High and Low Mormon Art

Arguably the first thing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did was release a work of literature.  Now, literature sometimes implies fiction, so we’re understandably cautious to refer to scripture as literature, especially when it’s the keystone of our religion.  None the less, as has oft been noted, the Book of Mormon has definite literary qualities, including authentic Hebrew poetry, meditations, layered narratives, and so forth.  So confident was the Church in the merits of this work it was willing to self-publish and distribute it at its own expense.  Not even Nathaniel Hawthorne was that self-confident.

But the Church didn’t stop there; beginning with 1964’s “Man’s Search for Happiness,” the Church has tried its hand at cinema, as well.  “Man’s Search for Happiness” was a film that avoided any shallow sentimentality as we do today, but instead choosing to directly facing the questions of death and existential despair with equal parts grace, compassion, and awe.  I’d stand it up next to anything by Samuel Beckett.

The Church has been somewhat hit-or-miss with the artistic levels of its films since then.  For every “How Rare a Possession,” “Touch of the Master’s Hand,” and “Lamb of God,” there has been such overly-sentimental fair such as “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” “Together Forever,” and “Finding Faith in Christ.”  Yet even these latter examples have their moments; “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas” features the powerhouse Jimmy Stewart doing justice to a heartbreakingly despairing character for whom, like his George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” no amount of happy endings can quite compensate.  “Together Forever,” in spite of its gratingly kitschy and dated theme song, still frankly and honestly interacts with themes of loneliness and loss that its own sentimentality can’t quite smother.  And “Finding Faith in Christ,” the most blatantly sentimental of them all, still features C.C. deMille-esque bright, vivid colors, rousing symphonic music score, and painting-based scenes.  (You’ll note that most of the scenes in that film are based on Del Parson paintings.)  These works may not all be classic works of art, but they all at least strive for the attainment of beauty for its own, to direct man’s thoughts upward, which is the definition of high art I’ll be operating from.

All of these works, however, are masterpieces in the Louvre compared to the art produced by Mormon mass-media.  “The Singles Ward,” “The RM,” “The Home-Teachers,” and so forth, each in turn more banal, hackneyed, and trite than the previous, litter the Utah-Idaho corridor with bad jokes and tired stereotypes that would make Adam Sandler cringe.

And Mormon literature (by which I do mean, this time, the fiction), is worst still; even supermarket paperbacks have their standards.  Yet the majority of contemporary LDS fiction is a vapid wasteland of cliché and utter disregard for the potential of language; like the false-patriot who wraps himself in the flag to hide his crimes, many of these writers think that mere association with the Church excuses them from any artistic exertion, as though this Church wasn’t the religion of Joseph Smith who declared, “Thy mind, oh man!  If thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God” (Smith 137).

Of course, disparities between a culture’s low art and high art are certainly nothing new, especially in America.  And if we’ve failed to fulfill Orson F. Whitney’s prophecy that “We will yet have Shakespeares and Miltons of our own,” well, as Hugh Nibley pointed out, England in its thousand-odd year history has scarcely produced one of each.  And I’m hardly the first or last person to rail against the vapidity of Mormon mass media, as though that vapidity were unique to Mormon culture, which it is not.  No, what is unique to Mormon culture, and what I personally find fascinating, is the nature of Mormondom’s high and low art, namely, in Mormon art it is the high art which is the most accessible, while the low art, produced for the widest possible audience, that is the least accessible.

Typically it is the high art within a culture that is the least accessible, especially in America.  For example, in a recent review of a National Book Award winner, the New York Times, “Avant-garde fiction in America can seem something of an oxymoron, operating less as a forward movement than as a separatist cult that neither desires nor expects to have any influence on mainstream literature” (Deb 1).  Avant-garde, of course, is French for the “front lines,” though artists can scarcely call themselves front-liners that entertain no hope of leading.  The avant-garde nowadays is a separated rechabite sect, with its own private knowledge and iniations.  Yet in the case of Mormon aesthetics, it is the low-art that is essentially hermetic, being patchworks of inside jokes and esoteric references, exclusive by nature, and alienating to non-Mormons.  Any non-Mormon that encounters a copy of “The Singles Ward,” or even more “serious” fair such as “God’s Army” or “The Other Side of Heaven,” is sure to feel like a stranger in a strange land they neither understand nor wish to understand.

By contrast, what sets apart the Church’s attempts at high art is its inclusiveness; they are by nature inclusive and inviting to non-Mormons.  Mormon high art is designed to entice non-Mormons, level the playing field, and welcome in the uninitiated.

Here, then, we have a strange set of circumstances: while the LDS Church tries to expand its accessibility, Mormon culture itself becomes increasingly insular and provincial.  Rarely has a culture’s “high art” been more accessible to the masses—and its “low art” so inaccessible—as in Mormon sub-culture.

This trend is indicative of the need for Mormon culture to fulfill its missionary goals not through low-brow mass-media acceptance, but through an appeal to the higher thoughts and aesthetics required of the gospel.  To return to the earlier Joseph Smith quotation, “Thy mind, O man, if thou wilt lead a soul to salvation—” Let’s pause there for a second; this Church is a missionary Church.  We do not follow the rechabites into the wilderness, cutting ourselves off from the world; true, we’re taught to separate ourselves from the world, but we never end communication with it, and even send out missionaries into it.  Or, in Joseph Smith’s words, we are to “lead a soul unto salvation;” that, our own scriptures assure us, is the highest possible joy we can experience in this life.  (“For how great shall be thy joy if you bring but one soul unto me…”)  Becoming increasingly obscure and self-referential in our media is counter-productive; it cuts us off from the joy of missionary work, and replaces it with the poor substitute of bad dialogue and esoteric jokes that weren’t that funny in the first place.

Also counter-productive is our art becoming as banal and mass-media-oriented as the rest of the world; they already have their own terrible movies, they certainly don’t need ours.  To continue with the Prophet’s quote: “—If thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss—”  Let’s examine that!  The darkest abyss!  We are to face the void itself!  Stare into the darkness and ask like the Danish Prince, “To be or not to be,” because that really is the question.  These are what Hugh Nibley called “The Terrible Questions:” What happens when we die?  Is there more that this?  Is this all we are?  Does anything really matter?  This is the abyss we must search out and contemplate.  These are the themes of “Hamlet.”  And not only are we to contemplate the abyss, but also “the broad expanse of eternity,” even “commune with God;” these are the projects of “Paradise Lost,” Hamlet and Paradise Lost are of course both the respective masterworks of the Shakespeare and Milton Brigham Young hoped we would be producing of our own one day!  And why did he assume that we would yet have Shakespeares and Miltons of our own?  Because Shakespeare and Milton interacted with the Terrible Questions, and the value of our religion lies in its capacity to resolve The Terrible Questions—If our religion can answer them, then nothing else matters.  If we can’t answer them, then nothing we do here matters.  But either way, they must first be asked.

Yet it’s these Terrible Questions that the world avoids the most; it is why most the world watches TV, reads pulp fiction, views pornographic websites, engages in mindless sex, violence, and so forth—our Church leaders warn us against partaking in this sort of entertainment, and faithfully we obey, at least in practice. Although LDS media may tout a pious moral code and not mimic Hollywood in offensive content, they certainly do in formula.  Making insipid entertainment does not make us more inviting or accessible to the world, it makes us more repellant, narrow, and cliquish.  We become just another clubhouse.

Take, for example, “The Singles Ward.”  In this movie, a man comes home one day to find his wife smoking and drinking beer.  He soon leaves the Church himself, through a petty series of revolts such as watching MTV, buying caffeinated soda, and renting R-rated movies.  To an LDS audience these actions are clear signs of apostasy.  To anyone else, it’s merely weird and non-self-explanatory.  As the narrative progresses, he falls for a relief society president he meets at a singles ward dance.  In that last sentence there are at least four esoteric references, all of which would require in depth explanation for a novice to understand jokes that aren’t even that funny.

This relationship slowly returns him to full activity (another esoteric reference), as he encounters a series of cameo appearances (including by Steve Young), some of which not only Mormons, but only Utah Mormons would understand.  The relationship begins to fall apart during one of the only somewhat funny parts of the movie, when he starts telling a series of anti-Mormon jokes in front of his girlfriend at a bar.  Did I mention she’s smug and sanctimonious, yet still set up as the righteous ideal?

And “The Singles Ward” is one of the funnier films in the cannon.  It would take practically an entire Mormon encyclopedia, not to mention an advanced anthropological study into Utah sub-culture, for the unitiated to be even mildly amused by this mediocre film.  Rather than exploring hidden mysteries and contemplating the darkest abyss, it stays well within the comfort zone of Utah Mormon norms, neither offering new insight, nor welcoming in new audiences into the “clubhouse.”

Now, of course contemplating the abyss doesn’t mean our art has to be dark.  Lest I be accused of being only a curmudgeonly polemic, let’s examine briefly one of my personal favorite Church films, 1987’s “How Rare a Possession.”  It opens with a supremely lonely Moroni marching wearily through the empty, gritty wilderness, for longer than I’ve been alive.  I challenge anyone to find in history or literature a figure more terribly alone, more representative of the existential plight of man against an indifferent cosmos, than this Moroni.  The depths of his hearts he must search, the reserves of faith he must call upon, to finish the forlorn task before him, defies even the greatest poets to reproduce.  He is a man who has searched out and contemplated the abyss, who’s mind has stretched to the highest heaven, he is a man who’s asked the Terrible Questions, and the Book of Mormon is his answers to them.

One of the most memorable scenes to me personally early on is when Moroni visits the boy Joseph Smith, but here we get no CGI, no wires and string, only the outside view of the bedroom window, growing brighter and brighter, until it consumes the frame itself.  Even today a sight such as this still stir the imagination.

Our first full narrative arc in this film, however, isn’t a counterpart to Moroni, but his inverse: Parley P. Pratt isn’t alone in the world, but has a happy family and many friends, as well as a successful career and beautiful home.   He has everything a man could seek for in this life; he’s living the American dream.  But of course this is not enough, for the Terrible Question naturally begs itself, is there more than this?  So he goes searching, preaching, to the best of his ability, the best he knows how.  So what does he find?  A man on his morning shave, engaging in the normal mundane routines of life, asks him if he perchance believes in the ministering of angels.  Soon Parley is reading a book, and not just reading, but forsaking food, drink, even sleep, for all was a burden but finishing this book.  Like Nietzsche gazing into the abyss, as Pratt reads into the book, the book reads into him.

The film’s second narrative arc is of course the most famous one, about Vincenzo Di Francesca, the Italian Priest who comes upon a book with a no name or origin.  This book will cost him his ministry, and estrange him from his friends.  Later, he will join the “Lost Generation” of World War I vets who first faced the existential angst as articulated by the Modernists, an anxiety that persists into our own post-modern world.  Yet this angst, this anxiety over the Terrible Questions, are never so terrible for him, for he has read the book written by one of the loneliest men who ever lived, which testifies of the only other man who suffered more, who centuries ago saw our day and the Questions we faced and overcame them himself.

It’s decades before he finds out which Church published the book.  Its decades more before events allow him to be baptized into it.  But when he is finally baptized, and as the sun bathes the Sicilian water in light, there’s this sense of Romantic sublimity, where he has overcome the world at last, that the world that has driven him to and fro over his life has at last becomes his.

But of course it doesn’t end there—the grand finale is his entrance into the Swiss Temple.  And its not to the strains of a Janice Kapp Perry Song, no synthesizer driven ballad filled with frumpy teenagers in 80s clothing; no, its with the sense that he is inheriting not only the world now, but uniting with all eternity.  I remember that it was while watching this movie as a child that I first detected there was something more than just marriages and baptisms for the dead we performed in the Temple, something profound, a mystery that excited my imagination.

And here’s one of the things I love about this film; its not didactic at all, there are no heavy-handed morality plays of bad kids and good kids trying to make good decisions and so forth.  No, his fellow ministers love him and want what’s best for him.  These aren’t his enemies he’s facing down, but his friends, which is infinitely more difficult.  And they mean well, of course.  They want him to be happy with what he has, to reject what he doesn’t have.  But sadly what they had to offer wasn’t enough, wasn’t nearly enough.  He had to know if there was something more than this, and the Book of Mormon teased him with the implication that there was.

And here’s the thing, it had to be the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Mormon alone, that di Francesca had to find; if he’d first found a copy of “The Singles Ward,” his journey would have ended right there.

I could go on into the lighting, the pacing, the acting, and all the other elements in “How Rare a Possession” that make it such an exquisitely beautiful film, but that’s something for another paper.  To suffice, “How Rare a Possession” succeeds because, without being ham-handed or preachy, it handles the Terrible Questions with an authenticity and honesty that the best media always has.

I also love how accessible it is; anyone can walk in on this gem of a film the way di Francesca walked on the Book of Mormon.  It was one of the favorite films of my investigators in Puerto Rico, incidentally, and Puerto Ricans are about as sentimental of a people you can encounter.  The loved “Finding Faith in Christ,” so I felt bad when I’d cringe at parts.  And “Finding Faith in Christ” certainly did it’s job of leaving people with a good impression of the Church.  But it was “How Rare a Possession” that made them want to read the Book of Mormon.

It’s this type of art that will attract people to the gospel, that will enthrall readers and critics for centuries to come, that will stretch our minds to the utmost heaven and commune with God.  Let us cease to compete with the world in exceeding their own banality; it is not our insipidness but our sublimity that feels most familiar.