Struggling in the depths of Mormon faith: Stephen Carter’s “What of the Night?”
I also learned that the great stories of the world have second acts. This may seem like a silly thing to say, but so many stories set up the problem (the job of the first act) and then resolve it (the job of the third act) with little to no struggle in between. Im here to tell you that its the struggle that makes a story great, because thats the time when the opposing forces are at their most powerful, when they wreak their full havoc on the character.
Stephen Carter makes this statement in the third essay of his personal essay collection What of the Night? — tempting the reader to use this key to understand the collection. Admittedly, the book is not fiction (the author and main character are the same person), and the essays aren’t really sequential (so you can’t expect it to follow a classical story arc). And yet, his three-act model kind of fits.
As you might expect, this book has “act II” in spades. It’s all about the struggle. if anything, it’s a little weak on acts I & III (setting up and resolving problems).
A lot of Mormon-themed books focus on the question “Is Mormonism true?” or on its corollary “Is Mormonism good?” Carter instead tackles the follow-up question: “Aren’t Mormon truths and rituals profound?” He illustrates it with a series of examples such as the weight of the priesthood (power with responsibility), doing proxy sealings in the temple with your family, and feeling the Spirit rolling through the room like a tidal wave as a missionary testifies of the truthfulness of the gospel.
A story with this theme might have an arc like “I hoped and expected that Mormonism would be simple, but then I struggled and discovered that it is complex, ambiguous, and profound.” But Carter’s story arc is more like “I wanted Mormonism to be complex, ambiguous, and profound, and then I struggled and found that, yep, it is,” (which is what I mean about the conflict striking me as a little weak).
Interestingly, Carter’s biggest moment of doubt comes at the end, sparked by the Mormon reaction to Dutcher’s film States of Grace:
Richard had put out a deeply personal story. He had bled it out the way one must in order to make a story true. But then he found himself playing to an empty house. In fact, if you were reading the blogs at the time States of Grace came out, you would have found a lot of Mormons attacking Richard for his story. Whats worse, apathy or antagonism? Richard got both.
I kind of read this as asking: “Given that Mormon faith is so complex and nuanced, why don’t faithful Mormons appreciate rich stories that express that complexity?” And he essentially resoives this problem in the final essay by deciding that he will embrace the complexity of Mormonism — even if many people prefer to see Mormonism as a simple dichotomy: true or false, good or bad.
This book challenged me because my own answer to his question is different. Aren’t Mormon beliefs and rituals profound? I’d say, “Not really, but that’s not what’s interesting about Mormonism.” But that’s just my personal bias.
One of the biggest insights I’ve learned in my time on the Mormon-interest Internet is that different people like and value totally different aspects of Mormonism. Sometimes believers think that the only reason to value Mormonism is because it’s Right and True. Then, after concluding that it’s not right or true, they discover that it’s still interesting or valuable for other reasons. (Others don’t, and — after breaking up with the church — never bother to give it another thought.) So it’s nice to see another viewpoint on what’s interesting about Mormonism.
Naturally, even if I only partially relate to him, I don’t want to dismiss Carter’s position as wrong (whatever that might mean in this case) — certainly his essays aren’t dismissable fluff. He’s written some lively stories and has crafted some memorable images and metaphors:
We called it a Cheerio mouth. A perpetual O of many interpretations. An O of concentration; reciting the sacred Om; or caught by surprise, open for a sharp intake of breath. Or perhaps an awed whistle. But always, always his mouth was a tender shape. A mussel pried from its shell.
All in all, What of the Night? is a fascinating literary portrait of a thoughtful and earnest person finding meaning in Mormon faith.