Have you ever wondered what spirit prison would be like?
Mormons believe that when people die, their spirits go to either “spirit paradise” or “spirit prison” to await Judgment Day. They also believe that missionaries from spirit prison can teach the gospel to spirits in spirit prison (who can be baptized for dead — perhaps allowing them access to the nicer accommodations in spirit paradise). But this doctrine opens up more questions than answers. For example “Why wouldn’t someone accept the Gospel once they’re dead and can see that it is true?” or “What’s the point of the ‘Earthly test’ if you can change your answer after death?”
These questions have plenty of answers, to be sure, but they can’t have any definitive answers, because the Prophets, Seers, and Revelators (who are authorized to pronounce on Mormon Theology) don’t “emphasize” (i.e. ever talk in public about) such doctrines. At least not since that embarrassing “Quakers on the moon” prophetic speculation a century or so ago.
Yet Mormon lore is loaded with amusing scenarios that could fire the imagination! What about those other planets full of people who supposedly share the same Heavenly Father with our planet? Or what about “the Three Nephites”? Do they get lonely when their families grow old and die? Considering all of the potential, I often wonder why Mormon lit doesn’t have more speculative/fantasy fiction. Perhaps taking the doctrine too seriously is an impediment to letting your imagination run wild — it causes the critics to worry too hard about whether you got it “right”. And the trouble with that is that you’re never going to get it “right”. Even the play Saturday’s Warrior — as saccharine and faith-promoting and fun to perform as it was — drew complaints from the CoJCoL-dS leaders for promoting a wrong, wrong, wrong picture of what the “pre-existence” is like. Not that they’re much help in describing the “right” picture or anything, but — whatever your Mormon-lore speculation may be — you’ll have no difficulty finding Mormons who will explain to you that it’s wrong.
That’s one of the reasons why I found Johnny Townsend’s new book Mormon Fairy Tales so much fun!! Without fretting about what the theology is supposed to be if it were pinned down, Townsend takes you on a voyage to explore the rich-but-undertapped imagination of Mormonism. I loved his portrait of spirit prison! He really nailed it — not in an official doctrine sort of way, but in a sort of “if you know Mormonism, you know this is what it must be like” way — and what a prison it is!
But flights of fairy-tale fantasy aren’t the only strength of Townsend’s work. He also captures the feelings and personalities of a variety of people on the fringes, fitting their lives into Mormonism and Mormonism into their lives.
Johnny Townsend has written at least ten books of Mormon stories. So far, I’ve read only two (Mormon Fairy Tales and The Circumcision of God), but I’m planning to read the rest — and you should too, if you’d like a fun and interesting new perspective on Mormons in life and imagination!