Thursday, July 3, 2008

LDS Storytelling: Cultural Vs. Faith-promoting

LDS teachers and artists have often tried to encourage a certain type of storytelling from fellow Mormons that has sometimes sparked philosophical debate among writers and readers. Should our art simply reflect our unique culture, and therefore make it palatable for non-members? Or should it serve as a tool for proselyting?

A half century ago I believe the vast majority would have favored the proselyting objective. But today it seems that the mere idea that an LDS writer or filmmaker may try to force LDS doctrine down the throats of unsuspecting non-members by using a tool as (allegedly) seductive and sublime as storytelling would be uncalled for, and in many LDS intellectual circles entirely frowned upon. I personally think some of this is because too many Latter-day Saints have come to fear their image in the world, and they do not want to be accused of doing something so (allegedly) deceptive as using storytelling or allegory to push religious dogma.

Personally, I feel I fit somewhere in the middle. Most know that I have written many novels and that I have also directed a feature film (based on one of those novels called "Passage to Zarahemla"). I sometimes smile as I listen to some young whippersnapper talk about how a story that attempts to preach or be didactic makes for a very bad story. This isn't true at all. Only BAD preaching and didacticism makes for bad storytelling. The fact is that it's only bad if the story gives the reader the distinct and overwhelming feeling that they are being preached at. The best lessons are always taught by example. Not by screaming in someone's face. But does someone who teaches by example have a motive any less pointed than the person who is being overtly didactic? The motive remains the same. To teach. To testify. And hopefully to provoke thought, and perhaps even (incredibly) to inspire a spiritual experience.

I know that this is always my motive in every story that I have ever written. But I'm also experienced enough, or saavy enough, or just creative enough to recognize that you don't change people by preaching. You change them by doing. By showing. In short, I don't have to have my characters testify to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon at the end of my books. Goodness! I tell stories about Nephites and Lamanites and time travel! I don't need to set up the reader so that I can stand on a soapbox and preach religious doctrine to them. If I were to do this, it would betray the very reason that a person picks up a book or watches a movie in the first place--to escape, to be entertained, to suspend their disbelief for a while and relax. But is my motive really any different than the old-time LDS novelists of the first generation (the 70s, I mean, when LDS novel-writing took off) who had their characters convert or testify of the truthfulness of the gospel in the last chapter? Really, I'm not sure if my objective is that much different. And yet I've always found that with the arts I seem to create a much more moving experience for my "customers" if I aim my themes "just past the mark." In other words, I believe the best storytellers explore areas where they don't have all the answers. And I'm no different. If we were to set a ruler on a table and measure how much Latter-day Saints know about the universe compared to other human beings, I do feel our knowledge would be a few centimeters further along the stick. But that measurement of our knowledge (compared to all of the available knowledge in this universe) would still be inside the first inch of the yardstick (or less!). As children of our Heavenly Father, I believe there is still so much to learn, and so much that will one day be poured out upon us. Perhaps this is why it is a distinct doctrine within Mormonism to be ever learning, ever seeking and soaking up knowledge. We are told that this knowledge will literally be useful to us in the next life. Not sure how, but it will be.

So when I create a story, I make no effort to "convince" my reader that my religion is true. That testimony is simply inherent in the story itself. I make no apologies for it. And yet I would be lying if I said that I was not cognizant of the fact that some of my readers have frail testimonies that are strengthened by the fact that I feel no need to question my faith. Yes, I know other LDS artists feel it a badge of honor to question their faith. I never have. My convictions flow through me and often seem as natural to me as breathing. So in my view the Book of Mormon is simply true. It's not just a culturally interesting artifact. It's the word of God. And I feel certain that anyone who reads my stories comes away knowing that this is my conviction. It's what I am able to do in my stories beyond that conviction that I find the most interesting, and the most satisfying as an artist.

For example, in my current Tennis Shoes Book (tentatively entitled "Thorns of Glory") I have an opportunity to explore a subject which has been explored many times before, and by many artists and filmmakers of many different Christian persuasions--Catholic and Protestant. I am offering a (fictional) point of view of the crucifixion of our Savior. (I'm also offering one the first detailed fictional accounts of the battle at Cumorah, but that's another point.) However, even though everyone from Mel Gibson to William Wyler has offered their take on these events, I have been suprised to discover that none of them has offered the same perspective that I intend to offer. Some of the subjects that I will explore have never been explored in fictional accounts of this event. Some of them have only barely been discussed in scholarly accounts. This is what will make this project fun and interesting for me as an artist. But never once in the entire course of the story will I step back and ask whether these events actually took place. The dramatic question is how they took place and what it would have been like to be a first-hand witness.

I've certainly read the treatises of LDS educators and artists who promote the idea of telling stories only from a cultural perspective. They applaud Jewish artists like Chiam Potok or Catholic artists like Flannery O'Conner who can discuss their religion from a cultural perspective and thereby make it palatable for those who are not of that faith. I have some problems with this. First is my basic philosophy that, because the Latter-day Saints got it right--because they really DO have the true religion--that Latter-day Saints really don't have a culture. At least not a culture per say. That will sound very strange to some who want to point out all the Utah-isms and traditions like Family Home Evening and the Moroni spires and pioneers and the like. But I still contend that even if these things may define some kind of culture that surrounds the saints of today, it really doens't define the saints of other dispensations. Sometimes it doesn't even define the saints of other countries. My books (gulp) are good example of that. It's possible that a majority of English-speaking Latter-day Saints have heard of my "Tennis Shoes" books. But if you ask saints in Nigeria or even Chile, chances are they have never heard of my books, and have hardly an inkling of the whole phenomenon of LDS fiction. And yet they still partake of the true gospel of Christ! Yup. I confess it. I'm a rather insignificant player in the vast orchestra called the "stone rolling forth to fill the whole earth." Still, I'm very, very happy to play the small part that I play.

My point is that gospel culture to a Nephite would be entirely different than it would be to a 1st century Christian as it is entirely different to a modern Utah Mormon. The true Church really does not have a culture, and the more it tries to define itself by way of its "culture," the less appealing it is to the inhabitants of the earth. Really, what the gospel of Jesus Christ seeks to do is to marry ALL the cultures of the earth into one faith-centered and mighty family. And my personal belief is that storytellers or artists who seek to make Mormonism palatable to non-members by defining our religion strictly in cultural terms will do Mormonism a serious disservice. Doctrine becomes muddy. Convictions are watered down. And all in some strange effort to be accepted or celebrated or revered by the "world." I say (in my best Italian-American accent) "fa'get about it!" Don't ever shy away from your religious convictions in your storytelling. That kind of effort will inevitably come off just as phoney as the preachiness of a storyteller who blatantly tries to convert the reader.

An artist can never escape who he is. I've often told young artists that if they want to hide the flaws of their personality, don't become a storyteller. Maybe you should become a sculpter. Because a storyteller sticks it all out there for everyone to see, whether they want to or not. Your weaknesses will be visible. And I firmly believe the most spiritually astute will immediately be able to make a sound judgement regarding the state of your testimony. It's just the nature of the beast.

So here's the rule: just be honest. If you believe this is the true Church, don't hide it. And yet at the same time, don't feel the overt need to preach. Your testimony will shine through despite your best efforts to disguise it. For many this should be welcome news. We can so often be such an uptight people. And the notion that we can just relax, be ourselves, and tell whatever stories we want without having to worry about what our bishop may think is a very liberating concept. Or at least it SHOULD be. Honestly, I often second guess choices that I make in my books. I DO worry about how kids might react to my words and images. But that's okay too. That's called trying to follow the Holy Ghost, and I believe seeking to follow that force is an artist's best course. I reject all artists who feel they are somehow honored or blessed for the talents God gave them. I believe artists are first and foremost servants.

So serve well, fellow artists! And in the end, you may discover that celebrating the gospel with storytelling is much easier than you first suspected.

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lachish said...


Amen. This blog entry is a great example of the reason I have looked up to you and admired your work for so long. Unabashed, unapologetic, tell it like you feel it, personal testimony. To tell a story that is based on true things, and yet still have a reader "feel the spirit" during the fictional tale (I did when I listened to your book on CD "TS and The Feathered Serpent"), is the sign of not only an artist good at his craft, but a sign of someone who really, truly believes the doctrines upon which the story was based.

Keep doing what you are doing. I am rooting for you.

Daron D. Fraley

Anonymous said...

are you ever going to translate your books to spanish? I believe the children from my country would love your books.

Danyelle Ferguson said...

Excellent post! As a member of writing critique groups, I'm often asked if a passage is too preachy. I love the way you address the issue. Thanks for sharing!

Jalapenoman said...

While I agree with much of your post, I disagree with the idea that there is no LDS culture.

I live outside of Utah, but my mother grew up there (in Price). I have family in the Provo area.

On occasions when I have traveled to Utah for vacations, or when I was in the MTC, I am slapped in the face by Utah Mormon culture.

You may not see it as you live in it, but there is a significant culture just to the church.

This is easily seen, and made fun of, in the wonderful book "The Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer."

Part of that Mormon culture is considering all of the members who live "outside of Zion" as being "in the mission field." It includes such things as funeral potatoes, jello, relief society centerpieces, Mr. Mac, scrapbooking, BYU co-ed jokes, Hogi Yogi, Dry Council speakers, and many other inane and silly traditions (yes, the church, for all it's truth, is full of vain and silly traditions).

P.S. Thanks for the mention of Chaim Potok, by the way. He was one of my favorite writers. It is too bad that he died after writing so few books.