These Culture Wars

If you are reading this post, I am overcome by temptation–the temptation to add a few words to a conversation that has dominated Mormon discourse lately.

These culture wars are nothing new of course, and Mormons’ place in them is precarious. Southern evangelicals on the right and homosexuals on the left–just two examples–both consider Mormons wrong-headed and dangerous. Members of both groups probably wish for our extinction. The former group will gladly take our money and manpower to fight certain battles. But I haven’t noticed many evangelicals rushing to our defense.

Some of them probably even enjoy watching us take the heat for Proposition 8. To the latter group, we are hateful, bigoted scum. And, generally speaking, Mormons are convenient punching bags for so many reasons.

Still, Mormons can live and thrive flanked by cultural adversaries on all sides as long as cultural disagreements play out through meaningful discourse and fair political processes. This is what has been so troubling about the past week or so: it seems that both of these–productive discourse and democracy–are threatened by the shameful, cowardly attacks on Mormons related to the passage of Proposition 8.

First, the level of discourse has been extremely poor. For obvious reasons, homosexuals attempt to equate themselves with blacks fighting an epic battle for civil rights. You either agree with them completely or you are a hateful bigot. End of discussion. Begin the mobilization of shame.

And the commitment to democracy displayed by some has been chilling. I am not talking about simple disappointment. Or filing lawsuits or pledging to try again. I am talking about violence, intimidation, vandalism, false biological terrorism, forced resignations, boycotts of small businesses, interference with worship, hacking Mormon websites to replace benign content with gay porn, slanderous advertisements depicting Mormon missionaries as home invaders, and so on. This is bullying, and it is vile. It is an attempt to scare Mormons silent–to prevent us from participating in the political process.

I have been proud of the rhetoric of Mormon general authorities concerning this topic. The pleas for people to take a moral stand–but to show love and respect. And the statements of non-opposition to domestic partnership laws. And so on. While the church’s basic moral teaching on the subject has not changed, we have witnessed in the space of a few years a dramatic liberalization in the church’s treatment of homosexuals.

I did not personally get involved in the Proposition 8 campaign. Now I feel compelled to demonstrate that the events of the past week or so have not shamed or silenced me. On the contrary, I am probably more likely to get involved the next time around. My sense is that many other Mormons feel the same way.
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The public image of Mormonism has been battered in the past year or so. Journalists repeatedly raised Mitt Romney’s Mormonism simply to invoke fear and shame. The treatment of Mormonism in these one-note stories was audaciously uninformed, stereotyped, and generally negligent. Mike Huckabee did his best to stir up anti-Mormon bigotry in the Republican primaries. Atheist demagogues and glib entertainer-types (from Richard Dawkins to Tobias from Arrested Development to Bill Maher) have taken all kinds of cheapshots at Mormonism and religion in general. And the polygamy raid in Texas churned up even more confusion and distrust. And now Proposition 8.

Increased marginalization will be the product of all this. Or perhaps the degree of marginalization is the same, but now it has been brought out into the light. Perhaps we always had few friends and many adversaries. Perhaps people always held us in contempt–but have only recently become comfortable expressing contempt in public.

Will these events impact the viability of Mormon Art and artists? Just as some people want to silence the political voice of Mormons, will people do what they can to silence Mormon stories and images? Mormon-themed work was already a tough sale in non-Mormon journals and markets. Is it reasonable to assume that the situation is getting worse? To assume that a vast majority of the people who control literary journals, publishing houses, theatres, galleries, and the like–now also consider us hateful, bigoted scum?
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I am not all that holy. But I try to moderate my tendency to fear, hate, and be angry. I try to understand what charity means in a given situation and to approximate it in my behavior. This situation is testing me. It is hard to answer bullying with kindness and love. But I am resolved to try.

This situation also presents a creative test: how can Mormon artists contribute to the discourse? How can they break through all the polarizing and reductive rhetoric? How can Mormon artists create something timeless that captures our whipsaw experience of this tumultuous time? Can we imagine some work of art that is compelling to outsiders that insists–contrary to our critics–on our humanity?

51 thoughts on “These Culture Wars”

  1. Shawn:

    I’ve been somewhat flabbergasted at the polarizing and reductive rhetoric that’s arisen from the Church’s support of Proposition 8 as well. When I saw the protest that was staged in Salt Lake on the news last week, I wondered, first of all, what these people hoped to accomplish by marching against a political measure that had already passed and, second, why they singled the Mormons out. Surely there were more people involved in pushing the proposition through than the Latter-day Saints. But that, I assume, is beside the protesters’ point.

    I imagine, as you imply, that Mormons have simply become (or rather are continuing as) a scapegoat on which increasing numbers take out their broader cultural suspicion of morality and of organizations that use their cultural power and influence to take a moral stance on social/political issues. It’s sad, really, that during an era in which the cultural buzzwords are tolerance and diversity that certain individuals and groups are becoming increasingly less tolerant of diverse points of view.

    Like you, I wonder how to productively respond when others lash out against our people in such rhetorical acts of violence. Your questions thus raise more questions than answers for me, especially as I consider my own position as a student of Mormonism and literature and as a cultural/literary critic and writer.

    As I’ve been writing this, God’s charge that we be a light to the Gentiles and saviors unto Israel comes to mind. And I think of this in terms of Christ’s redemptive actions: suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (to be allusive) in order to raise others beyond present ignorance into a state of greater understanding and peace. And that leads me to the example of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (as types of Christ) and their function during their own troubled cultural moment.

    I can’t account for all of the implications and applications of this “theory,” but for me, in one sense, it suggests this: we must be a strong and compassionate people, one touched by the humanity of others even as we adhere strictly to our covenants with God. From this position, we must confront the violence, allowing the rhetorical slings and arrows to pierce us, as it were, as we exert our best efforts to make peace with ourselves, with fellow Saints, with others, and with God, through our intellectual and artistic efforts. Maybe by refining these efforts, then, and by finding or creating venues through which we can make these voices heard, we can be this light, we can become saviors in our own small way.

    Perhaps this only raises more questions or begs the questions you’ve asked here, but you’ve got me thinking; and that’s (almost) always a good start–though I don’t plan to stop short of action with just an unembodied thought hanging lifeless from my hands…

  2. A preemptive note of caution:

    Please keep comments focused on the impact of recent events on Mormon arts and culture. If one is looking to debate the merits of the LDS Church’s involvement in the passage of Prop. 8 and the rhetoric on both sides of the debate, there are plenty of other places in the Bloggernacle where such discussion can be had.


  3. The actions over the past ten days or so remind me strongly of SLAPP suits — just as those suits are intended to bully opponents out of the legal process, the actions you outline here are geared to forcing us out of the democratic process. I wonder if anything learned in combatting SLAPP suits could suggest analogous ways to respond to the current harrassment?

    I would suggest one amendment to your post, though. While Mormons have borne the brunt of the vicious backlash, some Catholic organizations and individuals have also been attacked (including the terroristic “white powder”), and a number of Catholics have spoken up in our behalf (the Catholic bishops of Salt Lake and Sacramento, and a theologian at John Paul the Great Catholic University, and perhaps others). Anyone who is willing to stand by us that way deserves to be acknowledged. Thanks.

  4. I left off my cultural note — While I’m not the one to do it (I have no skill in visual arts), I’d love to see some kind of artwork that showed the solidarity between Mormon and Catholic in this matter. I can see in my mind a stylized image of one of the Salt Lake Temple towers with its distinctive windows and battlements standing next to a similar part of a cathedral with its spire and Gothic windows. The stonework around windows from each tower is intertwined, as if people were standing shoulder to shoulder with their arms linked. I can see it, but I can’t draw or paint it.

  5. This is a topic that has also been under discussion over at AML-List. I won’t repeat my posts from there, except simply to say that I’m suddenly worried that my current novel project (which features an LDS same-sex attracted teen) might come to seem dated as this antagonism grows.

  6. I think Jonathan’s concern is an interesting one. On the one hand I nearly any story about LDS SSA published in the next six months or so will be unfairly interpreted as a reaction to the current political dust-up, which is a shame because I know his story has arisen completely independent of that context. It would be an unfair and reductive reading to see it only as a literary response to a single cultural event.

    It would have been nice if that novel could have been published during a time of relative calm on the issue where people would be more likely to approach it with fewer hedges or preconceptions and give it the open and thoughtful reading it deserves (and earns, in my opinion).

    Still, despite an initial attempt to pigeonhole it, I think the story itself comes clear of the immediate social context and can easily transcend the moment. It’s one of the odd advantages of publishing in a boutique market—longer shelf life can translate to more considered readings after an initial knee-jerk response.

    In any case, I think waiting a year to publish might be wise. It allows the currently polarized rhetoric to subside a bit, but actually excites the overall market to a thoughtful consideration that could work in the novel’s favor. The issue has been raised powerfully in the public eye, and once the pinheads of both left and right calm down, the freshened issue should be subject to more active consideration by a wider range of people than it might have had not the cultural crisis occurred.

    Or at least I hope so. The crisis will also embolden the bigots of both sides, but by raising the issue at all I would like to believe that a broader public has been jarred out of complacency. This should spur the honest to take fresh look, and that’s where thoughtful, honest exploration in literature has a chance to raise overall consideration by those who are not already ossified in a polar stance.

    It’s easy for me to say—it’s not my novel. But I think you have to write it anyway and not worry about the momentary cultural flux. One of the powerful elements of literature is the ability to transcend the flurry and remain when the crisis has passed. Because I believe the pendulum will swing yet again, and the literature already in place when that happens will ultimately get proper credit for being forward-thinking and true.

    Or at least I hope so.

  7. Oh, I’m definitely still planning to finish the novel, and go ahead with publishing it if opportunity arises. If anything, this makes me think I need to finish it *soon*, on the chance that circumstances may change so much that I find it hard to finish because it no longer feels relevant to me.

    The flipside, of course, is that the controversy could mean that more people are likely to read it (for whatever reason) when/if it comes out.

  8. I have some ideas addressing the questions in your last paragraph, S.P., that I was saving for a post. These ideas come from almost ten years of experience with the nature writing community, which since Cactus Ed (Abbey) began publishing has harbored similarly heated resentment toward Mormons which yes I have encountered. And I’m sure some of AMV’s readers who have been exhibiting, publishing, producing, performing in the general public have plenty of suggestions for how to navigate social disquiet. Maybe they even have some good stories. Whatever they have, I hope they chime in, because I for one need to hear what they’ve got.

    The older I get, and the more experiences I have that show me where my own language falls short, the less comfortable I feel telling people what they ought or ought not to do (except, of course, for my kids, who bear the brunt of my pent-up authoritarianism). So in my aspirations to do well, I’m not as interested in setting out to change anybody’s opinions about the church as I am in improving my own language and the thinking about community and human potential that underlies that language. I’m not concerned much with what others think of me and my “home” community, but with what I think of others and how I address them.

    Bottom line: Clearly, as a Mormon and as a writer, I’m going to have to do better. I’m going to have make essential changes in my nature that will enable me to put better language out there than I have before and that’s better than the language generally accepted and/or expected in the community I’m interested in becoming a part of. Not as a matter of manipulating, asserting, or defending, but as a matter of becoming a better member of the community I wish to join. In my case, that’s the nature writing community, but the parallels work, I think.

  9. I am very concerned about the ability of LDS artists in theater to work openly after the recent resignation of Scott Eckern from Music Circus and CMT in Sacramento. The venomous darts of wrath that were so quickly and deftly thrown at a veteran director by the national musical theater esablishment.

    Broadway musical writers, producers and actors have black-balled a gifted and tolerant director.

    I believe discrimination will increase against LDS artists propelled by the power of the gay community.

    The LDS theater arts community should marshal efforts and talents and create engaging quality productions that compete with the Broadway establishment.

    The angry and unjust will thrash and wail but the joy and wonder of the show must go on.

  10. And that opposition will always be with us in a free society. How do we respond?

    One question for Mormon artists is whether we believe active argument against a hostile market is the better choice, or a more Taoist response of absorb-and-deflect until the spleen becomes revealed as hysterical nonsense.

    In other words, do we focus on arguing against misconception to correct inaccuracy, or simply telling our stories as simply and honestly as we can and hope that people will eventually come around (10, 20, 50 years)? How many social converts will be enough for us to declare victory over the irrational oppressors?

    I know it’s a false dichotomy and that a vibrant literature is built of authors who take both approaches, but I suppose I’m curious what people feel the role of literature ought to be in a world that will always contain a vigorous opposition to who and what we are.

    There will never be universal acceptance, and there may never be majority acceptance. Is majority tolerance enough?

    Richard Dutcher, for example, seems to have become so frustrated with an allegedly thankless Mormon culture for failing to provide sufficient financial reward for his devotion to our ideas, that he walked away in anger–at least partially because he didn’t get the active cultural acceptance he wanted.

    So what constitutes success? Politics plays in every institution—especially the arts—with the result that excellent artists are crushed for terrible reasons. The fact that it happens is indisputable; all that changes over time is what the criteria for discrimination are and who leads the mob.

    I think the call to establish an alternative theater (and literature) is a good one, but we have to understand that the very act of going off-brand limits our total potential for both social and financial reward.

    Which essentially poses an existential question: which is more important to us both individually as artists, and as an extended community—acceptance or excellence? If the latter, can excellent LDS artists flourish in a culture that is notoriously parsimonious in delivering both social and financial rewards within the more narrowly defined community (aka, market)?

  11. I would love to see some positive, productive discourse as well, and I really don’t see how you can pin its absence entirely on the other side.

    Let’s talk about some peaceful attempts to open the dialog: Andrew Callahan of “Signing for Something”? He gathered up a mass of nothing but peaceful, contructive dialog, and as far as I know the church has not given him any kind of offical response (other than threatening him with church discipline). On a tangentially related note: Chad Hardy of “Men on a Mission”? He got ex’d and had his diploma from BYU withheld. When people staged a peaceful protest, the LDS church responded by issuing a statement that — instead of addressing the protesters’ concerns — did nothing more than question whether its OK for the church’s critics to respond to the church’s politial speech/expression with their own political speech/expression, and topped it off by requesting the “mutual respect” that the church refuses to extend to its political critics.

    Constructive dialog goes both ways, and you can’t decry its absence if you did nothing to create it. If you’re interested in helping make that effort, we’d welcome your persepctive on Main Street Plaza.

  12. Scapegoating means that someone is being blamed for something that someone else has done.

    It is a proven fact that no other group raised as much money to discriminate against their children and neighbors as we did. No other group fielded as many activists in support of discrimination as we did. We did so in response to a coordinated effort by our priesthood leaders.

    Therefore, one cannot reasonably argue that we are being scapegoated. Our critics blame us for good reason. If we started to vote on your marriage, you would be upset as well.

  13. Hellmut’s comment can stand, but just a reminder to keep things focused on the impact on cultural discourse specifically — which the rest of you have done admirably.

  14. If the latter, can excellent LDS artists flourish in a culture that is notoriously parsimonious in delivering both social and financial rewards within the more narrowly defined community (aka, market)?

    At the risk of sounding spammy, I’m going to pipe up here.

    I wrote a novel. It has LDS people in it doing not very LDS things. No one who is LDS has read it yet, or at least not in this incarnation, and not all the way through for various reasons.


    All the people who’ve bought it and read it, who are NOT LDS like it (and they don’t know me, so it’s not like they’re my mother telling me I’m pretty). I’d post a review link, but I don’t want this to be spammy.

    My point is not that I did this, but that showing LDS characters as they are, doing whatever X, Y, Z things they do without apology or explanation (or at least, just enough explanation to make their motivations understandable in their world) is something that really just hasn’t been tried as far as I know, and if it has been tried, please let me know ’cause I’d love to read it.

    Card and his ilk write allegories. Meyer writes the culture/motivations without naming names. That’s nice, but it doesn’t get LDS people out there interacting with Catholic and Jewish, who need no explanation in literature other than a vague descriptive. Catholicism and Judaism is part of our society’s language. All you have to do is say “lapsed Catholic” for the general reading audience to understand.

    What needs to happen is that the language of Mormonism simply needs to become part of society’s lexicon and it’s not going to happen with allegories and sparkly vampires and Seven Habits, and it’s not going to happen with “LDS fiction” being defined (by the consumer) as “whatever Deseret and Covenant publish.”

    What needs to happen is someone who isn’t afraid to publish oddball and unapologetically Mormon stuff (like Zarahemla) that appeals to the universality of the human condition (and isn’t afraid to push the envelope, however you want to define that), and who has the distribution to get it out there in the national marketplace (which is nobody I know of).

    And good luck with that.

  15. Hellmut’s comment can stand

    Why? Why should Hellmut’s comment stand? It falls outside the clear parameters of the comment rules for this particular post. Is Hellmut granted a special dispensation to violate the comment rules for this post because of the cause for which he advocates? And, if so, is that not direct and negative impact on cultural discourse specifically on this blog and on this issue–a sort of reverse Scott Eckern?

    Wm says: This doesn’t help. Don’t do it again. Don’t bring your specific problems with Hellmut here, Guy. Hellmut’s comment stands as a mark against him. So does yours.

  16. I think a lot of people are missing a key fact—while there’s no doubt the Church performed a massive mobilization effort (not unlike Acorn in other contexts), the voter response was far out of proportion to the Mormon voter base.

    In other words, I’m not convinced the social activism created the underlying response; I suspect it only revealed and activated a previously apathetic voter base.

    So the bad news here is even worse—the people of California are still deeply divided on the issue, and always were. I believe the political campaign exposed that rather than creating it. Ambivalent people were pushed to take a stand. That Prop8 passed in a state that overwhelmingly voted for a Democratic presidential candidate reveals that deep divide in peoples’ minds.

    Which is an interesting way of looking at the campaign ads—as literary approach. The more aggressive approaches both received more notice and more condemnation. They operate at a core emotional level rather than a reasoned intellectual level. And they succeed at generating a response.

    But is that response the same thing as change? Is it evidence of education? I’m not sure.

    Method matters, in literature as much as campaigning. A quick hit doesn’t always equate to a true change and that’s a core existential question for artists addressing any cause. It’s far easier to incite than to educate, and a healthy literature does both.

  17. C.L. said, “I really don’t see how you can pin its absence entirely on the other side.”

    You’re probably not addressing my comment above with this, but since you don’t say who you’re addressing it to, the comment seems spread across the board, so I’m going to respond. I don’t pin the absence of constructive dialogue entirely on “the other side,” and I didn’t read Shawn as doing that, ether. In fact, I read his whole post as soulfully asking, “What can we do?”

    I, for one, have chosen my own path–am choosing it. It will be through my best language, as it changes and turns and steps out to meet what it meets. The literature I write from here on out will be different for a lot of reasons, but not because I’m working to create “meaningful dialogue,” as if what happens between people in language–for it’s in language that relation between people unfolds–can be focused, named, and constructed, as if it were a thing apart, to achieve some suitable, often prefabricated, structure. I’m assuming new responsibility for my writing. I’m not sure that will show to anybody looking for “meaningful dialogue,” especially if they have a particular and hardy idea of what “meaningful” looks like.

  18. Scott said, “In other words, do we focus on arguing against misconception to correct inaccuracy, or simply telling our stories as simply and honestly as we can and hope that people will eventually come around (10, 20, 50 years)?”

    My experience is that I can’t hope that people will eventually come around to anything. Nevertheless, I work in my writing for the best possible outcomes, looking forward to when I’ll do better even if I can’t look forward to others doing better.

    “I suppose I’m curious what people feel the role of literature ought to be in a world that will always contain a vigorous opposition to who and what we are.”

    Again, my own experience in the nature writing community has suggested that, at least on a one-on-one basis, “vigorous opposition” is not a given. I’ve had a pretty good time out there. Even when folks harboring resentment toward Mormons have discovered I are one, if my writing has risen to the occasion, they’re good. “Where did you learn to do that?” “The way you read that filled me up.” “You’re a MORMON? Why didn’t I know that?” Etc.

    My experience has suggested strongly that folks of all kinds are starved for decent language, something that frees their own creative longing. Some are even starved for language that releases them from confines of their language, confines that they’ve imagined to be inevitable. As a person who goes forth in language, who puts myself out there in language, can I meet those needs? I must try, but without hope–as per T.S. Eliot’s “teach me to care and not to care.”

  19. Mojo- I like what you say about creating artistic works that speak to the human condition. I think LDS artists would be more successful if would rely on this idea when they produce. Sappy themes and and over done cultural triviality appeal to some but it’s success is fleeting.
    Scott Parkin -I have to side with excellence over marketability. Excellence will always have its’ reward.

  20. I would like to know if any LDS opponents of Prop. 8 have had second thoughts after witnessing the behavior of their erstwhile gay friends these last two weeks. Many have said it reminds them of McCarthyism, a subject liberal Hollywood is has made many, many movies about and is supposed to oppose. Just not when it comes to their issues, I guess.

    Wm says: I’d very much prefer we not go there. I don’t see that as being a useful discussion — nor do I think that R.W. has framed it in a way that I’m comfortable with. Let’s keep this on Mormon-oriented cultural expression. Thanks.

  21. I think we need to be cautious about blanket statements describing one kind of art as better than another.

    There’s a place both for art that speaks directly to Mormons, and art that speaks to the larger world–and art that speaks to both communities at once. I see no reason to believe that excellence is inherently more likely in one approach than another.

    I’m similarly cautious about the excellence-versus-marketability dichotomy. It’s far too easy to believe that excellence inheres in particular kinds of literature, written with an eye toward particular critical values and purposes. If we wind up disqualifying whole genres of Mormon literature as inherently low-quality, that’s where I suspect we cross that line.

    From my experience, different writers feel drawn to telling different kinds of stories, for different purposes and in different ways. I’d encourage each of us in the pursuit of our individual vision of excellence, whether it’s an AML-type literary novel or a Jack Weyland romance. (Which do have their own kind of excellence, even if it isn’t one that’s often valued in the Mormon literary community.)

  22. I’ve mainly been moderating, and I think I’ll probably keep things that way — not because I have nothing to say, but because others have already said it better.

    But I do want to make some things clear about the moderation of comments:

    1. My preference is to not delete comments. I don’t think that helps. Obviously if a comment is spam or obscene, then it gets deleted. This isn’t to say that I refuse to delete. But my preference is to let comments stand so long as it doesn’t affect the conversation too much.

    2. Just because I drop the hammer here doesn’t mean that I think that what someone says isn’t worth discussing. However, AMV has worked hard over the past four and a half years to develop a consistent focus, tone and level of discourse. I want that to continue — even in the face of what is, to be sure, a very difficult, yet necessary moment in Mormon discourse. There are plenty of other places to talk about the other important aspects of the Prop 8 and the aftermath.

    3. I also am going to place a priority on discussion that engages in what Patricia has termed sustainable discourse (or language). If you aren’t sure what that means, hit up our archives. This is one place to start.

    4. One blog post can’t contain all the discussion that needs to take place. If any of you would like to do a guest post or make us aware of creative work that adds in an artful, well-crafted, interesting way, let me know at submissions AT motleyvision DOT org.

    5. I’m not entirely happy with the way that Shawn has framed the discussion. I realize that protest discourse is something that many Mormons are going to react negatively too. But let’s not make wide-ranging characterizations of entire groups of people. Certainly, there are Evangelicals who have stood up for Mormons. Certainly, the discourse of protest doesn’t necessarily need to be completely un-civil. etc. etc.

    The very reason that I focus on arts and culture is that I believe in the power of narrative and of craftmanship and of creative effort to cross, fuzz, mix-up, illuminate, beautify the boundaries that political and economic discourse and practices often erect. In short, to make us more human and more Godly.

    Anyway, thanks to everybody who has participated so far. I have no plans at this time to close off comments. I very much hope that we all can keep me feeling that way. 😉

  23. Marcia, thank you.

    This is where we diverge, I think:

    I have to side with excellence over marketability. Excellence will always have its’ reward.

    I don’t know about anybody else, but I write to be read. And I can’t write to be read if I don’t have the money to put it out there and get it exposed.

    Art-v-marketability has always been a problem and always will be a problem. My point, I think, is to put away whatever fear of X, Y, or Z and create the market. The readers are there. You have to get to them and you have to have the time to do so. Part of what’s wrong with publishing in general is that there just isn’t that time to prove that one’s readers exist before one is deemed to have failed.

    I’ve avoided directly addressing the assumption of the post, which is that Mormons and particularly Mormon artists will be ostracized because of the outcome of Prop 8 and its subsequent fallout.

    There are a couple of reasons for that: In the mid-term and long-term, I don’t think it’s important, though it seems monumental right now. Everything is cyclical.

    Second, if you stand up for something, there are consequences. Why everybody’s surprised is kind of beyond me, although I’ll admit the level of hate speech and threats and hypocrisy is rather eye-opening, even to my cynical soul.

    Third, I have no dog in that fight. I do what I do regardless and that’s pretty much the end of it for me as a “Mormon artist.” If that’s even what I am.

  24. A lot of great comments. I won’t even try to respond to all of them. (Not that my response is necessary or expected.) I put this up on Friday afternoon and went about my usual weekend routine, which includes a break from my laptop. So thanks, Wm., for bearing the moderation burden.

    Tyler: Interesting idea about the Anti-Nephi-Lehis. I don’t have anything clever to add. But that is definitely something to explore.

    Ardis: I recognize that Catholics have been attacked, and that they have come to our defense. (Evangelicals may have to. I just haven’t seen anything to that effect.) I focused on some evangelicals to make a point about the uncomfortable position of Mormons in the culture wars. Also, I like the architecture imagery idea.

    Jonathan: I have followed the conversation on the AML-List. Your novel sounds interesting. And fraught with potential to do things my post hopes for. Good luck!

    Patricia: Your comments are wise as usual. Your impulse–focusing on what *you* can do better–is thoroughly Christian. I hope my post didn’t read like an attempt to cast motes out of others’ eyes.

    Marcia: I share your concern. I was raised to love theatre and musical theatre in particular. The treatment of Scott Eckern has been shameful. I hope that most Prop. 8 opponents have the decency not to do the same to other Mormons.

    Th.: Portraying Mormon missionaries as home invaders is just extremely crass. Like Trapped By the Mormons and other classic anti-Mormon camp, that ad will stand as a document of the laughable tactics of some of Mormons’ cultural adversaries. (I’m not laughing yet, but time seems to turn certain affronts into comedy gold. Something to look forward to I guess…)

    C.L.: I’m glad that we agree in our desire to see a higher level of discourse. I’m not saying that Mormons or the institutional church are perfect in this respect. Far from it. But as far as Prop. 8 goes, I think Mormons and the church were mostly very respectful (and characteristically well-organized and effective and so forth). Also, I take it that we see the institutional church (and perhaps the world in general) differently. In my opinion, some liberals suffer from excessive nostalgia for the 1960s. Not every meaningful change in the world is the product of protests, public confrontation and shaming, “consciousness raising,” and the like. This is particularly true where the church is concerned.

    Hellmut: As Wm. said, there are other places in the bloggernacle to hash out the underlying issues. Undoubtedly you have done your share of hashing. Also, you certainly have a facility for the kind of forceful, conversation-stopping rhetoric that I consider unfortunate. “Discrimination” is a very pregnant term. It is obvious why you like to beat Mormons over the head with it. Like I said in my post, this kind of stuff will not shame or silence me. All the same, I can imagine being friends with an apparently brilliant person like you even if there is no hope of us ever seeing eye-to-eye on this issue.

    Wm.: Again, thanks for bearing the moderation burden. I would be glad to discuss (here or elsewhere) the challenges involved in framing these issues. The good news: I didn’t let Prop. 8-inspired emotions drive me to post something even further afield from AMV’s focus, tone, etc., etc. Perhaps time and perspective will permit me to post something more thoughtful. In my defense though, it seemed important to take a timely stab, however imperfect, at the relevant Mormon culture issues.

    MoJo, Scott, et al.: Great thoughts on what it means to be an artist right now. Mormon artists and audiences need to keep their heads. As Patricia said, we need to look inside ourselves and do better.

  25. It’s pointless to talk in vague generalities about art without reference to what has actually been happening the last two weeks since the election. I’ll bow out now and leave you to your ivory tower.

  26. R.W.:

    If you’d be interested in writing a guest post that explores McCarthyism and the use of boycott to apply pressure to artistic institution in relation to the aftermath of Prop 8, I’d be happy to run it. I don’t know that the facts of the Scott Eckern case support a strong comparison to McCarthyism. But I would welcom a post that can tease that out beyond the artistic equivalence of Godwin’s Law.

    I also see plenty of references on this page to what has been happening. I also see and congratulate a desire to forge this moment in to language worth exploring rather than the rancorous language that has been happening on both sides. Now there’s where the real (often ugly) generalities are. And that’s where the real ivory tower is — encasing oneself in outrage and a sense of embattlement. And yes, I’m talking about both sides here.

    I’ll also say this: AMV is served well by its focus, but no one should think that what we post and discuss here represents the sum total of our beliefs and experiences — political, religious, social, artistic or spiritual.

  27. After everything that’s been cussed and discussed in communities and around the bloggernacle, I’m anxious–even excited–to get out there in writing and in person to see what will happen. Should be fun. Could be educational (for me). Might even be highly stimulating.

    R.W., I hope you take William up on his offer to run your guest post!

  28. After everything that’s been cussed and discussed in communities and around the bloggernacle, I’m anxious”“even excited”“to get out there in writing and in person to see what will happen. Should be fun. Could be educational (for me). Might even be highly stimulating.

    I must shout an enthusiastic AMEN to this.

  29. Brave post, S.P.
    Being a part of the theatrical community, where homosexual discourse and influence is very strong, I’ve been very concerned about how Proposition 8 will effect my own artwork, especially after reading about the forced resignation of Scott Eckern. Will my chosen artistic field accept me despite my chosen religious field? It’s a very real question which was framed in my mind long before the brouhaha of Proposition 8.
    I have had several incidents in my life where my Mormonism has counted against me in my artistic endeavors, especially when my debut play “Farewell To Eden” competed in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Several incidents there, especially at the national festival, showed me the hostility that exists against LDS people within certain artistic communities. I certainly met the cold shoulder of that double standard on a few occassions (I briefly mention a couple of these on a previous post here on AMV: ). But I also saw the opposite. Gary Garrison, an openly and proudly gay playwright and the then playwriting chairman of the KCACTF, was one of the chief advocates of my play, and very welcoming, supportive and warm with me personally. So it does give me hope that there may yet be a place for me in the national theater scene. If not, however, I’m becoming more and more determined to make a place among my own people.
    I’ve long considered addressing same gender attraction and its interaction with Mormon faith in a play format, even though its been addressed a number of times in plays such as “Angels In America,” “Confessions of a Mormon Boy,” “Bash: Latter-day Plays,” “Facing East” and Melissa Leilani Larson’s upcoming play “Little Happy Secrets” (to be performed in a few months by the New Play Project). But none of them have tried to represent a supportive view of the LDS faith, with perhaps the exception of “Little, Happy Secrets” (which is more humanistic in its approach and doesn’t really try to take a side either way, but just presents the problems it brings to a Mormon woman personally. A beautiful play). I had wanted to write a play that was balanced and compassionate, but still showed why a Mormon may choose his or her faith over his or her sexuality. I was intimidated as to when to write it in my career, and am even more so now since Proposition 8, having seen the repercussions it can bring to throw one’s hat in that ring. However, since Proposition 8 I have had an overflowing of ideas that just are screaming to be written. I don’t want to be cowardly, nor inflammatory, and so am trying to find a way to balance it. So, thank you Shawn, this post has been illuminating and timely.

  30. .

    I was intimidated as to when to write it in my career, and am even more so now since Proposition 8, having seen the repercussions it can bring to throw one’s hat in that ring. However, since Proposition 8 I have had an overflowing of ideas that just are screaming to be written. I don’t want to be cowardly, nor inflammatory, and so am trying to find a way to balance it.

    I agree, Mahonri. Even barely touching on this topic in vague ways has brought me under fire, but the last few weeks have altered my thinking in many ways. Whether or not I have it in me to write on this topic when the consequences may be ugly and while I have 700 other projects to be finished remains to be seen. My guess? Probably not. Not immediately, at least.

  31. I found Angels in America to be almost Pro-Mormon. In fact it has so many references to Mormon concepts such as visiting angels, prophets and redemption, that I thought that Tony Kushner might be LDS. Turned out he is Jewish so I’m still wonder where he acquired his knowledge of the Mormon faith. Joe Pitt, the return missionary in the movie, is not unlike return missionaries I knew growing up in Utah. A few of them came home and out of the closet. Joe’s wife Harper also reflects the reality of some Mormon wives, the need for anti-depressants and a problem with drug dependence.

    The reason I bring this up is because I think Kushner’s piece was honest. I may not agree with every point he tried to make and yes there was stereotypes in the work. Having said that, it seemed that every character in the play ends up redeemed accept for Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt, the return missionary. Cohen was unrepentant so his demise was expected. Joe on the other hand took off his garments on the Beach, lost his faith, his way and his self. If I remember correctly, being true to yourself in all things was the major moral point of the author. Anyway, this is what I took away from the play. As LDS artists weathering the current Prop 8 storm, I think we need to maintain our honesty and integrity. We should speak our personal truth. If you want to take up the Prop 8 banner pro or con you should remember when you enter the public arena with your ideas and art some people will like what you have to say and some will be critical. Toughen up. Your best hope is they don’t ignore you.

  32. We had very different readings of Kushner if you came out seeing it as in any way pro-Mormon. I saw a fairly simplistic, surface-level cultural critique that used cliches of failure to lump us generically into a social reflection of the abomination of conservative politics. I wish he *had* gone a tad deeper into the complexities of both the culture and ethos surrounding Mormonism if he was going to raise the symbols about us that he did.

    That struck me as both lazy and disingenuous as I read the plays. To my view he simply took a convenient religious symbol, raped it for its strangeness, then explored an entirely different topic. That’s a fairly common literary technique, but it also stops short of any sort of honest exploration of Mormon thought or being.

    Which is fine, because Kushner wasn’t trying to explore the complexities of Mormonism, so it would be unfair to read him as though he was. The group he explored with compassion was the gay community, and in his presentation no honest Mormon could be gay. You could not be Mormon (or conservative) and be good, honest, or true.

    Which is why I struggled with his plays. I think he ended up being dishonest (or at least disingenuous) in the end by easily forgiving his own community of exactly the sins he so harshly condemned in Roy and Joe in particular and Mormonism in general. He ultimately shied away when the critique got close, and that failure of analysis undercut the whole for me.

    I found it a very frustrating read for that reason, because he nearly pulled it off but ended up falling back into ordinary partisan posturing. An excellent work, but for me it stopped short of the kind of difficult honesty (inward facing) that could have let it transcend its cause. Instead it was merely an exceptional gay story rather than an exceptional human story.

    Which underscores how difficult it is to write a transcendent story when you’re also proselyting for a cause–and why I think stories trying to defend a stance are ultimately less successful as literature than stories that simply explore the experience of one person.

  33. Scott, thank you for your thoughtful response. If I ever watch Angels in America again, your comment, whether I agree fully or not, will change how I experience it. My first viewing was done with no expectation or knowledge of what was coming.

    You stated, “… I think stories trying to defend a stance are ultimately less successful as literature than stories that simply explore the experience of one person.” I would agree with this statement. For me this approach makes it easier to maintain one’s honesty and integrity.

  34. I read the plays first and saw the movie after (from a scratched DVD where I ended up missing the last ten minutes).

    As I reread my comment it came off as unusually harsh to Mr. Kushner. I thought the plays were brilliant (and quite a bit edgier than the HBO adaptation) as works of social and political commentary (even when I sometimes disagreed with some of his artistic choices or specific conclusions), and an absolutely sparkling use of language. As a stylist and wordsmith I have nothing but admiration for Tony Kushner.

    I just struggle with the idea that Angels was somehow pro-Mormon; to my view he saw Mormons as a useful symbol of the hated Republican party and a source of really vivid images and symbols, but not as an admirable folk.

    Of course there is significant disagreement on that, but I can only offer my own personal reading.

    In any case, the plays were exceptional and my personal frustration is that (for me) they came so close to something quite extraordinary and transcendent—but ultimately fell just short. You can’t read two full-length plays and watch the movies unless something there is something strong and engaging.

  35. My basic problem with Angels in America (and like Scott I thought that Kushner was often brilliant on a sentence level) was that he didn’t bother to take the Mormonness of the characters seriously.

    I’ve seen Mormons point out that the Mormon mother figure is a sympathetic one. Yes, but she’s a backslider as a Mormon–with a secret vice (smoking, or was it coffee?) that I actually thought was pretty unrealistic for someone who had actually been raised in the Church and had always been nominally active. Easy to believe of a convert, or someone who had gone through a significant period of inactivity, but not the kind of vice it’s easy to pick up “on the side” as an active member (as opposed to, say, pornography).

    More revealing was the fact that when the mother shows up to try to find out what’s going on with her son, she shows up at the Visitor’s Center–as opposed to, say, calling the bishop or Relief Society president. Really, it’s a very eccentric thing to imagine a Mormon actually doing.

    This may seem like a minor detail. But if Kushner has missed the fact that Mormons are a significantly bound social community, then he’s missed one of the vastly important elements of us as a people. The gay community, as depicted in his plays, is rife with this kind of connections. But the only connections that occur in a Mormon context are the ones within the family. No home teachers, no bishop, no humorously out-of-place visiting teachers popping up with a loaf of banana bread in the middle of the dissolving marriage.

    What I find most fascinating is that Kushner, for all of his fascination with icons of Mormon history and belief (such as angels–which he promptly transforms to mean something entirely different from what they mean to Mormons) completely ignores the distinctively Mormon doctrines of humans becoming godlike and of the eternal family unit, which would have been vastly relevant to his play if he had truly had any interest in exploring the connection between his subject matter and Mormonism. But he clearly doesn’t. Instead, he treats Mormonism as essentially identical to any other conservative Christian religion that disapproves of homosexual activity. Except that he also evidently sees Mormonism as the quintessential embodiment of Reagan politics.

    One of the things that bothered me the most about the plays was the harshness toward Joe. At least Roy gets to have the kaddish said over him (sorry if I’ve misspelled this–I’ve misplaced my notes about Angels in America from the review I did a few years back). Joe, though, is essentially sent off to suffer on his own.

    I finally decided that part of what bothered me about this was that I believed that Joe had already suffered a lot more than Kushner believed he had suffered. For me, Joe taking off his garments was an extremely powerful scene–because it represented Joe giving up on a whole vision of what his own eternal nature was. I was thinking (in essence): Kushner, what the hell else do you want Joe to give up? But then I realized that this powerfully symbolic moment wasn’t that powerful to Kushner (or other non-Mormons watching or reading the play), because Kushner had never bothered to acknowledge what it would mean to a Mormon.

    And think about that. You have a play, a big part of which is supposedly about a Mormon returned missionary (at least I think Joe’s an RM; it’s been a while since I read the plays) coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay. And yet we never have a single reference to eternal marriage, or the eternal family Joe must now believe he’s giving up? Or the way that this requires that he someone learn to redefine the notion of being a child of God in an entirely different way? But of course, Kushner never acknowledges that Mormonism teaches that humans are children of God.

    Hence my sense that Kushner’s play is two-dimensional (at best) on the topic of Mormonism. Indeed, I suspect that taking Mormonism seriously–either as something more than a source of expectations in the lives of the characters, or as a significant source of ideas about the nature of humans–would have ruined the story he was trying to tell.

    Kushner’s a brilliant playwright. But I really don’t think his plays can be described as in any way positive about Mormonism or Mormons. The best that can be said for his use of Mormonism is that it isn’t personal–he doesn’t go out of his way to slam us, really; just uses the bits that fit the story he wants to tell, and ignores the rest.

  36. Someone could do an entire play about Mormon, converts or not, hiding their coffee purchase at the grocery store.

    Is it possible for an LDS writer to produce a play as powerful and visually engaging as Kushners. Can it present the challenges of being a Mormon while showing the correct principles of the faith. Can an audience accept the joy of these principles applied properly to a life but can they also acknowledge that these concepts can be misinterpreted create abuse and tragedy. (True example: A young married couple in there early thirties has 6 children. The mother, because of her health, can no longer have children. The Bishop and his counselor show up and tell couple that because they can’t produce children they should on longer have sexual relations. Two years later family destroyed.)

    Can Mormon art deal with good and evil, right from wrong, joy and sadness, redemption and damnation? Can we take our tenant of opposition in all things and create engaging, thoughtful, joyful and sometimes disturbing works of art? If we want to win the cultural war then we have to be honest about who we are, where we go right and admit that things can go wrong. Te other path is a LDS artists could just say my audience is the members of my ward and I will give them what I think they want in a story. They would just leave it at that and stop complaining about their creative limitations.

  37. Larry,

    I’d love to see that kind of powerful art in Mormonism. And certainly I think it’s possible.

    I’m not sure I buy into the goal of “winning” the cultural war. I’d be happy just to be able to tell our own stories and be listened to with whatever respect they earn. And in most cases, I think the only real barriers preventing that are the barriers that face most literature in American life today.

    As for the last point… I don’t think that anyone sets out to write stories that give people only what they want, though I agree that reception (positive or negative) can have a powerful impact on what writers choose to write. Why write something that will get you hated? Mostly, though, I think we tend to write the kinds of stories that speak the most deeply to ourselves. I’d be reluctant to believe that’s not the case of popular writers as well.

  38. I just finished OSC’s Speaker for the Dead – even better than I expected.

    It occurred to me that it is exactly the kind of novel that needs to be written about this situation. As good as the church’s PR is, I don’t think it has the potential that a novel would in demonstrating the nuance of the church’s approach – and of its members.

    Perhaps a story with a character like Ender, who is eminently empathetic, yet makes a difficult stand due to abiding convictions. Whether or not you agree with the character’s decisions, you can understand him, because you believe he understands you. You can love him, in spite of his decisions, because you can be sure that, in spite of those decisions, he loves you.

  39. I don’t want to twang off of yet another rant, but I really am curious about some of the distinctions between addressing cultural foibles and deeply exploring a philosophical issue from a uniquely Mormon conceptual foundation.

    Larry mentions a cultural quirk–hiding your coffee purchases in the grocery store. While that quirk *can* be a touchpoint to an exploration of conversion or commitment or addition or personal integrity, most often its an excuse to take some fairly simple shots at the silly ways we betray each other in the culture–usually with the intent of decrying Mormon culture as fallen, damaging, and pointless and justifying social separation as the only true way to find oneself.

    While that it a lovely situation that is unarguably common for many people, do stories based on it tend to delve deeper into the frame issues? It’s a rare author who moves much beyond the surface cultural critique that situation suggest (I can’t think of any, so far). The situation itself is so iconic it actually interferes with a deeper exploration.

    Card’s Speaker for the Dead is an interesting response to the problem. He creates utterly fantastic frames and situations precisely so he can bypass the ordinary cultural baggage and get to a more basic exploration. Arguably that’s what Kushner did for his primary audiences–he used extraordinary settings that verged on the absurd to get to some core questions. Problem is that Mormons took the overstated setting as the conversation itself and found it difficult to respect the second level of the idea because the situation made too much noise.

    I think Mormons are more than capable of engaging the underlying questions, but we’re so sensitive to the social critique that the package often interferes. Can we as Mormon artists get clear of our own tendency to think too small about our cultural foibles and get to the deeper (and more generically human or existential) philosophical foundations that underpin the local cultural behaviors?

    Card took one approach; Kushner another. Are there other frames for story delivery that facilitate the second level of the exploration?

  40. I think that Eugene’s “Angel Falling Softly” tries to get at the deeper philosophical foundations. And I think that it generally succeeds. OSC objected to it because it mixes frames, but I think such hybridism is worth attempting (and, of course, OSC engages in it himself).

  41. .

    I wish OSC would address this directly. Chris painted him pretty blackly and I would rather read from OSC himself what his opinions were. An actual book review would be even better.

  42. That would be great. I doubt that it’s going to happen, though. What’s the motivation for OSC? There’s no reason for himself to embroil himself further.

  43. .

    Frankly, I think now he’s coming off rather badly. He can express himself much better than Chris is implying his impression.

    (Incidentally, did anyone else think Chris’s Cain excuse was ludicrous? Maybe 10% of Mormons have even heard of that and much fewer give it any credence, so claiming mixing vampires and Mormons is okay because of the Cain story is nuts, imho.)

  44. Incidentally, did anyone else think Chris’s Cain excuse was ludicrous?

    Actually, in some vampire lore, Lilith is the first vampire (once the angels cursed her for refusing to return to Adam) and that in revenge, she went seeking Cain (cast out) to make him her consort, so it’s not that ludicrous if you consider the breadth of vamp lore.

  45. Maybe 10% of Mormons have even heard of that and much fewer give it any credence,

    If the online response to Eugene’s book is anything to go by, maybe 10% of Mormons know ANYTHING about vampire lore. Certainly the overwhelming response I saw was, “No, I DIDN’T know vampire was synonymous with unexpressable female sexuality.”

    With the subtext being: “And it’s totally not true anyway because EVERYBODY knows that’s not what vampires are about.”

    Heh. I even posted on Mormons and vampires this morning.

  46. As a non-artist/writer, I would just like to say that I have always been unimpressed with the idea that “depth” means writing characters with flaws.

    Works that “push the envelope” by depicting Mormons as “human” and “not perfect” is not depth.

    Depth is when a character is shown to have a bedrock of morals and goodness underneath their obvious flaws. That is what the “human condition” is about. The contrast between Mosiah 2:25 and Psalm 8.

    Maybe that’s what people here mean when they talk about adding flaws to their characters, but all too often I find that comments like that just lead to replacing positive stereotypes with negative stereotypes that are considered more “real” because they aren’t idealistic. As if ideals have no basis in reality.

  47. I agree that depth can be overstated.

    And I agree with this: “Depth is when a character is shown to have a bedrock of morals and goodness underneath their obvious flaws.”

    Most of the modern Mormon literary fiction that has been written actually falls into this category. Where the disagreements tend to be, then, is what kinds of flaws and how they are revealed and how much of the bedrock shows (and how) and what exactly pushing the envelope means.

    Which is why we need more good Mormon literary criticism that look closely at specific works — and especially from a more orthodox perspective.

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