If you can “Queer” a book can you “Mormon” a book?

Thanks to the recent mention of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the last conference I pulled out my old script. See, I got to play in Emily in our high school’s production and it was a transformative experience for me. When I first read the script I was blown away by Wilder’s wisdom, especially in those last moments between George and Emily in the graveyard. Being the dramatic teenager that I was, I read Emily’s last sentence over and over. After the other dead admonish George for his emotional display at Emily’s tombstone, Emily looks at George and says, “They don’t–understand–do they?” As I rolled the words around in my mind I thought about forever families and how George and Emily could eventually be together forever and I knew, I knew, that Wilder knew–or at least guessed– it too. Why else would he have Emily admonish the dead for the flippant way they treated George’s emotions?

It wasn’t until one particularly difficult rehearsal near the opening of the show that my director told me my interpretation was wrong. Emily was saying George didn’t understand. When you consider her earlier monologue with the line, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” her comment about “they” failing to understand was obviously geared at the humans. I privately decided my reading was better  and stuck to it, but I realized for the first time that I had “Mormon-ed” a book.

In my first college English course, Intro to Lit. Theory, we briefly touched on Queer Theory and again in my May Swenson class. I never really understood how to apply it, though. It always felt a little random to me. Like a group of people was taking a particular paradigm and its values and randomly applying it to literature.  Looking at the way I read now I have to wonder if I sometimes do the same thing with books I read. However, instead of applying the values and paradigms of Queer Theory I am applying the values and paradigms of “Mormon” Theory.  Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis is a recent example for me. (Perhaps this is what Gideon Burton was driving at when he wrote “Toward a Mormon Criticism“? I read that while I was in college too but never really got to delve into it.)

I think this happens a lot. When I was a kid my favorite movie was Labyrinth starring David Bowie (!) and, I gotta say, one of the most interesting family reunions I have ever attended was when my uncle took me aside and deconstructed the film to show how it was really all about the plan of salvation, the Book of Mormon, and agency. My husband tells me that he and other missionaries had similar feelings about Star Wars (for the funniest tribute ever to Star Wars and John Williams click here); you know, the force, the priesthood, it’s all in the mix, right?

What books have you “Mormon-ed”? And, um, is there a technical name for this kind of reading?

27 thoughts on “If you can “Queer” a book can you “Mormon” a book?”

  1. Ha! First respondent!

    I’m sure there are many books I’ve “Mormoned.” The one that strikes me immediately is the Riddle-Master of Hed fantasy trilogy by Patricia McKillip. I won’t get into the details, but trust me, the Mormon reading is pretty overwhelming.

    I also know that a number of years ago, there was an article in BYU Studies by John Tanner titled “Making a Mormon out of Milton.” I don’t recall the main thrust of the article (I’m not sure I’d read Milton yet when I encountered it), but I’m sure it was an effort along these same lines.

  2. I must be the most obedient reader/watcher ever and/or the most unsophisticated and/or the most culturally blank. I take it the way the artist gives it to me.

    I mean, the messiah imagery in Superman Returns was pretty in-your-face, so I don’t think I was stretching there.

    But to me, this is like fanfic. It would never have occurred to me to take the characters someone else created and nurtured, and rewrite them to do what *I* think they should do.

  3. Price Caspian, definitely:
    Prince Caspian is a Joseph Smith archetype, living in a world apostate from the original Narnia magic, until his Moroni-like tutor teaches him the old stories (Book of Mormon). The old kings and queens of Narnia (including one named Peter) come back to give him the keys to lead Narnia.
    Sound familiar? Of course, C.S. Lewis didn’t mean to write any of that. But the allegory still works on a surprising level.

  4. I’ve often thought about this too. I like to think of it in terms of what Tolkien described as “applicability.” He disliked allegory, and preferred to think of the motifs of his stories as widely applicable archetypes.

    I’ve been mulling a Mormon reading of Hamlet for a number of years that I hope to post on by blog in the near future.

    [Incidentally, that Starwars tribute by Cory Vidal you linked to is a lip-sync of my brother-in-law’s A Capella group Moosebutter (who also appeared in the LDS Comedy “Sons of Provo”). He is LDS, as are the other members of the group. Cory is now negotiating with him to work on some additional musical projects. So there’s even a Mormon connection to your tangent. 🙂 ]

  5. Let us know when you post it. I’d love to read it.

    I’ve been mulling a Mormon reading of Bulgakov’s _The Master and Margarita_ for several years, myself. Some day I should make a serious attempt at it.

    I used (meaning on the AML-List) argue that we LDS need a stronger critical culture and some better theoretical frameworks. I still think that way, but the more actual literary criticism I read (as opposed to literary theory), that is the more readings/interpretations of texts using various critical lens, the more I wonder if we just shouldn’t dive in. And I’m talking specifically Mormon readings of non-LDS cultural products. We also need a stronger critical culture surrounding our own cultural production, but that’s another discussion.

    I really wish the AML would figure out a way to provide us with access to their annuals because I’m sure that there are attempts that have been made that I’d very much like to read.

  6. William,

    Amen on that last. One of the biggest problems in Mormon criticism, and Mormon literature in general, is the problem of memory (in my opinion). The community simply isn’t large enough to retain in memory what has been said before.

  7. It works the other way ’round, too–_Till We Have Faces_ makes it possible for me to “read” the veiling of women’s faces in the temple as not impossibly chauvinistic.

  8. I did this to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, even though I know his message was hardly pro-Christian. There’s a lot in his arguments against Christianity that actually works for a Mormon interpretation.

  9. I gave up translating from German to English a Mennonite Catechism authored by my great-great-great-grandfather because I couldn’t keep myself from giving it a Mormon reading. I have that problem with all my ancestors’ Mennonite literature.

  10. I did the same, Adam. I still think that the series falls apart in the third book, but some of what was supposed to be shocking to believers, I ddin’t find all that shocking.

    ———-

    Coffinberry:

    Why give up? That sounds very interesting to me. One of the projects I have on my back burner is translating Carigiale’s O Scrisoare Pierdute (A Lost Letter) into a late-19th century Utah Mormon setting.

  11. J. Max Wilson–the bass in Moosebutter (www.moosebutter.com) used to be in my ward and I am still friends with his wife so I’ve heard the whole story behind the song. I love that it’s by Mormons, though! Thanks for mentioning it!

    MoJo–are you kidding me? Maybe it’s thanks to my upbringing, but I can’t help see how Mormonism fits with a given work.

    Mahonri–Totally see the Prince Caspian thing.

    Kristine–never thought about applying the veil thing, but I love it!

    William–I’m a little confused about your point. You mean that you would encourage me to write up my uncles ideas about Labyrinth for Dialogue or Irreantum? It seems a little, well, tangential to me. I think that is a problem with queer theory. It seems forced when there isn’t some direct textual basis for bringing it in (May Swenson was a lesbian, so it worked with her. In my intro to lit. class we talked about it in reference to Henry James’ _Turn of the Screw_ which was somehow tied to some sort of homophobia in boys’ schools or something). My father recently tried to sell me on a queered reading of the _Twilight_ series and it just didn’t work for me.

    The other question I have for you is this: besides the fun, what value does it have? How does it strengthen Mormon letters besides giving us more to talk about?

  12. I agree about the third book, William. It may have been because of my Mormon reading, but I wasn’t sure until the third book which side the author was on.

    Which is an interesting idea, if an incomplete sentence. Having grown up in an active family, it’s hard if not impossible for me to read without putting my “Mormonness” in it to some extent. None of us can really read in a completely unbiased manner. A lot of times I can see what’s probably intended versus what I want to be there because of my religious ideas, but I wonder how often “Mormon-ing” a work causes us to not only add to, but completely misunderstand it.

  13. I convert Philip Pullman to Mormonism here (I consider the third book the most Mormon). I discover a connection between the anime classic Gall Force and Brigham Young here. The Catholic allusions in Haibane Renmei are probably deliberate, but there are Mormon interpretations that work just as well. The Mormon versions of the Fall and the Great Apostacy are perfectly captured in Scrapped Princess. Seriously, if you don’t want to wade through the whole series, check out the final Scrapped Princess DVD. You’ll find there a better explanation for the Plan of Salvation than in any Sunday School lesson (though with a deistic conclusion).

  14. Laura asked: “besides the fun, what value does it have? How does it strengthen Mormon letters besides giving us more to talk about?”

    I think (I’m winging this here) that part of the justification for “queering” a text (or “Mormonizing” one) rests on some kind of assumption that there’s a larger code “out there” (e.g., in society’s patterns of interpreting sexuality and/or queerness) that can speak through a text regardless of authorial intent. Interpreting those patterns makes us more aware of (a) the forces operating within the text, and (b) those larger cultural patterns. In the case of Mormonism–if we believe that the gospel embodies some universal truth patterns that operate regardless of people’s recognition of them as such, then reading the Mormonness of a text makes us more aware of the truth of a text (possibly more aware than the author was) and more aware of Truth as a whole.

    (Side note: the same kind of thing, in my view, gets done with Marxist and feminist interpretations of texts, among many other possible approaches–including Christian archetypal approaches–when you look at a text through a lens composed of a particular set of questions or issues.)

    The other main justification for queering a text, I speculate, is to appropriate it for one’s own–a claim of connection to, and legitimacy within, the larger culture. Again, I think this works perfectly well in a Mormon context.

    On a practical level, I can imagine a third virtue to “Mormonizing” texts, in that doing so may enable us to expand the range of Mormon letters itself by giving us more patterns for how texts can be Mormon and for the types of texts that can be Mormon–just as (I hope and speculate) converts to the Church from many different cultures can expose to us dimensions of what the gospel means that might be opaque to those of us from any specific cultural tradition.

    One important thing to keep in mind about all these approaches, in my view, is that no one but Mormons will care. Which is, perhaps, all the more reason to do it…

  15. I agree, Eugene. The third book is the most Mormon (sort of). My criticism of it isn’t it’s suitability for Mormon criticism, but rather the fact that it’s a weak ending to the series.

    But that’s another discussion.

    ——

    Laura:

    Sorry for the confusion — I was addressing J Max Wilson’s Mormon reading of Hamlet.

    I agree with your assessment of queer theory, although all theories can be reductive and not quite germane and have problems relating to a wide range of texts. On the other hand, although it’s rare, I’ve read literary interpretations using theories that I don’t find compelling at all that were nonetheless fascinating. The best example I can think of at the moment is Shoshana Felman’s Lacanian analysis of “The Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if that’s the one you read in your class. I thought it was on the one hand preposterous, but on the other hand it brought out some elements to the text that I hadn’t previously considered and for me that’s what good literary criticism does.

  16. .

    I’m a Mormon Chauvinist. Assuming that Mormon Truth is the Whole Truth and that all seekers of truth are approximating that truth, I often view works through my Mormon lens and admire how close they’ve come. So I can appreciate Pullman’s atheism and still imagine he is seeking truth, even if I judge him as having taken a couple missteps.

    In my opinion, Mormonism is expansive, and anyone — whether evangelical or atheistic — tries to close doors on possible truth is rejecting truth, God and the LDS way. Which is why few things irritate me as much as Mormons who get similarly provincial about the truth they understand. I try to always be willing to be proved wrong. I give my students extra credit for catching me in an error. I want to know more today than I knew yesterday. And that means I have to be willing to accept truth, no matter how apart it seems from what I already understand.

    That’s my view of what a ‘Mormon Reading’ is: I believe in a God who gives each person as much knowledge as they are willing and able to receive. I believe that all truth is ‘Mormon’. I believe I have much to gain from the World as they have much to gain from the Church, for God has given us all varying gifts of knowledge. So reading any text will lead me to look for the truth therein. And we tend to find what we’re looking for.

  17. MoJo”“are you kidding me? Maybe it’s thanks to my upbringing, but I can’t help see how Mormonism fits with a given work.

    No, I am not. My whole reading life is not wrapped up in how something could be Mormon. Sorry.

    Quite frankly, I find this whole exercise rather expository of our insecurity as a religion that operates in the world while attempting to live above it. Kinda like pointing to a minor actor or singer and going, “Oh, hey, did you know they’re MORMON??? COOOOOL!!!!” regardless of that person’s standing in the church or example of the church.

    What I’d really like to know is why can’t we study a non-Mormon text and pull from it truths it might offer without having to use the gospel as a filter for it? As if it’s slightly tarnished and needs to be polished up a bit before we can look at it?

  18. I think that we’re talking about a much broader, more multi-faceted vision of Mormon criticism than you are, MoJo. Or at least I am. 🙂

  19. MoJo–I think you are right that, on the one hand, this kind of literary theory can be reductive (as I think Jonathon said), but I thought Th. had a good point too. We are a religion that believes all truth works together to create a greater Truth. So, it seems to me, finding bits of truth in sources outside our own isn’t about polishing something up to make it fit our ‘standards’ but more about determining the nature of Truth and how it works in our world. Maybe?

    All that sort of lends a more humanist feel to literary theory, which I think may be making a comeback!

  20. oh, and this is a tangent but. . . I once had a class where we looked at Hamlet through the lens of the Protestant reformation and conjectured that he wasn’t crazy just religiously confused 🙂 So I think a Mormon reading of Hamlet would be great!

    Th.–love the Mormon Chauvinist. That’s funny!

  21. Eugene,

    I wasn’t commenting on the Mormonness of the third book either. I was just mentioning that it was the one that finally drove home the author’s atheism to me. Maybe I’m just thick-skulled.

    Th., That’s how I tend to look at things too. I don’t try to force everything to be Mormon, I just believe that everything is a part of God’s universe and therefore is in some way connected to His truth. I think striving to understand the place of a given truth (or untruth) in the grand scheme of things is a human tendency, not a Mormon one, but lumping it in with our theology and religious structure – no matter what it is – may be a very Mormon thing to do. From a Mormon perspective, however (at least, from *my* Mormon perspective), it makes sense to do that. There’s nothing contrived about it, because I have a very expansive view of “theology” that includes anything related to the dealings of God with and for man. That pretty much encompasses everything.

    I guess for me, it’s not so much Mormon truth as just plain truth. Doesn’t truth have to be universal or else not be truth?

  22. As a side note, I had a professor who said his friend wrote a Mormon interpretation of Joe Versus the Volcano using Hugh Nibley quotes about temple worship as the foundation.

    I wish I could get my hands on that.

  23. I’m the bass in moosebutter.

    You should visit our site and mormon-ize the song ‘Squirrels.’

    I find Labyrinth intensely amoral. Not to mention creepy, and, frankly, bored.

    Star Wars isn’t that moral, either, even if we do want to adopt a mystical view of the priesthood and compare picking up rocks with your mind to home teaching. I’ve heard it done.

    I was also in the MTC at the same time as Laura’s husband, and we went to missions right next door to each other.

    Sometimes I read books.

    As a musician, I can’t help but mormon-ize music: Requiem Masses, random songs by Muse, Spike Jones.

    I also very much dig Joe Versus the Volcano.

    That is all.

  24. I find Labyrinth intensely amoral.

    I see it as a treatise on the passage of a selfish child into womanhood, with Jareth and Sarah’s struggle against him representing the death of the dream of Prince Charming.

    Her bedroom falls apart and she takes down her mother’s photos, and she’s on the road to leaving home and making her own way in the world.

    (I never saw Mister Tim’s comment until Wm. was testing and so had to comment. Love Labyrinth.)

  25. I just read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on The Mountain, and a lot of the dialogue in the first chapter would be right at home in a novel like Doug Thayer’s Summer Fire, which I’m reading right now. Their styles are very different, of course, but the concerns among the adults for the righteous living of their youth are the same, and Mrs. Cummings in Summer Fire could be one of Baldwin’s church women.

    I also find many of the concerns in Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time quite consonant with what Marion D. Hanks says in Bread Upon the Waters, especially when Baldwin talks about the necessity of loving your enemies and praying for those who oppress you rather than exercising the rage that builds up because of the oppression, a rage he went to France to try and escape. Notes of a Native Son ends with two essays about what it’s like to be a Negro (his word) outside the US, but still within a European cultural context that assumes white supremacy.

    I remember Charles Johnson telling us in class at the U of Warshington (a few years before he won the National Book Award for Middle Passage)that Baldwin was a very insistent, very personal writer. “You don’t like Negroes? I’ll show you how it feels to be a Negro. You don’t like homosexuals? I’ll show you how it feels to be a homosexual.”

    I had expected Baldwin’s style to be rather in your face, but it’s not. It’s just very frank and direct, a lot like Eugene England or Marden Clark.

    I had the feeling that I write a lot like Baldwin does. Of course, I had the same feeling about Virginia Woolf when I read A Room of One’s Own. I am definitely not afeard of either author now.

    I was also fascinated by the affection Baldwin shows for the church in Go Tell It On the Mountain. He was a preacher as a teenager, but I suspected he had left the church, and indeed, parts “Down at the Cross” (in The Fire Next Time) read like a commentary on the novel, and he also explains why he left the church, but he treats the members of the storefront church and their experiences with great dignity.

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