Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mormons Twelve: Prophets and the Printing Press

As I parted ways with Zarate—her partner had long since wandered off, probably down the street to the mall—I felt a creeping depression. I sat under the statue of the seagulls and tried to think of what did make me different from those condescending BBC fucks who seek out the bizarre to mock it.

Then I remembered the dream, that dream of the tempest, my question about the one and true faith, and the answer in a bolt of light that struck me with the force of a1000 orgasms. That was six years ago. It had taken me four years to admit the story to anyone, and then another year to get that nonsense down on paper.

Even then I wasn’t comfortable with the episode.

Though I believe in the value of artistic license, I consider myself a journalist who happens to be a storyteller and rarely just make something up. At the end of my last Mormon cycle, I did exactly that. I chronicled the highlights how they happened (as best I could from my own perspective) right up to the point Elder Lee declared I should be baptized.

I wasn’t comfortable with the truth of what followed. I will try again, that summer afternoon now a year farther in the distance is no less hazy.

Elder Lee had been emphatic about my baptism. Yet there were no fanatics in Temple clothes waiting in the room behind. I imagine now the white robed Mormons were inspired by the dancing clansmen number from the Jerry Springer - The Opera. When Elder Lee said I should be baptized immediately, he had meant as soon as possible, not that same afternoon. It wasn’t Lee who had shaken me, I expected he would have gone to great lengths to dunk me in the water.

It was the persuasiveness of his quiet partner that had thrown me into spiritual vertigo.
Elder McFadden’s rebuttal to my objections was thorough and heartfelt. I was a pretty good debater in my day. It used to be that my words came quicker the bigger the hole I had to dig out of. But this quiet boy from Idaho had left me without a clever escape.

All I could do was say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it.”

Then I got up and left. I don’t recall either of them bothering me after that day. All three of us had reached the end of that road together.

Absolutely nothing about the Mormon Church has called to my wakeful self since, not the über social conservatism, the authoritarian theocratic structure, and certainly not the teetotaling. No, none of it appeals as a framework for understanding my life’s purpose.

But what was it about that fucking dream, and where did it all come from? Maybe my first missionary friends had planted a seed through some sort of subliminal trickery, or maybe there was a subtext I was missing—the storm and the bolt of light could have represented something other than the obvious message from God commanding me to become a Latter-day Saint.

Why else would I be here, in Salt Lake City, almost six years to the day of my nocturnal vision, the creepiest, most irrational episode in my adventures to date?

I am still looking to close this chapter and move on. In a way Sister Zarate was the person I had been waiting to meet. Here was a young woman who believes in a book that tells her she still bears the mark of God’s curse on her ancestors. Here I sit, in the Zion of her religion, learning about a spirituality that may or may not have called me through vision, not accepting this curse, or any of the tedious rubbish written by a charlatan, however charismatic.

I recollected my thoughts in a safe space, a shabby used bookstore a few blocks south of the square. Peter, the 50 something shaggy haired man behind the counter, looked something like Ron Kovic without the wheelchair, though he looked a bit too young to have served during the war. I browsed the shelves of second hand Mormon offerings, Discourses on the Holy Ghost, The Aaronic Priesthood through the Centuries, Faith Like the Ancients Volumes 1-8. With a few of these titles on my bed stand I would never need another sleeping pill. I asked Peter if he had any controversial books on Mormonism, and he waved me away.

“Whatever I got is on those shelves,” he said.

I was surprised by his surliness. Surely a place like this housed some worthwhile reads on the Saints. When I got to the back of the store I found Peter’s real interests were comics and vintage pornography, not scandalous religious treatises. He had an impressive collection of old Hustlers that included Larry Flynt’s bizarre Christian period, who else but the Horatio Alger of porn would have thought it possible to market an evangelical skin magazine? Peter knew his market. The June 1978 issue with the iconic cover of a woman torso deep into a meat grinder was priced at $35 bucks.

I opted for a five-dollar paperback from the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card talking about his relationship with the LDS Church. I bought it for the chapter where Card objects to the western world’s defense of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses on the grounds that a man from the Muslim background who deliberately defames Islam should know better and deserves what is coming to him. Blood atonement, anyone?

I had the pleasure of hearing Rushdie speak in Cartagena this winter, and because he always gets the question, he spoke at length about the fatwa against him and his great joy when the writers of the world and the defenders of free speech rallied to his defense. Who would have thought the creator of Ender’s Game would abandon humanism and side with the jihadis seeking a return to the dark ages.

When I got up to the counter a guy was unloading boxes of his comic collection from his truck to sell to Peter. The guy said he was just out of the service, and showed us a couple of psyops comics he had brought back from Iraq. I asked the soldier about the psyops comics and he explained that the DoD had servicemen draw them and then had the language experts translate them into Arabic.

I asked Peter if I could take a look at one. He shook his head and said not until he had sorted through them. I had just asking out of respect. I gave him a “what is wrong with you?” glare. He changed his mind and let me look at one of the psyops comics. They seemed pretty dark, gritty stories where the good guys looked just as scary as the bad guys. Probably a good pitch as Iraqi kids have seen more than their share of grit in the world.

The soldier said he needed 200 bucks for his collection. Peter wasn’t buying, so the soldier reloaded his truck with the boxes. Before he left he came back into the store and handed me one of his psyops comics. I followed him out of the store to shake his hand and give him five bucks.

I still had several hours before the train, where I’d spend my last night on the road. It was too early for dinner, so I hit the free Imax film at the Lion House, Brigham Young’s other palatial residence a block from the Beehive House on the corner of Temple Square. The film covered the life of one of the more fascinating characters from the 19th century. But it left out all the good parts: his early days as a diviner and treasure hunter, his ingenious if fraudulent real estate and currency scheme in Kirtland, Ohio, his trials with infidelity and eventual revelation of plural marriage, his run for President of the United States of America. The massacres were tedious affairs, so predictably one-sided. Granted these were the original Saints, but the filmmaker didn’t have the decency to color them human or paint their adversaries as anything more than God hating mongrels.

After an hour of pious cheek turning and a meticulous preparation for martyrdom, the heathen mob finally graced the screen. I wanted to cheer as they stormed his second floor cell, not because I didn’t feel for the real Joseph, but because this piece of shit was almost over. The film had the gall deny us the gratification of Joseph’s bullet ridden fall from his cell’s window. The frame froze just before he plunged to a mortal death, and the image tilted skyward to where God was waiting to welcome his lamb home.

When the screen went black I sprung from my seat, earlier than appropriate judged by the sour looks I got from the withered church ladies on the way out. How can they watch this bilge three times an afternoon, five times a week?

An old man seated outside the entrance asked me what I thought of the film. I told him I was disappointed.

“It’s a great story, but they left so much of it out,” I said.

“Yeah, there’s a lot to cover,” he said. “I sure am glad I’m not the one that has to make the decisions on what goes into those pictures.”

What did I expect from a free IMAX feature? Of course they couldn’t make Joseph Smith an interesting character, the church has to deify him. In this respect the film did a pretty good job creating a religious story that fits into the America's own national myths. The brawny, blue-eyed leading man guided his flock to build godly communities. Their cities on the hill out shined the evils inherent in the New World wilderness surrounding them. It was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown pumped with steroids and stripped of irony and ambiguity.

But LDS is a young institution, and must get the most out of modern media as it builds upon its foundation myth. It has got its hands full on this one. It’s an uphill fight creating myths in the age of the printing press, lot less the internet.

Joseph Smith knew this as well as anyone in his time. The irony—one we won’t see portrayed in a church sanctioned film—is that the lynch mob pursued Smith for the sin of destroying a printing press. Smith the presidential candidate could not palate unsavory truths about the church elites and their polygamy then being published in his fiefdom of Nauvoo. Joseph’s greatest political miscalculation, that he could get away with destroying a press in a city where he was more powerful than the sitting President, ended up providing the miracle by which Mormonism survived the loss of its prophet. Rank and file Mormons, many of whom had crossed the Atlantic to be with the great Joseph Smith, were horrified when the polygamy of their leaders came to light. Smith’s martyrdom was the glue that held the church together in the face of the ugly truths the press exposed in the month of Joseph’s death.

Mormonism is not the only religion to come out of 19th century, but it was arguably the most successful. The Bahai, the Unitarian Univeralists and other transcendental churches, the new religions of Japan, none of these faiths were as successful in grafting contemporary struggles onto the framework of ancient practices and beliefs. Ages of economic and social upheaval beg for spiritual tonics, and there was no better snake oil salesman to deliver them than brother Joseph Smith.

Perhaps the Mormon God does have a streak of the Old Testament in him. I had contemptuous thoughts all through the shitty movie, and I was not a block away from the theater before I notice a sharp pain in the back of my throat. I started coughing. I never cough. There was nothing I could do but medicate with some Indian food that I ordered South Asian hot. The spices along with an excellent Chai seemed to keep the Mormon wrath at bay.

I managed to cough and wheeze my way back to the station in time for last leg of the Zephyr. Worn down, (was this pig flu?) I went in for my first sleeper cabin. I coughed myself to sleep above the syncopated rhythm of a passenger car clanking over the aging freight rails laid on the same track as the first transcontinental rail road. 18 hours to summer in San Francisco.

1 comment:

Tim Tolka said...

Excellently written. It's almost there. Immanently publishable.