Last weekend I had the chance to attend this year’s regional Sunstone Symposium in Kirtland. I initially had not planned to attend, but after I published three cartoons in the recent issue of Sunstone, the director of the symposium invited me to give a presentation on The Garden of Enid. I gladly accepted.
Kirtland is four hours northeast of my home. Travelling with limited funds, I left at 4:30 in the morning and drove non-stop to the Stannard Stone Quarry in Chapin Forest Reservation, where the early Saints quarried stone for the temple, just two miles south of Kirtland. I had an hour to wait before the symposium, so I grabbed my camera and took a mile-long trail through the forest, hoping to see something neat—like a rock formation. The trail was all trees and moss, however, until I found the quarry itself in a creek a few muddy steps off the beaten path. A few years back, the Church and the local government had put up signage and built a wooden walkway over the creek—perhaps to prevent visitors from climbing down into the creek itself, as I was doing, to get a better view of the chisel marks in the algae-covered stone.
After snapping more pictures than I’ll ever need of the quarry, I hiked back to my car and drove to the Community of Christ’s Kirtland Temple Visitor’s Center, the conference venue, where I picked up my name tag and pocketed a few free copies of Sunstone and an old collection of Mormon cartoons by Calvin Grondahl. From there I headed to the main classroom to wait for the conference keynote address to begin and feel guilty about not making better small talk with strangers.
As I was reading the comments to Scott H’s recent AML blog post Moving Culture, I had the following thought:
In modern Mormon American communities when the notion of “be in the world but not of it” is raised in relation to culture, it is almost always the “not of” that is emphasized rather than the “being in”. And so most Mormons draw their various lines (which, as I wrote almost 10 years ago, I don’t have a problem with as long as they are honest with themselves about those lines) for what they will and will not consume, enjoy the works that fall within their lines, and then (perhaps) look askance at those who draw their lines in different places than they do.
But the problem is that this method (which I will admit to employing myself quite often) is actually addressing neither the “being in” nor the “not of” because:
1. Any culture you avoid means that you are cutting yourself off from those parts of the world and thus are not being in it. Now, obviously, there are places (and in this case I mean cultural places as in: specific works/creators and/or communities that form around those works/creators) we should not be in. And there are places that some of us can be in without causing major damage to our souls while others can’t. But we are not called to cloister ourselves, and if we have no frames of cultural reference with which to approach others, we can’t really claim that we are in the world.
2. I think (and this is based on my reading of Christ’s ministry on Earth) that being not of the world is less about not partaking in things and more about how you approach your presence in and interaction with the world. “Not of” means that the world doesn’t override or distort your Mormon worldview (at least not too much — I also believe that no one is untainted by the world). And it means bringing your worldview into play in an active, interrogating, subversive, filtering, enveloping way.
What I think that adds up is that to be “in the world,” one must be engaged with culture, and to be “not of the world” is to act upon rather than be acted upon by culture. This is easier said than done.
So now that I’ve explored the origins of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon arts and culture, and teased out some of the issues related to the middle, it’s time to get radical. In the first post, I mentioned a radical movement in British Islam and noted the adjectives (creative, positive, revolutionary …) that were being used in describing this Radical Middle Way for Islam. What those adjectives indicate to me is that radical is meant to show that the middle is a dynamic place to be; it has energy; it’s in motion. It’s rising.
Now, radical is generally not the most welcome term among American Mormons. It smacks to much of the Left and/or of the political fringe. This is why it’s important to confine the term the radical middle to Mormon arts and culture and emphasize that there is room for artists, critics and readers with a multitude of political leanings (assuming, of course, that their politics isn’t the sole thing driving their artistic activity). Indeed, I think by pairing radical and middle and applying it to Mormon arts, England and anyone else who invokes the term is reinscribing its’ meaning, appropriating the adjective for our own use and changing it in the process. I’m a fan of such appropriation by an ethnic group/sub-culture. But what do we really mean by radical and how does it play out in Mormon arts and culture? The short answers are: nobody has really said much, and it doesn’t really. So unlike with the middle where I was able to explore it in depth in a descriptive way, I’m going to have to get speculative and prescriptive with the radical. But first…
Radical history and doctrine
Whatever our position in American society now (that is the tenuous semi-mainstreamed stability achieved through the embrace of the meritocracy and of alliance with conservative politics [allowing, of course, for the few liberals and crunchy cons and libertarians]), it must not be forgotten that we have radical roots. From the restorationist claims of Joseph Smith to the communitarian projects of Brigham Young, and, yes, the scandalousness of polygamy — whether you believe all that to be a concatenation of American (not forgetting the European streams of thought behind them) influences (with a touch of native genius) or the opening of the heavens and streaming of restored truths, the radical, as in the challenge to the status quo, roots of Mormonism run deep. And are the wellspring of latter-day Mormon art. more
The middle is an appealing place to be albeit a difficult place to define and defend. And it brings with it its own dangers. By very definition it relies on other operative ideologies and is thus too often reactive. By inclination, as I mention in the first post, it tends to be wish-washy and self-conscious (or even anxiogenic), often producing thousands of words on what it isn’t or is, seeking to write itself a space, to carve out its outer limits and vigorously defend what falls in to that space. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of the middle, but is merely an attempt to define some important strands that are woven into the concept.
Between the poles
If we take our cues from England’s essay “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left!,” the middle is the place between two poles of Mormon narrative art. In most specific terms, it is the works that fall between the two 1990s Mormon short story anthologies Turning Hearts: Short Stories on Family Life (Bookcraft) and In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions (Signature). It is represented by the works England selected for his own, earlier anthology Bright Angels & Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories (Signature). Now England does make some larger philosophical claims for what this middle is, in particular linking it to the idea of ethical fiction, but in terms of defining the middle, well, the middle is in between these two poles — between the right and the left. more
Several months ago Theric asked me to define the radical middle — this term that I and others at AMV have been throwing around. More recently, Association for Mormon Letters President Boyd Petersen invoked the same phrase in his inaugural post on The Dawning of a Brighter Day. I’m hesitant to write manifestos or get in to long drawn out debates over what counts or doesn’t (c.f. the what-counts-as-indie debates of the ’80s and ’90s), but if we’re going to use a label we should be willing to engage it and so I’m going to do just that in three posts over three days: origins, the middle and the radical.
It all starts with Eugene England
As far as I know, the first use of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon narrative art is in Eugene England’s Dialogue essay/review “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction,” which was published in Fall 1999. more