Mormon Authors writing Non-Mormon Inspirational Fiction

Over at Motley Vision, Jonathan Langford reviewed his reading of Whitney finalists. In his review of the General Fiction category , he noted that few of the finalists engaged with religious issues, and only one book was explicitly Mormon at all. I wanted to expand on some of Jonathan’s questions about a few of the finalists and explore the idea of taking Mormon fiction to national publishers and national audiences. The finalists this year that most explicitly dealt with Mormon doctrine and culture were actually found in the genre categories (Mystery and Romance), and were published by LDS publishers and primarily marketed to LDS audiences. I think that some of those books are taking steps to explore LDS issues in new ways, but that is not the subject of this post (I had also wanted to look at some of the general youth finalists and religion, but I ran out of room in this post).

The first two books I want to consider fall squarely in the category of “inspirational fiction.” Both The Wedding Letters by Jason Wright and Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans center their plots on ordinary people trying to overcome difficult, messy lives. In both books, characters are tormented by trauma from the past, usually because they think that this trauma was their fault and/or makes them unlovable. At some point in both books, other characters help them see that they can forgive others or themselves, and that they really do have family and friends that love them. As I read both books, I was surprised as I got to the end. I felt a bit of a letdown because I felt like I missed something. On one page a character is suicidal; by the next, she has found the will to live simply through hearing the right words uttered by someone else. Change was wrought simply by applying pop culture tropes such as “believe in yourself.” Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I didn’t feel too inspired because I wasn’t sure what exactly I was supposed to do in order to overcome my problems. Find a friend who can tell me that I’m really OK?

I feel somewhat disingenuous complaining about the lack of overt religion in Evans’ and Wright’s books. The fact that a writer is Mormon, or of any religious persuasion, does not mean that they have to write religious fiction. I think what bothered me about these books was that they are specifically meant to inspire people and give them hope, and yet for me I found them rather uninspiring. There was nothing at the core. What would happen if Richard Paul Evans had made his main character a Mormon? What if, instead of telling his suicidal friend that she should just stop beating herself up because she has friends who like her, he had taught her the plan of salvation? What if he had taught her about the power of prayer and the gift of the Holy Ghost? I hate books with easy Sunday School answers as much as books with empty answers, but I wonder a little about why these authors leave out Mormon content (well, any religious content) and choose to go with pop psychology platitudes.

Another book on the list, The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill, has no Mormon characters, but still engages explicitly with religious ideas. As far as I know, it has primarily been marketed to and read by an LDS audience, despite being published by Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s imprint for national-market books. As Jonathan and others have pointed out in their reviews, the book is flawed by its reliance on stereotypical characters and a central premise that pits a belief in God against a straw man character who is a militant atheist that worships a semi-deified Charles Darwin. The interesting thing about this book is that I get the sense that the author is, in his mind, working through Mormon ideas. Doctrinally, Mormons believe that mankind was created by God and that God intervenes directly in our lives. There is also a strain of popular LDS culture that is anti-science and distrusts any teaching of the theory of evolution, particularly the idea that man evolved from lower forms of life. Merrill also seems to be tapping into a trope common in official discourse: we are living in “enemy territory”, surrounded by the forces of Satan whose mission is to bring down the followers of Christ. In the book, these “enemies” are personified as environmentalists, social workers, scientists, and rich, misogynistic hospital board members. In the author’s vision of the world, a lack of belief in God makes one, not just indifferent to, but actively hostile towards religion.

The frustrating thing about this book to me is that Merrill has a chance as a Mormon author to say something unique about the possible conflicts between scientific theories and religious belief. While Mormon doctrine does definitively affirm a belief in God as the creator of the Earth and mankind, our teachings do not preclude the possibility of evolution as a natural biological process that has created a diversity of life on Earth. We are not Biblical literalists, and we also acknowledge and accept that fact that truth can be found in many religious throughout the world. Although the theme of Merrill’s book is timely and has potential, I feel that it falters by setting up a conflict with opposing sides so ludicrously painted in broad strokes that the outcome is inevitable and ultimately holds little interest for the reader.

As I have been writing this, I realized that the thing that is bothering me the most about these books is the fact that their intent seems to be an engagement with spiritual and religious ideas. And yet, instead of looking to some of the unique doctrines of Mormonism as a way to engage with these issues, the authors fall back on pop psychology, stereotypes, and even some ideas that are antithetical to Mormon ways of thought. If we believe that as Mormons we have a doctrine that is unique, why not engage with that in the public sphere? Why not seek new answers to old questions? What are we afraid of?

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8 Responses to Mormon Authors writing Non-Mormon Inspirational Fiction

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I haven’t read any of these books or Jonathan’s post on MotleyVision, but you’re post here leaves me wondering who you (Wm) think their audience is. As you perceive it (I know you’re no mind-reader), are these writers pandering to a Christian audience? Or trying to write what they think Christian audiences want? Or, if they are falling back on pop culture platitudes, are they seeking to reach a secular audience with sublte religious/spiritual content? Or are they going after a Mormon audience? Or none of the above?

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Jessie,

    Interesting observations. I think I wasn’t as disappointed as you by The Wedding Letters, simply because I didn’t take the conflict you mention as seriously as you did. That’s a failing in me as a reader.

    I suspect that both Wright and Evans feel that they *are* applying gospel solutions, but without the specifically Mormon (or religious) trappings that might make it harder for general audiences to swallow them. The fact that you found these solutions dissatisfying raises the interesting question of whether gospel solutions really *are* gospel solutions without the fulness of the gospel. Or perhaps the problem is that even taking those solutions at their face value, they don’t seem fully earned?

    I agree that The Evolution of Thomas Hall thought it was applying Mormon insights to the problems of the modern world. The reason I so disliked the book was that for the most part, I didn’t find the gospel there, but rather common, and in my opinion ill-justified, prejudices of popular Mormon thought. It challenges my identity as a Mormon in ways the other two don’t. But again, that’s because the other two books don’t really have that much to do with my identity as a Mormon.

    In light of your comments, I realize that one arena in which The Evolution of Thomas Hall is more satisfying than the others is that the main character has to work for his change of heart. A lot of inspirational fiction, it seems to me, is about the single moment — the insight, or the calmness that calms from without, or as an answer to prayer — that changes things for people. For the most part, Mormons believe in single moments that are either prepared for or followed up by a lot of hard work. I don’t know the inspirational genre enough to be sure, but I think that may be inimical to way it usually works nowadays.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Opps. Sorry Jessie, I got thinking Motley Vision and Wm came tapping out of my finger tips. I want to know what you (Jessie) perceive. Though anyone else who’s read any or all, pls chime in. Like maybe Wm. (So embarrassing.)

  4. Wm says:

    I have no issue with any author or publisher taking whatever approach they want. Let them write, publish and market how, where, or what they may.

    And in somes ways this category really shows the tensions for the modern church here in North America. Do we emphasize difference or commonality? Do we become a social conservative slightly weirder version of the Evangelicals? Or do we aim for something a bit more center-right where our views on science, society, etc. and overall pragmatism puts in more of a (ahem) radical middle?

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Someday someone will write a novel about a Mormon writer’s struggle to decide whether to emphasize difference or commonality in his manuscript. I see Woody Harrelson playing the part of the writer when it goes to the big screen.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I’d love to see Harlow Clark write that novel. Or play, or whatever. And then I’d get dizzy with all the puns…

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