October 31, 2008
Continuing my previous post, I will argue that one reason, as Tyler Chadwick states it, for "the insistence on measuring [Mormon art] against the standards of Mormon culture/theology [and] against the letter of God's laws" is that this approach attempts to create a culture legalistically where none of substance actually exists.
My case study in this analysis is the NHK Asadora series Dan Dan, a culturally "localized" version of The Parent Trap that not only puts this old plot in a whole new cultural light, but adds additional layers of its own. In particular, Nozomi's life as a maiko is as unique to her twin sister Megumi (and most Japanese) as it is to me.
I worked similar "cultural singularities" into The Path of Dreams by incorporating "temple culture" (though editorially cleansed of explicit references that could illuminate that culture more fully for non-Mormons, but which Mormons consider heretical), polygamy, the returned-missionary subculture, conservative mores, and Utah history.
But you can push the polygamy/Utah history/RMs/conservative mores thing only so far. In Angel Falling Softly, the conflict between works and grace and giving the devil his due are not unique to Mormonism, and most of the "peculiarities" arise out of social, not religious, culture of a type that could be found in, say, Lake Wobegon.
As my sister Kate puts it, "a large part of Mormon culture is expectation-oriented rather than gospel-oriented." To be sure, seeking out people with similar expectations can be very entertaining, but meeting expectations as a matter of course isn't very revealing. Rather than creating or adding to a culture, doing so only freezes it in amber.
And if the ultimate goal is to "blend in" with mainstream Christianity, then Mormonism loses the ability to contribute a unique perspective to the human comedy beyond those expectations. As with Vanilla Sky, why remake the original (Abre Los Ojos) if it adds nothing meaningful or new except a bigger budget and a famous actor?
Is the story exploiting quirks in the culture to set itself apart? Is it reflecting the culture in order to say something important about it? Or rather, is there a culture there substantial enough to have important things said about it? As things stand right now, I'm pessimistic about "Mormon culture" reaching meaningfully beyond "Utah culture."
To be sure, "Utah culture" has a lot going for it, starting with the Mormon migration, polygamy, the ethos of the American West, and all those unwittingly multicultural and reluctantly virginal returned missionaries. But like Shinto, these cultural singularities are inextricably bound to geography and demographics.
I must emphasize that this isn't a bad thing. Tony Hillerman created a whole literary world in the Four Corners area of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona just telling stories about the Navajo Tribal Police. Faulkner did the same with his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, approaching the infinite by looking very carefully at the minute.
Speaking of Shinto, Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have entertained and inspired audiences far beyond Japan's borders, as have Shinto-inspired anime series such as Inuyasha and Kamichu! But as Jean-Marie Bouissou observes, "the very idea of a [non-Japanese] Shintoist would strike the Japanese as absurd."
Instead, I'm talking here specifically about a religious culture with catholic aspirations that must reach beyond the confines of the Wasatch Front, and in its success cease to be an anthropological curiosity.
It must draw universally-recognized lines in the existential sand and defend them. My alternate-universe solution? For starters, Mormon marriages would thus become "public"--to the extent that non-Mormons would be invited, and photographs of Mormon weddings would become distinguishable from those of the generic Christian ceremony.
Second, the "low church" needs something akin to a Bar and Bat Mitzvah (as opposed to Eagle Scouthood) and a Mormon version of the butsudan, which would fit nicely with the whole genealogy business.
Third, the church would forcefully declare itself to NOT be a Nicene sect, and to be thoroughly uninterested in the theological approval of the Nicene community, thus divorcing the "Mother Church" and creating a huge, unavoidable and unbridgeable rift in its place. No true ideology, religion or culture compromises itself with glad-handing.
Of course, I'm speaking from authorial self-interest. Conflict, not uniformity, makes for good fiction. Literarily, I want to pick fights, not play well with others.