Mormon Studies Periodically: Bert Wilson and Mormon Folklore

July 12, 2005 | 29 comments
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After a stimulating discussion following the first installment of this recurring feature, we’re happy to present the second, courtesy of the Association for Mormon Letters’ publication Irreantum, and exclusively accessible online at Times and Season. In keeping with its overall theme, the current issue of Irreantum features an interview with the eminent Mormon folklorist Bert Wilson. The interview is available for Times and Seasons readers to view here. In the interview, Wilson reflects on the character of Mormon folklore, its cultural function, his academic careers at BYU and USU, and related topics.

As with the previous installment, I’ve formulated a few questions to prompt discussion—but as before please feel free to comment in any direction you choose.

1. How do you think Wilson’s term “value center” (68) works as an analytical category for describing folklore? In developing the concept, Wilson seems to suggest both that folklore works as a purely descriptive marker of a culture’s value center, and that folklore, in its collection and distribution, can be deliberately shaped to alter a culture’s value center. (See, for example, the discussion of “service folklore” beginning on page 69.) What is (or ought to be) the method of the folklorist: purely descriptive, or subtly prescriptive?

2. Wilson discusses the convergence and divergence of traditional folklore and scientific historiography on page 67, pointing out that folklore must be handled with care in answering historical questions. In contrast, an ethnobotanist like Paul Cox actively mines folk traditions for scientific knowledge. In what relationship does folklore stand with respect to “real” history?

3. Wilson has a slightly defensive attitude toward his discipline, anticipating dismissive literature professors (74) and hostile mission presidents (75). (Lest you think me unduly critical of Wilson, I hasten to add that I myself have been known to adopt a slightly defensive attitude toward my own discipline on occasion.) Do the literature professors and mission presidents have a point? Is folklore really able to bear the weight of academic scrutiny? Does recognizing traditional stories as folklore undermine their ability to promote faith?

4. Bubbling up from popular and oral sources as it does, is there an inherent anti-elite, anti-intellectual bias in folk traditions and folklore?

5. Blogging versus folklore; blogging as folklore?

6. And, of course, share your own folk stories in any of the categories mentioned in the interview, and suggest additional topics for collection.

Many thanks to Irreantum for sharing content. Subscription forms are available online.

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29 Responses to Mormon Studies Periodically: Bert Wilson and Mormon Folklore

  1. Clark on July 12, 2005 at 7:48 pm

    I remember that notion in Toelken’s The Dynamics of Folklore. Does it work as an analytic category? No. I mean it is a helpful notion in certain ways, if only pedagogically. However it’s kind of like saying there is an ideal face that all similar faces resemble. I don’t like it when pushed too far. Of course I have a similar complaint about the concept of a “meme” that is all the rage now days. Perhaps I’m silly to gripe about such things. But I remember when I read Toelken’s book that I picked up on that right away.

    Regarding “reality” and folklore, clearly there is a relationship. I’m almost prone to say all dialog is folklore in a fashion. Some is just more particular than others. But even the most mythic tale that Joseph Campbell discusses often has at least some direct connection to reality, even acknowledging the amount of figurative and structuralist elements in it.

    Regarding literature and folklore, I think the literary professors are deluding themselves if they see a difference. Sort of like the fine art departments looking down their nose at folk art. It’s an artificial divide (IMO). Literature is just folklore with better press.

    I should note that I’ve known missionaries that the “mixed up letter to the President” happened to. So a lot of these stories are popular because of their resemblance to people we’ve known.

    BTW – as a tangent. I love the TV show Mythbusters which, in a way, is a really interesting intersection of science, engineering, and folklore. My brother hates it. But I can’t get my fill.

    Is there an anti-elite, anti-intellectual bias in folk traditions? Not inherently. And I think the two must be distinguished. I’ve known some anti-intellectuals who were very elitist in their tendancy. But intellectuals have their own folklore. Heavens, one day I should start telling tales of the BYU physics department when we were there. The grad student who got expelled for chloroforming a cat and putting in in the cage around the organ in the bell tower. Yes, it woke up and there was a cacophany of tunes in the middle of the night. It took them a while but they found it. I learned the outcome (I’d heard the folklore) from Dr. Evenson who was then Dean. Like idiots we’d confided in him our plans to put an inductor around the cabling for the speakers that played the National Anthem. We were going to shock everyone and replace the National Anthem in the afternoon with Twist and Shout. Exactly why we told the Dean about our plans escapes me. Anyway, I could go on. I even knew who dropped the bowling balls from the top of Kimball tower resulting in all doors on campus being locked…

    Getting back to anti-intellectualism and elitism. We used to joke in the physics department about all having Jehovah complexes. There was a lot of folklore about the humanities department and the sociology and psychology departments which in the interest of greater civility I won’t repeat. But they were very elitist. I know there has always been a distrust between the hard sciences and the softer disciplines. But I’ve often wondered why it was so strong at BYU. (I know there were a few other physicists from that period blogging around. Did you notice that? Or was it just our group?)

  2. A. Greenwood on July 12, 2005 at 8:15 pm

    He thinks the Saints’ volunteer service is underrepresented in the works of folklorists. He calls for folklorists to look for these stories more (which would make the folklorists subtly prescriptivist, but only if the people telling and listening to folklore are getting it from the folklorists, which I doubt) and he calls for folks to *create* more folklore stories about service (which is unsubtly prescriptivist, but I don’t think he thinks its the folklorists who should be making these stories up).

    Anyway, how does one go about creating folklore? He talks about folklore as a process of retailing stories in which one shapes the story in response to the feedback, the felt needs, of the audience, and then they retail it themselves. Its hard to see how one could just impose whatever story one likes.

  3. Clark on July 12, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    It wouldn’t be done any different than folklore about missionary work, would it? I have a few tales I tell regularly about delivering welfare food for my Mom who was Relief Society President.

  4. Ashley on July 13, 2005 at 2:10 am

    Thanks for making this interview available here! The American Folklore Society that Wilson mentioned (77) has a fascinating website.

    Many folklorists working today prefer the term “folklife” since it encompasses traditions, arts, food, etc. and not just the stories of a people (whereas both Wilson and his interviewer were focusing on folklore as story, as tales perpetuated and performed in small and informal gatherings). This larger meaning of folklore was a revelation to me when I first became interested in studying folklore, and I would be interested in seeing Mormon folklorists’ work in many areas. If this body of work became widely known, it might have a slightly prescriptive function in encouraging pluralism.

    As to folklore being anti-elite, anti-intellectual: from Jan Brunvand’s _The Study of American Folklore_, “Folklore is the traditional, unofficial, non-institutional part of culture.” Those terms seem to be at odds with “elite” and “intellectual” but I don’t think folklore studies necessarily are. I find great satisfaction in my work collecting oral histories from people who have lived fascinating lives (everyone has), but who haven’t written an autobiography or even a life sketch. There is added value to my work precisely because theirs are the otherwise untold stories. But then collected and analyzed for themes, greater meanings, and historical/artistic significance by a folklorist, these life histories are certainly subject to intellectual scrutiny.

  5. Mark B. on July 13, 2005 at 9:57 am

    One of the great things about folklore is that it’s blasted difficult to track to its source. That rightly-condemned story about the missionary zone conference in the World Trade Center on 9/11 has an obvious “start” date–but I don’t know that anyone has tracked down the author. The “chloroformed cat” story has a venerable history–it was around long before Bill Evenson was the dean of the physical sciences (although, who knows, maybe it happened again–or, at least, we really wish it did). I suspect, Rosalynde, that your parents might fess up to having heard the cat story back when they were students at the old BY.

    The “techie” students revenge does have roots in reality, however. Caltech students are famed for their tricks at the Rose Bowl. I didn’t see the “altered Rose Bowl card tricks,” where the Caltech students changed the instructions so the card tricks spelled out a lot of Caltech related things, but I did see, at a Rose Bowl within the past 20 years, the electronic scoreboard change from Michigan-USC (or whatever) to MIT-Caltech. The TV guys didn’t think it as amusing as I did–seemed to think that somehow the purity of the game had been compromised.

    Prof. Wilson has been collecting and telling the “mixed up missionary reports” stories since the early 70’s, and, maybe those elders are still around, taking their unauthorized vacations and getting caught because the landlady gets confused. It’s just too good a story to have to relegate to the “olden days.”

    There was one story that was famous in my mission, in the early 70’s. It had the advantage of having occurred in the northern part of the mission, which had just been divided, so none of the players in the drama could be asked about it–the missionaries had either gone home or were in the new Nagoya mission, and the branch members were up there too. It seems that a pair of enterprising elders had gone into business, selling Venetian blinds. They kept their inventory in their apartment. When the branch president went to investigate, one of the elders whacked him over the head with a blind, knocking him cold.

    I imagine that Paul Cox uses the folk remedies as a starting point for scientific research into the medicinal properties of plants, etc. Thus, rather than being the end of the research, the folklore is the beginning. (I mean, if you’re standing at the edge of the rainforest, how would you begin in testing whether any of the stuff in there is good for you, much less has healing qualities.)

  6. Dave on July 13, 2005 at 10:25 am

    Thanks for posting this interview, Rosalynde. Bert Wilson is not only the preeminent scholar on folklore for Mormons, but also an important folklore scholar in national and international circles.

    Some comments on the discussion above:

    First, the issue of truth and folklore is very relevant for those who perform folklore and participate in folklore performances. Thus “mission presidents” can become hostile to missionaries passing on folk doctrines (did anyone else explain on their mission that nineteenth-century polygamy occurred because there were more women than men crossing the Plains? I still shudder that I used that one!). The hostility may also occur when traditional narratives are critiqued or debunked. Interestingly, for those who study folklore, issues of the truth are not as important as what the folklore communicates or what it does socially when performed.

    I suppose that this distinction isn’t helpful in many cases where insiders feel strongly about the veracity of a story, but I don’t think it’s a position without merit. A family member (active LDS from an Korea) recently explained earnestly the Korean folklore that if a women has dreams about certain nature imagery, she’ll have a child in the near future. Is it true? She thinks so, and as a Mormon and as one who studies folklore, I’m in no position to contradict her.

    Second point. Rosalynde asked about blogging as folklore. I’d argue that in some cases, blogging is folklore. An infuential defintion of folklore is given by Dan Ben-Amos: folklore is “artistic communication in small groups.” To make this definition useful, it might help to add “traditional” to the adjectives decribing the communication. In addition to the folklore narratives that are shared on blogs, there are also personal experience narratives that are shaped by traditional patterns. There are also unofficial rules of discourse that members develop and recoginize in being part of the online community.

  7. Clark on July 13, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    Wow. I’m surprised more people aren’t posting on this one…

  8. Rosalynde Welch on July 13, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks, all who have participated so far. This sort of post has a longer start-up time, since people have to find the time to read the article, and the trick is to get a critical mass of discussion before the momentum dies.

    Clark, thanks for your interesting contribution. On the difference between literature and folklore, there’s at least one really big one: literature originates in writing (and yes, I know, many elements of orality and oral culture often make their way into the writing, but still) and is published bearing the name of the author. These differences have a nontrivial effect on both form and function—though that’s not to say that literature is inherently more valuable. But a work of literature, I think it’s safe to say, represents a much greater input of creative energy and effort than does a piece of folklore.

    Good point about elite groups having their own body of folklore. Still, though, in the “elite” physics folklore you recounted, the main characters were students (the plebeian elites), and they were generally antagonized by authority figures. And in the end, authority wins and the naughty trickster is caught and punished. This final containment of the subversion seems to me both authoritarian and anti-intellectual, in a way, since intellectuals so often militate against authority. In a strange way, then, even elite folklore seems sort of anti-intellectual.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on July 13, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Adam, I tend to agree with you on the difficulty of somehow generating desirable folklore. The folklorist can aggressively look for that sort of thing, but that will tell us more about the folklorist’s own preoccupations than about the authentic “value center” of the community (and that Brother Wilson should encourage us to look for service foklore speaks very well of his preoccupations, I hasten to add). Until folklorists commandeer a significant platform in the academy, I don’t think they’ll be very successful at using folklore prescriptively to instill positive values, etc.

    That makes me wonder, are most folklorists housed in English departments? Ashley, maybe you know?

  10. Rosalynde Welch on July 13, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    Ashley, you wrote of folklife, “If this body of work became widely known, it might have a slightly prescriptive function in encouraging pluralism.” Could you say more about this? It seemed to me as I read the interview that folklorists share with anthropologists a deep, structuring stratum of cultural relativism: the proposition that all levels of a culture, and all subsets of a society, are equally deserving of academic attention seems to be a necessary justification for the field. Is this kind of relativism (to which I myself am often very sympathetic) what you meant?

  11. Rosalynde Welch on July 13, 2005 at 4:29 pm

    Mark, great stories, thanks.

    Dave, nice comments. Mission presidents probably do get bugged by a few stories or terms that circulate among the missionaries (like the example of “greenie” that Wilson cites), but it was my sense from reading the interview that they get more bugged by Wilson and others identifying the stories as folklore and thus debunking them. (I personally don’t think that a story should lose its affective power just because it’s mythic, and thus I don’t see the collection and identification of folklore as an exercise in skeptical mythbusting, but of course many people do.) And I can see why mission presidents would want to leave the stories in place: almost all mission stories, in the end, punish disobedience and reinforce institutional authority through the mission president (Mark’s story about the elders clocking pres with a venetian bline is a violent exception!). This is what leads me to believe that folklore is often authoritarian and conservative in nature. But it could just be Mormon folklore, or the mission subset of Mormon folklore.

    As for blogging and folklore, I agree that the two social practices share much in common: informal, improvisational, bottom-up. But blogging seems to me more inherently liberal than most folklore and folklife practices: traditional stories by their very nature end up reaffirming authority, whereas blogging by its very nature tends to challenge it. The practice of endlessly forwarding email messages, however, seems very much like a more traditional kind of folklore.

  12. Jonathan Green on July 13, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    I’m not sure if Wilson is any more defensive of his discipline than anyone else in the less financially blessed disciplines tends to be, and I’m not sure that literature professors look down on folklore any more than they look down on every other type of literature except their own. That being said, there are some fundamental distinctions between folktales and novels. Types of analysis that makes sense with one often doesn’t make sense with the other. That’s pedagogically useful, since most students will have developed a basic understanding of how to read and analyze a novel in high school, but having to deal with folklore forces them to practice unfamiliar approaches to literature. (Of course, medievalists have been well aware of the concerns Wilson raises for decades now, because in the study of literature, medievalists are holding all the high cards. Just my unbiased opinion, naturally.)

    Rosalynde, it isn’t entirely clear to me that Wilson was stating that mission presidents are the only or primary group hostile to missionary folklore, but that whole section of the interview leaves me a bit confused. Is it common for mission presidents to forbid…what? telling stories? I just don’t follow what he’s getting at in that section.

  13. A. Greenwood on July 13, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    “I personally don’t think that a story should lose its affective power just because it’s mythic.”

    But it will, Rosalynde W. That’s just facts. It really doesn’t matter much what you think. And even you, I imagine, would have a hard time _feeling_ this way (in other words, you might think that a story you hear should have the same affective power whether its true or not but I imagine you’d have a hard time being as affected by it).

  14. Jonathan Green on July 13, 2005 at 4:56 pm

    Rosalynde, while I was composing my thoughts, you posted 4 times. I think I’ve just set a new record in irrelevancy.

    One more point, which may or may not still be relevant at the time you read it: I’ll grant you that folklore tends to reaffirm authority, but it does so selectively. I suspect missionary folklore tends to reinforce the authority of the mission president and diminish that of local ward leaders, while folklore told by members about missionaries tends to do the opposite. Mark B.’s story illustrates that fairly dramatically, I’d say.

  15. Clark on July 13, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    Personally I always found the discovery of the “source” of a story or debunking it quite interesting. For instance if the cat in the belltower is a myth, I’d sure like to know about it. The way Dr. Evenson spoke it sounded like he was directly associated with it. Of course our own prank was back around 94. So that means the origin could have been in the early 80’s or so.

  16. Ashley on July 13, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Rosalynde (#9), It’s my impression that most academic folklorists are in English departments–but they teach courses through anthropology, history, and language departments as well. It’s not a tidy subject; USU’s M.A. in Folklore is actually a degree in American Studies, not Literature.

    To answer your question in #10, I was thinking in part of the growth of international Mormonism, and how what is culturally Utah Mormon occasionally gets exported as the gospel, leaving Saints in various other places wondering if their own heritage (or style of music, dress, artwork, etc.) is less valid. The message that other cultures (or others within a culture!) are less valid is a pernicious one, and yes, one that folklore and anthropology fight against.

    So, the belief that other ethnic and cultural groups are desireable/socially beneficial could be bolstered by collecting/publishing/displaying the folklife. (A few years ago, I began a Sacrament Mtg. talk with a folktale from Ghana that perfectly suited the topic. My source? A collection of essays by immigrant women that highlighted folklife.)

    Another thought connected to the idea of pluralism: the variety and validity of personal choice in the face of general counsel. I’m personally interested in how women in the church today are responding to the counsel to get as much education as they can, and then stay home with their children. Every woman does it a bit differently. We tend to be judgmental, because there are these sweeping statements of general counsel to measure ourselves (and others) by.

    N.B. I’m not saying the leaders of the church can or should give anything other than the general counsel that they do. But my hope is that tolerance for different choices (pluralism) would grow along with the awareness of folklore that features this.

  17. Mark B. on July 13, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    Rosalynde,

    Interesting observation about the liberalism of blogging compared to folklore. I wonder if the reasons are tied to Bro. Wilson’s statement that the teller of folk tales is a performer, adjusting the telling of his story as he sees the reactions of the audience. Bloggers’ audiences are a gaggle of disembodied spirits, appearing only as wrods on a computer screen, and membership in a blogging community is presumably easier “adjusted” than membership in a real community. I mean, nobody has to move if he gets thrown off a blog. That difference in the kind of community may explain the tenor of the blogosphere: we might say things to a disembodied spirit that we’d never say to a human being (whether personal details of our lives or obnoxious comments).

    Finally, on a completely unrelated note, was that an uncorrected galley proof of the article, or has the AML just fired all of its copy editors?

  18. A. Greenwood on July 13, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    So I’m a disembodied wrod, am I? Well same to you, brother.

  19. Clark on July 13, 2005 at 6:31 pm

    Regarding elitism Rosalynde. I suppose it depends upon what one means by elite. It seems a *lot* of folklore is always cautionary. i.e. don’t do this. So for University Profs there is the inevitable folklore of the guy who was hooking up with students. (Obviously not *that* uncommon in real life) There’s always a warning at the end which typically means someone ended up in trouble. But I’m not sure that doesn’t mean it deals with elites.

    But one folklore I was thinking about was the story I mentioned. I used to deliver a lot of the welfare food and I was constantly shocked that people receiving it (often new members) weren’t really that bad off. I remember expensive TVs, cable, and so forth. Further there were the inevitable complaints because welfare food was typically basic stuff – flour, rice, powdered milk. They’d complain about the food even as they often had more “stuff” than I had at the time. I’ve heard other people tell similar tales.

    An other common tale is also one I’ve heard others tell. University students working in a soup kitchen for the homeless watching people come and offer jobs that paid more than they were making. (With the jobs frequently being refused)

    Now both of these seem tied to elitism. Indeed the way I’ve told them above, in the brief form, makes them exceedingly elitist. Almost uncharitably so. Yet they are tales you hear a lot. When I was on my mission we tracted out welfare workers and social workers who often told similar stories. (i.e. helping mothers with food and stuff, only to find that they’d buy their kids fast food rather than healthy meals and complain about getting basic food) So I don’t think this is unique to Mormon charitable work. I’d even be that among many charitable work such tales get passed along. Especially among the cynical.

    I hope those tales don’t come off as too elitist and especially not anti-charity. There are, as always, contexts that are eliminated in such tales that sometimes distort. But as teaching points or as ways people doing charity work gripe over common problems, I suspect they are typical.

  20. Mark B. on July 13, 2005 at 10:07 pm

    Another typo bites me in the behind. Dang!

  21. A. Greenwood on July 14, 2005 at 10:46 am

    Oh, its a typo? I thought ‘wrod’ was the bloggernacle insult du jour.

    Good times, good times.

  22. Jim F. on July 14, 2005 at 4:17 pm

    Clark (#15): The cat-in-the-belfry story was hoary when I was a freshman at BYU in 1965. I suspect that it never happened, but if it did I bet it happened some time in the 50s. I’ve been at BYU as faculty since 1975 and I am quite sure it hasn’t happened since then.

  23. Kevin Barney on July 14, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    What little I know about Mormon folklore I gained mostly from reading Bert’s articles in LDS journals. Really good stuff.

    I think the interviewer was nervous; his first question in reality is about four questions mushed together.

    I loved the idea of using one Sunday a month in priesthood (or RS) to devote to a life history of one of the members. That would be fantastic!

    On p. 72, my Dad always used to say the same thing, about liking going to the temple because everyone is wearing white, so you can’t tell the rich from the poor. But on Queer Eye Tuesday night, the Fab Five helped a nudist, who made the exact same argument for naturism/nudism!

    Clark, my son and I both love Mythbusters, too. Great show.

    One of the fun things about Boyd Petersen’s Nibley bio is the way he explores the folklore about him. Some of it is grounded in reality, although usually exagerrated, and some of it is adapted from other sources with no real basis in history. But much more of it is grounded in real events than one might have guessed going into it.

  24. Christian Y. Cardall on July 14, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    In contrast, an ethnobotanist like Paul Cox actively mines folk traditions for scientific knowledge. In what relationship does folklore stand with respect to “real” history?

    Warning: Due to time constraints I am about to comment without reading either the article or the preceding comments. (I did read the entire post. ;) )

    Paul Cox is looking for biologically active compounds for use as drug candidates. Folk traditions are a way of identifying interesting candidate compounds, but the scientific knowledge comes by performing standard scientific practices ranging from biochemical analysis of the candidate compounds to rigorously designed drug tests. The folk traditions themselves do not provide any scientific results.

    So the analogy with folklore and history is that folklore may identify interesting and consequential subjects for historical inquiry. But “real” history will only be possible if the analogue of biochemical analysis is available, i.e. sufficient documentation to do “real” history.

  25. Clark on July 15, 2005 at 12:24 am

    Jim, when was the Bell Tower built? I always thought from its architecture that it was in the 70’s.

    Well, at least everyone knows there was some truth to the taking over of the national anthem story and the bowling ball story.

  26. Jim F. on July 15, 2005 at 12:39 am

    The story in the 60s referred to the carillon that used to be in the physics building, before the tower was built. The story just got transferred to the tower after later.

  27. Bret on July 15, 2005 at 4:17 am

    Christian makes a good point in regards to history and folklore though sometimes it may have barely any viable documentation and still be a source and/or study for historical study. A good example of this is the work of Heinrich Schliemann who almost exclusively used the Illiad and the Odyssey as his basis for finding the sites for the ancient cities of Troy and Mycenae, which he did and did major excavation work on that. Another is a program I watched about a couple of guys who used only the Bible to find what they claimed to be the real Mount Sinai. (of course that could just be more folklore!)
    On a more personal note, I as a History Major at BYUI, used Mormon folklore as a subject of historical study in a thesis I wrote for a regional History Honors Society summit regarding the way Mormon folkore has changed over the years but the roles and needs it fills in people’s lives has remained generally the same.

  28. Clark on July 15, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    Bret, fill us in on the details. I’d be interested in a guest post on this. (Either here or over at M*)

  29. Mike on July 20, 2005 at 11:42 am

    A. Greenwood #2:

    I think that among every group of people, some of them are naturally gifted story tellers. They create the foklore. I believe that I am one of them. For some reason I have the best missionary stories. I can keep people entertained for hours telling J.Golden Kimball stories and I confess that I have made a few of them up myself. I go camping with our large non-LDS scout troop with half a dozen experienced adult leaders and inevitably I find myself telling ghost stories around the fire. My son requests them by titles he has given them much like you might at a musical performance. They want to hear new stories and sometimes when I am in the right mood I just make them up and they are really good. But the old ones are still usually better, especially if I tweek them a bit to reflect the fears and anxieties of the day. The father of one of the boys in the troop claims I have given his son a “Bear Complex” with my tales of bears in the woods, which are probably our biggest danger around here. My bear stories are confabulated personal teenage experiences based loosely on Old Ephraim, a large and legendary bear killed in Logan canyon about 80 years ago. I have never actually encountered a bear outside of a zoo or circus. And then later come the pranks where my son takes a group of scouts for a walk in the woods in the dark in the general direction where I am hiding and making bear noises. Doesn’t get any better than chasing terrified little Scouts back to the camp fire.

    Sometimes I try and tell Mormon stories to non-LDS boys. Maybe a J. Golden Kimball story for example. But it can’t make any sense to them if I don’t alter it significantly. I don’t want to make the church look bad so I might strip out any mention of religion and just tell it as if J. Golden was my uncle or something, entirely for its entertainment value. It often looses its punch. Alternatively if you tell a boy scout a few classic J.Golden stories accurately he starts thinking “this is my kind of church.” Sometimes the point of the story is inherently Mormon, like for instance struggles with the word of wisdom and the reason I am telling the story is to hint at the idea that getting drunk is not such a good idea. But I don’t want it to be dismissed because it is a Mormon story and we don’t drink. An entirely new story may be born with new meaning for the group.

    Last fall we went on a service project to help repair the damage of the hurricanes in Florida. The stake president asked me to give him an honest critical written report of the trip because he had heard some complaints. Rather than slather on how wonderful it was or alternatively criticize my inexperienced quorum leaders who had to make difficult decisions without much time to investigate or think, I wrote a folk tale of the events. I entitled it something like ” A Humorous and Only Slightly Exaggerated Account of the Florida Trip.” He loved it and quotes from it in his talks and I really think I got my points across of how we could do better.

    Mark B. #5:

    The Venetian Blind story was circulating in the Japan Fukuoka Mission in the mid ’70s. The version I heard was rather sinister. This is from memory today, I have not looked at any previous material I might have written before. Here is the story: Four missionaries in Fukuoka turn really bad, and sell these Venetian Blinds door to door to support a harem of paid girlfriends. Wild immoral parties at night are the order. A transfer brings in a green misionary from Idaho who won’t go along with it. They try to hide it from him. Eventually he finds out and bolts. They chase him around the mission on trains in the middle of the night and finally catch up with him and throw him in front of a train. They claim it is a suicide and disgrace him. But the mission president figures it out and sends them all home before the police catch them and before the media can give the church a bad name and they avoid Japanese prison.

    This tale reflects some of the challenges of the mission at that time and place. The constant unsolicited attention from the trifs (teenage girls) and latent desire to participate, the trepidation of green missionaries and of having to train them, transfers, the fear of getting lost on the trains, fear of failure and disgrace. It also explains why the most common tracting technique doesn’t work very well, everyone remembers the Venetian Blinds and won’t listen to us. The mission president saves the day in the end but he can not prevent all bad things from happening, even serious ones that may result in a disgraceful mission.

    The story has multiple contradictions; like if it never got to the media then how does everyone know about it and still remember it? Why doesn’t the Idaho greenie just pick up a phone? Are there no phones in Idaho? Is he that stupid? Why doesn’t he catch the fast train to Tokyo and then a cab to a safe place? Doesn’t matter, the story still makes sense.

    I wrote down several dozen of my missionary stories as part of a college class project for Bert Wilson who also lived in my ward at the time. I would have never realized he would become so famous, he was just another guy in the ward with some interesting academic pursuits. His class on folklore was one of the most interesting things I ever did in college. I suppose my stories are still in some collection. I read an article of his once many years ago and he uses one of my stories and I felt a real sense of satisfaction.