While visiting the famous Powell Bookstore in Portland, Oregon the other weekend, I saw a giant quote painted on one of their walls that stopped me dead in my tracks:
“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”
- Walt Whitman
I have since then learned this is a fairly popular quote, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, and it flipped my thinking upside down and then spun it around a couple of times for good measure.
As Mormons, and especially as Mormon creators, there’s a lot of angst about whether or not there will ever be good art. If the next Great Mormon Artist writes the Great American Mormon Novel, and nobody reads it, did it ever make an impact? In fact, that’s the common complaint among Mormon artists — there already is good stuff out there, but nobody ever reads it/listens to it/looks at it.
The question I’ve struggled with now for the past few weeks is less whether or not I will create Great American Mormon Art — I figure I’ll do my best and if I succeed then that’s great and if I don’t, welp, at least I can be a good father and husband. The question I have struggled with now is, How do we tap into a community that has been accused of being insular, resistant to controversy or paradigm shifts in thinking, or even light constructive criticism, or even questioning of the happy bubble we’ve created around ourselves?
On the one hand, I believe, like others, that we are on the cusp of a great perfect storm of Mormon Art. I constantly tell my wife that I am excited, and I can think of no better time to live as a member of the Church.
On the other hand (and perhaps because of this other hand the one hand can exist), we stand at the precipice of a rapidly changing world, and we will have to redefine ourselves or swiftly become irrelevant. We face a great many challenges in the future, as a people, as a culture, and as a religious church. Mike S. on the blog Wheat and Tares writes about what could be seen as a chilling trend in our Church — that our growth is not only slowing down, it may actually be reversing. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our youth and especially our young single adults; it’s no surprise to many that we are hemorrhaging them, and that the programs we have in place are at best a temporary stop gap measure (and are debatable if they even work). We are baptizing like crazy in lesser developed countries, especially in Africa and South America — but we’re still lagging behind other Christian denominations, and our retention rate is abysmal, to say the least. The I’m A Mormon ad campaign is a (not so) quiet acknowledgment that we have a severe problem; not just an image problem, but a cultural problem.
In short, we’re having a pretty significant mini-existential crisis here. We are not sure how to define ourselves and reach out and relate to the young single adult generation. We cannot retain our newly baptized members easily. We try to promote an image of diversity through our ad campaigns, but our wards and branches rarely reflect such diversity. We become increasingly incapable of communicating with the world we live in, and many long-time members used to the Golden Age of Hinckley when everybody (we thought) absolutely adored us don’t want to deal with a shifting reality that we’re one of the most unpopular religious groups in America.
Enter artists, stage right.
The top-down approach is not working; the Church’s recent emphasis in ward councils during the Church Handbook of Instructions update shows that we now realize this. My brother sometimes gets frustrated that the prophet doesn’t use General Conference as a “bully pulpit” to whip Mormons in the right direction, but even if President Monson got up and said, “We need to accept all forms of diversity and stop judging,” which they already do on a regular basis, would this change the deeply rooted Church culture — especially in America — overnight, or even gradually? No, it wouldn’t.
Art, however, has an incredible ability to change society, to influence culture, and sway public (or Church) opinion. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So, this is the woman who started the War.” Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is widely acclaimed of bringing to light the horrible plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression during a time when the rest of the nation preferred to ignore it. And as a Mormon example, it is a little known fact that most of our modern Mormon theology derives from the works of James E. Talmage, notably Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, which though not traditional works of art, shows the tremendous power of the medium of print.
Like the children of Israel wandering in the Sinai, we are resistant to instruction, rebellious against chastisement — but we love a good yarn. The propensity and ability of Mormonism to assimilate mainstream American folklore and put a Mormon spin on it says as much. I believe that we already have a good deal of Great Audiences — but they aren’t what we think. They are the Mormon housewives living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps wondering, as the 1950s housewives did of yore, if there was more to life than this but afraid to question out loud. They are the Mormon young single adults, alienated and unable to connect with a religious institution that caters almost exclusively to the nuclear family, but still so very much in love with the restored gospel and the inspiring Mormon narratives. They are those who don’t fit in, who struggle to remain true to the religion they fell in love with and the God they worship and also the personalities deeply embedded in them and the quiet conscience that whispers in their heart that the “standard” Mormon cultural path is not for them.
And then there is the murky underbelly of Mormon history that has for so long been whitewashed by our unwillingness to face our own demons. The explosion of information over the Internet has now rendered our suppression ineffective and impotent. We, as artists, must steel our hearts and souls and put on the armor of God and face those demons head on, rushing in with our pens and brushes and musical instruments, and we must show others around us that it really is possible to question, to reason, and to learn from our dark patches of history, rather than run from them or simply ignore them.
But it is not just enough for us to write and paint and draw and script and photograph and sing and play about Mormonism. We must evangelize Mormon art. We must organize and distribute and reach out and encourage. We must take our copies of The Lonely Polygamist and start Mormon literature book groups. We must find talented Mormon musicians and blog about them. We must share good Mormon short stories on Facebook. We must find every medium and art form, from fine art to video games, to tell our stories. We must show the rest of the Church that, yes, we are faithful, and, yes, we are quirky and different, but more importantly, so are you. And that’s okay!
In time, I firmly believe our demand for challenging, faithful, thoughtful, good Mormon art will grow. As we share what is already there and build upon the foundation stone upon stone, more and more members will ask for it, because these stories we have to tell feed the soul; we often forget that the scriptures we love so dearly are not just simply a collection of sermons or a treatise on human behavior; they are stories that resonate deep within our imperfectly devout bones. They are stories of broken families, of desperate parents seeking to keep their children in the faith, of children learning to build off of their parents’ sacrifice and learn from their parents’ mistakes, of the hubris of pride and greed, of the power of love and service. They are deeply contradictory, sometimes controversial stories that puzzle and confuse us.
The Book of Mormon’s stories are our stories; the Bible’s stories are today’s stories, and we must seek out these Great Audiences and tell them, “Look at this good that I have found. These stories are Mormon stories. We are past the days of perfectly perky housewives with stacks of canned wheat and six children running around freely and happily while father works at his nine to five upper-middle class white collar job. These are stories of broken families, of the hubris of pride and greed, and the power of love and service. These are stories of trial and heartache, of the universal pains we experience which bind us together as Mormons and as humans and as children of God. These are our stories.”
I now firmly believe that if anything is going to save this Church which has been promised to never be taken away from the Earth until the Second Coming, it will be art. It will be art that shows us a new, nuanced way of viewing our mythology and theology; it will be art which questions and prods, but also gently guides our Church from an age of polygamy and isolation, to an age of rapid expansion, and finally to our age today of globalization. It will be art that lovingly tells and re-tells the stories, that teaches the lessons, that takes eternal principles and wraps them in meaningful packaging, and that beckons to those who may feel alone and cut off from the Church to return once more and sup at the table of Christ. Like Nephi, we will echo the Savior’s cry to the world to “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.”
In our Church, we have the unique tradition of encouraging everyone to re-appropriate the Joseph Smith story for our own. Like the 14 year old farm boy, we must all go into our own Sacred Groves and pray to the Father for answers. We must all gain divine communication and open up a celestial channel. We must brand the story as our own personal story. We must all become Joseph Smiths. As artists, we must tell our own stories, and we must tell others’ stories as well. We seek all that is good within our tradition, and when we find that which is good in other traditions, we bring it under the umbrella of Mormonism, even if it means rearranging what we already have to make room for the newly discovered.
In a religious tradition that encourages and mandates such deeply intense and intimate personal relationships with the Divine, how could we possibly keep those stories to ourselves? And how can our starving souls not yearn for them?