I once ran a story idea past a Mormon friend, who immediately rejected it. He said it contradicted Mormon doctrine. I told him the story didn’t even have anything to do with Mormons, that this situation detailed a very particular pickle Mormon writers find themselves in, mostly because our faith is still relatively new and we’re paranoid of anything that even hints at anti-Mormonism. We expect Mormon writers to write stories of sterling examples of exemplary Mormons, and where our doctrines always trump all, where protagonists banish ambiguity, the boyfriend joins the Church, the child is healed of all sickness, the righteous person prospers, the wicked suffer, and the parents stay together. But such stories are not very true to the real Mormon experience. Even when Mormon writers write about things that aren’t very Mormon, we’re expected to defend the faith somehow. It didn’t seem fair.
This incensed my friend. “What, are you angry at the Lord? Are you angry that you’re a Mormon? That’s a dangerous attitude! You should be grateful that you’re a Mormon writer! You have a duty as one! Don’t complain about your duty or the Lord’s commandments.” And he lectured me for a good thirty minutes on what my “duty” is. His remarks sting even to this day.
There’s a writing contest called Monsters & Mormons (the deadline is soon). As the purpose statement says, “As Terryl Givens documents in The Viper on the Hearth, from Zane Grey to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mormons served as stock villains in the early days of genre fiction (both pre-pulp and pulp heyday). We propose to recast, reclaim and simply mess with that tradition by making Mormon characters, settings and ideas the protagonists of genre-oriented stories to appear in an anthology simply titled Monsters & Mormons.”
My friend David and I threw around some ideas for Mormon genre fiction, and we came up with some very fun ones, such as a team of Mormons who go looking for Bigfoot/Cain. Or a Mormon who finds out all the fantastical elements of fantasy like magic and elves still exists, and how does Mormonism fit in such a context? My friend Quinton suggested steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction, while my friend Ben came up with an idea of where our spirits actually are parasites which take over the bodies as they’re born. I bandied around ideas of where some kind of supernatural disaster, such as a zombie plague, forces Mormons to reconsider some precious theological tenets, such as agency.
The problem is, where do you draw the line between sacrilege and fiction? What happens when you find that the mostinteresting story to tell is when situations arise to challenge the protagonist’s faith? For example, David proposed an idea of a “Young Joseph Smith and Porter Rockwell Adventures” pulp novel, of two young, God-inspired archeologists digging up old Nephite ruins for rare, possibly magical artifacts. Sounds like Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, right? But what about a story where Joseph Smith actually communicates to a clockwork God through some kind of steampunk “revelatory” device in an alternate dimension of Mormonism? Some people would balk. Or what about a gunfight between the steampunk-ified Brigham Young (aka The Iron Lion of the Lord) and the steampunk version of Abraham Lincoln? Or, as my friend Adam proposed, the pioneers must build a fleet of dirigibles to transport the fleeing Saints across the plains, and before they reach the Promised Land, three young boys go through a harrowing adventure where they eventually sacrifice their lives in a most noble, selfless manner in order for the dirigibles to make it? On the one hand, it sounds epic. On the other hand, no doubt Mormons would find it belittling or even mocking a sacred Mormon folk story.
Mormon audiences are a fickle thing, a very fickle thing. And sometimes irrational. For one, we take our stories very seriously. A lot of people believe them to be factual truth, even some of the more outlandish ones (after all, we believe in a God of miracles). But at the same time, Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites is a Utah Mormon favorite, and it literally (no pun intended) tampers with Book of Mormon chronology. And then, of course, there’s the Twilight saga, which isn’t about Mormon characters, but a Mormon author wrote it, Deseret Book carried it for a while, and lots of Mormon moms and tweens love it whole heartedly despite the fact that it deals with some pretty supernatural devil stuff like vampires and werewolves.
This, I believe, is a massive burden Mormon artists need to carry. At any moment, we bring upon ourselves the accolades or scorn of our brothers and sisters of the faith, even when we don’t understand why. Anything we write will crackle with religious tension, even if we don’t write it with our faith in mind. And after watching some books hit a home run with the general, orthodox Mormon audience, and watching some books fail because people felt it was too “disrespectful” or “heretical,” I only have two points of advice:
1. Intention is key – write stories without guile and without melodramatic didactics.
2. Don’t be a jerk. You know what I mean.
And when people talk about your duty as a Mormon artist to represent the group, just laugh. The artist’s duty is to tell stories, stories that entertain, stories that challenge, stories that instruct, stories that observe. Our duty is not to toe the cultural lines, but to transcend them. And often times, when it comes to Mormon artists and their dutues, most people don’t know what they’re talking about (and even more, what they want), and if we as artists tried to define that nebulous duty, I don’t know if we really could either.