Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mystery (a poem)

Starting this week, and continuing throughout the next month, I will be going a little creative. Some poems and a serialized short story will be featured in the coming weeks. At the end will be an examination of the theory of what can make "good" Mormon creative writing.



The Stars Shone bright,
With purity and prudence covering patient lips
Of people moving softly against quiet halls of salient comfort.
They enter shimmered rooms that shone green high trees,
A promise of glory making greatness the treasure proscribed.
Houses are built for masses who start mirroring a master's heart
Among frames facing upright.
We must do and see, like Son for Father.
We will do and see, like Brother for Siblings.
We have seen and done, in turn back to Father.


The dreaded darkness vanished
And the ground does grow as against large skies
Forming brown dust against blue for a better day.
The bright sun emerges, stopped sudden by the moon.
Flapping wings arise with other world creatures new,
And their kind and God's kind were kept together.
With rest reastablished the sacred.
A task was given for two groveling folks
(Who were tricked by the half truth of a trouble maker)
Sent forth from the garden to fulfill a promise.
How great is our fortune,
What delight now I see.
Not before, but now shall we be
Like a seed makes us He.


The Moon makes them all
Come a little closer along the climbing latter
With a name in their hearts another never hears.
Those having washed hands shall wear white robes
Signaling the gratitude of glorious people grasped firm
In the love of the laborer who leads the thrones.
Those believing bow to promise.
Innumerable Kings and Queens unite strong as a tree.
With Holy Heaven approaching,
The annointed are two of the heart, humbled knee and hungered soul;
Having the past and present bound together to promise the future.
In circles do the courtly try to conduct peacefully
As they pray for those tired who see problems of life
Ever growing carefully gaurded by a garden of thorns.
All holy houses stand forward.


The gracious hands make a final stand,
As the silk that stops the sojourn is passed;
And only one can judge this our play
To decide those who come and those to stray.
So remember to be kind to nieghbors
And give all your best for the kingdom,
For anticipation of the feast of crowns.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Stillbirth of Mormon Art

For many years now artists who are Mormon have tried to bring a different sense of the creative within the Church. The most recent incarnation of reaching beyond the "Deseret Book" and "Ensign Cover" material has been movies. Recently, the self-proclaimed creator of Mormon cinema announced he no longer is part of the Church, having gone a different direction. This is not surprising considering some of the things he has said for the past couple of years. What it has done is put once more into question if there can be anything called Mormon art.

To be honest, that question is silly. Of course there is Mormon art. It just doesn't reach to a level that some would like to see compared to masterpiece standards. More importantly, what is popular isn't going to be what is accepted by those looking for something worthy of historical grandeur. That is a fact that Mormon art triumphalists must face.

Keith Merrill in the "Daily Herald" on Sunday, April 14, said it best in response to Dutcher's parting words:
Even though, according to Dutcher, our movies at the Legacy Theater -- "Legacy" and "The Testaments" -- "squandered their chance to be powerful" and didn't leave viewers "weak in the knees, their minds reeling, their spirits soaring" when compared to his own unprecedented brilliance and talent, I will press on in good faith and endure the "limitations" of LDS virtues, values and sensibilities.

I am proud to say that every project in development at a new venture, Audience Alliance Motion Picture Studios, embraces traditional standards and tells the truth.

Here is the truth. More people have been inspired by "Mr. Krueger's Christmas," moved to tears during "Legacy" and walked out of "The Testament" with spirits soaring than the total number of people who have ever bothered to go to Richard Dutcher's movies combined. Your arrogance makes me bite my tongue to keep from turning a somber "goodbye" into a cheerful "good riddance."

From the standpoint of successful art, if there is no willing audience then there is only a hobby. Those who insist they must be enjoyed and respected while the group it tries to reach doesn’t feel that way are tipping at windmills. They will either break into acceptance or it will break them. For the record, no amount of preaching and chest thumping is going make anyone like the work any more or less.

As an artist, it is sad to not see your work reach an approving audience when you have spent so much work in finishing a project. As an artist, it can be satisfying (if you let it) to just be able to work on a project for the thrill of personal inspiration. That last part, I think, is what is missing in those who want Mormon art to be so much more. If you aren't enjoying it, if you are trying too hard, if you just want to make a buck or a name, then sometimes the intended audience can tell. They don’t like the condescension of a self-proclaimed elite.

What passes as Mormon visual art is something I have long been unimpressed with. There is very little LDS art in my house because I find the popular images to be repetitive and uninspiring. Did they all learn from the same school? Art that I put up is either from my own grandfather (a landscape artist) or masterpieces from history. I was happy to see someone put the name "Sunset in Arcadia" on the art done by the most popular LDS artists. It perfectly describes the sun drenched, nicely dressed, untouched landscape sold at LDS Bookstores and put on LDS walls.

Recently I have decided as someone who thinks that Mormon art is good in technique, but bad in aesthetics, to re-interpret the meaning of art in the Church. This reaches into paintings, novels, movies, etc. Why is the "Sunset in Arcadia" so popular among so many? Perhaps it is that "Art" itself is not a Mormon aesthetic or fit into its mission. The message of the enjoyed art is the message of the Restoration: Strive for Perfection having Faith in God (who is Love and Light). Mormons want the ideal because they are taught to reach for the Eternal. Anything that deviates from that represents going back and not forward.

I remember writing a short paper in college (not at an LDS school) about the history and hope of Mormon literature. My teacher read it and enjoyed what she learned. However, when we got into how to make good religious literature she said there has to be some kind of doubt, or challenge, or lack of an easy answer. Looking back, I now see the purpose of art, self-exploration or rebellion, is not consistent with Mormon theology. Within the faith we already know who we are, why we are here, and even where we are going. Allegiance to God is the highest priority, with a rebellious Satan as the example of Evil. Therefore, most Mormons are moved by art that either shows someone reaching for the perfect or having already arrived.

My hope is that there will finally be Mormon artists who branch out and explore other ways to do art. However, they must also be aware of the reason a particular style in LDS art is popular. Perhaps instead of completely breaking with "tradition," these artists-to-be should see how to incorporate what is already enjoyed into new expressions. Already in the LDS Museum Art Contests there are vistas to be expanded in the more world regional "folk art" works. Writers still seem to not have learned anything from the success and talent of Orson Scott Card, who reaches both within and beyond Mormonism at the same time. There can be hope for a better artistic future. It is just going to take more than trying to break the hand that you hope will feed you.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Literary Suggestions for Mormon Reading

With spring comes the chance for relaxation in the summer months. People often decide to pick some books to pass the time or enjoy a sunny day on vacation. Below are a few books with themes that might be of interest to Mormons. At the least, Mormon readers should be aware of them. The list is, of course, far from complete and hopefully others can add their own suggestions. Included is the name of the author (if known), name of the book, and a brief description of why they are spiritually or religiously of importance.

1. Epic of Gilgamesh by Unknown Author.

As anyone familiar with the Bible can recognize, there are some stories that are very much related to the Creation and Flood narratives. It is an interesting collection that any Christian or Jewish reader needs to become familiar with. Some say it puts doubt on the Biblical events, but it can just as easily enhance our understanding of them.

2. Antigone by Sophocles.

As one person put it, "This is a powerful story about familial duty, social customs, gender roles, and the relationship between the individual and governmental authority." Of most importance to religious readers is the struggle between religious duty, unrighteous dominion, and the intersection between faith and secular rules.

3. Beowulf by Unknown Author, Seamus Heaney (Editor).

Not all of it is of the same religious importance, often reading like a blockbuster adventure story. However, there are themes that witness to the uneven line between the pagan and Christian era of the West. It is really about the passing of a time soon to be long forgotten, mixed with ideas about the Fall and Salvation.

4. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

One of the most impressive religious writers in history. He looks at the best and worst of humanity. Outside of the Mormon conception of Heaven and Hell, there is no other Christian with such a large vision of the eternities.

5. Paradise Lost by John Milton.

The Epic story of the Fall. It is among the few times that it is looked at almost as a fortunate event that shaped the better half of humanity. No words can describe it beyond its own telling.

6. Shakespeare.

The greatest playwrite of the English language. His stories may not be unique and beyond criticism, but his writing is astonishing. Themes touch on love, hate, damnation, salvation, family, country, right, wrong, spirituality, intellectualism, and other human conditions. He is the inventor of the Western literary human.

7. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

A classic story of sin and redemption. It looks at taking punishment to such an extreme that there is no room for repentance. Ultimately, judgement is left to God and the individual. The end might not be satisfying to some who want to see the protagonist be more penitent.

8. Poetry of William Blake.

Most people are familiar with a few of his shorter works, particularly from his sketchbook publications. However, the depth and breadth of the poetry (and even prose) is an amazing collection. There are also many areas, particularly his fascination with the spiritual America and the ancient source of truth, that Mormons will recognize as part of their own yearnings. It is not easy reading, but well worth the effort.

9. My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir.

It doesn't take an environmentalist to enjoy the sublime narrative of this book. The prose is as much poetry as any other writing. Vivid descriptions of nature and scenery place the reader in an Eden on Earth. Athough the only non-fiction in the short list, the spiritual power behind the words make it worth mentioning. Become enchanted with God's Creation, from the lowly ant to the mighty mountains, in ways that will enliven the Soul.

10. The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

Exploring the different aspects of religious faith, friendship, and family when coming from the same background. This is the only one I haven't read, but it comes highly recommended. Mormon writers have used this author, if not this book, as an example of what a good religious story can be when well written.

Friday, April 06, 2007

King Follet and Fundamentals of the Gospel

When a friend died in an accident while building a well, it gave Joseph Smith the opportunity to preach about what he learned from all the years of study and revelation. He gave a concise presentation of Salvation and the ultimate possibilities of the faithful. Most readers focus on the deeper points of his presentation, while sometimes ignoring the basics of the gospel spread throughout. Despite the complicated theology he expounded, it was at its core a testimony of the life, death, atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What might cause someone to ingore this part of the sermon is the focus on the nature of God the Father in expounding the Salvation of humanity.

At the center of this exploritory testimony is the words of John who said, "This is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3) Some might at first think this refers to learning the theology of God and Jesus Christ by the study of the Scriptures. It is only the start of knowledge, Joseph Smith says, but ultimately the idea goes farther than that. To really know God and Jesus Christ is to have revelations about them and only by that can a person have eternal life. He implied that to know God is to have received a witness of Him. Those who don't, no matter what they preach and teach, can't be any different from what they call Joseph Smith: false prophet (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Ed. by Joseph F. Smith and Annot. by Richard C. Galbraith, pg. 388 -389).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Toward a True International Church

It is no secret that the LDS Church now has more members outside of the United States than inside. For a Church that believes it will cover the whole earth, this is good news. This does not mean that it has reached "World Religion" status by a long shot. Although I disagree with his tone, I do agree with Davis that calling Mormonism a World Religion at this point is dubious. Nor do I believe it ever will be until the Millenium (but that is a topic for later). With, if memory serves, 5 Billion people in the world, 12 million doesn't cut it as anything beyond a deeply humbling statistic.

Despite that, I think the LDS Church is taking strides toward a true International Church. Frankly, too many people are getting confused between the designation of "World Religion" with numbers, power, and influence and "International Church" where a sizeable membership lives in different countries. It is in latter designation that progress has shown such promise that some predictions can be made with reasonable thought.

At another blog it has been noted that a diverse crop of leaders have been called in the lower ranks of higher positions. Not one has been from Utah or the United States, a good sign for the international future. That is because those in lower positions can be called to the highest positions. And it is in South America that the highest number of new leaders are emerging. This will lead to one of my strongest predictions.

However, first there is another related prediction by someone who is/was a leader in the Church. Emeritus general authority Elder John K. Carmack believes that General Conferencecan be held outside Utah and even the United States:

"I'm not a prophet, seer or revelator, but I believe this will happen."
"I can envision general conference being held in Sao Paolo or Mexico City or Manila." . . .

The Perpetual Education Fund was created in 2001 to help church members ages 18-30 in select countries obtain education or skills training they otherwise couldn't afford and thereby get jobs that would help them "rise out of poverty and gain self-reliance," Carmack said.

The goal, he added, was to "raise up a generation of leaders with the time, energy and resources to build the church. They would marry, raise families and support them and in time, their tithing and resources would make these areas of the church self-sufficient."
Now, six years later, Carmack said, "We can see the dim outlines of the benefits that surely will come to the international church. Already, a not insignificant number of our leaders in areas with the program are coming from the ranks of PEF recipients."

My own non-authoritative prediction is that in a few years the General Conference might be outside the United States, but if not the language will change. We will see speakers give talks in their own languages. English and Spanish will be the two main languages over the pulpit, with others included as the leadership desires. Of course, that means that English speakers will have to get used to reading or listening to interpreters as a large portion of LDS membership already does.

This is an exciting development. It is a tremendous opportunity. As Elder Carmack said, we are close to, "where it is time to trim the parts that are peculiar to the United States and not relevant to the international church." That means asking what are the basics of the Church in a world of multicultural and political geography.