A Litmus Test for Mormon Literature?

Since I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more LDS/Mormon books and since I’ve started reviewing them and recommending them, I’ve realized something important: I have a litmus test for Mormon literature. I have one overarching criteria that defines all of my Mormon literary experiences–whether it’s a book, the scriptures, or a General Conference talk.

Defining Mormon literature from the writer’s/editor’s/publisher’s perspective is probably the most labyrinthine discussion in the world of Mormon letters–with most definitions leaning toward anything and everything relating to Mormons. Irreantum‘s definition is a good example. In the submissions section it says:

Irreantum seeks to publish high-quality work that explores the Mormon experience, directly or by implication, through literature. We acknowledge a broad range of experience with Mormonism, both as a faith and as a culture — on the part of devoted multi-generation Mormons, ethnic Mormons, new converts, and people outside of the faith and culture who interact with Mormons and Mormon culture.

Under the reviews section it states it more succinctly. Mormon literature is basically, “any books of fiction or poetry, films, or plays written by, for, or about Mormons, or that also may be of interest to a Mormon readership (such as books with strong religious themes).” That’s pretty open and that seems to be where most other magazines and publishers draw the line.

However, it’s also obvious that many, many readers don’t agree with that open definition. Take last year’s snafu over LDS Publisher accepting Angel Falling Softly as a contest sponsor as an example. Or AMV’s heated discussion of Brother Brigham by D. Michael Martindale. Both books are obviously by, for, and about Mormons. But many, many LDS readers were offended by the association.

So why the gap between the writers/editors and the readers? That’s where the Mormon Literary Litmus Test comes in.

Most readers will readily admit that defining great/worthy/recommendable literature is highly subjective. But, when it comes to niche marketing and writing, the subjectivity becomes limited. After all, niches by their very definition are limited and specific and in the case of the Mormon market those limitations come in the form of *gulp* morals. It is the Mormon/LDS stance on moral issues that sets its members apart from the culture at large and it is how individual Mormons relate to those moral stances that set Mormon/LDS readers apart from the the national market. The doctrinal idea that no Mormon can be a fence-sitter, that we cannot be lukewarm and still be part of the body of Christ, only makes this debate more heated.

Of course not every reader will relate to the morality the same so there is a degree of subjectivity but that subjectivity is hedged by the inherent culture expectations and pressures to make moral stands. (This, in part, explains the success of Deseret Book even though so many readers are displeased with the books they find in the stores. Deseret Book understands and caters to the cultural moral expectations.) In other words, because we are readers and because we are Mormons we each have our own litmus test, the way we take a stand,–they may all be different litmus tests, but we have them all the same. My personal litmus test: Do I identify with the work in question? Does the literature represent me, my beliefs, and experiences in some way?

At first glance this sounds almost as open as Irreantum, but I worry that it isn’t. I’m a pretty normal Mormon gal and I’ve lived a pretty normal Mormon life. Raised in Utah, married young, had kids–it’s a story that many Mormons could tell as they introduce themselves in sacrament meeting. But the Church doesn’t only exist in the Rocky Mountain west. It doesn’t belong only to born-in-the-covenant members. There are a lot of members (and ex-members) out there and each of their stories IS part of the LDS experience, but they aren’t necessarily part of MY LDS experience.

My litmus test makes it easy to like books like Bound on Earth or, because so many other LDS chicks read them, Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, but classic books like The Backslider push the limits of my litmus test. There is almost nothing in that book I identify with. The only thing that feels even remotely familiar is the protagonist’s intense yearning to understand the nature of Christ’s love and atoning sacrifice. On the other hand, other classics, like Marilyn Brown’s The Earthkeepers and Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing is Long Ago don’t reflect directly on my experience, but the moods of those books feel comfortable and stretch my litmus test without trying to break it. In fact, that might be the very reason they are classics: because they push people just enough but not too hard.

A friend and ward member who is also an avid reader defines her litmus test much like Madeleine L’Engle does in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton Literary Series). In talking about her actor-husband’s roles on stage she said that if the kids couldn’t see him in it, then he wouldn’t accept the part (p 79). My friend chooses which books to buy and keep according to the kind of reading experiences they will give her children. She asks herself, “Would I ever want my child to read this?” If the answer is no then she doesn’t keep the book. L’Engle says this kind of screening and thought process is the mark of artistic integrity and I would venture that many Mormon readers feel the same.

For me, I’ve decided that a litmus test in and of itself is not bad. It is limiting but only if readers don’t recognize they have one. Of course, now I have to know, what’s your litmus test?

59 thoughts on “A Litmus Test for Mormon Literature?”

  1. “Would I ever want my child to read this?”

    I’m not sure I get this. If you are willing to read it, then why wouldn’t want your children to read it? Then seems to me to be a way to defer making some tough choices. It also ignores the fact that different people have different weaknesses, tolerances, life experiences, etc.

    That said I agree that screening is important (this is where I link again to my classic post — Mormons and media consumption. I think that sometimes, though, people who draw the lines tighter than others think that somehow they are do more screening than others. That may or may not be the case. As I argue in the post, it’s less about where the lines are drawn (although do think there are some hard lines) and more about active engagement with artistic discourse and working both aesthetic and personal and spiritual factors in to such engagement.

    I’ve run out of time, but I will try and answer your question later. And for the record, I think that we all use litmus tests so as provocative as the question is, it’s not without merit.

  2. .

    I think, for me, the litmus test for Mormon lit is that the Mormon characters seem within the boundaries of real Mormon people. I know people like the characters or, at the very least, believe that such people can exist.

    The older I get and the more experiences I have, the broader this designation becomes. Whereas my experience used to be Me with flavors of My Family and My Ward, I now have a much more inclusive sense of the Mormon experience and I can accept much more than once I could.

    My current novel deals with characters in situations that once would have failed my test. So there you go.

  3. Whoa, the idea of picking only books that your children could read seems pretty extreme to me. It’s about the same as saying, “I’m only going to have conversations that my children could listen to.” I don’t buy it–adult life is very different from child life, and adults shouldn’t have to infanticize (infantilize?) themselves in their cultural choices. But Mormonism does have very strong “lowest common denominator” impulses, doesn’t it.

    I think another part of the common Mormon litmus test is it has to uplift the faith. In other words, it has to function, at least on some level, as positive propaganda for Mormonism.

  4. The quote says “ever” — I read that to mean something that you’d never feel ashamed to have your children find out you’d read not that it was appropriate for them at whatever age group they fall in.

  5. I’m sitting here thinking about this post since I read it this morning and wondering what is being judged:

    1) Whether a piece is Mormon or not (goes back to defining what Mormon is).

    2) Whether a Mormon piece is worthy of reading or not.

    3) Whether a work is too offensive to be termed Mormon lit.


    4) Whether a reader believes the work is or is not whatever s/he thinks Mormon lit is supposed to be.

    I think another part of the common Mormon litmus test is it has to uplift the faith. In other words, it has to function, at least on some level, as positive propaganda for Mormonism.

    By your definition. That is not my definition.

    My litmus test? The back blurb.

  6. “The quote says “ever” — I read that to mean something that you’d never feel ashamed to have your children find out you’d read not that it was appropriate for them at whatever age group they fall in.”

    Even if this is what is meant, it still doesn’t sit well with me. For one thing, it assumes that your children are going to think the same way they do now. Secondly, why should an adult ever be ashamed of any form of literature they may have read? At what point do we as Mormon adults read and write the kind of literature WE want without having to be overly stressed that our children or family may someday discover it and be embarrassed by it?

  7. You know, my friend might disagree with the way I worded her litmus test, but I think in principal it’s close. Her litmus test grew out of an experience she had when she was a young adolescent. She was perusing her father’s bookshelves and came across some books that were (to her mind) pretty dirty. In that moment she lost a lot of respect for her father and it was very painful for her. She doesn’t want her children to lose their respect for her so she’s careful about what kind of books she keeps in her home. Now, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t read other books. Her litmus test defines what she buys and what she recommends to other people. Her litmus test is pretty limiting, but it’s *hers*. I’m not going to judge if she’s right or wrong. I just wanted to provide another example.

    Mojo–I think my post is about all those things. My language isn’t very tight because I wanted people to stop and think about all those different possibilities. Your litmus test sounds more like the anti-litmus test 🙂 (I’m assuming you meant if you liked the blurb then you’d read the book.)

    Chris–What you said was important:
    “But Mormonism does have very strong ‘lowest common denominator’ impulses, doesn’t it.” It does and, I have to admit, my first inclination is to say that’s a bad thing. But maybe not. (I’m trying to avoid being judgmental.) What’s interesting to me is what defines LCD. Take the Twilight books as an example. You’ve pointed out on your own blog that there’s a lot of stuff in them that would be objectionable under normal Mormon circumstances, but because everyone is reading them it’s okay. That LCD is a strange thing–especially when it implies some sort of moral choice.

  8. Thom– you were posting at the same time I was! I’ll say this again: I don’t think it’s fair to judge another person’s litmus test. We all have reason for feeling the way we do and if there’s one thing that is a given in reading/literature it’s that there are more books out there than there is time to read so we all have to limit ourselves somehow. A litmus test does that. Mojo’s litmus test is obviously completely different from mine, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

    I was hoping that this post would have people thinking more about their own preconceptions that they bring to a text–not worrying over another person’s.

  9. I think that’s the most likely interpretation, Thom. Or at least the most likely implementation. But for me, that’s a lesser point. We’ve argued forever about where to draw the lines and whether or not many Mormons draw the lines to strictly and what they gain or lose by it, etc. As I argue in the post I link to in comment #1, there are good reasons for different people to have different tolerances to things and all of us need to interrogate and justify our varying approaches (to ourselves — not to others).

    To my mind, a more interesting approach is to consider to what extent our reading habits should be more rigorously managed. And one way to frame that is whether or not we’d recommend a particular work to our children at the appropriate age for them to encounter that work. If not, then why are we wasting time reading/viewing it? And if so, what is the value we get from it?

    That is to say, I don’t think that it’s entirely without merit as a thought experiment when it comes to our own media consumption choices.

  10. Chris– One more thought: I don’t think that Mormon readers see it as positive propaganda. I think outsiders see it that way, but not “mainstream” Mormons (whatever that means) themselves. I think a lot of Mormons feel that our religion and our lifestyles are mocked/picked on by the outside world. I think they respond by defending our religion and lifestyle choices, except that Mormons aren’t supposed to be confrontational/overly aggressive. We’re supposed to win people over by gentleness and persuasion, and that’s where the propaganda-like tone comes from. I think more than anything it reflects one of Terryl Givens’s paradoxes.

  11. She was perusing her father’s bookshelves and came across some books that were (to her mind) pretty dirty. In that moment she lost a lot of respect for her father and it was very painful for her.

    This explains everything, because I had nearly the exact same experience and in that instant, I changed. My relationship with my father changed.

    But now I’m older and time has passed and I have some life experience, and I can have a measure of sympathy for what I found, even as I can acknowledge the validity of my response as a young girl. I don’t know what that says about me, if anything, but people grow and change.

    Kids (like puppies and kittens) grow up and grow opinions and tastes. Part of being a kid is the luxury of being black and white and unforgiving. Part of being an adult is to look back and say A) Yeah, I get it now and/or B) I get it, but I don’t like it and/or C) I don’t get it and I don’t like it, but I need to quit carrying it.

  12. .

    I like this child-recommend test. There are plenty books on my shelf I don’t want my kids reading. But when they’re twenty and home from college? Sure. Anything you want. There’s nothing here I’m ashamed of, just things I don’t think are right for you right now.

    Even God plays that game.

  13. This discussion makes me wonder, what is so frightening about an idea? I get the feeling that fear of corruption is really what this idea of a litmus test is all about. Are Mormons really that vulnerable, are we so susceptible to an idea, a concept, an image, that we have to close off a large part of the world. As I child, I was hungry for the world. I wanted different ways to think about things. I have spent my life trying to comprehend the myriad ways the world and heaven have been conceived. It does not feel dark inside me. It feels human. All this human consciousness feels like God’s creation.

  14. I’ve been trying to figure out all day if I have a litmus test or not, as far as it applies to any books (not just the Mormon ones). Truth is, I’m a very omnivorous reader and unfortunately pretty uncritical. As I’ve gotten older I’ve actually become a bit more discriminating in what I watch or read, but I still read a lot of things that I know other people wouldn’t. I’m trying to train myself to be more critical, but I’m just not.

    I’m also not sure about kids and reading. My parents were very open about media (and still are), so I had parents who recommended stuff to me that I probably wouldn’t recommend to my kids at similar ages. Still feeling out how to teach my kids about appropriate and inappropriate things (and still trying to figure that our for myself). One way that my parents tastes also influenced me is the fact that I never read any fantasy (even C.S. Lewis and Tolkien) until I was a married adult. My mother hates fantasy books and never read any to us or encouraged us to read them.

    I’ve actually liked most of the ‘Mormon’ books that I’ve read, and the ones I didn’t were the poorly written ones, like Anita Stansfield and such. I struggled a lot with John Bennion’s Falling Toward Heaven, because I felt like the protagonist’s Mormonism is tied up in small-town patriarchy and it was pretty much the exact opposite of my experience of Mormonism. On the other hand, I love Virginia Sorensen, but in that case I think the historicism saves her for me.

  15. With due respect, I think that you are actually misusing the term “litmus test” in your discussion of what sounds like the boundaries of one’s “comfort zone” or one’s “taste” for certain works of Mormon related literature. A litmus test does not have a gray area. It is absolute and there is no room for interpretation. “Litmus test” is defined as “a test that uses a single indicator to prompt a decision.” It is often referenced in politics in the selection of judges or other officials or in the acceptance of certain individuals in party leadership. One’s opinion on abortion is one such litmus test that the religious right often proffers for the selection of judges.

    In the case of Mormon literature, if you really mean “litmus test,” one I can think of is whether the literary work is considered pro or anti Mormon. True believing Mormons would rarely consider reading any work characterized as anti Mormon or not sufficiently pro Mormon. Another litmus test could be whether the publication contains a “swear” word, or whether there is sexually oriented subject matter.

    In my opinion, litmus tests are generally utilized by those who are lacking in self confidence, who are inherently fearful and who are generally intolerant of those perceived as different or unworthy or unlike themselves. During his sojourn to Boston to warn me of the consequences of my apostasy, my father confided that he could not read and study outside sources on the Mormon Church because he was afraid. He was too invested in the Church and he was fearful of violating the litmus test established by the authorities. He lacked the self confidence to investigate on his own. He became intolerant out of a misguided sense of self preservation. For him, it was not an issue of taste or comfort zone, it was an issue of crossing the threshold established by an arbitrary litmus test.

    I do not think you are talking about litmus tests per say. You are discussing whether the publication fits your taste or comfort zone, or perhaps whether it goes beyond a certain standard that you’ve established for yourself. That’s too vague to be considered a litmus test.

    I have no issue really with anyone choosing to read a book or publication based on personal taste or whether it fits one’s comfort zone. That type of decision is generally an honest assessment of what speaks to one’s soul. You cannot quarrel with that. Establishing an arbitrary litmus test or boundary that one will not cross is quite different, and in my opinion, reprehensible.

  16. Zoe–interesting thoughts. I guess I was coming from the assumption that everyone has to somehow limit what they read and I think often that limiting process is unconscious. I was trying to get people to maybe make that process more conscious. I think your comment puts into words feelings that many passionate readers share–especially me 🙂

    Foxy J–Your experience is interesting. So many Mormons are working on broadening their horizons it surprises me that you are sort of working in the opposite direction. My guess is you do have some sort of litmus test but it’s trickier to articulate.

    Greg–Your comment is sort of funny to me because I did look this term up and I did use it intentionally. I am aware that the term is usually used in politics, but it actually comes from the science labs. Check out this url for more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litmus_test_(chemistry)

    Because the test is about the acidity, or pH, of something there is actually a range. Whether or not something is acidic is decisive. But how acidic it is, that’s another question. I disagree with your suggestion that all litmus tests are arbitrary. I know the way President Obama used it during the campaigns, he made them sound arbitrary but that was his rhetorical choice. It is not mine.

    In reference to the way I’m using it here, I did mean something decisive. I think for a lot of readers–and not just the type we have here at AMV; I wonder how different this discussion would be if the readers at LDS Publisher or the LDS Writer’s Block or Blog Segullah wer having it–there is a “make or break it” rule somewhere in their psyche regarding art, especially for people who still hold the active Mormon worldview. According to LDS doctrine, there are lines that are not to be crossed. There are hard and fast delineations between what is right and what is wrong. Individual Mormons are going to relate to those delineations differently and often do so unconsciously. I wanted them to think about the “why’s” behind their choices.

    And, as to whether or not litmus tests are reprehensible, well, it sounds like you have a litmus test for litmus tests! *wink–sorry I couldn’t resist!*

  17. Hi Laura. I suppose I do have litmus test for litmus tests. 🙂 And “reprehensible” was probably “misused” in my attempt to describe my experiences with the use of litmus tests in my religious and family life. Since I am the only one in my family of six children to have left the church, I find myself isolated and somewhat ostracized by my siblings’ and other relatives’ litmus tests. So I have a distaste for them from my life experience.

    I read the definition of litmus test in the dictionary and on wiki and saw the alternative definition in the context of science and the use of a test to a test for chemical acidity. However, that is one definitive test to obtain a prompt result.

    Perhaps one reason I took issue with your use of the term litmus test is because the term has a negative connotation in my mind and I felt your article was not negative, nor did I feel you were advocating or describing bright line boundaries to reading. My impression was that you were basically exploring the problem of the range of comfort zones out there that readers have and that writers have to deal with. But I suppose if I remove my “negative connotation for litmus test glasses,” I can see that perhaps the definition of litmus test could be broadened to include what you were talking about.

    Thanks for raising the subject as I feel it is very important to understand the Mormon “psyche” in the context of writing for a particular market. And the Mormon market is quite complex and difficult to gauge.

  18. BTW, Laura. I can tell from your reply to my post that you are someone who is quite “secure in their skin.” I appreciate and respect that.

  19. Good conversation, folks. I’m amused and delighted by the exchange between Laura and Greg because it’s exactly what I envision AMV to be — a place where we sometimes toss out provocative terms or statements and then interrogate and qualify and explore the heck out of them.

    That may not be to everyone’s taste, but I find it interesting and fulfilling and it really does have an impact on what I read/watch and write.

  20. Hi MoJo, I didn’t want to end the thread (and I see that I haven’t). I think it’s a very important discussion. It just gets me worrying about this idea of the “fragility of faith” that puts a straitjacket on peoples’ minds. If the gospel is good and true, how can that be changed by what someone reads. And if it can be changed by what someone reads, what does that mean?

    If I remember correctly from my childhood lessons, the issue that was at stake in the “war in heaven” was that Lucifer wanted to take away our freewill. He was cast out for that. So, why would the Church leaders or Deseret Books or anyone in the Church want to tell its members not to read certain books? Isn’t that taking away freewill? Sure – a person can go ahead and decide to read those books anyway, but going against the recommendations of Church leaders feels a lot like sin to a lot of people.

    So what is freewill? Deciding what books are okay to read, or reading those books and deciding what meaning to make of them. I really do think it comes down to a fear that the reader will be corrupted by the words and the belief that people are not wise enough or good enough to come up with the “right” meaning. It feels like a Church that treats its members like children, in order to protect them from their own minds.

  21. William, I connected to your link “Soapbox: Mormons and media consumption” and see that you have contemplated the subject of my previous post, long before me. I love what you are doing here. I think it is of great value to Mormons and non-Mormons alike. How many people do you think visit this site on a regular basis? Do you want more visitors?

  22. .

    Who wouldn’t want more visitors?

    I’m with Zoe on the agency thing. But just as we should feel free to try anything, we should feel free to toss things aside. Obligations to read or not read are alike bad. I too often finish things that I really don’t need to. The freedom not to read is as important as the freedom to read.

    Which is exactly why a ‘litmus test’ can be handy.

    And I agree with Laura–we all have them whether we are consciously aware of them or not.

  23. Greg–

    Thanks for being okay with my reply. I didn’t want to be offensive but I did feel like you deserved an honest and thoughtful response. I’m glad I came across as secure. . .I’m not usually, but I’m one of those “fake it till you make it” kind of people 🙂

    Zoe– Um, I think I can speak for William on this one issue: We would love more traffic. And more discussion! Your thoughts on agency are spot on. I agree with Th., though, litmus tests are more about how efficiently we use our agency.

  24. Well, I think I know a few folks who might be interested in joining the discussion. But it might take a bit of lurking, before they feel comfortable. We’ll see.

  25. 23. If the gospel is good and true, how can that be changed by what someone reads. And if it can be changed by what someone reads, what does that mean?

    What we read doesn’t change the gospel, but it does change us and affects our ability to be further influenced by the good and bad out there. (At least, that’s probably the standard Mormon answer to your question.)

  26. Just to be clear (and this isn’t really in response to what Zoe is talking about):

    I’ve never been interested in attracting traffic. I’m highly interested in building a vibrant community of contributors and commenters who can find common ground and create sustainable, productive discussions and other work.

  27. Hi Katya,

    Yes I thought that might be the answer, but often what is considered bad is just someone else’s point of view. I think many truly “bad” things have been done in the world, because of an intolerance for the ideas of others. It comes down to the problem of a need for TRUTH to be absolute. That’s that “fragility of faith” I was talking about above. If ideas that conflict with our own ideas can be seen as being evil, then how can we ever hope to have peace in the world.

    I know that I am getting away from the main concern here, and that is to find a way to determine “ahead of time” whether a work of art deemed as Mormon, will be acceptable to a range of Mormons with differing ideas of good and bad. It seems an attempt to develop a kind of “warning system” so that someone doesn’t engage something that they’re better selves would not want them to engage.

    Thinking about it like this, I’ve got to admit it makes me a little crazy. I know that words and ideas are powerful. I just don’t understand why they are to be feared. If you were to read everything in the world. If you were to engage every work of art and listened to every musical composition, from rap to Beethoven. What you would have access to is the limitless possibilities of human consciousness. I can’t see the evil in that, no matter how hard I try.

    What if it is morality itself, that makes one thing bad and the other thing good? What if, as William suggested, it is forbidding the thing (the fruit in the garden of eden, the sugary treat) that makes us crave it and feel bad for that craving, which leads to feeling like a bad person, which leads us to seek forgiveness or else throw it all out and become truly bad, as a test of whether we’ll really be punished and by who.

  28. Zoe,

    It’s entirely possible that moral systems are self-justifying, and that there is no absolute good or bad in art and no absolute good or bad in life to work towards.

    However, I think it’s fair to say that the average “devout” Mormon does believe in some sort of Good (and Evil). And, by extension, some Mormons believe that art can also be neatly separated into those two groups.

    I guess I’d make an analogy with food and say that some types of things I put in my body are unarguably nutritious and healthy and some things will hurt me while also making me chemically addicted to them. I’m pretty comfortable with calling enslavement to a harmful substance “bad,” and while there’s no specific instance of art that I want to equate with heroin, I’m willing to believe that there is art out there that has equal potential to damage. I guess I’m willing to believe that there’s a range of potential help and harm in almost anything.

    If you feel differently, then it sounds like you’re simply working from a different premise, and I’m not sure there’s any way to prove which model is more accurate.

  29. As far as developing a “warning system” goes, I think that a lot of that is cultural. For whatever reasons (and that’s another topic for another day), Mormons love the idea of rules that help you avoiding everything bad as much as possible, even when the reality is that those rules also exclude a lot of good things. We tend towards an “everything is forbidden, except that which is permitted” model.

    Personally, I like the “thermostat” model, where I’m constantly pushing the limits of my artistic consumption in various areas, but pulling back if I feel like I’ve entered an area that could be spiritually damaging.

    I also have a lot of friends whose breadth of artistic consumption is naturally larger than my own (or at least covers a different area), and I rely on them to pass along the gems they find that I might not otherwise discover.

    It sounds like you may tend towards a “first consumer” model of wanting to have as wide an artistic experience as possible. I think that such people (who, in my experience, tend to be artists in their own right) are invaluable in the world, but not everyone is called to such a role. And, who knows, maybe part of that calling is a tendency to be less susceptible to otherwise damaging content.

  30. Love the thermostat model, Katya. I’d apply it not only to spiritual choices but also stages in life/personality/intellectual and cultural development.

    There are works that I read in my teens and twenties that don’t interest me at all now or that have a different impact on me. There are also certain situations or types of content that I tolerate less than I did before getting married and becoming a father. I’m more sentimental but less swept up by angst. etc.

  31. David,
    If Andres Serrano had called his picture “Descended Below All Things,” would it then be art, and uncorrupted? Or if he had gotten the visual effect by encasing the crucifix in lemon Jell-o and Martinelli’s sparkling cider?
    I find the picture quite beautiful ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ or http://www.usc.edu/schools/annenberg/asc/projects/comm544/library/images/502.html where the color is somewhat darker, more opaque) I like to remind myself that there is no preposition in the title and I suspect if Serrano had not given it the name he did, or not identified the fluids in the vial it would be non-controversial.

    But he did give it a controversial title, which is a strong invitation to ask why. (Incidentally, the picture and controversy around it suggest to me that no matter what some literary theorists say about authorial intent being irrelevant, the intent, or what we think is the author’s intent, influences us a lot more than we may want to think.)

    I know some people think the title makes the photo blasphemous, but if the title was “Art Thou Greater than He?” would it still be blasphemous? Both of my alternate titles can be implied by the lack of a preposition in Serrano’s title. If he had used a preposition I would not be free to interpret the title as a comment about the way many people treat the Savior, even reducing his name to an 11-letter swear word (12 if you use the middle initial) but because he left out the preposition I can interpret the title as a reference to the all-encompassing nature of the Atonement if I choose to.

    There is a passage in the 12th chapter of Matthew, 31st verse which moves me with its generosity: “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.” The second half of the verse may not sound very generous, but I was listening to D&C 132 this morning and the definition in verse 27 (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/132/27#27) suggests that blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is very difficult to commit. I think Joseph Smith once said it was as difficult as staring into the sun at noonday and saying “The sun is not shining,” and believing it.

  32. Harlow,
    Leave it to you to make me think more generously (and consideringly) about something I’d previously dismissed as an example of shock value masquerading as art.

  33. .

    I’ve had Piss Christ justified remarkably well by a number of people. And since Tyler apparently isn’t plugging it himself, I’ll say that he just published poetry on the Piss Christ.

  34. Thanks for the plug Th. I stepped away from this thread for a bit and look what I missed.

    Anyone interested in my thoughts on Piss Christ can find them (and the first section of my three section poem) here.

  35. Oh, I do like this discussion. Especially what you had to say, Harlow. I think ideas, images, concepts, etc, seen from a different angle or in a different context can have very different effects. That’s why I think the meaning we project onto things is so much more relevant, in terms of morality, than the objects or ideas themselves.

  36. .

    I think that’s a pretty sound definition of art actually: it’s ability to mean different things to different people.

  37. I think that definition is not only “pretty sound,” but that it also encapsulates the real promise of the arts as media that can bolster and enhance cultures and communities through the creation of a shared dialogue, aesthetic, etc.

  38. Jonathan, thanks for your kind comment. I’ve been thinking about this for several years but started thinking about the alternate names during the recent AML-List thread on cymbals. The word _arbitrary_ got dicknixoned a lot in that thread and I kept wondering whether a cymbal (tinkling or louder) is ever wholly arbitrary.

    Cymbals are objects and how an audience receives and accepts or rejects the cymbal can depend a great deal on how they feel about the object serving as a cymbal, or the material that object is made of.

    I sometimes wonder what the reaction would have been if Serrano had used an image of someone else slain for his teachings and acts, like Martin or Medgar or Malcolm, or some icon not slain, like Harriet T. or Rosa P.

    The scripture I quoted above Matt. 12:31 is the first of 2 parallel sayings. Verse 32 continues, “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”

    I love the implication that the Son of man cam take all kinds of abuse upon himself and forgive, doesn’t need us to defend his name or honor. Most people can’t take that level of abuse, so I suppose if Serrano had to picture someone in a bath of blood and urine the Son Ahman is a more fit subject than some other child of God.

  39. Tyler, thanks for the poem. The accompanying essay and first draft were the kind of thing I used to solicit from poets for Irreantum. Benson Parkinson had suggested inviting poets to write short essays about their work as a way of helping people understand and appreciate poetry instead of just being mystified, and this would have fit well.

    I hope to say more but I need to take my mother home. She can’t live alone, and stays mostly with my older sister. On weekends the post-doctoral family (my younger sister and I) take her to spend a few days at home and attend her own ward.

  40. I sometimes wonder what the reaction would have been if Serrano had used an image of…some icon not slain, like…


  41. I still think “Piss Christ” is trash and no amount of rhetoric over a urine filled mason jar is gonna change my mind. But my original point that I should not have attached a specific image to is-

    “Th, I definitely feel art has the power to change us, I’m just not sure it has the power to corrupt us, or even what that means.”

    IF art has the power to change us, how can it not have the power to corrupt us?

    Is there anything in this world that cannot be used for evil?

    I don’t want to have a discussion on “Well, does evil really exist?”
    Of course it does.

    This boils down to an earlier thread about that most Mormon of theologies. Choice. We are here to choose. Make any choice you want, it doesn’t mean it will be the right one.

    And pea filled jar is still a pea filled jar.

  42. Thank you Harlow (38) for the link to “Piss Christ.” I had never seen it before, not had I heard of it.

    Not sure what that says about my knowledge of art, but I can tell you that my first impression was quite spiritual although I am somewhat agnostic when it comes to Christianity. After all, Christ crucified represents the concept that death brings life and that Christ’s death, as the ultimate sacrifice, brings life eternal. I saw the body of Christ in pain and I saw that body in pain magnified in urine, which I interpret as representing the body of humanity, the sins of humanity absorbed in Him, suffocating, drowning, magnifying the sacrifice, illustrating the depth of the pain and the expanse of the saving grace.

    It is graphic, but it is the graphic nature of the art that forces the senses to react to the inherent beauty of the moment of salvation.

  43. “Muhammed?”

    Imagine what can of worms that would’ve opened…

    Indeed. I think it would have been the braver choice, but I’m not exactly itching to have a fatwa put out on me so I can’t point fingers anywhere.

  44. David, Given that art has the power to change us and that it will change different people in different ways, doesn’t that mean the effect is in the person, rather than in the art? If it affects a person in an “evil” way, where then does the evil lie.

    To say it more succinctly, if some people see a work of art as evil, and others don’t, how can the evil be intrinsic to the work of art.

  45. Zoe, I would absolutely agree with that statement. There are any number of things that come to my mind that I look upon as uplifting or good, and yet I know very well that other people have looked upon them as ugly or evil.

    There are so many things that are a matter of context. So many things in scripture have to be taken in the context that they were actually meant and IMO lots and lots are completely misunderstood in this modern age.

    But I am unshakeable in my knowledge of Evil that lies outside of man and also within himself.

    I’m going to paraphrase here somethings that I am sure are familiar to the readers of the site. Besides the spirit of God, you have the spirit of the Devil and the spirit of the Natural Man, which is also an enemy to God. Thats a two on one fight.

    I wanted to state that if art has power it can corrupt, not that it has too or will, just that it can. Is the blame then in the art or the man? I would again say that sometimes it could be both. If that art has an evil source and influence then is that art good? Can it even be seen as good or uplifting. I think not, except perhaps as a bad example. I think thats a shade of how this thread started with a personal litmus test, again context.

    If, some of the other posters have seen good in Piss Christ for example, good on them, for I cannot. I also highly doubt that it is something they would like in their own living rooms or to give as gifts to grandma. Mohammed was brought up and I wondered about that and if there was way to make it hit even closer to home and make them look at it yet again. Maybe Christ is too universal a figure and is too easy to detach ourselves from art depicting him. I would like to know how the Piss Christ Positive posters would react to a feces smeared effigy of Pres. Hinckley. “Oh it shows he is rising above the offal of the world”
    WHATEVER, disrespect is disrespect. Evil is evil, no matter the rhetoric it hides behind.

    Another example I can think of is the golden calf. Is anybody here gonna say, “Well it was the people being wicked, not the calf, its an innocent piece of finely wrought art.”
    Tell that to Moses.
    Go tell Moses that the calf was not corrupting and not made under an evil influence by a man.
    Whether made by the influence of the Devil or the Natural Man doesn’t really matter to me, it was corrupting and therefore a Prophet of God destroyed it.

    Its funny to me, when this thread started I considered my own litmus test about the same as Mojo’s. I am willing to read about anything that strikes my fancy. I now wonder at the day when my daughter grows up and looks in depth at my library. What were those books anyway Mojo? So I had considered myself on the liberal end of the spectrum for the arts, maybe now I must acknowledge that while I probably am more liberal than Laura, I am not more liberal than the rest.

  46. I now wonder at the day when my daughter grows up and looks in depth at my library. What were those books anyway Mojo?

    Heh. I’m so not telling.

  47. David: More power to you! You have to go with what speaks to your soul. But, Hinckley and the golden calf were not “The Savior” of the world. The comparison doesn’t work, and feces; well it’s just not the same as urine. Reverse impact.

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