Yesterday I braved the 110 degree Dallas day, crossing town to see Keith Merrill’s 17 Miracles in the one theater that ran it. Seeing such a deeply Mormon movie is a rare opportunity in the buckle of the Bible belt and the LDS audience in attendance seemed deeply moved. But, in my eyes, the fact that the audience appeared to be solely LDS is a problem. Certainly, the voice of the movie was intended for the Saints. I can’t fault the filmmaker for making an LDS movie for an LDS audience, but I would like to point out why his storytelling style isn’t likely to build any bridges between Mormon and non-Mormon audiences.
Consider some of the earliest moments. We see a young British mother of two, singing happily in a small 19th century Mormon congregation, and then see her at home with her non-believing, drunken husband–a man so inebriated he can’t get off the floor. We don’t see him beat her, but we do see the black eye he gave her and the fear in both her eyes and the eyes of her wee ones. Once in America, the group of wide-eyed, wholly innocent European Saints she crossed the Atlantic with are badgered and persecuted by a mob of non-believers. Then we see the company of Saints, isolated and happily singing hymns as they begin their walk to Zion.
The not-so-subtle message? Poor Mormons. Evil non-Mormons. If you were a non-Mormon sitting in the audience, what character could you identify with? I’d think none. Sympathy for the plight of Mormon characters in stories created by Mormons is nearly universally gained at the expense of the non-Mormon characters. Our artists often pit the one against the other, especially in the opening scenes, just as Merrill does in 17 Miracles. I find it ironic that deeply devout LDS stories, stories that set out to affirm faith and build testimony, are often the very stories that are least likely to invite non-believers into the story.
Now I don’t say this because I have some covert goal to convert any non-believers, but because I do believe these other storytellers do desire to convert non-believers. Perhaps some non-members are moved, but most will not connect with the story at any personal level, much less at a spiritual level. On the contrary, my desire is to tell our stories to a wider audience, to craft a story that will not only invite, but include those who are not like us to experience life as we do. I do see the Mormon people as a misunderstood group. The way to remedy that isn’t to revive old stereotypes, but to write our experience as it truly is in ways that are respectful to the secularist.
I promised to define secularist. I defer to Merriam-Webster, which defines secularism as “an indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” In other words, a secularist is simply someone who lives life without church or religion or God as the functioning center. It does not necessarily require the secularist to lack belief in some kind of divinity, including Christian divinity, but to feel ambivalent or unsure or disconnected in some way from the religious life. Sure, a secularist may be an atheist or an agnostic, a secularist may be well-educated or not, but a secularist can also be the woman in the next cubicle who has a vague ancestral claim to Catholicism (or any religious -ism) but prefers to boat on Sundays and can’t remember a single memorized prayer from the cathecism of her youth.
The secularist’s life is the antithesis of the devout Mormon’s, but that does not mean that the values of the secularist are in opposition to the basic values of religion. Good people fill both ranks. It is not an Us v. Them dichotomy. Yet, the stories birthed in Mormon culture tend to set up the relationship between the religionist and the secularist as oppositional, as if one is right and the other wrong. Such Mormon stories require the audience to pick sides–and it better be the Mormon side or else you are unenlightened. Don’t religious people tire of this same unstated accusation in the literature that often comes from non-believing people? Religious people are unenlightened. Religion is the opiate of the masses. As it turns out, Mormon artists too often do the same thing to the secularist. So much for the Golden Rule.
But I want to live that Golden Rule with my work. I want to fairly represent both worlds. It isn’t so much that I want to find the common ground, though I do. But common ground doesn’t really help us understand the part of the “other” that is, well, other. Common ground isn’t where bridges are needed. Common ground stories are likely to result in stories that “sell out,” that ignore sides of Mormonism that will make secularists, or even people of differing faiths, feel uncomforatable. I want to build a bridge that begins squarely, solidly–and on both sides–on the differences between the secularist and the faithful. I don’t imagine the two categories of people meeting in the midde, but actually crossing over, experiencing what the other must feel. I want to create a novel that will allow the secularist the safety of crossing into the Mormon mindset without fear that s/he will get to the other side and be harranged, abused, disparaged, or in any way demeaned for his “otherness,” and most importantly I don’t want the secularist to feel s/he must judge (accept or reject) the Mormon faith. The secularist should be able to approach a Mormon tale knowing he can go there and back without feeling his approach to life is violated in the process.
I’ve put years of thought into how to achieve this. I don’t know that it has been achieved yet. I think of the writers of the Lost Generation, specifically of Maurine Whipple and The Giant Joshua, who I think came close. In my final analysis, though, Whipple created bonds with non-Mormon readers by distancing certain aspects of Mormonism. Its been a while since I read the book, but as I recall, an apostle (Erastus Snow?) arrives in town and explains away some deeply felt Mormon doctrines in ways that made them palatable for the non-Mormon reader, but which rang untrue to Mormons. To me, that’s a sell-out. Certainly there is no One True Mormon Experience, but I think most of us sense and dislike such disingenuous placations.
Bridging Mormon thought with the secular is not easily done. Certainly it requires a strong and tolerant (accepting is the word I prefer, but its connotations may not serve me better) understanding of both ways of thinking. It requires respect. I don’t view characterizations of non-Mormons as drunkards and gun-toting persecutors as fair. Sure, persecution is part of our history and must be written, but so are great acts of charity by non-Mormons. Remember Quincy, Illinois.
This, of course, brings me to the excerpt I posted a couple days ago. Joseph (Joe) Egbert, the protagonist, is an actual historical character, though very little is known of him. His parents received one of the first Books of Mormon while living in Illinois and were immediately converted. They packed up, skipping Kirtland, and heading straight for Zion, or Independence, Missouri. Joe Egbert, then, experienced the persecution and hardships of both Independence and Far West. Yet I deliberately chose not to begin his story there because I wanted to begin in a place that would welcome the secularist and give him/her a people to identify with other than the contentious non-believers that filled Missouri. I could’ve crafted a kindly character, a General Doniphan perhaps, but that character would have been the anomoly among the non-believers. No, I wanted to invite the secularist into the Mormon experience at a place in the Egbert story that best represented the goodness of non-Mormons. Where better to do this than in Quincy, Illinois?
Of course it may be fair to point out that many, if not most, of the people of Quincy were not secularists, but, I’m assuming, part of the Christian mainstream of the era. This I did not think mattered, seeing as what I need the secularist to accept and understand is the Mormon experience of the time, which was wholly and uniquely “other” to the mainstream American view. Today secularism is the mainstream view and the Mormon view remains the “other.” I figured that parallel would come through successfully enough because it is obvious that the Mormons, bedraggled as they are, are the “other” in this scene, even if the POV remains solidly with a believing LDS character.
By choosing to begin in Quincy, I demonstrate that these Mormon characters have a love and deep appreciation for those who accept them, help them, in spite of their different beliefs. This is, in fact, what I’m asking the secularist reader to do–to take these unfortunates into their own lives, even if only for the length of a novel. The implication is that the Mormons of the novel will, in turn, demonstrate respect and appreciation for the reader by not threatening to proselytize. Of course, in Quincy, tje Egberts make no moves to preach, but instead provide service in exchange for the self-respect the people of Quincy offered the Saints. In this scene, which begins the Egbert storyline, both the non-Mormons and Mormons are humble people, though for different reasons, and both serve one another, though in different ways. Instead of an oppositional relationship between LDS and non-LDS, we have a symbiotic relationship even if it is not an equal relationship. Later, when non-LDS persecutors appear in the novel, the readers need not identify with them. They’ve already found themselves reflected in the good people of Quincy.
But there is a lot more work to be done in this scene. Staging it in a way to make secularists comfortable was the easy part. The difficult part of this scene–and of the entire novel–will be in manipulating those readers who are inclined to condemn religious belief (or those who put little stock in the importance of religion) into positions that allow them to acccept, even cheer for, the religious ideas and experiences of the protagonist. Manipulation. Such a dirty word. Yet fitting.
This post, however, is growing fretfully long, and I rather not test your patience. I’ll post the conclusion of this Discussion tomorrow, Saturday, August 6th, barring some major catastrophe in my life.
Thanks for reading!