Unlike many, I do not believe a text can truly be divorced from its author. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but the more I find out about an author, the more I am fascinated and enlightened by the text. So it’s difficult for me to address a work, when I have met the author, not to bring my experiences with, or knowledge of, the author to the text. So, first, I’ll talk about the author James Goldberg, as well as his relation to New Play Project. Then I’ll address his beautiful, award-winning play, “Prodigal Son.”
JAMES GOLDBERG AND THE COMMUNAL NARRATIVE
Now I wouldn’t call James Goldberg my best friend, although we are friends, and I certainly would love to be even friendlier. Yet there seems to have even been awkward tension during a few moments. We’ve seriously disagreed a couple of occasions. And I could tell that I annoyed him on at least a dozen occurrences..
However, I do think the world of him. And I think he is one of the best and unique writers Mormonism has. We should value him and the wealth of multiculturalism he brings to his Mormon faith and writing. It’s interesting, the more and more I find truth in other religions, the more and more I believe in Mormonism. Comparing religions and cultures highlights the Gospel tinged truths whispered into the ears of every culture. And I get the sense from James that he believes the same thing.
James Goldberg comes from Jewish and Sikh heritages, while also happening to be a card carrying Mormon. When you talk to him, he isn’t shy about his diverse background and proudly celebrates his cultural past and freely intermingles it with his cultural present, not really distinguishing them. Because he shouldn’t distinguish them. Because Mormonism embraces all truth. That is, if we should trust Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be adequate spokesmen for Mormonism.
This idea of intermingling one’s diverse cultural and even religious identities is wonderfully evident in a good deal of Goldberg’s work, perhaps no where I have it seen so clearly so as in his fascinating and moving “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenburgh.” In Mormon Artist’s first Contest Issue Goldberg mentions in an interview about the story , something that struck me:
Because the stories I was writing were so short, I didn’t have time to explain all the culture in them: the Jewish holidays that were thematically connected, the immigrant groups in each story. I figured in the age of Google, smart people could look up the stuff they didn’t get and discover the extra layers in the story, like mining for gems. Understandably, many of my class members didn’t take the time to look stuff up. What surprised me, though, was that the same people who hadn’t invested their time in the story were telling me to simplify it, to explain it more in terms they could understand. Some said they felt like I wasn’t including them because I wasn’t writing in their culture and explaining anything that came from anywhere else. And I thought, these stories wouldn’t be as beautiful if I explained them. And the best readers would get less out of them.
I also thought, I have unique stories to tell because of my own life heritage. Why should I only tell stories you can already fully understand? Isn’t one purpose of fiction to expand the reader? So I decided to write something next that did even more with mixing cultural traditions. I think when you get suggestions, you should try to respond to them, but responding doesn’t always mean doing what a suggestion says; sometimes you work against it instead, just to see if you can write that direction too.
Goldberg brought these ideas into his approach to New Play Project. From the get go, the writers’ roots in Mormonism was a vital part of NPP, and rather deflect that influence to write more secular work, NPP made their Mormon idiosyncrasies a central core to the organization. They wrote their Mormoness, not worrying whether that would stand in the way of the non-Mormons audiences that may not connect with cultural references or themes. In his preface to Out of the Mount Goldberg wrote:
So. Here we are… in a make shift theater in the Mormon community. Mormonism is technically a religion, but it’s also a tradition and a people–trust me, my last name is Goldberg, I understand how these things work. A religion can form a people. It’s been done before.
This people is a good people. We have a rich heritage that goes far beyond the founding of the Church in 1830. We’ve got unique institutions that have helped us keep a sense of community in an age when many communities are falling apart. And we have wisdom, a gift surprisingly rare in an age so saturated with information and opinion: we know something about how to treat each other, about our relationship to God, about the spiritual power that runs through this world. And along with that, we’ve got online sources with wisdom on food storage and stuff. Profound or practical, inherited wisdom is part of who we are.
This reminded me of a documentary I watched recently about the Old Testament. In it an archaeologist was theorizing, based on some ancient Jewish pottery they found which was astoundingly similar to the surrounding Canaanite pottery, that the Jews had not immigrated from Egypt at all, but rather had always been Canaanite. But that they had been the ostracized Canaanites, the poor, the destitute, the fringe. So they collected stories, created a text, which we now know as the Old Testament. Then they defined themselves by this text, created a whole new race and heritage of people.
Now I’m not sure I believe this (I’m not willing to throw away at least some sense of historicity of Genesis and the five books of Moses because of pottery shards). But I found the idea interesting and related it to what Goldberg is talking about. You can create a people, a culture and, perhaps in this supposed case about the Jews, a whole race by just declaring yourself so. In this case, it had nothing to do with genetic markers… it had everything to do with the creation of a narrative of a people, a story. As Mormons, we inherently understand that. The Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, the temple narrative, the stories of Joseph Smith and our early Church History, they all provide a powerful and potent rallying point.
We can be diverse as the creatures of the sea, of Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian, Polynesian, African, or European descent… and we can bring those heritages with us on our backs, like Goldberg has, and integrate them into a rich tapestry of universal (as far reaching as a world wide Zion), yet individual (as private as the soul), Mormonism. We can be a people (an inclusive people not determined by genetic markers!), not just a religion. We can be God’s people.
In my interactions with New Play Project, Goldberg’s vision-like goals always seemed to be at the center. I heard some members even jokingly call it the “James Play Project.” They were being sarcastic, of course, but there was some truth in it. Goldberg was one of the organizations founding members and seemed to be (at least from my perspective) the most persuasive and vigilant in giving the group a vision, a destination, instilling it with a passionate purpose. He’s a chief reason that the group has lasted this long. The money wasn’t there. The prestige wasn’t either. They were a small band of actors and writers, poor and distracted with the myriad of other concerns that plague college students. But when Goldberg would speak, he spoke as if they mattered, as if they could do something powerful. They spoke as if their common heritage in Mormonism and the theatrical arts could have a spiritual purpose beyond what any of them thought they were capable of.
And I consider it to be a prophecy fulfilled. Is it part of a new Mormon Renaissance? Doubtful. Possible, but doubtful. But by being brave enough to state it in those terms, by performing it as if it were true, by breathing in oracular fumes and letting prophetic uttering be written, they did something which I believe will have consequences which, even if they won’t be immediately obvious or traceable, will be deeply important to Mormon Arts, and perhaps even to Mormonism at large.
Am I waxing hyperbolic? No. No, I believe I am not. I am in complete earnest when I say that, whether New Play Project continues for many years to come (I hope they do) or not, that there was a resonating purpose to these seemingly insignificant students getting together to put on plays for the insular Utah County and BYU communities. And, whatever purpose that ends up being, Goldberg was at the forefront of that, in an unassuming button down short sleeve shirts and jeans, and a mad visionary’s wild growth of beard, sticking his staff in the water, believing to high heaven that the walls of water would rise.
FAITH LOST AND FAITH BORN IN “PRODIGAL SON”
When I read “Prodigal Son” this time, I had a much different experience with it than my previous encounters with the short play. When I had read or seen it performed before, I recognized it as one of the best plays New Play Project had yet produced, and a true triumph for James Goldberg. This time, however, it became much more personal and poignant to me, especially since I have recently seen a number of people I dearly love leave the LDS faith.
The play spins the classic Prodigal Son parable and switches the roles… the father is now the irreligious one, having abandoned his faith in Mormonism when he was younger, while the son disappoints his father by joining the LDS Church, even going so far to forestall his education to serve a mission. The Father’s monologue explaining his loss of faith is powerful and unnerving:
We’re far too casual, I think, in the way we talk about losing. “I’ve lost my keys,” for example, really means you’ve mislaid them….
I wish we wouldn’t dilute the best word we have for when things truly and permanently gone. “Lost cause” is a good phrase. It’s a cold, hard dose of reality. No one goes out to find a lost cause. It’s just lost. That phrase understands the power of the word’s finality….
So when I tell you that a long time ago I lost my faith, I don’t want you to imagine that I’ve misplaced it or that I could be capable of finding it again. Lost faith is like a lost limb… if it’s broken and bleeding, if you try to patch it up and it ends up inflamed and infected … at some point you have to cut it off. And after you’ve lost it the only thing left is the occasional flash of phantom pain.
I lost my faith. Twenty years later I lost my wife. And now maybe I’m losing my son.
Don’t take away from me the only word I have to cope with all of that.
To those of us who still feel our testimonies vibrantly, this is a chilling moment in the play. It forces us to realize that those we love… who we cherish and have always taken for granted were going to stay in the Church… may not be coming to break the bread of faith with us any more. We still hold out hope that perhaps their paths may eventually lead them back to the beliefs they have now rejected… but what if they don’t? Not in this life. Perhaps not even in the next.
And if that connection to that common community is completely gone… what next? Is there a piece of that relationship that is now completely irretrievable? Is there a distance, a gulf that is now permanent? Or, if there is not hope in retrieving the common faith , does that mean that there aren’t equally valuable aspects of that relationship that can be salvaged, perhaps even strengthened? And what about the reversal that Goldberg explores here… when an atheistic father sees his son abandon what he considers to be rational truth, to stumble into what he considers to be an oppressive superstition, is that not equally traumatic to the man without faith?
I think of Lehi. When in his dream of the Tree of Life he sees in vision his sons turn away from the tree, the fruit, the family, the chance for redemption… and they’re gone, into the mists of darkness. He wakes up the next morning with no sense of hopeful resolution with these two beloved sons. There was no prodigal son returns moment in that dream. They’re just gone. “Lost” in the sense that the father’s faith in “Prodigal Son” is lost. The sense of desolation that would come upon me as a parent at that point would be nigh unbearable. In the Book of Mormon he still tries to encourage them, to save them, but you get the sense that much of the hope is gone. He senses it, realizes it. After grieving this loss, he strives to plant some sort of faith in the children of Laman and Lemuel, hoping that the priesthood blessings he gives them will eventually bless those who come after. But even with those blessings, Lehi seems to understand that this loss is going to have traumatic repercussions for his posterity.
I have thought a lot about my loved ones who left the faith for the past several months. I’ve prayed, pondered, and grieved over them. With some of them, I still hope for some kind of turn around. For some of them, I am starting to understand that they may be “lost” to the faith… forever. I’ve had to try and come with grips with that, try to understand how that should and shouldn’t change the dynamics of our relationship. My love for them is no less, my hopes for their success and happiness in this life no less fervent. If they can’t ever agree with me on this vital thing, then I certainly do not want to sacrifice the parts of our relationship that can still be salvaged. If you lose an arm, you don’t want to lose the leg as well. “Prodigal Son” brings up many of these sobering realities, all while still having an under-girding of spirituality and love.
The “wayward” son is, of course, the flip side to this equation, being recently born into the faith. His conversion is real, never emotionally forced and never didactic. He’s a seasoned, likable character of faith and kindness, but capable of real grief due to this division from the father he has felt so close to in the past. Despite the havoc his conversion made in his life, however, the fire of his faith is undeniable and worth the pain. The son’s statements of spirituality are powerful:
I couldn’t tell it to him, then, but … all my life. I’d been waiting for something, you know? And I never knew what. But I’d have these feelings sometimes like when I went to my friend’s Bar Mitzvah, and it was like God was on a train but there weren’t any scheduled stops to pick me up. And maybe I could have run, maybe I could have jumped up there in front of everybody and said, “Hey, can it be my turn now? I know I’m not Jewish, but… Bar Mitzvah me, too!”
….I figured if God’s a train, and fate didn’t leave me any stops …maybe I’ve got to stand on the tracks. I can’t get on smoothly like everyone else, but if I take that step out onto those tracks then God’ll have to hit me. And I’ll know then whatever it is the prophets and saints used to know.
Goldberg, as much as anyone, instilled in New Play Project it’s ability to ask the hard questions, while never snapping the cord that tied them to the household of faith. In this information age of easy access and inquisitive fingers, gone are the days when a Latter-day Saint could simply put down the questions and expect that to satiate the inquisitor. You can’t hide documents, you can’t dodge inquiries. If we as a Church and as its members are not equipped to handle the tough issues, then a doubter can simply find all sorts of alternative attacks on the Church with a few quick key strokes.
Thus I believe it’s very important that, as Mormon writers, actors, artists, scholars, and thinkers, that we engage in the kind of work that is able to unflinchingly tackle the most disheartening and conflicted parts of our narratives. And I’m not necessarily calling for apologetics, although being a huge fan of C.S. Lewis, I warmly understand that they have their very necessary place as well. But writers like Goldberg are showing the complexity of the lives we live as Mormons. He is showing how, as Joseph Smith said, “in proving contraries, the truth is made manifest.”
James and I used to argue a little bit about show length. My shows tend to run long, while I would tease him that he had never written a full length play. Goldberg was a kind of champion for the usefulness and power of the short play. Although I still feel that our culture suffers from a post MTV/ Sesame Street short attention span, and I long for an audience who can sit through uncut Shakespeare and massive Eugene O’Neil playing times, Goldberg certainly proved his point with “Prodigal Son” on how the short play can be a truly powerful form. I believe it may be the only short play to have won the Association for Mormon Letters’ Best Drama award and it was a very well deserved win.
But beyond form, its the soulful content of Goldberg’s work that digs deep into our hearts and bares the secrets we have kept there. Unearthed, we search through the record written thereon, and discover the Mormon in each of us, the Jew in each of us, the Hindu in each of us, the Christian in each of us. We realize that these stories we tell, whether you believe them literally or not, whether you have faith in them or not, the narrative has meaning, has significance… the narrative is true.