The Book of Jer3miah phenomenon has been noticed on Salon, coincidentally just as an ill-advised Mormon Times essay touched off strong reactions by suggesting that the Great Mormon Novel could never exist.
In his essay, Jerry Johnston, the principle book reviewer for the Deseret News, tells of meeting Pulitzer Prize winning author and Stanford University Professor Wallace Stegner, the western regionalist author who knew Mormons well and wrote about them. But despite Stegner’s claim that someone who left the LDS Church and then returned could write the “Great Mormon Novel,” Johnston came to the conclusion that LDS readers would never accept such an author, and the “Great Mormon Novel” is therefore impossible.
Johnston’s post drew a quick response from Dallas Robbins’ post A Big Steaming Pile About The Great Mormon Novel, a strident refutation of the claim. The Mormon Letters site A Motley Vision soon agreed in S. P. Bailey’s post Abandon All Hope: Mormon Lit Can’t Be ‘Great,’ which suggested that Johnston’s definitions are simply wrong. One of the comments to Bailey’s post, by Jonathan Langford, makes the idea very clear by suggesting that the “Great Mormon Novel” must be great to both LDS readers and to the world reader is akin to “serving two masters.”
The Great American Novel idea is dead. It’s worn out cliche that barely anybody has the energy for anymore and for Mormons to take up the idea is for us to prove yet again our status as belated moderns. And to play in to the discourse of the literary elites, of the critics and academics and editors and book reviewers who trot out the trope every so often simply to generate energy for their own decrepit ideas is to bow to an authority that Mormons shouldn’t and don’t need to acknowledge. No one is going to tell me what I should be worrying about when it comes to the production of Mormon narrative art.
I think there is another premise that explains why Johnston would even suggest this idea: he’s stuck in a very traditional view of what Mormon literature should be. AMV’s Bailey noticed an aspect of this, reacting to Johnston’s suggestion that novels need to be approved of by the Church as well as LDS readers by saying:
Johnston makes the church sound like a monolithic, brain-washing cult! I mean, seriously, the blessing of the institutional church is required? Do I submit my novel directly to the correlation department sub-committee on literary greatness? Or is Deseret Book, the official Mormon kitsch-press, good enough? But can any good thing come out of Deseret Book?
Johnston, like basically everyone who writes for the Mormon Times, represents a very traditional view of Mormonism and of Mormon letters. Everything we read, under this view, must be “appropriate” by whatever unwritten narrow rules the conservative, Wasatch-front oriented Mormon culture decides must apply.
So, what does this have to do with the Book of Jer3miah? Jer3miah breaks some of the taboos. BYU film professor Jeff Parkin, the director and creator, writes about his motivation as follows:
In 2004, we moved from Los Angeles to Provo, and I began teaching at BYU. My intention was never to make “Mormon Films”. But then, I observed something that really disturbed me: right here in Happy Valley there was an extreme bias against any kind of Mormon storytelling. Part of being an authentic storyteller is to imbue your work with what matters most to you–sometimes that’s literal, sometimes it’s symbolic. I find it fascinating that members of a missionary-oriented church can be so sensitive to sharing who they are. The more I’ve talked about these ideas with LDS filmmakers, the more I’ve begun to wonder just how big our persecution complex is, and what we’re so afraid of. Makes me think of a vision that Nephi and Lehi had about some great and spacious building that shames a lot of believers into abandoning their spiritual identity.
I discovered Jer3miah myself through a blog post by ‘Twas Brillig that suggested the web-based film series (webisodes) were controversial. According to ‘Twas Brillig, viewers objected to the idea that spiritual elements would be portrayed at all in a film — essentially the same objection many viewers had to Richard Dutcher’s film, Brigham City, in which the sacrament was portrayed. That post and its comments are well worth a look.
Director Parkin suggests that this controversy is mostly about Mormons view of themselves:
“The Book of Jer3miah” is unapologetically Mormon. Why? There are many reasons–but for this discussion, I’ll highlight two: 1) Telling stories about Mormons and about being Mormon is not a crime; 2) Telling a story about Mormons requires being 100% true to their Mormon-ness–this means capturing how they speak, what they do, and what they believe. We have tried to be true to our characters and their beliefs by not hiding them and by not being ashamed of them. When people watch “Jer3miah” and feel uncomfortable about their beliefs being depicted on screen, my question is, “Why does this make you feel uncomfortable?” My experience has been that the reaction of an individual who is LDS to the depiction of spirituality in the show seems to reveal more about how they see themselves as Mormons fitting into the larger society, and, how they, as individuals, will be perceived, than it does about the actual nature of the show.
There is in the core Mormon culture — that dominated by the conservative, Wasatch-Front based elements — a belief that because we have been persecuted and continue to be criticized, we must shield ourselves and our practice from outsiders to maintain how sacred it is. Our image must be faultless, so that no one will be dissuaded from investigating the Church because of our faults.
The real solution to our image is, of course, to let people see us and understand us. When we portray our sacred in film and fiction, others will believe that our sacred is, in fact, sacred, although, admittedly, at the risk that others will ridicule. The solution is also to let others see that we have problems too, members who do evil and awful things and leaders who sometimes, inadvertently, err.
But, for now, the major Mormon book publishers, the rest of the principle Mormon media, don’t get it. They are stuck in this mentaility that our image must be pure. And, as a result, the work they produce seems to say “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well…”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like where that is headed.