For this month’s installment of Mysterious Doings, I’ve invited Braden Bell as a guest. I think his viewpoint is wonderful and I hope you enjoy what he has to share with us.
I’ve always been intrigued by the apostle Peter—particularly the episode when he walked on the water, at least for a few miraculous steps.
Leaving all the theological implications aside, I’m fascinated by the human dimension of this moment—Peter’s experience. Something must have made him believe he could do this. He was spontaneous and rash, but he was also a fisherman who had spent his life on the sea. Surely he would have known as well as anyone that people couldn’t walk on water—and was likely conversant with how quickly and easily people could drown.
And yet, understanding both the impossible nature of this feat, and the consequences, something convinced Peter that he could do this. At some level, he felt enough confidence in the Lord or his own faith or some combination to overcome what I assume would have been a healthy respect for the water.
I speculate that the initial exuberance must have grown even greater as he took those first steps. It must have been exhilarating beyond anything he’d experienced. And then, at some point, Peter must have realized what he was doing. He found himself out of the safety of the boat and with nothing between him and waves. I assume that his perspective changed and the whole venture suddenly looked far more complex than it had only moments before. In essence, Peter found himself against the difference between theory and practice.
As I studied theatre in graduate programs at BYU and then NYU, I became fascinated with Mormon art and what it could be. I read theory and criticism written by others and developed some of my own ideas. I analyzed the problems with what had been done before me and thought about how it could be done better. I was very comfortable in the boat, convinced I understood how to skip across those waves.
With years of thinking about this and a freshly minted Ph.D., I jumped out of the boat and wrote a book, applying all those theories, confident in my ability to walk on artistic waters.
People were generous in their response. No one was unkind or gratuitous. But I was shocked when some critics found it to be inspirational, but lacking artistic or literary merit. When I looked at my work dispassionately, I found they were right. How could that happen? I had all those theories–I knew how to do it right.
The difference, I think, is the difference, or interplay, between theory and practice—a great mystery that everyone who wants to do art has to try to solve. The difference between being in the boat and walking on the water. It’s a difference that every Mormon who aspires to do art in any form learns. The difference between our aspirations and our execution is often significant.
The question is what do we do with that gap? As artists, we keep going. Skill doesn’t burst out in our first works, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Most of us won’t be very good without considerable practice—which means we have to start somewhere. Our ability to apply theory to our practice demands, well, practice. We learn from our mistakes. We reach out for the Savior’s hand and keep walking. We learn not to use so many adverbs. We learn to avoid clichés. We become more self-critical and learn from what the critics say. And we try again and do better. Being a good Mormon artist is no different than being a good Mormon–it’s not natural for most of us. It takes time and effort and practice.
Critics and theorists have an important role to play in helping us solve this mystery. Critics serve an invaluable function by pushing for quality art that doesn’t make excuses, that meets high standards. But it seems to me that we can be honest in our reviews and critiques, but also charitable in the true sense of the word. Giving pure love and appreciation to those who have jumped out of the boat and are trying to walk on the water. We can laud motives even when we can’t laud the mastery of their craft. We can point out elements of work that are well done, even if there are flaws. And, we can encourage those on the water to keep trying.
Over the years, I’ve become a little annoyed when I hear people talk about Peter’s lack of faith, demonstrated in his inability to walk on the water. Did Peter demonstrate a lack of faith because he started to sink? Or, did he manifest extraordinary faith by running those few steps?
In my opinion Mormon art will never be all it can be until we solve the mystery between theory and practice, between criticism and execution. But that will have to be done for the most part and in the final analysis on an individual basis. I also think that Mormon art will not be all it can be until as many people as possible are willing to jump out of the boat and confront the moment—both thrilling and terrifying, when we realize that walking on the artistic water is not quite as simple as it looked. But that doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort. Some of us might sink after a few steps—but those steps are exhilarating! And maybe—just maybe—one of these days, someone will run the distance and create something exceptional.
Braden Bell grew up in Farmington, Utah and graduated from Davis High School. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theatre from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in educational theatre from New York University. He and his family live on a wooded lot outside of Nashville where he teaches theatre and music at a private school. His first book, The Road Show, was released in 2010 . His second book, The Kindling will be released in July of 2012. Braden blogs about all of the above at www.bradenbell.com