17 June 2011

"Mindless" Entertainment

Being the theater lover that I am, I look forward to the Tonys every year. I love the opportunity to watch snippets of shows that I rarely get to see and enjoy the chance to scope out new musicals and audition songs.

This year, though, I didn't tune in. Partly because there weren't any shows that I was in any way interested in, and partly because - liberal in the arts as I can be - I didn't really have much of a desire to watch The Book of Mormon musical writers crow over what they've done. It felt like a little much. I have a hard time stomaching theater of any kind that, as was put so well by John Mark Reynolds of the Post, debases or mocks an already debased or mocked group. Artistically it's just a cheap laugh; religiously it makes me sick.

The reaction to this musical has interested me on both sides. Predictably, people outside of my faith call the musical funny or use this as an opportunity to bring up more reasons why my church is hard to understand. Inside the faith there are generally two responses: scripture quoting about the last days and a symbolic "turn up the nose", or excuse the musical as "mindless" entertainment and move on with life.

For many people, either response is good enough. The leaders of the church have asked us not to engage in debates but to kindly abstain from patronizing the musical and to move on with life. Recently, in fact, the church has launched a kind of advertising blitz on the city of New York with their "I'm a Mormon" campaign - commercials designed to introduce you to the everyday Mormon involved in many different things. It's a nice, user friendly way of getting rid of some stereotypes.

When I start getting a bit frustrated, though, is when those who patronize the arts or produce it (or claim to) in our church do nothing but bash the corruption in Broadway/Hollywood/Literature or turn away from it but do nothing to fill the void. It's all fine and great to say that Hollywood is a mess of political, sexual, provocative trash, but the fact of the matter is: they have better writers and better producers than we do, so we can't complain. Same with Broadway. Same with literature. Until members of the church can fill the void with something worth seeing/reading/listening to, we can't sit back and whine about the trash and expect it to suddenly go away. From where I stand, right now we are mostly combating one form of "mindless" entertainment with another form of "mindless" entertainment.

Think about it: what do members of the church really have that speaks to those outside of the group? More specifically, out of the Utah Valley group. Single's Ward is, perhaps, the best known LDS comedy and likely isn't nearly as entertaining to those outside of the culture of a Utah Valley Single's Ward. The best known drama may be The Other Side of Heaven, which wasn't even produced/primarily acted in by members of the church - it was Disney. And if Saturday's Warrior is the best musical we have to offer . . . well. . . Even the music of the church - while the Tabernacle Choir is certainly a notable exception to this rule, LDS pop music is generally quite sentimental. (I should add that I would definitely also make Orson Scott Card an exceptions to this rule - Ender's Game, for example, is both broad in audience and smart, unlike Stephanie Meyer who manages one for two - and not the better one of the two.)

Maybe I'm just a snob. But where are the LDS artists capable of writing something as powerful as The King's Speech? Or writing books as powerful as To Kill a Mockingbird? Or music as moving as The Rite of Spring? We complain about the bad culture of the world - but the most beautiful, revered, and touching forms of art that reach people are ALSO produced outside of the church. Does it have to be this way?

My point is this: there is no such thing as "mindless entertainment". Whether we are watching and interacting with the arts actively or not, they are changing the make up of who we are by influencing the culture to which we relate. If we as members of the church intend to help promote goodness in the arts, we have some re-examination to do. We must build and refine our culture beyond the trite, vinyl lettered world we love. We need to look into expanding and refining our own culture so that we are capable of influencing others better. (I have many ideas on this, most of which probably should not be written about until I've got them organized. For now, though, read Douglas Callister's "Your Refined Heavenly Home", a speech given at BYU in 2006. It's completely genius.)

I'll end with two thoughts. The first is this: I wish that members of the church could find a way to write about our faith the way Chaim Potok writes about Judaism. His books are deeply religious while still being very universal.

My second is this: it is not enough for us to stand by and watch the arts of the world be corrupted. Music, dance, theater and literature are and always have been powerful tools in touching the lives of people. If we are to make a difference instead of just making a fuss, we need to remember the words of Handel who stated after the first performance of the Messiah, "My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wish to make them better." Them, in this case, I believe - can apply to the individual, and to the art form itself.


Liz Busby said...

Ah, so you have stumbled upon the quest for the Great Mormon Author? form a line. I could suggest many articles to read on this subject, but probably the most important thing you could do is join the Association for Mormon Letters, which is trying to do just that.

You should also try to get a hold of the Film special edition of BYU Studies and read the article "Seeking after the Good in Art, Drama, Film, and Literature" by Travis T. Anderson: http://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=7268. It mirrors your thoughts pretty well, examining the use of the word "wholesome" as it pertains to entertainment.

Me said...

Liz -

I knew you'd have something to say, because I remember having this conversation with you forever ago, specifically as related to Chaim Potok. Thanks for the tips on the articles. I'll jump that direction.

Yes - the GMA quest is one that has been around with me for a while, but now it's being frustrated by the homeschool community I associate with so closely. These people are afraid even of Mormon fiction, which makes me want to pull out hair. They're in the "NOTHING IS SAFE!!!" mentality. Always amazes me how few people out there remember that the whole restoration of the gospel was completed by those brave enough to ask questions and seek out good things. . . but. . . now I'm tangenting. . .

A. Bailey said...

This was so beautifully put. I love reading your stuff. You and my husband are probably two of the most eloquent and well spoken people I know when it comes to things like this. You don't take it lying down, but you don't bash about it either. You say what you believe and you say what you have to say in a well reasoned and sensible way. I wish I were more like you.

Me said...

Amanda, thanks so much for your comment. I think the world of you as well and so appreciate your feedback. Thank you!