Triangulating Mormonism

9.10.12 | | 12 comments

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So I just finished reading American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent. The final section of the book is about an old nerd friend, back when Nugent himself deigned to be a nerd. (Click here to get more of my thoughts on that.)  He meets up with the friend after years apart and recreates the nerd’s history. Which history is chock-full of  bizarro Mormon stuff. The nerd (his name is Kenneth)’s mother joined the Church when Kenneth was one year old because the missionaries promised her a planet. Terrible missionaries, of course, but they did not make his mother what she is—utterly nuts. Crazy. Loco. Kookoo. Not all there, shall we say.

Her psychotic take on the faith (spoiler alert!) drives her son away from it, and although his sister is “still part of the Mormon church . . . [with] kids now. . . . Married to a nice guy” and seems like she might possibly be a normal Mormon (though what I just quoted is all we know about her), the bulk of Kenneth (and Ben’s) knowledge of Mormonism will sound, as best, only vaguely familiar to your average Mormon, methinks.

Some stuff (she’s involved in pyramid schemes! is fixated on “the Adversary”! is a terrible homeschooler!) will sounds like bits and pieces of various stereotypes. Other things make it sounds like she is part of some . . . offshoot:

[Her] last [marriage] lasted twelve hours. She met this guy at a Mormon elders’ singles mixer, and married him there, at the mixer, and went back to his house and spent the night with him. Then she woke up and realized this guy was really poor and divorced him.

Let me get back to the fact that this is a nonfiction book and that Kenneth may hate his mother and never see her, but he was “raised Mormon” (for a certain value of Mormon) and his experiences are his experiences and therefore deserve our respect. And Nugent feels no need to get a better sense of what is or isn’t Mormonism (that’s not what his book’s about). And his readers will likely feel this is an accurate enough description of Mormonism for their needs, as well.

So where are casual readers of books like American Nerd going to get alternate views of Mormonism so they can better triangulate the true location of our mystical Mormon identity?

What books out there, from nonMormon witnesses of Mormon identity, provide a fuller sense of where our identity lay?

And how many viewpoints does it take to give the casual viewer a reasonably accurate sense of what and who we are?

12 comments: “Triangulating Mormonism

  1. Beth

    I think the real solution is to do what AMV has been proposing for a few years now: If we Mormons want to be known for what we are really like, we need to tell our own stories.

  2. Moriah Jovan

    If we Mormons want to be known for what we are really like, we need to tell our own stories.

    At the risk of sounding self-promote-y, I’ll offer this as a decent start.

  3. Th.

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    Heh. Heh heh.

    Ben Nugent.

    I’ll fix that right away.

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    I thought of posting that link, Moriah, but I’m planning on writing about it separately so did not. But the PW review suggests it is just the thing.

  4. David J. West

    I honestly can’t think of of any nonMormon literary witness’s that were even close. There is always that tendency to villify or misconstrue for the sake of a laugh or shiver.

    My wife is quite the fan of Mario Puzo, but every character who has anything to do with Mormonism in his works is vitriolic, as if he had only ever spoken to bitter lapsed members.

    A pair of western films come to mind (that you may have missed) negatively, The Tracker [1988], starring Kris Kristofferson involving a lawman going after rogue Danites. The best part (in a pretty so-so film) to me was the crazed Danite killer arguing with a captured Navajo shaman – “What are you?”
    “Navajo”
    “No, you’re not. You’re a Lam-In-Ite.” (sounds like laminate)
    &
    somewhat positively, The Avenging Angel[1995] with Tom Berenger, James Coburn as Porter Rockwell and Charlton Heston as Brigham Young. This tried a little more to be sympathetic in my eyes, not to say they didn’t get some things completely wrong, but at least I never felt like they were trying to beat me over the head with ‘Look how crazy these people are’.

    I’m reaching the conclusion that (to my knowledge) film has ironically been better than literature at providing a fairer sense of who we are.

    The closest and honestly sympathetic book I can think of is Dan Harrington’s memoir “Who’s at the Door” and he very nearly joined the Church, but for some misgivings/misunderstandings about the Temple.

  5. Moriah Jovan

    I thought of posting that link, Moriah, but I’m planning on writing about it separately so did not. But the PW review suggests it is just the thing.

    Oops! Sorry!

  6. Theric Jepson Post author

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    Pfff. Nothing to be sorry for.

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    David—No, I have not seen those films. When will a strong indie film about Mormons being Mormons make a splash, I wonder. We are starting to grow some talent, after all.

  7. Jonathan Langford

    Theric,

    Thanks for pointing this out to us.

    A small point: Your “click here to get more of my thoughts” link doesn’t take me where I think it’s supposed to take me…

  8. Th.

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    Thanks for noticing that, Jonathan. I’ll fix it right now. I hadn’t realized the month had changed…..

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