Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

True Myths and Spiritual Words: The Development of my Dramatic Voice, Part One

Note: This is the first draft of an essay I have to write to accompany my thesis play for my MFA program in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. It will change due to feedback I have received, and thus I will probably update it as I go along. I am posting it in two parts. The essay is meant to focus on my journey as a playwright, the development of my work at ASU, as well as the ideas and authors that have influenced my work (so pardon the navel gazing. It was part of the assignment...honest!). Here's part one:

True Myths and Spiritual Words:
The Development of my Dramatic Voice
The Essay for my MFA Thesis Play and my Body of Work at ASU
By Mahonri Stewart
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and perhaps the most influential theologian of Christianity in the 20th century, was once an avowed atheist. Not long after the death of his mother when he was eight years old, until his early thirties, his beliefs flatly contradicted the positions he would passionately take up later in his life.
Lewis was a great lover of mythology, of the Norse legends and the Greek tales, of all sorts of ancient stories. But he certainly didn’t believe they were real stories. He saw religion as another extension of just such a mythology. Despite his great love for magical stories and monumental myths, and the “joy” they brought him, he told his Catholic friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who would become the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, that these myths were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”[1]
Furthermore, when it came to Christianity, it wasn’t even original! It was the Johnny Come Lately of world religion, relying on the “dying god myths” of the past—the Greek Prometheus, the Egyptian Osiris, and C.S. Lewis’s favorite myth about the death of the Norse god Balder. Lewis saw the myth of Jesus Christ as a direct plagiarism of that which had come before it. A dying god made alive again? That story had already been told.[2]
In a late night conversation with his friend and fellow Oxford educator Tolkien, as well as their friend Hugo Dyson, a Shakespearean scholar who taught at Reading University, Lewis had gotten to the point of his spiritual journey in recognizing the possibility of God. He had become a theist. But Christianity was still incomprehensible to him, for the above stated reasons. As these three friends walked in the woods together, after dinner one evening, the old argument came out of Lewis, but J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson countered it.
I dramatized that conversation in my published play, Swallow the Sun: 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

We Would Have to Get a Revelation: Continuing Revelation and the Mormon Feminism Crisis

On November 9, 1997, then President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Gordon B. Hinckley gave an interview with Compass, an Australian television program. Within the interview with President Hinckley (who was accompanied by his beloved wife Marjorie), interviewer David Ransom brought up the topic of female ordination, over a decade before the recent, heart breaking debate came to fore recently about the Ordain Women movement among the Church's members and leadership. President Hinckley's reply is revealing in the context of the recent Mormon Feminist Moment the Church is now experiencing and the crisis it has caused many of its members (on both sides of the argument) to go through:

RB: At present women are not allowed to be priests in your Church. Why is that?
GBH: That’s right, because the Lord has put it that way. Now women have a very prominent place in this Church. They have there own organisation. Probably the largest women’s organisation in the world of 3.7 million members.  And the women of that organisation sit on Boards. Our Board of Education things of that kind. They counsel with us. We counsel together. They bring in insight that we very much appreciate and they have this tremendous organisation of the world where they grow and if you ask them they’ll say we’re happy and we’re satisfied.
RB: They all say that?
GBH: Yes. All except a oh you’ll find a little handful one or two here and there, but in 10 million members you expect that.
RB: You say the Lord has put it that way. What do you mean by that?
GBH: I mean that’s a part of His programme. Of course it is, yes.
RB: Is it possible that the rules could change in the future as the rules are on Blacks ?
GBH: He could change them, yes. If He were to change them that’s the only way it would happen.
RB: So you’d have to get a revelation?
GBH: Yes. But there’s no agitation for that. We don’t find it. Our women are happy. They’re satisfied. These bright, able, wonderful women who administer their own organisation are very happy. Ask them. Ask my wife.
GBH: Are you happy? (to his wife...)
Mrs. H: Very happy! (laughs) 
 A few very revealing things are contained in the interview which shed a good deal of light on the current crisis:

1) President Hinckley says that the policy of ordaining the women to the priesthood could change. He never says "that's not possible," as I've heard some people say, or that it is some sort of eternal principle or doctrine. He said, "[God] could change them, yes." So much of the discussion I've been hearing from the anti-Ordain Women side of things revolve around how that's just not possible, that this is how it's always been in the Church, and how it will always be, falls flat on the floor with that statement from President Hinckley. The possibility exists, he admits, but...  

2) ... It would require a revelation. "If He were to change them, that’s the only way it would happen." This, I believe, is the heart of the matter, and what my major focus will be in my thoughts here. The need for revelation from God (not a statement from the PR Department) on this matter. Continuing revelation is one of the key principles of Mormonism. If we feel we cannot ask for it in a time of crisis like this one, then I believe we are living far below the privileges the Gospel affords us. But President Hinckley explained why there was no such revelation on the books. He said...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Importunate Women: Faithful Activism and Questioning in a Gospel Context

The past couple of years seemed to have been the agony and the ecstasy for Mormon feminists. Never have there been such so many consecutive, positive changes (incremental as they are) in the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints treats and engages with the female half of its membership. The missionary age change. Prayers in General Conference by women. A push for more inclusion in ward councils. There is evidence that the Church is listening to the dialogue created by the events created by Mormon feminists seeking for more equality in the Church. Yet it often seems as if the Church makes three steps forward, only to take two steps back. 

A case in point is the recent statement made by the Church’s efforts against the feminist Mormon group Ordain Women, who wanted to sit and listen peacefully to the priesthood session of the LDS General Conference. Ordain Women collected a group of Mormon women and men together to go to the LDS Temple Square in Salt Lake City and peacefully and calmly request to be admitted, so that they could listen to the session in person. Despite the fact that one does not really have to hold the priesthood, nor does one even have to be a member of the Church to be admitted into this session…yet it does appear that one does have to be a man. On those grounds, after a personal request from the couple of hundred people who had gathered, the Church representative guarding the door declined each request and then a garbage truck was parked in front of the door to make sure that the Mormon women who were making the request could not get in once the meeting had started.

That was in 2013. Now in the Spring 2014 Conference, Ordain Women is going to attempt the same action. The Church PR Departmentrecently put out a statement which, on the one hand seemed to be pleading Ordain Women to re-consider as fellow members of the faith, and on the other hand, seemed to be doing its best to stigmatize and alienate those who were acting on their consciences in this way. When the PR department used words such as “extreme” and  “small” to describe a group that has made concentrated efforts to demonstrate that they want to remain faithful to the Church and active in their faith, while maintaining their dignity and integrity of belief, then I believe the Church’s PR department is making a great mistake in demeaning peaceful and calm activism. When it suggests that the group is “detracting from the dialogue,” when it actually appears that Ordain Women are the ones who are instigating that dialogue (many of the Church’s recent changes have occurred after Ordain Women’s related demonstrations), then that makes it appear as spin doctoring, not revelation.
I can understand why the Church would want to tone down the pressure that is being put on them by Mormon feminists. No one likes to look bad, especially when you are seeking unity among a large group of diverse people. But the Church’s PR department compounds the supposed problem by seeming dismissive and insensitive to their own fellow Church members. Many of these feminist women and men have temple recommends and hold callings and are active in their faith. I know this because I know some of them and have been impressed with their spirituality, their intelligence, their diplomacy, and their kindness. Minority as they are, Ordain Women are a growing group and when representatives of the Church treat them in an Un-Christian like manner (like the indignity of parking a garbage truck in front of them!), then that makes the Ordain Women group seem like the hurt party, and makes them all the more appealing to those like me who have sat on the fence about officially joining them (although I have not made asecret of my support for female ordination, and have admired the group’s sincere efforts, including those of OW founder Kate Kelly).    

I have read/heard many members of the Church attack the Mormon feminists in unkind and distorting ways, especially targeting those feminists who make a public “spectacle” and use activism as a way to make themselves heard among a people who would rather not listen. And, in a way, I understand the impulse to resent disruptions like these. After all, General Conference is generally seen as a time of great spirituality, healing, and renewal for most Latter-day Saints. It seems unseemly to use that time to stage a protest.

But let’s forget that emotional impulse for a moment and step back and ask the “big picture” question that this situation demands. Is it good for religious members to “protest,” question, and ask things of their own Church? Must a good Mormon/Latter-day Saint (or Catholic, or Protestant, or Muslim, or Orthodox Jew, or Quaker, etc.) defer to the judgment of their leaders in all things, never asking, never questioning, never searching deeper than the latest PR release or the sound bites related in Church approved manuals? Is inquiry a dirty word among the religious faithful? And, further still, is there ever an appropriate time when a peaceful and orderly demonstration of those questions and concerns can be held, even during very public and prominent places and times?

As a Mormon and a Christian, my mind first goes to the Gospels and the example of the Savior. As our exemplar, was there ever a time where he challenged the religious authority of his day? The question is barely asked before numerous examples of his “demonstrations” comes to mind. Jesus grappled in the public sphere against the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Prominently, I think of Jesus “cleansing” the temple in Matthew 21:12-16:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I Also Blog Other Places, So...

For those who do not know that I blog at the Association for Mormon Letters' Dawning of a Brighter Day and with Nathaniel Givens' rag tag group at Difficult Run, I'm posting this to direct you to some other recent articles I've written...

Difficult Run:

Around the time of the brouhaha of the release of the film version of Ender's Game, I thought both those boycotting the film, as well as Orson Scott Card's offensive political commentary, were a bit over the top. However, the film, and the book it's based on, are worthy of your time. I may disagree with OSC on some points, but I appreciate his artistry and the complexity of his stories and characters. Here are my posts about why I believed it was a misguided boycott and why I believe Card is sometimes a misguided author (who writes awesome books):

So anybody who meets me figures out pretty quick that I'm Mormon... and a playwright/screenwriter... so it's pretty natural that I also belong to the Association for Mormons Letters. Here's a few of my more recent posts:

-- Abandoning the Field or Fighting the Good Fight: Ethics in Business, the Arts, and Hollywood

Friday, November 15, 2013

AS IN ENOCH'S DAY, AS IN PAUL'S DAY: My Support for Female Ordination

Note: Many thanks to my wife Anne Stewart, whose wide research on this subject bolstered my own efforts. Her assistance with this article was essential and invaluable. It is her beautiful, informed and spiritual example that has been an inspiration to me in seeking Wisdom.

“The [Relief] Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.”[1]

 The context of this remarkable statement was Joseph Smith speaking at the third meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female organization Relief Society on March 30, 1842 (although in those days the Relief Society was an autonomous organization that was yet still connected to the Church in its purpose). Joseph Smith was a guest speaker nine times to the Relief Society before it was disbanded right before his death (and reinstated a decade later when Eliza R. Snow urged Brigham Young to give the organization a second chance). The Minutes were recorded in the official Relief Society Minutes Book in Secretary Eliza R. Snow’s own hand,[2] which are now available online from the LDS Church’s official Joseph Smith papers.

The above statement by Joseph Smith is one of the many pieces of evidence that have made me side with faithful Mormon feminists in the recent brouhaha over the issue of women’s ordination in the LDS Church. To me, this shows that Joseph Smith was considering an expanded priesthood role for women, specifically through the mechanism of an autonomous Relief Society. Unfortunately, conflicts with Joseph’s wife Emma and other women over polygamy, his martyrdom in Carthage Jail, and Brigham Young’s retrenchment tendencies when he felt his authority was being challenged, derailed this possibility of female priesthood being enforced in its fullness (although the Mormon temple endowment, especially the Second Anointing, was indeed a partial fulfillment, which I will briefly and respectfully discuss later). 

Women’s roles in the Church are not an issue of “doubt” for me, although there have been times in my life where doubts have certainly raised their unsettling concerns, as they have for most honest inquirers. In the end, however, investigating an expanded role for women in the Church has rather had the opposite effect. I am filled with faith and the Spirit when I’ve prayerfully studied the issue and realize that statements from Joseph Smith (like the one above) and LDS scriptures show that gender issues are not so cut and dry as many Mormons would have us believe, and that revelation still has to come line upon line, precept upon precept to the Latter-day Saints. We are not an “unchanging” Church, but rather an eternally progressing Church that is still striving to live up to its potential of building Zion upon the Earth.   

Rather, doubts have come when I’ve considered the confusing “separate but equal” rhetoric issued to defend the lack of priesthood authority given to women. I feel nothing but alienation, confusion, and darkness when I prayerfully consider such justifications of gender inequalities. Trying to adopt such attitudes in the past have NEVER brought me peace, but rather a repressed unease. I feel farther from our Heavenly Parents when I consider such a constricted view of my mother, my sisters, my friends, my nieces, my in-laws, my aunts, my wife, my daughter, my Heavenly Mother. I not only feel farther from my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, but nearly as tragically, I also feel more distant from those beautiful women in my life. Whether I throw women on a pedestal or in a pit, we are not, at that point, on equal footing. That distance is created. 

And I don’t want distance—I long for closeness, friendship, kinship, and fellowship with the women in my life. I have had a long, personal history with women. I have seven sisters. The majority of my friends in Jr. High and High School were female. My mother was a vitally important influence in my life. Many of my historical and literary heroes are women, from Joan of Arc, to Emma Smith, to Charlotte Bronte, to Lorraine Hansberry. My wife is my best friend, and I long for a beautiful, empowering future for my 3 year old daughter. As a general rule, I tend to feel closer and more connection to women than I do with men. Some may not think that I have much “skin in the game,” because I am a privileged, white male in an equal rights struggle. Yet this issue is quite personal to me, and it is spiritually urgent.

Friday, July 19, 2013

True Myths: Mythopoiea and the Collective Unconscious

Zion Theatre Company’s production of “Prometheus Unbound.” Photo by Greg Deakins.
As evidenced by the upcoming production of my play Prometheus Unbound, I’m a big lover of mythology. As a child I remember delightedly pouring over a book of myths about Hercules I found in my elementary school’s library. The mythology units in my high school English classes were always some of my favorite. In recent years, I’ve expanded my interests to all sorts of world mythologies, from the Egyptian to the Australian Aboriginal to the Norse to the Native American. All cultures, at their heart, have some splendidly interesting myths, legends, and stories. However, as time went on it became more than an imaginative interest fueled by escapism. Before too long studying mythology became a spiritual journey for me.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of finding patterns. Some may say that it is coincidental, that our mind tries to find meaning in a meaningless world. However, I for one am with psychologist Carl Jung in the opposing belief: “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order” (Jung, “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”). In addition to Jung’s idea of a collective consciousness, additional scholars like Joseph Campbell (not to mention pop culture icons like George Lucas, who uses such archetypes extensively in his Star Wars films) have argued for just such a patterning that seems to spill out in human myths, fairy tales, and stories. So as I read and find corollaries between Osiris and Christ, Pandora and Eve, Iphigenia and Isaac, Loki and Lucifer, when I look at the universal flood myths, I am always fascinated.

But, historically, there have been many who have found this phenomenon to be more suspicious than faith promoting, finding basis to think that later stories, such as the Johnny-come-lately Christianity, were steeped in mythological plagiarism. This, in part, was C.S. Lewis’s objection to Christianity during his atheist stage before his conversion to Christianity made him one of greatest “defenders of the faith” of the 20th century. But, despite C.S. Lewis’s deep love of mythology (the Norse myth about Balder, a particular favorite of his, caused him deep yearnings when he was younger), the similarities seemed too blatant to Lewis. Christianity may have had many things going for it…originality was not one of them. He called such myths “lies…breathed through silver” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 43).

On Saturday September 19th, 1931, C.S. Lewis had two of his friends over. One was Hugo Dyson, a Shakespearean scholar you probably have never heard of. The other, who you almost certainly have heard of, was J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien and Hugo, unlike Lewis, were deeply religious, which was a sore point in an otherwise very fruitful friendship. Lewis was in the middle of his conversion, having already had some spiritual experiences after the death of his father that he had difficulty explaining. But he still resisted against that final leap from theism to Christianity.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Desperate Prayers: Keeping the Faith as Mormon Artists

Kathryn Laycock Little and Amos Omer in New Play Project’s production of “The Fading Flower.” Photo by Greg Deakins.


The lure is there. Always. As an artist, writer, scholar, academic, etc. you want to explore, to search, to find uncharted places, and make illuminating insights. Thus the cling of dogma or doctrine can feel like the weight of shackles rather than the truth that will make you free. It’s a rare thing to find an artist, a writer, a scholar, a reader, any human being, really, (whether carpenter, accountant, or freshman college student) who hasn’t had those desperate, so desperate, soulful prayers; who hasn’t felt those doubtful shadows closing in; who hasn’t felt the conflict between the vivid memory of very real spiritual experiences and the world shifting nature of new information, or the fresh conflict of political and social and personal upheavals.

We try to hide it, to show that we’re strong, to show that nothing can shake a faith so monumental as ours, a mind so well informed as ours, a life so supposedly faithful as ours. That in a world of disaffected artists and cynical academics, we are the exception, that we can withstand the pressure that others couldn’t. That we can be that light on a dark hill, to shine as an example that others can draw strength from. But, really, all of that is a bluff, it’s whistling in the dark. When the lights are off and no one is looking, we feel like little children who wake up to realize the threat in last night’s nightmare is, indeed, still very real. That this Thing is targeting us just as expertly and painfully as the next person. That we, too, are vulnerable.

Thinking is a dangerous, explosive, beautiful, necessary thing, and it is not something that God just wants us to turn off. Pondering and soul searching is part of the process that leads to sanctification. In his own crucible of affliction and desperate prayers, that hell hole called “Liberty” Jail, the 19th century Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith wrote these words:
The things of God 
are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only 
find them out. Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul 
unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the 
lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal 
expanse; he must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, 
than the vain imaginations of the human heart, none but fools will trifle with the souls of 
men (History of the Church, vol. 3, p. 295).