The duty of a Mormon artist

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.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “The duty of a Mormon artist

  1. I’m glad to see you are writing for that Monsters and Mormons anthology. I am waiting on pins and needles to see if they will accept my own story.

    • Ted

      What did you write about?

      • I wrote two stories: One as a metaphor for “every member a missionary” where a stay-at-home mom with two kids uses her nunchucks to defend her home against a slime monster. Then she mobilizes the neighborhood and distributes salt from her food storage to destroy the beast. The other is a mash-up of an account my great-great etc Mormon Pioneer grandfather wrote about a time he fought a bear. I changed it to make the bear cybernetic. The latter was posted to the google groups thing in his rough form.

  2. Ted

    Yeah, at first I wasn’t sure what I would even write about. Now I’m not sure what idea to choose!

  3. Cory

    This is probably yet another reason why it’s good you came back to Washington instead of graduating from BYU. When you write a book (whether it be religious or not) the “about the author” paragraph that shows “BYU alum” pretty much condemns that person to personify Mormonism in its entirety. That’s a pretty hefty burden, especially when said person is just trying to write a compelling novel and not a religious exposition.

    • Ted

      Hahaha, I’ve actually thought about that! When I was at BYU, I wondered how people would judge me when they saw the BYU on my resume. Sometimes it helps you, but a lot of the time, it can really hinder you.

      Luckily, there are authors who graduated from BYU who seem to transcend the religious attachment to their university to publish great, un-related to Mormonism books. Brandon Sanderson comes to mind.

  4. E-rock

    You could try walking the tightrope by writing a book the not religious in nature on the surface but alludes to various Mormonisms which only those informed souls would catch? I think Orsen Scott Card did this in a few of his books…
    PS I like the dirigible/steampunk theme

    • Ted

      That tightrope is a tough act, and it’s easy to tip over from one side to the other. I have not read much of Card’s books (not even Ender’s Game, which, I know, warrants death by stoning). I am definitely not confident enough in my writing abilities to attempt such a trick just yet. :p

      • dteeps

        Yeah. Card is kind of hit and miss on that one. Ender’s game is great, and I loved the whole Ender series. His Alvin Maker series (obviously based on Joseph Smith) was alright. But I hated Memory of Earth (couldn’t read but half of it), it was way too obviously ripped-off of the Book of Mormon.

      • E-rock

        Agreed. I think the main character in Memory of Earth was even named Nefi or something very overtly BoM-esque.
        How ’bout this: a book that not only uses church history or scriptures as its base, but tells the opposing side’s perspective. In the dirigible example, it could be the main characters (natives) fending off the horde of dirigible driving invaders (pioneers).

  5. You’re right. It’s a burden. Something Mormon Art (if there is such a thing) can suffer from is that if a Mormon artist’s creations are expected to serve as PR devices for the Church, it hurts that work’s ability to be authentic. Only Mormons who shed or downplay their religious belief as any meaningful part of their work have seemed to hit it mainstream (Brandon Flowers of The Killers and Stephenie Meyer come to mind).

    If an artists expects to use their art to answer to religious belief above all else, or an artist feels pressured to succumb to that belief, then you’re not producing art. You’re producing marketing materials, possibly even propaganda. Movies like “Legacy” and “The Testaments” are — let’s be honest here — sentimental nonsense that make Mormons cry while everybody else scratches their head. There wasn’t anything in the script, acting, cinematography or storytelling that had anything to offer an audience that wasn’t preconditioned to say they were wonderful. I’d contrast the sterile and boring prints of the “Proclamation on the Family” sold at Deseret Books with the work of Minerva Teichert, who was a painter who happened to be Mormon and created amazing art by choosing to tell visual stories about her faith system. Teichert’s work is better because it’s personal and not agenda-motivated.

    A writer’s religious background will very often leave fingerprints on their work and the way they see the world. But if artists are expected to produce work with the main goal of cheerleading for the Church and not , they will not produce worthwhile art.

    • Ted

      Oh man, the protagonist in The Testaments is a total jerk! I know he’s supposed to be, but I have no idea how that girl hooked up with her.

      There is a sense that Mormon stories have to be sentimental, that they make people cry. Charlie comes to mind. It was actually not that bad of a movie in the beginning, with the whole girl finding out about Mormonism and the guy getting over his holdups over her not being a goody goody girl all her life (seriously, what is it with fictional Mormon males?), but then she gets a terminal disease and it all goes downhill from there.

      Minerva Teichert is the best. She is my favorite Mormon artist.

      • Oh, MAN. I hate hate hate hate hate Jack Weyland (who wrote Charly) with a burning passion. His books are no so much stories as harangues on Morality. I’ve read two other of his books, and they were equally sappy/ preachy.

  6. As an LDS musician (http://markhansenmusic.com), I’ve found this to be true in that art form as well. Although, there’s a certain group of LDS musicians that are finding the faith affirmations within the context of the struggle. I’ve always been told to write songs, and let my faith come out naturally, rather than to force it into the songs. That’s an artistic struggle all the time. I’m constantly diving deeper to find new parts of myself that I hadn’t known before. Those come out in my songwriting.

    As far as novels go, I’ve often pondered the role of fantasy in mormonism. Can you have a mormon wizard, for example? I think the best way to write a mormon fantasy would be to have a milieu where the Church doesn’t exist, but whose characters live the principles of the Gospel. Then, you could have elves and dragons and wizards and it would all work.

    • Ted

      Fantasy is really where you get into all kinds of trouble. Personally, I think it would be great to do a thought experiment where magic is discovered in the future – how does the Church deal with such a massive shift in worldview and society? After all, we’ve gone through some pretty seismic shifts before, so it’s not…entirely impossible? And we’ve already incorporated “fantasy” elements to our religion – prophets who can call down the power of God, other-worldly visitors instructing the Saints, miraculous healings, etc.

      But people like to think of the Church and unchanging and timeless, so this would definitely get a writer into trouble (I think). Could you imagine a Mormon version of Harry Potter? Insane.

      • This is a really intriguing idea, especially since we’ve had even more fantastical elements in our history than miracles and spirits. We have magic stones! You can’t get more mystical than that without heading into Harry Potter territory. I wish someone would write a book like that…. maybe I will. 😉

  7. dteeps

    The thing seems to be that because Mormonism is well-known but not well known at the same time (I mean, everyone’s heard of Mormons, but no one knows much about us), when the public finds out “So-and-so is Mormon” they expect that person to be a perfect representation of what Mormonism is. This doesn’t happen for Catholics or Lutherans or anybody, because the public is fairly familiar with these religions.
    The same thing happens in other aspects of life. The first time you meet someone from a different country, you expect them to be perfect representatives of that country, but you wouldn’t expect the same thing of yourself if you went to a different country.
    Mormons will always be held to a different standard, because people don’t know a whole lot about us. Kids in high school were always asking me why “Name-has-been-changed” did certain things, isn’t he Mormon? And I would have to explain, Well, you’re Catholic, when was the last time you went to Church? Exactly. Not all Mormons are good representatives of Mormonism, just as not all Catholics or Lutherans, or Americans are good representatives of the larger group.

    It’s just what we have to deal with. So, as Mormon Artists, we just have to accept that “you can’t please everyone, so you have to please yourself” and create art that you like and that feels good for you and that you feel your God would approve of.

    • Ted

      That’s a very good observation. So many people started reading into Twilight because Stephenie Meyer is Mormon. Some of those observations they came up with were downright ridiculous.

      • I have to give my two cents on Stephanie Meyer.

        While I don’t think Mormon artists should create only Mormon-themed work, I do think we have an obligation to create that which is “lovely or of good report or praiseworthy.” While Twilight is a very compelling cycle of books, I think they are downright dangerous because they glorify unhealthy relationships. If you think Edward and Bella’s relationship is a shining example of what she should all strive for, you will probably find yourself in couple’s counseling sooner rather than later. I know for certain that there is one stake in California that has a special calling to help couples whose relationships have been ruined by Twilight. This is not a joke.

        So I think Meyer failed miserably in representing the church, because she has created this entire generation of girls who want to marry rich, overbearing, arrogant, controlling men. That is NOT in the spirit of the gospel, and it is NOT a good thing.

      • Ted

        Are you serious about the calling? Man, do you know who it is personally? That would be a fascinating story.

        Also, I would agree that Twilight certainly isn’t a good example of a relationship. Of course, the fact that this kind of relationship is so appealing to so many women ventures down dark paths of psychology (according to some critics). I guess I’m hesitant to pass judgment because I don’t think Stephenie Meyer meant for it to blow up into such a huge circus, but at the same time I would agree that the relationship in Twilight is extremely unhealthy and if anyone wants to emulate it they will travel down a path littered with broken hearts and tears.

  8. I think if I were intentionally incorporating Mormonism into my story, I’d concern myself first with making the story good and telling it well. Because whatever story I write, people will be able to find out I am Mormon (whether or not BYU is mentioned in the about the author). This will invite Mormon-centric criticism, even if I think my book has no relevance to Mormonism at all. Even if I leave the church and denounce all things Mormon, I am “doomed” to have any art I create viewed through a Mormon lens.

    And I think people will forgive a lot of latitude if the book is good. I think Orson Scott Card is a good example of this. He goes into a lot of creepy stuff, fully embracing Mormonism. I’ve read some things from him that make me extremely uncomfortable (Lost Boys and to a lesser extent Xenocide), but I’m still fascinated. I don’t feel like he’s betrayed some kind of unspoken trust I have in him as a Mormon writer. But I think a lot of that is because his writing is good. If the writing was crappy, the wanderings through Mormon lore would feel indulgent and gratuitous.

    I think it’s the same thing with Tennis Shoes and the Nephites. It’s not great literature by any means, but it’s definitely entertaining. People may hate when someone stands up in Sunday School and starts spouting off things about Lamanites in Central America, but if you tell it through a compelling story, more people allow it. That’s a pretty powerful thing.

  9. Pingback: The duty of a Mormon, or what I think about the new Mormon.org « Catchy Title Goes Here

  10. Davey

    Oh man, I’ve actually been thinking for awhile of writing a TV series of “The Young Adventures of Joseph Smith and Porter Rockwell.” I’m still trying to figure out what, exactly, it will be. But if it gets written, it’ll be good.

    Working on my “Monsters and Mormons” entry. It’s gonna be good.

    My brother is working on one as well. It’s gonna be better.

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