Unrealistic Expectations of Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares

Every now and then those contemplating the literary aspirations of Mormonism will quote Orson F. Whitney, “we will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” and then ask when or how that can become possible. That musing has now gone national thanks to an article in the New York Times with interviews of current and former Mormon writers about why this hasn’t happened yet. The result is condescension toward both Mormon literature and popular genre fiction. The answer, even by some of the Mormon writers, seems to show the usual academic bias in favor of the nebulous literary fiction.

Although artists should stretch the talent given to them, Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares are not going to exist. That dream needs to be retired. This is not because Mormons are incapable of great literature, but because the expectations are ridiculous. The New York Times article said it best while ignoring the implications, “In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances.” The nearest to the two contemporary “Bards” in prestige is Homer who lived about a thousand years before them. By that reckoning, time is on the Mormon side. Continue reading

An Insider’s Outside View of Mormon History

In the spirit of describing personal religious turning points, I am presenting this observational essay. At the same time it touches on a few posts with themes about intellectuals and faith.

The Discovery Years

While reading about the LDS history articles in the Ensign, I was reminded of my own studies. When I was young, interest in the subject started because my own personal faith had grown. My house was filled with history books both secular and religious. As a reader, I would try and find anything I could on whatever subject interested me the most.

My first full biography on Joseph Smith was by John Henry Evans, a rather unsophisticated treatment. What intrigued me about the book was less how definitive it was and more how complicated and exciting Joseph Smith seemed. Noticing more to the man and the Prophet than the author presented didn’t bother me — it fascinated me. Perhaps it had to do with my understanding of history as storytelling rather than a collection of facts that had to be accounted for to make things true.

My second encounter with Mormon history was brief, and I had already gotten a beginner’s start by reading a few chapters in Joseph Smith’s 6 Volume history. At this point my focus of LDS Church history set with Joseph Smith as the center of study. Having read one biography of Joseph Smith, I decided to find another one; and like so many other people picked up Fawn Brodie’s treatment. I read a few chapters at the start and a couple in the middle before reading the rest. Unlike so many people who apparently read her book and become disenchanted, I was unimpressed. As a teenager I could tell where history stopped and her own unfounded biases filled in the gaps. Where Evan’s book was sketchy, this one had been overproduced. Other than a few original for the time newspaper reports, “No Man Knows My History” mostly used the Joseph Smith HIstory volumes and Journal of Discourses. Much of what she writes was discussed in B.H. Roberts History of the LDS Church with a difference of opinion. Reading Hugh Nibley’s criticism about the book was not a discovery, but a realization I wasn’t the only one seeing the problems.

Before graduating High School and leaving my home for college, I read all the historical Ensign articles I could. They contained the most detail on specific topics I had access to at the time. The articles were impressive for someone who didn’t have other treatments to rely on for more information. I lament that such writings in the magazine stopped during the 90s, although one or two good articles came out later. Still, it got me reading more than the outdated books written by a small group of believers. Continue reading

How Halloween is Hurt with Trunk or Treat

tricktreatIt is no secret that I love Halloween. From when I was young the holiday has been a fun celebration to start the holiday season. Few other times can freaks and the imaginative come out in the open while embraced by the mainstream. Children get permission to eat candy and talk with strangers. It becomes one huge community get together no matter what religious or cultural difference exist. It is the community aspect that has recently become in danger of disappearing.

Halloween has a long and storied history. Some historians believe it started with the Romans while the most recognized origins come from the Celtic Pagans. Wherever it came from, the holiday was a symbol for the coming winter months after harvest. Today that reason has been overshadowed by ghosts, goblins, and witches brew. Perhaps pumpkins and corn mazes are among the last reminders this is a fall festival.

To be clear, trick or treating is a relatively recent invention developed in the 1940s to protect against vandals. Before then, and especially after WWI, “trick or treat” was a serious threat. Bands of roving children and adolescence would break windows, ruin property, and start fires. You were more likely to be tricked than hand out treats. The Julie Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis has a scene that represents the more chaotic celebration with bonfires of burning furniture. The characters hurry home before getting caught in the escalations.

After WWII parties were given for children to enjoy. Adults generally stood back and participated as families. Despite the more benign celebrations, vandalism continued to be the main feature of the holiday for the next couple decades. The state of Minnesota decided to once and for all take care of the roving problem and hold a Halloween parade. Children dressed in costumes walk in the streets in an organized cavalcade along with supervising adults. Soon after, the house to house treat gathering takes over throughout the United States. Vandalism continued, such as the Detroit arsons that took place for years, but as more isolated incidents. A new era was born from the ashes of misbehavior. Continue reading

The Mormonism in Brandon Sanderson Novels

Almost every critic who read the wildly popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer seemed to pick up on Mormon themes, even when they weren’t there. Wild speculations about Mormon views on domesticity, feminism, romance, conversion, deification and even the Mountain Meadows massacre were delved into as curiosity or mockery. No matter what she did or said there seemed to be Mormon roots found by someone no matter how obscure or tedious. Even Orson Scott Card’s works were never scrutinized to the degree her works have been. What is amazing is that one of arguably the most prolific and popular Mormon writers has not been given the same treatment. This despite the fact his works are filled with nods and allusions to Mormon theology and culture.

Brandon Sanderson is best known for completing Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy series The Wheel of Time when that author died. He was given the task by Jordan’s wife after she read Sanderson’s own Mistborn fantasy trilogy of books. It was a good pick considering the final books became number one best sellers and how quickly he churns out whole series of thick tomes. He also teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University when not putting down words to pages.

Perhaps there are a few reasons Sanderson and Card don’t have scores of readers trying to pin down every Mormon reference real or imagined. For one thing, Meyer is a female writer who is Hollywood friendly. That means a capacity to reach out beyond the limited fan base of literate individuals to those who might not even open up a book. Someone once pointed out that television and movies are the modern popular literature, while books have nearly returned to the domain of a select (and self selecting) few. Perhaps that might explain why only the original Battlestar Galactica has come closest to the same nit-picking. Will the release of Ender’s Game open up Mr. Card, like it already has for a small group, to the same search for details and diatribes? Perhaps because Meyer is female, much like what occurred with J.K. Rowling to a lesser extent, she is considered an acceptable target.

Clearing the above musing out of the way, what Brandon Sanderson writes has Mormonism in it with some of it blatant. There are a few motifs shared by other Mormon writers, including Meyer’s vampire series. Examples here will include the Mistborn Trilogy and the currently stand alone Rithmatist novel. A routine warning is added that below might contain spoilers. Continue reading

Rethinking Mormon Involvement in the BSA

compassLet me get some of my bias out the way first. Similar to many Mormons, I earned my Eagle Scout award. One summer I worked at a BSA camp and taught my near age contemporaries. This might indicate that I love Scouting, but the truth is that I didn’t and am still ambivalent. My time in Scouts was out of devotion to Mormon tradition where going to camp and working on merit badges came naturally. The Scouting experience also passed the time in a small town where doing something was better than nothing (although books helped fill the gaps). I don’t really like the outdoors, the boys were no better as Scouts than at school, and the merit badges seemed easy and forgettable. Taking the job had more to do with not having any better choices than trying for the usual farm and grocery store positions most likely filled up anyway. I did do some farm related work and the camp was much more fun. I have not been involved with Scouts for over twenty years and don’t wish to re-engage.

My feelings about the decision for the BSA to accept homosexual boys touches on one of my major criticism of LDS Church involvement. It might, as suggested, mirror the Church stance. Considering that I find that stance to be too lenient toward a condition and behavior that I believe is more than a mere temptation, that doesn’t impress me. Be that as it may, the fact that BSA is considered an extension of the Priesthood bothers me greatly. It has for many years. There is no doubt that Joseph Smith would have loved the organization and become involved. I can also speculate he would have gone in long enough to discover its function and then developed a separate church inspired program.

Despite the 100 years of close association with the LDS Church and emphasis on faith, BSA is a secular organization. No single religion has control. Franchises develop by interested parties in local areas that can at times arbitrarily decide membership requirements. This can cause a confusing set of restrictions. For instance, a Mormon family tried to join an evangelical group and was quickly rejected. The reasoning and background story is besides the point. Is the national or the local authorities in charge? At first I felt for the Mormon family, but the truth is they had no business trying to get in that troop. On the other hand, as a secular organization the BSA could have stepped in and forced the issue much like with the homosexual decision. The evangelical troop would then be given two choices; allow the Mormons or drop support.

So far the decisions of the BSA have been nearly aligned with the LDS Church, such as homosexual leaders unaccepted and homosexual boys allowed. Some day and perhaps in the near future that might not be the case. What then? Continue reading