New Projects for Main Street Plaza and Mormon Alumni Association Books!

I have some exciting news for the readers of Main Street Plaza, Outer Blogness, and Mormon Alumni Association Books: We’re planning to become a publisher!! Our awesome first book should be appearing… at some date to be announced, hopefully not to far in the future.

In anticipation of this new project, I’m going to make a bit of a change in format here at Main Street Plaza: I will be posting my usual “Sunday in Outer Blogness” column only every other week, and the alternating weeks will feature new posts on Mormon-related topics. This is mostly because the discussion in blogspace has died down enough over the past few years that I’d be doing more of a service by starting new discussions than by rounding up the existing discussions. And now that I’ve gone such a long time without doing any serious blogging, I have a backlog of ideas to write about again!! So I will be presenting the following series:

What Makes the CoJCoL-dS Tick? Observations and Insights of a Longtime Insider/Outsider!

If you are interested in being a part of Mormon Alumni Association Books — or of contributing articles to Main Street Plaza, please email me: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

Powerful Voices: “Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage,” edited by Holly Welker

baring_witnessEver wonder how those beaming brides posing outside the LDS temple really feel? Are they happy? Are they nervous? Are they resigned? All or none of the above? “Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage” provides some answers to those questions. Elegantly written and meticulously edited, Holly Welker’s new anthology gives voice to a diverse group of LDS women, all of whom felt compelled to fulfill the faith’s unyielding expectation that they become wives and mothers.

In choosing contributors who are straight, gay, single, married, divorced, ethnically dissimilar, and in various stages of belief, Welker avoids the trap of promoting an agenda, and instead presents a fascinating and objective view of Mormon marriage and culture, one that both reflects and resonates with the larger LDS community.

Finding herself single and in her 30’s, Naomi Watkins realizes she has no contingency plan. Only Plan A: “meet a returned missionary, date, fall in love, get married, have a basketball team of babies, and live happily ever after.” Still devout to the faith, she continues to pursue that plan, and hopes for the best, in spite of past disappointments.

Marie Brian exposes the Mormon practice of “creative dating,” describing carriage rides in her pajamas, messy spaghetti dinners (no forks allowed), even a pretend date with a dressed-up dummy she’d attached with a balloon head. “At the time, I didn’t think there was anything risqué about dating something you inflated with your own breath,” she recalls.

Brian’s gem of a story hit me close to home. As a student at BYU, I took part in a number of these elaborate stunts, once dressing up as “James, your chauffeur” for a formal gala at McDonald’s. Evidently, no wholesome Mormon courtship is complete without a cross-dressing activity, a public parade in one’s nightclothes, or the unwitting participation in some sexually themed role-play.

Another standout is Bernadette Echols’ concise and eloquent piece on Mormon divorce. “Our strained and stoic goodbye hung awkwardly in the air by the back door before joining the billowing clouds of dust he churned up as he went rumbling, storming, careening down the dirt driveway,” she begins.

Suddenly abandoned, Echols turns to her ward for sympathy where she finds none. “Were they too ashamed of what had happened to me to speak of it, or did they imagine I was?” she asks. Meanwhile, her cousin, a newly widowed LDS woman, is embraced and comforted by her ward family. Rejected by her own, Echols seeks support from a divorce recovery program at a Methodist Church. It is there that she learns that “one is a whole number.”

The stories continue, different Mormon women with different Mormon marriages: same-sex, mixed-race, inter-faith, and plural. Some succeed in their relationships. Some fail and try again. And some go on to “Plan B,” content with the knowledge that “one is a whole number.”

Filled with humor, pathos, and honesty, “Baring Witness” presents a powerful contribution to the body of Mormon prose, as well as a keen insight into the minds and hearts of those beaming brides posing outside the LDS temple.

Baring Witness

36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage

Edited by Holly Welker

275 pgs. University of Illinois Press $19.95

Serious Fun: “Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon” edited by Holly Welker and Marc Edward Shaw

book_of_mormon_musical_book Since its opening, the Book of Mormon musical has been surrounded by controversy over its degree of vulgarity, its treatment of Mormons, and various other issues. It has also been tremendously popular in the US and abroad, notably sweeping the Tony Awards. It’s natural to ask whether it’s just fluff appealing to the lowest common denominator or whether there’s some substance there — and if there’s substance, let’s tease it out and have a look.

Welker and Shaw’s book Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon does just that. They’ve collected a remarkable set of original essays by various authors analyzing every facet of the play including its treatment of Mormon culture and beliefs, its treatment of Africans and women, its messages about faith in general, its use of bawdy humor, its illustration of Joseph Smith’s techniques and trajectory through the character of Elder Cunningham, and many other points.

Even for those of us who have been following the online discussion of this musical, there are plenty of fascinating new ideas in this collection. In the discussions I’ve read online, the consensus has generally been that the errors in the portrayal of Mormonism are small and superficial, especially compared with the deeper cultural themes the play got right. Some essays in this book expand upon that point, but I think the book really shines when the authors go beyond the obvious question of “Is it fair to Mormons?” and start to tackle its treatment of other groups. Here’s a taste:

As Max Perry Mueller writes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “Say what you will about the accuracy of the ‘Africans’ depicted in The Lion King musical, at least ‘Hakuna Matata’ actually means something in Swahili.” “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is akin to a modern Broadway musical, set (for example) in China, including a number entitled “Ching Chong Bing Bong”—-an unthinkable occurrence. Yet, because this is Africa, this cultural appropriation receives a pass from its predominantly white audience.

and:

More shocking and upsetting still was seeing Nabulungi reduced to an accessory—not someone who assists in accomplishing an action, like an accessory to a crime, but in the sense of being an object that completes an outfit. Nabulungi does something that’s a punch line in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”: she literally stands next to [Elder Cunningham] and watches.

One of the running jokes in the musical is the white Mormon missionaries’ ignorance about Africa — yet ironically the musical itself is just as ignorantly Eurocentric, treating Africa and Africans as cardboard cut-outs whose real-life counterparts are irrelevant and uninteresting to the (white) audience. As much as I want to love this play for how well it nailed so many aspects of Mormon culture that I remember from my Mormon upbringing, I can’t overlook its blind spots and treat them as minor issues. I’m glad to see that this book gives those questionable points some serious scrutiny.

I’d like to thank the editors and authors of this book for their insights. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys textual analysis and has an interest in the musical.

[disclosure note: I am listed in the acknowledgements of this book for having provided some feedback on one of the essays.]

The fine line between inspiration and madness: John Draper’s “A Danger to God Himself”

Mormons believe in a god that talks to people — a god that opens the heavens every now and then and picks a prophet to talk to. So, when a wise-cracking young missionary starts having visions, who’s to say whether or not they’re really from the Almighty…?

John Draper’s A Danger to God Himself is a lively story of a missionary whose new, green companion is just so strange, and, well, magical, that he turns the whole ward upside-down. Some want to help and befriend the visionary missionary, others want to use him — but no one’s life is quite the same after meeting him. And whatever it is that’s possessing him, it’s clear that it’s not doing him any favors.

John Draper has constructed a cast of fascinating characters who each have interesting story-arcs in their own right — including a congregation of Pentecostals, a black bishop who had converted to Mormonism while the priesthood ban was in force, and the racist former bishop he replaced. In order to allow the characters to give their own perspectives, Draper wrote the story as a first-person retrospective in which the main character claims to have later interviewed all of the principals about their experiences — so the reader gets to find out what they were all thinking at the time without wondering who’s narrating.

A Danger to God Himself is funny and tragic in turns, and is an unusual twist on the Mormon missionary narrative.

Mormon Mission Impossible: William Shunn’s “The Accidental Terrorist”

Funny thing about Mormon missions: even though they’re voluntary, you can’t leave. Even though Mormon missionaries are adult volunteers, they can’t just say, “Sorry, this isn’t working, I’m going home now.” Have you ever wondered what happens if you try to leave? It’s rather surprising.

In The Accidental Terrorist, William Shunn recounts the exciting tale of how the Mormon mission machine mobilizes when a missionary attempts to escape — and the lengths they’ll go to stop him.

I don’t want to give any spoilers because this is suspenseful book, but I’d like to discuss (in vague terms) what I felt was the most interesting theme of the book: Mormon mission ethics. The author portrays the mission as a sort of alternate reality in which the normal ethical rules don’t apply. Or rather, they mostly apply, but the imperative to do what’s best for the mission and for the church trumps everything else.

There’s a sort of amazing sequence in the middle of the book in which the Mission President and other church leaders blatantly lie to Elder Shunn and manipulate him. Not only do they do it unapologetically, it’s like it doesn’t even occur to them that there are limits to what it’s OK to do for the sake of their higher purpose. Elder Shunn apparently internalizes this lesson, and later commits a felony himself (on his own initiative, but with the intention of helping the mission), and the shocking thing is how the entire Mormon community closes ranks around him — using every means, ethical and unethical — to smooth his path through the criminal justice system and minimize his punishment.

The author interweaves the parallel tale of Joseph Smith’s life with the primary narrative to illustrate the early influences that led to the formation of this remarkable community.

The Accidental Terrorist is an enjoyable read — far more action-packed than the typical mission memoir. You can find out how to order it from the book’s website where you will also find information about the author’s Science Fiction books and awards and his podcast.

The true meaning of service: Scott Miller and Mark Hubble’s “The Book of a Mormon”

Like many young Mormon adults, Scott Miller set off on a mission largely because he had always planned to — but wasn’t really prepared for what he was getting himself into.

This mission memoir takes place in the late 70’s — earlier than most others I’ve read. Amusing 70’s-specific tidbits include Elder Miller trying to explain the racist priesthood/temple ban and later finding out about the end of the ban from a non-member who had read about it in the newspaper. Curiously timely stuff if you’re interested in learning from history.

He also got the fun of experiencing the missionary uniform back when hats were obligatory. (Today they’re forbidden.) Aside from that, the mission experience has stayed remarkably constant over the years. Notably, it was already painfully obvious back then that tracting is ineffective, and consequently demoralizing. I wonder how many more decades it will take before the inspired leaders of the CoJCoL-dS will figure it out.

The central theme of the story is the contrast between real service and what the missionaries are expected to do. Early on his mission, Elder Miller has an experience that profoundly impacts him — he meets a clergyman of another faith who treats him with kindness and who jumps up to help someone else in an emergency, while Elder Miller does nothing… and asks himself why.

This story featured probably the most tyrannical mission president I’ve ever read about: a man devoid of compassion, full of calls to repentance, and so enamored with petty rules that he wrote an annex to the “white bible” for his missionaries. This extreme example naturally backfires and instead teaches Elder Miller the value of flexibility. His willingness to put people before rules allows him to perform an act of real service for his companion and even earns him an accidental conversion.

The Book of a Mormon is a good story with a well-constructed story arc and lively characters. For anyone who doesn’t know what a Mormon mission is like and wants to learn, this book is a good choice. For those of us who already have the general idea, it leans perhaps a little too far in the direction of being a documentary on Mormon missions and on the culture of Sweden, yet it is still quite an enjoyable story.

Dare to Do Wrong: Alex Hansen’s “Their Works Shall Be in the Darkness”

Their Works Shall Be in the Dark What’s the fun of having a little power if you don’t abuse it? Especially if you’re a teenager.

If you’ve served in one of the youth presidencies in a Mormon ward, you probably think they don’t really have the authority to shape policy in any original or interesting way, but — as Alex Hansen demonstrates in his new novel Their Works Shall Be in the Dark — all you need is a little imagination, and perhaps a dash of foolhardiness.

The fictional priests’ quorum is led by Jacob, the cunning and charismatic son of a bishop. He’s not technically the quorum president because — for some bizarre historical reason — it’s LDS policy for the bishop to be the president of the priests’ quorum, and the teen who would be “president” is called “first assistant.” And to make this whole “presidency” thing even more of a joke, in smaller wards it’s common to have the majority of a given quorum serving in the presidency, as is the case in the story. But, unlike a typical “first assistant”, Jacob decides to try a novel experiment — to use his position of authority to command the priests’ quorum presidency to deliberately commit sins.

The story is highly entertaining and the character development is top-notch. It’s told in first person with each of the members of the quorum taking turns as narrator. I especially liked the way the various characters’ friendships — and their faith — evolve in response to their experiences. Their changes are quite natural without being predictable. The church itself provides the amusing setting without didactically serving as the source of all good or the source of all evil.

I found this book through the author’s Brodie-award-winning blog. It turns out that it’s not his first book, though it is his first book set in Mormondom. It’s a fun read — I highly recommend adding it to your summer reading list!

The latest from the marvelous pen of Johnny Townsend!

If you like short stories and you’re interested in the lives of Mormons, you should be following the work of Johnny Townsend.

Since he writes from an ex-Mormon perspective, believers often dismiss Townsend’s work as biased — or as a priori “an attack on the church” — but I think that’s a mistake. Johnny Townsend writes his characters with a great deal of compassion and empathy, whether they’re in the church or out… or somewhere in between. He demonstrates genuine interest in people and curiosity about their experiences and possibilities.

Although almost all of Townsend’s stories involve Mormons, Mormonism isn’t always center stage. He explores various possible life situations — in all their sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes surprising glory — within this milieu that he knows so well.

Here’s a taste of some of the books he’s written lately:

Behind the Zion Curtain Behind the Zion Curtain is a series of powerful vignettes in which people grapple with one of humanity’s most pressing questions: “What should I do with my life?” Mormonism provides extensive and detailed answers, but they’re not necessarily good or helpful answers, as we see in the story of a missionary whose mission president deliberately humiliates him as a condition of promotion and in the tale of a woman who discovers that she feels relieved and free upon learning of her husband’s death.

True to real life, the exmos aren’t portrayed as having an easy time with this question either, and often find themselves at a loss when trying to figure out what to do that would be worthwhile and make a difference.

Gayrabian Nights Gayrabian Nights is a short-story collection (various authors) whose premise is a riff on the classic One thousand and one Arabian Nights. In this case, the storyteller is a gay sex-worker who has been hired by a closeted-gay Mormon senator who is planning to vote in favor of a bill denying rights to same-sex couples. The young sex-worker decides to try to keep the senator up all night in hopes that he’ll miss the vote the next day — or maybe even have a change of heart.

Townsend portrays the hypocritical politician with sympathy, and even though each character starts the evening with an agenda, they grow to understand each other through the course of their magical night of wild-and-raunchy Mormon stories. It’s a refreshing story arc for our modern age of political and religious polarization.

Lying for the Lord Lying for the Lord is a short-story collection in which Johnny Townsend explores the places where relationships come into conflict with Mormon beliefs and practices. From the tale of a family who chooses to use Christmas as an intervention for an apostate family member to the story of a Mormon man whose wife refuses to follow the commandment to have children, the characters in this series are faced with interesting dilemmas that they handle in memorable ways.

Missionaries Make the Best Companions And — as if that weren’t already a lot to have published in 2014/2015 — Townsend has a new book coming out, Missionaries Make the Best Companions!!

Mormon lit fans, I hope you’ll enjoy this feast from Johnny Townsend!

Family and Death in Mormon Britain: Carys Bray’s “A Song for Issy Bradley”

A Song for Issy Bradley A little girl lies dying in her bed as her family bustles about their individual activities. Once it’s too late, all of the other members of the family are left with reasons to blame themselves — any one of them could have made slightly different choices and prevented the child’s death. That’s the tragic opening of Carys Bray’s brilliant debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley.

I picked up this book — despite the fact that I generally don’t like reading about small children (or their parents) dying horrible, preventable deaths — because I was curious to read a tale of what it’s like to grow up Mormon in the UK. But the story of the child’s death is too real. It can easily happen that a million trivial details conspire to cause a profound and irreversible result.

After reading the first six chapters, my reaction was Wow. I wish I hadn’t read that. I wish I could unread that. But you can’t unread stuff, gentle reader! And the characters and their situations were so compelling that I couldn’t help but want to pick the book back up again the next day. I figured the bad part is done, so I might as well. 😉 And I’m glad I did.

Each chapter of A Song for Issy Bradley follows the perspective of one of the members of Issy Bradley’s family, each in turn. These perspectives are masterfully done: all very believable, each completely different from the others — and they fit together to form the complete picture of a family.

The British Mormon experience portrayed in this book is a fascinating parallel universe — one that’s not so different from the American “mission-field Mormon” experience. In both cases, there’s a natural incongruity in following the local religion of a distant region. When I was growing up, we had a restored Model-A Ford that we could theoritically drive to Missouri after the collapse of society (since it could theoretically run on ethyl alcohol; in Carys Bray’s story one character has a homemade hand-cart to load up for the same journey. Her character’s projected pilgrimage included a boat-trip across the Atlantic that mine didn’t, but, really, does that make it any more or less far-fetched? And some Mormon cultural items — like YW bridal fashion shows and chewed-gum object lessons — are independent of region.

Carys Bray’s novel A Song for Issy Bradley is quite a trip. I highly recommend it, as well as her award-winning short-story collection about parenting Sweet Home.

Review of City of Brick and Shadow

The novel by Tim Wirkus, City of Brick and Shadow, is a riveting tale of two missionaries in a sweeping Brazilian slum looking for a missing congregant they had recently baptized. All the characters are well-realized, from the unhappy local Mormons to the woman at the lanchonete to the mysterious Argentine, a kind of Satan figure who rules over Vila Barbosa. Further, the level of description is quite vivid, helping the reader feel like an unwilling visitor to the slum all along the way. In some respects, the mystery is pretty banal—a petty con artist is probably killed—but Wirkus raises several philosophical issues as well, all without making the story too heavy. Ultimately, the book raises a very Mormon question—what is the purpose of life, and what are we willing to pay to fulfill that purpose.

The two main characters, the missionaries, form a pair almost like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, the main character being a slightly dull Watson dragged along by his energetic and condescending senior companion. And yet it’s much sadder than any story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The climax is surprising and shocking, but the conclusion, not to give too much away, left me feeling quite unsettled and more than a little depressed. But that’s what good literature does, it makes one think and question and leave thinking things he or she hadn’t thought much about before, even if those thoughts aren’t always sunny. This is the kind of accomplishment Mormon literature should strive for. We don’t need to be told everything is wonderful for those who follow the Lord. We need to see life, and ourselves, as the imperfect creations we are, so that we can answer those difficult questions posed so clearly by this extremely well-written story.