Book Review of The Silence of God by Gale Sears

Book Review: Gale Sears; The Silence of God

The Silence of God

By: Gale Sears

Publisher:Deseret Book

Published: June 15th, 2010

ISBN#978-1-60641-655-6

Hardcover: 400 pages

I’ve been waiting since mid June for The Silence of God to finally become available on Kindle. Every time I’ve entered the BYU bookstore I’ve eyed it with great interest. I will be serving my mission in Russia and so of course Russia is of particular interest these days. I also took a course on Early Russian History a few years ago which focused on Russian Literature along with Primary source letters written to the Tsars by Peasants and other petitioners. The course went right up to the events of the Russian Revolution and we spent a lot of time looking at the build up and social ferment for the revolt. I have long therefore been fascinated by the particular period described by Gale Sears in her new work of Historical Fiction.

Sears story focuses on the Lindolf Family. The Lindolfs were the only Latter Day-Saint family known in Russia during the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Specifically, the story focuses on one of the Lindolf daughters Agnes and a fictional best friend named Natasha Ivanovna Gavrilova. Natasha is a devoted Bolshevik and daughter of a well-known professor. The story looks at the tension between Agnes’ faith and the ideals of the secular soviet state that emerged. Most of the story actually centers of Natasha’s crisis of faith as she is challenged by a copy of James Talmadge’s Articles of Faith given to her by Agnes’ father.

I purchased the book this afternoon and basically read it in one sitting. It is a very readable work filled with (some) well-developed characters and lots of great historical details. I certainly recommend it as work of Latter Day Saint Fiction that does not shy away from difficult emotional situations. Some of the scenes are heartbreaking and the fates of characters you love and care about do not always end up for the better. This is a rather bleak novel at times, as characters prayers go unanswered and tragedy is heavy (though hardly as bleak as real events perhaps would dictate). Yet, this is also a work of incredible faith through the most difficult times. The Lindlof family is kept alive through unspeakable tragedy due to their deep devotion to God.  I loved that Sears portrays faith as deeply impacting the lives of her religious characters. The outward manifestations of faith are apparent: The Lindlof’s administer blessings when faced with hardship or sickness, while her Russian Orthodox characters cross themselves. Perhaps more importantly, her characters speak a language of faith, which permeates their dialogue. This is a quality often missing in novels written by secular authors and it was much appreciated.

The characters of Agnes and Natasha are particularly well developed. Natasha’s inner thoughts as she struggles between disbelief and the possibility of a forbidden faith are vivid and well illustrated.  Additionally, some of the other characters turn out to be more rounded than one would first expect. Natasha’s parents, for instance, appear at first to be simple caricatures of faith versus reason, but both display a very human depth at various parts of the novel.

Intellectually, the book presents interesting questions about the ideal society. Sears shows the passionate appeal of Soviet ideals as she presents impoverished peasant conditions contrasted with the opulence of the Romanovs. About midway through the Book, a house that had been lived in by Lindlofs is given to four impoverished families to live in. It is clear that there is something unjust about such an unequal wealth distribution. Yet, Agne’s father also powerfully argues that the revolution and its ideals are bound to fail because “You cannot change a man’s nature or behavior by outside means. There must be a change of man’s heart, and only God can do that.” We see examples of this as Sears describes corrupt Bolshevik officials getting personal gain through the confiscation of the property of the wealthy. Yet, while Sears clearly rejects the Soviet ideology and even has one of her characters describe it as counter to the will of an Apostle, she allows us to feel its intellectual vibrancy and to understand its appeal. This is quite an accomplishment for an LDS author.

Yet, the book is not without its flaws. The facts of the Lindlof’s story would have been fascinating in and of itself, but Sears feels it necessary to insert the Lindolf characters into every conceivable event of Russian history in the period.  Early on, one of the sons is injured in the events of Bloody Sunday. After that, two of her sons fight in the Russian army and desert right before the final defeat of the Russian army. Still later, the family happens to be present in Yekaterinburg right as the Tsar and his family is brutally murdered. Sears twists the real life history of this family to put them conveniently in the path of historical events. Also, several worthwhile historical events in the lives of the family such as repeated visits from Swedish mission presidents to the family are left out of the novel. The novel thus focuses on grand historical events at the expensive of authentic events that could have given it more character.

Additonally, Sears is not content with real life drama and so structures very contrived plot devices. For instance, when Agnes and her family is in trouble, she leaves Natasha with a series of riddles, which lead her on a treasure hunt across Petrograd/ St. Petersburg. These devices strain credulity and are likely unnecessary.

More significantly, Natasha’s intellectual struggle, while mostly gripping, is also a bit contrived and convenient. She is able to interact with Soviet leaders such as Trotsky and to be such a renowned propaganda writer that she gets invited on a Red Train, ( Train that went throughout the countryside spreading soviet ideals) but also susceptible to the impact of a single book and a single powerful idea from Mr. Lindlof. While her high profile position certainly makes things more interested and lends itself to certain plot devices, it takes away somewhat from the credibility of what we are reading.

Ultimately, I think that Sears would have created an even tighter and more powerful novel if she stuck closer to historical fact. Her contrived situations make the powerful intellectual and emotional conversion she describes feel less than real. It is a shame, because Sears really gets the inner intellectual struggle of someone considering the God for the first time in a very difficult and unwelcoming setting. Her well developed characters deserve better than such artifice. Yet, the book is still a very worthwhile look into an incredible family and a period of history that often is misunderstood and underappreciated.

Who gave money to Proposition 8? Insights from the LA Times

Who gave money to Proposition 8? Insights from the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times recently released a database of donors for and against proposition 8. Even though I’ve followed issues relating to the referendum with a great deal of interest, some of the data in the article was actually new to me.

First of all, I was aware that those opposing proposition 8 had raised about 5,000,000 Dollars more than the prevailing side in favor of proposition 8. What I had not realized is that the anti-prop 8 side actually raised more money from both in and out of state. The idea that Mormons uniquely influenced the race from out of state is simply unfounded. Indeed, donations from Utah for Proposition 8 (The biggest pro-prop 8 state after CA with $2,774,809) and New York against Proposition 8 ( The biggest anti-prop 8 donor state after CA with $2,885,815) almost cancel each other out. Yet, we don’t hear discussion about ‘activists’ from NY subverting the will of the people of California.

Secondly, many of the top states donating for prop-8 can hardly be said to be Mormon strongholds. #3 is Connecticut with $1,422,854 and #4 is PA with $1,206,877. These northeastern and mid-Atlantic states do not have a very strong Mormon presence. Conservative and heavily Christian States such a Texas and Colorado place #5 and #6 (1,122,925 and 721,440) respectively. Mormon strongholds such as Idaho, Hawaii and Arizona rank high but a bit further down the list ( #10, #11 and #12)

Utah was both the second biggest donor for proposition 8 and the seventh biggest donor state against prop 8 (With a sizeable $1,086,845 against Prop 8). Unless all of that money ( Unlikely) comes from the non-Mormon population of Utah, this should conclusively shatter the perception of Mormons as marching in lock step and single mindedly donating money for Proposition 8 Other states that fill the top of both lists are typically larger states such as Michigan ( #8 Pro Prop 8 and #6 Anti-Prop 8), Texas ( #5 and #10). Utah seems to have a disproportionate impact per population on both sides of the race with a few states such as Colorado ( #6 and #9) having a similarly disproportionate impact on both sides. It seems that Utah is a state filled with voters particularly concerned with the Issue of Gay Marriage and with citizens willing to donate to the issue. Thus, we find Utah represented highly even as the issue strongly divides donors in the state.

Interestingly, my home state of Florida was relatively low on both sides (#18 For and #12 For) given its large size. This is likely explained by the fact that there was a concurrent ballot measure similar to Proposition 8 in Florida and most of the donations and contributions on either side likely went to that effort.

So what say ye? How does this date change the narrative about Proposition 8 being “The Mormon Proposition”?

**Update**: I’ve been reading the insightful comments that have made me look at the data in a new light. Commenters are correct in suggesting that in states such as Connecticut and Pennsylvania the majority of funding comes from certain organizations such as the Knights of Columbus or the Templeton Foundation. My second point is certainly impacted by this although certain states such as Texas or Colorado do not really fall into the pattern of merely having one or two large contributions.

The pattern of states such as CT or PA is however NOT what we find on the anti-prop 8 donation side in Utah. It is true has as been pointed out that one donor contributed over $1,000,000 dollars to the anti-prop 8 side. ( It is also true that there is a $1,000,000 pledge on the pro prop-8 side and several pledges over $100,000 that impact that side strongly as well) However, of a total of 1,041 donations that came from the state of utah 821 were Pro-Prop 8 and 220 were against Prop 8. Thus of the people that donated in Utah %21 percent were donating in favor of gay marriage. I’d of course note that donating to a cause is a much more drastic action than merely speaking against an issue or voting and shows a higher degree of activism. This does not suggest the type of lock step uniformity that reports on Mormon involvement have shown.

It is of course true that the ground work in California and the donations from California Mormons made a big difference in the campaign. That was not the focus of this post. I am interested in the out of state funding because that is the source of a narrative that formed after Prop-8 that the ‘Mormons were coming.’ Mormons living inside the state of California have just as much of a right to protest, advocate and organize as those non-Mormon residents of the state.

My Call or Stepping Into the Darkness

I’ve put off posting this on my blog because I don’t want any family members to find out about my decision to serve a mission through a Blog or Facebook. I am still keeping the information off facebook, but I woke up this morning with a prompting that this should be shared on here.

A few months back I was struggling to decide whether to serve or not. I told my father of my interest in serving and that did not go well.  I basically got an ultimatum. If I decided to go, he would want nothing to do with me. I struggled for weeks with the decision and struggled to get answers even as I visited the temple. I ultimately decided to step into the unknown and to put my papers in to serve. The week when I made my decision was one of the most difficult of my life. I was wrecked with guilt and kept feeling that I should change my mind. Yet, I kept onward driven perhaps more by a sense of uncertainty than certainty.

I got my mission call my second week here in Utah. As I opened it, I was filled with nerves and apprehension. Yet, as I looked at my call that tension melted away. “You are hereby called to serve in the Novosibirsk Russia Mission.” My whole body tingled as I read aloud my call to some gathered friends. I had studied Russian for three semesters in school so the call did not entirely surprise me. However, I was struck by how appropriate the specific call within Russia was. I had considered studying abroad in Russia before ultimately settling on London because the Russian program was cancelled. Had I decided to study abroad I would have spent the preponderance of the program time in Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. One of the reasons I hesitated to go there is that I was still an investigator in the church and worried that without a strong church foundation I would not be able endure and become a strong member. I was impressed to find that this city is part of my mission territory! I will be blessed to help the church grow in that very area! I also realized when I told my father of the call that he was conceived near Novosibirsk and born nearby in what is now modern day Kazakhstan as his parents escaped Russia after the second world war. These factors really helped me to feel the inspired nature of the call.

My uncertainty became a sense of certainty. Only well after I made my decision did I come to realize that it was the right one.  Things with my father have not been as bad as I anticipated. We still speak. He came to my university commencement in May. I plan on writing and e-mailing him weekly from my mission. I think in the long run my decision may bring us closer.

My experience has taught me a valuable lesson about the way the Lord wants us to make decisions. Often he will not make them for us and neither choice will be a bad one. Instead, both of my options were good in many ways. I could have continued to be a dedicated member of the church throughout law school and done good that way. Yet, ultimately one decision was the best one.

While I was struggling to decide, I listened to a talk in Stake Conference in Boston which put a new spin on a familiar story that I have written about before. The Boston Temple President (President Wood) spoke about Peter’s attempt to walk on water. As Peter looked straight ahead at the savior, he was able to walk with confidence. It was only when he looked around him at all the billowing storm clouds and the turbulent water that he began to fear and to fall. I have found that this was quite true in my decision making. When I looked at the core question of whether I wanted to serve, the answer was a crystal clear YES! It was only when I began to look at other factors such as finance and my father’s reaction to my decision that I began to be filled with doubt and fear. Harold B. Lee is quoted as saying “”Walk to the edge of the light, and perhaps a few steps into the darkness, and you will find that the light will appear and move ahead of you.” (as quoted by Boyd K. Packer, in Lucile C. Tate, Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower [1995], 138) If anyone reading this post is struggling and burdened with similar difficult decisions, know that the lord will sanctify your decision so long as it is done with him in mind. Act on what you know is right and true.

One particular scripture sustained me through the most difficult times. Romans 8: 14-16

14For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.

15For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

16The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

17And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

18For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

Because of the savior we need not fear. We have a spirit of hope and promise rather than one of bondage. Struggling with an unhappy father that spoke of disowning me, I was comforted to realize that I have a heavenly father that I can call Abba (What I’ve always called my earthly father). I know that my efforts will be sanctified by that same loving father figure.

New Mormon.Org

New Mormon.Org

I was excited about the New Mormon.Org that recently launched. However, the actual site far exceeds any of my expectations. The member profiles are a wonderful cross section of church membership. One can search by age, ethnicity, continent and previous religious affiliation which is a great feature. However, the standout of the site are the videos that were produced for some of the profiles. I am amazed with the diversity of these profiles. Some feature ‘celebrities’ such as Alex Boye while others feature the conversion stories of average members. The breadth of diversity reflected here really shows a church trying to move away from uniformity and towards reflecting the vibrant experiences of its members. Here is a brief description of those featured in videos with links to their sites or the profile if no site could be found.

Ryan Wilcox– Pediatrician working on a church humanitarian mission

Alex Boye–  Well known Singer and Songwriter

Rochelle Tallmadge– Stay at home mother of four. Her two boys have disabilities.

Valentin Marcero– Mexican Immigrant and Convert to the church. Jailed twice while growing up. Wants to serve a mission

Ron Dittemore– Flight Director for NASA Mission Control

Helen Newton– A Female African American Ophthamologist and mother

Jeff Decker– Sculptor for Harley Davidson and motorcycle racer

Chris Carlson– Works at the Library of Congress and is a cyclist

Josh Maready– Photographer and Professional skateboarder

Rose Yvette–  Female Filipina Convert that works as a professional artist from home

Cassandra Barney– Female Stay At Home Professiona Artist

Joy Monaha– World Champion Female Surfer

Jane Clayson Johnson– Female professional Emmy Winning journalist

Vance Taylor– Handicapped Homeland Security Consultant

Emily and Aaron Sherinian– Emily for a global public health non-profit and Aaron works for UN Foundation

Glenn Beck and Salvation Redux

(My views on this topic have changed since my mission and in light of President Monson’s words in the October 2010 conference quoting Brigham Young

No temptation, no pressure, no enticing can overcome us unless we allow such. If we make the wrong choice, we have no one to blame but ourselves. President Brigham Young once expressed this truth by relating it to himself. Said he: “If Brother Brigham shall take a wrong track, and be shut out of the Kingdom of heaven, no person will be to blame but Brother Brigham. I am the only being in heaven, earth, or hell, that can be blamed.” He continued: “This will equally apply to every Latter-day Saint. Salvation is an individual operation.” (2010 October General Conference, The Three Rs of Choice, Priesthood Session – Thomas S. Monson)

I also recommend Salvation and Exaltation by Elder Nelson on this topic.

Though a have gotten much more conservative since my mission I still do believe that it is very important to remember that we are all brothers and sisters and have a shared responsibility to ensure the temporal and spiritual well-being of one another)

Glenn Beck is at it again with another rant against the notion of collective salvation linking it to black liberation theology. This Transcript show Glenn Beck trying to link the notion of Collective Salvation to Satan’s Plan in the War in Heaven:

GLENN: . . .Collective salvation, excuse me for being a Jesus freak, is from Satan. Collective salvation is from the devil, not God. And we have some audio of the president talking about his collective salvation. His personal salvation will not happen unless there is collective salvation, that is evil. . . .

STU: What does that even mean, collective salvation? How did he mean?
GLENN: Collective salvation, unless we all are saved, none will be saved, okay? Jesus came to save you, okay? Let me just give you the — real quick, you’ve got to take it back, you’ve got to take it back to the war in heaven. War in heaven with the angels and everything else, and they have this war and Lucifer says, “I’m going to save all of them. Just give me the glory.” And God says, no, I don’t think so. And he selects, he selects the plan of Christ which, I’m going to send a savior down and he will save each individual, okay? That’s why he’s — that’s why God came — that’s why, you know, God came down and saved the — saved us all because of individual salvation. You accept the atonement of Jesus Christ and you are saved.

This reading of the war in Heaven is quite flawed in my view. This is something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately, and it does not seem that the flaw in Satan’s plan was that it was a plan of collective salvation, but instead that it required that all be saved Regardless of righteous conduct. Collective Salvation implies laboring together to make everyone worthy of individual salvation. Collective salvation implies building a zion society that links every member together through covenants and obligations. Collective salvation implies relying solely on the merits of he whom is solely righteous to save us all. Satan’s plan in contrast is purely individualistic. Everyone will be saved independent of grace or merit. I will not look too deeply into this theology with this post, but this is an idea I do plan on exploring in the future.

As my previous post suggested, this notion of purely individual salvation is in my view completely inconsistent with Mormon Theology. I have been reading the Words of the Joseph Smith along with writings of the Pratt Brothers and Brigham Young for the summer seminar I participated in, and therefore have been overwhelmed by the collective nation of the envisioned salvation

But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them; and are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom. And my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer (Doctrine and Covenants 105:2-4,6).

The law of the Celestial Kingdom REQUIRES us to be concerned with the temporal and spiritual well being of others. The Celestial Kingdom requires us to be united with one another.

Brigham Young in particular was very forceful in his denial that anything we have on this earth is individual or ours:

“Of the possessions that are called mine, my individual property, not a dollar’s worth is mine; and of all that you seem to possess, no a dollar’s worth is yours.” JD 4:29

This speech of Brigham is worth reading in particular because it is dismissive to the notion of equality of property while still widely in favor of individuals investing all that they have in the building of the Kingdom of God. The concern of the individual need be on the salvation and well being of others. He must consecrate his time energy and talents towards the cause of zion.

I recently went through the temple for the first time, and while I will not go into specifics, certainly we take upon ourselves a similar obligation. We pledge to give our all to the cause of the building of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Baptism for the dead and temple work also brought out very strong declarations of the collective nature of salvation. In a talk given 3 October 1841 Joseph Smith spoke on temple work and declared:

“Those saints who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relative, do it at the peril of their own salvation.”

Times and Seasons (15 October 1841 p 577-78)

The JST translation of Malachi emphasizes this aspect of collective salvation

“Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.”

This theme of mankind as saviors for kindred dead was expanded even more dramatically.

“We do not comprehend what a blessing to them these ordinances are. Joseph taught Horace Cummings, “In the resurrection they will fall at the feet of those who have done their work. Kiss their feet, embrace their knees, and manifest the most exquisite gratitude.” “We have a work to do just as important in its sphere as the Savior’s work was in its sphere. Our fathers cannot be made perfect without us; we cannot be made perfect without them. They have done their work and now sleep. We are now called upon to do ours: which is to be the greatest work man ever performed on the earth.” – Brigham Young, Roberts, B.H. Journal of Discourses 18:213.)

In a remarkable discourse to the Nauvoo Relief Society in 9 June 1842, the prophet declared “All the religious world is boasting of its righteousness–it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind and retard our progress by filling us with self righteousness–The nearer we get to our heavenly father the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our backs.”

Truly, Joseph believed that our one of our purposes on this earth was to learn to become in our own way saviors for those around us.

Brigham Young also echoed this thought:

“This probation is given us that we may learn this … how to succor those who are tempted and tried as we are, when we have the power to rescue them from the ravages of the enemy.” (Journal of Discourses 17:142–3.)

I’ll close with the remarkable thoughts of Elder Widtsoe in part to show the enduring appeal of this idea in Mormon thought and in part because it is a beautifully formulated expression of these ideas.

“In our preexistent state, in the day of the great council, we made a[n] … agreement with the Almighty. The Lord proposed a plan. … We accepted it. Since the plan is intended for all men, we became parties to the salvation of every person under that plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves but … saviors for the whole human family. We went into a partnership with the Lord. The working out of the plan became then not merely the Father’s work, and the Savior’s work, but also our work. The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purpose of the eternal plan of salvation.”

“That places us in a very responsible attitude towards the human race. By that doctrine, with the Lord at the head, we become saviors on Mount Zion, all committed to the great plan of offering salvation to the untold numbers of spirits. To do this is the Lord’s self-imposed duty, this great labor his highest glory. Likewise, it is man’s duty, self-imposed, his pleasure and joy, his labor, and ultimately his glory.” (“The Worth of Souls,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934, p. 189.)

Glenn Beck’s focus on individual salvation is contrary to the gospel which I know and preach to the world. The blessing of the restored gospel is that mankind is linked together in a vast plan of salvation. This plan is not merely individual but collective and involves the formation of linkages and relationships that will endure the burning of the earth and create a truly celestial kingdom on the earth.

Gay Mormon Drama Part Three

This is the third and final part of a paper I wrote for an American Drama Class entitled

Saints in America: the development of an authentic gay Mormon theater in light of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Thanks again to Zelophehad’s Daughter for the great post on the topic.

This last part focuses on newer works with a more faith driven approach to the topic. I am thrilled to see that Happy Little Secrets will be playing again soon in Salt Lake City and contributed to the project which everyone can  and should do here.

Faithful works and the New Play Project

Fortunately, in the past year it really seems like faithful Latter Day Saints have been stepping up to the challenge and working to craft reverential takes on the topic. Eric Samuelson the head of the playwriting program at BYU recently premiered a play called Borderlands with ticket proceeds going to benefit Affirmation, the national organization for gay and lesbian Mormons[1]. “I wrote a play about coming out,” said Samuelson about the play. “Not just coming out in the usual sense—in fact, in ‘Borderlands,’ the one gay character is already out. It’s a play about all the other ways we come out as Mormons, about admitting that we don’t necessarily believe what we’re supposed to believe, or that we don’t always find it possible to live the way we’re expected to live.[2]” Samuelson is a faithful writer that at the same time is not afraid to deal with tough issues of identity or sexuality. His dramatic series of short one act entitled Peculiarities, for instance, deals with questions of love, relationship and sexuality in ways that are uncommon in traditional faith-based writing. Thus, his influence has the potential to take LDS playwriting to a whole new level of quality. He envisions the possibility of the Great Mormon Drama similar to what Jewish novelists such as Chaim Potok are able to accomplish[3].

Likewise, the New Play Project describes itself as a pioneer in values-driven theatre. Yet, its writers have not shied away from topics of sex and same sex attractions. Writer Melissa Leilani Larson’s Happy Little Secrets represents perhaps a new age in plays about homosexuality. As one reviewer describes it “In stark contrast to what one might expect in a Mormon play “about” same-sex attraction, there is never a word uttered regarding “the church’s stand,” never a discussion about doctrine or policies, no recounting of the terrible human costs exacted by …. well, you get the idea.[4]” Protagonist Claire struggles with her unrequited attraction for her roommate Brennan whom is oblivious of her affectations. Yet, Claire truly lives up to the virtues that she aspires to, by sacrificing her own dreams and continuing to be a loyal friend. In the worst of the author, “Here’s a real person dealing with this situation, and she’s not going to make fun of it because it’s her situation. She’s not going to make light of it at the same time that she’s not going to let it destroy her life.[5]

Thus, this play does a lot to bring same-sex tendencies to the fore as a normal part of human development. “The play made the problem of same-sex attraction as normal, that is, as credible and as admittedly part of our set of struggles as, say, other-sex attraction outside of bounds. Or as normal as bulimia, or drug addiction, or pornography–and yet without the spectacle of those “issues,” either.[6]

For a culture that two decades ago claimed to have no problem with homosexuality, it seems to me that this is a major step in the right direction. It is likely that faithful writers will continue to engage with this complex and difficult topic. These stories seem to also give hope that an alternative exists beyond suicide or abandonment of faith. By recontextalizing homosexuality within the context of the secrets that others keep deep within, or in the context of day to day sacrifices, these writers are able to offer some degree of comfort for those practicing saints with homosexual tendencies.


[1] Theater Notes

Posted 2009-09-14 16:33:16 by Kelly Ashkettle http://www.inthisweek.com/view.php?id=1300281

[2] Borderlands reading set for Affirmation National Conference

August 30,; Salt Lake City Theater Examiner; Jenniffer Wardellhttp://ww.examiner.com/x-6858-Salt-Lake-City-Theater-Examiner~y2009m8d30-Borderlands-reading-set-for-Affirmation-National-Conference

[3] Whither Mormon Drama? Look First to a Theatre ; Eric Samuelson;  http://gospelink.com/library/document/90947?highlight=5l; Membership required for access

[4] A Brave and Reverent Mormon Play: Little Happy Secrets ; http://gideonburton.typepad.com/gideon_burtons_blog/2009/03/little-happy-secrets-review.html

[5] INTERVIEWED BY BENJAMIN CROWDER; http://mormonartist.net/issue-1/melissa-leilani-larson/

[6] A Brave and Reverent Mormon Play: Little Happy Secrets ; http://gideonburton.typepad.com/gideon_burtons_blog/2009/03/little-happy-secrets-review.html

Gay Mormons and Drama Part Two

Here is the second part of a paper that I wrote last year from an American Drama Class on Homosexuality and Mormon Drama entitled:

Saints in America: the development of an authentic gay Mormon theater in light of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Thanks to Zelophad’s Daughter for the excellent posts on the same topic that have inspired me to post this paper:

Memoirs, Confessions and Shock Therapy

Confessions of a Mormon Boy, a one man monologue written by Steven Fales is described by Fales as “transformational theatre (Introduction xviii),[1]” and this seems like an accurate description of a whole genre that has exploded in popularity in recent years[2]. Other plays included squarely within this genre are 14 written by Brigham Young University shock treatment survivor John Cameron[3] and Missa Solemnis: The Play About Henry, written by a non-Mormon that spent a month living among Latter Day Saints[4], which tells the true story of Henry Stuart Mathis a young gay man whom committed suicide. Likewise, although fictional, Carol Lynn Pearson’s Facing East is situated in the center of this genre[5]. All of these plays are characterized by their semi-autobiographical nature as well as their expression of many uniquely Latter Day Saint elements.  While somewhat dissimilar, all of these stories share certain elements including repeated attempts at reparative therapy, prayer for healing and considered, attempted or successful suicides. Mathias in particular is found with knees calloused from his intense prayer for relief[6]. The characters are devout and clearly show it in their thoughts, words and actions.

In each of these plays, in contrast to Angels, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—or as Fales describes it the “socio economic political-tax-exempt-multinational-corporation posing as the Kingdom of God on Earth ( p. 37) ”— is a formidable institution in people’s lives. Fales, Cameron and Matthias each served full time two year missions for the church. Several characters attend church sponsored Brigham Young University. These individuals live and breathe their church life and service. As Fales describes it

Like most Mormons, church was my life. Getting baptized by my dad when I was eight. Getting blessings from him when I was sick. Passing the sacrament to my mother for the first time when I was twelve in my new white shirt and tie. Ward Christmas parties, stake road shows, scouting and church sports, youth dances and firesides. Good Times. Good people! (p. 37)

Because of the central role of the church in each of these individuals’ lives, excommunication is a looming and almost inevitable threat in each of these narratives. Fales in particular describes the harrowing consequences of excommunication in great detail. Institutional punishment is a particularly awful fate that drives characters to despair, addiction or even suicide.

Hymns and Mormon specific songs play a large role in defining characters and relationships in each of these plays. The Pre-Show music for Confessions of a Mormon Boy includes music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir including a fade on “When the Saints go marching in, ( p. 9)” meanwhile while Fales speaks about his excommunication, the primary hymn “I wonder when he comes again” is sung  first by a child who breaks down and sobs, and later by Fales himself (p. 36). Likewise, in 14, “the storytelling is layered with snippets of LDS hymns, such as “We Are Sowing” and “When Upon Life’s Billows,” before building to graphic later scenes depicting what’s happening as Aaron is being electrically shocked while viewing pornographic images.[7]” The usage of these songs creates a jarring juxtaposition between the familiar and comforting, and the emotionally wrenching and disconcerting. These authors use these elements similarly to Kushner’s powerful usage of the Kadidsh at the end of Angels.

Linguistically, these plays are able to grasp the nuances of LDS language in an effective and poignant fashion. One repeated element in these plays is the linguistic unwillingness to admit that homosexuality is anything more than an attraction or a disorder. The voice over at the start of Mormon Boy bellows “ Brothers and Sisters: So-Called Gays or Gender-Disorienteds, may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control ( p. 11). After his excommunication, Fales is especially aghast that he “was excommunicated for something the Church said didn’t exist ( p. 41).” Likewise, the lead character in 14 undergoes shock therapy to cure his S.G.A ( Same Gender Attraction). Other distinctly Mormon elements such as referring to God as Heavenly Father are linguistic threads that run throughout each of these plays.

Specific elements of Mormon scripture are also cited repeatedly in these productions. Fales recounts his favorite passage from the book of Mormon (p. 11). Likewise Marcus the lover of suicide victim Andrew in Facing East recounts stargazing and looking for Kolob in the sky (Facing East, p. 43). Likewise, seminal works by church authorities are also referred to such as Spencer W. Kimball’s suicide inducing The Miracle of Forgiveness (Mormon Boy, Page 28) Thus, these characters speak, think and sound like members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Theologically, these plays also seem to grasp at the elements that make homosexuality a unique challenge for Mormons.  Fales originally Salt Lake City version of the play features a lengthy dialogue with Heavenly Mother the female deity in the LDS pantheon with reflections on the Mormon concept of pre-mortal existence. In LDS theology, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.[8]” Likewise, male and female marriages are believed to be eternal and a heavenly designed union. Alex and Ruth the grieving parents in Facing East reflect on the fact that their sons gay relationship could never have been eternal “Ruth: He Isn’t even a member of the Church. Alex: And if he was they could get married in the temple? ( P. 33) ” The eternal consequences of heterosexual marriage leads added weight to the struggles of the tormented gay characters in each of these plays.  Fale’s account of his wedding day is especially heartbreaking

“What was my most spiritual experience? My Wedding day. Kneeling across the altar with Emily. I’d been crying throughout the whole thing. I felt God had given me such a precious gift. Who else would Marry a gay man? I never wanted to hurt her. I intended to be with her forever. “( p. 39)

Fales is torn between his duty to someone that he cherishes and cares for, and his desire to be truly in love. Thus, while Angels is able to portray the disintegration of a family unit, these plays are better able to carry the spiritual and eternal consequences entailed. Likewise, Matthias and Andrew both commit suicide outside of temples as a way to express their spiritual anguish.

It is also because of this eternal nature of families that the actions of characters in these plays are so emotionally devastating to the families involved.            Each family tries to respond with love and understanding, Ruth the mother in Facing East Sobs as she lists all of the things that they did for their son including therapy and putting his name on the temple prayer roll (p. 52). Likewise, the closeted and struggling characters encounter positive spiritual guidance from members of the church and friends.  Pearson, Fales Mother-in-law, is a source of guidance and comfort. Likewise, a Bishop in Missa Solemnis is shown in a loving pastoral role as he has Matis promise to contact him if he ever contemplates suicide[9]. Yet, each of these individuals are also restrained by their spiritual belief that homosexual conduct is at its core sinful. Ruth holds firm saying that, “We could not bless him in his sin! You know that’s the one thing we could not do! (p. 52)” and declares that if they were wrong about homosexuality being a sin, “then my whole life is a waste and I would wish to be in that grave along with my son. And I would hope there is no resurrection morning ( p. 53).” She can love and care but never could fully come to accept.

Ultimately, the message that these plays convey is rather muted hope. Moments of charity and understanding break through the bleak horizon of depression and despair. Fales has his play funded by supportive straight Mormon friends (p. 74) and Marcus and Alex decide to go out to dinner together (Facing East, P. 54). There is the potential for understanding on the individual level. Indeed, Pearson’s play is the most optimistic of them all, as it suggests “The play is an indictment but also an invitation to dialogue.[10]

Yet, none of these plays feature gay men that are able to maintain their faith despite all of the challenges and contradictions. There is somewhat of a self-selection effect as those with the strongest exit stories are most likely to craft plays or short stories about that experience. Moreover, Fales, for instance, has actually become progressively more critical and vociferous in his subsequent works as he goes in depth into the secret/sacred Endowment ceremony[11].  These plays have appealed heavily to gay audiences and may be off putting to LDS audiences because of their usage of profanity and/or nudity. There are also accusations of exploitation of the stories of dead members to make a political point[12].  Is the genre condemned to have the only serious takes on homosexuality in Mormon culture come from outsiders or the disaffected, or can some internal dialogue be generated.

“If religious stories aren’t particularly unusual in Utah theaters, local producers say they are always interested in fresh takes on familiar dramas. “I think the tragic gay Mormon story has to be over soon,” says Jerry Rapier, who directed Pearson’s “Facing East. “Where is the story about the well-adjusted gay man who isn’t traumatized about separating himself from an unaccepting faith? Or where’s the story of a gay man who finds himself inside the faith?[13]


[1] Confessions of a Mormon Boy; Steven Fales; 2006; Salt Lake City

[2] The Salt Lake Tribune; March 15, 2008; By Ellen Fagg retrived on http://www.rickross.com/reference/mormon/mormon493.html

[3]Latter-day sinners; Sharyn Jackson; Time Out New York / Issue 683 : Oct 30–Nov 5, 2008

Read more: http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/gay/68298/latter-day-sinners#ixzz0gtW4guS3 http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/gay/68298/latter-day-sinners

[4] 14 and Missa Solemnis are not currently available in print.

[5] Pearson’s play is based on the attempted suicide of a good friend; http://moviedearest.blogspot.com/2009/06/reverends-interview-facing-east-with.html

[6] Shades of Gay; ELIZABETH BACHNER ; http://www.offoffoff.com/theater/2008/missa_solemnis_or_the_play_about_henry.php

[7] The Salt Lake Tribune; March 15, 2008; By Ellen Fagg; http://www.rickross.com/reference/mormon/mormon493.html

[8] The Family: A Proclamation to the World; http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,161-1-11-1,00.html

[9] A Latter-Day Loss

by Edward Karam

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry reviewed November 15, 2008’ http://www.offoffonline.com/archives.php?id=1492

[10] TUESDAY, JUNE 9, 2009;

Reverend’s Interview: Facing East with Playwright Carol Lynn Pearson;  http://moviedearest.blogspot.com/2009/06/reverends-interview-facing-east-with.html

[11]Steven Stanley
January 22, 2009 http://www.stagescenela.com/html/missionary_position.html

[12] http://www.fairlds.org/Reviews/Rvw200701.html

[13] Fagg; 2008