Church history and our quest for the Great Mormon NovelBy: Andrew S
About two years ago, Carter Hall wrote an article on this very site comparing and contrasting the types of heroes that Superman and Spiderman represent, noting the different cultural settings from which the two were born and, consequently, identifying different generational appeals to the different superheroes. As he wrote:
Everyone knows Superman. He is simply the most powerful superhero ever created. Invulnerable to almost everything, his list of abilities includes flight, speed, strength, heat vision, x-ray vision . . . the list goes on. His private life also seems pretty sweet. He was raised by two stead[y] parents (although in some versions Pa Kent dies when Clark is young), has a good career, and in recent years is married to the love of his life. Director Richard Donner went so far as to present Supes as a Christ figure in the 1979 film, with Jor-El (God the Father?) sending his only son to earth to help mortals realize their potential for good.
As contrasted to:
Then there’s Spiderman, a decidedly less perfect hero. Peter Parker’s parents are gone, and even his Uncle Ben dies early on, leaving him with only Aunt Mae. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains powers including strength, speed, agility, wall-climbing, and “spider-sense.” …Impressive abilities, to be sure, but nothing compared to Superman. He also struggles with issues like unemployment, unpopularity, and girl problems to a much greater degree than his DC counterparts. He’s a real person, dealing with real problems, plus he fights crime.
Hall addressed the way that, as different generations idealized different superheroes, different generations of church leadership idealized different parts of church history and doctrine. But now, as new generations are growing up in a new technological era, they discover not that there are new heroes to be found…but rather they discover that the old heroes — whom they had been raised to believe were larger-than-life like the DC superheroes — were always more akin to the down-to-earth Marvel counterparts. Such a discovery, rather than leading the way for a a blossoming of new understanding of the heroes, has led to a sense of betrayal for many.
Why is this the case? In an article I wrote discussing that elusive concept of “The Great Mormon Novel,” I had not anticipated making any connections to history. Yet, as I read one comment, I wondered:
One of the qualities that makes literature great is the ability to create nuance. Protagonists with serious flaws and antagonists with shiny centers. I don’t think Mormonism is very conducive to this view. There’s a lot of black and white thinking – take the typical LDS attitude toward coffee drinkers, for example.
In fact, an arument could be made that an individual Mormon writer could write a great novel, but a MORMON novel, by definition, is going to be flat and full of cariacture.
I immediately was taken aback by this. Sure, I could see what the point that the writer was trying to make…and I don’t think I can really deny some impact of what he had said. Yet, as I remarked then, and what I’ve been thinking about ever since, was this:
Even if we see the way correlated church history as taught as being somewhat…truncated…abbreviated…whatever term you will use, what we know (or what many of us soon discover, whether we want to or not), is that Mormonism does have nuance. The protagonists we have been raised with do have serious flaws, and many antagonists have shiny centers. In fact, even if we want to speak about Mormonism today, where it seems as if Mormonism is increasingly black and white and polarized, this status quo of, say, correlation, is itself an ongoing drama of nuance, as has been addressed at length in podcasts like this one on Mormon Stories.
Yet this doesn’t seem to evoke within many the “greatness” of the tradition, of the culture, of the religion. Instead, it seems to make many shrink. It seems to break down others, without offering any care package to start building them back up.
Why is this so? When we look for “truth” and “perfection”, do we eschew and disdain the qualities that make literature and art beautiful, real, and accessible? People say that art mimics life, but when life seems to have all the traits we appreciate in art, why does that disappoint?