Essay: By What Way Is the Light Parted?

(“When the Morning Stars Sang Together,” by William Blake)
In 2001 I took my kids to a southern Utah park for their first camping trip. We pitched our tent then went hiking in time to witness a spectacular desert sunset. Boy, I couldn’t wait for the sky to darken and show my son and my daughter stars like they’d never seen them. I even had a speech prepared: “Look at those lights. Those are places where other things happen than happen here. We’re not the only show on the strip; don’t think your life is the only thing happening. There’s always more going on than you know.”  

But at nightfall, the couple in the next camping spot lit a lantern that blasted away darkness for a thirty-foot-plus radius, with glare shooting out farther. Our view of the night sky ended up being no better than what we had at home across from a streetlight.

Later on most other campground lights recessed behind tent flaps or went out. Our neighbors settled in beside their lantern and played cards till eleven. Worn out from the long ride down and the hike, my kids fell asleep. I lay staring into glow illuminating our tent’s interior enough I could see my children’s sleeping faces.

Astronomers have long complained that loose light interferes with observing astral environments and events, but CNN reports that national parks now consider light pollution a threat to wildlife rhythms and humankind’s wilderness experiences. Indeed, satellite photos taken at night show a North America that shines from dark sea to dark sea. That sounds pretty, but the schemata of personal, municipal, and commercial lighting can’t compare to conjunctions of the moon, planets, and constellations as they speak about that community of lights to which we belong.

Light pollution’s problems extend beyond mere nuisance or damaged aesthetics. For instance, during May through September pregnant sea turtles of several species flock to southeastern and gulf state beaches of the U.S. to lay their eggs. No one knows exactly how turtles find these ancient nurseries. Some suggest the old sea roads turtles follow to nesting grounds exist by virtue of genetic memories; others think each hatchling imprints on its place of emergence as it scrambles from its nest to the surf. However they know them, these routes are calculated upon frequencies and intensities of moon- and starlight, along with other urgent signals.

Nowadays when they arrive at traditional nesting sites, turtles are likely to find them polluted with resort, condo, and parking lot glare. Rejecting lit beaches, some turtles choose darker if otherwise inferior nesting sites. Some wander in confusion in the water where they may drop their eggs. Many turtles come ashore anyway, dig nests, lay eggs, then bury them. Drained by the effort, they seek shiny visual cues to guide them to the sea. Streetlights mislead some onto roads where automobiles injure or kill them.

Evidence shows sea turtle hatchlings orient on the nearest luster. Decades ago this was the ocean’s surface, luminous with moon- and starglow. Now too often they stray into lit swimming pools, parking lots, or pile up in confusion beneath lamps to die of exposure or to be eaten by predators. Or instead of fluttering towards the sea, they flap into abandoned beach fires. Or following streetlights, they tumble into roads where traffic kills them.

Turtles aren’t alone in suffering disorientation because of bad lighting. Night-migrating birds often die by the thousands when their flocks, traveling airways around human developments, tangle with floodlit smokestacks, guide lights, lit windows in high rises, and lighted transmission towers. The Fatal Light Awareness Program reports that collisions with lit structures destroy over 100 million birds annually. Speaking for FLAP, Michael Mesure said, “More birds die each year through collisions than died in the Exxon Valdez spill.” His protest here is against inequity: the highly publicized Valdez disaster resulted in an outpouring of volunteerism, punitive fines, and calls for change. Yet the vastly greater number of birds dying as a result of light pollution has drawn no attention, no fines, and little change.

Unaware of light pollution’s impact, we cultivate light in inefficient gardens nearly everywhere we live. Nearer than celestial lights, these weedy beams crowd out native stars. For many nocturnal species, the volume at which we broadcast light compares to our neighbors for a block around turning up their sound systems to a maddening blast. Thus we render incoherent this gorgeous energy many origin stories deem an organizing power.

One reason people give for squandering light is that it scares away wolves–whatever’s out there that wants to eat you. It’s an old fairy tale: light equals safety. So more light ought to equal more safety. But does it?  

Many outdoor lights send nearly one-third of their illumination upward, frustrating intentions to make walkways safer. Since it takes the eye time to adjust from bright light to darkness, floodlights installed to enhance security actually create unsafe shadows, providing cover for those who do wish to skulk. The bulbs of garden-variety “cobra” streetlights direct beautiful-in-principle particle-waves and glare into the sky, through bedroom windows, and sideways into the eyes of passers by, contributing to atomobile or auto-pedestrian accidents.

Scientists investigating constant light’s effect on humans have discovered our brains need heavy darkness to produce melatonin. Melatonin regulates our sleep cycle and maintains our immune systems. Intrusive nightlight from streetlights or brightly lit parking lots inhibits melatonin production, resulting in sleep interference, which results in decreased job efficiency, increased risk for accidents, and vulnerability to illnesses. New research suggests melatonin inhibits the growth of, even destroys cancer cells. Studies show a higher incidence of breast cancer in women who work night shifts beneath lights which slow their melatonin output. For anyone fearing wolves in the dark cancer is a real wolf, but rather than repelling this wolf light might actually enable it.

Of all our choices that have resulted in molecules, particulates, and waves streaming, radiating, and wafting wild, light pollution is the easiest and cheapest to fix. But we have to start thinking about the problem. More than just a modern convenience, light is a power and glory with qualities demanding our respect.

Many species take light literally, meaning that light pollution affects their decisions as misinformation does, which makes light pollution akin to careless lies. The same may hold true for humans. Like turtles and birds, we, too weigh in our minds the significance of light. Poets, scientists, shamans, and prophets have all found in night and day’s clarities revelatory beauty and sublime metaphors for relation, including spirituality. The LDS cosmos includes that whole glittering wilderness swaddling our Earth. But light pollution dims views of our context in creation, especially as it manifests at night. How might the Milky Way’s fading from sight affect our sense of awe and accompanying affinity for the sacred? How might the loss of common vistas for wonder turn aside our arts, or even our sense for human progress? Whatever else it does, light pollution muddies the night skies. Many children can’t see the stars anymore from where they live or don’t know why they should desire to. We’re in danger of raising up a generation who can’t hear the heavens sing or see them dance. How will they know which way to fly?

Commentary: Tell Us A Story

Last week I visited Michael Olson’s AP English high school classes in Spanish Fork, Utah. Michael, who also runs The Payson Chronicle, asked that I discuss “the writing process” with his students and talk about tensions that may exist between what the reader got from a story and what the writer intended in writing it. He wanted me to read from my novel, too. I hadn’t stood before young students in years. I’d forgotten how much work it takes to keep a class of kids together, moving in some meaningful direction.

In both classes enough desks stood empty that the room itself seemed to hang between sizes. The students sprawled a-gangle in their seats. The classroom atmosphere reminded me of a teenager’s bedroom, an enclosure filled with draped clothes and tossed comments, all being rapidly outgrown. I liked these kids; I envied Mr. Olson’s good fortune in getting to know them. An unstated quo vadis* hung between us, a specter of my interest in them, one I supposed only I could see. I’ve loved students since my days teaching English 115 and Philosophy 105 at BYU. I miss the whole teaching adventure.

Sometimes the kids sat up sharp listening; sometimes their heads sank onto desktops. Some appeared to be out cold, but I learned I couldn’t trust appearances. A student might lie slumped onto her desk like a spruce tree branch overloaded with snow, then she’d spring up suddenly and split the classroom with a question. The rustle of notes passing back and forth underlaid all words spoken aloud like subtext.

I proposed that when it came to storytelling the storyteller ought to allow the audience to play a strong role at times. “A good story should contain some of the qualities of a good stone soup. Do you know the story “˜Stone Soup?'” Some thought they did. They tried to tell it but faltered; they’d forgotten. When I discovered this gaping hole in their education I tried to fill it. College-bound students shouldn’t leave high school without knowing about “Stone Soup.”

Whenever a word or two snagged their interest, questions flew: What? Where? When? Why? How? “How do you know,” they asked, “when to use who and when to use whom?” The question seemed to cause genuine distress. I tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry about it. The English language is evolving, that usage is dying out.” I joked it would be gone in thirty years. “But I notice when you speak you use it correctly,” Mr. Olson said. (Who/whom is one of his pet peeves.) “I’m the last one. When I die, it’ll be gone,” I said. The students weren’t satisfied; I saw in their eyes they still wanted to know what I knew, but I let the matter drop. Let who/whom remain a trick we grammatical nerds keep dark.

“What is “˜archetype?'” “What does “˜esoteric’ mean?” “What does it feel like when you see your book on the shelf at a bookstore?” If I spent an hour answering each of these questions, I imagined I’d still see that look, the one that says, “You’re not telling us everything.” “But why do we have to experience evil?” one young woman asked. This was in the context of archetype and the archetypal story’s engagement of the conflict between good and evil, not only as it plays out upon story battlefields but also as it rages in the hearts of readers immersed in the struggle. How could I demonstrate in a few minutes that even a question like “Why do we have to experience evil?” has a dark and dangerous side?

I couldn’t; I took the easier road. “The cool thing about reading good literature,” I said, “is that you can confront evil in a relatively safe manner, in a text, often in a familiar and secure location, rather than going out and finding evil in more dangerous and unexpected circumstances.” Blank stares. “Where do you read?” I asked. “In my bed.” “In the living room on the couch.” “In the car.” “All safe, comfortable places. If you become frightened, you can stop and find yourself back in familiar surroundings.” An idea struck me. I asked, “Do you read folktales in school anymore?” They shook their heads no. I pitied them for their loss of fundamental narratives, plain yet well turned-language that supports imagination. I told them how, when I was young, I cut my reader’s teeth on such stories as “How Bear Lost His Tale,” Aesop’s fables, Br’er Rabbit tales, etc. Then came a surprise, one that erupted spontaneously in both classes and that snagged my attention. “Did you bring any good stories for us?” they asked. “Tell us a story!” The shine in their eyes was like the glistening of tongues whetted by appetite.

At this point, speaking with them became easier; no longer was there any need to keep them together. At the prospect of hearing a story they all ran up to me in complete attention and we gathered around that linguistic fire ring where people meet to tell and hear stories. I read an old Kalapuya tale, “Coyote Takes Water From the Frog People,” then tales of my own making that I’ve put in my novel, a different one to each class: “The Fox That Was Raised By Dogs,” “Why Is Coyote So Smart?” The subtext stopped rustling. In both classes students’ faces opened like morning glories in the first real sun that had shined into the schoolroom.

Looking back I realize that stories were what these students wanted all along. As a storyteller, I should have known that. I see the undying need for good narratives in my own children, in my fifteen-year-old’s retained interest in bedtime stories, albeit more complex ones that when he was eight. It’s in my eight-year-old’s astonishing appetite for Grimm’s Fairytales and her willingness to engage more complex stories when I read them with her older brother. I hear it in my disabled daughter’s cooed “yes” when I ask if she wants me to read to her. I have my own hunger and thirst after fine narrative, original to my earliest consciousness–the need to engage and be egaged by story that I myself have never outgrown.

Thank you, Mr. Olson’s AP English students, for calling my attention to an important matter I’d overlooked. I learned a storyteller’s lesson from you: If I speak to students again, high school or otherwise, I’ll go better arrayed with stories and do what comes naturally to a storyteller facing a young audience. Inbetween tales I’ll dazzle the class with such esoterica** as what archetype means and when one ought to use who and whom, rather than doing things the other way around. Whatever I think I know about evil, grammar, and how I feel about being an author I’ll let the stories tell, because good stories, even modern ones, contain the stuff of ancient wisdom; they’re much older and smarter than I.

*quo vadis: Latin; literally, “Where are you going?”
**esoterica: mysterious matters

Commentary: Mormon Sensibility

Ben Huff wondered here why so few of his fellow Mormons felt as drawn as he did to peak-of-season blackberries growing wild where his stake center’s parking lot ended and the forest began.

I remember blackberries: we had snarls of them on our land in Virginia. The berries grew plump and shiny on generousities of the southern summer, and late in the season we kids browsed lazily on fruit as big around as the last joint in our thumbs. Elderberries, hickory nuts, and wild plums flourished on our five acres, along with red clover and honeysuckle. We cracked the hickory nuts then dug out the woody meat with sticks or with grimy fingernails. I pulled apart clover and honeysuckle blossoms, searching out nectar with the tip of my tongue. I got mere wisps of flowery essence, but the high notes of such raw sweetness rang my tongue to its roots.

At the forest’s edge, sassafras mixed it up with the greenbriars. The bright green of briar cane and the sassafras’s earthy scent infuse memories of my Virginia childhood to this day. The same with sweetgum trees, Liquidambar styraciflua. When I come across these living fossils growing in Utah, such as at the eastern end of BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center, I crush their leaves and rub the fragrant oils on my skin. The scent triggers not only memories but excites another way of being, one where my senses engage me more fully.

As Ben wondered about his Mormon comrades’ seeming indifference to ripe blackberries, I’ve wondered why I’ve never seen anybody else stop to smell sweetgum leaves. One answer: Nobody knows what they are. But the question arises, when one watches many Mormons stroll past any Nature: Do they even notice it? Or is there something about Nature and how it engages the senses that some Mormons find distracting and uncomfortable?

I was not born in the LDS church. My mother attended meetings for some years when I was a child but I didn’t become active until I was twelve. I was baptised at sixteen, the age at which my father, who never became a member, finally allowed it. Some would think this disadvantaged my spiritual life, but my deep involvement with the flora and fauna surrounding our house fostered the development of native intelligence and initiated me into realms of sacred relation where scripture, when I began noticing it, found fertile ground for its broadcast seeds, mustard and otherwise.

Years later when I met Arthur Henry King at BYU, he asked right off, “Do you write verse?” When I said yes he requested some. At our next meeting to discuss my poetry, he asked, “Were you brought up a Mormon? I am asking you these things because you are wild, you haven’t been tamed yet. That’s not to say that you should be tamed and it isn’t “˜wild’ in a bad sense. Your sensibility is wild for a Mormon.” With Arthur King (also a convert to the church), as well as other BYU professors, I spent the next several years not taming, but disciplining this sensibility. I’m still schooling it–dressing and keeping it, if you will.

At the time, Arthur’s appraisal blessed me. Try as I might I had never gotten down the Mormon rhetoric and world view as I imagined I ought to have done. My brand of spirituality, established, perhaps, during my pre-Gospel, tick-infested, blackberry-stained, greenbriar-snagged, turtle-hunting and snake-charming days, refused to blossom as a rose when I came to BYU, though I studied and prayed for righteousness. Arthur’s words that day, and those he offered over the next several years of our association, helped ease the tension between my blackberry patch soul and the surrounding rose garden of conformity that asserted itself against wilderness with hypertrophied blossoms.

In his lecture, “The Discipline of the Mother Tongue,” Arthur King said:

The whole of our life has to be creative. There is no such thing apart as “˜creative literature’ from this point of view. Whatever you write, may be creative or not creative, according to your testimony. Either we live creative lives in which we speak creatively, or we live uncreative lives in which we do not speak creatively. And from the whole of society in which we live there is tremendous pressure on us to live uncreatively, to live without effort, to live passively, to enjoy ourselves at the least expense. These are the major drugs of society. Drugs are to be defined, not fundamentally as things that do you “˜physical’ harm–because it may be possible to invent drugs that do not do you physical harm–but as things that do you mental and moral harm. All of us in this room are taking drugs to some extent. These are the influences in our society which prevent us from living vigilantly, vitally, creatively, and therefore speaking, and writing and reading creatively. There is only one ultimate defense, and that is the gospel.

Blackberries grow for the having in thorny riots at the edges of cultivated areas. Scriptures and other spiritual matter also bear patches of wild fruit at the edges of and extending beyond paved spaces and cultivated gardens of conventional religious belief. What causes some Mormons to go straight to their cars at the end of church without so much as a glance at the wild blackberries? Do Mormons really want to try them, but does something about the berries’ dark shine, about their choice of unmanaged habitat at the edges of well-worked ground, make Mormons suspicious that curiosity about how blackberries taste is some form of sin? Do our cultural drugs, whatever form they take, prevent our seeing them? Do we not speak of them in our literature because wild blackberries grow without bidding beyond the garden walls of rose-dazzled cities of God?

Commentary: Eve, the Mother of … Human Free Will?

Eve’s role in the story of the Fall has been interpreted and re-interpreted. At times labeled villain, at other times celebrated for her wisdom and self-sacrifice, the Mother of All Living remains a sufficiently complex character, inviting, as the human species progresses, reconsideration at nearly every Judeo-Christian cultural turn. Given the recent trend in therapy that argues a person doesn’t do something, even something bad, unless she gets some payoff from doing it, I have wondered what it was Eve may have gotten out of her transgression of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some would say, “Well, she took the first difficult steps in God’s plan for mankind, making it possible not only for us all to be born but also for us to learn to choose between good and evil and return to His presence through the Plan of Salvation.” Sounds good, but this answer is more about what we get out of the Fall. What, besides the title “Mother of All Living” and mixed reviews, does Eve get?

I think the fact that it was Eve, not Adam, who chose to disobey the Lord means something, but not what many people think it means–that she was weak, stupid, defiant, or irresponsible in contrast to Adam’s strength and obedience. Nor do I think that it necessarily means that she was self-sacrificing. The story itself contains no evidence pointing inarguably to such conclusions. What the story does tell us is that she listens to the Serpent and sees everything together, probably for the first time: that the “tree was good for food,” “that it was pleasant to the eyes,” that it was “a tree to be desired to make one wise.” So on one hand, she has God’s word: “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” On the other hand, she now has the Serpent’s words, “Ye shall not surely die,” as well as the provocative qualities of the fruit and tree. Then Eve does something that, according to the story, nobody had ever done before–she chooses. By this one act, an act of new consciousness, Eve changes the world.

For one thing, she and Adam can no longer live in their original, innocent home–the only place in this world they’ve ever known. Now they must work the earth to get what they need to live, the same earth, according to the story, from which they were formed. Also, Eve’s act forces them out of the only state of mind they have known as mortals–complete, unexamined obedience to God.

Did “agency,” as LDS call it, exist before Eve made her decision to partake of the fruit? According to LDS beliefs, those of us that have been born on this earth chose this life when as spirits we were presented with two plans for the future of mankind–Satan’s and Christ’s. But here on earth, Eve’s choice was the first manifestation of human agency, and in this matter she may be considered a pioneer, the “Mother of Human Free Will.” Many modern cultures take human agency for granted, but the Creation story suggests that agency started as some new spark of consciousness in Eve. Before taking the fruit, the brand of obedience she and Adam manifested may be compared to children accepting choices that have already been made for them. Like children, Adam and Eve were all innocence, no responsibility, until Eve left her childhood behind and chose an option that lay outside those the Eternal Parent provided (although it could be argued that if God really hadn’t wanted them to eat of the Tree He could have placed it somewhere out of reach).

Eve was in a unique place; her choice opens the Age of Accountability. It also opens up possibilities for the rest of us when we read the story. Because of that story we have the commandment not to partake of Forbidden Fruit and we’ve also got Eve’s choice to partake laid out next to the commandment, and that’s a gift. But back to our original question: What did Eve get out of eating the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Well, one could say she got free will, the first of its kind and a big payoff, indeed. Intelligence being tied inseparably to active free will, she experienced those first stirrings of progressive intelligence as she chose from among possibilities, became aware of the consequences of her actions, saw new possibilities, and chose from among those. It appears that Adam gained human agency as a result of Eve’s initiation of the physics, chemistry, and biology of choice in this world.

Just for fun, let’s take this a step farther: Eve’s choice in the story of the Garden of Eden suggests human free will is feminine domain, and recent genetic research suggests this domain extends to the genetic level, since newly developed gene maps lay out clear genetic female paths but not clear male ones, indicating at this point in the research matriachal control of the genetic momentum of the human race. Then there exist all the cultural cliches about women, such as “It’s a woman prerogative to change her mind,” an idea published throughout the globe, such as here, in Pope’s “Moral Essays”: “Ladies, like variegated tulips, show/’Tis to their changes half their charms we owe.” In the Pro-Choice philosophy, femimine control of the genetic momentum of the human race collides with the folk-whimsey that “By an unwritten law it is held to be the priviledge of the woman to change her mind, a licence of which she rarely fails to avail herself” to produce the assertion, “It’s my body, I can do with it what I choose.” A double-edged philosophy–one reflective of Eve’s act in the garden, but perhaps as mirror image. And like Eve’s role in the Fall it requires further scrutiny not only of the choices it offers, but of how consequences of such choices play out for the rest of us.

Soapbox: Mormons and media consumption

Note: when I began A Motley Vision last summer, I promised myself that I wouldn’t recycle material that I had written for the AML List except for this essay (polemic). But then I couldn’t find it anywhere — not in my e-mail, not on my hard drive — and the AML archives were down for quite a while (and difficult to navigate). I finally found it earlier this week. And the timing was excellent. The essay was precipated by a discussion on Mormons and R-rated movies. A similar discussion erupted over at By Common Consent this week. But it was Rusty’s post asking Is It Possible To Contribute To Culture Without Partaking Of It? at Kulturblog that really motivated me to adapt this for AMV.

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I believe that there are three important factors that we Latter-day Saints should employ when consuming art. Each of these factors has strengths; each has weaknesses. But most importantly the three should be used in concert with each other.

1. Carefully choose what you consume

I think that we should be careful about what we consume. And I think we should draw lines beyond the obvious (pornography) in accordance with our own set of tolerances and reactions to art. For example, unlike some other members of the Church, I don’t watch R-rated films. This practice would be applauded by those Mormons who take a hard line on this matter. But the thing is, I have the suspicion that there are indeed R films that are valuable, powerful works of art that teach lessons that certain members need to learn.

No. The reason that I choose not to watch R films is that I’m very sensitive to images and sounds — they stick with me too much and I have a hard time contextualizing them. The same is not true of literature. I can process sex and violence in written narrative much easier. I don’t know why that is, but because it is so, I’ve made the decision to safeguard myself.

So I think we should be careful what we consume and that it is perfectly valid to not read or view something because you have concerns about the content. However, I also believe that to take an extreme position in this regard is unwise. An extremely narrow definition of appropriate material can cause problems for the following reasons:

A) Things that are forbidden often become quite attractive, especially for youth.

Let me give you an example. When I was a kid, one of my friends lived in one of those strict Word of Wisdom households — you know the kind where no refined sugar or white flour is used, where carob is consumed instead of chocolate, where applesauce is the main sweetener. Since sugar was forbidden, it held a great attraction for my friend, and he became a sugar junkie. I used to accompany him on his paper route, and we would stop at the convenience store and blow much of his route money on sugar. He was an addict to the extent that he’d buy stuff that was on sale (I remember, for instance, him buying a whole paper bag full of stale malt balls) so he could get the most sugar for his money. Now this is not to say that kids in sugar-consuming households also don’t get addicted to sugar — in fact, what kid doesn’t? — but with him there was a certain edge to his addiction, which I attribute to it being forbidden.

B) When things are viewed as completely evil (I’m thinking especially of sex), youth often get a stereotyped, one-dimensional view of things, which can lead to difficulties when they are exposed to different views or later encounter them in a healthy way. Not only that, but when things are made forbidden, I think that we often invest them with too much power so that it can be difficult to screen them out or to withstand them when they are thrust in our face. And that happens. It’s impossible to keep ourselves and our children in a protective bubble.

C) When a particular genre is vilified, especially one that while it may have an evil aspect to it can still be powerful art (i.e. something like rock ‘n roll — again I’m not talking about pornography, which should definitely be rejected), it leads youth (and adults) sometimes into making decisions that they maybe don’t need to make. In other words, if kids think that you can’t be a good Mormon and listen to gothic music, but at the time gothic music is what is speaking to them most powerfully, then perhaps they become involved in the parts of the gothic scene that are wrong and destructive because they see it as an either/or choice. Much better, in my opinion, is if we can pull things out of the genre that are powerful, good art, that speak to us, but view the scene as a whole with an LDS-critical lens, so that we don’t buy it all wholesale. You can listen to ambient or jungle music without taking ecstasy. Which leads me to point number 2.

2. Develop critical tools with which to approach the consumption of art

In the original discussion on the AML List that led to this essay, someone had mentioned that no one is suggesting that we read mainstream literature like we read scripture. I disagree to a certain extent.

While we shouldn’t give literature the same power to guide us and form our theological beliefs as we do scripture, I do think that we should approach worldly (for lack of a better term) narratives with a critical eye. This doesn’t mean simply (and easily) categorizing works of fiction as evil or good by whether or not a character commits adultery or not (for example), but by using the Mormon way of understanding sin, repentance, consequences, agency, the unrighteous exercise of dominion, epiphany, faith, death, love, hate, family relationships, etc. to approach the piece of art.

I believe that narrative art is a powerful way to learn about life, about humanity. I believe that we should be humble enough to allow ourselves to expose our mind and soul to art of all kinds, but when we do so, we can approach it with a critical (yet charitable) mindset that allows us to experience art without shaking the foundations of our faith.

That’s hard to do in an honest way. And I want to reiterate that you should use my first approach above to help you decide which works of art to consume, but you should have enough confidence in this second approach to allow yourself to consume art that may be difficult or foreign. And your critical tools shouldn’t be limited to your view of the gospel, but also to those more formal aspects related to art — concepts of genre formulas, language, imagery, editing (for movies), etc. If you are aware of the tricks of the trade, of how artists create the effect they do, then perhaps the work won’t be quite so threatening and you can create a critical distance that allows you to gain something without it fundamentally changing your worldview.

If these critical lenses are correctly used, then you find that while your foundational beliefs remain (my belief in the divine mission of Christ and the reality of the restoration for instance) and your understanding of how this life plays out — the pains, pleasures and complexities of mortality—increases, and your worldview becomes more civil, charitable and enriched.

Now I also want to bring up a point of caution. You need to be incredibly honest with yourself. It’s very easy to use your estimation of your ability to handle things as an excuse to expose yourself to works of art that perhaps you shouldn’t — to think you are stronger than you are and to let licentious desires (and this isn’t just about sex, it’s also about violence, wallowing in melancholy, schadenfreude, voyeurism, etc.) creep in. While I ask for a broad definition of appropriate art works, I also want to caution against pride and the flaxen cords that can bind those who truly do become decadent intellectuals. I think many of us, however, need to worry less about the ‘intellectuals’ and to worry more about if we are becoming to insular in our media habits, so insular that it becomes difficult to relate with (and to easy for us to wrongly judge) other members and our neighbors and relatives.

This relates to what Rusty discusses in terms of creating art. He asks: “Can we expect to contribute to our culture, especially our pop culture, without partaking of it as well?” I think the same is true of consuming art. Or as Pris comments on Rusty’s post: “Once something becomes part of pop culture, it provides us all as a frame of reference — it gives us something to share.”

3. Become an omnivorous media consumer

After completing my master’s degree in literature, I found myself with a lot of reading time to fill (my work commute is an hour and a half one-way). I started out alternating between literary fiction and speculative fiction with the occasional piece of literary criticism thrown in. It was great. But after six months or so I kind of phased out the literary fiction for five or six weeks and went on a steady diet of speculative fiction. At some point I returned to a piece of literary fiction and found that I couldn’t read it. I was too used to the fast-paced, plot-driven, smoothly-written, cool-ideas world of speculative fiction.

I like speculative fiction a lot. And what I was reading was some of the best of the field so this wasn’t a case of junk over substance. It’s that I didn’t have the patience for literary fiction anymore so I just avoided it. This didn’t last long. I found the patience to return to literary fiction. But it was an interesting lesson. I’m sure the rest of you aren’t quite as susceptible as I am to this sort of thing (after reading a particularly powerful work I often walk around speaking in my head in the voice of that work), but it’s something to look out for.

One of the problems with limiting yourself to a particular genre is that it’s easy to get lazy so once you’ve read the good stuff in the genre, you pick up the not-so-good stuff either. I’ve seen this happen with a relative of mine and spy novels. He started out being quite discriminating about what he’d read in the genre, but then … not so much. Laziness is the easiest way to get into trouble with media consumption.

Becoming more omnivorous in our patterns of consumption allows us to:

A) Skim the best from each genre and art form — that whole 13th article of faith thing.

B) Discover the limitations in the genres, forms, artists and authors we adore most so that we become better judges (part of that whole critical lens thing). For instance, I think that it’s good for opera lovers to listen to rock music and discover that opera music is as much about sex and violence as modern rock is (and vice versa).

C) Invigorate our consumption patterns, which can easily become stale.

D) Become more discriminating but less snobbish about the genres we prefer.

Becoming more of a media omnivore takes work. But I think it’s worth it. And it’s something I need to do better at. For instance, I know next to nothing about classical music. I’m sure there’s stuff out there that I might like better than the Romantic-era classical (Beethoven) music that dominates the American recording and performing scene (partly because of movie scores, I think), but I haven’t really looked for it.

4. The need for critics

I want to make a final point: all the above underscores the need for critics (good critics), and especially for Mormon critics. Critics can help us sift through and find the best stuff. Critics can suggest ways of reading/viewing/listening that will help us develop our own critical tools. Critics can help keep alive the best works of each decade.

Yes, critics can also suck the joy out of art. But that doesn’t need to be the case. We need more Mormon criticism — both academic and popular criticism. There is some good work being done in this field. But I’d like to see more, especially in the realms of music, visual arts, and film.

I fear that too often Mormon media consumption patterns are set by the most conservative Mormons consumers. They have been allowed to limit the definitions of what is ‘faith-promoting’ and ‘appropriate’ (which generally means that a work has no ‘objectionable’ material and it’s been created by a Mormon and thus is good by default — no matter how shoddy the work itself actually is).

I don’t think that the solution is to paternalistically tell conservative Mormon consumers what they should think, buy and consume (despite my sermon above). Rather, I see a need for all Mormons to work harder at applying, teaching and writing about each of the three areas I list. And, in particular, for liberal Mormons to do more at engaging with and becoming part of the LDS market (of products and ideas).