Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists

Based on the evidence we have (the scriptures), it seems to me that it takes extraordinary social, political and economic conditions for a community of believers to form a Zion state. The city of Enoch required a separate city-state protected by a prophet who could work miracles to keep enemies at bay. The no-ites found in Fourth Nephi required a series of natural catastrophes which caused the deaths of thousands (and thus a major reduction of the population) and (presumably) disrupted existing economic and political structures, followed by a personal visit from the resurrected Christ, and the personal calling of Twelve Apostles in front of hundreds, perhaps, thousands of witnesses and all that even managed only two generations worth of Zion. The post-Millennium situation requires Jesus Christ himself to vanquish evil and rule personally (not to mention a fairly dramatic restructuring of the physical elements of the planet itself). Even the not fully successful attempts at establishing Zion, such as certain periods among the Nephites and/or Lamanites, the people of Israel, and the early Mormons required a fairly homogenous population forged out of much tribulation (and, generally, a prophet who was also the main political leader).  And all of those periods were difficult, fragile, and short-lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neo-liberalism and the way in which it erodes families, communities and individuals in the service of technocratic utopian visions, which while may be sincere and well-meaning on the part of some are undergirded by the demands of capital. I am by nature and experience a political pragmatist and radical centrist. Which means I find value in libertarian and Marxist and democratic socialist and crunchy conservative critiques of neo-liberalism (and of each other). But I also find myself frustrated by and/or deeply skeptical of the solutions proposed by each of those political philosophies.

So I think what I’ve arrived at is that all utopias–all ideal states that are not Zion–are flawed and something to be fought against. All political philosophies tend to have elements of them that are totalizing. That are willing to sacrifice humanity and human agency on the altar of the political philosophy.

Satan’s plan is not socialism. It’s not neo-liberalism. It’s not Marxism or libertarianism or anarchism. It’s any world view that attempts to totalize, that degrades, that dehumanizes–that can swerve into fascism on the way to utopia. Anything that loses patience with human agency and sacrifices human compassion on the altar of expediency and tries to smooth out the messiness of this physical existence through force or coercion or seduction.

While engagement in the democratic process is necessary, important and can lead to much good in the world. While engagement in the economic and cultural marketplace is necessary, important and can even lead to much good in the world. While we as Latter-day Saints are not called to the monastery, the compound, the commune, the enclave, I worry that we are too often too much in the world.

I think this is especially dangerous for artists. I’m not calling for solely apolotical art or artists to not engage in politics. Artists shouldn’t be willfully blind to the realities of the modern world. In fact, I think artists should be in dialogue with current political and socio-economic thought and action. I think artists should be angry, concerned, hopeful, curious, engaged and informed about the world. I don’t believe that art for art’s sake is actually possible or desirable.

But I also think that artists, and especially Mormon artists, should have at their core a deep skepticism of utopian solutions and an ultimately agnostic stance towards politics that prods them to interrogate the reifying language of politicians and technocrats even when (especially when!) they happen to lean towards a particular party platform and/or candidate. We should want to make the world a better place within the current social, economic and political constraints. In order to do so, we have to work with the ideas and people of our time. It’s just that Zion should be this pulsating hope inside us that repels other ideologies from burrowing all the way through to our inner core worldview and artistic themes and concerns.

Am I wrong about this?

Note: comments are welcome — this is not, however, an invitation to talk about politics in general or any one politician or party, and rather about artists positioning in relation to the discourse of politics.

Theric at
San Diego Comic-Con International


As part of this ongoing hoax of me being expert, I will be presenting on Mormons in Comics with Trevor Alvord (BYU librarian and the man who has unquestionably outraced me in expertise).




People discussed in my presentation will also be present including Tyler Kirkham (on at least one panel), Ryan Ottley (booth 4601), Mike and Laura Allred (Eisner Awards), Jed Henry (not in my presentation but in the Nucleus booth). There are some other Mormon or Mormon-adjacent folk there as well. Noah Van Sciver is also nominated for an Eisner but, ah, I neglected to ask if he’ll be there.

A Labor of Love: Editing Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand, by Tom Rogers

It all started back in the summer of 2011. Tom Rogers and I were trading pieces of writing back and forth via email. At one point I wrote: “Have you contemplated publication of a collection of your essays? It seems to me that there could be real value in that.” Little did I know…

Continue reading “A Labor of Love: Editing Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand, by Tom Rogers”

Three Poems by Mormon Women to Joseph F. Smith, 1855-1857

Joseph F. SmithMy recent study on the correspondence of Ina Coolbrith and Joseph F. Smith introduced me to three poems Mormon women wrote to the future prophet while he was on his first mission to the Sandwich Islands (1854-1858). While each poem shares some common themes and sentiments, their quality, style, and content vary in interesting and revealing ways.

The poems come from members of Joseph F. Smith’s family. Eliza R. Snow, Smith’s aunt through her plural marriage to Joseph Smith, wrote the earliest of the poem:

Lines address’d to Elder

Joseph Smith, Missionary to the Sandwich Islands

By Eliza R. Snow.

Joseph, the Lord has blest you
To be in early youth,
A herald of salvation—
A messenger of Truth.

And yet, the load is heavy
For youthful nerves to bear,
Amid the hosts of trials
The sons of Zion share.

Continue reading “Three Poems by Mormon Women to Joseph F. Smith, 1855-1857”

On Poets & Poetry: Salt to the World

BYU Studies Quarterly just published my review essay on two recent poetry collections: Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt (Signature Books, 2013) and Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci (University of Tampa Press, 2013). Both collections are well-worth your time and they sustain and reward multiple readings. Here’s an excerpt, right from the middle of my review, to whet your lyric appetite:

Mormon theology demands that in all we do—language-making included—we attend closely to the environments we inhabit. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, then again in his sermon at the Nephite temple and to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. His utterance, reiterated across dispensations, calls his disciples to rely on his grace as they seek to build Zion: “You’re worried about where you’ll get your next meal?” he seems to ask. “How you’ll quench your thirst and clothe your nakedness? Well, look closely at the lilies. See how their relationship with the earth sustains their growth? They root in rich soil. They withhold their presence and their beauty from no one. They consume only as their needs demand and what they produce contributes—even in death—to the health and constant renewal of their environment, to which the species readily adapts. Can human institutions, which are prone to excess, say the same of themselves?

“Live, rather, like the lilies.”

Howe, it seems, has taken this imperative to heart (though perhaps not directly via Christ’s statement), using her poiesis as a way to sustain the world and to draw out her presence—as well as her readers’ presence—therein. Poet and professor Lance Larsen, who (like Howe) teaches at BYU, seems to have responded likewise, although the places he inhabits in his fourth poetry collection, Genius Loci, are more directly mobile than those Howe inhabits in Salt. Salt‘s geographies and the people and creatures who populate them are essentially in motion. But a persistent concern in Genius Loci is what it means to live in a world that doesn’t hold still—scratch that: not just to live in a world that doesn’t hold still, but to be fully present in that world.

You can read a PDF copy of the full review essay on the flipside of this link.

(Cross-posted here.)

Vote in the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz and you will be blessed

Voting for the twelve finalist of the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz is now open through this Saturday, June 11. The editors have made it super easy to vote this year. Just click on the link above, open up the links to each of the eligible works in a new tab, narrow your choice down to four, rank those four and then fill out the form on the original page.

Also: if you feel compelled to publicly comment on any or some or all of the entries, do leave a comment on the discussion post. We authors appreciate it when readers engage with what we wrote.

It’s a fascinating group of finalists this year — some names that are familiar from LitBlitzes of yore; some that are new. And quite the eclectic mix of poetry, personal essay and poetry. Kathy Cowley and James and Nicole Goldberg have done a wonderful job. So much so that I’m going to say something about each of the entries. You might want to wait to read the commentary below until you’ve read all of the entries. But I’m not kidding when I claim that you will be blessed if you do the reading required to vote for the finalists. I was:

“Foolish and Wise” by Lisa Barker: Lisa gets at something that I can really relate to — parables often present contrasts of two or three types of individuals. But most of us don’t fall cleanly into one of those types. We’re both or all.

“Fresh Courage Take” by Bradeigh Godfrey: when it comes to flash fiction the most difficult thing to do is fit a robust premise into 1,000 words. Bradeigh chooses the right situation for his story. We’re so familiar with the post-apocalyptic/trek back to Zion tropes that he doesn’t need to worldbuild those out. Instead he shows us the emotional impact and let’s us fill in the blanks to add even more weight to the story.

 “Leaving Egypt” by Tyler Chadwick: When I taught the Old Testament, I was a bit harsh on the Children of Israel at points, but I also tried to show how they weren’t all that different from us and tried to provide context for their experience. Tyler captures in a few lines what weeks of clumsy lecturing on my part barely got across. That’s the power of poetry, folks.

“Ghost” by Merrijane Rice: I’m going to repeat a comment I left on the discussion post — If “Ghost” is about what I think it’s about, then Merrijane has given me quite the bittersweet view of the future (my daughter is currently 12). Actually: already starting to glimpse it. But then again: isn’t that exactly a type and shadow of our relationship to our Heavenly Parents? — and then add that this line continues to resonate with me: “let me haunt the corners of your mind”

 “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” by Rose Green: Transient ward members are such a pain. The ones who live in a place too long to be visitors but not long enough to settle in. The ones who you have to reorganize home and visiting teaching around. Who you want to get to know, but not too well because, well, it’s painful when people you love leave. Read that third to last paragraph again. What a perfectly observed metaphor with a multitude of meanings.

 “The Gift of Tongues“ by Annaliese Lemmon: I love, love, love that Annaliese takes this initial (very interesting and unique) conceit and then complicates it in a way that is so very Mormon.

 “Branch 9 ¾” by Kaki Olsen: I have a thing about the personal essay form. I so often find it frustrating. Too crafted. Too earnest. Not fiction. But here Kaki takes one of the major themes that preoccupies me on an abstract level — that of the interaction between Mormonism and the broader culture — and presents us with something very real and meaningful.

“Golden Contact” by Lee Allred: Lee’s story is a joke. I mean that literally not as a commentary on the story. But I like that even in a story that is a joke Lee can include lines like “There’s sort of a unnatural sharkskin texture to them that almost glows.” He’s one of our best at expressing the uniqueness of Mormonism in a unique way.

“The Back Row” by Kelli Swofford Nielsen: Kelli’s essay does for me some of the same things that “Branch 9 3/4” and “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” did but with the added bonus that because I’m a back row sitter (who underwent a similar process to that described in the essay), I can very much identify with her observations.

“Rumors of Wars” by Zachary Lunn: An impactful poem because it connects the wars of today with the Church of today with the Church and wars of before and does so with some simple, powerful imagery.  

 “Last Tuesday” by William Morris: I hope other readers find that it balances the things I wanted to balance; otherwise, it’s kind of ridiculous. But what am I if not a leading Mormon purveyor of the ridiculous and the sublime?

 “From the East” by Merrijane Rice: While up until this year Steve Peck might have some claim to the crown, I think it’s now obvious that Merrijane owns the Mormon Lit Blitz contest. This poem is another proof why. Pay especial attention to the rhythm of it and the use of alliteration which seems profligate in its abundance until you read it out loud and then it seems perfect.

Call for Papers — Mormonism & Spec Fiction (LTUE 2017)

The Association for Mormon Letters is calling for papers relating to the connections between speculative fiction and Mormonism, to be delivered at Life, the Universe and Everything 2017, to be held February 16-18 in Provo, Utah.

Presentations can be shorter (10-15 minutes) or longer (20-25 minutes), and can address any area of intersection between speculative fiction and Mormonism, including any of the following:

  • Works by LDS authors of speculative fiction
  • Depictions of Mormons and Mormonism in speculative fiction
  • History of the Mormon speculative fiction community
  • Thematic and cultural affinities, connections, and tensions between Mormonism and speculative fiction as ways of viewing human life and the universe in general

Student papers are welcome.

Proposals are due by August 31, and complete papers are due by October 1. Papers can be submitted without previously submitting a proposal, but we prefer the advance notice. Papers will be considered for publication in Deep Thoughts, the proceedings volume for LTUE.

In addition to submitted papers, there will be a panel on the appeal of science fiction and fantasy for Mormons. Please let us know if you would be interested in being on that panel.

Queries, proposals, and papers should be sent to Jonathan Langford, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.

“The Split House” by Annie Poon


Center Street in Provo is swiftly becoming the happen’est locale in Mormon arts. Pioneer Book has been hosting the monthly Mormon Lit Discussion Group and, more pertinent to this post, Writ and Vision has been hosting some great events and filling its gallery with provocative art.

Opening next weekend: Annie Poon.

Not being in Utah, I can’t speak much to the show (though I’ve seen the catalogue and it looks swell), but Annie gave me access to her new short film playing at Writ and Vision so let’s talk about that, shall we?


It’s just under five minutes long and, thematically, strikes me as a cross between “Runaway Bathtub” and “Annie’s Circus“—and certainly it shares with those films its surrealism. (Aside: I don’t mean surreal, as it often seems to be used today, in the sense of Dalíesque—but, as Breton said, from the position of believing that “pure dreaming . . . is not inferior to the sum of the moments of reality.” All three of these films engage in a fluidity associated more with dreams than the empirical world, and all three of them find their truths through breezing past the strict requirements of realism.

Annie’s cut-out animation encourages viewer identification with her characters. Their ink-on-paper simplicity also connects us to childhood. While with “Runaway Bathtub” this connection is explicit and unbroken, even the “adult” characters of “Annie’s Circus” or “Split House,” by virtue of their medium of presentation, are as safe to identify with as a child. We haven’t all been owls, but the childlike innocence implicit in even her most dangerous characters, makes them as easy to identify with.

As the title suggests, “The Split House” includes various instances of characters splitting. When the woman transforms into an owl, for one. Here are two more: Continue reading ““The Split House” by Annie Poon”