In a recent New York Times article, Mark Oppenheimer writes about how Mormons are pretty awesome at penning sci-fi, fantasy, and YA novels, but how they can never seem to write “great” fiction. Why is this?
Shannon Hale is quoted as saying that the “great” books she read for her master’s degree “treated ‘decline and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit’ as necessary ingredients for an honest portrayal of life.”
“I think Mormons tend to have hope and believe in goodness and triumph, and those portrayals can ring false in a literary world,” she theorizes.
When I read this quote, my mind flashed back to a 500-page tome I’ve been wrestling with for a while now.
Let me just spoil the ending right now and tell you that it portrays the decline and ultimate destruction of hundreds of thousands of human spirits. Their dying sorrow isn’t the sorrow of the repentant, but the sorrow of the ungodly whose days of sinful indulgence are finally being wrested from them. Their slaughtered bodies soon lie as dung upon the face of the earth.
Goodness and triumph do not show up to save the day.
Here are a few other choice moments from this book.
• A large group of converts follows their prophet into the wilderness and almost immediately becomes enslaved for 24 years.
• Two missionaries watch as the women and children they helped convert are thrown into a pit of fire.
• All the people in a converted city repent of their murders by burying their weapons. Then an army comes along and decimates them. Twice.
Sometimes things go better. But inevitably, the majority of the people in this book fall into decline and ultimate destruction over and over and over again.
Admittedly, the last chapter ends on an optimistic note (though a hypothetical one: “If you do this, then you’ll be saved”—instead of “Yay, the people did this, so they were saved!”), but there is no denying that a goodly portion of the Book of Mormon (Whoops. Gave it away.) deals directly and at length with suffering, decline, and destruction.
Possibly the reason modern Mormon readers don’t dwell on this aspect of the narrative is because it goes by so quickly. The Book of Mormon is a flying tour of hundreds of years of history; nothing gets dwelt upon for long. So we don’t tend to delve into the stories of those who suffered, or the stories of those who declined and were destroyed, even though they riddle the narrative.
I only got pulled into these kinds of stories because I helped adapt a few chapters from the Book of Mormon into a graphic novel (a.k.a. a long comic book) called iPlates. The graphic novel form specializes in dealing with moment-to-moment stories, so as we approached the Book of Mormon chapters we were covering, Jett and I felt pulled toward focusing on the stories of individuals. How did Alma gather his converts? What dangers did he face? What decisions did he have to make? How did he deal with accidentally landing his people in slavery for 24 years?
We even looked deeply into King Noah’s story. I’ve only ever heard him being portrayed as a coward, but if you look at what he accomplished, the man had to have leadership skills. And he must have been using them when he led the men away from their wives and children as the Lamanites attacked the city. How did he convince them? What were his motives? The man should be reckoned with, even though (especially because?) his soul was declining into ultimate destruction.
This experience of delving into individual stories in the Book of Mormon has made me very aware of how much human tragedy, suffering, and destruction there is to mine in our founding narrative. And it makes me wonder, is taking the Book of Mormon narrative more seriously the way we will finally get our Miltons and Shakespeares?
(P.S. I’m running a Kickstarter for the above-mentioned Book of Mormon graphic novel. Come take a look.)