Storytelling & Community: Hanukah Thoughts on Mormon Letters

My guess is that relatively few readers of this blog celebrate Hanukah, but most are familiar with the basics of the holiday: that it’s Jewish, that it involves lighting candles for eight consecutive nights, that it commemorates a miracle of light.

A slightly more detailed version of the story goes like this: in the years between the Old and New Testaments, Alexander the Great took over as much of the world as the Bible mentioned and then some. Jews were allowed to stay in their land and worship their God, though, so they didn’t think that was too bad. After Alexander died without a clear heir, though, his empire was split up between rival generals, whose heirs fought each other for another hundred years. The Jews eventually ended up under one named Antiochus IV who considered himself a god. He tried to replace Judaism with his own state religion, which did upset many Jews, who ran to the hills and started a long guerilla rebellion. After some time, these rebels managed an upset victory in a pitched battle and retook Jerusalem. 

At the time, they had no idea whether they’d be able to hold it long. Would the Empire send reinforcements to drive them back into the hills? Could they hold on to the city of their temple and their God? Tradition says that in this uncertainty, they took action. They cleaned up the temple. They decided to rekindle its eternal flame. Since they didn’t know if they’d be able to keep the temple long, they didn’t dare wait the eight days to make new oil for the light. But tradition tells us that the one day’s worth of oil they had miraculously burned eight days until new oil could be prepared and the light kept burning.

Part of the enduring power of the story of Hanukah, I think, is in the ways it speaks to difficult, deeply tenuous transitional situations.

No one knows for sure whether a lasting economic infrastructre to support the production of exceptional Mormon literature, drama, and film will ever emerge. Writers and artists who dream of working within our culture typically have to do so without confidence that they will be able to successfully do so for any significant length of time. The resources simply aren’t there. And so we get days jobs. We spend most of our time on other projects. And when we acheive dreams, they always seem on the verge of collapse. The theatre company that produced all of my Mormon plays continues to hold workshops, but is on a producing hiatus. There is nowhere else I know of, at this point, for my best plays to be produced. Periodicals and small publishers who deal in Mormon work live and die by the passion and energy of their creators. No one gets paid much, if anything, and we all know that the whole operation could be over next year or even next month. Even organizations with substantial history, like AML, sometimes seem to be running out of fuel. Publications become irregular. It seems every bit as conceivable that hoped for events will not take place as conceivable that they will. And there’s always some lively debate about whether the work that all these individuals and organizations put out is ultimately more shadow or light.

And yet–we continue. No one waits for stability to come; we just write. And do our best, against all odds, to make sure that someone, somewhere, has a chance to experience our writing. Often, we get tired, selfish, frustrated. Writers have quit writing; believers have stopped believing–but never has the fuel completely run out.

Hanukah, I believe, is not celebrated simply to commemorate a single ancient miracle. We continue to light candles to express our belief that such miracles must and do fill the transitory days of our lives.

And so this Hanukah, my thoughts turn to Mormon letters. The future is uncertain; it’s cold outside, more often than not–but the past holds a succession of softly burning lights, works that have helped us keep spiritually alive, works that have made us more whole.

I’m looking for some candles for this night. And when I find them, I’ll do as my ancestors did and publish the miracle by putting them in the window.

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5 Responses to Storytelling & Community: Hanukah Thoughts on Mormon Letters

  1. Katya says:

    James, I’m sorry to hear that the New Play Project is on production hiatus. I’ve been living outside of Utah for the last few years and haven’t had a chance to attend any performances, but I’ve read about your work with interest. I hope that things work out for you and everyone involved.

  2. James,
    Thank you for expressing so well both the ongoing frustration and the hope of Mormon literature for so many of us who are a part of it. My favorite phrase: "And when we acheive dreams, they always seem on the verge of collapse." How true!

    I sometimes think we have to take it in shifts–your turn to pour your heart into a play few people will see this year, my turn to write a novel with small distribution, Chris’s turn to keep a publishing house going, Darlene’s turn to launch a blog. Each of us puts in a shift or two, and then all too often must turn to other things–like earning a livelihood or working in an area where we’ll get feedback from more people in response to our work. But the lights keep glowing nonetheless.

    Many years ago, Marion Smith, advisor to BYU’s science fiction magazine, commented to me that even if the magazine stopped publishing, the physical stack of issues we had produced was lasting evidence of what we had done. (Those weren’t the words he used, but that’s the gist of what I remember.)

  3. Love the idea of "shifts."

    Sort of fits in with the way our church runs…

  4. Wm Morris says:

    I agree.

    What we could do better with, though, is making sure there is just a bit more structure and knowledge management so that the shifts don’t end up with people re-creating the wheel. In addition, we need to crowdsource more things I think — or at the very least, make it so that certain functions aren’t quite so Utah-centric (the AML has a ways to go with this, in particular — although this blog is a nice step forward [although aren't all the bloggers so far Utahns?]).

    And I keep coming back to this notion that we need more one-off projects. The problem with a blog or a journal or even an organization is that there’s an implied indefinite duration, which means that when there are shift changes things don’t always run smoothly. Perhaps it’d be better to have some bright bursts of activity and creativity than the inevitable flagging of energy. On the other hand, there is something to be said for continuity. And at least when things go fallow so long as there’s enough involvement to keep the thing alive, there’s a possibility of renewal and re-emergence (and props to Darlene and Kathleen and Angela and all those who kept AML chugging along before this latest resurgence in activity).

  5. Great points, William. Just sat down today with a member of New Play Project’s incoming leadership and showed him our (admittedly far from perfect) Google Docs system for organizing information on how we ran the organization, etc.

    Someday it’d be nice for shortened versions of that sort of info to be available on the NPP website so that others who are interested can get a sense of how to run such an organization. Maybe Steve Gashler, who’s taking over NPP communications, will manage something like that.

    I also think works like Stephen Carter’s "The Best of Mormonism" might help serve that sort of role by giving people a quick sense of what’s being done already.

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