Literature and the Challenge of The Mormon People

Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, published earlier this year by Random House, is possibly the best overview of Mormon history that I’ve read. Written for scholars and general readers alike, the book situates Mormonism against a broader backdrop of events and cultural trends in American history. For instance, it shows how Mormon intellectuals like B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and John A. Widtsoe, along with Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant, actively sought to align—and sometimes adapt—Mormon teachings and practice to the optimism and ideology of the Progressive Era, which accounts for their idealism and scientifically rational approach to understanding the gospel.

As someone who has grown up in the church, and whose life has been thoroughly and unabashedly Mormon, I found the experience of reading Bowman’s book akin to looking through my grandparents’ photo albums and seeing ancestors with my nose and hairline. On every page of the book, it seems, is a genealogy of the Mormon character—rich historical explanations for why we think and act and say the things we do. It gave me a greater appreciation for how Mormons engage the world and adapt themselves to its challenges. It also led me to think seriously about what future direction the church and its culture will take as the world evolves and changes and poses new challenges for the Mormon people.

Interestingly, though, Bowman ends the book without weighing in on the future possibilities of Mormonism. Indeed, rather than speculating about whether or not women will someday hold the priesthood, or if the Church will ever condone gay marriage, he leaves readers with a sense that the Church is at a crossroads of sorts, healthily positioned to take any number of possible routes into the twenty-first century. And Bowman’s tone is positive and optimistic when he concludes that while “it lacks the drama and confrontation of earlier years, the ongoing negotiation between the Mormon vision and American culture remains as dynamic as ever” (248).

Although Bowman’s book says little about Mormon literature, I read this statement both as an expression of faith in the Mormon story, and as a veiled challenge to Mormon letters—especially since Bowman follows it up with analyses of Parker and Stone’s The Book of Mormon and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, two well-respected and widely popular literary works that depict contemporary Mormonism in such a way as to suggest that Americans no longer need to view Mormons, with their cartoonish mythology and dull contemporary lives, as threats to the mainstream. As Bowman observes:

Both the riotous musical and Kushner’s brooding black comedy present faith defanged, Mormonism shorn of its revolution. The Mormons of The Book of Mormon offer no challenge to modern American life. Their beliefs are patently ridiculous, amplified and exaggerated in the song “I Believe” to emphasize Mormons’ apparent utter detachment from reason and rationality. These Mormons are a national entertainment, an amusing foil to a satisfied modern and secular society; they seem hardly capable of keeping their own church running, let alone staking any ambitions upon the nation. Kushner’s contemporary Mormons are the grim storm troopers of American capitalism, unthinking servants of all that is wrong with the status quo, barely conscious of their own once marginal heritage. To some evangelicals, they are dangerous heretics; to Republicans, they are merely reliable voters. All capture a part of what it may mean to be Mormon in America today, but none quite grasp the multifaceted ways in which Mormons currently define themselves and the strength with which their religion still creates for them a profoundly radical world. (251-252)

What Bowman here suggests is that the works of Parker, Stone, and Kushner, while successful on some levels, ultimately miss the complexity of what it means to “Mormon in America.”  The challenge I read for Mormon letters, therefore, is to find ways to portray this complexity, this drama of contemporary Mormon life—and do so without accommodating or reinforcing the caricatures and stereotypes that works like The Book of Mormon and Angels in America promote. In a sense, I read it as a challenge not only for Mormon literature to grapple with what continues to be “profoundly radical” about contemporary Mormonism, but also to reflect more deeply, meaningfully, and aggressively on the “ongoing negotiations” between Mormonism and the world.

Admittedly, Mormon literature has a history of addressing these “ongoing negotiations.” Nephi Anderson, for instance, used fiction to address anti-Mormonism and carve out a place for Mormons in a broader world community. Likewise, the Mormon modernists of the so-called “Lost Generation” used the historical novel to argue for Mormonism’s centrality in the American mythologies of westward expansion and colonization. Interestingly, though, I’ve noticed a tendency in more recent writers—especially in Douglas Thayer, Levi Peterson, and other “Faithful Realists”—to push these negotiations to the side and look inwardly at the problems and concerns inherent in Mormon-to-Mormon relationships. Rather than addressing Mormonism’s place in the world, that is, they strive to cleanse the inner Mormon vessel.

Such inner-vessel literature, I would argue, succeeds on a representational level where The Book of Mormon and Angels in America fail. At the same time, however, I would argue that this type of literature frequently offers little insight into how Mormonism is relevant in the world today—except, perhaps, to suggest that Mormonism is a reliably safe escape from the world. This is especially true for many contemporary Mormon novels, which are sentimental to the core about the safety of this archetypal retreat from the world and its influences.

In outing the contemporary Mormon novel as fundamentally sentimental, I do not want to give the impression that I consider this a weakness. When properly directed, sentimentality is an extremely useful and powerful rhetorical strategy for writers, and I think the Mormon novel’s penchant for it gives it the potential to help bring about a literal Zion community. However, I also realize that sentimentality misdirected is sentimentality misunderstood—which is why I think we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to actively pursue a literature that looks beyond the usual boundaries of self and community by placing Mormons on a broader canvas of concerns. Such a literature, I would argue, has greater potential to introduce an accurate, more appealingly radical portrait of Mormonism for those who would otherwise have little reason to care about the Mormon people.

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12 Responses to Literature and the Challenge of The Mormon People

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Scott—

    Have you read James’s article in the most recent Sunstone about how Mormonism is the revolution?

  2. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Excellent comments, Scott! This is a book I’ve been very curious about.
    Are Angels in America and The Book of Mormon Musical the only two artistic works it talks about, or are there any other discussions about Mormon literature/film/drama/art?

    • Scott Hales says:

      He also looks at Saturday’s Warrior for a page or two and reads it as a conservative response to the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 70s. At the end of the book, he touches on the films of Richard Dutcher and The Work and the Glory series. He also discusses briefly Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon and the Home Literature movement.

      And, if I remember correctly, he mentions “The Mormon Rap.”

      Aside from that, he doesn’t say much else about Mormon arts.

      • Th. says:

        .

        If he mentions the “Mormon Rap” he’s okay with me.

        Don’t smoke don’t drink if you know what I mean
        Don’t even know the meaning of the word obscene

        Personal note: Asking my parents about this line is how I learned the meaning of the word obscene.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    A very interesting analysis. I particularly like your thought (if I understand it correctly) that both more “literary” works of Mormon fiction and more popular contemporary Mormon fiction seem to be focusing less on the place of Mormonism in the world and more on the place of Mormonism for Mormons. Is that an accurate representation of what you’re saying?

    As an author, I’m also curious where you’d situate No Going Back in this context. It seems to me that while a lot of it is inward-looking, there’s also a lot that is about how Mormon identity and beliefs are situated in larger American culture (particularly of course with regard to homosexuality). Thoughts?

    • Scott Hales says:

      Yes. I think you’ve paraphrased my point nicely. If you look at a popular conversion love story like “Charly,” for example, you see a narrative that sidesteps the dilemma of Mormon/”Gentile” confrontation. Ostensibly, you have what looks to be a meeting of Mormon and Other, but it’s really just a vehicle for affirming Mormon beliefs and critiquing certain foibles within the culture–i.e. Sam’s chauvinism, lack of faith in the atonement, etc. The disconnect between the Mormon world view and the Other world view is never a point of contention since it is so easily swallowed up in conversion. If you haven’t read the book in a while, take another look at Charly’s conversion. It takes place in a matter of a few sentences. And although Charly is a philosophy major, we never get to see her match wits with Sam. That Mormon/”Gentile” exchange never happens.

      I suppose the same thing happens in many Mormon historical novels when the Other is reduced to the caricature of the mob, whose point-of-view is too bigoted and narrow (usually little more than “We hate Joe Smith!”) to be taken seriously. You rarely see a satisfying Mormon/”Gentile” exchange in a Mormon historical novel because the enemies of the Mormons usually offer no competition.

      I would say, of course, that “No Going Back” fits within the kind of literature I am looking for in this post–especially during scenes where Paul, your main character, interacts with his friends in the gay/straight alliance. To me, those scenes show that you have a broader audience in mind. You are not, in other words, simply trying to change attitudes within Mormonism, but also outside of it as well.

      You’re scope seems more ambitious.

      • Mahonri Stewart says:

        From what you’ve said about A Roof Overhead in the past, it seems like you thought it fit into this mold of Mormon/”Gentile” interactions, right?

        • Scott Hales says:

          Yes. And my mind hasn’t changed. It’s one of the many works (along with Dispensation, On the Road to Heaven, Rift, The Mormon People, etc.) that got me thinking about this issue of how Mormon literature represents others–and how it tries to appeal (or not appeal) to others outside of the Mormon community.

        • Mahonri Stewart says:

          It’s been interesting rehearsing A Roof Overhead with a largely non-Mormon cast. Two atheists, two non-denominational Christians, three Catholics, a new age Wiccan, and one Mormon (playing Joel) in the cast. I’ve especially appreciated having an atheist playing Sam. We’ve been having a blast and they’re really connecting well with the material–in a very different way than I’m sure the largely Mormon cast in Utah did.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I’m interested to read the reviews you get of the new production. The changes you’ve made to the script, along with the change of venue and the different backgrounds and sympathies of the actors, will likely make the play very different from the version I saw in Springville. I hope it generates some dialogue.

          Also, I haven’t read it yet, but Steve Peck’s “A Short Stay in Hell” sounds it might be the kind of text I’m interested in reading.

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