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Depictions of the divine in Mormon fiction Options · View
Eric Samuelsen
Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007 2:58:52 PM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/25/2007
Posts: 21
Points: -84
Location: Provo Utah
This past week, in BYU's WDA, we had a staged reading of a new play by a very smart and talented young lady named Anna Lewis. Her play is called WWJD, and it's a comedy about a group of college roommates who spend some time hanging out with Jesus. He does their dishes, they take him minature golfing, they go to a bar together, he plays Halo in their apartment, they teach him how to skateboard. Lewis uses this set to explore the question of theodicy, starting when one of the roommates, a girl, is beaten by her boyfriend. The other roommates turn on Jesus: "how could you let this happen? etc" and banish him from the apartment. (What's extraordinary about this play is that Lewis manages to maintain the same comic tone throughout, without, on the other hand, making light of serious issues.)

In WWJD, Jesus interacts with the other characters, but always silently. One of the roommates--the only Christian--Tom, can't see Jesus. The other roommates can, and have to tell Tom what Jesus just 'said.' After our reading, Scott Bronson questioned the choice to never hear Jesus. Me, I liked it, because let's face it, we don't actually know anything Jesus really said. He didn't write a word that we know of, and all we know of his words and deeds comes from other people, who may or may not have been quoting him accurately, and who were writing some hundred years later. We're actually in the position of Tom. We base our belief on what other people said he said.

What interests me, though, is the way in which LDS writers depict deity. Of course, we see God in the temple film and in various other films produced by the Church. Usually He's not just dressed in white, He sort of radiates whiteness. He mostly just stands patiently, and talks to us from an authoritative position--usually, He's up above us, even. But other LDS writers have also depicted God, and in fascinating ways.

A few months ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a dancer/choreographer, who pointed out that we seldom depict Jesus or Heavenly Father in movement. We tend to worship a non-kinetic Jesus, a Jesus who holds his hands out to us, but not a Jesus who seems to be going anywhere. It's as though we think representing him more dynamically would be--there's that word again--inappropriate. I'm reminded of a fascinating moment in the post-play discussion following Anna's play, when an audience member said she wondered if she should find the play offensive. Not "I found this offensive," but "I wondered if I should find this offensive." It's as though she was anticipating that her culture might not care for this unusual depiction of Jesus, but she couldn't quite put her finger on why.

One of the most remarkable evocations of deity is by Levi Peterson, in The Backslider. Levi quite reasonably seems to think that Jesus would appear to a cowboy as a cowboy, and that's how Jesus appears to him, in a vision held in a men's room. Levi's Jesus handrolls a cigarette, and then delivers one of the best sermons on grace I can ever remember reading. His Jesus speaks, and I'm delighted to listen.

Margaret Young has a wonderful short story, "God on Donahue," in which an elderly couple appear on the Donahue show with a hitchhiker version of God. Of course, in her story, we're never completely sure that the hitchhiker really is God, but he sure talks a good game--by the end of the story, we're pretty well convinced. God as a hitchhiker works, but to then throw him into an American televisual reality, moderated by Phil Donahue moves, for me, beyond post-modern conceit to a genuine contemplation of God and media and where He might be today.

In what other works have LDS writers depicted deity? I'd love to hear others of you weigh in on this question. In any event, Anna Lewis' play needs a production and an audience. Coming soon, I hope, to a theater near you. It's one thing to write Jesus into a story. It's quite another to put His physical presence on-stage.

Eric Samuelsen
Andrew Hall
Posted: Saturday, October 27, 2007 10:02:27 PM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 80
Points: 249
Location: Denton, TX
I think there is a general reluctence in Protestant and Mormon culture to depict Christ in anything but a careful, clearly scriptural reenactment. I remember reading that the very popular theatrical versions of Ben Hur around the turn of the century presented Christ only as a beam of light, becuase there was a strong cultural taboo against having an actor portray Christ on stage. Today is a bit looser, but is is still basically just scriptural reenactments in pagents.

Kenny Kemp did a great job of imagining a pre-mission, young Jesus in the first two of his incomplete Parables of the Carpenter trilogy.
Scott Parkin
Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2007 8:11:39 AM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/27/2007
Posts: 21
Points: 75
Location: Santaquin, Utah
Scott Bronson has also offered a compelling young Jesus in his play "Stones."

Scott talked about this general idea in his AML-sponsored lecture at BYU here about two weeks ago (very poorly attended, btw; only about seven of us there and only three who didn't already known Scott personally). He discussed the concern that many Mormons have about putting words in the mouth of deity by making them speaking characters and not limiting that utternace to scriptural reference. Many feel extremely squeamish--even presumptuous--at creating words for deity to speak merely for sake of plot.

He then went on to discuss artistic purpose and the conceit of fiction to suggest truth within that conceit. His core premise was that he was not putting words in the mouth of Christ, rather he was doing the same act of personalization that all of us do in our minds, but simply putting it out for an external audience. He was effectively bearing his testimony by expressing his own understanding of what Christ might be trying to tell us--using the vector of an actor playing a role.

I'm one of those people who has been reticent to use deity as a speaking character, and Scott may well have finally convinced me it's okay.

It sounds like Anna's solution is quite clever and dramatically interesting. A silent Christ is certainly metaphorical of our own ordinary interactions--a lot of questions but immediate listening for an answer. I will be interested to see it when it's produced for a general audience.
Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury
Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2007 8:53:34 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 9/12/2007
Posts: 115
Points: -69
Location: Utah
Quote:
We tend to worship a non-kinetic Jesus, a Jesus who holds his hands out to us, but not a Jesus who seems to be going anywhere. It's as though we think representing him more dynamically would be--there's that word again--inappropriate.


I remember when I was in college, mumblety-mumble years ago, hearing a fellow student talk about how he liked to imagine Heavenly Father waltzing with Heavenly Mother.

Recently, while we were singing "We'll Sing All Hail to Jesus' Name," in sacrament meeting, I was struck by the "salvation was His song" line, and imagined Jesus, when he went to preach to the spirits in prison, entering that place singing: loudly, joyously, robustly, as well as beautifully and right on key, of course.

I love both of those images, and don't consider them inappropriate at all.

Note to self: I really need to read THE BACKSLIDER one of these days.
Mark Brown
Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007 8:59:24 AM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/25/2007
Posts: 24
Points: 72
Location: Detroit, MI
I thought The Backslider's version of Jesus was extremely moving and wonderful but I know a lot of people who are or would probably be put off by it. There's a line and it's in different places for different people. I don't like Will Ferrell's hippie version of God with the long hair and Jerry Garcia glasses who exclaims, "Oh my Me!" But there are others who aren't bothered by it. I think versions that make Deity more accessible while maintaining a sense of respect are useful. For me anyway.
J Scott Bronson
Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007 9:50:03 PM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 22
Points: -31
Location: Orem, Utah
Scott (Parkin) has already mentioned my play, Stones, so I won't recap it here except to say that part two of the duology, "Tombs," is a forty-five minute conversation between Jesus and his mom. I spent absolutely no time at all worrying about IF I should depict Christ walking and talking as it were, but I did spend the entire writing process--not worrying per se--but paying severe attention to HOW I depictied Christ walking and talking. I think there is nothing more important to discuss in our art than our feelings and thoughts and (in my case, meager) understandings of the Savior. And if I'm a writer of plays, how else am I supposed to do that effectively? Nobody seems to have a problem with painters depicting Christ in their art. They may not always agree with HOW he is depicted therein, but the fact that it is done is not an issue. So, I think it shouldn't be an issue either for those of us who paint with words instead of pigments. This is why I was disappointed by Anna's play in that one respect ... of Christ not speaking. Now, if her reason for doing that was in support of Eric's notion that we only receive Christ's word through other sources ... okay. But then I think that ought to be addressed in the play. Never once does Tom ask, or have it explained to him, why he can't see or hear Christ, but the other characters can. And the fact that the other characters see AND hear, but the audience only SEES struck me as coy. Be not afraid, I say.
Darlene Young
Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2007 11:36:30 AM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 57
Points: 174
Location: South Jordan, UT
I'm fascinated by this topic. Specifically as it applies to fiction. Have any of you dared to have God be a character in your work? I mean, not told through a character's POV in a way that always leaves it up to the reader to decide whether it REALLY WAS GOD who said such-and-such--but with all the authority that you as the author can give: "And God sent her a dream, and in it told her that . . . " Or, "Then the voice of God came to her and told her . . . " I find the stories that have characters BELIEVING they have been spoken to by God very interesting. But there's always that little question--was he right when he thought it was God who told him that? Was she truly inspired? But we believe in a God who really can affect things, change the course of our lives and, therefore, our stories. Would you write Him in as a character with all the power of your authority as author?
Darlene Young
Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2007 11:37:43 AM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 57
Points: 174
Location: South Jordan, UT
And I know you already did, Scott. And did it well. But your focus was on the human Christ. I'm talking about the divine.
Mahonri Stewart
Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2007 7:05:30 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/25/2007
Posts: 79
Points: 237
Location: Utah
Sort of along the same lines as this topic, how do you all of you think of portraying spiritual gifts, visitations, etc. in fiction. I've sort of done so in my play Friends of God, but that was based on historical accounts. I've often wanted characters of mine, for example, have visionary or prophetic dreams, or healings, because that's been in the realm of my experiences. I've even wanted to go beyond my experiences and have characters have open visions or angelic visitations. But I've been hesitant to do such, because it's a rather forceful way of supporting a point (a revelation trump card, if you will, shutting down certain dialogues), not to mention that it deals with very sacred things. Pearls before swine and all that. Even in real life, talking about certain kinds of spiritual manifestations is looked down upon, except in the most intimate and sacred situations. Almost never is it encouraged to be discussed publicly. Even Joseph Smith used this word of caution. I have conflicting feelings about this, for I have had my experiences cast back in my teeth, so I understand the caution. On the other hand, I love it when people like Matthew Cowley, early Church leaders, Eliza R. Snow and others were able to tell these stories openly without fear of censure. Such stories build up my faith.
When do you think it's right to have such experiences created in a fictional sphere?

Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnamity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.243; Bookcraft, 199cool
J Scott Bronson
Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2007 10:22:48 PM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 22
Points: -31
Location: Orem, Utah
Mahonri Stewart wrote:
Sort of along the same lines as this topic, how do you all of you think of portraying spiritual gifts, visitations, etc. in fiction. ... When do you think it's right to have such experiences created in a fictional sphere?


Whenever it is right to do so.

And that's something you'll have to decide. As a general rule; I'm for it. Big time.
Davey Morrison
Posted: Tuesday, April 05, 2011 2:22:22 PM

Rank: Visitor

Joined: 8/8/2008
Posts: 3
Points: 9
Location: Provo, UT
"WWJD" is currently being produced at New Play Project. Performances are April 8, 9, and 11, beginning at 7:30pm at the Provo Theatre (105 E 100 N). Tickets are $5-$8.
Davey Morrison
Posted: Tuesday, April 05, 2011 2:22:56 PM

Rank: Visitor

Joined: 8/8/2008
Posts: 3
Points: 9
Location: Provo, UT
(For more information, or to pre-order tickets, visit www.newplayproject.org.)
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