Response to Levi Petersen’s "The Backslider"

I just dug this out of a file on my computer: a response I wrote up about my initial reading of Levi Peterson’s The Backslider. I have a few issues with it now, but it’s still worth sharing. 

The Backslider is frequently listed as one of the best literary Mormon novels. If I had to compare it to the works of any mainstream American writer, I would lump it with those of Flannery O’Connor, particularly Wise Blood. Like Hazel Motes, Frank J. Windham, the main character of the novel, is on the run from Jesus, who serves as a kind of antagonist throughout most of the novel. As the title suggests, Frank is a backslider from Mormonism; early on, he is described as “[a] fellow who belonged to the true church and who believed in God but wished he didn’t” (7). Frank, in a sense, is obsessed with sin, particularly sexual sin—not only the committing of it, which he feels he has an overwhelming propensity for, but also God’s faithful tallying of it. Of course, throughout the novel we realize that Frank is not alone; most of the Mormons in this novel see redemption as a trade-off, a deal cut with God: righteous living for salvation. Frank, however, feels very much alone in his struggles with the flesh, especially after he begins sleeping with the daughter of his Lutheran employer. For him, it becomes only a matter of time before God strikes.
God strikes in the form of a literal emasculation, which marks both an important turning point in the novel and the beginning of the novel’s serious exploration of the idea of Christ’s grace, the major theme of the novel. During a deer hunt, which I am coming to see as rite of passage for Utah Mormon men, Frank’s pious brother Jeremy, who is visiting from Brigham Young University, kills his first buck, guts it, then runs off into the woods and emasculates himself with his hunting knife, leaving him, as Frank later puts it, “nothing but a woman now” (167). Frank, of course, takes Jeremy’s self-mutilation as a sign; that night, he has a vision of a gun-wielding God:
[Frank] peered inside a rifle barrel. He saw shiny spiraling grooves and a cartridge locked into the firing chamber. He saw the bead at the end of the barrel, and behind that, the notch of the rear sight, and behind that, oh God, an eye taking sights on Frank J. Windham! God had been tracking him in his sights night and day; he hadn’t missed a thing. Furthermore, he wasn’t deterred by blood and agony. He didn’t mind driving a good boy like Jeremy crazy in order to put fear into a coyote like Frank. He didn’t mind watching bad men hammer his own son to death on a cross just so when the time came he could skewer them on the pickets of hell. (169-170)
After this vision, Frank becomes a kind of Mormon zealot. He swears off all vanities and strives to live a chaste life. Nevertheless, nothing he does seems to erase his guilt for not only his sins, but also his supposedly sinful impulses. Ultimately, he reaches a point where he regularly whips himself and, after sleeping with his wife, even mutilates his hand with a vegetable grater as a kind of atonement for the sex. By the end of the novel, he is clearly on the path “to make [himself] like Jeremy” (418).
Frank’s struggle with sin and atonement provides an excellent study on ways Mormons come to terms with what they would call “the natural man,” which the Book of Mormon calls “an enemy to God” (Mosiah 4:30). Interestingly, while reading The Backslider, I looked at a discussion of the Mormon understanding of Jesus in Stephen Prothero’s book American Jesus, which provides a useful framework for contextualizing Frank’s relationship to God and Jesus. Historically, Prothero points out, “Mormons typically kept Jesus at arm’s length,” their relationship with him being “marked more by reverence and respect than love and intimacy” (177). Prothero accounts for this distance in a number of ways, but his primary claim is that development of Mormon temple worship, especially the rites and practices that go along with it, emphasized the individual’s role in working out his or her own salvation (or, more specifically, the Mormon notion of exaltation, the post-salvation state of being like God) at the expense of the doctrine of grace, which figures prominently in early Mormon writing, particularly in The Book of Mormon (see 183). While Prothero argues that the twentieth century and Mormon accommodations to American evangelicalism and conservatism changed much of this kind of thinking, effectively bringing grace back into Mormon theology, his conclusion suggests that there is still a strong emphasis in Mormonism on the individual’s role in salvation. The Backslider, of course, confirms all of this, even if the more sensational characters, like Jeremy, are exaggerations. If The Backslider is anything beyond fiction, it is a morality tale geared toward bringing the hosts of self-castigating Mormons back to Christ’s grace. Such a characterization of the novel, however, reduces it (or elevates it) to the level of didactic Mormon fiction, which it isn’t, in a sense. I don’t think anyone reading The Backsliderwould feel like they’re being preached to, but I could be wrong. I would like a non-Mormon’s response to The Backslider.
Of course, Peterson’s novel has little to do with temple worship, and his characters rarely discuss it or seem influenced by it, so Prothero’s discussion is of limited use. Like Prothero, however, the novel also sees a tendency in Mormonism to look beyond Christ’s atonement and focus more narrowly on good works than grace. Unlike Prothero, though, the novel locates the origins of this tendency in the so-called Mormon Reformation of the 1850s, which was an era in Mormon history—little known and rarely spoken of in the church today—that emphasized a return to righteous living and a discourse of hellfire and brimstone. In the novel, Frank is introduced to Reformation discourse through the local polygamists, who still buy into it, particularly the doctrine of blood atonement, one of the more heinous principles to come out of that era. While never a central tenant of Mormonism, even during the intensity of the 1850s, it was nevertheless taught during the Reformation that certain sins (usually murder, but sometimes adultery) were so abominable that the blood of Christ could not cover them; thus lacking an adequate mediator, offenders wishing to be reconciled with God had to have their own blood shed as an atoning sacrifice. For the novel, it seems, this doctrine is a close kin to Frank’s own understanding of atonement—indeed, it arises from the same self-castigating impulse that leads Frank to mutilate his hand with a vegetable grater and Jeremy to “sanctify” himself through castration; as the antithesis of grace, however, it wrongly places limits on the atoning power of Christ’s sacrifice and steers individuals away from Christian love. Part of The Backslider, therefore, seems to be a critique of this Reformation undercurrent in Mormonism; ultimately, Frank’s journey from backsliding to zealotry shows the pitfalls of both spectrums, and it is not until he has a vision of a cigarette-smoking, profanity-using Cowboy Jesus that he is able to quit wanting to shed his own blood and accept Christ as the mediator of his “natural man.”

Aside from being an examination of a Mormon cultural and doctrinal understanding of atonement, The Backslider is also an interesting study of gender performance and construction. One study I would like to pursue—either this quarter or later in my dissertation—is ways that contemporary Mormon novels construct masculinity or explore ways in which Mormon societies construct masculinity. The Backslider, of course, is very interested in masculine constructs and performance in Mormonism, particularly in how it both conflicts with and borrows from masculinity as it has been constructed by and performed in the American West. Throughout the novel, male characters who are devout Mormons—characters like Jeremy or Nathan, a Mormon co-worker of Frank’s—are viewed as more feminine by backsliders like Frank—and, indeed, Jeremy’s self-emasculation is meant to show this view in its extreme (in other words, Jeremy’s act is meant to make literal what is supposed to be a figurative transformation of attitude from the traditionally aggressive “masculine” attitude to a submissive “feminine” attitude). Indeed, when Frank commits himself to living his religious, he exchanges all of his trapping of masculinity—his pick-up truck, his horse, his cowboy hat, his cattle herd, his homestead, his sexual prowess, his penchant for fighting—for the signifiers of pious Mormon masculinity—scripture study, daily prayer, church and priesthood meeting attendance, chastity, humility, meekness, and devotion to family. In a sense, the novel suggests that one of the central struggles for the Mormon man (at least the Mormon man in America) is how to reconcile the ideal model of American masculinity, embodied in the rugged image of the cowboy, with the ideal model of Mormon masculinity, which is a balancing act between the meek image of Christ and the all-powerful image of God the Father. While I haven’t worked out entirely what the novel is doing with masculinity, particularly in respect to Jeremy (who, post-castration, maintains much of his masculine identity, yet plays with dolls and insists on being called “Alice”), I think Peterson means to have this tension resolved in the form of the Cowboy Jesus, who serves two functions for someone like Frank: 1) he allows Frank to occupy a traditionally feminine role, the distressed person who’s in need of rescuing (“the damsel in distress”), without feeling like his masculine gender identity is being threatened, since 2) the Cowboy Jesus, in contrast to the traditionally feminized image of Christ, serves as an acceptable model of masculinity for Frank, a dyed-in-the-wool westerner, to follow. (Jeremy, therefore, could possibly be someone who fails to understand Christ and his accommodations for the “natural man”—he is someone who feels he has to compensate for his own lack—ironically by creating a “lack—when really, according to the doctrine of grace, that’s Christ’s job. Of course, I am still working out these ideas.)

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