Orson F. Whitney concludes his Home Literature sermon by invoking the blessings that literature has provided to mankind and urging his audience to create literature, not because it is how they should earn a living, but because that literature is needed. This week’s excerpt comes from the final portion of his sermon.
While some may take issue with Whitney’s description (below) of the benefits of literature and the press to mankind, in an overall senseâ€”i.e., compared to NOT having literature or the pressâ€”he is clearly correct. our civilization, if we could then call it such, would be immensely poorer without literature.
Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.
The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.
David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.
Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.
Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.
Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).
Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.
Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.
Was Joseph Smith a poet? In the first post in this series Orson F. Whitney argued that Prophets are the greatest poets, implying that he was. But in 1905, 12 years earlier than the source of that initial post, The Strength of the Mormon Position, Whitney looked at Joseph Smith’s literary role in an article published for the centenary of his birth.
Whitney not only had an expansive view of poetry, he also had an expansive view of literature in general, which also comes out in the excerpt of his 1905 article included today. Here Whitney claims that “Learning is another name for literature” and claims that Joseph Smith’s teaching that we should seek learning also means that we should cultivate literature.
I recently finished At the Queen’s Command by Michael A. Stackpole. It was okay to pretty good. It’s American colonial alternate history with (limited) magic. There were things I liked, and things that bugged me. But what I found interesting for this audience was Stackpole’s mention of the Joseph Smith story. Of course, if it was analogous to U.S. history, the timing of this bookÂ would be 50-75 years prior to Joseph Smith even being born, but that’s neither here nor there since it’s alternate history.
On page 146, a couple of the main characters are speaking about the frontier of Mystria (aka America) and about an encounter they have just had with a young man who was preaching democratic/republican ideas from a Thomas Paine-style book but adding in some of his own extra radical revolutionary fervor, and one of them says:
“Makes a man wonder why a man would be saying them sort of things.”
And the other replies:
“Oh, I don’t know, Magehawk, seems obvious. Men, they come out here, they cut a town from the wilderness, they have an edge to them. The ones that come after, though, ain’t leaders. They’re followers. Sheep. Every now and again comes a wolf looking for sheep. If it weren’t Qunice, it would be some minister or a messiah. Down Oakland I hear a man dug up his own Bible and has been preaching it. Says Mysteria is the promised land and that the Good Lord wants us to make a Celestial City in the hear of the Continent. He says every man should have a dozen wives and they should bear a dozen children and God will come again to bless them all.”
“Cain’t find me one wife, so I don’t reckon there’s a point to it.” (146)
I found the reference amusing. Reductive and not flattering, I suppose, but it works well enough for the scene, and I found it amusing because it was both obvious and very almost inevitable. This is the first in the series so I wonder if it will come up again in the story (although I don’t know if that curiosity is enough for me to read the next book), but even if not, it suggests, yet again, how irresistible the Joseph Smith story is to fiction writers (and even just Mormonism as a movement [cf. all the Mormon references in science fiction]).
As I’ve looked at 19th century newspapers and other documents, I’ve come across literary works or references to literary works that I didn’t know about, and that, apparently, are unknown among those of us interested in Mormon literature. Yesterday, I discovered another.
What do we mean when we use the word exaltation? Is what we mean different than what those who are not Mormon mean when they use this word?
Off and on for the past few years I’ve worked on a kind of dictionary of Mormon Terms (this link is to website where this project is hostedâ€”free registration and login required), an attempt to define the language that is unique to Mormons and those who discuss Mormonism or that is used more often or in different ways by Mormons than others. This includes individual words and phrases, slang and Church-specific terminologyâ€”anything that might not be understood well by those outside of Mormon culture.
I plan to post about specific terms from time to time as I come across things that might be of interest, or as I feel the need to give a boost to my own efforts and interest. And perhaps in doing so, I might also persuade others to give a hand to help this effort along. Today I’m posting about exaltation, a word I chose at random from among those not yet defined.
Mormons give the word exaltation a definition that is, at least, more specific than the definitionÂ used by others. Our use of the word may even be unique to Mormonism. And, Joseph Smith, in one of his most famous addresses, gave the word a definition that even most Mormons today don’t use.
As outlined in my last post , Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and concepts like Carl Jung’s archetypes and “collective unconscious” seem to tie well into J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson’s conversation with C.S. Lewis that helped convince him to become a Christian… that the similarity between world mythologies and Christianity is because they are being drawn from the same source, a pre-existent memory, a collective unconsciousness that is guiding mankind towards the “true myth” of Christianity.
The Christ story, however, is not the only “true myth.” I’ve seen Campbell’s pattern not only pop up in religious narratives such as the life of Christ and Buddha and Muhammad (some whose historicity is obviously debated depending on your religious views), but also in the lives of more established historical figures… try applying Campbell’s pattern to Joan of Arc for example, and other epic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. You’ll find some striking consistency. One of the most perfect examples I’ve found, however, is the life of Joseph Smith. His life plays out like an epic myth, the kind of stuff which would be seem obviously constructed after the fact, if we hadn’t so many historical proofs to back up the basic outline of the story. Now, obviously, events like the First Vision are up for debate, if you’re not an orthodox Mormon, but other events like Liberty Jail (which I’ll figure conveniently in Campbell’s “Belly of the Whale” stage) are without question historical facts in the American religious narrative. So I find it interesting that this pattern can crop up is non-structured scenarios in history, which attests to the universality of the Hero’s Journey model and how it is not only a convenient way to plot a story, but also an immortal way to show the truth of how spirituality plays out.
Which brings us not only to the life of Joseph Smith, but the pattern he layed out about man’s existence, what Mormons like to call the Plan of Salvation. In the rest of my essay, I’ll go through Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and apply it first to Joseph Smith’s life and by then I think you’ll also see how the pattern applies to the Plan of Salvation and our individual journeys through mortality:
JOSEPH SMITH AND THE HERO’S JOURNEY
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the Hero is always first called to leave his past life of obscurity and day to day existence and chart into a world of wonder and danger, where the Hero is to obtain some great boon or accomplish some great goal, which generally will be to the benefit of his fellow man.
Joseph’s early life is a perfect fit to this sort of beginning. Joseph Smith, the young farm hand whose strong body is hired out for his labor, but has very little room for upward mobility in his life. From all outlooks, his best hope is to become a farmer like his father, if he can escape the crushing dillemmas and ill twists of fate that kept his parents from escaping the constant threat of crushing poverty. Like Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars, King Arthur as a lanky squire, or an obscure carpenter’s son from Galilee, Joseph Smith at first glance would be an unlikely figure to make any sort of impact on the world around him. Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Heroâ€™s Journey, Part Two”