Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What is the Role of Mormon Literature in the Mormon Moment?

Sally Denton and Carrie Sheffield recently added their voices to the Mormon Moment with opinion pieces that did not skimp on fog and scary music. Denton, a journalist who has published two unflattering books about Mormon history, is the more ridiculous of the two; her piece is rife with outlandish claims[1] and whispery references to secret inner world of Mormonism[2] that would make for excellent satire if Denton were not so intensely serious about them. Sheffield’s piece is less extreme but hardly flattering. It suggests that Mormons are unquestioningly obedient anti-intellectuals who shun wayward family members, outlaw reading, and crap on all things scientific.

I’m hardly one to suggest that these pieces aren’t worth reading, even though I think their take on Mormonism is flawed and ultimately unhelpful to anyone looking for an accurate portrait of the Mormon people. As cultural touchstones, they reveal reams about what ex-Mormons like Denton and Sheffield see as their role in the Mormon Moment. Moreover, their viral popularity speaks just as much to their audience’s unfamiliarity with Mormonism and its desire to learn more about the Church and its teachings in an age when a president’s religious beliefs can have national and global consequences.

But as someone whose experience with Mormonism has not been consistent with those Denton and Sheffield present, I think such pieces need responding to in ways equally public and viral—and not solely because I’m bothered by their naked exaggerations, half-truths, and scare tactics. The Mormon experience, after all, is not something that can be wedged into a tidy mold or universal paradigm.  Nor is it something that can be contained within a singular noun.[3]

Of course, we Mormons are not always comfortable with this truth. Our cooperative culture places a lot of emphasis on unity, which leads us to focus on the things we share rather than the things that set us apart from one another. This creates an illusion of uniformity that even Mormons who know better buy into.

Looking around the chapel on Sunday morning, though, I can’t help noticing that my own congregation is becoming increasingly more diverse than the “overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class” image of Mormonism Denton that offers in another opinion piece.[4] I bet if I took the time to get to know each member personally, I’d discover that the diversity goes beyond skin color and bank accounts.

Mormonism binds Mormons together, and encourages them to “be one,” but it doesn’t erase their individuality or narrow their experiences. This is something realistic Mormon literature has taught me. Beneath the surface of every Mormon is a person with a story that defies the stereotypes touted by the likes of Denton and Sheffield.[5] If we Mormons can learn anything from unflattering op-eds, it’s that we need to do a better job of being one while being ourselves.

Reading literature that presents Mormons and Mormonism honestly can help us do this. It can also help those who misunderstand us to understand us better. True, it won’t convince anyone about the validity of Mormon truth-claims, but it will give them a better, fairer idea of who we are as a people.

Maybe that should be the role of Mormon literature in the Mormon Moment.


[1] “[I]t would seem that the office of the American presidency is the ultimate ecclesiastical position to which a Mormon leader might aspire.”

[2] “The seeds of Romney’s unique brand of conservatism, often regarded with intense suspicion by most non-Mormon conservatives, were sown in the secretive, acquisitive, patriarchal, authoritarian religious empire run by ‘quorums’ of men under an umbrella consortium called the General Authorities. A creed unlike any other in the United States, from its inception Mormonism encouraged material prosperity and abundance as a measure of holy worth, and its strict system of tithing 10 percent of individual wealth has made the church one of the world’s richest institutions.”

[3] The same can be said about the ex-Mormon experience.

[4] It’s telling, isn’t it, that Denton’s description of Mormonism doesn’t seem to take into account the majority of Mormons who live outside of the United States, where I hear a lot of people (including Mormons) aren’t middle to upper-class whites. How nicely that oversight suits her argument.

[5] I thought the shallow stereotyping of minority groups was a thing of the twentieth century and conservative politicians. Geez! What a naive Mormon I am!

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