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

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two

As outlined in my last post , Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" and concepts like Carl Jung's archetypes and "collective unconscious" seem to tie well into J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson's conversation with C.S. Lewis that helped convince him to become a Christian... that the similarity between world mythologies and Christianity is because they are being drawn from the same source, a pre-existent memory, a collective unconsciousness that is guiding mankind towards the "true myth" of Christianity.

The Christ story, however, is not the only "true myth." I've seen Campbell's pattern not only pop up in religious narratives such as the life of Christ and Buddha and Muhammad (some whose historicity is obviously debated depending on your religious views), but also in the lives of more established historical figures... try applying Campbell's pattern to Joan of Arc for example, and other epic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. You'll find some striking consistency. One of the most perfect examples I've found, however, is the life of Joseph Smith. His life plays out like an epic myth, the kind of stuff which would be seem obviously constructed after the fact, if we hadn't so many historical proofs to back up the basic outline of the story. Now, obviously, events like the First Vision are up for debate, if you're not an orthodox Mormon, but other events like Liberty Jail (which I'll figure conveniently in Campbell's "Belly of the Whale" stage) are without question historical facts in the American religious narrative. So I find it interesting that this pattern can crop up is non-structured scenarios in history, which attests to the universality of the Hero's Journey model and how it is not only a convenient way to plot a story, but also an immortal way to show the truth of how spirituality plays out.

Which brings us not only to the life of Joseph Smith, but the pattern he layed out about man's existence, what Mormons like to call the Plan of Salvation. In the rest of my essay, I'll go through Campbell's Hero's Journey pattern and apply it first to Joseph Smith's life and by then I think you'll also see how the pattern applies to the Plan of Salvation and our individual journeys through mortality:

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pre-Existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero's Journey, Part One

For the past several years I have had a connection that has been floating around in my brain which I've been itching to iterate. In studying things as far flung as psychology, C.S. Lewis, Mormon theology/history, literary/mythical archetypes, world religions, and diverse world histories, these disparate parts have led me to connections which form a pattern to the experiences of C.S. Lewis, the life of Joseph Smith, but also to the Mormon concept of the Plan of Salvation.

I have been teaching about Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" in my high school creative writing class and so it has set me back on this track of thinking which has been boring its way into my everyday unconscious for a long time now. For those unaware of what exactly "The Hero's Journey" is, it chiefly comes from a book Joseph Campbell wrote called The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Written in 1949, it was a very important book that set forth the idea that there are patterns and archetypes found in all sorts of disparate mythology, fairy tales, religious narratives, and folk lore. That all these stories from unconnected and far flung cultures follow one basic story. It is also a trend that can be found in epic literature and film, which is uncannily and unconsciously present in everything from Homer's The Odyssey to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. And many writers now purposely craft their tales to follow this pattern, George Lucas's Star Wars being one of the most famous examples.

I also purposely followed this pattern with my play Prometheus Unbound several years ago (and have addressed it less directly in other plays such as Swallow the Sun and my new work Manifest), much because the idea has fascinated me ever since I was taught it in my high school sophmore honors English class. Ms. Drummond mentioned Carl Jung's revolutionary studies in the early and mid 20th century about archetypes (a simpler overview here) and the collective unconscious. In my terms, archetypes are repeating patterns that happen in mythology and other stories, in psychology, in dreams, and even (at least from what I've been able to observe) in many points in recorded, literal history (try applying this pattern to Joan of Arc, for example). And the collective unconscious is a kind of shared subconscious mind... a repository of pre-existent information that is spiritually or psychologically hard wired into human beings and acts as a kind of unseen guide that assists them through the human drama.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Writing the Hard History

I have written two LDS History plays, one called Friends of God (about the events leading up to Joseph Smith's martyrdom) the other called The Fading Flower (about the conflict surrounding the LDS/ RLDS schism about polygamy, especially as it related to Joseph and Emma Smith's family). I was criticized by some people for writing the plays (one family member even told me after seeing the play, that he thought I was going to go apostate). Some people thought that the plays brought up too many uncomfortable facts in Church history. They thought that presenting a less than ideal image of Church figures would be damaging to people's faith. And, truth told, there are some people I know who struggled with both plays.

The irony, of course, is that I wrote the plays to build up faith rather than tear it down... I consider the plays to tell the faith of people who struggled, but were ultimately redeemed by those struggles, either in this life or the next. The plays clearly state God's reality and love and show the Church's leaders as inspired, although not perfect. I addressed hard questions, but I also believe I presented answers to those questions, if people were willing to put aside their prejudices and preconceptions. And that, more often than not, proved to be the case.

I had one actor who had gone inactive until he was in Friends of God and then decided to go on a full time mission as a result of being in the play and the Spirit he felt in being part of it. The plays opened up conversations with less active, former member, and non-member friends. I had numerous people come up to me (sometimes in tears) telling me how the play addressed issues they had been struggling with for a long time and that it had answered their prayers. I had people who came with thoughtful, faithful, spiritual experiences and we rejoiced together and were edified together. Both sets of casts, especially, felt spiritual uplift and a sense of mission with each play, even to the point where we had spiritual experiences in feeling presences and angels assisting and participating with us in our work. I won't go into too much detail there, for its sacred ground for me, but I felt spiritual assistance in bringing those plays to their fulfillment. Again and again, I felt why the Lord had spurred me on in these projects.

However, there was one instance where I doubted myself on this front. The Fading Flower was accepted as part of BYU's "Writers/Dramatugs/Actors Workshop," which workshops new plays before producing a staged reading of the piece (I was excited about this since I wasn't even a BYU student). The play, which deals with some pretty heavy historical realities, especially regarding the practice of polygamy in the 19th century by the LDS Church, hit a couple of the students pretty hard.

Expectations of a Prophet: Keeping the Faith Series, Part Two

There's an old joke or maxim someone once told me which has stuck with me: "Catholics say the Pope is infallible, but don't really believe it. Mormons say the Prophet is fallible, but don't really believe it." It's a bit of glib saying, and stereotypes both groups, but there are some underlining principles in the thought that have been helpful to me in my life.

When I talk to Mormons who are struggling with their faith, a reoccurring theme strikes me. What we were talking about could be centered on Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or Boyd K. Packer. The surface concern could be Joseph Smith practicing polygamy, one of the myriad of peppered and explosive things Brigham Young said (or the speculative theologies he advocated, whether it was Adam-God theory or what not), or the recent brouhaha over Elder Packer's seemingly insensitive remarks during Conference about homosexuality. But underneath all those concerns is a deeper root that gnaws on all these people... prophets are flawed. And if they are flawed, can they truly be prophets?

Now to me these days, understanding that these good leaders are flawed is a kind of a "no duh" moment. I don't say that flippantly or insensitively, because in Mormon culture that's a real issue people have to struggle with, and we've cultivated this image of a prophet as this kind of stainless demi-god. Not quite celestialized, but as close as one can possibly get in this life, as if the angels are just standing by just in case they get that call to teleport him to the City of Enoch. Rather I call it a "no duh" moment, for myself, because I have steeped myself in studies of Church History (both the early Church and the more modern Church) the past several years, and if you want to keep your faith in that exercise, you have to start altering that perception because one thing is sure: you are going to discover the flaws. Even the contradictions. When you start finding one prophet saying one thing and another flatly contradicting him, or making an obvious error, or being less than Christ-like in a heated moment, then you hit a tail spin and lose your bearings for a bit. You ask, "Wait, is this really part of the program?"

Now when I first encountered this, really encountered it on a larger scale, I was lucky. I had helpful stories I had heard rattling in my head, like the one Truman G. Madsen recounts (and I'm paraphrasing and dramatizing from memory, since I don't have Madsen's lectures about Joseph Smith on hand):

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Keeping the Faith_: Series Introduction, "Floods, Fortresses, and Faith"

Recently I had an old friend contact me about some struggles she had been having as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Her husband has been cutting himself off from the Church because of a lot of research he has been doing from anti-Mormon sources. As he has discussed the issues drudged up, she has been shocked by the things she had never heard of before and it's taken a toll on her own convictions. She has been struggling to keep the faith she has cherished and served for, and has been wanting to find an informed position which can help her with these issues.
My friend discovered some of my writing through my Facebook page and my previous blog and came to believe that I might be able to help, since I seemed well informed on Church History and these other issues she's been struggling with. More than even helping her husband (she doesn't believe he's coming back to the faith), she was asking for help for herself. I've been responding to her privately, but the issues she's brought up (everything from feminism to polygamy to the Church's previous priesthood ban on members of African descent to the complicated nuances of Church History to gay rights to the Book of Abraham to Book of Mormon historicity ) are all heavy issues. I feel equipped to give an informed position on each of them, but it would take time (and returning to review some of my books) to address them in a way that was adequate. A peppy little pick me up speech isn't going to do the trick. These are complex, detailed issues and they deserve complex, detailed answers.

Reset Button

I've had two other experiences with blogging. I contribute to the Mormon arts and literature blog A Motley Vision with several other people, and I also had a blog called Proving Contraries which addressed Mormon spirituality, history, and culture from a believer's perspective. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get back onto my Proving Contraries account for the life of me (did I forget the right password and username?). So rather than being continually frustrated in trying to find my other blog, I decided to create this blog with a wider scope than either of my blogging efforts so far.

And My Soul Hungered is meant to have a more personal touch. I'll still deal with Mormon issues quite often, in both a personal and an academic sense, but I'll also discuss aspects of my own personal life and a wider outlook on life and the arts. I want to be able discuss everything from Shakespeare to teaching high school to Anton Chekov to my latest play I'm writing to Mormon history to really cool or heartbreaking experiences that I'm having. I want to express the full gamut.

So here we are.