Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Gateway to Mormon Artistry

It has been said that someday there will be Shakespeare and Miltons in the Mormon artistic community. Such a promise has been both inspirational for its greatness and discouraging for its lack of fruition. One of the most famous statements comes from a recent Prophet of the LDS Church who said:

Our writers, our motion picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever. Our own talent, obsessed with dynamism from a CAUSE, could put into such a story life and heartbeats and emotions and love and pathos, drama, suffering, fear, courage; and they could put into it the great leader, the mighty modern Moses who led a people farther than from Egypt to Jericho, who knew miracles as great as the stream from the rock at Horeb, manna in the desert, giant grapes, rain when needed, battles won against great odds.

"Take a Nicodemus and put Joseph Smith’s spirit in him, and what do you have? Take a da Vinci or a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare and give him a total knowledge of the plan of salvation of God and personal revelation and cleanse him, and then take a look at the statues he will carve and the murals he will paint and the masterpieces he will produce. Take a Handel with his purposeful effort, his superb talent, his earnest desire to properly depict the story, and give him inward vision of the whole true story and revelation, and what a master you have!"

Spencer W. Kimball, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, Jul 1977, 3

There are some important considerations for why such promises might not be applicable for the modern art establishment. One of the most important reasons this grand vision will have to wait is the condition of the Western world. Look at any number of best sellers and even award winners and it shouldn't take much to discover the disconnect. We are living in a highly secular world where any mention of religion is derogatory if it is included at all. The artists mentioned above lived in times and places where religion was as important as commerce and trade. They could easily incorporate direct theological and moral themes into the work because everyone shared at least some spiritual connections.

Even if they were great artists, the work still had to be recognized and produced. Often there was a select group of patrons willing to give financial support. This often meant that, like any craftsman and worker in other fields, talent didn't spring from nowhere. Work was often discovered after years of labor and training when a person with money decided they liked a particular style. For the most lucky of artists they came from a background where the money was easy to come by and education was never neglected. Above all, and completely different from today's focus on specialization, these artists also learned many other trades that helped contribute to the over all production of their work.

As it stands, competition and the very purpose of art has changed significantly. What used to be a way to encourage beauty, practicality, learning, and even high-class propaganda has become mere entertainment. This atmosphere cannot be helpful in crafting masterpieces when the bulk of what people want is less than serious. Add to that a lack of diversification among individual artists, and it becomes probable that "Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares" will have to wait for another time. Because of the hostile religious climate things could be even harder.

But, there is hope. The answer to that is by going a different route. One that has been proven to work. Skip trying to focus on Mormons and Mormonism, at least directly. This has proven highly successful for a handful of bestsellers. Even Deseret Book is starting to get into the act with a set of popular books.

Sticking with the theme of writers, a small list of accomplished people include Richard Paul Evans, Tracy Hickman, Sherry Ann Miller, Anne Perry, Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, Orson Scott Card, and most recently Stephenie Meyer that has caught the attention of both young and adult readers. Only Orson Scott Card has done directly Mormon themes that have reached a wide audience beyond LDS readers. But, he had at first become known for and succesful at writing secular stories.

Regardless of the secular appeal of these writings, many of them still have Mormon themes that are part of the stories. As I had said aboutone of Stephanie Meyer's books:

. . . The reader is constantly, and with well-crafted scenes, reminded of how close death is from love.

. . . It is not hard to see the book is about keeping our desires in check. Giving in could bring about consequences beyond our control, even death. Falling in love, especially as a teenager, is a constant battle between what we want to do and what we ought to do. Those most worthy of love are the ones who recognize the danger and work hard to control themselves. It will be interesting to see if the next book continues this theme.

There might not be any recognizable Mormon theology, but bringing our emotions into check is a constant theme expressed by leaders of the Church. At least one of her intended books about an alien posessing the body of a human and having to live with that is similar to spirits having to live in the less than ideal physical world. Orson Scott Card has actually written a few books with Mormons as main characters that have become best sellers. Even the books without Mormons have included repentance, salvation, family, community, and etc. It is the reaching beyond our own faith that seems to set the simply good artists apart from the great artists.

Eventually there may yet be Mormon artists of great reputation and lasting impression. Before that can happen, those same artists must introduce themselves to a wider audience with mass appeal. Once that happens there is no reason why that same audience will not accept (as long as the quality remains good) a more directly Mormon subject.

Related Posts on Mormon Art

The Stillbirth of Mormon Art

Humor and the Gospel

Famous Writer in "Ensign"

Ethics of Mormon Art

Narnia, E.T., and Mormon Story Telling

Against Dutcher

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Crash Statistic

A short story

It was only three days ago that his airplane had touched down after a short business trip. He had to fly for his work as a small business consultant every three months. He was not afraid of flying, but he hated takeoffs and landings. Most of the airplane accidents happened while near the runway. Each time the airplane lifted off or descended from the runway, Frank would grab hold of the seat armrests and try to breathe his cares away. His mind would race with thoughts of escape scenarios in case anything awful happened.

Sitting in the car in the middle of the day was a silly time to be thinking of crash landing on a strip of concrete. Yet, it was a way to get an idea of his current predicament. The world swirled around him with more force than gravity pressing hard against a pilot reaching for the ejection seats. The front of the car was indistinguishable from the vehicle in front of him. A perfectly sunny day had almost instantly become a disaster. At least he hadn’t fallen out of the sky, although he wasn’t sure it was a consolation.

A shallow voice broke the darkness that was slowly engulfing Frank in his seat, "are you alright?" It seemed to come from his own mind, but he knew it wasn’t his subconscious.

Frank focused on the voice hoping to keep from falling into the abyss of dangerous sleep. He wanted to answer sardonically that he wasn't alright or he would be walking, but words wouldn't come out of his cotton mouth. That same distant voice called out: “Does anyone have a cell phone? We need an ambulance." Knowing he could hear the voice coming from the real world beyond the wreckage, Frank realized he had not died. Simple thoughts were coming back to him. His wife was telling him to have a nice day at work. Children young enough to not be ashamed of affection scrambling to give him a goodbye hug. His boss always asking when he was going to come back from lunch to finish up business. Putting keys in the ignition.

Thoughts were followed by slowly recovered senses, seeing shapes and colors in the mist of groggy pain. At first Frank was thrilled that he would be getting out of the situation alive. Searing pain from movement took that hope away. His thoughts of recovering sufficiently to walk out on his own diminished. The first real words left his mouth, "what happened?" No one immediately answered. He repeated himself, feeling his voice getting stronger.
A large man in a blue collard shirt and jeans walked over to where Frank was sitting in his vehicle. The man leaned over, "I am afraid you have had a car accidents. Everything is going to be fine. The police and an ambulance are on the way."

That was not the answers to what Frank was asking. He already knew he had gotten in an accident. There was no question of that. “An ambulance?” he stammered. What he wanted was more information on the seriousness of the crash. It had happened so quickly he wasn't sure how the two cars collided.

Another sharp pain raced across his body. It started at his foot and cruised along the leg to the lower back. Fear took over as Frank wondered if he had broken his back. He wanted to test that horrific theory. Mustering total concentration, Frank tried to move his left foot. There was a shock of pain, but he could tell it moved. He tried his right foot, and the same terrible and gratifying pain assured him he would not be paralyzed. He tried moving his hands. His left hand moved with ease, but the right hand hurt.

Moving his head was a more serious experiment. He knew from countless movies and sensationalistic rescue documentaries that you shouldn't try to move the neck. The results could be disastrous and deadly. A possible broken neck could end up pinching a nerve and cause paralysis and death. He felt lucky at this point and didn't want to make the situation worse. Professionals could handle getting him out. Besides, he was getting tired with the effort.

Another indistinguishable voice yelled, "I have someone in the driver’s seat and looks bad. The other one is over on the lawn next to the fire hoses."

A large man standing over Frank said to someone else, "The third person is stuck in the back seat, but there is no telling if that is where she was at the time of the collision."

"My guess is that she was on the passenger side," the second voice said. “That makes, what, four people?”
In the distance the familiar sounds of sirens could be heard getting closer. Frank felt satisfied that he would be rescued. He had lived this long and was confident that it would stay that way. The ambulance and police car arrived a few minutes after first notice. The usual yellow, red, and blue lights pulsated outside of where Frank silently sat in pain and hopes. It wouldn’t be much longer.

Looking beyond his present condition, Frank said a prayer for his family. He asked that they would get along without him if he was in more danger than he thought. He asked more earnestly that he could live and void the need for the first supplication.

A scared woman's whimper caught Frank's attention. Muffled voices and clattering metal co-existed in a frustrating melody. The whimpering of the woman grew louder. A young male voice called, "Your going to be OK Susie. Everything is going to be fine. It was an accident. I am so sorry . . ." the voice trailed off and turned into crying. It must have been the one who was said to be near the fire hydrant.

Frank was paying too much attention to what was going on with the other victims to notice someone walk over to his vehicle. "Sir, we are going to get you out of here. My name is Officer Bradley. Can you respond to my voice?" The officer reached in and took Frank’s unhurt left hand.

"Yes, I can," Frank answered. He was still weak and his throat was dry. "I think my legs are broken. Maybe my arm.”
"He's conscious," Bradley yelled over the other noises of the accident. He turned back to Frank, "Do you remember what happened?"

“No,” was all Frank could answer. He didn't know what else to say.

"You got in a wreck.” Frank already knew that much and was prepared to make a sarcastic comment, but didn’t. It wouldn’t be good to antagonize your only salvation. The officer continued, “It appears you were hit by a drunk driver running a stop sign. What is your name?"

"Frank Hopkins." He felt himself losing energy again. His head was starting to hurt along with the rest of his body.

"Alright Frank, we are cutting you loose from the car," the officer said as a sickening crunch was heard near the other vehicle. "I'm going to move out of the way, but I am still going to be here."

For the next ten minutes Frank could hear loud mechanical whirring of saws and metal cutters working furiously to get him out. The loud noise drowned all other sounds. All Frank could think of was the terrible hissing of metal scraping and motors running full speed. With a last terrifying snap like an alligator biting down on a large piece of bone, Frank felt free and sick. He still didn't want to move; didn't know if he could move.

"Get that stretcher over here," officer Bradley said.

"Do you need any help?" said the voice recognized by Frank as the large man who had stood over him earlier.

Officer Bradley answered: "we have everything under control. Thanks for all the help."

The officer and three unidentified people stood over Frank. A bright light flashed into his eyes, and hands poked and prodded. He knew the other three had to be part of a medical emergency team. They put a bulky neck brace around the back of his head and slowly lifted him from the car. Pain pierced Frank in the process of moving and he blanked out. "We need—" was the last words he remembered.

Uncounted minutes later, Frank found himself staring up at a brightly-lit room with the same three emergency workers standing over him. He could hear the sound of an ambulance siren as if it followed them into the hospital. That meant he must still be in the ambulance on a stretcher.

"He's back," one of the men said as he looked into Frank’s hazy eyes. "Glad to see you awake. You’re on your way to Holy Mary Medical. The good news is that we detect a few broken bones and minor cuts, but nothing serious." The paramedic raised a large wooden stick, "Follow this with your eyes please." Frank tried as hard as he could to see the moving object. It seemed blurred. "Count to ten.”

"One . . . two . . . three . . . ," Frank went on slowly until he had finished the request. He didn't know if he had passed the required test.

"Good," the paramedic said to what seemed like no one in particular.
"Concussion seems controlled, blood pressure back to manageable, and heart rate up." He looked at a chart and then turned back to Frank, "what is your full name?"

"Frank Tinsdale Hopkins," he said with more exuberance than the counting.

"You’re a very lucky man," the paramedic said without changing his tone.

Frank agreed. “What about the others? Are they lucky?” He hoped everyone had made it out alive.

The paramedic checked Frank’s blood pressure while answering, “Don’t concern yourself with them right now. I am sure all of them will be just fine. At the moment I want you to relax and think positive. You still have a lot of recovery to go and wouldn’t want you to be more stressed than necessary.”

Despite the assurances of the paramedic, he wasn’t convinced. Someone would be as worried about the others as he imagined his family was going to be when they heard about the accident. He said a prayer that the girl in the back seat would survive. He said a prayer that the drunk driver would be alive and learn from the crash. Finally, he said a prayer for any others effected by the horrible mess. He was thankful to be alive. He was thankful to be a very lucky man.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Small Collection of Poems

Not a Love Poem

I've seen you once before
I'll see you yet again
All this time we've been just friends.
You looked so bueatiful to me
I had to know your name.
That was the start of my game;
The one I call "Break my Heart."

I keep on running into you
We continue to exchange hello.
So may words between are shown,
All too well conversation goes
laughing and crying sit together.
So different from one another
Yet every bit the same
When that wall of confidentiality
Really keeping us sane.

I hold out my destiny,
you hold me at a distance
And we get along so fine.
Let me remind my feelings
This is not my love poem.

I can only wish for a love poem
It can never be a love poem
It won't ever be a love poem.
They aren't written about me and her,
I saw that deep within her eyes.

A Line of Thoughts

Poetry without the prose
is nothing.
Words without some noise
is silence.
Dreams without any action
is fantasy.
Life without our love
is Death.

My Lord My God, Hear

My Lord my God
I cry for you.

My Lord my God
I scream out to you!

My Lord my God
I serve with you.

My Lord my God
I followed you.

My Lord my God
I am silent.
And then the Voice.

Struggle Within

The sharp dentures of our teeth
Nash at things that do not bleed.
Rushing wind at the gate,
How like a flying circus
We see our lofty fates.

Chimes the sound within our hair,
blowing sofly while others stare;
Moonbeams with Sunscapes near.

If they keep me from all I see,
Nice views of summer green;
Pushing out is my hate.
Outside of simple fussing,
I shall forgive my heart.

Copyright ©2007 Jettboy

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Non-Mormons and PBS "The Mormons"

The much talked about PBS production The Mormons was supposed to be groundbreaking. Despite what the producer has said, it didn't have anything that would change anyone's views on Mormonism - in fact, reinforces some. That is the view of many LDS, including myself. Not that the documentary wasn't well made, because it did have a lot going for it. There was nothing horribly wrong with it other than an expected slant that could have been worse.

However, I had no idea what the average non-Mormon thought. Almost anyone who seems to have watched the show has been A) Reporters, B)Mormons and C)former or disgruntled Mormons. There is one thing I think has been missing everywhere I have gone on the Internet; non-Mormon reactions to the series. Now, I don’t mean pot-shots from “unredeemable anti-Mormon or anti-religionists,” but thoughtful people. After all, this show was supposed to be as much for non-Mormons as about Mormons.

If my lack of finding responses means anything, I don’t think very many non-Mormons actually watched the show. Believe me, I have looked everywhere and found little (other than very negative blog comments) where everyone is going. Even the PBS and Newsweek responses have been 90 percent Mormon defenders and 10 percent negative detractors. Did the “world” just watch it and shrug its collective shoulders? I searched the web to find out. As I said, it wasn't easy.

What I found was interesting, and not surprising. I made sure that (either the main entry or the blog comments) were from those who knew little about or interacted seldom, if at all, with the Mormon experience.

No matter how much we might want to try and change perceptions, the Scientology relationship was everywhere:

If Mormonism sometimes looks as bizarre as Scientology, it has also done a lot of people a lot of good. If Mormonism can seem as square as the Chamber of Commerce, it has also had to survive as much persecution as any radical group. If Mormonism looks as sci-fi and made-up as "Star Trek," well, how did other major religions look when they were only a little over a century old? It's a great story, thoroughly researched and quite decently told.

and the weirdness factor just gets bigger:

I was discussing this with the wife as we watched the series the other night, and made the same point you did that a lot of mainstream religions have some pretty wiggy beliefs too (transubstantiation, anyone?). She had watched more of the doc than I had, however, and thought that a lot of the Mormon mythology was on a whole different level of random nuttiness. That is, it seemed more rooted in one
particular guy's psychosis, as opposed, say, the more widespread yearning for immortality embodied in resurrection myths. It was the kind of stuff our 8-year-old would come up with in a particularly scattered fever dream.

What is perhaps the most talked about aspect of Mormonism, in connection with what they already knew and what they saw in the documentary, is Mormons as people. They are the nicest and most friendly people, but believe absolute unbelievable rubbish:

The Mormons I've known (as a population) have been remarkable for their politeness and stability. I don't think this is a sampling error, since I've heard the same from many other people. I also think the characteristic must have something to do with the religion, though that's more contentious, since it seems a significant deviation from the behavior of the rest of the population without other obvious cause . . .

I make no claim that Mormon society is without flaws nor that there are no evil Mormons. It's a big population. But it looks to me (as an outsider) to produce better results in practice than any number of more-mainstream churches.

A respondent states:

It's true that the practical-minded aspects of the religion -- self-reliance, preparedness, and community -- are nothing but laudable. There's a fascinating split between its nutty origins and mythology (and the polygamy) and the sensible, real-world, day-to-day social attitudes of its adherents.

Yet another blogger states in a more political/historical response related to the above viewpoint:

It is remarkable, the film says, that the Mormons did such an about-face and externally became part of the American capitalist mainstream, particularly from the 1950s on (having had to drop polygamy and then racism). But internally, the church seems like an authoritarian, communal or collectivist “cult” perhaps, but one which is enormously successful in providing for members who believe and practice its tenets. It does present a certain paradox.

The point seems to be that non-Mormon viewers don't see the relationship between Mormon theology and Mormon behavior; other than related to polygamy. Even with polygamy they don't understand the theology other than as an excuse. it is almost (unless they think in terms of "getting away with something") as if theology and ethics or morality are separate issues. Mormon people are great, but Mormon theology is horrible. Never mind how they might relate.

One non-Mormon blogger recognized the problem that the documentary had in explaining Mormonism. Something was missing to make a rounded understanding:

It was very interesting in many ways. I learned a lot about *what* happened in the between 1805 when Joseph Smith was born and 1896 when Utah joined the Union but am left with no sense of "why?"

Joseph Smith comes across as charismatic, ego-centric man of little or no spiritual or moral depth. Why would the first and second generation of believers follow him, sacrifice their homes and lives, swallow repugnant new revelations, etc? They endured incredible suffering to do so - surely "why?" is a critical part of the story. But there was almost no glimpse of Mormonism's inner life.

Perhaps that will be explained in the second half - what is the spiritual core of the Mormon faith?

There is no answer if the viewer found that "why" question answered in the second half. It is good that the non-Mormon didn't just take at face value whatever was talked about on the program as the final word. What is upsetting is that this was the only time a person was interested in looking deeper. They still considered Mormon theology "repugnant new revelations" without reservation.

Perhaps the strangest reaction was in trying so hard to have it both ways. For some there was a sympathetic and then horrified feeling about aspects of LDS history and doctrine. The results can be, as expressed here and here, very Schizophrenic. The first sounds almost friendly while still negative:

and don’t just head toward the prurient polygamy bits. I was more interested in why the Mormons are so all-fired interested in genealogy. Thanks to the documentary, I now know why, and am sufficiently unnerved by that knowledge.

This other one wants to have the cake and eat it too. They try so hard to take "potshots" without seeming to do that:

At one point during the film I found myself bristling at one researchers attempt to contexturalize the mountain meadows massacre, by doing so it was an attempt to oh-so-slightly minimalize the horror of the murder of 120 women, men and children. Also, if you are of the Mormon faith and happen to be a historian or theologian that wants to discuss more controversial issues regarding the LDS church you can find yourself excommunicated. So I can see why such measured positions were taken at times . . .

The Mormon experience and exodus is an interesting narrative in the history of the United States. It is also a monumental testament to the power of faith, and or delusion if you so desire . . . According to the historians they had an extermination order leveled against them at one point, not to mention harrasment by the federal government until statehood was established in the late 1900's. (States rights anyone?)

And all that talk of not labeling anyone interviewed "Mormon" or "non-Mormon" that so many were complaining about? Well, at least one person was completely confused in an almost hilarious way:

I watched the show tonight (there is another episode tomorrow which will talk more about contemporary mormons) and I have not learned whether Mitt paid for the show. But one thing was rather clear: almost all the interviewed were mormons. I guess that makes sense, mormons do know most about mormonism :) I don't really understand why America is worried about mormons. They aren't any more dangerous/different than/from any other average religion subscriber.

Although I tried to stay away from Christian perspectives where someone obviously at least knew Mormonism(or more specifically thought they did), one bloggersaw something biased about the program against the Mormons. To be fair, he saw it biased against any hard faith:

"Rather than dispelling “stereotypes” (if by that we mean “negative impressions”), the special had quite the opposite effect, it confirmed a number of negative impressions and added several more.

The indelible impression left on most people who encounter them is that they are very nice wackos, not an enviable reputation by any means.

If there is a flanking attack going on, then, it is probably less against Christianity than against the Republicans, with the Mormons seen as yet another radical religious minority (albeit a “highly wealthy and influential one”) that would attack the “fundamental rights” of the sexually liberated. In other words, for
many of the politically irresponsible, the Mormons would seem to fulfill the role that the Jews played in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Not surprising is the amount of those who don't hold any faith, and usually atheists, who see in Mormonism something of all religions. That isn't high praise. One blogger who made connections without much judging said:

As I watched I thought there were some interesting parallels between Mormonism and Christianity. 1) They both started from the margins of society and ultimately (and relatively quickly) became accepted into mainstream culture. 2. They both have historicity issues that create stumbling blocks to their legitimacy. 3. They both have a missionary fervor to spread their message on a global level. 4. They both have had to painfully and awkwardly deal with racism. 5) They both struggle with the issue of women and their roles within the family, society, and church leadership. 6) They have a haunting violent past. 7) They both come close to an idolatrous emphasis upon the “nuclear family.” 8) They both are struggling to communicate and translate their faith in a postmodernity context.

The more common reaction is comparing absurdity between faiths:

"Among the . . . fascinating things about Mormons is just how recent the whole enterprise is. The other so-called major religions and cloak their more (how does one say in polite society?) unusual traditions in the mists of time, as it were . . . Can’t fall back on that when everything points to an upstate New York farm in the mid-19th century.

A less "polite" response was to the point:

I watched part of the PBS special on The Mormons last night. The show is well done, as you would expect. It's very informative. But I find, as an atheist, the whole thing kind of silly. Particularly when they have on disciples of other religions who are basically laughing at the Mormons for their beliefs, as if their own beliefs are any more rooted in fact. You have one guy saying, "My sky god gave me a gold book with his writings on it". Then another guy say, "Well, that's crazy, the real sky god gives rock tablets!" Riiight.

With such a lack of response by non-Mormons this show was partly made for, it seems the audience tuned out. It took me several hours just to find these blog posts. My feeling is that a similar lack of interest mixed with curiosity is far more likely than watching the show:

I admit that I've always been intellectually lazy when it comes to the Mormons. I know they're out there, and I know they're interesting, but I've never taken the time to read up on them. I am counting on this show to fill in my knowledge gaps. I would blog live during the show, but that's too stressful.

Instead, there was more than one time when South Park Mormonism was considered all that was needed:

I really wish I knew how to link videos, because there is a GREAT South Park video on the same topic.

But... in

If the PBS "The Mormons" reaction says anything, it is that people don't want their views to be changed. They like them just the way they are. Mormon theology is demonstrably false and weird "dum, dum, dum," but they are mostly nice people. End of story.

Witness to Alpha and Omega (a poem)

Witness to Alpha and Omega

Among the Stars a brilliance did abide
proclaiming to save despite our pride;
The God of Love did arise.
He went to minister to the World
With Power and Glory in his words.
Chosen apart with Truths divine,
Away with many devils he did drive.
Taken by the people he wanted prepared,
fullfilled in blood and water promises.
Lifted high on timber and left alone,
The dove and whale become like one
Saving masses and losing none.

A leader of men killed by murder
when in pain he fell down madly
through a window he did meander.
Hands of law had reached beyond crime
And grasped a prophet, no tears cried.
Seeing visions of Gold and Angels
He witnessed the greatness of another.
Words were taught from open Heavens
Helping to escape the walls of Hell.
Sent to organize on this world endless
Promises of Priesthood eternal
from the God of Love to all everything.