Mormon LitCrit: The Scope for Mormon Literature and Art

I was glad to read Margaret Young’s post encouraging international Mormon art and literature. I’m all for it — the needed diversity, the enriching that happens as subcultures and individuals of deeply varied experience find ways of expressing their lives and their religious faith. Like so many, I look forward to an improving and expanding scope for Mormon arts and letters. But I also want to critique certain assumptions about cultural progress that I think are at work among us Mormons looking for those Miltons and Shakespeares (or Gabriel Gracia Marquezes or Stephen Spielbergs) of our own.

There is the growth of the kingdom of God and then there is the growth of Mormon culture. I’m personally very committed to one and very wary of the other. I worry that we may be looking at these as going hand in hand, following a very 19th century, unilineal approach to cultural progress that may have little relationship to God’s influence spreading in the world.

Mormonism was born in the 19th century, the heyday of progressivist philosophies, and in a way our theology preserves and amplifies concepts about evolution and social improvement. We understand spiritual progress in terms of growth toward a godly character; we idealize Zion as a society we would evolve toward; we observe the exponential expansion of church membership as a social analog to a spiritual reality: God creates worlds without end, His very character is progressive. What is blasphemous to many is sacred to Latter-day Saints — enlightened beings are those who spiral upward in continuous improvement and expansion of intelligence, creativity, and being.

But maybe our ideas of progress need to progress. Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1877 work, Ancient Society, posited three stages of cultural growth: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. These stages, which he claimed every culture followed, were manifested through changes in technology and in family relations. Nowadays, Morgan’s early anthropology is seen as being very limited and not consistent with ethnographic research. The same can be said of other progressive philosophies from the 19th century. It is too easy to see these as products of Westerners looking to validate their “evolved” status relative to “primitive” societies.

The problem with Mormons buying into concepts of cultural progress like Morgan’s for their art and literature is that Latter-day Saints don’t see themselves as the result of a long civilizing process so much as a restoration of the primitive church. And with our founding scripture, our forward spiritual progress is linked to looking backward into history. In reading the Book of Mormon, the prosperity or technological status of a culture more often correlated with corruption than perfection.

What if our aspirations toward great Mormon novels or films were in fact evidence of our decadence rather than our progress?

I’ve been among those saddened by the loss of Relief Society lessons or church periodicals that taught cultural refinement. And yet, as a bishop, I see the wisdom of shoring up the spiritual lives of members ahead of their cultural literacy. And all you need is something like a runaway bestselling series about vampires written by an active Mormon to start having second thoughts about the “progress” of Mormon artistic culture. Are we really better off because Donny Osmond wins Dancing With the Stars? Perhaps our hunger for worldly acclaim, so very evident in the arts and popular entertainment, shows us backsliding, not arriving.

In a way, as the church grows, traditional Mormon culture naturally shrinks; there simply cannot be a common artistic heritage for all Latter-day Saints. That is probably a very good thing, preventing us from the provincialism that comes in exporting Wasatch Front Mormon culture. I know someone who wants to organize the mass translation into Spanish of every work Deseret Book sells. Those Mexican saints deserve Anita Stansfield’s For Love Alone or Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box in their own language. Do they? Do they need ANY English Mormon fiction?

There are certain stories that have become archetypal to Mormonism — the pioneer exodus, or the epic stories of voyages, colonization, and warfare from the Book of Mormon. They make for a common store that continues to be drawn upon richly by all Latter-day Saints. Would the Work and the Glory series therefore be more appropriate to translate than getting the Portuguese subtitling done for The Singles Ward?

Obviously we’d love to see native artistic works emerge from Mormons around the world. Are we ready for that? How about a Mormon telenovela for our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters? How about something like Borges? Whether going for vulgar or highbrow art, mix in Mormonism and you get some Frankensteins that we might just balk at warming up the electricity for.

I’ve argued before about our need to know and engage the great works of art and literature in order to test our own mettle. I still think that’s true, but I also think the scope of Mormon literature and art needs to be more than derivative; like the religion itself, it needs to be experimental and original. This is one reason I am so excited about the prospects of Mormon media. Anyone who has not seen Jeff Parkin and Jared Cardon’s Jer3miah web series (http://www.jer3miah.com) needs to take 90 minutes and watch these 20 episodes and think about the possibilities being laid out here narratively and in terms of form. Something has ignited here, and we ought to pay attention. (Read my review of the series here). Mormonism is a new medium for Christianity; maybe new media is the proper scope of Mormon art and artists. Or is it a false point of progress in the “evolution” of popular culture? Are we moving forward or sliding backwards with the new forms of expression? with pursuing the traditional ones? What do you think?

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10 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: The Scope for Mormon Literature and Art

  1. I have met saints living as close as 500 miles away from the Wasatch-Front that didn’t understand The Singles Ward, I can’t imagine what the Mexican or South African wards would think.

    And while I strive for my own work (novels) to be "experimental and original" I would still class myself in the Barbarism stage just because I don’t want to be grouped with the safe,civilized, and tame works mentioned above.

  2. Rose Green says:

    There was an article in my Arkansas newspaper today about the church, and I had to smile because it described the birth and growth of the church as "a teen blockbuster story"–a 14-year-old sees an angel, gets the golden plates, and much persecution and mayhem ensues. As a YA writer, I really get this!

    I find the explosion of LDS writers in the national YA market fascinating. The books aren’t out there to be Mormon in any particular way, and they certainly aren’t insular to the Wasatch front culture, yet nearly always, they contain elements that definitely come from an LDS worldview. I love this direction because it allows for people to write from their own multi-cultures–ie, their religious culture overlapping with their geographic one. Obviously there is a place for media that is just for an LDS market, but um…more and more of us don’t live in Utah or have that culture.

    I have to say, I really dislike when there’s a big hit in the national media, and then it seems a little while later, I’m seeing ads for the Mormon version. As if I’m not smart enough to appreciate the original, and have to have everything Mormon-coded for me. I don’t want a Mormon copy of Spielberg. I want someone new who brings his/her own vision, yes, influenced by an LDS perspective, to the work.

    I think that as the church grows and as literature by Latter-day Saints proliferates, we’ll see more originality and fewer derivative examples.

  3. I think we need stories that engage in productive ways with the lived experience of Mormonism. To a certain extent, I see some of the popular YA stuff doing that. Twilight, for example, includes some good elements (e.g. not having premarital sex) while performing a valuable service in raising conversations about other things it doesn’t do so well (how can you tell if your boyfriend is a manipulative stalker, for example? Twilight has a surprising number of people talking about this.) I’m sure Jer3miah and the Mormon telenova we’re awaiting likewise have/will have much to praise and much to criticize.
    Hopefully the interactions between multiple cultures and modes will do something to help reveal what’s at the core of Mormonism, what all the different manifestations have in common. Diversity in Mormon culture will help feed Mormonism the way a Mormon monoculture can’t.

    Art isn’t Mormonism and I don’t think we need one certain single mode. Art can help us, among other things:
    -feel less isolated in our experience
    -find strength to do what’s right
    -find space to think about what’s right
    -remind us of the true and familiar by presenting it from an unexpected angle
    -provide metaphors and talking points for children and parents to engage over

    It’s all good with me.

  4. Th. says:

    .

    Here’s what I would like to see:

    Indigenous Mormon cultures reaching out and connecting with the American Mormon culture. Not growing from what we currently imagine as "Mormon culture" but growing from their own national heritages (albeit with a Mormon spin) and then crosspollinating with our own.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Since Gideon mentioned translating Mormon literature, I thought I’d mention that I heard Glen Beck (yes, I sometimes listen) talking about how his [i]The Christmas Sweater[/i] is being translated into multiple languages, including Korean. James mentions the Mormon elements in [i]Twilight[/i], but I don’t think they compare to what is going on in Beck’s little book and yet I’ve heard very little discussion of that. Not that I’m asking for that discussion, but here we have a Mormon author who writes a novel filled with the Mormon worldview that is literally going out to the world and yet we aren’t talking about it. But then this post was about bringing the world into Mormonism rather than, once again, taking Mormonism to the world. So I guess I should apologize for the diversion.

  6. Tyler says:

    Th. says he’d like to see "Indigenous Mormon cultures reaching out and connecting with the American Mormon culture. Not growing from what we currently imagine as ‘Mormon culture’ but growing from their own national heritages (albeit with a Mormon spin) and then crosspollinating with our own."

    I think an early example of this (the first one came to mind when I read Th.’s comment) is Vernice Wineera’s collection of poems, [i]Mahanga: Pacific Poems[/i], which was published in 1978 by the Institute for Polynesian Studies at BYU-Hawaii. Not only is it unique in Mormon culture because it shows a woman conversing with her multiple heritages—Maori, European, and Mormon. But it’s also unique in [i]world[/i] culture because it was the first collection of poems ever published by a Maori woman. (Wineera’s also just recently had another collection published—or it might be the same poems plus more—by the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature at BYU, edited by professor Jay Fox. I’m aching to get a hold of a copy somehow. Anyone here know how I can do that?)

    Though the poetry isn’t as technically proficient as it could be, the collection’s real transcendence rests in the connections the poet attempts to make between her multiple worlds. And that’s something I’d like to see/hear more of—artists drawing imagery and experience from multiple cultural milieus in ways that speak uniquely to Mormonism’s varied pioneer heritages. I sense in that a spiritual depth reflective of Nephi’s comment that "all are alike unto God" and that provides insight into the ways a Gospel culture can span across time and space and perfect its adherents—or at least expand their capacity for understanding and experience—as only a Zion culture can/should. I think new media, as relatively unbounded and dynamic as it is, has the potential to facilitate such expansive connections. But maybe only if we know where to start forging such community.

  7. Rose Green says:

    There’s a bit of that internationality going on in the visual arts. I always love the church art contest because it features art from all over. Some of the locations seem more exotic to the American eye than others, but even the ones that are close to American, culturally, are a reflection of a very different viewpoint than the Utah Mormon community. The one that stands out to me is a sculpture done by a Relief Society in northern Germany several years ago. The way it was created in and of itself is a cultural statement.

  8. Tyler,

    You might be interested in "Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg." The text is at http://mormonartist.net/contest-issue-1/tales-of-tsr. Mormon Artist also published some endnotes you may find interesting.

    Take a look!

  9. Rose,

    Totally agree about the church art contest. It and the Primary Songbook are two of my favorite places to go for quality Mormon Art.

  10. Tyler says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, James. I’ve been itching to read your "Tales" since the contest issue came out (that’s me in the honorable mention category, by the way [pathetic self-promotion, I know]; it’s nice to share some rhetorical space with you). But the end-of-semester slam put them on my Christmas break list of "To-be-reads."

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