I frequently hear members of the church explaining that they are not interested in Mormon literature and film because they’re simply not good enough. Why read a Mormon book just because it’s Mormon when you can pick up a New York Times bestseller or a Man Booker Prize winner? Why see a Mormon film in the theater when you can see a 200 million dollar movie for the same price? I think it’s a valid concern. By and large, I agree that Mormon literature and film both fall short of the national standard in quality. Nonetheless, I find its pursuit is valuable for a number of reasons.
1. Just like Black, Gay or Women’s literature, Mormon literature speaks to us as a group and connects with us with each other. We hesitate to create divisions between ourselves and others, but I think that Mormons, as a group, actually have a stronger case for unification than those who do so by race or gender. As the people of the Lord, we have covenanted to live a very different life from others. And as the presence of the bloggernacle itself suggests, there’s a great deal of heritage, culture, and identity embedded in being Mormon. As such, I think there’s a great deal that Mormon arts can do that will strengthen and support the Mormon community.
2. While cultural identification is important, it’s also relative. In other words, its cultural value does not mean it’s intrinsically valuable. But I do think there is an inherent value to Mormon literature insofar as it is created from a Mormon worldview. Being a Mormon, I believe that the Mormon worldview is, in fact, the correct worldview, and thus Mormon literature has the potential of being the most worthwhile because its underlying assumptions are most likely to agree with the state of reality.
For example, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a beautiful book, but I left wondering if we wouldn’t disagree on a number of points concerning the purpose of life and the nature of reality. No work of art, no matter how masterfully crafted, is going to resonate with us if we’re fundamentally at odds with its underlying worldview. A story that presupposes revenge is a noble cause or that the right thing to do in a situation is “stand up for yourself” by taking an eye for an eye is going to jar with us ““ with me at least ““ enough to lose all connection with the work.
3. Another claim I frequently hear is, “Why see or read something just because it’s clean? Lack of offensiveness is not in itself a quality of good art.” I’m actually totally on board with this one and I’ve never been one to give a book or film a better grade simply because it was “clean.” I join all those who bemoan the degree to which Mormon arts have simply become a forum for “wholesome” entertainment, regardless of its quality.
At the same time, I have to admit that there’s value to a having a body of work that we don’t need to be constantly on-guard about. I do hope Mormon lit. continues to make an effort to embrace mature and complex themes and present material in an honest way, but it’s really rather nice to be able to walk into a Deseret or a Seagull with your whole family and not have to worry about what your kids are looking into.
4. If we care about the future of Mormon arts, current arts need an audience. Many have argued that they have no obligation to see or read what they feel is crap and I fully understand that. And I think I would agree that the very worst ought to be avoided. But good art isn’t going to come out of a vacuum. If we aren’t supporting what’s already there, the production of future works is going to be inhibited. If we all just sit by and wait for the great Mormon works to be created without exploring what is being done now, it’s never going to happen.