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.