Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, August 12, 2006

From Today's Deseret News

Do you believe this is true?

Ex-LDS author says art, church clash

By Elaine JarvikDeseret Morning News
Six years ago, says author Brian Evenson, he had to make a choice between his church and his art. He chose his art.
Evenson is the author of six books but may be best known in his home state as the professor who left Brigham Young University after a flap over the publication of his first book, "Altmann's Tongue." He was back in Utah this week to speak at a Friday session of the Sunstone Symposium, the annual meeting that describes itself as "faith seeking understanding." This year's event, which runs through today, is focused on the intersection of Mormonism and popular culture.
Evenson asked to be excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he says, "not because of a profound disagreement with the doctrines of the church or because of moral differences" but because he felt he couldn't be both a writer and a Mormon. If he remained a member, he says, he found himself "too consciously weighing the church's opinion" of what he was writing. Being a member also limited "the way in which I processed emotion in my work," he says.
LDS writers, he told his audience in a talk called "Faithful to Whom: Art or the Church?" tend to self-censor. Many of those writers "are willing to ask questions to a certain point, and then they stop asking."
Evenson is now a professor at Brown University, where he chairs the program in literary arts.
"Altmann's Tongue," the book that made the BYU administration uneasy, is a collection of Poe-like short stories that are unflinching, at times macabre. What he wanted to portray, Evenson says, were situations where people responded to violence in unexpected ways.
As a child growing up LDS in Utah County, he was encouraged to write only positive things in his journal, he says. But what he discovered later, he says, was that his neighbors had the same struggles as people anywhere else, "even if many folks wanted to keep those problems hushed up." It was the "sense of balance, of light and dark" that fascinated him, he says.
It was an anonymous letter from a student to an LDS general authority that set in motion his eventual departure from BYU and his church. The letter accused Evenson of "writing the sort of book that was precisely the opposite of what a Mormon should write," he says. Later, his department chairman wrote a memo threatening that "further publications like it will bring repercussions." Still later, he says, the president and provost of BYU told him he had "a responsibility to members of the church to do work that will not offend them."
Evenson says he thought academic freedom would prevail but realizes now that "a religion, particularly a religion as corporate as Mormonism is, can never be reasoned with." What he has learned, he says, is that "if you decide to stand up for your own beliefs in the face of your religion, you will lose." But being challenged about his beliefs, he says, has made him a better writer.
He would like to believe, he says, "that other people might be able to do what they need to do for their writing or art and still maintain their church membership if that's what they desire. I don't think you can do it and be a typical Mormon, but I do think you can probably do it." Staying "under the radar" helps, he says.
In a question-and-answer period following Evenson's talk, several audience members noted that visual artists and musicians can more easily take risks without being censored. And, as one woman added: "There are several invisible places in the Mormon Church, and one is being an older woman."


At 8/12/2006 4:05 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Okay, I was going to wait for other people's comments on this article, but I'm not.

I think that many people use the Church as a tool to promote themselves and their work. “The Church treated me badly so I write books about bad Mormons. The church wouldn't let me write things that are blatantly un-Christ-like and are not uplifting in anyway. So I must leave the Church to protect my art.”

I just don't buy that for a second. If this guy is such an amazing author why does his other novel have to be about Mormon blood sacrifice? If Mormons are so bad, why do so many ex-Mormon authors find that they can only write anti-Mormon novels?

I think they are using their dissatisfaction as a tool to whip up sales for their work. I don't believe they were ever truly converted in the first place.

We have lots of LDS writers, who write a wide variety of genres and include language and scenes that would not be appropriate for church, and yet they don't seem to have any problem managing to stay true to their art.

I see this guy waving a big flag, shouting, "Look at me! Look at me! I'm a disaffected Mormon. I sacrificed my religion to stay true to my art. Oh, and can you come and buy my book?"

It’s hard to give up something you never had in the first place.

At 8/12/2006 6:29 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

I agree with you, Jeff. He didn't have a testimony to begin with and is using his disaffection with the Church as an excuse for his lack of talent. He falls in the same category as the older woman who is quoted about being invisible because she's an older woman, a woman whom I suspect, for whatever reason, isn't the center of attention, so it's all the Church's fault. Somehow neither of these people caught the fire that is "other" directed and instead are both self-centered "me" directed people.

Writers, musicians, and artists can be highly successful both in the LDS community and in genereal society when they remember the Savior's admonition to be converted and once converted, use whatever talents He blessed the person with to strengthen his brethern. There's something both absurd and satanically selfish in using a God given talent to hurt or undermine the Giver.

There are many of us who believe the sugary, overly sweet writing of more than a decade ago is little better than the vulgarities some consider truth today. I find most truly successful LDS writers do not shy away from sensitive topics, but have learned to portray characters and incidents that, though they may stumble, are generally moving upward and away from the negative rather than wallowing in it. Writers who create static characters and find justification for their continued depravity remind me of a man I once knew who loved to talk in Church meetings and bear his testimony. Ninty-nine percent of his talk was on the awful things he'd done, how much he drank, and what a heavy smoker he was and after glorifying his former sins he'd briefly add, "But I gave all that up for the Church,leaving the impression that his former way of life was glamorous and exciting while joining the Church was a great sacrifice. He got some kind of "kick" out of shocking people and I suspect Evenson is the same sort of person. I suspect too he has fallen for Satan's lies in believing that shock tactics are somehow more courageous and truthful than quietly giving his attention to pulling others out of the mire or encouraging unsuspecting travelors to avoid the mire.

At 8/12/2006 9:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the uproar over Evenson's book. I know who the anonymous writer was. I was their neighbor. They were in one of Evenson's classes where he promoted his book, passing out copies of some of the chapters.

Before writing the letter, they asked me to read the pages and give an opinion. Evenson's stories were horrid. This student approached several department teachers about it, all of whom encouraged the letter to be sent, but who were afraid to come forward themselves.

In my opinion, if what you want to write causes a conflict with your religion, then your testimony and belief in your religion isn't very deep. I have never had any conflict between the stories I want to write and my religion because I am personally offended by the types of stories that would also offend my church.

At 8/12/2006 10:01 PM, Anonymous Jonathan Neville said...

I have a different take on this issue. During the 1980s, my two favorite authors were Bruce R. McConkie and Stephen King. I read everything they both wrote, and to me, they had the same message, just a different way to convey it.

I didn't find Evenson's stories "horrid," even if the subject matter was dark. I picked up the newspaper today and read three articles about LDS people: a kid who shoots his mother and stuffs her in the family freezer; the father who beats his little girl to death, hitting her so hard her head put a hole in the sheetrock; and the repercussions of the Gregerson case, I think it's foolish and counterproductive to ignore the darker aspects of human nature.

I also find it unsettling that BYU professors, and the blogger #3 here, are so paranoid or uncertain about their own convictions that they are afraid to come forward themselves.

At 8/12/2006 10:52 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


I have no problem with Stephen King or Edler McConkie. I love everything they have both written (okay, I hated From a Buick 8.) I have no problem with LDS authors writing horror. In fact I have a horror novel with a national agent now and, as you can see from my previous blogs, another on the way.

I'll amit that I am a little uncomfortable with some of the things that are portrayed as horror and I saty away from graphic sex, violence, or language.
I couldn't read King's Novella Apt Pupil.

But what I have a problem with is someone telling me that you can't be a good Latter Day Saint and a good artist at the same time. It's like saying, "God gave me so much talent, I have to turn my back on Him." That really bothers me a lot.

As far as anonymous posting. I don't think it gives their sentiments any more or less value. There are many reasons for not posting your name.

At 8/13/2006 12:12 AM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

Never heard of this guy, hate Stephen King, BRM is fine but my testimony isn't based on either one.

The thing about the church is that it is true or it isn't. If it isn't then who cares what anyone writes?

If it is true and for some reason you have to choose between God and Art then I recommend God because Art will not bring you salvation.

So even if it were true that you couldn't be a great artist and a church member (which is absolute nonsense) what is the point of choosing Art? Besides fame on the Sunstone circuit, I mean.

At 8/14/2006 10:33 AM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

I agree with you Jeff, this person is bringing attention to himself and he certainly didn't need to leave the church over his issue (notice I said his issue). The problem as I saw it, was that he was promoting his book in a class full of students who came to learn the positve truths in life. as far as the beleif that literature (or the media in general), reflects what is going on in society, perhaps the writer should consider wheter it reflects or whether it creates. I can see reflective reporting on the news every night and it makes me heart sick.

At 8/14/2006 10:42 AM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

We used to sit up late at night, and pass around a flashlight and shine it on our faces, while we read Bruce R. McKonkie talks. Frightening!

Unless my memory fails me, Orson Scott Card once wrote a book that inloved a homosexual act with a minor. Last I checked he was still a member, and I think he would be offended if he was told that he wasn't being true to his art. You can be faithful to the church, and your art.

I think the problem in this case is not being a member, but rather working at BYU. I think that would be the challenge. It's hard when you mix religion and business. Not the gospel and business, but the religious organization and business. It can be tricky.

At 8/14/2006 2:55 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Part of the story that bothers me the most is the fact that the Church didn't give him any disciplinary action--he chose to leave and have his name removed.

Yes, he was asked to leave BYU, but they aren't the same thing. He took a deliberate step to choose his art over his God.

As Jennie said, he couldn't have had a testimony, or he would never make such a decision that would affect the rest of eternity.

At 8/14/2006 3:36 PM, Blogger FHL said...

I agree that he's using the controversy to stir up press. The quiet way to do it, the way female authors would get away with publishing in a male-dominated market... use a freakin' pseudonym!

Now, I can see his point about self-censoring, particularly if you want to be published in an LDS market. The publishers have the right to not publish material not in keeping with their standards.

p.s. Why did you hate From a Buick 8? Was it the lack of closure?

At 8/14/2006 3:49 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

No, I can live with lack of closure. The cell phone book didn't have closure, but I was fine with that.

The two things that bugged me was that the whole book was a big flashback, and you had to read each scebe over and over from different viewpoints. I wanted to shout, just get on with the story!


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