This past Sunday, Salon.com ran a piece called “The Book of Mitt,” an excerpt from Alex Pareene’s e-book The Rude Guide to Mitt. The piece is neither very original—few pieces that use the phrase “magic underpants” are—nor does it provide readers the promised “everything you need to know” to talk about Romney’s Mormonism. Mostly it makes Pareene look like an ass with a handful of Mormon jokes recycled from better pundits.
Normally, pieces like “The Book of Mitt” make me angry for a few hours until I find something more interesting to distract me. This one has stayed with me all week, though, because of comments Pareene makes about the “modern Mormon aesthetic [being] deeply indebted to Walt Disney.” Again, like most of what Pareene says in the piece, this observation is securely in the realm (or should I say Kingdom?) of cliché. (Newsweek, for example, called The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd “Disneyesque” in their September 9, 2001 article “The Mormon Moment.”) Still, the guy has a point: the Mormon aesthetic can be as cheesy and square as Mickey’s block of cheddar.
Let me backtrack. As evidence of Mormonism’s debt to Disney, Pareene looks to temple architecture, LDS hymns, and the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which seems a little facile to me. The core aesthetics of two of these Mormon cultural products—temples and hymns—predate Disney by nearly a century, while the Hill Cumorah Pageant’s camp has nearly twenty years on Disneyland’s.
Technicalities, I know. Even a Gilbert and Sullivan musical or a Dickens novel can be labeled “Disneyesque” in retrospect. And I suppose we can forgive Pareene’s examples and chalk them up to his being a shoddy observer of Mormonism. Heck, we can possibly be thankful that he is not so immersed in Mormon culture that he knows about the Living Scriptures cartoons or those ridiculous Liken the Scriptures musicals, both of which have a truer debt to Mr. Disney than temples or hymns ever will.
The same, by the way, can be said about most Mormon kitsch.
Which brings me to my issue: Is the modern Mormon aesthetic really embodied in Mormon kitsch? Recently, the fellows at Ship of Hagoth have argued that it is—at least to a certain extent—and point Horkheimer and Adorno-like to the mass appeal of low culture and its usefulness to a church with broad missionary aims. The correlation is insightful but a little disheartening. Like them, I wish How Rare a Possession and Man’s Search for Happiness were the Mormon mass culture norm rather than the exception.
At the same time, I wonder if the Mormon masses are ready for a grittier aesthetic. Mormon literature certainly has its share of Mormon cultural grit, from Richard Dutcher’s Brigham City to Todd Robert Petersen’s Family History, but it has never been warmly and widely received by Mormon consumers. Indeed, to date, the best received piece of Mormon cultural grit has been Saturday’s Warrior and its spandex naughtiness.
Unless you count the Book of Mormon, which I think could serve nicely as a model for a grittier faithful realism. Mormons may have a penchant for Disneyesque entertainment, with its superficial peril and happy endings, but they also embrace wholeheartedly a book with more real pathos and tragedy than most of what comes out of Hollywood.
Cultural critics of Mormonism, like Pareene, generally reduce the Book of Mormon to a misreading of Nephite/Lamanite dynamics, dismissing it without reading beyond the few verses in 2 Nephi they use to justify its dismissal. Mormons, likewise, tend to boil the book down to the famous “Pride Cycle” without thinking too much about the grit involved in that cycle. Moroni ends the book hopefully, no doubt, but not without first reminding readers of the cost of hope. “And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ,” he writes; “wherefore I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of my own life” (Moroni 1:3). Abinadi, along the same vein, boldly affirms the truth of his word while burning to death at the stake.
Do Mormons accept the Book of Mormon only by choosing to overlook its bleak view of mortal life? Maybe. The optimist in me, however, would like to think their acceptance of it represents a potential openness to a grittier Mormon aesthetic. Sure, Disney has Mormon culture in a headlock, but I choose to see it as a tag-team match. Just outside the ring is a wrestler of more depth and originality begging for a chance to beat the crap out of the mouse.