Spreading the Gospel of Mormon Arts

Recently on Facebook I linked to Mahonri’s post about The Book of Mormon Musical over at Dawning of a Brighter Day. The conversation that ensued was awesome and a few really good moments came out of it for me.

The first moment came when I wrote this in response to a friend (who is not LDS) who asked why the rest of the world should care about Mormons in the first place: “What really is interesting and important to me is that Mormonism is a particular way of being in the world and interacting with the world. I would venture that it is a unique way of existing and as such it offers unique perspectives on what it means to be human in general. I personally feel like I have gained a lot of insight, compassion, and other such desirable human virtues from engaging in other cultures’ artistic and spiritual works. I hope that at some point it would be possible for others to engage with Mormon art and culture in a similar manner. But the current cultural climate in America isn’t conducive to that. And, perhaps more importantly, the larger part of the current artistic climate in Mormon culture isn’t conducive to that. There are a few artists, musicians, and writers that I think are creating that kind of art, but it takes a lot of work to find it and engage in it–and if that isn’t everyone’s priority, that’s okay. I just wish more people knew it was out there.” It was a great moment because it was the first time I’ve ever been able to effectively articulate why I care so darn much about what Mormon artists are producing.

Another great moment came when several friends who were not LDS weighed in on their feelings and experiences when well-meaning Mormon folk give them Books of Mormon. If I thought it was germane (and not a breech of confidence) I would repost their comments here. Suffice it to say, it really widened my thinking on missionary efforts and on how we need to condition our hearts much more carefully before flinging our beliefs about.

And a final great moment was when a friend asked me for recommendations of Mormon writers, musicians, and artists who aren’t pushing didactic works but simply chronicling the Mormon experience. I was quick to supply a list of books (_Rift_ and _Long After Dark_ by Todd Robert Petersen; _Angel of the Danube_ by Alan Rex Mitchell; _The Conversion of Jeff Williams_ by Doug Thayer; _Bound on Earth_ by Angela Hallstrom; _Where Nothing is Long Ago_ and _A Little Lower Than the Angels_ by Virginia Sorensen; and the memoir _The Year My Son and I Were Born_ by Kathryn Lynard Soper.) But I floundered a bit when it came to recommending music and artists.

The similarities between sharing what I believe to be great art and about what I believe to be real Truth in the universe was surprising to me. I was passionate and careful about both. I didn’t want either subject to come off as preachy or unapproachable or close-minded. It thrilled me to the core to be able to talk about things that were so influential in my life.

So I want to know: what experiences have you had spreading the good news of emerging quality Mormon Art? What artists, musicians, movies and books do you recommend? Please link to them in the comments; I need a good resource for referring my friends!

18 thoughts on “Spreading the Gospel of Mormon Arts”

  1. One book I’ll probably start recommending which I finished semi-recently was Margaret Blair Young’s _Salvador_. A powerful Mormon book which got high praise in the 80s.

  2. “. . . aren’t pushing didactic works but simply chronicling the Mormon experience.”

    I’m going to get pilloried here, as usual, but I just don’t think you can have one without the other. Mormonism is a daily didactic religion. This is especially the case when it comes to its relationship to outside cultures. The only way to not be didactic (one way or the other) is to write stories that do not chronicle the Mormon experience. Art is not done in a vacuum. There is a purpose behind what artists do, and therefore the very act of making art is agenda driven, even if personal.

    For the sake of argument, I would include Orson Scott Card’s “The Lost Boys” that has been considered semi-autobiographical.

  3. Oh, give up the martyr complex, Jettboy. You don’t get pilloried here. There was once recently when you posted a questionable link (unintentionally) where there was a bit of justifiable piling on. In fact, you get treated much more seriously and fairly here than pretty much anywhere else. The advantage of AMV is that is much less echo-chambery than many other places (see, for example, the recent discussion on Deseret Book and distribution centers).

    Now to respond to the whole didactic thing: I completely agree that art is not done in a vacuum and that all art is agenda driven. I would venture to say, in fact, that, MoJo you probably didn’t do it.

    But pointing out that there is an agenda behind all art is a rather mundane thing to say. Much like pointing out that some art is “didactic” is a rather mundane thing to say. The question is never if a work is didactic or not, but rather how is it didactic? What rhetorical and figurative language and plot and point of view strategies are employed and to what audiences do they speak or not speak?

    There are many ways to chronicle the Mormon experience. I agree with Jettboy that too often works that attempt to explore the Mormon experience ignore the daily practices that many Mormons engage in — the praxis that is the key part of Mormon theology. But I also think that you can chronicle the Mormon experience without detailing every prayer said and scripture read during the course of a day. Just like we don’t chronicle every political discussion had or every mundane household or work chore done.

    The problem that we run in to too often is either Mormon praxis (and to a certain extent folk doctrine and culture) get presented as lazy plot devices and too pat answers (thus what gets usually labeled as didactic) or Mormon praxis is ignored or circumscribed.

    The trick of the radical middle is to know when and how to use the daily devotional work, especially when that work either works miraculously or doesn’t appear to work. That’s where things get interesting.

  4. I completely agree that art is not done in a vacuum and that all art is agenda driven. I would venture to say, in fact, that, MoJo you probably didn’t do it.

    I didn’t say I didn’t have an agenda. I said I wasn’t didactic. There’s a whole lotta space between having an agenda and preaching with the object of conversion and/or bringing someone to repentance.

    My AGENDA was to present the Mormon experience without preaching. I did that. I can send you a copy…

  5. You’re using the narrow definition of didactic that I think most people use. I understand that, but that’s not what I’m doing here.

    And my intention is not to slag on your book (which I’ve heard good things about, but to be honest does not sound like my cup of tea so I probably won’t read it [I do have an e-copy of it tucked somewhere, though, I think]), but rather to highlight the fact that Jettboy isn’t entirely wrong.

    His point was that you can’t have a presentation of the Mormon experience that is fully complete without dealing with all the didactic material — the practice of Mormonism — that are part of active LDS daily life. I think there’s something to that notion. And that leads me to suspect that it’s less about whether a work is didactic (as opposed to scare/dismissive quotes “didactic”) but rather how it is didactic.

    So I suppose that I’m both trying to rehabilitate the way didactic is used to dismiss certain works while at the same time suggest that books that don’t “sound preachy” to certain readers are still preaching certain things — still instructing (e.g. didactic-ing) — even if the discourse they use brings in the more literary discourse preferences for presentation without commentary and ambiguity and all that.

  6. There are, I think, two different issues here related to didacticism:

    – The underlying ethos and worldview of the author, which are inevitably reflected in the stories we tell

    – The ethos and worldview of the characters, which *should* be reflected in the stories we tell, whether they agree with ours as authors or not

    Both are real, and both can be seen as didactic, though (as I think we all acknowledge) there’s a vast difference between having a character voice or reflect a particular view and embracing it yourself as a author.

    We need to be careful, I think, about not misapplying the word “didactic.” There is a basic difference between stories that are written with a primary goal of communicating a message, and those that are written with a primary goal of entertaining or describing experience. I agree that it’s partly a matter of degree, but it’s also a matter of how such works are composed and the nature of the interaction they presuppose between the story and its readers. To put it another way: there’s a practical difference between a story that’s written a certain way in order to communicate a message, and a story that turns out the way it does because of my underlying beliefs (as the author) about the way the world works. Those differences are often detectable to readers, and lead to different stylistic choices and types of reading experiences. My suggestion would be to avoid the term “didactic” and instead use something like “persuasive” to talk more broadly about these types of elements.

  7. This is interesting because when I typed the work didactic I had a sort of brain tingle that said maybe I should avoid that word. . . that said, I’ve learned a lot from these comments.

    In the discussion on Facebook one friend said that she would like to see Mormon artists giving up on the idea of “my God is better than your God.” That’s what I was thinking of when I typed didactic.

    Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum and often the best art is heavily influenced by the authors passion and experiences. That said, most of the books I like best are the ones that are written for the purpose of exploring those passions and experiences instead of trying to convince folks that the author/creator’s passions and experiences are best.

    p.s. Jettboy, I believe *I* am the one getting pilloried here 🙂

  8. I think your use of the word in the original post makes sense, Laura, as a short hand for what you meant. And we got it, it’s just that us being us we go off on tangents.

    And I fully endorse your evangelizing for Mormon arts and especially the works you mention above.

    For music, I’d suggest checking out Linescratchers and I, personally, really enjoy the music of Low.

  9. Sorry for bringing the martyr complex here Wm Morris. I agree that I get treated much more seriously and fairly here than pretty much anywhere else. I want to thank you and this blog for that.

    Moving on:

    I get that what I said is sort of an artist truism, but I think its doubly so for Mormonism. No matter how much we try to get away from it, Mormonism is a missionary religion. We are told to be Witnesses to Christ in all things and all places. There is no getting away from every member a missionary that has been taught since youth. With that in mind, can we really get past the didactic qualities at the least expected of us by our readers when the religion is mentioned? Perhaps only if we use Mormonism in passing.

    I know, the reader response comment is another artist truism. Our work is for two audiences, ourselves and whoever else we expect to enjoy or engage the product. We can control the one, but the other can be unpredictable.

    That is why I think the idea that we can get past didactic with the meaning intended by Laura is more difficult than simply chronicling the Mormon experience. It might be a good time to read or re-read the book that goes by that name. To deal with Mormonism in art is to face the exceptionalism and social anxiety functioning within its exclusive doctrine and troubled history. We want to be accepted and we want to be believed. That creates a didactic combination that can not easily be ignored. I submit that a really good Mormon artistic expression will embrace and confront that rather than try to stay away from what makes Mormonism unique. It might end up great art that doesn’t “preach,” but is it more than pedestrian?

  10. The trick isn’t in how one spins the elements but in the angle of vista. Take Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” One would almost get the idea that it’s the most didactic visual art piece ever created were it not for its sense of being grounded in real temporal coordinates — almost as if ol’ Vincent set up his easel in that very spot.

    So it is with narrative. The writer views the world from a certain perspective. Then s/he writes about it without apology — and if God is part of the matrix then included him in full force. And if somehow it comes out wrong then the angle must be adjusted to give a different view until the perspective resonates on a different “frequency” or comes into focus at a different depth. Thus the story teller “retells” without telling.

  11. Wm wrote: “I, personally, really enjoy the music of Low.”

    Wm, I’m tempted to suggest that you’ve been in Minnesota too long”¦ [but then I’ve only heard one or two of their songs].

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