An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon literature’

Bashing or Balance

Last night I asked a few members of our Relief Society book
group to read the first chapter of a novel I’m writing. It’s not the Deseret
Book “faith promoting” kind of Mormon novel, and I wanted to see if it
resonated with devout Mormons.

I handed out my manuscript and admitted I’d tried it on
several non-Mormon friends and found they have no interest in a Mormon book
that doesn’t bash the church. Lynn frowned and asked, “You don’t bash the
church, do you?”

I’m a nice person. Why would Lynn think I bashed the church?
The light clicked on later. I no longer attend church on a regular basis—and most
Mormons who cease regular activity do engage in some church-bashing. I must admit,
I’ve been given to a bit of snarky remarking on occasion, myself.

It occurs to me that the attitude of ridicule towards the
culture (which is a fair target) and the sacred (which is not), is pretty prevalent
among the disaffected. The fact that Mormon services no longer meet my needs
does not justify lack of respect for those who do find spiritual solace there.

So far, I struggle to find the balance between expressing my
own views and showing respect for those of others. Do I remain silent when
neighbors tell me they boycott the neighborhood grocery store because it now opens
on Sundays? Is it offensive to state my own preference for shopping on
less-crowded Sundays? My neighbors are willing to drive miles out of their way
to patronize a store which does not violate tenets of their faith. Surely, I
can reverence their honest commitment to beliefs I no longer share.

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall–A Great Read

Brady Udall has created a polygamist patriarch who evokes reader pity rather than condemnation. Just imagine a man who comes home from work every night to have 27 children jump on him and four wives mad at him. I chortled through the first half of this novel—George said I even laughed in my dreams after reading myself to sleep. Midway through, I realized Udall’s book is more than humor. Anyone who has grown up in a large family or tried parenting one can identify with the strain in the households of Golden Richards. While few Americans practice traditional polygamy, let’s face it, many American families exist in a kind of serial polygamy which includes step-children and half-siblings as well as ex-husbands and wives. Anyone who has been part of a blended family will recognize the intense rivalry in the Richards family of too many half and whole brothers and sisters.          

My favorite character in the novel, 11-year-old Rusty—the neglected troublemaker—understands what the adults in his family do not: An eternity of living with people you can’t get along with in this life is not much of a blessing.

Udall’s fictional Living Church of God is a polygamous group that incorporates contemporary Mormon practices—Bible and Mormon scriptures in one volume, Family Home Evening, singing a hymn when tempted. Their answer to the question of why God asks them to live the law of plural marriage is that it teaches them to be unselfish and that doing difficult things is spiritually beneficial.

Their religious community comforts the polygamist families as they try to cope with the problems their life style creates, but God never steps in to help. For all their faith and attempts to keep His commandments, God pretty much leaves these characters to help themselves—and each other. Redemption comes to these people, not from God, but from the bond that unites them and from the satisfaction of doing their duty as they understand it.

Udall’s language and situations may be a bit edgy for some Mormon readers, but—Hey! It’s not a YA novel.

Wishing for Zion in Literature

The AML has had an online discussion about the expectations Mormon readers have for Mormon literature. One idea put forth is that a fair amount of hypocrisy is involved since Mormons boycott LDS fiction with more than a G-rating while devouring PG-13 movies and equivalent non-LDS lit. And some of my experience verifies this notion. Our ward RS book group is reading Charlotte’s Web this month. “It’s just too hard to find adult books that aren’t full of ‘inappropriate’ things.” Inappropriate being code for sex. While our official RS book group would not select any of the Twilight series with their fascinating sexual tension for a group read, I know most of the desperate housewives in our ward devoured every Twilight book hot off the press. Still, I don’t think the division of appropriate and inappropriate books is really about sex or is a form of hypocrisy.

Before I morphed into my present incarnation, I was as divided about literature as any secret Mormon Twilight fan. I enjoyed realistic novels from non-Mormons –Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich,  Paule Marshall and Marge Piercy. But in the back of my mind, I knew the characters in these books would have dealt with their situations much better if they’d only had the gospel to guide them. Same thing with movies. If Meg Ryan had only been a good LDS girl, she wouldn’t have leaped from under the covers with the wrong guy and into Tom Hanks’ arms. The heroine would have kept her virtue, converted the wayward boy friend, and none of the bad stuff would have happened. 

The fact that I’d never seen such a wondrous scenario in real life didn’t keep me from believing that in a fictional world where characters truly lived the gospel such a happy ending was possible. And that was why I didn’t read Mormon literature. Conflict couldn’t exist in a Zion world, so Mormon authors had nothing to write about. And cheesy popular LDS fiction proved that.

The first serious Mormon novel I read was Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua. I was captivated by Clary, of course, but when I got to the part where her 60-year-old husband abandoned her and his first wife to take a new, young wife and head for his calling as Logan Temple president, I was outraged at Whipple. The church would never have called a man that calloused as temple president. And I also objected to the portrayal of Erastus Snow wondering about the purpose of life. An apostle would never express doubts about the gospel plan.

Age and experience have changed my world paradigm and my faith that the gospel can perfect human beings. But I understand that for people in my previous mind-set, realistic Mormon fiction is unappealing, even heretic. And no, I don’t have a solution to the resistance of Mormons to realistic Mormon fiction. Who am I to undermine the security of people who believe the gospel can solve every problem?

Angst: A Boon to Literature, A Burden to Religion

I spent months working through a revision of my Mormon-setting novel with my non-LDS writing group. I was anxious for their response. I hoped honest fiction about the tensions of a married couple working with a problem their church barely acknowledges would strike a universal chord and interest a mainstream publisher. My fellow writers surprised me with their antipathy toward the devout Mormon wife and their sympathy for her less religious, but pretty irresponsible spouse. As the wife wrestled with the difficulty of trying to create an ideal LDS family life with a non-ideal husband, my group kept hoping her solution would be to leave the church.

I was puzzled at this reaction until I realized that this is exactly how I respond to church/protagonist conflicts in non-LDS faiths. Reading Angela’s Ashes, I want Frank McCourt’s mother to leave a church that insists she can neither divorce an alcoholic husband nor use birth control to prevent the birth of children who will die of malnutrition and disease. Reading The Chosen, I want Danny Saunders to break away from his oppressive Hasidic upbringing and live his own life. Reading the news, I want FLDS women and children to flee from that heavy-handed theocracy.

Now, I don’t find myself wishing for a protagonist to abandon a religion that is peripheral to the story. The foolish clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels provide comic relief and do little harm to the main characters. And religion that contributes to happiness is also palatable. I enjoy escaping to Jan Karon’s idyllic, church-centered village of Mitford and following Father Tim, the Episcopal priest whose life revolves around his church and parishioners. But a serious work requires conflict and tension. And while conflict and tension make for good reading, they’re lousy PR.

Plenty of tension exists within the LDS Church and fuels the writing of wonderful novels that never get published. Most of the conflict seems to be with enshrined traditions that may have little or no doctrinal significance and which may be changed in the future—priesthood for those of African descent comes to mind. Currently, the LDS position on homosexuality is mellowing. President Hinckley acknowledged scientific evidence that homosexuality may have a genetic basis. And in 2009, the church spoke out for full civil rights for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

These examples make me wonder if the church couldn’t officially change policy on other existing traditions without causing doctrinal harm. Traditions causing the most angst for devout Mormons include: The subservient role of women, emphasis on attaining (or appearing to attain) an idealized standard of family perfection, the busyness that reaching this goal entails, and not allowing non-temple recommend holders to witness sons’ or daughters’ weddings.

When Mormons privately speak of what Church membership means to them, they usually talk about the love and sense of community they feel with one another and the concept of eternal families. I suspect these are the core values for most Mormons and I think these core values would be enhanced by de-emphasizing some of the practices which set us apart from the world in a negative way. Reducing angst in members would also make the church more attractive to outsiders. The downside would be drying up Mormon culture as a potential source of serious literature.

Favorite Mormon Books

Book lists, like Christmas sales, pop up everywhere this time of year. Inspired by a blogger who had read 24 Mormon titles this year, I decided to write about my favorite Mormon books. My favorite LDS book from 2009—because it’s the only one I read this year—is Mormon Women: Portraits & Conversations which I’ve written about previously. So, my annotated list of memorable Mormon books will come from previous years. Beginning with non-fiction, here are some favorites:

Terry Warner’s Bonds That Make Us Free, written for a non-LDS audience, offers a common sense approach to working out problems in relationships.  He provides insights to the offensive/defensive reactions which we humans often unconsciously fall into. Scenarios from the book worked well as role-playing scripts for my junior high students.  These mini-dramatizations helped them recognize and discuss the dynamics of a person assuming the role of victim in a conflict situation.

Harvard Professor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, won a Pulitzer for A Midwife’s Tale. Her book, based on the diary of an 18th century New England woman, illumines the lives of women and their economic contribution to their families and communities in the post-Revolutionary War period. Life was tough in earlier centuries. Learning about living conditions in early Maine puts the privation of Utah pioneer times, which we sometimes like to see as unique, into historical perspective.

 I don’t know how many copies of All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir I’ve purchased for gifts. I’ve received many thanks for sharing this collection of columns and correspondence from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and poet, Emma Lou Thayne. Their writings reveal the personalities and wisdom of two gifted LDS women who do not quite fit the “model Mormon woman” image. In case the Church Curriculum Correlation Committee is reading, it would make a great RS manual.

My son-in-law tipped me off to Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion, a very different book from Nibley’s heavily-footnoted volumes linking LDS theology with ancient religions. If I were on the Correlation Committee, I would choose this book for the Gospel Doctrine manual for next year. Nibley makes the case for a Zion community with no rich and no poor. Yes, he’s an idealist, but we need a little idealism to counter the materialism of modern culture. Currently, most Mormons marginalize Joseph Smith’s revelations on the Law of Consecration and Brigham Young’s implementation of the United Order. Nibley reminds us that our earthly existence is not for the purpose of accumulating material possessions.

Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion is not an easy read. But for those interested in how Mormonism differs from the theology of other Christian religions, McMurrin provides  a goldmine of information.

Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin hit my must-read list once I’d read Theological Foundations. More than a biography, this book reveals the LDS Church transition in the mid-20th century from a tradition of being more open to philosophical inquiry to the present dogmatic conservatism.

I’m never quite sure whether to place memoir with fiction or non-fiction, so I’ll bridge the gap with two favorites. Juanita Brooks’ Quicksand and Cactus has evocative descriptions of her childhood in Bunkerville, Nevada. As a young widow, Brooks struggles to obtain the education necessary to support herself and child.  She learns of the cover-up of the Mountain Meadows Massacre from a dying neighbor who participated. A devout LDS, Brooks spends years of painstaking research unearthing the facts of the massacre and was surprised and hurt at the negative reception her book received from Church authorities.

One of the books I’ve lent and never received back is Good-bye to Poplar Haven by Ed Geary. It’s out of print now and I don’t remember who has it—but I hope she is enjoying it. Poplar Haven is a collection of stories based on Geary’s childhood in Emery County, Utah. I used the story “The Girl Who Danced with Butch Cassidy” with my 9th grade English students as part of a unit on Utah authors. One year a parent complained that the story described Mormon boys persecuting an eccentric, elderly non-LDS woman in their town. My principal vindicated me. One can’t have a career in Utah public education and retain illusions that Mormon youth are always paragons of virtue.

I’ve already written about my favorite Mormon novels, The Backslider, Aspen Marooney, and the Giant Joshua. Haven’t tried Todd Robert Peterson’s Rift yet. It may show up on next year’s list of favorites.

Thumbs Down on My Relief Society Book Group

The first counselor of my ward RS presidency is an avid reader and demonstrates a missionary zeal in trying to convert the uninitiated. I show up at her Book Group occasionally to offer support, but seldom read the choice of the month. The criteria for their book selections are: short, no sex, no violence, and no non-LDS ideas. Deseret Book is the preferred source.  It’s the taking-a-dose-of-medicine method—choose a book that is good for you and force yourself to take a certain number of pages a day until finished.

I’m not sure if it is actually possible to transform reluctant readers, but I’m pretty sure the offerings at Des Book won’t do it. Not that I have anything against DB. Occasionally they or a subsidiary offer a splendid title like Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations by James Kimball and Kent Miles. But most of their offerings reflect the sameness of my suburban Utah neighborhood.

I don’t read to meet someone just like me, only devout enough to get her prayers answered in 250 pages. I read to expand my horizons, to meet someone I think is not like me until I realize with a start that given the same set of circumstances I might behave in the same way. In fiction and memoir, I want to meet real or imaginary people in places I’ll probably never visit.  I relish living vicariously in other worlds—Frank McCourt’s wretched Irish childhood in Angela’s Ashes, Rae Vang’s nightmarish adolescence during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution (Spider Eaters), Fatima Mernissi’s Muslim childhood (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood), and the Jewish neighborhoods of Chaim Potok’s novels. Nonfiction works for me too. I race through Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Tipping Point, Blink, The Outliers) lapping up each insight he reveals about how contemporary society works.

When I do read about Mormons, I want to meet complex people—the kind who might even exist in my ward beneath the surface of conformity—fictional women like Aspen Marooney, the respectable matron in Levi Peterson’s novel of the same name, who lives a lie born of a youthful transgression. And living women like Catherine Stokes, an African-American convert, who managed a demanding career in nursing while raising a daughter alone, and Cecile Pelous, a French, single woman who has founded an orphanage in Nepal (both in Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations).

Via the ward grapevine, I know the Twilight series is a popular clandestine read in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a discrepancy between what LDS women think is appropriate reading material and what they actually enjoy reading. Sexual tension piques the interest of most women and many great novels have used that theme. Maybe I can interest my RS sisters in a Jane Austen though I fear Mr. Darcy, even when portrayed by a younger, thinner Colin Firth, emits less sex appeal than a reformed vampire ogling a juicy neck.

Periodically, I try our ward book group. Someday I’ll find the book that will cause the good sisters of our ward to play sick on Sunday morning so they can stay home alone and finish the next chapter. The Bloggernacle   gives me hope. Maybe their example will convince my ward that true believers can venture beyond LDS authors and publishers and still maintain their testimonies.

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