib”—quick but thoughtless, unconstrained but lacking depth. Years ago I heard a cultural critic call Mormonism “the American cheese of religions.” I think this says it pretty well. Recently I asked a friend, “How can such a people be taken seriously?” His answer was, “That’s exactly the point of The Book of Mormon musical.”
I’m saddened by this when I contrast Mormon culture to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which I believe is neither glib nor shallow. The history of the Church is complex—sometimes even troubling. And that’s a good thing. Our complicated past shouldn’t be glossed over. We shouldn’t attempt to resolve it with easy answers. When we speak proudly of “continuing revelation,” we should understand that such a doctrine implies change, adjustment, and even historical inconsistency.
Deeper still are two elements at the heart of Mormon doctrine, two tragic elements that make it profound. The first is the reality and consequence of our agency, the power we all possess that allows us to choose sin and perhaps be lost forever—if we so elect. The second is the atonement of Jesus Christ, which caused the infinite suffering of one who did no wrong and never deserved to suffer at all. This cosmic inequity is a profound paradox at the heart of Mormonism.
Fortunately, truths like these shine through our shallow culture. Most people who come to Mormonism anchor themselves to the faith’s doctrines, or they drift away. Few convert to the culture alone and stay for long.
So, I ask you, fellow Mormon writers, the same questions that I ask myself: How are we doing at embracing Mormon complexities in our writing? How are we doing at imbuing our stories with paradox and tragedy?
Recently an evangelical minister was invited to tour Temple Square, interested in learning more about the peculiar teachings of Mormonism. He found little evidence of anything unusual. Mormonism’s unique theology had been replaced, he said, by an emphasis on the family. He said, “The people and the lifestyle are the attractions. Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.”
I don’t see it that way. We Mormons are nice-enough people. We have a pleasant lifestyle. But I don’t find the lifestyle any more attractive than the lifestyles of other good, law-abiding, hardworking people. No, it’s not our “normalcy” that will draw others to us and our stories. It’s our weirdness that makes us interesting. (Can we learn nothing from Big Love and Sister Wives?)
So my message to Mormon writers this month is simply stated: “Embrace your weirdness!” Write about the weird things you believe in. Incorporate you peculiar worldviews—orthodox or not—into your fictional realms. Three heavens, the resurrection of the family dog, pre-mortal existence, the magical power of the CTR ring, your potential godhood, or the sometimes-now/sometimes-not-now spectacle of polygamy. Have faith in your culture and heritage. Face your demons—your Mormon and human demons—and write about them.
Be weird, Mormon writers! Be weird!