20 October 2006

Seeking Greatness

The other day, the idea of the "great Mormon writer" resurfaced in my mind via Ben's post on this quote:

The first great Mormon writer will be excommunicated from the Church for his writing.
Interesting. Like Ben and Richard Dutcher, I have to say I hope it isn't so. I have to trust that this community of faithful believers will not only have room for something great, but be an ideal starting point for such greatness. However, I can see where the quote is coming from, and I think there's some sad truth to this perspective. If you substitute "excommunicated from the Church" with "scorned by the Church community," you would be hitting much closer to the truth.

I guess I should start by defining what we mean by the great Mormon author (GMA) because there are many possible definitions. The obvious observations would be such a GMA must be a writer of renown who is Mormon. But beyond that, who is their audience, and for what purpose do they write? Here are the basic possibilities, as I see them:
  1. Mormon audience, faith promoting--This GMA writes the ultimate novel about the typical Mormon family. They affirm the good things in our community, cause us to weep when the children of their character fall away from the church, and basically make us feel warm and fuzzy when we read them. Think Deseret-Book-style fiction: The Work and the Glory would be the prototypical work of this GMA.
  2. Mormon audience, theological--This GMA gives us great analysis of our beliefs and the scriptures and may or may not also be a GA (General Authority). This is the category of writers like Hugh Nibley and CS Lewis (if he were Mormon).
  3. Mormon audience, community analysis--This GMA analyzes the foilbles of the Mormon community from a faith-based perspective. They are able to write critically with issues like social snobbery and homosexuality in the church, all without losing their faithful perspective. They would deal with our doubts and fears as Church members and portray us in all of our imperfection with an eye to correcting these problems.
  4. General audience, proselytizing--This GMA writes the great American novel about Mormonism. It is so great that it convinces even the most hardened skeptics to look into the Church further. It tells the tale of Mormon belief in such a way that the world can understand what it means to be a Mormon.
  5. General audience, literary--A normal great writer who simply happens to also be Mormon. Their works are read throughout the country/world by believers and non-believers to great acclaim. A knowledge of Mormonism is neither necessary to read their works nor gained from doing so.
In all likelihood, the GMA must fulfill all of these functions in some way. They are all important aspects of what it means to be a writer from any community. The problem is that certain of these functions are more easily acceptable to the Church community than others. Obviously, numbers 1 and 4 can be done fairly easily without offending anyone within the Church, except that perhaps someone doesn't like your portrayal of Joseph Smith. Number 5 is problematic because many within the Church would see you as being ashamed of your faith if you shoot for a general audience without any intent to convert.

But numbers 2 and 3 are, I think, where the original quote is coming from. Theological writings, outside of officially authorized Church literature, are a very delicate balance in the LDS community. Do we really have room in our society for someone like CS Lewis, whose theological writings are mostly logic based rather than scripture or modern prophets? I have yet to read any good logic-based theology from any LDS author, mostly because our beliefs center so much on authority (ethos, if you will). Yes, we have people with scholarly authority like Hugh Nibley, but even those types are viewed warily from inside the establishment. Many people are worried these things, as Ben says, get too scholarly and therefore detract from testimony and revelation. The GMA would have to hit the right balance in order to not alienate the rest of the Church.

Number 3, social commentary, is an even more dangerous category. I think in Mormonism we are naturally disposed to dislike criticism of our society for two reasons. First, because of the extensive social programs of the church, it's difficult to separate societal issues from doctrinal issues. Second, just from our history of being persecuted, we've become slightly oversensitive to any criticism at all. It's difficult for us the see the line there. Anyway, this is almost certainly where the quote is coming from. Social critics from within Mormon culture almost always end up being pushed to the outside--Robert Kirby, even some of Orson Scott Card. It seems to be impossible to be a mainstream Mormon and also a social critic. The GMA would have to manage to do both, or fulfill this quote by being pushed out.

Of course, if the GMA moves too far out, they can lose their faith, or at least their identification with the community of faith. And the GMA can never be someone outside the community--they must never try to be a neutral observer. A GMA has a vested interest in the community; they are part of us.

(On a side note, as I wrote up these categories, I can see the case for Orson Scott Card as the GMA taking shape. He has major works in most of the categories:
  1. Mormon audience, faith promoting: Saints, Women of Genesis
  2. Mormon audience, theological: some essays--this is definitely a weak point; we have yet to see a Mere Mormonism from him.
  3. Mormon audience, community analysis: "Hypocrites of Homosexuality," A Storyteller in Zion
  4. General audience, proselytizing: perhaps the Alvin Maker series; also a weak point, according to some; personal beliefs incorporated into his works, but no great converting novel.
  5. General audience, literary: Ender's Game, short stories
And he has been able to maintain his faith while also writing critically about it. Really, perhaps the only thing that holds him back from obtaining this title is that he lacks great literature about the doctrines of the Church (nos. 2 and 4). However, I personally see these as more minor functions of the GMA, so I would say OSC is, if not THE GMA, at least as close as we have gotten.)

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