Flurry of new fiction helps authors get Mormonism out of their system

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). There’s an extremely profane scene in “Multiple Maniacs,” one of filmmaker John Waters’ earliest films, that takes place in a Catholic church and involves the actors Divine, Mink Stole, playing a nun, and a rosary. Waters has been quoted as saying that he got Catholicism “out of his system” with that wildly offensive scene.  I thought of Waters’ quote when I read Brian Evenson’s “Father of Lies,” a violent tale of an ecclesiastical leader shielded by religious superiors, and leaders of a religious university, from the crimes of rape, pedophilia, spousal abuse and murder. For Evenson, a former Mormon and BYU professor, it was — in my opinion — a thinly veiled attempt to shuck Mormonism out of his system.

Fifteen years after the lightly read “Father of Lies,” fiction about Mormons written by lapsed Mormons is hot. There’s a lot of religion being shucked out of the systems of a lot of authors, albeit not nearly as graphically as Evenson or Waters. There’s “The Lonely Polygamist,” as well as “Elders,” and another offering, a collection of short stories, “Godforsaken Idaho,” by a lapsed Mormon named Shawn Vestal. That hasn’t got as much press as “Lonely Polygamist” or Elders,” so I invested $6 via Kindle and spent a not unpleasant few days reading Vestal’s stuff.

He’s an exceptionally talented short story writer, and his critiques of his former faith range from the subtle to coshing you over the head with his prose. Although the cover features a photo of Joseph Smith, such Mormon ideals of family ties and families being forever assume greater roles in Vestal’s tales. I particularly liked his first short story, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death.” In it, Vestal manages to create a completely unique vision of the afterlife. In it we live eternally in the same condition that our body enjoyed when we die.

The narrator, Rex, a chronic adulterer who abandoned his children before dying at 47, finds that peace can only be encountered in your past life. Death does not offer a new body, or a better spirit. Any experience in your life can be recalled, and any dish or drink ordered in the afterlife cafeteria. As Rex says, “Now that it’s gone your life is the only thing that you have left. Ransack it, top to bottom. Plunder that fucker. Find whatever you can in there, because it’s all there is.” Joseph Smith plays a cameo in this tale, as an arrogant guy being damned by a few others as he struts through the eternal cafeteria. The tale ends with a riff on the families are forever mantra, as Rex and his past and future generations plan a family reunion, egged on by a relative who was a Mormon. The reunion falters and fails, as its participants realize they have nothing in common with each other.

“Winter Elders” is the darkest of Vestal’s tales of Mormonism, the closest to an Evenson-type story (although his “Opposition In All Things” is pretty grim, too). It features, “Bradshaw,” ex-Mormon, with wife and new baby, consumed by a hatred for his former religion. When a disturbed Mormon missionary, Elder Pope, won’t leave him alone, it leads to a violent conclusion. Vestal’s prose is impressive: “Pope smiled patiently at Bradshaw, lips pressed hammily together. It was the smile of every man he had met in church, the bishops and first counselors and stake presidents, the benevolent mask, the put-on solemnity, the utter falseness. It was the smile of the men who brought boxes of food when Bradshaw was a teenager and his father wasn’t working, the canned meat and bricks of cheese.” What conflicts Bradshaw, an emotion reflected in Elder Pope that must be destroyed, is a sole memory of Bradshaw once accepting the emotions of his former religion.

A couple of other stories, “Gulls” and “Diviner,” explore the paradox of accepting a person, religion, or ideology that disgusts you. In “Gulls,” young teen Sara Miller, living in late 1840s Utah, is tired of her faith, her hypocrite father, and not enamored of a bishop who wants to make her his plural wife. Sara’s father is furious she is hedging on Bishop Warren’s proposal: “When she’d told him she wanted to pray over the proposal before giving Bishop Warren an answer, she had seen blood and confusion gathering under his skin. ‘Do you not think,’ he had whispered harshly, ‘that I have prayed on it myself?’ … Three days passed, and Sara received no answer to her prayers. The expectations of Bishop Warren shaded every minute of every day, and she felt her father’s heart darkening toward her.”

Before long, Sara receives visions of death and decay. Just before the Mormon legend of the miracle of the seagulls occurs, Sara begins to anticipate, and welcome the desolation caused by the crickets. When her farm is saved, instead, Sara, bemused, is resigned to becoming a polygamous wife.

“Diviner” is not among the best in the collection, but it’s an interesting take on a pre-prophet Joseph Smith, narrated by Isaac Hale, the father of Smith’s eventual wife, Emma. Told in journal entries, it casts Smith as a still-teen hired by a skeptical Hale and several greedy neighbors to find buried treasure. Vestal’s Smith is a charismatic, attractive youth, who easily captivates Emma. Smith’s constant revelations and “readings of stone,” his client’s fruitless digging, and Smith’s explanations that God is continuing to sink the treasure lower into the earth, eventually leads to anger and violence, including tarring and feathering, against the professional money-digger. To Hale’s dismay, that only increases his daughter’s love for the young con man.

After Emma runs off and marries Smith, Isaac suffers a breakdown, only to recover some after reuniting with the now married couple and accepting that which he finds abhorrent. As Vestal writes, “He (Smith) believes his foolishness, every bit of it, and so is merely a man. He never asks anyone else to pray, and I am relieved not to do it and offended not to be asked. When Emma looks at him in admiration or love or whatever it is that pulls them toward each other, I feel I have crossed into a fresh hell. And yet I am happy to be here, somewhat. I had rather be near her than not.”

The resignations of Vestal’s characters. “Sara” and Isaac Hale to live in that which repels them is an interesting theme through Vestal’s stories. Another prevalent theme of the stories is that of a father and/or husband who fails to take responsibility for his actions or preserve healthy relationships with children or spouses. In an interview published at amazon.com, Vestal says that an influence on the actions of wayward men in his stories is his father, a man who served time in jail and prison.

A sidenote: There is excellent “grizzly bear” Mormon-themed fiction authored by active Mormons. Authors include Douglas Thayer, Christopher Bigelow, Todd Robert Petersen, Coke Newell, Eugene Woodbury, Jonathan Langford, etc. Yet they haven’t attracted a wide audience. One reason may be that these works are ignored by the LDS Church’s publisher, Deseret Book, which still favors bland, “teddy bear” prose on its bookshelves.

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21 Responses to Flurry of new fiction helps authors get Mormonism out of their system

  1. Zen Wordsmith says:

    Though akin to [Vestal] none of my fathers’ served time in jail
    or prison. Though without undergoing major incrimination, I have.
    As a “lapsed member” of the [Aaronic] Priesthood caste, I recall
    the literary “aides”, that nursed me back into conformity and that
    “straight path/gate”.
    [LDS-BOOKCRAFTS] {Ephraim’s Seed}. Another: {Jacob’s Caldron}.
    Though the “taproot” of my Grandparent’s sprang from the GEM State
    of [Idaho], with remnants from [Park City]; I hold no stronghold on
    latter day polygamy. But, I forclude, had been a “stumbling block”
    in maintaing “sexual-purity”, in days gone past.
    I’m was a “nameless/faceless” sexual guinea member, that remaines
    married to his Senior High School Class.
    May God Richly Bless.

  2. Steve says:

    Interesting that you refer to these writers as “lapsed” Mormons, with its connotations of “a temporary falling or slipping from a previous standard”, “a moral fall, as from rectitude or virtue” and “a fall or decline to a lower grade.” There’s an implied arrogance in that usage, a patronizing belief that one doesn’t actually walk away from Mormonism, one simply temporarily wanders off from Mormonism’s greater virtue only to return to its “glory” later on.

    I do not consider myself a “lapsed” Mormon. In fact, I don’t consider myself a Mormon at all. I expect these writers feel much the same, no matter how self-servingly they are described by others.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      I meant no offense. “Lapsed” is frequently used to indicate one who has left a particular faith. Feel free to substitute the term “ex” or “former” if you wish.

      • Steve says:

        “Lapsed” is frequently used to incidate someone who has left a faith, but it does still carry those connotations from its other meanings. I haven’t gone through the etymology of the adjectival form of “lapsed”, but it wouldn’t surprise me if its meaning wasn’t initially derived from the more judgmental definitions of the noun and verb forms. I suspect that most folks using “lapsed” are either unaware of or fine with these connotations from their perspective; those of us having it used against them can be less so.

      • Michael Trujillo says:

        Also, Doug, looking up the definition of “lapsed,” the predominant connotation is that the person being classified as “lapsed” made a choice to “no longer follow” or be “nonpraciticing” or to “cease to be active.” But one of the writers you talk about, Brian Evanson, was ex-communicated. That certainly seems to put him in a different category than a writer who simply chose not to go to church anymore and started drinking coffee.
        You don’t seem to realize the perjorative effect of continuously refering to the writers as “lapsed Mormons” instead of “ex-Mormons” or “former Mormons.”

      • Bob Becker says:

        You’re right. “Lapsed Catholic” frequently used to describe someone who once was but is no longer. Not someone on hiatus, so to speak, but someone simply gone. Period. [P.S. it's a term I've used to describe my own religious status.]

        Which brings up the term ” Jack Mormon,” which I’d never heard until I arrived in Utah. Am still unclear whether it means “non-practicing Mormon” but Mormon still, at least around the edges, or, like lapsed, someone simply gone, LDS no more.

        • Doug Gibson says:

          From “Dempsey,” the autobiography of Jack Dempsey, “In later years I strayed somewhat from religion. If I were to describe myself, I would say I was a ‘Jack’ Mormon — which wouldn’t have made my mother very proud, but it was better than nothing, and certainly better than the personal code my father was practising.”

        • Zen Wordsmith says:

          [Jack Mormon], I have discerned is that
          young man whom has received
          strong discipline from Bishop’s council
          for [Jacking-Off].
          Because of his inactivity, in later years
          has found his “natural attractions”, com-
          plimented by the love of a good woman.
          Thus, this couple are disenfranchised,
          though borne, under the covenant; and
          now carry the “handle” of:
          [Jack and Jill Mormon's]

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      As a “lapsed” Mormon, I’m not offended by the label. I don’t use that label for myself, but it seems fairly neutral to me.

      Saying these authors are not Mormon at all is disingenuous. Their Mormon heritage is a critical influence in their writings about Mormons and is information that needs to be acknowledged when reviewing their work. “Lapsed” is as good a way as any to acknowledge it.

    • manaen says:

      Hope your beneficiaries aren’t counting on any lapsed insurance policies you have.

  3. Decider says:

    Choice of the word “lapsed” seems to employ connotations of some personal deficiency for which there is disapproval — it’s not a word that one would use to denote approbation OR objectivity.

    Therefore, I am curious to know WHAT “lapsed” — the faith of the one time believer or the Church patience with the “free thinking” member. In other words, are there intervening steps between “lapsed” and excommunicated, or does one go directly to “outer darkness” upon being “lapsed”? Or must one make open formal declaration of “lapsiosity”(?) in Bishop’s court to no longer be considered a member?

    • Erick says:

      There is a little bit of over sensitivity to the terms. I prefer it when people try to avoid using labels as a way to throw bombs while maintaining plausible deniability (for example, referring to former Mormons as “anti-Mormons”, or to Mormonism as a “cult”)…but we can’t rob people of every possible descriptor, and I don’t sense anything implicitly malignant about the term “lapse”.

      • Decider says:

        I’d bet the malignancy of ‘LAPSED’ would be more recognizable to you if it were printed in red letters on a billing notification for your internet service — it just depends on whose ox gets gored.

        • Mark Sparkman says:

          Noam Chomsky would recognize the spin the LDS church employs–all sizable organizations do it. The Department of War becomes the Department of Defense. BTW Doug, did you know Weber State had a Master’s level course in Mormon lit? Do you know Bob Hogge (sadly, recently retired from the English Department)? You’d love him. He’s an expert in this field (a narrow one, but a real one).

        • Zen Wordsmith says:

          Is that “Ox” you refer to carrying a faith-
          full, dedicated load as the LDS/Mormon
          [Young Woman's] Aux-illary?
          …”Put your Shoulder to the Wheel push
          along, do your duty with a heart-full of
          song. We all have work, let no one shirk,
          Put your shoulder to the Wheel”…
          LDS Hymnal {HIM}
          Once a Member always a member.

  4. Pingback: 29 April 2013 | MormonVoices

  5. E.Wallace says:

    I was informed by a family member that the term “inactive” is no longer in L.D.S. P.C. The preferred term is now “less active,” which jives with Doug’s use of “lapsed” to describe former members.
    In my case, (I suspect it is true of others as well), people who refer to me as less active, inactive, or lapsed, do so because they find it painful to imagine that I will never come back into the fold. Given that my family believes that I will be lost to them for eternity should I not return, I don’t begrudge them the mitigating semantics.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Actually, Biz, LDS doctrine teaches that parents who remain faithful to the church’s teachings shall not be separated from any of their children in the hereafter. I plan to do a future blog on that quirky, progressive characteristic of Mormonism.

  6. blainejaysmith says:

    Frequently forgotten, or at least under appreciated among the discussions of “lapsed, less active, ex- or anti-” is the expectation of continued progression in the spirit world (paradise or prison) and then that marvelous concept of a one-thousand year Millennium in a terrestrial (no Satan, no blatant wickedness) but still quasi-mortal (pre-resurrection) and still progressing. Our brief years in this mortal telestial world are indeed vitally important, but I see great mercy and amazing foresight in a plan that allows for a thousand years of remembering, learning, healing, forgiving, healthy agency and eternal choices yet to be made before we come to that judgement day of final reckoning. If families can indeed be forever, it will be during that remarkable thousand years that the free will choices of each family member will make it happen.

    • Zen Wordsmith says:

      And as Latter Day Saint Elder [Neil Ash Maxwell] has relayed
      in subsequent discourse so eloquently:
      …”Purgatory is only a ways and means of “purging” previous
      short-comings, of missing the mark”…
      The refiners furnace of the [spirit], while in this body, where
      the vaste “Interiority Kingdom of God” lies within.

  7. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, May 11, 2013 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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