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?