Church history and our quest for the Great Mormon Novel

Andrew S correlation, doctrine, faith, historicity, history, LDS, Mormon 12 Comments

About two years ago, Carter Hall wrote an article on this very site comparing and contrasting the types of heroes that Superman and Spiderman represent, noting the different cultural settings from which the two were born and, consequently, identifying different generational appeals to the different superheroes. As he wrote:

Everyone knows Superman.  He is simply the most powerful superhero ever created.  Invulnerable to almost everything, his list of abilities includes flight, speed, strength, heat vision, x-ray vision . . . the list goes on.  His private life also seems pretty sweet.  He was raised by two stead[y] parents (although in some versions Pa Kent dies when Clark is young), has a good career, and in recent years is married to the love of his life.  Director Richard Donner went so far as to present Supes as a Christ figure in the 1979 film, with Jor-El (God the Father?) sending his only son to earth to help mortals realize their potential for good.

As contrasted to:

Then there’s Spiderman, a decidedly less perfect hero.  Peter Parker’s parents are gone, and even his Uncle Ben dies early on, leaving him with only Aunt Mae.  He gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains powers including strength, speed, agility, wall-climbing, and “spider-sense.” …Impressive abilities, to be sure, but nothing compared to Superman.  He also struggles with issues like unemployment, unpopularity, and girl problems to a much greater degree than his DC counterparts.  He’s a real person, dealing with real problems, plus he fights crime.

Hall addressed the way that, as different generations idealized different superheroes, different generations of church leadership idealized different parts of church history and doctrine. But now, as new generations are growing up in a new technological era, they discover not that there are new heroes to be found…but rather they discover that the old heroes — whom they had been raised to believe were larger-than-life like the DC superheroes — were always more akin to the down-to-earth Marvel counterparts. Such a discovery, rather than leading the way for a a blossoming of new understanding of the heroes, has led to a sense of betrayal for many.

Why is this the case? In an article I wrote discussing that elusive concept of “The Great Mormon Novel,” I had not anticipated making any connections to history. Yet, as I read one comment, I wondered:

One of the qualities that makes literature great is the ability to create nuance. Protagonists with serious flaws and antagonists with shiny centers. I don’t think Mormonism is very conducive to this view. There’s a lot of black and white thinking – take the typical LDS attitude toward coffee drinkers, for example.

In fact, an arument could be made that an individual Mormon writer could write a great novel, but a MORMON novel, by definition, is going to be flat and full of cariacture.

I immediately was taken aback by this. Sure, I could see what the point that the writer was trying to make…and I don’t think I can really deny some impact of what he had said. Yet, as I remarked then, and what I’ve been thinking about ever since, was this:

Even if we see the way correlated church history as taught as being somewhat…truncated…abbreviated…whatever term you will use, what we know (or what many of us soon discover, whether we want to or not), is that Mormonism does have nuance. The protagonists we have been raised with do have serious flaws, and many antagonists have shiny centers. In fact, even if we want to speak about Mormonism today, where it seems as if Mormonism is increasingly black and white and polarized, this status quo of, say, correlation, is itself an ongoing drama of nuance, as has been addressed at length in podcasts like this one on Mormon Stories.

Yet this doesn’t seem to evoke within many the “greatness” of the tradition, of the culture, of the religion. Instead, it seems to make many shrink. It seems to break down others, without offering any care package to start building them back up.

Why is this so? When we look for “truth” and “perfection”, do we eschew and disdain the qualities that make literature and art beautiful, real, and accessible? People say that art mimics life, but when life seems to have all the traits we appreciate in art, why does that disappoint?

Comments

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Comments 12

  1. adam, I am at the mormon history association meetings right now. I ate breakfast yesterday with adam joyntner of auburn university. he said that he appreciated the fact that mormons don’t whitewash their history nearly as much as other denominations (such as baptists). I was surprised to hear this, after hearing so many on the bloggernacle lament the whitewashed history the church puts forth. I guess it could be worse. one of the speakers said the southern baptists convention recently apologized for their backward stance on slavery all of these years.

  2. Can somebody nominate any good mormon novels?Maybe great is too much to ask.We’re not so much with the moral ambivalence that seems to me to be at the heart of great writing.

  3. Levi Peterson’s “The Backslider” is a must. I’d also take a look at Orson Scott Card’s “Saints.”

  4. Andrew S. wrote:

    …they discover that the old heroes — whom they had been raised to believe were larger-than-life like the DC superheroes — were always more akin to the down-to-earth Marvel counterparts. Such a discovery, rather than leading the way for a a blossoming of new understanding of the heroes, has led to a sense of betrayal for many.
    ——————————————————————————–

    Consider the word “suppose”. “Assumed”, is another word to consider. These words convey what turns out to be the answer, at least in part, to the point Andrew S. is making.

    The following scripture is helpful here:

    7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 9:7)

    In my opinion, those who are afflicted by “super hero” syndrome simply haven’t understood. They’ve supposed themselves out of their faith. The scriptures refer to this as follows:

    17 And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.

    (Book of Mormon | 1 Nephi 12:17)

    Now, a few who read my comment will suppose it is an insult. It’s not an insult. It’s an explanation—from the scriptures about the topic of Andrew’s post. Please don’t suppose or assume that an insult is intended when it wasn’t.

  5. Thankyou Refugee,never thought I’d get to have such a conversation.Been reading all alone for far too long.Come from a ward where RS walked out of a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ en masse.

  6. I nominate Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga for the great Mormon novel. Because even though it isn’t really a novel (because it is in four parts) and there are no “Mormon” characters or overt religious practice in any of the books in the Saga, theres tons of symbolism. I love the symbolism of Edward, the vampire who won’t make Bella a vampire until they are married, as a Mormon boy who will not have sex before marriage. I love the symbolism of vampires as eternal life. So deep. So symbolic. Such fine literature, and such a good example for young Mormon readers about how to acknowledge sexual desire but not act on it.

    But seriously, folks. What does the great Mormon novel require? I love Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, and certainly Mormon theology/culture is a major component of many plot elements, but in the end, is Frank Windham saved by Mormonism? Certainly his understanding of such concepts of sin and atonement bring about the crisis and epiphany, but the epiphany itself seems to contradict his previous notions. One could easily argue that Frank had incorrect understanding about correct Mormon perspectives on sin and atonement, but books like The Backslider are evidences of widespread belief (be it orthodox or misguided) among Mormons. Does the incorporation of such philosophical and theological issues from Mormonism make The Backslider a Mormon novel? Or does the “great Mormon novel” require that Mormonism save the protagonist from danger/despair/disillusionment/destruction? Because on could argue that it does the opposite in The Backslider.

    Or, does the “great Mormon novel” need only to express portray the spirit or life or unique cultural identity of Mormons from a particular time period? If so, The Backslider may represent rural Utahn Mormonism in the 1970s-80s (I cannot comment because I an neither Utahn, nor old enough to know what adult life was like in those decades). What would an early 21st-century great Mormon novel look like?

  7. Elna Baker’s book The New York Regional Mormon Halloween Singles Dance (did I get that right?) did contain nuance and so on, but it was a memoir, and one for which the story is clearly not over. It also left me rather disheartened about the plight of single adults – so incapable of navigating the sexual waters outside Mormonism that the only choice is to drop their religion or completely withdraw from the non-LDS social scene. But it was more humorous memoir than “The Power and the Glory” (the quintessential “Great Catholic Novel” by Graham Greene). It didn’t explore the themes of the religion in any grand way.

  8. Not all Mormon scripture is melodramatic. The Doctrine & Covenants definitely presents a picture of a flawed, human prophet and his disciples, as likely to be chastised by God as described in Nephi-like glowing terms — real people, in other words.

    In contrast, are there any redeeming features whatsoever in any Book of Mormon black-hat? I can’t think of any truly tragic figure — a person with the manifest potential for greatness, brought low by his choice to entertain one of his flaws. Contrast the Old Testament, with Balaam, Saul, David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Josiah, Ahab and so forth. They’re definitely mixed characters, which rings true to my own experience. That’s why the Bible stands as true literature even apart from its truth as scripture.

    I tried writing the Pretty-Good Mormon Screenplay once. Stalled in the first act — largely because I have a real problem giving my heroes real flaws. Cuts too close to my own bone. Writing a timid, rationalizing, procrastinating, self-deceiving and lackadaisical character just makes me too depressed to keep writing, so I just go blog or play SimCity instead.

  9. I nominate Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga for the great Mormon novel. Because even though it isn’t really a novel (because it is in four parts) and there are no “Mormon” characters or overt religious practice in any of the books in the Saga, theres tons of symbolism. I love the symbolism of Edward, the vampire who won’t make Bella a vampire until they are married, as a Mormon boy who will not have sex before marriage. I love the symbolism of vampires as eternal life. So deep. So symbolic. Such fine literature, and such a good example for young Mormon readers about how to acknowledge sexual desire but not act on it.

    But seriously, folks. What does the great Mormon novel require? I love Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, and certainly Mormon theology/culture is a major component of many plot elements, but in the end, is Frank Windham saved by Mormonism? Certainly his understanding of such concepts of sin and atonement bring about the crisis and epiphany, but the epiphany itself seems to contradict his previous notions. One could easily argue that Frank had incorrect understanding about correct Mormon perspectives on sin and atonement, but books like The Backslider are evidences of widespread belief (be it orthodox or misguided) among Mormons. Does the incorporation of such philosophical and theological issues from Mormonism make The Backslider a Mormon novel? Or does the “great Mormon novel” require that Mormonism save the protagonist from danger/despair/disillusionment/destruction? Because on could argue that it does the opposite in The Backslider.

    Or, does the “great Mormon novel” need only to express portray the spirit or life or unique cultural identity of Mormons from a particular time period? If so, The Backslider may represent rural Utahn Mormonism in the 1970s-80s (I cannot comment because I an neither Utahn, nor old enough to know what adult life was like in those decades). What would an early 21st-century great Mormon novel look like?

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