Finding the Funny in Mormon Literature: Benediction by Neal Chandler

In Eugene Woodbury’s essay, , and in William’s last post they both talk about the importance of comedy.  I agree with what they are saying but I am also sometimes disheartened at the selection of comedy available.  There isn’t much out there, and what is isn’t actually comedy, it’s just silliness.  However, one book, Benediction by Neal Chandler is Mormon comedy at its best.

Benediction is a collection of loosely related short stories that poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of Mormon culture. Set in a ward that could be your own, the comedy is built on the incongruities of pyramid-scheme-selling Relief Society sisters, Rocky preaching Sunday school teachers, parents with so many small children they have to head out to the garage to get some intimate time, and hapless single adults who  find themselves feeling like the teenagers they so obviously aren’t.

Originally published in 1989, with many of the stories having previously appeared in Dialogue,  Benediction is still funny–and relevant–twenty years later. That this book is apparently out of print is a shame. (Don’t worry. You can ILL it or buy it used on Amazon.)  More than just slapstick and oneliners, which seem to be the purview of  so many Mormon comedic films,  Benediction is full of tightly knit witticisms that draw the reader closer and closer to the eccentric–and endearing–essence of Mormonism (which, of course, has nothing to do with the actual Church).  Even the cover art makes you want to giggle. While there were a few moments where I wondered if  the author was laughing at Mormons instead of with Mormons, I found myself wishing I was reading it aloud with others so we could all laugh together.

My 2008 Literature Wish List

January of 2008 found my writing in limbo. I was waiting to hear from an editor about a manuscript. Without my book to focus on my brain didn’t know how to occupy itself anymore. I found myself aimlessly surfing the internet for loooong periods of time. I was cranky and dissatisfied. What was I going to do (you know, besides the piles of laundry and dishes and taking care of my kids)?

Like any good product of the YWs Personal Progress program *wink*, I set a goal. To be specific, I set a goal to read one book a week for the entire year. It seemed like a lot to me at the time. (I got schooled by Th. who has read twice as many and I’ve heard authors/writers like Tristi Pinkston read hundreds of books a year.)  I was pretty jazzed about my goal but I quickly realized that my previous reading habits (which included lots of historical nonfiction, regular nonfiction, and “literary” novels) would kill it. Those books are too hard/engrossing for me to read in a single week. I tend to let books tell me how to read them and most of those kinds of books want to be read slowly. Continue reading “My 2008 Literature Wish List”

Why Mormon Arts Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the Great Lights

Note. The following is an excerpt from a collection of missionary-memoir short stories by S.P. Bailey called All the Great Lights. You can read the complete collection at S.P. Bailey’s website. And please comment here! Reaction to the story would be great. But it might also be interesting to engage in a conversation about self-publishing in this manner. Is it extremely shameful? Or just sort of pathetic? Does publication by some small Mormon press–or even Deseret Book–really ensure quality or add meaningful prestige? Another topic worth discussing might be the missionary-memoir genre and its place in Mormon letters. Other topics would be fun too. Please comment!

11. The Sickness

Elder Hargrave’s homesickness was palpable every day he spent in the MTC. There was something precious about him writing letters home or carefully opening his family’s many packages to him. Hargrave taped a tiny portrait of his girlfriend inside the front cover of his “white bible,” the book of mission rules most elders carry in the left breast pockets of their white dress shirts. He looked at that picture so often that some missionaries must have thought he was contemplating key rules like “[y]ou and your companion are to sleep in the same bedroom, but not in the same bed.” Continue reading “All the Great Lights”

Mormon Art in Belbury

I’d been reading medieval Japanese literature for a few weeks (ah, the joys of going back to school) and really didn’t have time to pick up a novel, but it was a bit of an emotional and social necessity. So I walked down to the library on a warm summer evening a few weeks ago and looked for a copy of That Hideous Strength, the third and final book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I own a copy of my own, but most of my books are in a storage unit until I can finally live somewhere that allows me to have furniture. It vexes. But I digress.

I fear the connection here may seem tenuous. Lewis is not, after all, a Mormon author, as much as we’d long to appropriate him. But neither was the art exhibition I had looked forward to actually Mormon art. Come to think of it, the only Mormon factor in this entire train of thought is me. Let’s see how far-fetched we can get.

The most recent exhibition to open at the BYU Museum of Art is quite a departure from their previous featured exhibitions. Beholding Salvation was a collection so doctrine-centric that it seemed to pay no heed to any sort of artistic cohesion. Not that I’m criticizing – there is room for this unique curatorial approach, especially in the peculiarly insular Utah art scene. It was extremely popular with the viewing public, even (especially?) those who don’t usually consider themselves part of the Art Elite. Last year, they featured Pageants in Paint, a huge retrospective of Minerva Teichert’s work. Again – clearly Mormon art – but it was an exhibition that featured wonderful scholarship and a thematic cohesion that’s nice to see at the MoA. Last week, their newest exhibit opened: Turning Point: The Demise of Modernism and the Rebirth of Meaning in American Art. This exhibit makes no claims to be Mormon, nor does it take into consideration at all the doctrinal or even cultural foundations of Mormonism. It just happens to be in Utah. And it’s fairly successful, for what it is. It makes a clean, concise, didactic little statement about what happened to the Art Establishment in the 60s. It re-hashes Clement Greenberg. They even managed to get a Frank Stella piece on loan and it’s awful pretty. The exhibition as a whole is every bit as thought-provoking as minimalist statements and cultureless attempts at conceptual art tend to be. Which is, to say, it is entirely bankrupt of meaning and soul and it casts a dramatic spotlight across the gulf that separates Mormonism as a worldview from the secular fine art establishment.

Continue reading “Mormon Art in Belbury”

Artificial Reality

A comparison of the imagery in Russell Holt’s Lamb of God (1993) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

“I do not look forward to the feelings that will grip my heart when The Passion suspends me in time and space and brings me to the feet of the suffering Christ. But it is a feeling I want to experience. We speak and preach so casually about the sacrifice of Christ, the “price he paid for us,” the blood he shed and the agony he suffered. Such phrases have become so familiar to us it is more prosaic than real.”

So concluded LDS filmmaker Kieth Merrill in an article published in Meridian Magazine prior to the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a controversial visual narrative of the final twelve hours of the life of Christ. That Merrill – the director of church-sponsored favorites such as Legacy and The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd – should anticipate the viewing of such a charged film is not so unusual when considered in a vacuum. However, when one considers that Latter-day Saints have their own film chronicling the Easter story, one begins to wonder what the “feeling” is to which Merrill is referring.

But the focus of this piece is not simply to point out that Mel Gibson’s film is a more graphic representation of the Easter story than Holt’s. Not only does that go without saying, but it would be equally foolish to stand these two films side by side in light of their vast differences on grounds ranging from production budgets to the purpose behind their production. Lamb of God is a church-sponsored film with a proselyting simplicity packed into its lean twenty-seven minute running time while Passion of the Christ is commercial entertainment designed for consumption by the paying masses. Certainly, Gibson’s staunch Catholicism indicates a goal that was loftier than mere dollars and cents, but it seems erroneous to assume that he was ignorant of the financial risk/reward scenarios presented by his film. Conversely, Lamb of God never had a commercial theatrical run and video and DVD sales are, like most church-produced media, zero sum at best. Continue reading “Artificial Reality”

Confronting Polygamy from the Other Side

When my friend Marla told people in our 11th grade English class that she was Mormon, I assumed she must be in 2nd Ward. When she started passing out pamphlets with a picture of the Salt Lake temple titled “What Mormons Believe,” I was impressed with her gumption in taking opportunities to do missionary work. When I found out she grew up in Pinesdale, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and had a hard time looking her in the eye for a couple days.

Continue reading “Confronting Polygamy from the Other Side”