Mormons tend to be positive people. Mormon theology points toward a compassionate Christ and Heavenly Father. Mormons are sanguine about the prospect of eternal progression. Families are a source of joy. Heck, even adversity is regarded as a welcome part of mortality. And these are good things. But do they hold us back when it comes to the arts? Do they deprive of us of an opportunity for growth?
Mark Oppenheimer at the New York Times writes an interesting piece about this very issue, namely that while there are 15 million Mormons worldwide, Mormonism – at least self-described “active” Mormonism – has not produced a Mark Twain or a Shakespeare. No, Mormonism has given the world Ender’s Game and the titillating, lupin-hematic world of Stephene Meyer. While Ender’s Game has plenty of well-reasoned defenders, the same can’t be said for most of the other “arts” that we put out there. LDS cinema gets even trickier, as films geared toward families need to get Deseret Book’s stamp of approval. There are exceptions, of course, but for every Saints and Soldiers there are a dozen or so The Home Teachers.
The NYT cites author Rachel Ann Nunes, author of the popular Autumn Rain series and other benign women-centric fiction. Nunes argues that Mormons tend to gravitate toward genre fiction because of our theology – Manichaean, or good-versus-evil plots. Also, let’s face it, we have some rather otherworldly theology compared to more “mainstream” faiths. It only makes sense that we would gravitate toward the fantastical.
On a semi-related idea, do you think it’s any coincidence that we, the sunny Mormons, tend to disproportionately favor things like musicals and Disneyland? It’s not just about the family-friendly aspects of these things, but of how otherworldly much of it is.
Oppenheimer goes on to argue that Church disapproval is a major hurdle for Mormon artists to create true art. He tells the tale of Brian Evenson, who said he was forced out of Brigham Young University for writing fiction that displeaed church leaders. His parents’ advice to him as a young man keeping a journal? “Only record the happy things, and not the negative things.”
This is likely the biggest issue. But is it an issue? Is pursuing the wholesome, the uplifting, and the sunny all that bad? Are we missing out on things by not reading the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy or watching the latest Las von Trier movie? Like anything else in the Church, it’s about balance. We don’t need to endure graphic violence, sex, or language to tackle difficult ideas, and as Latter-day Saints, we are limiting ourselves by sticking to Sheri Dew-approved material. In fact, based on many non-C.S. Lewis citations in General Conference, we could argue that the Brethren agree that going beyond the mark is not necessary and potentially limiting. Twilight might allude to love and violence, but it doesn’t truly explore complex themes. East of Eden does. Love in the Time of Cholera does.
We should hope that as Mormonism expands, so will its forays into true artistry. And this does not mean sacrificing standards. But if we can read the Old Testament, with its depictions of violence and sex, if we can read of the political and ecumenical hypocrisy within the New Testament, and if we can read of blood, carnage, and even sexual assault in the Book of Mormon while still maintaining our standards and learning valuable lessons, we can pursue stronger, more complex literature that can resonate outside of the saccharine world to which we often limit ourselves.
Follow the link above to read all of the New York Times piece and leave your thoughts below.