“I have a vision of artists putting into film, drama, literature, music, and paintings great themes and great characters from the Book of Mormon.”
– President Benson, Flooding the Earth with the Book of Mormon
During my mission, I listened to a lot of Christ-themed music. A lot of it was Mormon, but when we could, we would try to listen to the more “mainstream” Christian music. Sadly, I found a lot of the LDS-made music lacking – and not just in quality of music (it felt like they never truly emerged out of the early 90s). Matthew West’s song Happy changed my life when I heard it when I came to the sudden realization that hey, I actually should be happier more often because of who I am and what I believe as a Christian. A Church of Christ a capella group sang some beautiful songs about missionary work and, yes, fellowship. But all the EFY music’s lyrics seemed too obtuse – more sermon than celebration, more forced than a more natural type of worship.
Now, that’s one of the beauties of Mormon hymns. They are packed with doctrine – a whole lesson is lying in Redeemer of Israel, and even the stirring missionary work song Called to Serve has some wonderful doctrinal nuggets: God our strength will be! Say it out loud with confidence, and you can feel your heart swell.
But the problem is that most of us regular members can’t handle just listening to the hymns over and over again. And that’s where pop culture is supposed to come in. Pop culture has a negative connotation, a lowest common denominator type of entertainment; but that’s not all it has. Pop culture is just that – culture shared by most of the population. It can create a type of shared experience. It has the ability to change societal values or to strengthen them. Pop culture is unavoidable; even without the more modern mediums of music, movies or television, we still share the same stories – how many Mormons haven’t heard a hitchhiking story about the Three Nephites?
However, Mormon pop culture just doesn’t seem to stick or be cohesive. Inside of Utah, you see billboards for such and such Mormon artist all the time, but outside of Utah, such things are rare. I had never heard of half the new artists whose CDs now lie in wait for a member to purchase inside of Deseret Book until I came to Utah. We have some consensus on pop culture, like the RM or Singles Ward, but it’s more of, to borrow a phrase, a cringe-fest than a spiritual feast.
This thought culminated in Costco, as Dantzel and I walked by the book section. There was a book of international LDS cooking recipes. Jokingly, I turned to my wife and asked, “Don’t you want this book?” She made a face and pulled away forcibly.
“No,” she says resolutely, “I don’t trust Mormon recipes.”
Where did this distrust for Mormon anything come from? I know lots of members incredibly hesistant of watching any movie made by Mormons for Mormons nowadays. Twilight is the closest thing we have to Mormon pop literature, but Twilight hardly touches any subjects within the gospel. But we wish there were good Mormon movies we could be proud of. We wish we could have Mormon literature besides the Work and the Glory, we wish we could have Mormon television shows that aren’t Big Love. There’s obviously a market for it; why isn’t anyone filling it?
I hypothesize loosely. We as Mormons don’t know how to loosen up. Any Mormon movie either tries too hard at poking fun of Mormon culture (and ends up just poking hard enough to leave a bruise for many) or has to be didactic or instructive. It has to have a moral, it has to have a message; otherwise, it’s worthless and the prophets wouldn’t approve. Most of our pop culture is sterilized – there is no controversy, there is no dissent, there is only a perceived, but very fragile veneer of unity. Nobody dares be creative.
The vast majority of Christianity in America is protestant based, which fractured into a hundred thousand different autonomous variations and denominations – the entire tenant of protestantism rests upon the idea that a faithful member is able to discern all from the Bible. This causes problems when two faithful people will (unavoidably) disagree. But we as Church members have prophets, and what they say over the pulpit is modern scripture. This is an amazing blessing as members to have – I am able to easily distrust any Mormon myth that comes my way until I can cross examine it with the scriptures, the words of the prophets and the Spirit. This gives a pretty good idea of what we are to believe in the last days when there will be many deceivers, as the scriptures say.
However, this can become too restricting if abused. We have some people who refuse to take action until the prophet opens his mouth and addresses that very issue. I used to act like that on my mission until my mission president gave me some good advice – the prophet gives general instruction, and may from time to time give specific instruction, but for most of the time, the Spirit tells us how to be righteously creative and take advantage of the situation for the Lord. We, collectively as Mormons, are afraid to act, because we pride ourselves in coming out of those dark days coined with that scary phrase – The Great Apostasy. If we start to voice our individual opinions on doctrine, if we start to study it and bring up controversy or gray areas and debate them, won’t we just splinter the Church apart? Well, first off, God won’t let the Church splinter apart (it’s prophecy) and also, the Church is resiliant enough to resist Brother So-and-so’s crazy ideas of Kolob. Just make sure you are resiliant, and you’ll be fine. But until we get over our fear to retroactively, accidently contradict the Brethren, we won’t take risks in our art or our interpretations of Mormon life.
Thus, we are reduced to the same, cookie cutter Mormon pop culture where everything is peachy. Nobody falls away for long – they always come back or get baptized eventually. Nobody has unanswered prayers for too long. In the end, everything works out. We’re too afraid to question Mormon life – what if the pain never really does go away until the next life? What if people don’t get baptized, no matter how hard we try? What if children leave and never come back? What if no matter how hard we pray, a parent is taken away by cancer?
I remember the first New Play Project play I went to – a group of Mormon playwrights and actors in Utah who try to ask meaningful questions about our religion – and wishing so fervantly that some of these plays could leave Utah, become our literature, our movies, our music. A play that seemingly sets up the overzealous missionary oriented Mormon mom as a strawman (or woman) to easily knock down – and then explains why she’s so overzealous and that she might not be so far off after all. Or the play where two concordent people get up on their own Rameumptoms and call out rain and hellfire on the opposing sides of the political spectrum, each equally silly? Or the heart wrenching play about the loss of a child, and the guilt, pain, sorrow and subsequent, but never seemingly enough, healing that comes with it? Or the play about a son who joins the Church with an ex-member father, and the rift it creates in their once unshakable relationship with each other? Neither budges from their position, and only token reconciliation is given, but a catharsis – a real, emotional catharsis devoid of sentimentality – washes through the audience.
We have real art. We have real culture. We just need to get it out there. But have we already sunk the boat? Will President Benson’s vision of Book of Mormon art – real art! – vanish like smoke from incense rising up to the sky to disappear? Have we already shot ourselves in the foot, distrustful of our own pop culture, doomed to a continual flood of mediocre art and entertainment? Could we be depriving ourselves and new members as we enter together in a community full of rich, supernal doctrine – and completely empty and calorie-free popular culture?
The optimist in me says no, but I feel we have an uphill battle before us. Much of the denomination seems turned off to the idea of Mormon pop culture – how many members’ eyes rolled on my mission in Oklahoma whenever a Mormon movie was mentioned? – and now that we’ve tried it once, we don’t seem too hasty to try it again. But it’s a prophet’s vision to bring real art to our pop culture, to depict the great Book of Mormon themes through our art. And what theme is any greater than Nephi’s confession, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things”?
Moral of the Story: We need better Mormon pop culture. Reasons stated above. Any suggestions?