Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Get Your Hands Off Those Sheep": A Review of H.B. Moore's "Ammon"

Ammon has never been my favorite Book of Mormon prophet.

For two reasons:

First, as a kid, I never identified with the guy in the Arnold Friberg painting: I could never look that cool in a leather kilt and knit cap—even if I had the muscles and sword to back it up.[1] Abinadi and Alma the Younger, on the other hand, seemed more my style. They were the intellectual types—the talkers, not the fighters.[2] I could easily imagine myself shouting curses at the Jaaba-like King Noah while the rest of me burned like a hot dog on a stick.

Cutting off some barbarian’s arm was a different story. Sure, I’d have liked to dismember a roving hoard of Lamanites, but I had a hard enough time doing a pull up in gym class.

Second, there was a kid in my deacon’s quorum who loved Ammon. He idolized him the way I idolized Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.[3] Anytime anyone asked him who his favorite Book of Mormon prophet was, he had one answer: Ammon.

So, what was the big deal?

Well, the kid carried a Franklin Planner. Twelve years old and he had a Franklin Planner! I couldn’t get past it. A Franklin Planner! And he was probably the first deacon in the history of the Church who always had his shirts and pants ironed. While the rest of us were passing the sacrament with our flies down or our shirttails flapping, he was as crisp as a sheet of printer paper.[4]

I guess I continue to struggle with this.

Serving a mission, of course, helped change my perspective on Ammon. I still struggled to identify with his success—he had more baptisms, it seemed, in ten minutes than I had in two years—but I learned to appreciate the way he established trust with Lamoni and the people of Ishmael. He loved them the way I wanted to love the people I taught. That meant something to me.[5]

In recent years, I have also gained an appreciation for the fruits of Ammons labors, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, whose story is one of the most moving in the Book of Mormon.[6] It’s one of those stories I think we need to talk about more.

So, Ammon and I have had a checkered past. I never rolled my eyes at the guy, but I also never skipped ahead to Alma 17.

Which is funny, because I jumped at the chance to read and review Ammon (Covenant, 2011), the latest Book of Mormon adaptation from H. B. Moore, whose previous Book of Mormon novels[7] have garnered no small praise and acclamation (several Whitney and Best of State awards).[8] While I normally don’t read fiction published by Deseret Books, Covenant Communications, and any of the other mainstream LDS publishers,[9] I decided to try this one out, see what all the buzz was about. Besides, the book—which hits LDS bookstores on June 1st—sounded interesting, and I had been wanting to read an adaptation of a Book of Mormon story.

Ammon, of course, is the story of the eldest son of King Mosiah who gives up the throne of Zarahemla to preach the gospel to his people’s sworn enemy, the Lamanites. From the scriptures, we learn that Ammon has extraordinary missionary success among the Lamanites after singlehandedly defending the flocks of his new boss, King Lamoni, against a gang of armed marauders.[10] His story, along with that of his kid brother Aaron, can be found in chapters 17 through 26 in the Book of Alma. It’s among the best known in the Book of Mormon. Today it is not uncommon to hear people in church talk about Ammon’s strength, diligence, faithfulness, and penchant for fainting.[11]

H. B. Moore’s Ammon is all of these things and more. The novel opens with Ammon and his brothers somewhere in the wilderness between the borders of the Nephites and Lamanites. Ammon, a lousy hunter, is being chased by a tapir he accidentally shot—he thought it was a small deer—and has to rely on his brothers to get him out of the mess.

In many ways, the scene sets up an important aspect of the novel: Moore’s Ammon is kind of flawed. He’s not the Boy Scout he’s often made out to be in Sunday school classes and Sacrament meeting talks. He has issues. He’s haunted by his past. On his hand is a scar from a blood oath he made before his conversion—when he and his brothers, along with Alma the Younger, were trying to destroy the Church.

Moore’s Ammon is also really violent.

No matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape violence. It’s the monkey that’s always on his back—even when he’s looking for peace. And it doesn’t help that he’s really good in a fight. Within the first fifty pages, in fact, Ammon beats the tar out of the guy who will become his chief nemesis—Zaman—in a kind of prize fight.[12] Later, Ammon beats up several of the other nefarious characters in the novel. Believe me, when it comes to fisticuffs, the guy’s got skills.[13]

Of course, after each fight Ammon is remorseful. One of the more interesting parts in the novel, for example, happens after his famous fight by the Waters of Sebus--during which he kills seven people and maims countless others. Looking around at his handiwork,[14] he is horrified:

How many have I killed? What have I done? Hot bile formed in his throat and he sank to his knees. He hardly noticed the remaining couple of rebels who stared at him in horror [….] They ran toward the trees, leaving their flocks behind. Ammon crawled toward the water, dragging his sword with him. He didn’t make it far before he retched in the dirt. His stomach seized again. Shouting filtered through his mind, but he heard only the thudding of his heart and his gasping breaths until someone touched his shoulder. Ammon spun, weapon in hand. (117)

The someone who touches his shoulder is not a badguy, but Kumen—his crooked-tooth sidekick—so Ammon doesn’t do any more killing that day. But the incident leaves him pretty shaken up, which is typical for Moore’s Ammon. At his best, he’s a tough guy with a sensitive side.

Ammon’s not the only interesting character in the novel. His love interest, Elena, in fact, is actually more interesting—at least most of the time.[15] She’s a Lamanite who’s a Nephite by birth. As a child, she and her family left Zarahemla after her father, Moriah, became disillusioned with its apparent lack of separation of Church and State. Consequently, Elena was forced to grow up in a society that views her, in many ways, as an outsider. Much attention is paid, for instance, to Elena’s fair skin—a characteristic she is ashamed of because of the way it separates her from her community. She is keenly aware of how it makes her different, abnormal, and possibly even unattractive. In today’s terms, she seems to suffer from a low self-esteem.[16]

Admittedly, interest in Elena comes less from who she is than from what happens to her. Often, novels have at least one character who takes all the beatings. In Ammon, this character is definitely Elena: not only does she have to deal with a lecherous old widower who wants to marry her for her youth and mothering skills, but she also has to endure family conflicts, kidnappings, hallucinogenic thorns, and other similarly bad things.[17] Through it all, she survives—although not without personal cost.[18]

Not every character in Ammon is as interesting as Ammon and Elena, though. Abish, the handmaiden to the queen, is more developed than her Book of Mormon counterpart, but she’s not as interesting as Elena—maybe because she is more self-assured. King Lamoni, likewise, is not that interesting; unlike in the Book of Mormon account, he doesn’t have a central role in Ammon. For the first half of the novel, in fact, he is practically absent, and it is not until he and Ammon travel to the Land of Middoni that he becomes more of a presence. Even then, though, he remains somewhat underdeveloped and wooden. At one point, we do get a brief sense of what it’s like to be Lamoni—that he lives in his father’s shadow, that’s he’s never been permitted to be his own man—but the moment passes almost before it’s begun.[19] On the whole, I was disappointed with his character.

Other aspects of the novel disappointed me. Despite its strong beginning, Ammon lags a third of the way into the novel as our hero begins teaching Lamoni and his people. One of the difficult things about adapting scripture to fiction, I imagine, is finding a way to come to terms with scripture language. When characters speak, should they use “thees” and “thous,” should they drop an occasional “behold” or “verily”?[20] For the most part, Moore’s characters speak with modern diction, but now and again their speech becomes stilted with words like “brethren” and an occasional vocative “O,” which ups the novel’s cheesiness factor significantly.[21] Ammon also suffers from no small amount of eyes brimming over with tears, throats tightening with emotion, eyes narrowed with anger, and brows furrowed with concentration. In this novel, in other words, emotion is something that is often handed to the reader on a plate, in a kind of shorthand of gestures, rather than something conveyed through actions and language.[22] Spiritual experiences (and romantic encounters), likewise, are almost always accompanied by the word “warmth,” which comes to feel a little repetitive after a while.

That said, I still liked Ammon—primarily because it concludes with an original ending that springs wholly from Moore’s imagination. In fact, one of Moore’s strengths as a storyteller is that she’s not wed to her source material. She understands, that is, that the Book of Mormon is scripture, not entertainment, so adapting it into fiction requires the occasional adrenaline boost.

Purists beware: this isn’t the Ammon story you grew up with.

Ammon, in fact, is at its best when it’s not trying to be the Book of Mormon story we all know and love. When it comes down to it, Moore’s best writing is action-driven. She revels in the thrown punch, the broken nose, the delirium of peril and visceral conflict. Action-adventure, clearly, is her genre of choice. I don’t know how many fights Moore has been in, but she seems to know her way around a scrape. It was one of the more surprising aspects about the novel.

Other aspects of the novel surprised me as well. The Book of Mormon, for example, is silent on the details of King Antiomno’s court in the Land of Middoni—where Ammon’s brother Aaron and his mission companions are held captive until Ammon and Lamoni arrive to free them[23]—but Moore imagines it as a second-rate kingdom with a repulsive, pedophilic King.[24] It, along with her descriptions of Aaron and the other emaciated prisoners, adds a horrific richness to the story that isn’t present in the Book of Mormon text. For me, it’s a haunting scene that jumpstarts the novel after the unfortunate slowdown of Lamoni’s conversion.[25]

Ammon is a sequel to Moore’s last novel, Alma the Younger, which I haven’t read.[26] While it works well enough as a stand-alone novel, I wonder if it might not be best to read it after reading its predecessor. I can’t say. Of course, now that I’ve read Ammon, I’m interested in reading about his wilder days as a Zarahemla heretic. I’m also interested to see how Moore follows this novel up. Will her next book be Aaron?[27]

As far as I know, there is no definitive fictional Book of Mormon adaptation. After my experience with the first edition Book of Mormon at the Blegan Library, though, I have wanted to get to know the Book of Mormon not just as scripture, but also as a book. Part of that project, it seems, is turning into a study of how fiction writers engage with the Book of Mormon and its many dramatic stories.[28] For me, Ammon has opened the gate to a new avenue in that study. It is an entertaining, adventurous spin on an old story.

It’s not a perfect novel, of course, but it has helped me view Ammon in a new light. He’s still not entirely divorced in my mind from the kid with the Franklin planner, but he’s getting there. I might even put in an order for a leather kilt and a green and red stocking cap.[29]

Now if only I could find some sheep.


[1] FYI: I didn’t.

[2] Yes, I am aware that Alma the Younger opens up a can of whoop-Amlici in Alma 2. A mere technicality.

[3] I was the biggest comic book geek from 1992 to 1994, when I learned that most girls didn’t think comics were that cool. Now I’m a closet comic book geek with a wife who appreciates Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine in a way that I don't understand.

[4] Did I mention he also wore a sports coat that matched his pants? Imagine! A deacon with a sports coat that actually matches his pants! Ammon didn’t stand a chance.

[5] To be sure, I continued to identify more with the missions of Abinadi to the court or King Noah or Alma and Amulek to the city of Ammonihah. Their experiences seemed more in line with mine—or, at least, it felt that way at the time. I could be a little dramatic.

[6] And I don’t use the word “moving” in this sense very often.

[8] I have never met H. B. Moore before, but I once browsed through a Seagull Book store while she was doing a signing for one of the Out of Jerusalem novels. This was back, obviously, when I still lived in Utah. It was an odd experience, though, because there were only three of us in the store: Me, H. B. Moore, and the cashier, who was probably an extremely bored BYU sophomore who needed the cash. I needed money too, which is why I didn’t talk to Moore, even though I thought of myself as a fiction writer (at the time) and would have appreciated a few tips from a real-life published author. You see, I guess I thought it would be rude to talk about writing with a real writer at a book signing without actually buying her book (I was probably wrong). So, I browsed. H. B. Moore waited patiently beside her books. And the cashier popped her chewing gum and listened to the Mormon pop being pumped through the store’s stereo system. I remember this experience, by the way, because I remember being surprised that H. B. Moore wasn’t a dude. You see, at the time, I worked as a custodian at the BYU Bookstore, so I had seen Moore’s books on the shelves. Fool that I was, though, I assumed that any author with initials for a first name was either a general authority or a man. I was wrong. H. B. Moore stands for Heather B. Moore, a name under which she also publishes.

[9] In this respect, I am a hypocrite. Publicly, I sing the praises of pop culture and its potential for academic study. Privately, I’m kind of snobby about what I read. Not so much about what I watch, though. Last night I spent two hours of my life watching (and enjoying) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

[10] Well…temporarily armed marauders.

[11] And not just from nicely groomed twelve-year-olds with day planners.

[12] My wife and I had many discussions about the correct pronunciation of Zaman’s name. I favored a pronunciation that rhymes with “Ammon” because it accentuated, in my mind, his role as Ammon’s foil. My wife, on the other hand, favored a pronunciation that rhymes with “Laman.” As usual, she is probably right. However, I continue to pronounce the name “Zammon” and would encourage other readers to do the same.

[13] Fighting skills, yes. Hunting skills, no. You’d think they’d go hand-in-hand. Not so.

[14] Unintentional pun.

[15] That’s right, folks. Ammon has a love interest. Obviously, the rules about the opposite sex in the White Bible (i.e. the Missionary Handbook) don’t apply to him. He’s a real smooth operator .

[16] I’m going to keep pop-psychologizing to a minimum, but I think my diagnosis of Elena is accurate. At one point, she states that Ammon’s “greatest service”—from her point of view—is “making her feel valued” (137).

[17] I’d go into more detail, but that would ruin the novel’s ending.

[18] If this sentences echoes in any way a commercial for a Lifetime TV movie, I apologize. Purely coincidence.

[19] One of the most enigmatic sentences in the Book of Mormon states that Lamoni was “caught with guile” when Ammon first taught him the gospel (Alma 18:23). I’ve never been able to find a satisfying interpretation of this sentence. Some take it to mean that Ammon used guile to persuade Lamoni to listen to him, but that doesn’t really seem to fit with Ammon’s mode of operation. Others suggest that Lamoni was not being completely honest with Ammon when he told him that he would believe all of his words, that he was stalling or telling Ammon what he wanted to hear because he was afraid. I prefer this second interpretation because it gives depth to Lamoni and suggests that he needed more than a miracle to accept the gospel from Ammon. In Ammon, however, Moore ignores the sentence about guile completely, perhaps to keep the narrative moving. Her Lamoni readily believes.

[20] I have recently (as of yesterday) started calling this way of speaking “Talking like a Nephite.”

[21] Of course, isn’t this the kind of thing that makes The Ten Commandments entertaining?

[22] Although, as the passage describing the aftermath of Ammon’s assault at the Waters of Sebus demonstrates, this is not always the case in the novel.

[23] See Alma 21, yo.

[24] I should note here that Antiomno’s pedophilia is implied, not depicted graphically.

[25] Yes, I recognize that it’s a little inappropriate to call Lamoni’s conversion an “unfortunate slowdown.”

[26] In fact, Ammon is the first and only H. B. Moore novel that I’ve read. So far.

[27] This seems like the logical follow-up novel. Ammon, after all, only covers chapters 17 through 21 in Alma, leaving chapter 22-26 still available for adaptation. I guess we’ll find out.

[28] Two of the best engagements I’ve come across so far are Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, which draws upon the story of the stripling warriors, and Arianne Cope’s “White Shell” and The Coming of Elijah, which address the Lamanite curse. On my to-read list is also David J. West’s Heroes of the Fallen.

[29] Does anyone know of a good Nephite outfitter?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Darkly Sentimental Alley: Rethinking Nephi Anderson and the Home Literature Endeavor

Mormon literature scholars have not been kind to Nephi Anderson’s work. In his 1974 essay “The Example of Flannery O’Connor,” for example, Karl Keller suggests that Anderson’s most enduring novel, Added Upon, is “a tract-like novel” that is woefully beset by “obscurant sentimentality and folklorish inaccuracy.” Moreover, he argues that “its lack of love of the worldly concrete and its sentimentalized guesswork make it vague and maudlin—and ultimately insulting to the mystery of the Resurrection.” In short: Anderson’s fiction, and other “didactic Mormon fiction” like it, “is escape fiction”—an affront to Mormonism itself:

It has no faith in the real and so will be incapable of stirring faith in the minds of real people. It does not begin where human perception begins, in the senses, and so its message cannot be believed. That is, it fails to be sufficiently in the world and of the world. It is concerned, to its own artistic disadvantage, with unfleshed ideas and emotions. It tries to make that which is good without giving enough consideration to the good of that which is made. (63)

These are hard words, and they beg the question of whether or not Keller is right about Anderson. Interestingly, most of Mormonism’s first wave of serious literary scholars—such pioneers as Geary, England, and Jorgenson—seem to agree that he is. Only one—Cracroft—is willing to grant Anderson something of an honored place in Mormon letters. For most of these critics, though, Anderson’s literary offenses are many--and his primary sin is sentimentality.

That, and the fact that he isn’t a Modernist. Or a post-Modernist. Or Flannery O’Connor’s Mormon equivalent.

Poor Nephi.

Sadly, these scholars often level the same criticism against other works of late 19thand early 20th century “Home Literature,” the home-grown, faith-affirming literature Elder Orson F. Whitney famously described in an 1888 speech. Their darling, after all, is “Faithful Realism,” a contemporary trend in Mormon fiction that weds craft and faith without—ostensibly—the loathsome sentimentality of previous ages. As Keller’s criticism shows, their privileging of the one over the other is essentially based on a Mormon cousin to New Critical aesthetics.

In his 1985 essay “Nephi, Seer of Modern Times: The Home Literature Novels of Nephi Anderson,” however, Richard H. Cracroft suggests that we miss the boat entirely if we try to approach Anderson on such ground. And he’s right: Anderson’s writing—along with other examples of early “Home Literature”—draws upon a completely different aesthetic than its successors. Indeed, when the reigning aesthetic is based on “individual vision, subversive irony, and an alienated perspective”—which is how another Mormon blogger has recently defined the contemporary standard of “literary fiction”—Anderson’s sentimentalism doesn’t really stand a chance.

The good news for Nephi Anderson is that aesthetics don’t have as much clout in the field of literary criticism as they used to. Once upon a time in the 20th century, a critic couldn’t historicize a text without receiving at least a few derisive sneers from his or her bow-tied colleagues, most of whom were pass-out drunk on the pleasures of “close reading” a “closed text.” Since the 1980s, though, historicizing (or “contextualizing”) a work has become pretty normal. In fact, it’s now the “closed text” people who get the sneers.

What this means for Nephi Anderson is that a book like Added Upon, even if it has ceased to be relevant doctrinally and aesthetically to contemporary Mormonism, can still tell Mormons something about who they have been as a people. Indeed, all of Anderson’s writings can now be read as culturally significant if not aesthetically satisfying texts—which is, in a sense, what Cracroft suggests when he argues that Anderson “should be of interest to Mormons” because his works—particularly the novels he published after Added Upon—“reflect fin de si├Ęcle LDS and American values and concerns.” Of course, the downside of this kind of approach to Anderson is that it demotes him from Artist to Cultural Producer. He becomes, in a sense, something a little less special.

That said, next time you read an Anderson novel, notice how it reflects its own moment in Mormon history. During his day, Anderson witnessed significant cultural and institutional changes within Mormonism that transitioned the church into a new era. Indeed, his generation—the first, really, to enter adulthood after the Woodruff Manifesto—had to become not only the new face of Mormonism, the ambassadors of new Mormon mainstream, but also its engineers. In a sense, they had to figure out how to “fit in” in American society, which was something no other generation of Mormons had ever really had to do.

So, when you read a work like Dorian, Anderson’s last novel, you get a sense that it was written not only to give non-Mormon readers a better idea of what a real Mormon was like, but also to give Mormon readers a better sense of how the new Mormon should be. In this sense, Nephi Anderson and his fellow writers of Home Literature were oddly subversive in creating their new conservative image of Mormonism. With every sentimental stroke of the pen, they battled both stereotyping and pioneer-era isolationism.

In this respect, I see the aims of Anderson’s work as not too dissimilar from the work of today’s faithful realists, who are writing, interestingly enough, a century after Anderson. Like Anderson, today’s Mormon writers seem to be writing in a time of transition, although what exactly that transition is going to be is hard to say. In other posts, I have suggested that the transition is a transnational one—that Mormonism today is trying to figure out how to “fit in” globally. So far, the Church’s commitment to new media—blogs, web videos, etc.—seems to be aiding the transition in a way Mormon fiction seems incapable of doing (though not for lack of effort). In some ways, though, it makes me wonder if a free-access online Mormon literary journal (E-rreantum?) might help Mormon fiction play its part in the transition.

It’s hard to say.

I will say this (getting back on topic): as we wonder about the future of Mormon fiction, we should not forget about its past. Nephi Anderson and his contemporaries--the Home Literature crowd--gave Mormon literature its feet and showed that Mormonism could provide an adequate framework for fiction. True, they weren't the stylists the Modernists were, nor were they proto-O'Connors. They were a group of writers, loosely bound together by talent and a common faith, who tried to do something new. It's a shame we often feel a need to apologize for them.

So, with that, I end with a scene from Dorian--altered slightly to imagine what would happen if Dorian Trent met his creator's detractor in a darkly sentimental alley of "unfleshed ideas and emotions."

I hope Brother Anderson approves:

The accusing mouth closed there, closed by the mighty impact of Dorian's fist. The blood spurted from a gashed lip, and Mr. [Keller] tried to defend himself. Again Dorian's stinging blow fell upon the other's face. [Keller] was lighter than Dorian, but he had some skill as a boxer which he tried to bring into service; but Dorian, mad in his desire to punish, with unskilled strength fought off all attacks. They grappled, struggled, and fell, to arise again and give blow for blow. It was all done so suddenly, and the fighting was so fierce, that Dorian's fellow travelers did not get to the scene before [Karl Keller] lay prone on the ground from Dorian's finishing knockout blow.

"Damn him!" said Dorian, as he shook himself back into a somewhat normal condition and spat red on the ground. "He's got just a little of what's been coming to him for a long time. Let him alone. He's not seriously hurt. Let's go."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

(Graduate) Conference Report

As my last post mentioned, I presented a paper on Todd Robert Petersen’s Rift at a conference last Friday. The session went well. On the panel with me were two other graduate students. I spoke first, followed by interesting and thoughtful presentations on Jewish space and queer Utah. Our audience seemed fairly interested and receptive. (Far more interested, that is, than the audience at my last conference, much of which was made up of BYU students who were there for extra credit.) I wish I could say that their attentiveness was due to my awesome PowerPoint, but it was probably due more to the other panelists' obvious preparation.

During the Q&A, Mormon literature and scholarship came up a few times, although not as much as I would have liked. (We only had about 15 minutes to field questions.) After the session was over, I talked briefly with the “Queer Utah” presenter on some of the creative work being done by Mormon writers right now on Mormonism and homosexuality. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to offer a whole lot of insight since I haven’t looked too deeply into the emerging genre. I mostly pointed her in a few directions. If anything, our conversation reminded me that I need to take Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back off the shelf and read (and review) it. I guess I’ll do that as soon as the quarter is over.

So, the conference went well.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Conferencing...

This week is a busy one for me. Apart from my usual classwork and teaching, I am presenting a paper on Friday at Composing Spaces: An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference, a small conference put on by some of the graduate students in my department. The paper I'm presenting is on a Mormon lit theme. Here's a slightly revised version of the abstract I submitted to the conference committee:

Mormons have long imagined their spaces and boundaries as simultaneously inclusive and exclusive entities. For instance, the early revelations of Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, encouraged an active evangelism that sought to unite all of humanity within the family of Christ. At the same time, however, Smith and his followers actively pursued plans to construct a sacred city in western Missouri that would establish a physical boundary between those who were among God’s elect, and those who were not. While their plans for this city were never fully realized, they continued to create other Mormon spaces—some physical, some not—and establish boundaries to maintain and protect them from outsiders

For my presentation, tentatively titled “A Broader Geography of Mormonness: Making Space and Extending Boundaries in the Fiction of Todd Robert Petersen” I intend to look at ways Todd Robert Petersen’s novel Rift seeks to reevaluate how Mormons have traditionally thought about their spaces, the boundaries that maintain them, and those—from both inside and outside of the boundaries—who seem to pose a threat to their integrity. In order to do so, I intend to draw upon Stephen C. Taysom’s recent book Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries and others, like Jan Shipps’s Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell's American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, and a few relevant critical essays to contextualize Petersen's fiction against the history and theories of Mormon boundary- and space-making. In my presentation, I also intend to draw upon Thomas A. Tweed's theory of religion from Crossing and Dwelling in a small but significant way to show how Petersen's fiction suggests ways Mormon boundaries can be rearticulated in a way that is more open and accommodating to difference.

I'm hoping the presentation will go well. I'll probably write a post about it if anything interesting happens.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons by Mormons in Mormon Pop Culture

This past week, Richard Corliss compiled a list for Time called "10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons in Pop Culture." Making the list, of course, were the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon and the recently completed HBO series Big Love. Almost absent from the list, however, were any pop culture depictions of Mormons by Mormon (The only Mormon-made depictions were Neil LaBute's Bash: Latterday Plays and, oddly enough, Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-day Comedy). So, in a spirit of good Mormo-centric fun, I have compiled a list (for better or worse) of 10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons by Mormons in Mormon Pop Culture.

Enjoy.

1. Added Upon (1898)

Even though Nephi Anderson's classic piece of Mormon Home Literature is not as well-known as it used to be, it still manages to attract the occasional reader. Often cited as an inspiration for Saturday's Warrior, the novel follows its characters from their beginnings in the "First Estate" (pre-mortal life), through their "Second Estate" (Earth life), and into their "Third Estate" (afterlife). While it isn't Henry James, Added Upon remains a readable novel. It has plenty of melodrama, chaste romance, and didacticism. And, with part of it taking place in Norway, it anticipates the transnational direction of some contemporary Mormon fiction.

2. The Hill Cumorah Pageant (1937-Present)

Officially called America's Witness for Christ, the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York has been a summer-time staple for Mormon vacationers since 1937. While the outdoor pageant has undergone several revisions since its depression-era beginnings--most notably in 1987 when Orson Scott Card revamped the script, the pageant's central testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Jesus Christ remains unchanged.
Today, the pageant boasts a large cast, cool special effects, and epic cheesiness. It's not great drama, but it is a lot of good family fun. Too bad all the anti-Mormons have to make entering and leaving the venue such a crappy experience. Last year, when I attended the pageant with my family, an anti-Mormon with a megaphone told me that Mormon men need to get rid of their bras and panties, quit talking about emotions and feelings, and be real men. That, at least, made me smile.

3. Johnny Lingo (1969)

Okay, technically, Johnny Lingo doesn't have any Mormons in it, and Johnny and gang (sans Mr. Harris) aren't exactly what we would call "modest," but no one can deny its place in Mormon pop culture. More than forty years after its production, Seminary students and their parents can still quote it nearly word for word. Not only has it spawned, among other things, t-shirts, hot chocolate mugs, and a full-length remake (that shamelessly hawks Tahitian Noni juice), but it has also made it possible to call your girlfriend or wife an "eight cow woman" without being socked in the jaw. And, even if Johnny and Mahana aren't Mormons, their story of love, respect, and inner-beauty has shaped the Mormon experience like no other pastiche Polynesian has since.

4. Saturday's Warrior (1973)

A kind of Mormon response to the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, Lex de Azevedo's 1973 musical follows a Mormon family from their pre-mortal life in heaven to their mortal lives in twentieth century suburbia. While the musical was initially only a stage-only affair, a 1989 direct-to-video production popularized it for the Mormon masses. I still remember the first time I watched Saturday's Warrior. I was ten years old, and it was the first time I had ever seen the church paired with such things as red sports cars, permed hair, and hot-pink spandex. (It was also the first time I had heard the h-word dropped in a church movie. Believe me when I say I was shocked, SHOCKED!) Recently, playwright Mahonri Stewart has made a case for Saturday's Warrior's important place in Mormon culture, and I'm sure he's not alone in his opinion. For better or worse, Saturday's Warrior will continue to have a place in the Mormon imagination. Chances are, we'll still be watching it well into the life to come--where, I assume, we'll all be rocking those fancy pastel clothes. Hey, Flinders!

5. Charly (1980)

Jack Weyland took Mormon melodrama to a new level with Charly, a novel about a free-spirited non-Mormon woman (Charly) and the Mormon man (Sam) who falls in love with her, baptizes her, and (after some really serious complications) marries her. It's your typical boy-meet-girl-opposites-attract-have-a-box-of-tissues-handy kind of story, with a semi-tragic ending deliberately pilfered (I've heard) from 1970's Love Story (SPOILER: Charly gets sick and dies). In 2002, the novel was updated and turned into an okay feature film starring Heather Beers and the guy from The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (sans the tan-in-the-can skin). Of course, I've never read the novel (really...I haven't...I swear...), so I can't say how they compare. All I know is that it's been making Mormons cry for going on thirty-one years.

6. "Mormon Rap" (1988)

"Brothers and sisters, listen to me..." Mormons got their swag on in the late eighties when The Walter and Hays Band released the "Mormon Rap" as a cassette tape single. Set against a beat you can almost pop and lock to, the rap--and we'll use that term loosely--is about as hip and funky as you would expect a Mormon rap to be. Still, despite it's high dorkiness rating--yea, perhaps because of it!--Mormons continue to dig the "Mormon Rap" and its story of a "righteous dude" who can't get enough of church. Why? Maybe it's all the quirky references to Mormon culture. Maybe it's its deft use of the police whistle. Maybe its because the rap finally made the ghetto blaster safe for Mormonism. Who knows? All I can say is that I rediscovered my family's copy of the "Mormon Rap" sometime in the mid-nineties and listened to it for a week. No lie, yo.

7. Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites (1989)

Along with President Benson's call to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon came Christ Heimerdinger's Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, a novel about three kids who end up in Nephite times after they get lost in a magic cave. As luck would have it, they drop in just in time to take part in one of the more dramatic sections in the Book of Mormon--the so-called "War Chapters"--which means readers are treated to cameos by Captain Moroni, Hagoth, and the javelin-throwing Teancum (the novel's one certifiable ROCK STAR!). Tennis Shoes, needless to say, is good fun--even if it does make you feel a little guilty about watching E.T. (Read the book and you'll know what I'm talking about.)

8. The Work and the Glory (1990-1998)

Before Harry Potter and Twilight came along, Mormons only had Gerald N. Lund's nine volume The Work and the Glory to read. These novels, which follow the fictional Steed family as they make their way through every single significant event in the first seventeen years of church history, were a milestone in Mormon fiction. Not only did they sell well--generally, Mormon novels sell really, really badly--but they were also read well. By the end of the 1990s, The Work and the Glory lined the book shelves of Mormon homes across America. So what if they were a little corny! So what if the writing was a little stilted! On Sundays, the novels were referenced in talks. In testimony meetings, sobbing men testified of their power. At church historical sites across the country, elderly missionaries were swamped with questions about where the Steeds lived. They were a big deal. Big enough, at least, to be adapted into three major motion pictures. Too bad all Mormon novels can't meet with that kind of success.

9. God's Army (2000)

Richard Dutcher's God's Army hit movie theaters in Utah while I was still on my mission in Brazil, so I wasn't around to experience the hype first hand. Still, looking back, it seems like every other letter I received at the time made some sort of reference, good or bad, to God's Army. When I got the chance to train a new American missionary, I made him describe the movie scene-by-scene for me. By the end of the week, "Let's do some good" had become my new mantra. Eleven years later, God's Army, along with its pseudo-sequel States of Grace, remains one of the most realistic depictions of Mormons on film. It has it's flaws, of course, but its sincerity makes up for them. The same is true, in many ways, about Dutcher's follow-up to God's Army, Brigham City, which, in my opinion, is a better film. When I was a sophomore at BYU-Idaho, I was able to see Richard Dutcher speak at a University forum. His message to us, as I heard it, was to keep telling unique, Mormon stories. Sadly, though, Dutcher has stopped taking his own advice. Shortly after the release of States of Grace, he cut ties with Mormonism and Mormon cinema.

10. The Singles Ward (2002)

What does one say about The Singles Ward? Technically, its production value makes the 1977 BYU production The Phone Call look like a Scorsese picture. Dramatically, it's not that great either. As a comedy, though, it works fairly well as long as it's late at night and you get the jokes. It also helps if you're in a singles ward yourself, or if you've been in one sometime since the late 1990s. Otherwise, this film about four single Mormon guys and three single Mormon girls comes across as...well...kind of dumb. But that hasn't stopped Mormon singles from loving it. And why the fetch not? There's no doubt that The Singles Ward is a lame movie, but it's also a celebration of the most awkward time in a Mormon's life--that agonizing limbo period between Seminary graduation and marriage. So, break out the red Kool-Aid and fire up the big screen for a singles movie night. If you're lucky, you might end up holding hands with DeVerl.