Where's the great Mormon novel?
February 7, 2008 1:28 PM   Subscribe

There are about the same number of Mormons in the US as there are Jews. The founding of the Mormon religion happened relatively close to when large Jewish migration to the US began. Both Mormons and Jews had to deal with persecution. There are countless novels about the Jewish-American experience. Where's the great Mormon novel?

This came up while speaking with an ex-Mormon friend, and she couldn't think of one.

Clearly, there's major cultural differences between the typical Mormon and Jewish household, and perhaps that's the reason the dearth of well-known Mormon literary works.

Is there a great Mormon novel out there? And if not, why not?
posted by ShooBoo to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, Jews have a much longer, and more varied cultural history than Mormons. They've also undergone an awful lot more persecution. If you consider those wells from which great novels are drawn, the Jews have a much deeper one.
posted by schroedinger at 1:31 PM on February 7, 2008

Some "Classic" LDS Novels.
posted by ericb at 1:33 PM on February 7, 2008

Mormon fiction

See also: Homecoming Saga, by Orson Scott Card.
posted by designbot at 1:33 PM on February 7, 2008

Also -- Lost Boys*, Orson Scott Card.
posted by ericb at 1:38 PM on February 7, 2008

I don't know of any "great Mormon novels," but I do have some experience with the study of Mormon persecution. You may want to check out Chapter Nine (The Rise of an American Original: Mormonism) in Religion in American History: A Reader, by Jon Butler and Harry S. Stout (amazon allows you to browse this book, so if you search for page "179," it should offer a link that takes you directly to the beginning of the chapter).

However, if you are looking for primary sources (or literature written by Mormons that deal with the Mormon experience), I suggest you take a look at BYU's Mormon Studies page.
posted by numinous at 1:44 PM on February 7, 2008

I haven't read it since 5th grade, so my memory is foggy, but A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is at least in part about Mormonism, and is also the first Sherlock Holmes novel. Study in Scarlet
posted by amro at 1:50 PM on February 7, 2008

Whoops. Link.
posted by amro at 1:51 PM on February 7, 2008

The Association for Mormon Letters discussion board might be a good place to look for answers to this question.
posted by weston at 1:59 PM on February 7, 2008

Not a novel, but a great Rock Opera! (It ain't no Fiddler on the roof)
posted by Gungho at 1:59 PM on February 7, 2008

I don't think Mormons would regard Study in Scarlet as the Great Mormon Novel, since it wasn't written by a Mormon and they are basically the villains of the story.

I don't have an answer to the original question other than the idea that different cultures place different emphasis on the importance of story telling and entertainment.
posted by justkevin at 2:01 PM on February 7, 2008

There are some major differences you're missing in your analogy. Jews have approximately 4000 years of cultural tradition to draw on, while Mormonism is a newborn in comparison. While there may be as many Mormons as there are Jews in the States, Jews can draw on a much richer global diversity. Most importantly, I think, Mormons have only recently begun to truly "integrate" with the "Gentile" population, and are still prone to clannishness and geographical concentration. A better comparison might be to ask where the Great Orthodox Novel is? It may well be out there (with the Great Mormon Novel), but it's probably not widely read or appreciated by people outside the faith.

If the LDS Church continues to grow at a rapid rate - expanding its membership geographically, intermingling its members with the rest of the population, increasing the number and diversity of artists coming out of the Mormon tradition - I think you'll see an increase in Mormon-themed art over the next century or two. Perhaps that will spawn the "Great" novel you're pondering. It's my impression that at the moment, Mormon art that's *not* targeted specifically at Mormons is still in its infancy.

(The preceding is just the opinion of a lapsed Protestant married to a Mormon woman, and is not meant to imply any impressive familiarity with non-theological Mormon literature.)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 2:04 PM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Jewish culture has always been strongly linked to urban environments, trade, and arts -- and tended to be interspersed as 'outsiders' throughout a larger society. Mormon culture is centered in Utah where they are in a strong majority, just part of the mainstream culture. Normalcy is what Mormonism is all about in day to day life, despite how foreign it might appear to those of us on the outside when you just hear theological differences. At least, this is my experience being from Utah, and a non-Mormon.

One last thing - Mormons is a young culture, full of strong missionaries, engaged in growing the membership and spreading the word. The Jewish faith does not seek converts and is perhaps more introspective, with a deep and rich history. This extrovert/introvert difference is a huge cultural difference between the two, and may explain the divergent literary heritages.
posted by voidcontext at 2:06 PM on February 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Jews have had thousands of years more to come up with a good novel. Give 'em time.
posted by Melismata at 2:07 PM on February 7, 2008

As strange as it sounds, Tony Kushner's Angels in America is the most thoughtful look at Mormon lives I've seen. His characters both embody and defy the spectrum of Mormon stereotypes. Though certainly none of them ultimately end up with what you could call a comfortable grip on their Mormonness.

The movie should be required viewing for just about everyone because of its exploration of gender, race, sexuality, death, and faith. Completely magnetizing.
posted by hermitosis at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The founding of the Mormon religion happened relatively close to when large Jewish migration to the US began.

These are not remotely comparable. The jewish history is thousands of years old. America is just another chapter in a deep cultural experience of persecution, dating back to the book of genesis. Mormonism is a very young religion. Followers may have been scorned or rejected for belonging to a brand spanking new interpretation of christianity that claimed that Jesus was from Utah, but that is significantly different from being classified as culturally Other in every nation your family emigrates to.

Mormonism was seen as something like scientology when it started - it just wasn't taken seriously. Judaism has always been taken seriously - they're the ones who killed Jesus, after all (or even before that, they defied the god of egypt, etc). The relation of anti-semitism and traditional nationalism/religiosity runs deep throughout europe and the middle east, more so than may be evident in some parts of the US. Mormons certainly have their own unique experience, but it can hardly be said to be based around persecution in the same way.
posted by mdn at 2:18 PM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't think Mormons would regard Study in Scarlet as the Great Mormon Novel, since it wasn't written by a Mormon and they are basically the villains of the story.

Also, it gets basically every detail wrong.
(pdf, Pages 2-4 are about the actual inaccuracies, the rest is the usual Sherlockian fanboy dorkiness.)
posted by ormondsacker at 2:30 PM on February 7, 2008

Where's the great evangelical novel? The great Shaker novel? The great Muslim-American novel? The literary novel can be many disparate things, but its history is largely secular, its characteristic dispositions skepticism, ambivalence, ambiguity, and doubt. I'd think we'd need to see a long and healthy period of cultural Mormonism, distinct from religious Mormonism, before we could expect from it a flowering of what's essentially an irreligious art.

Persecution, on the other hand, is hardly a prerequisite: the dominant Christian culture of Europe invented and nurtured the form.
posted by dyoneo at 2:33 PM on February 7, 2008

Where's the thirty two percent of Mormon nobel-prizewinners? The long standing tradition of mormon plays? The Mormon domination of the entertainment industry? The mormon songwriters? The pivotal and earth shattering Mormon philosophers? The Mormon Spinoza, the Mormon Freud, the Mormon Marx? Why didn't the Mormons run the Manhattan project?

Methinks that more than oppression is at work here.
posted by TigerCrane at 2:42 PM on February 7, 2008

Speaking as a devout Mormon, there have been several well-read novels on early Mormon history as well as historical-fiction novels dealing with early Christianity and the life of Christ (we do, after all, believe in and study out of the King James Bible, Old & New Testament). You can browse Deseret Book's website (an LDS owned publishing company) for those materials.

There have been several very perceptive and relevant comments made in regards to Mormonism not having anything close to the history of the Jewish faith. While this is true and is part of the reason why there isn't that mainstream Mormon novel, our gospel doctrine, ordinances and various rituals find their roots buried deep in the gospel of the Old Testament. We also believe in the same fundamental "improvements" that Christ brought when fouinding Christianity (one of His missions was to fulfill the Law of Moses, or in other words, reform the law of the Old Testament). So our doctrine has origins that closely mirror and run as deep as Judaism. But the caveat is that the Mormon culture is only as old as its American founder, Joseph Smith.

The other reason why I think a form of Mormon media, whether a novel, film, or album, hasn't hit the big time is because there haven't really been any Mormon artists or writers who have set out to create that universally appealing work of art. All the films, novels and music I know of have very defined themes of Mormon religion that are prominent in the work. No one has yet to successfully (or aptly) construct a novel with some universally relevant theme that just happens to feature some Mormon characters or a Mormon backdrop. Or even one that doesn't infuse so much of our doctrine into it. I can't really see the non-Mormon relating to any of these kinds of works.
From a non-fiction standpoint, there are a number of fascinating works by Hugh Nibley or Cleon Skousen that cover both the Old and New Testament (the treatises of Old Testament history are especially fascinating). Or James E. Talmadge wrote a striking and at time poetic book about the life of Jesus Christ called "Jesus the Christ" - basically a scholarly retelling of the New Testament account Christ's life. I can recall at the very least 25 - 30 specific conversations with non-Mormons who've read some of those works and have been well educated on Biblical history and their understanding of the Biblical culture enhanced. I've even heard Nibley's works described as "Indiana Jones meets C.S. Lewis."

The final reason why I don't think a Mormon piece of literature has been accepted as mainstream is because of the negative stigma placed on the religion itself. I've been around and have encountered so many different forms of prejudice and maliciousness towards the Mormon faith, and most of it comes from a lack of knowledge of familiarity with the tenets of Mormonism. I don't blame those individuals or harbor any ill-will towards their ignorance, I really don't. And it's definitely not a religion for the casual church-goer or the Sunday only Christian. It's a demanding religion, of both time and will. I believe that's a hallmark of a truly God-oriented religion. I think there are many people that resent or strongly question that kind of devotion.

Sorry for the long-winded post. It's just something that I'd coincidentally been thinking about lately.
posted by Detuned Radio at 3:37 PM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Clearly, there's major cultural differences between the typical Mormon and Jewish household, and perhaps that's the reason the dearth of well-known Mormon literary works.

LDS is a very very American religion. There's not a huge difference between growing up Mormon and growing up Baptist. There are differences, but it's just not anything profound. Angels in America is definitely a good place to start, honestly. There are also many memoirs that are interesting.

OSC's Homecoming series is good if you want to understand the Book of Mormon, too.
posted by herbaliser at 3:41 PM on February 7, 2008

The obvious thing to note is that there probably isn't any culture - particularly one with traditionally underdog status - that's produced quite as much "art" as the Jews have, so it's going to be a lopsided comparison no matter which other culture you choose to compare the Jews to. I would aver that much of this intense cultural activity has a lot to do with tolerant religious traditions involving the questioning any point of Judaism, including the question of the existence of God. Many Jewish writings from six or seven centuries ago are surprisingly modern in ways - that openness to questioning, speculation and "looking outside the box" must help make cultural expression more varied and interesting - and likely. By comparison, the Mormons are fairly closeted in their ability (or desire, I'm not sure which) to examine the implausibilities and distortions within their faith. Occasionally, one will read about the LDS's attempt to buy historical artifacts created by their founders which cast disturbing light on early activities - they buy 'em and lock 'em up to avoid the scrutiny that examination would cause. (One reads about this largely because in their zealousness to distort/obscure early church history, the LDS has fallen prey to con men selling "forged" artifacts.) That's a behavior unlikely to make a good petri dish for great literature.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:59 PM on February 7, 2008

I'm not an expert in either Mormonism or Judaism, but Mormonism, if I understand correctly, is all about received wisdom--from God, from Joseph Smith and from the various Prophets. Judaism, on the other hand, is all about study and analysis and ongoing debate (that's what Doug Rushkoff says, anyway).

Like I said, I'm no expert in either religion, and my analysis of them is probably simplistic at best. But I think it's reasonable to say that there are differences in the religions themselves which might encourage or discourage novelistic achievement.
posted by box at 4:05 PM on February 7, 2008

(Wow, Dee did a much better job of saying that than I did.)
posted by box at 4:06 PM on February 7, 2008

Hi there. I'm LDS.

First, "The Work and The Glory" series are pretty much the pinnacle of LDS historical fiction for the last 15 years or so.

And back in the 80's it was the "Storm Testament" series, also historical fiction.

These two sets are composed mostly of true stories from different folks patched together to make cohesive narratives in pioneer times.

posted by SlyBevel at 4:59 PM on February 7, 2008

...And for churchier stuff, I'd have to say that the quintessential Mormon works are:

1. "Jesus the Christ" by James E. Talmadge

2. "Mormon Doctrine" by Bruce R. McConkie (this is like a doctrinal dictionary of the LDS faith)

Many Mormons also hold C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" in extremely high regard.
posted by SlyBevel at 5:03 PM on February 7, 2008

I suppose that if one does not believe in its veracity, one could consider The Book of Mormon to be the "great Mormon novel." But to those who believe that it is not a work of fiction, that might be a bit offensive.
posted by The World Famous at 5:33 PM on February 7, 2008

to those who believe that it is not a work of fiction, that might be a bit offensive.

I personally don't believe it's true, but I'm prepared to believe that at least some of its authors believed it at least somewhat true. Either way, there is a distinction between a "work of fiction" and a "novel".
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:58 PM on February 7, 2008

I agree that there isn't a comparison, but to answer the larger question: Sly Bevel's first answer is as close as you're going to get to an answer.

I also agree with those who say LDS art is only beginning: it's only the last few years that I've seen mainstream theaters carrying LDS movies (though a lot of the movies seem to be only fluff comedy).
posted by artifarce at 6:00 PM on February 7, 2008

one could consider The Book of Mormon to be the "great Mormon novel."

This is akin to saying the Old Testament, or The Law, or The Prophets, are "the great Jewish novels." One's canon (true or not) does not a novel make.
posted by artifarce at 6:05 PM on February 7, 2008

One's canon (true or not) does not a novel make.

Notwithstanding that, there are many deep and interesting narratives in the Book of Mormon, and I can readily see how someone would read it not for doctrinal content, but for the stories. Granted, the nineteenth-century language takes a little getting used to.

The stories there encompass bravery, faith, compassion, defiance, and plenty of blood for the war buffs. It's rich. So what if it's also canon?

And as a practicing Mormon, I can say that having someone else view and use the Book of Mormon differently than I do does not offend me.
posted by SlyBevel at 6:13 PM on February 7, 2008

Whoops, sorry if I came across a little strong there, artifarce. Just sayin.'
posted by SlyBevel at 6:27 PM on February 7, 2008

Oh and hey, a second data point- I think Tony Kushner's Angels In America is well worth reading and then viewing, for many reasons- but when I was studying the text in university, I emailed an LDS website for answers to a couple questions I had about Mormonism & some things in the play I didn't understand. (This was a while back when the net was a less searchable resource than it is today.) The person who responded from that LDS organization was pretty harsh about Kushner's take on Mormonism, and kind of got huffy that I was reading it at all. Plus, Kushner himself isn't Mormon. So given that it's written by a non-Mormon and depicts Mormons in a way that some devout Mormons find offensive, I'm not sure it should count as a potential "great Mormon novel". Although it is a pretty Great American Play.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:25 PM on February 7, 2008

Children of God by Vardis Fisher. Somewhat rare, 1st published in the late 30's/ early 40's. Here. Think Moby Dick meets Joseph Smith.
posted by rhymesinister at 10:41 PM on February 7, 2008

Mod note: a bunch of comments removed - if you're not answering the OPs question, please keep random mormon/jew asides to yourself, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:04 AM on February 8, 2008

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