Do We Need to Walk a Tightrope?

I recently read Orson Scott Card’s “Walking the Tightrope” from A Storyteller in Zion. The title had not sounded familiar when I began reading, but by the end of the first paragraph, which references the controversy over Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I remembered that I had, in fact, read the essay—and forgotten it completely.

“Walking the Tightrope” is positioned historically between the excommunication of Sonia Johnson in 1979 and the 1993 excommunication of the September Six, making it a contemporary voice in the late-twentieth-century Mormon culture wars. In the essay, Card compares the division between the Mormon intelligencia and the Church hierarchy over matters of intellectual freedom, particularly the breakdown of communication and understanding, with an apparently similar division within the Muslim community. Card suggests, in both instances, that the heated reactions from all sides stem from a failure to acknowledge fault in one’s own actions—and in forgetting that “the finger of blame points both ways.” More specifically, Card argues that Mormon intellectuals, as insiders, tend to know what buttons to push to get a rise from the hierarchy—much like Rushdie knew how to anger Muslims in his depictions of Mohammed in his novel—and therefore are partly responsible for the “clamping down” on “non-official voices in the Church” that occasionally happens. Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that the public too often rallies behind “non-official” voices that are unworthy of them. Rushdie is one example he gives, and Sonia Johnson is another. In both cases, Card sees insidious intents—deliberate efforts to upset, disrupt, corrupt, and offend. Such destructiveness, it seems, is at the heart of Card’s objections to them. For him, their words do nothing but tear down.

The rest of the essay focuses on Johnson, with Card making a case for her excommunication with arguments similar to those made in favor of Kate Kelly’s recent excommunication. Drawing a clear line between “[o]pen, public criticism of a Church doctrine and policy” and having ideas or asking questions, he argues that accepting existing revelation, and having faith in its function, prevents one from slipping into apostasy. Also, he outlines a way to influence the course of the Church without crossing an apostate line (exercise persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love-unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge), and encourages readers to remain true to their higher allegiances. As he writes:

Shouldn’t we love the Church as good parents love their children? Shouldn’t we be as gentle and careful in sharing our scant wisdom with them as we hope they will be in teaching us from their great wellsprings of wisdom? And if, like children, they sometimes stingingly reject what we offer, shouldn’t we be patient, our commitment to the Church unwaering? Instead of being outraged when they read Sunstone and Dialogue, shouldn’t Latter-day Saints who open these pages be fed? Isn’t it worth keeping silence about some “truths” in order to earn their trust in the far more important truth that we have vowed to help them bear their burdens? (147)

Card then extends this challenge particularly to the Mormon artist, asserting that, as a Mormon artist, he has a much higher allegiance to the Church than to his art. As a case in point, he cites his novel Saints as a work that upset some Mormon readers—including fair-minded Mormon readers—because of its realistic depiction of Joseph Smith and the early work. For Card, this offense is neither something to be proud nor an opportunity to defend his artistic/intellectual freedom. Rather, he professes regret that his work gave offense to a fair-minded reader and hopes that he will do better in the future.

Because of Kelly’s excommunication, the basic issues at the heart of this essay continue to be relevant today—and Card’s basic argument has been rearticulated enough recently by others that I don’t feel a great need to illustrate how they apply. For me, the more interesting part of Card’s essay has to do with its application to Mormon arts—particularly in its notion that the Mormon artists give higher allegiance to their covenants than to their artistic vision. As a Mormon artist myself, I agree with this notion as I consider my covenant sacred and binding—and the core and compass of my personal and spiritual life. At the same time, I think the dichotomy is such that it creates an unnecessary conflict for the Mormon artist that doesn’t need to exist. As he does in “Prophets and Assimilationists,” that is, Card presents his readers with a kind of either/or scenario that asks them to stack one allegiance on top of another rather than recognize their interconnectedness. In “Walking the Tightrope,” which I assume refers to navigating the seemingly “fine” line between faith and apostasy, Card suggests that Mormon artists must think of themselves as Mormons first, then artists—when, in my view, covenants to consecrate all we have, including talents, ask us to be both (or all) at once. If we begin to relegate and order our interrelated and interconnected identities into a hierarchy of selves, that is, we run the risk of creating false conflicts between our worthy priorities, which could, if acted upon, minimize our contribution to the Kingdom.

For me, it seems, one way to better Mormon art is to get Mormon artists—at least those bound by covenant—to stop worrying about how their work will be received by the institution (or a grassroots establishment) and go about the work of consecrated creation. My admittedly idealistic hope, at least, is that a consecrated approach—one that recognizes the interconnectedness of the covenant and artistic creation—will iron out any potential threat a creative vision might pose and shape it instead into something more positively transformative.

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3 thoughts on “Do We Need to Walk a Tightrope?”

  1. .

    I for one believe this is possible.

    I’ve not forgotten this essay though. I think of it every time Rushdie comes up. It made me really not like the guy.

  2. I also think it’s possible. I personally can’t really separate my Mormon-ness from my artist-ness. They are one and the same. But maybe I’m just not self-aware enough.

    I really love your last paragraph. Thanks.

  3. Exactly. And yet we as a people seem to be so good at creating false conflicts. Which maybe is another reason why we as Mormon artists (non-dis-integrated) are important to Mormonism. Art can be very good at exposing false conflicts.

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