Desperate Prayers: Keeping the Faith as Mormon Artists

Kathryn Laycock Little and Amos Omer in New Play Project’s production of “The Fading Flower.” Photo by Greg Deakins.

“DOUBT NOT, FEAR NOT.”

The lure is there. Always. As an artist, writer, scholar, etc. you want to explore, to search, to find uncharted places, and make illuminating insights. Thus the cling of dogma or doctrine can feel like the weight of shackles rather than the truth that will make you free. It’s a rare thing to find an artist, a writer, a scholar, a reader, any human being, really, (whether carpenter, accountant, or freshman college student) who hasn’t had those desperate, so desperate, soulful prayers; who hasn’t felt those doubtful shadows closing in; who hasn’t felt the conflict between the vivid memory of very real spiritual experiences and the world shifting nature of new information, or the fresh conflict of political and social and personal upheavals.

We try to hide it, to show that we’re strong, to show that nothing can shake a faith so monumental as ours, a mind so well informed as ours, a life so supposedly faithful as ours. That in a world of disaffected artists and cynical academics, we are the exception, that we can withstand the pressure that others couldn’t. That we can be that light on a dark hill, to shine as an example that others can draw strength from. But, really, all of that is a bluff, it’s whistling in the dark. When the lights are off and no one is looking, we feel like little children who wake up to realize the threat in last night’s nightmare is, indeed, still very real. That this Thing is targeting us just as expertly and painfully as the next person. That we, too, are vulnerable.

THE DARKEST ABYSS.

Thinking is a dangerous, explosive, beautiful, necessary thing, and it is not something that God just wants us to turn off. Pondering and soul searching is part of the process that leads to sanctification. In his own crucible of affliction and desperate prayers, that hell hole called “Liberty” Jail, the 19th century Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith wrote these words:

The things of God 
are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only 
find them out. Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul 
unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the 
lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal 
expanse; he must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, 
than the vain imaginations of the human heart, none but fools will trifle with the souls of 
men (History of the Church, vol. 3, p. 295).

In that cramp, dark experience of Liberty Jail, after Joseph Smith had seen the Zion he had been trying to build in Missouri tumble with the Fall of Far West; after he had seen an “extermination order” leveled against all Mormons by the Governor of their State; after he had seen his people pillaged, raped, and massacred; after all of this, I think it is reasonable and understandable that even the Mormon Prophet had his own dark night of the soul (one among many, if the history is to be believed). “O God, where art thou?” Joseph wrote. “Where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?” (Doctrine and Covenant 121:1-2). In Joseph’s prayer one hears echoes, if not of doubt, at least of desperation and confusion. Why was God letting this happen to a people who had sacrificed so much to strive towards what they saw as God’s ideals?

In Mormon playwright and poet Susan Elizabeth Howe’s play called Burdens of Earth she explores this cramped, claustrophobic, creviced time in Liberty Jail. It’s a yearning, quietly painful play that does an excellent job in exploring this unique, yet universal, faith crisis. In a conversation with his brother Hyrum during the play, Joseph’s thoughts at certain points are bleak, even despairing:

JOSEPH. When we were boys one day I found a beetle crawling up the rock pile behind our field. I had never seen such a beetle. So black, it was almost purple in the sun, over three inches long, and fat. Near the top of the rock pile there was a crevice too narrow for your hand, and it was crawling there, but I took a stick and blocked its path. It stopped for a moment, confused, and then turned aside, trying to get around the stick. But no matter how it turned, I kept blocking its path.
HYRUM. I don’t like beetles.
JOSEPH. Finally it stopped trying to get around the stick. It bumped against it, as if it was testing it with its head, and then it climbed up onto it to try and get over.
HYRUM. And I don’t like to talk about them.
JOSEPH. So I picked up the stick. I kept the beetle crawling up and around that stick again and again. When it would reach the top, I’d turn the stick upside down. It crawled on and on and never really got anywhere. But when I finally tired and let it down, it wouldn’t climb back onto the rocks. I finally hit the stick against a rock to jar it loose. The beetle fell, and I lost it. I hope I didn’t kill it. (Short pause.) I wonder if they hibernate … or if the snow kills them.
HYRUM. I want to talk about you.
JOSEPH. I am talking about me. Listen, can’t you?
(Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, Zarahemla Books, 2013, p.163)

In the play Joseph tortures himself about his actions towards the excommunicated Oliver Cowdery, and about the tortured Hanson Jacobs who suffers in consequence of following Joseph Smith (and, by extension in his mind, God). Joseph’s sense of helplessness, depression,  discouragement, self-blame, and sometimes God-blame, pervade the play. Throughout the story, Joseph has flashbacks to these experiences with Oliver and Hanson, and one of those memories with Hanson I found to be particularly cathartic. Hanson’s family had a harrowing experience during the fall of Far West–the mob having beat him; set his house on fire; shot his horses; gang raped his wife; thrown his child out into the cold during the rape, where he froze and gained a life threatening fever. For a long time he blamed Joseph Smith and God for having brought them to this point:

 HANSON. …The damn helplessness was the worst thing I’ve been through. So I sat in my store and my wife and my son, watching them suffer, and I settled down to hate. I hated Hobart, and that major, and I hated God. I hated you, too, and that’s why I said all those things I said. I wanted to punish someone; I wanted someone to feel the way I felt. So I sat there with my wife, hating, waiting for my son to die. Ten days. The rest began to leave, and I just sat there, watching my wife and son.
JOSEPH. I know, Hanson. I know how you felt.
HANSON. No. Wait. He didn’t die. My wife finally came round some and got from her bed. She asked me to give him a blessing. I said no. I figured we’d done enough turning to God. Next day, Lucinda got me to go out for a walk, but I didn’t go more than a half mile. And when I got back, I found she’d had the elders come in to bless him… I interrupted the blessing, swore terrible things at them, and I threw them out. When they were gone, Lucinda began to look at me frightened, and she said, “You’re one of them” (Ibid, p. 207-208).

THE MORMON ARTIST.

When Richard Dutcher came out with his film God’s Army in 2000, I was on my mission for the Church in Australia. My companion shared with me an article someone had sent him, and I remember being thrilled. This could be a game changer for people like me, who wanted to both thrive in the Church and thrive in the arts. Stephen Carter identifies the meaning of this moment in Mormon Arts very well in his essay “The Departed”:

By the end of the movie, I was converted. Mormonism wasn’t just Sunday anymore. It was a seedbed for compelling, fully realized stories. It was a place where an artistic renaissance could find root….

One person asked Richard if it had been difficult to get the approval of Church authorities to make God’s Army.

“What kind of approval did I need?” Richard asked. “That was my story. You don’t need church approval to tell your own story.”

Suddenly it clicked. That was what made Richard’s work so different from every other story I had seen come out of the Mormon community. It was his own (What of the Night?, Zarahemla Books, 2010, p. 116-117).

I, too, was big into the Mormon Cinema movement. Absolutely enthusiastic about it. I tried to support all the films that were coming out of that early turn of the 21st century Mormon explosion of work. The hyped ones, like The Work and the Glory, Charly, The Singles Ward, and The Other Side of Heaven. The less known, rough gems, like Out of Step. Even many of the stinkers. And, of course, I made a special effort to support what I considered to be the truly artistic voices like Christian Vuissa, Ryan Little, and, of course, Richard Dutcher. I attended all the films in their theatrical runs that I could, I bought all the VHS releases (oh, I’m starting to date myself!), and attended seminars and speeches hosted by people like Dutcher.

Thus my enthusiasm for Mormon Cinema made the later tailspin of the movement all the more dizzying and discouraging. It was hard to see it’s reputation recede after Halestorm put stinker after stinker out after its initial success with The Singles Ward. It became increasingly obvious that the Halestorm guys were less about telling stories for and about our people, but rather about sponging off us, mocking us, and insulting us with their broad caricatures. The very real cynicism exhibited by a certain strain of filmmaking was certainly shown in their work.

But there was Dutcher, in my mind, paving a better way, despite his critics.

Oh, and, boy, did he have his critics. I fervently defended him to family members and friends who felt he had a less than faithful edge in his films. No, I said. His films have substance, authenticity, and honesty. The shadows he includes make the light all the more brilliant by contrast. Perhaps naively, I railed on against anyone who would dare question the commitment to the faith that Richard Dutcher had. He was a gift to our community and we needed to do better in showing support to the artists who were trying to tell the Mormon story with both honesty and authentic spirituality.

When Dutcher announced that his next film after Brigham City was going to be a Joseph Smith biopic, I was over the moon. Church History is one of my personal passions, and I was so thrilled that one of our most talented and searching artists was going to tackle the subject matter of the endlessly intriguing Joseph Smith. So when the funding and backing of the movie withdrew and the film was never made, I was devastated. Perhaps inordinately so, but I took the blow strangely personally. I even prayed about it, asking God why that, when the chance for a truly great film on the Prophet finally came along, his children had squandered it.

The answer I felt I probably shouldn’t go into in detail about, because of its personal nature, but I will say that it confused me and that I even resisted it. It didn’t make sense to me and I certainly didn’t want it to be true. But the answer turned out to be prescient, as events unfolded.

Hints about the future started coming, but I willfully ignored them. Little elements in some of Dutcher’s films were troubling in a Mormon context, and he started into films which were a far cry from his previous work (really, he was going to be make a horror film with such a horrible B-movie title as Evil Angel?). His comments at events, conferences, and retreats that I attended were becoming increasingly cynical, even hostile. The Spirit and hope I had felt at previous speeches of his were palpably dampened. But still I held onto my faith in him. He may be edgy, sure, but that is sometimes a very needful paint on an artist’s palate. A little bit of that gray can provide great contrast. Still… a growing, buzzing alarm started sounding in me which I so much wanted to ignore, so that I could keep on dreaming.

Then the announcement came, via a very dramatic letter in the Provo Daily Herald. Richard Dutcher announced his departure from the Church with lots of fanfare, and more than a little condescension for those dupes who hadn’t crossed the river of enlightenment with him and left behind the boat that got him across. I was crushed. I felt my bones crunch.

Whenever I think of that instant, my mind flashes to the moment in God’s Army when Elder Dalton (played by Dutcher himself) confronts the apostate Elder Kinegar and challenges him, telling him that he knows that Elder Kinegar is convinced the Gospel is true. He had often heard Kinegar say it. In a chilling moment from the film that still haunts me, Elder Kinegar replies plainly, “I lied.”

Richard Dutcher’s character Elder Dalton dies. Elder Kinegar went off into the night, to live another day. Little did I know when I first watched that film that Elder Dalton’s death had become more significant than I first imagined. Elder Dalton was dead, and Richard Dutcher had become Kinegar, ready to tear down the message he once declared. There was still hope for the young, re-energized Elder Allen. Yet let us not forget that Edler Allen is played by the same actor who was the murdering sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing in Dutcher’s Brigham City. Can even he be trusted in Dutcher’s narrative?

FIRES.

The once safe faith landscape that I used to live in as a young man has changed drastically in recent years. I feel that the sacred groves that once surrounded me plentifully have been traumatized by the chainsaws and bulldozers of an increasing secular dogma that many people are falling into lockstep to, calling me to join. Even worse, I see the bureaucratic pharisees who want to take the sacred woods of my younger faith and make a shopping mall out of them, all in the name of the Lord. But all I want to do is retreat further into those dwindling, shrinking groves… except for those moments when I want to set them on fire so that no one else can desecrate and diminish my achingly personal, spiritual experiences and transform them into something I no longer recognize.  Like the Jews of Masada, sometimes I feel like it would be better to escape into the hands of God than to fall into the hands of the Romans.

I have had many of my loved ones come to me, knowing my love of the faith and that I have tried to study the hard questions (because, I often glibly say, I have no reason to be afraid of the questions as long as I am not afraid of answers), and these struggling friends and family members ask for help with their faith struggles and dark nights of the soul.  I feel especially equipped sometimes, rattling off what I have learned in Church History, or in the scriptures, or relating a dream, or personal experience, or what I felt to be an (often prescient, prophetic) revelation. But then those Seekers leave again, often strengthened in their faith, but sometimes less than convinced by what they perceive to be my still inadequate explanations. Yet when they leave, I often ask myself, “Who’s left to help me?”

At that point I retreat back into the diminishing groves, trying to block out the sounds of the impending construction (destruction!), and usually I am able to (with some focus and grit) get that revelatory line back to God.

Except when I don’t.

In Robert Elliott’s riveting and soul searching play Fires of the Mind, he tells the story of a young missionary named Elder Johnson in 1970s Taiwan who is battling against the intellectual doubts and moral quandaries that insistently press upon him.  Some of the Elders around him are supportive and try their best to be patient with his languishing questions that never seem to go away. Yet other Elders are hostile to the threat of this inquisitive despair, and lash out at him, including his new missionary companion Elder Markham. In the third act, the play rivets up to a dynamic rising action before the climax:

JOHNSON. Elder Markham, do something for me.
MARKHAM. (Flat.) What?
JOHNSON. Come here.
MARKHAM. Yeah?
JOHNSON. I want you to use your priesthood.
MARKHAM. How?
JOHNSON. Lift that table by your faith.
MARKHAM. Get off it, Johnson.
JOHNSON. (Grabbing his arm.) Noooo, wait a minute, senior companion. You’re afraid you couldn’t do it. You don’t really believe you could do it. Come on. Faith as a mustard seed, Markham. Give us a little show.

MARKHAM. You’re seeking a sign, Johnson.
JOHNSON. That’s right. I’m a priest of Ba’al, Markham. I’m a Korihor. Are you an Alma? Huh? (Gives him a little shove.) Come on; fire from heaven, bright boy, strike me dumb!… Markham, you don’t have any more faith than I do. You don’t have a testimony either. You and Matthews don’t really believe or live the gospel. You use it to help plan your petty lives and make you feel important. Maybe the gospel’s true and maybe it’s not, but you’re not the one to tell me or show me anything about it. So keep your trap shut about my testimony. And don’t worry; I’m not gonna touch you (Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, p. 46-47). 

OPPOSITION IN ALL THINGS.

One of the best books I’ve read this past year (one of the best books I’ve read ever) is Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps. It’s on par with any of C.S. Lewis’s soulful and intellectually vigorous defenses of Christianity. But C.S. Lewis, having been a thorough atheist in his early life, was so effective a defender because of his previous skepticism. He knew the authentic power of doubt, he had asked the hard questions. He hadn’t come out of his atheism unscathed, nor even (yet) completely healed, but, through some personal spiritual experiences and through the thorough reasoning and help from friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, and Owen Barfield, he did eventually come out of that bleak atheism. He came out a believer.

Similarly, in the introduction for The God Who Weeps, the Givenses do not flippantly discard the very real doubts that are cutting down those groves of faith. They, too, have felt the persuasive reasoning of secularism or nihilism whispering behind their ear: “Most of us do indeed walk our weary way in the dark from candle to candle, ” they concede, “or live lives of quiet desperation devoid of even those glimmering guideposts. We are mired in the mundane–” (p. 2). Doubt is not some straw man to be put up, only to be knocked down by ebullient pep talks and clever catch phrases. This is the reality we all live in, this is the lone and dreary world that we have all been traveling through.

Yet neither do the Givenses flippantly nor condescendingly pooh-pooh the power of faith. In the set up of their book, they show the tension between these two forces, but also show the purpose of both:

There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun to our heads….

The greatest act of revelation occurs when we choose what we believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.

This is the realm where faith operates, and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self. For we do indeed create gods after our own image–or potential image. And that is an activity endowed with incalculable moral meaning (p. 4-5).

A GLASS DARKLY.

When New Play Project produced my Mormon history play The Fading Flower, I steeled myself for the possibility of criticism. Another theater had previously produced my play Friends of God about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and, although I saw the play as an expression of my fervent faith, yet I hadn’t shied away from controversial issues. I had tried to be honest and forthright with thorny aspects of Mormon history in that play, particularly Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, and that had left me open to criticism of some.

I got one particularly verbose chastisement from the producer of the play when he actually got around to reading the script that he was producing! More than half way through the rehearsal process! Fortunately, at that point he had only read half of it, and when he actually finished it, he came back in tears, telling me what a beautiful testimony it was of Joseph Smith. So he followed through with his commitment to produce the play. But the divisive reactions I got to the script were startling. Some audience members told me how much it helped them resolve issues involving Joseph Smith’s behavior in Nauvoo. Some didn’t have those questions in the first place, so they left unsettled.

The Fading Flower followed in the same vein, following the stories of Emma Smith and her adult children (especially David Hyrum Smith), many years after the martyrdom. Like Friends of God, I had written The Fading Flower as an extension of my testimony, but also like Friends of God, it dealt with issues some members of the Church would prefer to be left in ignorance of.

Yet ignorance has never been an option for me. David Hyrum Smith historically was a man after the truth, even when it hazarded his comforts and former worldviews. So David became my avatar in the story as I wrote the script and tried to see the world through his eyes, as he waded through the world of Mormonism both in his native Reorganized Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints and during his proselyting missions to the Utah branch of Mormonism. In the end, at least with my interpretation of the events, the truth that David discovered about his father had tragic, devastating effects on David. Yet, in my worldview, such a faith shattering conclusion was not inevitable, as I explore in a scene between the head of the RLDS Church Joseph Smith III and his sister Julia:

JOSEPH III. I am part of something much bigger than any of us now. We have an opportunity to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world! To be his emissaries!
JULIA. We are not his emissaries if we tell the truth one one subject and then lie on the next.
JOSEPH III. Julia, we can do great good, but we must be practical. If we insist on prying into complicated matters that are better left buried–well, then we’ll all end up like poor David, blinded by the fire.
JULIA. David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one (The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun, Zarahemla Books, 2012, p. 97-98).

To me, that summed up succinctly everything I had been trying to do with both plays. To me, truth is better served fresh from the oven, in its context, rather than to let it grow cold and stale, where other false molds and infections have grown up over the once pure bread of life. When the telling of truth is taken out of its proper moment, and delayed, it more often become the destroyer of faith rather than the nourisher of it. One very good, but very human man once said that not all facts are very useful. In that context I often feel the need to quote back American founding father John Adams’s famous comment, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Thus I believe that we need to be more upfront from the get go about our history, our human frailties, our liability to error, even among high places in the Church. The harder facts are much more manageable when delivered by some one who has access to the larger context within the fabric of faith. Yet when those facts are discovered accidentally (through a friend, through the internet, through a contentious antagonist), then people feel betrayed by those who withheld those facts from them and didn’t allow them the choice of what to believe, the option of those “grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice,” that the Givenses reminded us of.

But not everyone saw it as I did. Although the play was largely well received and I got many positive, even emotional responses, yet there were a few well placed jabs that I received as well. As I said before, I expected that. What I didn’t expect, however, was from how close to me some of those jabs came. I had some one in my family, who I very much admire, give me once of the most hurtful analyses of my writing that I have ever received: “I left the play realizing that my brother was going to leave the Church.”

It was the uttering of my worst fear. Was this comment a prophecy? Was I doomed like Richard Dutcher, like Neil LaBute, like Maurine Whipple, like Brian Evanson, like so many Mormon writers, actors, scholars, artists, and people of thought and searching to leave the faith and Church that I loved? Was Max Golightly’s comment, “The first great Mormon artist will be excommunicated” truly inevitable? Were faith and inquiry truly incompatible? Were all the doomsayers and cynics about Mormon intellectuals and Mormon thinkers being a danger to the faith, after it all, right? Was I truly to become, like Dutcher and God’s Army, the antagonist of my own story?

YEARNING. JOY.

In his best book (and my personal favorite novel…ever) Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis says, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” It is a theme that comes up again and again in Lewis’s life and work. He calls it yearning. “Joy.”

It is a sense of disconnect with this world, and the feel of the aching tug for the next. A heavenly homesickness that is poignantly sad and hopeful at the same time. It is something that I have felt over and over again and again in my life, ever since I was very young. Like I don’t belong here, that I never belonged here. A feeling that tells me when I shuffle off this heavy cloak and take off the smoked glasses, I will be in a more complete and beautiful version of those groves again–a mightier and more delightful wilderness than any mortal hand could pave over and mark with its inferior structures. And I will be among Love themselves, God the Father, God the Mother, God the Son, God the Daughter. I will be among the great Council, the beautiful Multitude of Light, soldered by the Sealing Power, God the Family, Eternal Lives.

I have dreams sometimes. Vivid dreams that have come true in their details, or have such powerful allegorical or symbolic meaning that they change the course of my life. When I wake up from such dreams, the pervasive peace and clarity that accompany them is hard to describe. It was one such dream that led me to the research which I used to create The Fading Flower. Another such dream instructed me and comforted me when I learned through a book about the injustices that happened to the September Six, and it helped me through a difficult time as I grappled with that new information. In many of them I felt like I received very personal visitations. One dream (not the answer to the prayer I was hesitant to mention before) helped me give personal context to the Richard Dutcher incident, previous to finding out that he was leaving the Church:

I was on the set of the film Evil Angel. I hadn’t seen the film yet, but I was curious about it. Something was wrong, though, but I didn’t know what. I ran into Richard Dutcher and there was this sad expression on his face, deep in thought. He came to me and told me, “Mahonri, no matter what happens after this, the Church is still true.”

It wasn’t long after that when I learned about Dutcher leaving the Church.

I have had a number dreams like that, which are a little more sobering. But have been other dreams which are infused with pure hope. Joy. Such as this one, which was the first such “spiritual” dream I had when I was around 11 or 12 years old:

I was on the top of my parent’s roof and I was startled by what a beautiful night it was. I couldn’t remember seeing the moon so bright. Soon I saw what appeared to be a sleigh in the night sky (my adult mind keeps wanting to replace it with a chariot, but it was definitely, vividly a sleigh), drawn by nothing other than the power of its driver. The sleigh landed on the roof and I was surprised to see Christ on the bench within the sleigh. He beckoned to me to get on the sleigh with him, indicating that he wanted me to help him give a gift to the world. I peacefully and joyfully joined him in the sleigh and then woke up with that pervasive peace.

I so want to help give that gift. My writing is the only thing I have that I feel comes close to my best offering, as insufficient as it is.

MESS OF POTTAGE. CROWN OF GLORY.

I fell in love with Robert Bolt’s classic play A Man For All Seasons in high school. I read it first, I believe; watched the film starring Paul Schofield; and saw an excellent production of it at BYU directed by David Morgan, all coincidentally within the same year. I even competed with a monologue from it for a drama competition that year.  A Man For All Seasons is the story about Sir Thomas More’s adherence to his Catholic faith, and his quiet but firm opposition to King Henry VIII’s divorce/rupture with the Catholic Church, despite having won previous favor and prestige with the King. His adherence to his conscience cost him everything. His employment, his fortune, his freedom, then his life. At any point, he just needed to relinquish this one opposition, and all his former life would be restored to him–he would even be lifted up higher than before! Yet he remained firm in his conscience, even to the end.

In the trial leading up to his death, there are a few moments that still shine vividly for me. One moment is a tense moment between More and Richard Rich, who had done the opposite of More, selling his loyalty to the one who could put the best ring on his finger:

MORE. I have one question to ask the witness. (RICH stops) That’s a chain of office you are wearing. (Reluctantly RICH faces him) May I see it? (NORFOLK motions him to approach. MORE examines the medallion) The red dragon. (To CROMWELL) What’s this?
CROMWELL. Sir Richard is appointed Attorney-General for Wales.
MORE. (Looking into RICH’s face with pain and amusement) For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales? (p.158).

I take great comfort and inspiration from this story and am extremely moved when More approaches his executioner at the end and says to him, “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” A more cynical characters asks, “You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?” To which More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him” (p. 162).

“CAN YOU HAVE A GREATER WITNESS THAN FROM GOD?”

Back in Robert Elliott’s play Fires of the Mind that I quoted before, some of the missionaries may not have the mental or spiritual resources to answers Elder Markham’s challenges of doubt, but there is one of the young men that rises to the challenge, Elder Lucas, who has been a stable, strong, and charitable influence throughout the play:

LUCAS. …You’re as screwed up as they are. First of all, Markham does have a testimony. So does Matthews, so do I. We’re not very strong in it because we haven’t had it long. We know a little about the priesthood, but not much. It takes a lifetime to build faith. Maybe your little speech will help Markham. He’s just a starstruck kid who was brought up in the Church and not in the Gospel. Yeah, I know the difference, too… Don’t be unjust to him… I don’t care how bright you are or how clearly you see things. You’re the one with real trouble right now.
JOHNSON. Why?
LUCAS. Those guys will fight their problems within the Church framework. They’ll have bishops and wives who will help them overcome themselves all through life… But you, baby, you’re on your way out right now. And it’s not God’s fault, it’s yours.
JOHNSON. Why doesn’t he answer my prayers?
LUCAS. You won’t let him. I’m sure He tries. Look, two things. How long have you been on this agnostic thing?
JOHNSON. Since I was a sophomore in high school.
LUCAS. And you’ve nourished it and cared for it ever since.
JOHNSON. No, I–
LUCAS. Come on, Johnson. Nobody lives in uncertainty. You may think you do and torment yourself to keep yourself satisfied, but agnosticism has become your creed. You’re proud of it. It’s made you an individual. You’ve found your niche. The good but dissenting Mormon, who lives the principles of the Gospel but questions the doctrines. The man above. Pride, Johnson, and a pattern of life every bit as tight, if not so common, as the bourgeois Mormon lifestyle that bugs you so much. You’ve told us all what a puppet your father is. Well the world pulls your string too, buddy. And you jump…. You look at the Markhams and you sneer because they’re naive. And so you accuse them of not really knowing the gospel is true. But the Markhams scare you, because they really seem to have gotten an answer… You’re afraid you wouldn’t receive an answer because you haven’t got what it takes. Your agnosticism is one big front of fear (Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, page 47-48). 

Now back to Susan Howe’s Liberty Jail play Burdens of Earth. After Hanson also realizes that he had become the very thing he once preached against, as I have discussed Dutcher became, and which I, when I am most honest with myself, am afraid of becoming myself once that glass darkly becomes clear, Hanson was left with that choice that the Givenses mentioned. That strain between doubt and faith, the opportunity to make a free step towards whatever reflected himself on the inside:

HANSON. Oh, yes, I had cause for all the hate and grief in the world. But I settled into it as if I’d been waiting for it. Oh, Joseph, I even forgot the love of my wife. When she helped me see it, I made my choice. I won’t be something dead, something finished. So I did what I had to do. Finally, just let my bitterness go (Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, p. 208).

I aim to make my beloved family member’s supposed prophecy about my future apostasy into a false prophecy, despite my confidence in that person’s understanding of other spiritual matters. Just because an artist, writer, or scholar produces challenging work that takes the facts seriously, and aims to create a balanced picture within the proper context, it does not mean that such an artist is to doomed to be an apostate. Just because a person recognizes human frailty, it does not mean they will become disillusioned with the Chuch and leave, as long as charity and forgiveness still exists in that person’s heart and revelation courses within their spirit. As The Book of Mormon states, “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29).

If I am ever driven out of the Church (which I do not expect, especially with the Church’s new open minded acceptance towards its history and its less alarmed stance towards its intellectuals), it will not be at my behest, because I aim to consecrate my life and work to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Peter, the God of Joseph Smith. As More says in A Man For All Seasons, “I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, I long not to live” (p. 160). I feel increasingly optimistic about where the Church is headed, which was fervently affirmed after recently listening to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s masterful General Conference talk “Lord, I Believe”:

When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle (see http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/lord-i-believe?lang=eng).

Elder Holland’s magnificent talk, of which this is only a morsel, is like the Givenses references to the needful tension between doubt and faith. Elder Holland does not discourage honest questions here, but rather the opposite. “Be as candid about your questions as you need to be,” he states. Authentic inquiry is what brought Joseph Smith into the Sacred Grove to experience God. He had been promised that God would not upbraid him for asking questions, (I will say this not so glibly now) as long as he was not afraid of the answers.

And the answers, though difficult, may not be the deal breakers we fear they might be. They require historical context, an acceptance of human frailty even among prophets, and a broader view of God’s patience and compassion than we once considered. They require the abandonment of a Pharisaical focus on outer rules, regiment, and bureaucracy and rather require a devoted discipleship towards the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness. Those answers require a true willingness to change, to become sanctified, to recognize our own errors, and a humble submission to the will of God, even if we have to sacrifice the praise of Mammon.

Amos Omer in Art City Playhouse’s “Friends of God.” Photo by Michelle Argyle.

What is true artistry rather than the pursuit of truth and beauty? And what is truth and beauty rather than the very essence of what God creates and what God taps into? If God is called the Author and Finisher of our Faith, is not God then our ultimate exemplar towards a true artistic transcendence?

My faith is not rooted in my art, but I’d be sorely disappointed if my art was not rooted in my faith. The tension of doubt causes honest inquiry, and honest inquiry causes sincere seeking, and sincere seeking causes revelations from God. Thus even “doubt,” when focused through a lens of faith, can be spiritually beneficial. Even “doubt” can be sanctified and be transformed into a new creature. It was doubt in the religious world around him, after all, that caused Joseph Smith to reach for something better in his personal relationship with God. Thus I retreat once again to my own personal grove, and hope to plant new trees, while occasionally sabotaging the machinery of Pharisees and Secularists alike.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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20 Responses to Desperate Prayers: Keeping the Faith as Mormon Artists

  1. Poetically written. You’ve written what’s in my heart as well. Thank you for putting your heart on your sleeve and sharing this with us. Poignant to say the least.

  2. Mark Penny says:

    Thanks for this, Mahonri.

    As I was reading, I realized that I hadn’t struggled with faith for a while. Then I realized it was because as a bishop’s counselor, I was giving more service. And just now I’ve realized that it’s not a question of having faith or not, but of how much I have and of how it’s proportioned with doubt–and how much attention I pay to the doubt.

    More importantly, it’s a question of desire. I remembered, as I read, that Jehovah says, in Abraham 3:25, “we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them”. Obedience, not faith. Obedience comes from desire: to obtain blessings or avoid punishments. What blessings are promised? What punishments are threatened?. Can they be delivered? Okay, so you, yeah, belief and faith come into it, but the heart of it all is desire. People leave the Church because they do not, at heart, desire what the Gospel promises.

  3. Mark Penny says:

    By the way, I met Golightly in 1982. I was considering a BA in play writing and he showed me around the department. I didn’t come away with a testimony of him as a prophet.

  4. Caleb V. says:

    I loved this piece. I have struggled with the same yearning to find and stay in a sacred grove as I watch friends left and right lopped down. It is difficult to endure the subtle and sometime blatant scorn of the world. Those slings and arrows still smart no matter the armor your wear. Sometimes I weep a little on the inside for my children knowing that they will one day leave the little grove I try to nurture with my wife at home to plant their own and the barrenness of the soil the world offers. I think we as saints and as a church struggle for the tools to speak about the rough edges of our history. Thanks for the part you play in exploring ways to discuss them. I just tell myself to not forget where I came from, what I’ve experienced, and that faith requires patience.

  5. Darlene says:

    Beautiful, Mahonri. I recognized so much here from my own journey. I’ve also benefited from the thoughts of people like Terryl Givens and Jeffrey R. Holland. In the end, I’ve decided that faith is what a person decides to do in the face of doubt; it’s a choice I make daily. I’m glad you’re along for the ride, too.

  6. You have exposed both the warp and the woof of the soul of those of us who long to be called artists; who long for the continued or even temporarily blessed ability to reveal what little we know about Christ and His Gospel. Because each thread adds to the greater tapestry. But while we artists search, the remainder of the membership of the Church plod on — just like we do — testing our faith (as we are commanded to do in so many scriptures — testing and proving, being tested, being proven) by bearing our souls and our testimonies on paper and/or on stage.
    Thank you, Mahonri, for your probing testimony.
    I would also like to remark about Mark Penny’s comment about Max. (Hi, Mark!) He was no prophet, that is true, but he was a guide. He had many more questions himself, than answers. But his answers were stunning. I was a student of his, (along with Charles Whitman, Charles Metten, Ivan Crosland, Harold Oaks, Dee Winterton) then the focus of his ability to mentor, then his writing partner of decades, then his publisher. He has left an indelible mark on my life (all of these men have) — one that assists me almost daily to keep the faith and maintain my course. For he was a thinker, a questioner, a man full of testimony, much as I desire to be, much like Mark is, much like you are yourself, Mahonri!
    Thank you again for this article. It reaffirms all that I have ever tried to do through the arts — sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But nothing is ever accomplished if we do not try. God Bless!

  7. Cory Huff says:

    Thanks Mahonri. I have many similar feelings. I remember when I was going through college I struggled deeply with my decision to study theater and make that my avocation. In the end, I realized that the Lord had blessed me with a burning interest and a talent for the stage and literature. After much prayer, I came to realize that this is where I am meant to be.

    I’m okay with living in a play of uncertainty. I know that there is a great deal of ambiguity and opaqueness in the church and even in some places in the Gospel. I feel as though my relationships with my Heavenly Father is strong. I have to believe that is enough to sustain me.

  8. Krista Howe says:

    Thank you for your words of encouragement to Mormon artists. I believe this article will help me as I ponder my own future in the arts as I determine whether or not to go to graduate school when my youngest goes to kindergarten. I once had a college instructor tell me that if you are going to be a writer you must prepare yourself to be continuously disturbed by everything. I have found this to be true of the world, but in my Mormon heart this disturbance is counteracted by Hope and Faith, that not everything need be so macabre and horrible for the sake of art, that art can speak to the soul and offer realism and hope in our darkest hours, because Hope and Faith are part of realism, too; it is how many survive this disturbing world. I really needed to hear your words. Thanks.

  9. Scott Hales says:

    This post touches on a lot of what has been on my mind since reading Ryan McIlvain’s Elders. Let me know when you read the book–if you read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    I had a similar relationship to Richard Dutcher’s work and experienced a kind of betrayal when he left the Church. I’ve since come to understand that “betrayal” as no fault of his, but rather of my own unfair idealization of him. I attended several talks he gave and was impressed by his desire to tell faithful Mormon stories realistically. I also defended him to friends who were critical of his approach. When he left, I felt like I had been played. Looking back, and knowing how faith and commitment to the gospel work, I understand that that was not the case. I imagine that he was sincere at those talks–although, like many of us, he probably downplayed his struggles with faith as he encouraged others to tell faithful stories. I took a rather simplistic view of his relationship to art and the gospel when he left.

    I still value works like God’s Army, Brigham City, and States of Grace for what they attempt to do with Mormon experiences–and for what they teach me about telling and understanding Mormon stories. My friends are still wrong about Dutcher’s films, and their earnestness, and I still consider his earlier work important Mormon art. We need to avoid dismissing Mormon art because its artist has left to fold or taken an unorthodox path. Truth is truth no matter where it comes from or from whom. Your future relationship to the Church, for example, will not change my future opinions of “Swallow the Sun,” “The Fading Flower,” and “A Roof Overhead.”

    Speaking of which: can you send me a copy of “Friends of God.” I’m curious to read your heresy.

  10. Thanks for the great comments, everyone!
    Scott, I actually agree with you about Dutcher and his past work. It took me a little while to work through that “betrayal” (honestly, some of it still lingers, but this essay was cathartic for me that way), but as you say, his work came from a sincere place. From his early speeches I attended (I wonder if we were ever in the same room together?), he seemed to be completely sincere. I wonder about where he was at during States of Grace, though, since he filmed Falling at the same time. I haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet, but from what I’ve read it seems to have been coming from a less than optimistic place, spiritually speaking. Have you seen it? I’d be interested in your opinion.

    And I definitely still value Dutcher’s films, too, although the additional irony the backstory now includes is kind of hard for me to ignore.

  11. BrianW says:

    Brilliant! This needs to be published in print and presented as a paper. If you consider expanding it, might I suggest working in Levi Peterson’s The Backslider?

    Thank you for posting this!

  12. Wm says:

    I like what you’re saying here, Mahonri, but I wouldn’t express it quite so strongly as the domain of the artist.

  13. Of course it has more universal implications than that, Wm. It’s just the particular lens I’m using for this piece, but I do not subscribe with the idea that an artist is any more or less tortured, challenged, or special than anyone else. That’s something Dutcher would some times argue which actually really bugged me whenever he brought it up.

    • Wm says:

      I figured as much. Perhaps it’s because I’m an artist, but I battle with both artist exceptionalism and Mormon exceptionalism, which means Mormon artists exceptionalism is quite the conundrum for me. I think there’s something there (just a wee little bit), but heck if I know what.

  14. You should write a post about that, Wm. I’m in the same boat with you on that.

  15. Mark Penny says:

    Thanks, Michael. I didn’t come away thinking Golightly was an apostate, either. He seemed like a really nice guy. But the tour left me feeling like the department had a certain gloominess I didn’t need in my life. Mind you, that sense came more from a grad student he introduced me to than from Golightly himself.

  16. Rachael says:

    Thanks for such a beautiful, thoughtful, vulnerable essay that encompasses both hope and doubt in a way that encourages any reader to be more honest with themselves–and to not be afraid to do so. I profoundly appreciated this essay.

  17. Bryan Ellertson says:

    Lovely thoughts Mahonri. I have always found your writings to be laced with faith and yearning to resolve inconsistent facts/events with the testimony you so obviously have nurtured. I will always remember the concept taught by Alma and Amulek as well as by Elder Banks in God’s Army-the beginning is a desire to believe, and this beginning is an important ingredient to the further nurturing of the seed as it grows and brings forth the sweetest fruit. Every exploration into these uncomfortable nooks and crannies of church history as well as discussion with those who struggle or who are opposed is accompanied by this desire that I have to be true to the testimony that the Lord has given me and to still want to believe and obtain the further light and knowledge promised me. Keep up the good struggle and keep writing my friend.
    Bryan

  18. Jonathan Langford says:

    Coming to the conversation late…

    First, a response to Mark Penny: I agree that sometimes people leave the Church because they don’t believe what the gospel promises. Other times, though, they leave because they have lost faith that *they* are capable of receiving what the gospel promises. And other times, they leave because they can’t see a way out of some particular emotional or intellectual trap or dilemma.

    People do leave the Church because of cognitive dissonance. I like Krista’s comment that the state of the writer is to be continuously disturbed about things. It’s true that as writers/artists, we sometimes fetishize our doubts (being more fond of questions than of answers, I think Elder Packer called it in a talk that still stings in my memory because of how close to home it hit). At the same time, I think God has made it pretty clear that *all* of us need to be prepared to find out that things we thought were true aren’t. God doesn’t give us revelation in order to tell us that everything we thought we knew is just exactly right. We’re all heretics (artists or not). We shouldn’t expect that for any of us, giving up our wrong ideas will be easy of painless. They’re our beliefs because — guess what? — we believe them. Hence the need to cultivate self-doubt.

    Sometimes we’re given a reprieve from doubt because of the service we’re rendering, as Mark also noted. But such gifts are often temporary. I think it’s important not to assume that if we serve well enough, we can avoid doubt forever. I see it more as a matter of times and seasons.

    The issues we have when someone like Richard Dutcher leave the Church aren’t just about interpretations of art and artistic intent. Like it or not, we’re also a community of people who interact with each other in ways that extend beyond artistic production and critical reception. We are each other’s mentors, role models, cheerleaders, advisors. Perhaps we should be able to detach artists from their art, but how do we detach them from our own heart and soul?

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