Why Mormon Arts Matter

Every once in a while I find myself succumbing to doubt. I find myself wondering, does it really matter? Does all this chatter about Mormons in books and Mormons writing books and Mormons in art and creating art really matter?

If any of you have the same question, well, the answer (besides being 42) is an enthusiastic yes. Here’s why:

My family of origin has always been big on impassioned discussions–especially my father.  Just after his mission he majored in Literature at the Y, got married, had a bunch of kids, and then went on to get his PhD in something that would support his family (business, computers, stuff I don’t understand).  But being an English major at heart meant he could never walk away from discussing ideas. It was a gift he has given to all of us kids. The election of 2008, combined with email, blogs, texting, RSS feeds, and hyperlinks, has taken our family passion to new heights. Issue of choice these days: Prop 8 and the question of bigotry in the Church.  This has been an especially intense discussion for my brother, all the more so since he has come across some disturbing things (ah! the wonders of the Internet!)–one of which happens to be the Journal of Discourses. For awhile he figured he couldn’t go to Church any more. What were we, his loving family members, to do?

Others turned to prayer, but I immediately *wink* turned to a recent issue of Irreantum–the one that has a play about a RM who is contemplating leaving the Church because of what he read in the Journal of Discourses.  For me, the things my brother came across in the Journal of Discourses were not spiritually dangerous or even too troubling. I could talk with him about it and try to see his point of view because I had already encountered this problem vicariously through literature. And, I think, because of my study of LDS literature I aided him in navigating his crisis.

A similar thing happened when my sister came across some lesser known facts about Joseph Smith and polygamy and Violet Kimball.  She was pretty upset, but I was not because I had already encountered and fended off  that beast through literature (both Virginia Sorenson’s more libidinous telling and OSC’s more faithful telling.)

So why does all this blogging and writing (and painting and sculpting and composing) matter?  Because it helps me understand my oh-so-Mormon-place in this not-so-Mormon-world and it gives me opportunities to grapple with the weightier matters of my faith when the risks are low. I get the chance to consider the issues without throwing out the testimonial baby with the quasi-intellectual bathwater.  A careful study of literature helps me cultivate sophisticated ways of thinking (and feeling) about living a life of faith and, ultimately,  strengthens my resolve to do so.

Of course all this begs the question, why do Mormon arts matter to you? How does a study of Mormon literature (and the rest) interact with your faith? Has it strengthened it or strained it?

16 thoughts on “Why Mormon Arts Matter”

  1. .

    I’ll answer your question later, but first, someone talked about Violet Kimball in testimony meeting this month and I know it startled a few people. I’m not sure talking about such historical reasons for supporting Prop 8 is necessarily the best idea….

  2. Say what, now? I don’t see Laura making any linkages. Or did her post just remind you of the testimony — and if that’s the case, how does that relate to the topic at hand?

  3. Th.– I wasn’t drawing any connections between Prop. 8 and anything. Besides mentioning the issues, I wasn’t trying to talk about politics at all. All I meant was that because of my exposure to Mormon arts I feel like I am better equipped to think critically/deeply about the “tough stuff” in relation to my faith.

    It does sound like an interesting testimony meeting though!

  4. At least one branch of psychoanalysis (ie, Melanie Klein) holds that creativity and the creative arts are ways that we put-back-together or rebuild after things (relationships, understandings of the world) are broken. It is part of the healing required in order to go forward with life.

    Perhaps for the artist/creator, the creation is the end result of grappling with destructive issues. And Perhaps reading/seeing/hearing the product of their wrestling allows us to vicariously arrive at the same point of grace.

  5. .

    This is why I should just cancel a started comment if I am suddenly called away.

    In Mormon discourse (not that this makes us unique, but our particular brand of it might), we spend a lot of time referring to early members of the Church, suggesting that anything difficult or confusing they were asked to do is evidence we should strive to do difficult and confusing things as well. (In general, this is fine, but sometimes I think it is done without any thought beyond a therefore b.)

    In the testimony I mentioned, the gentleman mentioned Heber’s giving his wife away as something infinitely easier then carrying a sign for Prop 8. My wife hadn’t heard the story before and was nonplussed by it. Her biggest complaint was how, in this retelling, Sister Kimball had no will of her own, but the often alleged inherent sexism in Mormon sprachin is a topic for another day.

    To get back on topic, may I introduce a new metaphor? If I understand Laura correctly, she’s comparing fictionalized accounts of, for instance, Violet Kimball, to be vaccinations against the shock of historical truth.

    (Apology: every phrasing I pick feels really combative; I’m not sure why and assure you I don’t intend it; I must be grumpy today or something.)

    Although I’ll admit that this is likely often true, I’m not sure that’s a particularly laudable goal for the arts.

    Even though I disagree with some of the reasons Laura gives, I agree wholeheartedly with her conclusions:

    A careful study of literature helps me cultivate sophisticated ways of thinking (and feeling) about living a life of faith and, ultimately, strengthens my resolve to do so.

    Amen.

  6. Th- I think you are right about this not being “a particularly laudable goal for the arts”. I don’t know that I think that artists should aim to inoculate us but I do think it is a byproduct (intentional or not) of active readings of texts.

    You have piqued my curiosity, though. How do you disagree with me?

    Oh, and what is “sprachin”?

  7. I love Mormon literature primarily because it reveals the mind and thought of someone else who feels deeply about the subject matter.

    As someone who feels rather alien to pretty much everyone around me, that ability to look into the deeper mind of another human is comforting—not because I agree or disagree with the author’s (or characters’) conclusions, but because the act of intimate expression proves to me that it’s okay to struggle for understanding, and sometimes even peace. I love getting glimpses into the mind of another in the context of an at least partially shared experience that gives me permission to consider my own experience in light other models for understanding.

    Which is why the more didactic forms seem less interesting to me. I enjoy having my sense of right reinforced through direct illustration, but I really like finding new models for considering the thoughts and questions that are not easily parsed and categorized—something the best literature helps provide for me.

    The conclusion or “moral” of the story is far less interesting to me than the framework or model of consideration is. Mormons have an amazingly broad set of contemplative frameworks for a relatively small set of base doctrines. Seeing how different minds grapple with my questions is both entertaining and useful.

    I’m almost post-modernist is the sense that I rarely care what specific narrative intent of a piece is as much as how effectively it reveals an underlying mind. Which makes the faith promoting/demoting nature of a story interesting but largely irrelevant to me. I want to see how effectively the author argues the case; I’ll draw my own conclusions.

    Gee, I’ve gotten chatty lately. Sorry ’bout that.

  8. “Mormons have an amazingly broad set of contemplative frameworks for a relatively small set of base doctrines. Seeing how different minds grapple with my questions is both entertaining and useful.”

    Exactly. It’s a very narrow range of works that accomplish that for me, but when it happens, it’s quite an experience — and it makes me wish for more. Which isn’t to say such works are perfect. They often aren’t.

    I don’t know if this strengthens my faith. What it does, though, is strengthen my love for Mormon-ness and spark a desire the contribute in the same or a similar way. I suppose that’s not quite testimony building, but I think that we LDS could do better about acknowledging the fact that there are strong cultural components to everything that we do and think. In many ways, our culture has become way too narrow and stultified — which is actually quite contrary to both our own early history (where material and artistic culture was both influenced by and meshed with the religious community) and the narratives found in the new and old testaments.

  9. .

    Sprachen is a word I routinely spell incorrectly. You would think if I’m going to use foreign words, I would at least have the decency to spell them correctly.

    I’m not sure I do disagree with you, Laura. I agree art can feel the inoculation purpose, but I don’t think inoculation should be a goal for the artist. I think it’s a goal that’s likely to explode in the reader’s face, which won’t help anyone.

    I’m almost post-modernist is the sense that I rarely care what specific narrative intent of a piece is as much as how effectively it reveals an underlying mind. Which makes the faith promoting/demoting nature of a story interesting but largely irrelevant to me. I want to see how effectively the author argues the case; I’ll draw my own conclusions.

    I think this returns us to Laura’s recent post on Mormon readings. Because I think this is a very Mormon way of reading literature.

    Mormonism, practiced properly, is intellectually rigorous (imho).

  10. Scott– I loved this: “because the act of intimate expression proves to me that it’s okay to struggle for understanding, and sometimes even peace. I love getting glimpses into the mind of another in the context of an at least partially shared experience that gives me permission to consider my own experience in light other models for understanding.” Thanks for being chatty!

    Th.– “Mormonism, practiced properly, is intellectually rigorous (imho).” I heartily agree! It’s always strange to me when other LDS people only parrot opinions instead of doing the hard thinking our religion encourages. That’s probably why I have a hard time with so much mainstream Mormon/LDS lit.

    Wm–I’m interested in what a modern meshing of culture and religion would look like, in an LDS context that is.

  11. Coffinberry–I am so interested in the art (especially the process of writing) as therapy! I think you are also right about it being akin to grace. Good food for thought.

  12. On the inoculation question—

    I tend to be inoculated by decent literature, but absolutely don’t expect that as an explicit or aggressively intended aspect of the literature.

    I personally find that where inoculation *is* intended by the author, I tend to resist the manipulation. I may well end up where the author intends, but I want to get there through my own act of consideration, not through their prepackaged conclusion. I don’t mind an either an overt or covert argument presented as such—that’s a time tested literary technique that is often used to stunning effect—but I tend to resist a conclusion presented as inevitable as a good reason to mistrust that very conclusion.

    Which is an effective method itself. But it’s one that puts me at odds to the author and makes reading an almost combative approach rather than a discovering approach.

    My only real argument there is to do whatever you’re doing with reckless abandon, malice of forethought, and honest intent. I can love a work that I ultimately disagree with (speaking of Angels in America…), but I can’t abide one that asks me to simply take the author’s word for it.

    On Sprachen…

    Probably the most correct word to use there would be Sprache; Sprachen is either the verb infinitive form or the noun plural–the general concept of “speech” or “expression” is best handled with the singular noun Sprache.

    (…German mission RM going pedantic at yet another inappropriate time—I sure hope I got it right…)

    FWIW.

  13. .

    I appreciate the lesson, I do, but I probably won’t change. I like the sound of the ultimate N too much.

    I agree with your take on the vaccine. My antibodies reject it and I end up dead if it’s too purposeful. I would rather be a milkmaid with cowpox than a kid with a scar on his arm.

    Which probably pushes this metaphor so far I’ve probably killed it. Shoot.

  14. I would rather be a milkmaid with cowpox than a kid with a scar on his arm. Which probably pushes this metaphor so far I’ve probably killed it.

    I can take it further.

    I got the shot in the arm — twice — but it wouldn’t take. Two shots, no scar, vaccination meaningless. Yet for some people, the innoculation was not only meaningful but also changed outcomes for the stories of their lives and the lives of people down the line.

  15. As far as why Mormon arts matter to me, I agree with much of what has been said, but the same can be true of arts in general (when it comes to vaccination, therapy, and intellectual discovery). Perhaps the specific spiritual or cultural relevance is what makes the “Mormon” in “Mormon arts” applicable. Having said that, and given the role of the reader in determining the meaning of art, could we not argue that any art given a Mormon reading becomes Mormon art?

    If I had to guess why mainstream Mormon art is important to many members of the Church, I would say that it boils down to the concept of having an (presumably more wholesome) alternative to the world’s offerings. This has motivated me in the past. From this perspective, it may not really matter the content, quality, or even truthfulness of the art as long as it is or can be made Mormon.

    As far as the more challenging art goes (which probably isn’t a fair way to start this sentence) I find that it is some of the best exposure I get to things that will directly influence spiritual growth. However, I would probably include many specific works in the “challenging art” category that others would balk at. I start by trying to take art on its own terms, but soon I fall into President Eyring’s father’s method: if I can find the principles being discussed, I use the text to teach myself about those things, whether the author teaches me or not.

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