Struggling in the depths of Mormon faith: Stephen Carter’s “What of the Night?”

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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.

What of the Night? 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.

8 thoughts on “Struggling in the depths of Mormon faith: Stephen Carter’s “What of the Night?”

  1. I remember an incident as a missionary where I accompanied the Assistant to the President (I was District or Zone Leader) to call an elder to repentance. He was not explicitly following the word of wisdom presentation (this was back in the days when each “discussion” was scripted. What he was doing was working just fine, but it wasn’t the authorized presentation. Somehow the mission president had gotten word and sent his assistant to straighten it out. I remember the elder asking “What’s the problem, I feel comfortable with explaining the WofW, and making the challenge. Why do I have to do it this certain way?” Because the authorized version was God’s way.

    I think Stephen, in his essays, asks what does it mean when there is a prescribed, authorized way, and it doesn’t produce the promised results? Or, you can get the desired results without following the prescribe, God authorized program. He illustrated that in his essay “The Calling,” where he and his companion baptize without following the plan and the others in the district do not,although they are diligent rule keepers. In a broad sense the mantra is that living the gospel always brings peace and prosperity, prayers are answered, the sick are healed, the children will be faithful–just be obedient. Stephen is saying it is more complex than that, and the programs don’t always work as claimed. The question is, what does one do with that observation, and the question(s) that are derived from it? Some seem to basically shelve it. Others repackage it, and continue on as before. For others it reframes the institution in a way that they can’t accept or live with. But Stephen does introduce us to the questions that come in the dark of night when there are no pat “Answers to Gospel Questions,” available to dispel those troubling questions.

  2. Parker — Very true. Stephen Carter’s story is extremely faith-affirming overall, but that means that his stories like “The Calling” present all the more challenge to the idea that it’s always best to follow the hierarchy.

  3. Chanson,
    Stephen writes about, as well as incorporates in his essays Eugene Englands metaphysic of feeling the tension between contraries. I guess it is another voicing of opposition in all things. So you prove contraries by living in the tension, until you can find you way out the other side, to use Stephens language. I’m not completely comfortable with that idea of “proving contraries,” (being a contrarian, I guess). What Stephen does that I value, is acknowledges and identifies contraries. But if you end up in the same place, even “living in the tension,” you were before you identified contraries, have you changed? Has it benefited you, or you in effect in the same position as the person who can’t see, or refuses to acknowledge contraries? I don’t think Stephen address that, and perhaps it can’t be addressed. Maybe all you can say is this is what I see and this is how it effects me–as long as you don’t add “but I know the Church is true.”

  4. Parker — yes, that’s essentially my biggest criticism of the book. I felt like he sets out on a quest to discover that the Mormon experience is rich, profound, complex, and ambiguous — and essentially succeeds — but ends in nearly the same place and mindset where he started. So the work seems to lack some of the growth that comes from dealing with something you didn’t expect. [Though, as I mentioned, there is some of this unexpected insight in his essay on Dutcher.]

    OTOH, I wonder if maybe I’m missing something… That’s why I opened this essay by quoting Stephen Carter’s own claimed philosophy of storytelling — I want to analyze his work in terms of what he set out to do rather than on how it fits goals I might set for my own storytelling.

  5. I just found some interesting information to shed some new light on what is perhaps the most disturbing passage in “What of the Night”:

    A year after Mays death, her sister Margaret did Mays temple work for her. Mormonism has a very merciful side to it. If you dont accept the gospel in this life, you can in the next. So Mormons do baptisms for their dead relatives and often for people they dont even know. They also do the other, higher, ordinances: washings, anointings, and sealings. But theres an addendum to this loophole. If you had been the type of person who would have received the gospel, had you heard it in this life, the ordinances can be valid. Otherwiseyou had your chance. And, as I fi gured it at the time, May had been given a lot of chances. She got off track. She became kind of famous in the waiting room, circling around in there. Falling in love with the vending machine. Ignoring the ticket office. Monochrome, anonymous, concrete.

    I remember thinking “whoever this ‘Aunt May’ was, if her Mormon family dismisses her life as (metaphorically) circling around in an anonymous, concrete waiting room, falling in love with the vending machine (??!?), she sure made the right decision to get the hell out of Utah…”

    Now, reading some former Mormon blogs, I’ve found someone who fits some of “Aunt May”‘s Bio (graduated from USU in the thirties and became “kind of famous” in New York): possibly May
    Swenson
    …?

  6. Yes May Swenson is the Aunt May. Long before I knew Stephen Carter or his uncle Paul Swenson, I liked May’s sensual poetry, and admired her willingness to follow her heart.

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