In the play Other Desert Cities (Salt Lakers can see it now at Pioneer Memorial Theater!) Polly and Lyman Wyeth are respectively a successful writer and actor in Hollywood before turning to Republican politics later in life. Their son Trip and semi-estranged daughter Brooke come home to celebrate the holidays with their parents and an alcoholic aunt, Silda, who lives with and is dependent on the Wyeths. The drama centers around Brooke’s decision to publish a memoir about being raised by her famous parents and another brother Henry’s involvement in radical politics, a bombing and Henry’s suicide.
Brooke has poured her heart and soul into her book and believes it contains hard, difficult truths about her parents, their friends and their politics that led to Henry’s alienation and death. She is the uncompromising artist speaking truth to power who also, it turns out, wants her parents’ blessing before publishing. Not surprisingly they are unwilling to give it. Brooke’s parents have a different view of what transpired and beg her to not publish or at least delay until they are dead. Silda urges Brooke forward, sure she has captured the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy of the Wyeth’s coterie. Trip doesn’t try to dissuade Brooke from publishing but says he doesn’t recognize the people in the book as the people who raised him.
At its heart the play is about a family’s fight to control the meaning of events that have impacted them all. Because Brooke’s claims are grounded in her personal experience, when an alternative meaning to the events is suggested she experiences it as an attack on herself. She feels accused of being an unreliable narrator of her own history.
Meaning making is not restricted just to events within families of course. Within and without the church there are competing narratives that seek to explain the significance of one thing or another. Joseph Smith is God’s prophet. Joseph Smith is an obvious charlatan. Joseph Smith is God’s prophet or a serial adulterer. Joseph Smith is God’s prophet and a serial adulterer. Joseph Smith is a religious genius endowed with a prodigious imagination who originated the only truly authentic American religion. God created Joseph Smith a religious genius and endowed him with a prodigious imagination in order to restore the fullness of the gospel
Before the internet age only three or four narratives about the Mormon church were readily available and within the Mormon church the correlated version of Mormon history reigned supreme. In many ways a faith promoting history centered around the first vision, the trek across the plains and a heroic leadership was an attractive option for a rapidly internationalizing church looking for an easily digestible narrative.
By omitting important events from the correlated history and restricting access to its archives the church opened itself up to charges of whitewashing. But those charges never gained much traction until two things happened. First the church was successful enough on several fronts that it increasingly became an object of fascination to outsiders. The Mormon church was being featured on the covers of news magazines and the stories inside them invariably included claims of secrecy, oppression and name checked the September Six. Second and more importantly, the costs of seeking out new information fell to almost zero. A tempting mélange of facts and opinion were now just a click away. Average members were suddenly aware not only of Joseph Smith’s marriages to other men’s wives, but were being told what to think about it.
The church has since given unprecedented access to its archives and promoted and paid for serious scholarly work. Well-received books written by church historians tackle the most controversial events in Mormon history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In the current, more open environment the church has sought to take back the initiative and control the contours and meaning of its history and current events. The most obvious manifestation of this is the LDS newsroom which bills itself as “the official resource for news media, opinion leaders and the public”. When a member, particularly a prominent member, or news organization gets further out in their interpretation of events or teachings than the church wants, the news room will offer a corrective that is seen as authoritative. At times the newsrooms statements are surprisingly far reaching such as its response to statements made by then-current BYU professor Randy Bott. This has led some to dub the newsroom the 13th apostle.
By and large I am appreciative of the newsroom. For anyone interested in Mormonism it is a useful source of timely information. At times though it drives me nuts. Like when it announces a new semiannual general women’s meeting to replace the annual Relief Society and Young Women’s meetings with no comment on why a change has been made. I mean I know why the church made the change, but I want the newsroom to say it. I want the church to acknowledge that I am right and validate my feelings on the matter. Like Brooke in Other Desert Cities I want to strip any hypocrisy away so that everyone can see the Truth.
The problem with insisting that the church do what I want, however, is that it inevitably leads to disappointment. The church just isn’t that interested in what Mathew thinks about anything. It probably isn’t interested in what you think either. This can be hard. If the church would listen to me it would surely save itself a lot of embarrassment. And because the things I think are personal at times it feels not just that my opinions are being rejected but some more fundamental part of myself. I’m ready to lay my talents on the altar and am being told that those particular talents are not really needed right now, thank you very much. As you can imagine, for a clever fellow like me it’s a downer.
I’ve mostly learned to not insist too much that the church adopt my views. This is undoubtedly why I still count myself a member of the church and enjoy the blessings it has to offer me and my family. I haven’t abandoned many of my views and though I’m occasionally teased by a talk at general conference or a change in policy, I expect to die a voice in the wilderness. But I also expect to die a Mormon. I definitely expect to die. And then we’ll see who is right. In the mean time, it’s good to go to church and be with the saints, such as we are.