Friday, July 29, 2011

500 Words on Why Mormon Fiction Should Avoid Utopian Spaces

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Utopia” as “[a] place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.”  The original terms, of course, derives from Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book, Utopia, which describes how such a place would be run.  

Today, when we talk about utopian spaces, we are generally referring to safe-havens perfectly suited for people who have been screwed over by society. Early in Mormon history, Joseph Smith and his followers attempted to build utopian spaces in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Later, Brigham Young and the pioneers tried again in Utah and its surrounding regions. In each case, the Saints came up short. 

Today, the Mormon utopian dream is a dream deferred, although remnants of it still exist prominently in such practices as tithing, temple work, service, Church welfare, and home and visiting teaching. While these practices do much to ease the burdens of the persecuted and create a more utopian space, they are not perfect.

Zion is still yet to be redeemed.

In “realistic” fiction, utopian spaces occasionally pop up. For instance, in John Steinbeck’s excellent Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family visits the Weedpatch Camp, an idyllic government-run haven for migrant workers in California. For the Joads, as well as for Steinbeck’s readers, the Weedpatch Camp presents the perfect remedy for the squalid living conditions, abuses, and exploitations that workers were then subjected to.  The suggestion is that if there were more places like the Weedpatch Camp, families like the Joads would be able to stay together and survive.

In many ways, the Weedpatch Camp episode injects much needed hope and idealism in an otherwise bleak novel. At the same time, however, something about Steinbeck’s depiction of it makes it seem a little too perfect and idyllic—and that kind of perfection is suspicious to me.  As a reader, I’m happy that the Joads find a clean, safe place to stay for a while. But, at the same time, I also want a whole picture. What’s the other side to the Weedpatch Camp?

My point is this: perfect places don’t exist in this life and safe-havens are not without dangers of their own.  When we begin to believe otherwise, we take our first steps toward disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, and apostasy. As Mormons, we believe that nothing can currently exist without the influence of some kind opposition. Our goal, therefore, is not to be rid of opposition—i.e. achieve a perfect state—but to exist well despite of it. Of course, this means that everything we do or are, every space that we make, will be imperfect, subject to dissolution.  Real spaces are flawed.

Realistic Mormon fiction should avoid the lie of utopian spaces—especially when they’re meant to be uniquely Mormon.  Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming the worst kind of inspiration fiction—the candy fluff that seeks to “pacify, and lull [readers] away into carnal security,” leading them to believe that “All is well in Zion.”  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Vacation and Guest Posts...

I'm on vacation in Missouri right now, so I'll probably not have time to write up a formal post this week. However, after spending Monday and Tuesday in Nauvoo, I have two Nauvoo-themed blog posts in the works.

In the meantime, check out my recent guest post on Dawning of a Brighter Day, "The Beauty of (Church) Pageants." Also, starting tomorrow (7/22), you can read my guest post "The 5 Mormon Books Every Modern Mormon Man Should Read" on Modern Mormon Men.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Busting Masks and Paradigms: A Review of Arianne Cope's "The Coming of Elijah"

Some novels, like The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome, are elegant vehicles of precision. Their modus operandi is the well-polished chapter, the finely-calibrated paragraph, the stream-lined turn-of-phrase. They make it easy for the college freshman to get behind the wheel and go for a spin around the sexy fiction paradigm: exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. If you could compare them to a Hollywood actor, they’d be the Cary Grants of literature. So slick and sharp, it’s amazing they don’t give you a paper cut every time you turn a page.

Then there are novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which are praiseworthy for the beautiful mess they make for the reader. Pregnant with ideas, slumped over with ambiguous symbols, these novels trip over the paradigm and kick it out of the way. They’re the James Deans of literature: brilliantly unpredictable, occasionally incoherent, always flawed, they speed ahead in no apparent direction. Their goal is not the finish line, but the glorious, disastrous unpredictability of the race.

As a reader, I like both kinds of novels. Each provides a different reading experience that is no more valuable to me than the other. But if I had to choose between the two—if I had to make a Sophie’s Choice—I’d pick Absalom over Gatsby nine days out of ten. Like most book hoarders, I like a good mess.

Of course, I find that most Mormon novels are fairly well-crafted for small-press publications. Frequently short and minimalist in style, they conserve words with the economic will of an ace budgeteer. They also tend to stick to subject matter that is familiar to Mormons in America—if not always pleasing to them—which makes for a much smaller mess overall.

In this respect, Arianne Cope’s The Coming of Elijah (Parables 2006) is not like most Mormon novels. While its length is nothing out of the ordinary—at 278 pages, it’s average size for a Mormon novel—it’s unique subject matter, along with the ambitious way it lassos in ideas and raises unsettled (and unsettling) questions, sets it apart from its peers like the biblical prophet whose promised return lingers at the heart of the book. It isn’t a tidy Mormon novel.

In fact, I think that’s the last thing it wants to be.

The Coming of Elijah is about three main characters: Mary, a mute Native American woman who is raised in the LDS Church’s Indian Placement Program; Eli, her talkative youngest daughter; and Mike, a Jewish teenager living in Spanish Fork, Utah, where the novel takes place. The first half of the book, “White Shell,” covers Mary’s life from her childhood in the placement program through the first twenty years of her difficult marriage. Her story is not an easy one to read. She’s a victim of sexual abuse (first from her father, then from her husband), physical abuse, abandonment, racism, ingratitude, and infidelity. A mother of nine daughters, she’s also mocked by nearly everyone for believing that she will one day have a son named Elijah.

Eli, on the contrary, is a victim of little more than her own self-centeredness. Although she’s overweight and embarrassed by her mother’s homely appearance and demeanor, she’s also got a clever brain and pitch-perfect funny bone. Her story covers the second half of the novel, “Blue Thread,” which moves at a much quicker pace than the more meditative first, largely because of Eli’s personality and insight into her world.

Mike’s story runs throughout the entire novel, shouldering its way into the narrative with Mike’s strong first-person narration. In many ways, though, it’s the weakest aspect of the novel. Mike is a classmate of Eli’s, and Eli appears briefly in his story, but it has little else to do with the novel as a whole—aside from the fact that Mike and his parents are celebrating the Passover and waiting for the prophet Elijah to arrive. Of course, even though Mike’s story is an inexact fit in the novel, it does come to a certain conclusion about the place of religion in modern society, which is a major theme in the novel, especially during Eli’s half of it. What is more, it’s not a bad story in and of itself. Even though he seems lost and out of place, Mike’s an interesting kid, and his all-too-short chapters always leave you wanting to know more of his story.

Of course, the real appeal of The Coming of Elijah is the unique Mormon history it explores. The Indian Placement Program only ended as recently as 1996, yet it’s a controversial segment of Mormon history that I (and I’m sure many others) know very little about. Cope’s depiction of it is limited mainly to Mary’s experience, which is mostly negative due to the her physical challenges—she’s unable to speak—and her well-intentioned foster parents’ racism and lack of respect for her heritage. At the same time, Cope also leads readers to wonder what Mary’s life would have been like if she had stayed on the Navajo reservation where she had spent her early childhood. Would she have been better off?

By the end of the novel it’s hard to say. It’s one of those questions Cope plants in her readers’ minds to grow long after they have finished reading the last page.

Aside from the Indian Placement Program, the novel also explores other subjects: the usable (and misusable) Mormon past, the Lamanite curse and its place in Mormon theology and culture, the nature of religious belief, the role of visions and miracles, the process of conversion, and the meaning of testimony. The book is likewise interested in the various masks Mormons wear, the public facades they put on to deceive, distract, blend in, and survive. In this novel, every character struggles to break through one façade or another—with little success. Each of them is too well-hidden, too secure behind whatever it is they use as a mask: history, humor, church service, Mary Kay make-up, silence…

Amazingly, Cope is able to juggle all of these ideas in the novel without fumbling them or overtaxing the narrative. Her believable characters and the realistic details of their lives make it work. Readers, in fact, never get the sense that Cope is forcing anything on them. Mary, Eli, and the rest of her characters speak for themselves.

Aside from her story “White Shell” in Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, as well as a few of her Church magazine pieces, I’ve not come across any additional work by Arianne Cope. And I’ve been surprised by the small number of reviews for The Coming of Elijah I have found on the Internet. As a beautifully written, challenging, and engaging novel, it should have more readers and reviews. Word needs to get out: this is an exceptional book.

As a new fan, I can only hope that she’s working on another novel like The Coming of Elijah--one that explodes compressed thought and flings the boundaries of Mormon fiction even further away from the tried and steady course.

I mean, who needs paradigms when you can thrash about your fiction in a Porsche 550 Spyder?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

500 Words on What To Do with Racist Mormon Novels

A few months ago, the blog Good Reason posted some thoughts on Emma Marr Petersen’s 1956 Mormon novel Choose Ye This Day, which contains a chapter that seeks to explain and justify Mormonism’s former racial policies. Unfortunately, I don’t have space to go into all of the ideas set down in the chapter. Put simply, they are these: a person’s race was determined in pre-mortality based on his or her loyalty to God during the War in Heaven. The most loyal people were blessed with white skin while everyone else was assigned a lesser race. The most disloyal of the loyal—the fence-sitters—were given black skin and no right to the priesthood.

The chapter also rails against interracial relationships. Basically, it argues that integration is okay as long as the “negroes” don’t get too fresh with the white girls.  

Sadly, these ideas were pretty common before 1978, when the priesthood ban was lifted, and they are still expressed on occasion today, usually by older members who make a habit of reading old school church publications.

These racial theories aren’t the most flattering aspect of Mormon history, and it’s unfortunate that they’re tied to some of our most respected forbears. Personally, it’s a part of our past that I would gladly do without. Like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the old racial policies and the theories used to justify them nag at me. Sometimes I think it would be better for us all if we just forgot about them.

Of course, forgetting the past—or worse, denying it—is a bad idea, and not simply because of the old cliché about being doomed to repeat it. An honest approach to history allows us to acknowledge our flaws, experience guilt, and feel compassion for those we have wronged. In a sense, it gives us the privilege of having a nagging thorn in our side, a constant reminder of the worst we are capable of.

Perfection is a hard thing to live up to, so it’s important that we keep a clear view of the past. Works of fiction like Choose Ye This Day are lousy contributions to the Mormon canon, but we can’t tuck them away into the corner of our meetinghouse libraries and pretend they don’t exist. They need to be remembered—if not read—to encourage us to produce a Mormon literature that strives to be more than what it has been: more thoughtful, more compassionate, more aware of others, and more worthy of the name Mormon.

Of course, I’m not saying we need to promote novels like Choose Ye This Day as important works of Mormon literature. That would be giving them more credit than they’re worth. What we need, rather, is to remain aware of them, keep them on the shelves and open for discussion. As much as we hate to admit it, they are a part of who we are and where we have been. They say something about us, but also challenge us to change the future.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Are We Americans?"--Nephi Anderson

For your Independence Day reading pleasure, here is a classic Nephi Anderson essay from the Improvement Era. Among other things, it reflects a time when the question posed in the title was not nearly as easy for American Mormons and non-Mormons to answer as it is today.


Are We Americans?
By Nephi Anderson, Superintendent of Schools, Box Elder County, Utah.
Improvement Era, Oct. 1900

Are we "Mormons" Americans? Are we Americans at heart-in spirit and in truth? What is our belief regarding America and her destiny? Have we shown ourselves to be Americans?

May I answer these questions? I read in the introduction to Julian Hawthorne's "History of the United States," this expression:

"I take the view that the American nation is the embodiment and vehicle of a divine purpose to emancipate and enlighten the human race."

Had Mr. Hawthorne purposely extracted the essence of "Mormon" belief regarding America, he could not have stated it better. What the historian expresses as an opinion, "Mormonism" teaches as a divine truth.

He who shapes all human events to his own glorious purpose had a hand in the formation of the American republic. God's Spirit moved upon the restless, untiring Columbus, and led him westward. The time had come for the establishing of political and religious liberty in the earth. The Old World lay rankly overgrown with the weeds of despotism, bigotry, and superstition. A virgin soil must be had in which to plant the precious tree of liberty, that it might get growth before the enemy should come to sow his tares. Then the same Spirit of God moved upon the Pilgrims, implanting in their hearts the love of liberty, and strengthening them in their resolutions to seek and establish it. God gave strength to the armies of liberty, and sat in the councils of the republic. Slowly, carefully, shapen by the hand of God, this nation arose pure and strong, and there was now a spot on the earth where the purposes of God could be consummated. And now came the celestial messengers from heaven bearing another precious tree to plant in the garden prepared for it; and that was the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, revealed again from heaven in its ancient strength and power and purity, given into the keeping of citizens of the American republic.

As to past history, this is what "Mormonism" has taught me. Is there anything un-American in the doctrine?

The Book of Mormon (a record claimed by the Mormons to be a divine history of ancient America) contains many references to this land. Let me quote a few:

"Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ."

"Behold this land, saith God, shall be a land of thy inheritance, and the Gentiles shall be blessed upon the land. And this land shall be a land of liberty to the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land who shall raise up unto the Gentiles; and I will fortify this land against all other nations. * * * For he that raiseth up a king against me shall perish, for, I, the Lord, the King of heaven will be their king, and I will be a light unto them forever that hear my words."

The italics in the above quotation are mine.

In the book of Doctrine and Covenants claimed by us to contain the revelations of God to The Church in this age, we find this:

"It is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land [the United States] by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood."

If there be an American religion, "Mormonism" must be that one. No other religious system makes such claims for America as does "Mormonism." No other religion has made America such holy ground by its teachings and history. The "Mormons" have placed America along with Palestine and made the Holy Land to share its honors with the Zion of the West. The Book of Mormon teaches that Jesus visited the ancient inhabitants of this continent, walked and talked with them and taught them the principles of the Gospel. The Lord's feet have pressed American soil.

We "Mormons" claim an American prophet. All other religions look to other lands for theirs. The founders of the Christian sects were German, or Scotch, or Swiss. The founder of "Mormonism," through God, was an American, a descendant of the Pilgrims. Other religionists limit angels' visits to a far eastern land. We claim that the West also has been sanctified by the presence of heavenly beings. Others confine apostles and inspired men to a past age, and an Old World nation. We say that God has raised up American apostles, and the inspiration of the Almighty can be and is given to Americans.

Are we Americans? Across the American continent have the stirring scenes of our history been enacted. Beginning in New York, The Church, in its infancy, removed to Ohio, and from there to Missouri. Driven from lands purchased from the general government, we next settled in Illinois, where a flourishing city arose. From Nauvoo went the exodus of a people across the prairies of the West. We were often advised to get out from under the United States' jurisdiction, but always did we say, "No; this government is our government, and under its constitutional laws we wish to live. Though officials might abuse them yet are they God-given." Picture, then, the moving of a nation into the wilderness, seeking a home, they knew not where. Then remember that at this point there came a call from the United States for five hundred volunteers to fight the battles of their country. The men were obtained, and women and children drove the ox teams on alone. Never was there a more difficult march of infantry than was performed by the "Mormon" Battalion from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego in the war with Mexico. Yet, reader, go to your book-shelf, take down all your United States histories, and see if you can find even a mention of that wonderful expedition.

Here in the desert valleys of the Rocky Mountains, we have built a great American commonwealth. Converts to "Mormonism" who come to America from abroad soon lose their national characteristics and blend into the one American life. And are they brought into a bondage to a "Mormon hierarchy," as is so often claimed? Let me quote what the Lord says to The Church on this point in the Doctrine and Covenants:

"No power can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the Priesthood [the governing power in The Church] only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile, reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love towards him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be an enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death."

We are inseparably connected with America. Her destiny is ours. We believe that here the latter day Zion will be erected, on whose towers will shine the glory of God. America is the land of Zion. "From Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." The golden age of the world is coming. Then justice will take the bandage from her eyes, and every wrong thing will be righted. America will get her share of glory and honor, and in that share the "Mormons" will have a part.