Behold, Ye Are Fallen: The Case for Mormon Tragedy

Moroni Mourns the Death of his Father, Mormon by Walter Rane

Near the end of the Book of Mormon, the narrator, historian, and namesake of one of Mormonism’s most sacred texts, has just witnessed the downfall and near obliteration of his people. As he contemplates the carnage and the waste of potential in the multi-thousands of bodies he sees strewn across the landscape, he laments in a soliloquy worthy of a Shakespearean tragic hero:

O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return… O that ye had repented before this great destruction had come upon you. But behold, ye are gone, and the Father, yea, the Eternal Father of heaven, knoweth your state; and he doeth with you according to his justice and mercy.[1]

For me, Mormon’s cry of anguish, “O ye fair ones…” is one of the Book of Mormon’s most memorable and haunting passages. Even as a boy, the tragic story of Mormon and the downfall of his people resonated with me on a visceral level. My parents had purchased the Living Scriptures videos produced in the 80s and 90s and the episode “Mormon and Moroni” was, by far, the one I watched the most. When I finally read through the Book of Mormon the whole way through for the first time as a freshman in high school (after lots of start and stop attempts previous to that), again, it was Mormon and Moroni who stood out to me, second in personal impact perhaps only to the first time I read through Christ’s visit to the Americas in 3rd Nephi.

My friend Natalie would often gently tease me in high school about how “sober” I was, which made me think of Ammaron’s comments about Mormon:  “I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe.”[2] This gave me another connection to this plaintive and sensitive Mormon and his son Moroni. I felt kinship with tragedians like these.

And yet with one of our core books of scripture being a tragic work about the destruction of an entire civilization of people, we are certainly not known to be a “sober” people. Rather, we are caricatured as sunny, naive optimists with plastic smiles. A far cry from “sober…quick to observe.”  In Mark Oppenheimer’s recent article about Mormon literature in the New York Times[3], the insinuation is made that Mormons have a difficult time creating “literary” work because of this cultural characteristic. As Mormons, should we have more sensitivity and tolerance towards the tragic instead of keeping up the façade of indomitable cheerfulness?  Is there a case for Mormon tragedy?

Now I don’t make the odd distinctions that Oppenheimer seems to, excluding genre literature like science fiction, fantasy, and young adult literature from the canon. After all, Shakespeare himself was not above “genre” literature, with fantasy works like The Tempest, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and A Winter’s Tale in his folio. And you can’t tell me that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t fit as in the Young Adult category.  I taught the play to my 9th grade English class when I was a high school teacher and it was one of their favorite things we read. One doesn’t have to look very far into Orson Scott Card’s work or Shannon Hale’s work to find strong literary qualities.

And, with my focus on tragedy in this essay, I certainly don’t exclude comedy. Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and (again) Shakespeare were all lauded comedians and rank high in the literary pantheon. Also, I have no problems with the sunny, the triumphant, nor the optimistic, when it’s brought into a balanced context. In no way do I exalt the genre of tragedy as the sole heir of literary greatness.

However, I do think there are some uncomfortable truths in Oppenheimer’s article about Mormon culture. One of those truths is that as a culture we do seem to flock away from tragedy. In the article he quotes Mormon Young Adult author, Romance author, and now screenwriter Shannon Hale:

“It is a fair thing to point out,” said Shannon Hale, a Mormon who writes young adult fiction, “that there have been very prominent Jewish writers that have received a lot of accolades, and worldwide the number of Mormons are comparable to the number of Jews, so why hasn’t that happened?”

Ms. Hale’s theory is that literary fiction tends to exalt the tragic, or the gloomy, while Mormon culture prefers the sunny and optimistic.

“When I was an English major, then getting a master’s, most of the literary fiction I read was tragedy,” said Ms. Hale, whose Princess Academy was a Newbery Honor book. The books she was assigned treated “decline and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit” as necessary ingredients for an honest portrayal of life.

But what if Mormons do not think that way?

“I think Mormons tend to have hope and believe in goodness and triumph, and those portrayals can ring false in a literary world,” Ms. Hale said.

Now I’ve known many Mormons who seem nearly allergic to the idea of tragedy, as Shannon Hale suggests. Anecdotally, I’ve encountered this attitude even with Mormon literary critics who have questioned my own work because it didn’t seem to be optimistic enough for them. Although Deseret News theatre critic Sharon Haddock thought my play Farewell to Eden was “brilliant” and said that it was “complicated, not very predictable and [had] a lot of depth and characterization,” yet she felt that it lacked the sunny optimism that she felt constituted a fulfilling theatrical experience. In this case, the girl not ending up with the guy and the story not ending neatly, nor unambiguously, was a cardinal sin:

It’s not a very cheery play, so don’t go for laughs… Again, it’s a story that doesn’t go where one expects, and there’s not a happy wrap-it-all-up ending, so one leaves the theater slighting dissatisfied. But it’s watchable. This play has definite potential. Maybe it just needs a bit more hope.[4]

Now, firstly, I don’t believe that tragedy always has to be hopeless, nor do I believe that Farewell to Eden was hopeless (quite the opposite…it also has plenty of comedic elements). But she’s right that “there’s not a happy wrap-it-all-up ending,” and that it ends somewhat tragically, depend on one’s definition.   But Ms. Haddock’s review certainly pointed out to me again the undercurrent in our culture that calls for a happy ending at any price…even an unearned, false happy ending.

George Handley over at Patheos wrote an engaging response to Oppenheimer’s article, in which he relates an opportunity he had to meet Pulitzer Prize winning author Wallace Stegner. I thought the exchange between them was both insightful and problematic:

When I was in college, I had the privilege of listening to a reading by the great writer Wallace Stegner. He came to a student dorm and did a reading from his novel, Wolf Willow. In my family he was a revered name. He wrote some of the American West’s greatest novels, he understood Western history and the need for a stronger environmental ethic, and he wrote compassionately about Mormon history as someone who had spent part of his youth in Salt Lake City where he attended activities with a local Mormon Boy Scout troop. I am more disappointed every year to discover that LDS students do not even know who he was. At the time, I was writing a review of his novel, Crossing to Safety, and I was eager to talk to him about it, so after everyone cleared out, Amy and I found ourselves in a private interview with him. While I had his attention, I couldn’t help asking the question that was most on my mind: “Do you think Mormons will ever write great literature?”

He said with a warm grin, “Mormonism tends to produce a lot of happy childhoods. Not having had one myself, I am not sure that is good for literature.”[5]

Now having had a relatively happy childhood myself, I can’t contest that element of Stegner’s analysis too vigorously. But there have been plenty of other tragic, even self destructive, threads in my life. And I know many Mormons who didn’t have a happy beginning, as there have been who haven’t had a happy ending. The amount of tragedy that I have seen Mormons endure has been no more, but certainly no less, than other people of comparable stations in other parts of the world. There are Mormons I know, or who I know of, who have endured homelessness, death of loved ones (including by suicide and murder), racism, sexism, poverty, self-mutilation, mental illness, kidnapping, abuse, depression, betrayal, failure, disfigurement, etc.  Thus, if you can find it out in the world, you can find it also among Mormons, to a lesser or greater degree.

In the heart of Mormon central, Utah has the highest use of antidepressants; double that of the national average (twice the rate of California, three times the rate of New York and New Jersey).[6]  As the LA Times reports:

Few here question the veracity of the study, which was a tabulation of prescription orders, said Dr. Curtis Canning, president of the Utah Psychiatric Assn. But trying to understand the “why” has puzzled many, he said.

“The one true answer is we don’t know,” said Canning, who has a private practice in Logan. “I have some hunches.

“In Mormondom, there is a social expectation—particularly among the females—to put on a mask, say ‘Yes’ to everything that comes at her and hide the misery and pain. I call it the ‘Mother of Zion’ syndrome. You are supposed to be perfect because Mrs. Smith across the street can do it and she has three more kids than you and her hair is always in place. I think the cultural issue is very real. There is the expectation that you should be happy, and if you’re not happy, you’re failing.”

The study did not break down drug use by sex. But according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, about twice as many women as men suffer from depressive disorders.

Utah also has the fourth highest divorce rate in the United States,[7] thus breaking the happy illusion that we are so much better at holding together marriage and family than the rest of the world.

And yet we like to present ourselves in the best light possible, even if it verges on dishonesty. And it can be awfully destructive to those who don’t fit into the unrealistically peppy, idealized “norm” that Mormons are trying to achieve. I thought the New York Times report of an outside of the box animator during a class film pitch was particularly insightful:

The last pitch of the night was for a film called “Bothered.” The student who got up to give it was a small woman with jagged bangs and cat-eye glasses named Christina Skyles. She wore black tights with skeleton legs stitched along the length of her actual legs.

Skyles is from Portland; she loves animé and Tim Burton, especially “Ed Wood,” in which Johnny Depp plays the cross-dressing B-movie director. She voted for Obama, not Romney. In all the most superficial ways, she screamed “film student,” which is to say, she couldn’t have seemed more out of place, slowly making her way to the front of this room full of film students. “I’m coming,” she called. Her voice was creaky, impatient — unburdened by any trace of pep. This felt like a formality to her; she expected her story would be too dark, too personal, to attract any interest. In fact, a friend had already encouraged her not to pitch the film, worried that her singular vision could only get diluted and scrambled if she subjected it to the program’s collaborative process.

Skyles elicited a mix of respect and protectiveness from the other students in the program. She later explained that she has a lot of social anxiety and doesn’t handle stress well. When she feels overwhelmed or intimidated, she starts crying. “It’s just this weird biochemical thing happening in my head,” she said. But it tends to startle and upset those around her, which upsets her more. The whole thing confused her. She wanted to make a film about it. [8]

The pitch about a monster who appeared to overtake a young girl when confronted by the manically happy people around her may have not been meant for small children, but it was certainly a poignant insight to her soulful struggle. The moody, emotional, surreal, some could say tragic animation piece that Skyles pitched received a passive aggressive reaction from the Mormon BYU students:

It was autobiographical, right? Was it meant to be funny? There had been a lot of uncomfortable laughter in the room. “The vibe that I got,” one guy ventured, “is that this is something really different for us, and we don’t know how to react.”

“Um,” another began, “how concerned should we be about children who are watching these?” And would the General Authorities see it — the government of the L.D.S. church?

Eventually Adams stood up. He noted that the version of the film Skyles just showed was composed of two-dimensional drawings. He worried that, animated in 3-D with computers, the protagonist could wind up coming off as either a gruesome animal, and you’d feel viscerally horrified by her instead of sympathetic, or like a campy B-movie demon, and you would laugh. “I’m just truly afraid we’ll ruin your film,” Adams told Skyles.

The conversation became scattered and confusing. There was technical resistance to the project but also, it seemed, emotional resistance that masqueraded as technical resistance. Parris Egbert, the head of the university’s computer-science department, told me: “From a C.S. perspective, I hated ‘Bothered.’ I don’t like it. I dislike it.” But when I asked him why, he said, “It’s just too weird for me,” a critique that was not computer-science-based at all. At one point, Skyles tried to speak and started crying instead.

Here was a young woman who was trying to express some of the distress in her life through her art. It was not sunny, nor cute, like many of the other pitches. But, for her at least, it was expressing a very real thing in her life. And yet her piece received a hostile response from many of her fellow Mormons.

There is definitely a danger in misrepresenting our culture as infallibly happy, as the Little Engine Who Could.  If we can’t deal with these issues in our art, then they become trapped demons in our souls, with nothing to conjure them out. As the Book of Mormon says, “And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.”[9]

There’s a BBC America advertisement that I love not only because it’s hilarious, but because it has some startling insight for a TV commercial. Talking about why British dramatic television is so successful, it says, “When you take a class ridden society with no ability to address its emotions, and let it simmer for a thousand years, frankly, you have the perfect recipe for drama.”

Mormons have the same recipe, except we’re often not allowing ourselves that outlet of tragic literature, performance, and art.  We’re still letting that pot simmer and boil, until the lid launches off, to a much more disastrous outcome.  The British have a long history of successful dramatists, authors, and tragedians. This is in large part, despite the repression they endure, they at least allow a valve to blow off that steam.

In ancient Greece, there was a religious meeting called the Festival of Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, wine, revelry and, important to this context, theatre.  The Festival of Dionysus culminated with the presentation of a number of plays, comedy and tragedy both. This was a communal event. Everyone got work off, it was sponsored by the community, and even women and slaves (the bottom of their social totem pole, unfortunately) were able to attend. Now this was a religious event that allowed them two spiritual releases: laughter for the comedies, and catharsis for the tragedies. The fact that the Greeks felt that both laughter and catharsis were spiritually needed for their people is significant.

Catharsis, a word particularly associated with tragedy, is often described as a strong emotional release, especially the emotions of pity and fear. In the act of watching a tragedy, the Greeks were able to confront these emotions that were so daunting, and thus able to deal with them in a healthy, controlled manner. However, in our culture, many Mormons are trying to dodge or suppress those emotions instead. Whether through the sinking of emotion through the overuse anti-depressant drugs;[10] or the escape of uncontested divorce;[11] or the rising, frightening tide of the complete way out through suicide, we obviously need to find a better way than ducking our heads in the sand and pretending our tragic problems don’t exist.

Now many of the commentators are wrong. We do have tragic writers. Having compiled and edited Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama for Zarahemla Books, I can point to numerous plays that I know that are excellent examples of Mormon Tragedy (start, say, with Robert Elliott’s Fires of the Mind, or Thomas F. Rogers’ Huebener, even Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets has very tragic elements, as do many of Eric Samuelsen’s plays).[12] There are also numerous Mormon novelists, short story writers, essayists, and filmmakers who are good examples of the tragic Mormon story. We are not without the talent, but sometimes we are without the cultural appreciation. We reward our excellent Young Adult and Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors handsomely, and so we should. But until we as a culture can have the bravery to look at the shadows in our souls and purge them through catharsis, we will not give our tragedians the honor due to them.

When our Heavenly Parents and our Lord Jesus Christ looked down at those of us who would become Mormons, to decide what kind of book they would give us, they did not decide to give us a comedy or even a romance. They gave us the Book of Mormon, the story of the downfall of a whole people. They gave us a tragedy.


[1] Mormon 6:17-22

[2] Mormon 1:2

[3] “Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness,” Nov. 8, 2013

[4] “Stage Review: Farewell to Eden absorbing, but bleak,” January 19, 2010.

[5] “The Quest for Great Mormon Literature,” November 10, 2013 (accessed November 19, 2013), http://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2013/11/the-quest-for-great-mormon-literature.html

[6] Julie Cart, “Study Finds Utah Leads Anti-Depressant Use,” February 20, 2002, http://articles.latimes.com/2002/feb/20/news/mn-28924, accessed November 19, 2013.

[7] ABC 4 News Utah, video posted on reporter Kim Johnson’s You Tube page on November 14, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnJ_PJ1fmzE, accessed November 19, 2013.

[8] “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country,”

[9] 2 Nephi 28:21

[10] Note my emphasis on the “overuse” of prescription drugs. Obviously, I am not criticizing the need for medical care in mental and emotional health.

[11] Again note my emphasis. Obviously, there are times where divorce is the best option, when other avenues have been exhausted.

[12] Neil LaBute got so proficient at pointing out the dark side in Mormon’s lives, that he got excommunicated for it.

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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19 Responses to Behold, Ye Are Fallen: The Case for Mormon Tragedy

  1. Hillary says:

    I’ll give you my knee-jerk reaction this time: this is brilliant and thought-provoking. :) I’ve somehow never considered The Book of Mormon as the tragedy it is, but you’re absolutely right. This is very timely for a project I’ve been grappling with lately. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks, Hillary! Both the books of Mormon and Ether (particularly the latter chapters) have always struck me as particularly Shakespearean, and sometimes I’m surprised that it didn’t really seem to occur to a lot of people.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    Worth remembering that Skyles’s pitch was one of those selected by her peers for production.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting thoughts. I agree that as a culture, we often aren’t terribly patient with “downer” stories (in common with most of mainstream American culture, I think). And I agree that it’s probably due in part to a cultural sense that we need to be upbeat and not dwell on the negative, though I also think it may relate to a desire for literature to help lift us out of the difficulties of life (acknowledging that those difficulties do exist). Which is, I think, a valid purpose for literature — just as valid as using literature for catharsis.

    I don’t think tragedy is inherently superior to comedy (and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying either). Both have their value. But I think there is a tendency among some literary circles to value tragedy higher — possibly in response to the general cultural bias toward comedy (speaking broadly). Which I think was part of Hale’s point: while there may be Mormons who undervalue tragedy, there are also those in the literary world who overvalue it, and may be less inclined to value Mormon literature as a result. The bias can go both ways — and can be discouraging either way. Our job, as I see it, is to celebrate both.

  4. Emily M. says:

    I think part of the problem with LDS tragedy is that we have a deus ex machina inherent in our theology. For all that the Book of Mormon is tragic (and it is) we read that tragedy in the context of its redemptive power: it has been translated, has been spread throughout the world, has influenced millions. For Mormons, tragedy is always Act II, with the hope of a redemptive Act III.

    And, as someone who has been struggling lately with depression, I do think there’s value to that. I have written a lot about the power of honesty in writing, and I still agree with that. But there’s also a certain power to positive thinking, to that willful denying of negative reality, that is the only thing that really helps me chase away the blues. I absolutely need hope, and it’s worth noting that Mormon’s own words to Moroni, in the face of horrific war, say just that, in Moroni 9:25: “My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, to weigh thee down unto death; but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and long-suffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever.”

    The focus on positivity may not produce great art, but it’s a way to get past wallowing in the hard things that, while it may produce great art, doesn’t make for great living.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Thanks for sharing. And I actually think this kind of worldview *can* produce great art, if done right.

      • Emily M. says:

        Jonathan, I also agree that this kind of worldview can produce great art. It more often produces shallow art, though, and overly simplistic or too-positive. I have in the past rolled my eyes at this, but I’m starting to see its value. Not so much as art, but as a tool for people to hold onto the positive in life that they might not have been able to before. There are other reasons to create art than to create great art.

  5. Gamila says:

    I thought this was a really great, thought provoking post, which has made me think about tragedy plots mostly in the classical sense (because that is the tradition I am most familiar with) and how that applies to modern day interpretations. In talking with my husband about the ideas in this post we both kind of decided that tragedy is difficult for Mormons because our concept of true damnation is limited to very select people. For example the three degrees of glory and resurrection make it so many people are saved despite terrible decisions they have made in life. Though, we don’t think the Telestial Kingdom is all that great we do believe the people that inhabit that plane chose it with their own agency and ultimately are comfortable there.
    In true tragedy the character has to start out on a pretty high standing to make his decent dramatic. In Mormon theology the most dramatic decent is becoming a son of perdition. That is the truest tragedy, but there is a lot of confusion on how one becomes a son of perdition mainly because one must literally know the glory of god and then exchange it for the darkest abyss of their own free will in open defiance and opposition. It is very difficult to comprehend that type of defiance considering what we believe about the nature of God. Because of the level of agency and knowledge involved in such a descent I think many people would either have a difficult time sympathizing with such a character or being able to comprehend their motivations. I also wonder if our belief in agency and accountability also complicates conventions where the hero is tricked or manipulated into reversal of action or recognition stages that is so crucial to good tragedy. Unlike the Greek tradition we don’t believe that God punishes us for crimes that we are tricked or forced into committing against our will or knowledge.

  6. Scott Hales says:

    I don’t discount what you suggest in this post about pain and suffering being at the heart of tragedy, but I think Mormon tragedy works best when the tragedy involves a misunderstanding or misreading of the gospel message–particularly when the tragic figure never gets or refuses to acknowledge his or her misreading and misunderstanding–or when the tragic figure is a victim of a community that misreads and misunderstands. This is what we see in at the end of the Book of Mormon, but I also think late-twentieth-century Mormonism provides plenty of examples of these kinds of figures and Mormon artists would do well to find them. In Mormon fiction we have several good examples of tragic figures, particularly Durfey Haslam in Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney or Uncle Johnny in Margaret Young’s Salvador.

    I think it’s also safe to say, based on national bestsellers and the kinds of films that do well at the box office, that the sunny view is not any more prevalent among Mormons than the rest of the nation. Happy endings sell well and that speaks to Mormon writers who are more interested in getting a monetary return on their time investment than exploring the tragic avenues of the Mormon experience.

    Of course, as Charly attests, it is not that Mormons are against sad endings; rather, it’s more that they are uncomfortable with the idea of a cultural critique that is not disguised as affectionate satire. Tragedy generally throws light on troubled spots within communities, and that can be difficult to take for a community that sets itself up as an alternative to a fallen world and strives so diligently and earnestly after perfection.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Good comments. I agree that fundamental misunderstandings of the gospel message present highly fruitful potential for authentically Mormon tragedy.

      I’ve long pondered on the (essentially limited) options God has for helping us as individuals move past a place where what we think is true and good behavior actually isn’t. We can get stuck in a place where we try harder and harder to do something that wasn’t what God wanted in the first place. I imagine God off to the side saying (in the word of Prufrock): “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” It may be necessary for us to reach a stage where we give up on being “good” before we’re open to learning that “good” didn’t really mean what we thought it meant.

      All of which has great potential for Mormon fiction, whether or not that fiction takes the form of tragedy.

      • Scott Hales says:

        Yes. Exactly. And I think that’s where writers can really explore the fundamentals of Mormonism’s notion of free agency as central to God’s plan of salvation. Mormonism allows for tragedy because it believes in a God that is compelled to allow his children to use their free agency in radical and even self-destructive ways. He generally doesn’t–perhaps can’t, ethically–intervene when individuals or institutions go astray until they are humble enough to accept the intervention in the form of revelation. Tragedy happens when people fail to see their own pride and call it devotion instead.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        To take a (perhaps only mildly) contrarian position, while misunderstanding is one (very common and useful) way to tragedy, I think two others also fit nicely into the broad Mormon viewpoint.

        One is the Moroni condition (and its near corollaries, Noah syndrome and the Nephi effect)—despite all the good you can do (and be), the deck is stacked against you and everything still ends in death (or at least with your righteous desires not being fulfilled in light of powerful opposition). Your own faith is not always (seemingly rarely is) enough. The question is how/if you can come to peace with utter loss and devastation even after you do everything “right.” The bad guys win…often. Or at least win for now (it’s hard to be philosophical—as Moroni was—about the eventual triumph of a principle when the entirety of your people lies dead on the field).

        Closely related is the fact that miracles (or even basic reinforcements) do not always attend to the faithful. It may be a result of misunderstanding or an extension of the Moroni condition or Nephi effect, but even when you do what is required with good heart and pure intent, there is not always a shiny reward at the end—enduring to the end often means enduring without reinforcement or reward to bolster your good hope. Good people don’t always survive the seeming silence of heaven in the face of their good works and fervent hopes.

        I understand that those are both arguable extensions of misunderstanding (you have to see the long view and endure to the end, not expect anything like proximate reward), but the seeds of good people coming to tragic consequence are peppered throughout. The immolation of Abinadi doesn’t always lead to an Alma-like conversion; sometimes you just die in pain and your survivors find neither great hope or poignant moral lesson in the aftermath. Misunderstanding the covenant of the anti Nephi Lehies only makes their apparently pointless slaughter even more horrible.

        (We have so much more than Haun’s Mill or Mountain Meadows or polygamy as seeds of understanding tragedy, imo.)

        There’s plenty of room in Mormon history and experience to know deeply about tragic consequence. We may choose to tell the uplifting tale, but that is a choice rather than an inherent condition. As mentioned above, ours is the only major volume of scripture that ends with all the good people dying pending the hope of some future redemption—more than a thousand years (and more than 50 generations) hence.

        Imagine the record that might have been kept by the guy standing next to Moroni, whose view was not quite as assured in hope, and who only saw the decline and fall of a great nation and a good people. Also a misunderstanding, but not merely so.

        • Wm says:

          Perfectly stated, Scott. The older I get the more those two aspects that you point out become very interesting to me.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Good points. I agree that all of these represent fertile fields for Mormon tragedy, independent of the “misunderstanding” situation I mentioned.

          It also seems to me that the Moroni condition, as you’ve described it, presents a particularly difficult artistic challenge: how do you tell the story without either making it seem hopeless (if you choose not to redeem the faithful character’s hope onstage) or undercutting the character’s trial (if you do choose to give the happy ending onstage)? Granted, every kind of story presents its own challenges, but it seems to me that this would be a tough one indeed. As you point out, in real life, characters like Moroni and Ether who can maintain hope in the face of universal disaster are rare indeed. I can admire them, but find it hard to imagine how I could possibly emulate them.

          • “Imagine the record that might have been kept by the guy standing next to Moroni, whose view was not quite as assured in hope, and who only saw the decline and fall of a great nation and a good people. Also a misunderstanding, but not merely so.”

            Bam. Now that’s a play.

  7. Gamila says:

    I often felt that tragedies often centered around lack of knowledge or subversion of free will by fate/gods. I can see how lacking knowledge can be adapted to Mormonism by misunderstanding gospel principle and god can only do so much about it. Though, I had troubles with how to adapt the subversion of free will until I realized that to a certain extent we do believe that we can give our agency away by making bad choices. Addictions of all kinds begin this way. In addition, there comes a point when if we chose not to repent then God’s hands are tied and he can’t do anything but let us suffer the consequences of our actions, and often these consequences are not resolved even after repentance.

  8. Casey Anderson says:

    I enjoyed your article. I have often wondered why it is that there are little to no Mormon writers making a splash in the world of high literature. I believe it has to do with our culture and not with our doctrine.
    It does seems that, as you sated, we would rather stick our heads in the sand than to confront our difficulties. Our culture has a problem with being able to recognize that we have faults. We would rather pretend to be perfect through the atonement than to allow it to work on us.
    We will never be taken seriously in the world of literature until we are able to confront our problems. Akira Kurosawa said, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” And it is through art that we learn to become more human.
    There are writers doing this successfully, Terryl Givens is just one example. But it seems that as far as fiction goes, we have a lot of ground to cover before we can have our Milton, our Shakespeare, our (to be more modern) McCarthy.

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