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Book Review: Jake Johnson, MORMONS, MUSICAL THEATER, AND BELONGING IN AMERICA (Illinois, 2019)

By August 15, 2019


Once I wrote this sentence: “The musical Saturday’s Warrior might well be the most influential theological text within the church since Bruce R. McConkie’s strikingly assertive 1958 Mormon Doctrine.” At the time I stared at the line on my computer and then deleted them. It felt like the claim needed more unpacking that I was in a position to do at the moment. Thankfully, Jake Johnson has stepped forward to do that work. Here is a creative and often insightful reading of Mormon popular culture, a topic that certainly deserves this sort of attention.

Johnson’s argument is that musical theater has been particularly influential within the LDS church for two reasons.

First, Mormons embrace what Johnson calls a “theology of voice.” The spoken word is particularly influential among church members, he claims, because of the church’s emphasis upon prophecy. “Mormonism’s loquacious God,” says Johnson, delegates the power of his voice. (14) This phenomenon, which Mormon theologians have called “divine investiture,” dates back as far as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in which God appointed Jesus to speak for him, and Jesus in turn made Joseph Smith a prophet. Smith then delegated that power to other authoritative figures. Though Johnson does not unpack this unfolding of prophecy as thoroughly as he might, this ecclesiology of delegation and appointment is for him preeminently an act of speech. Authority is expressed through echoing the language and even verbal style (that is, the voice) of those in authority, as David Knowlton has observed of the vocal patterns of the LDS testimony meeting.

This is, I think, a smart argument, and in an odd way I think it reveals the faith’s rootedness in American Protestantism, whose reliance on Scripture is always in an uneasy embrace with the verbal word of the preacher. Protestants produced innumerable manuals of preaching produced in nineteenth century America, and the ways in which they sought to reconcile the authority of the written word with the mass appeal of the verbal word are strikingly similar to the tensions of authority Johnson sees within Joseph Smith’s nascent movement. For instance, Johnson cites the famous minister Henry Ward Beecher, who dismissed the theater as “garish” and “buffoonery.” (58) But of course, Beecher was famous precisely for his skill in preaching, his theatrical, imposing presence behind the pulpit, and he had many ideas about the relationship between scripture, verbalization, and truth (most tending toward the liberal).

Johnson traces this impulse toward speech and investiture through Mormon history, spending much of his time with the famous “transfiguration” of Brigham Young in August 1844, at which Young, speaking to the gathered and confused faithful in the wake of the assassination of Joseph Smith, was said to have taken on the image and voice of Smith. For Johnson, this was an act of mimicry. Young was, as Johnson notes, known for love of acting and the theater, and Johnson believes he consciously took on Smith’s voice and affect in an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty and take on the mantle of the fallen prophet.

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The Eagle Scout in General Conference

By May 11, 2018


On Tuesday the Church Newsroom announced a “Plan for Worldwide Initiative for Children and Youth” that will change, among other things, Personal Progress and the Church’s relationship to Scouting. Yesterday I wrote about mentions of the Personal Progress program in General Conference. Today I look at mentions of the Eagle Scout award.

[Edit: Due to a very embarrassing error on my part, I only searched from 1940 to the present. There were two mentions of Eagle Scouts before 1950: In 1924 then-President Heber J Grant quoted approvingly a letter published in the Improvement Era that enthused at some length about Mormon scouting and included the line “There are more boys of advanced rank and a greater percentage of Eagle scouts than in any other section of America” (1924 April, p 155). In 1923 Apostle Richard R Lyman said, in a talk on training young people, “You cannot know what real scouting is until you have at least one Eagle Scout in your troop” (1923 April, p 157).]

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“A little bit of that in there, too”: Arcade Fire and Mormon Heaven

By April 27, 2018


This is the latest installment in a very sporadic series of posts on Mormonism and music. And by very sporadic, I mean the first such post in nearly seven years. Previous posts include “Of Mormon Fundamentalism and Outlaw Country Music” and “Conveying Joseph Smith: Brandon Flowers, Arthur Kane, and the Mormon Rock Star Image.”

_______________________

Win Butler. Screenshot from “Put Your Money on Me” music video.

Arcade Fire is a Canadian indie rock band. Their lead singer, Win Butler, and his younger brother and bandmate, William Butler, were raised by a Latter-day Saint mother in northern California and suburban Houston. Though neither is a practicing Mormon today, the Butlers have had mostly positive things to say about their LDS upbringing. Here’s Win in a 2010 interview:

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Gem from the Local Archive: My Turn on Earth

By April 17, 2017


For years, our hi-fi stereo languished in the attic. But it?s been dusted off and now resides in a place of honor in our teenager?s room, because vinyl is hip again, and suddenly we?re glad we saved our record collection all these years. Recently an LDS friend passed along some records she thought our teen might enjoy spinning, and tucked into the stack was a genuine piece of 1970s Mormon culture, a double album cast recording of the 1977 musical My Turn on Earth. With lyrics by poet Carol Lynn Pearson and music by Lex de Azevedo, My Turn on Earth turned the Plan of Salvation into a modern-day child?s parable tracing one girl?s journey from her preexistence in heaven, through allegorical earth life and back.

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Fake News, Leaked Documents, and the Book of Mormon: Part I (1829)

By February 6, 2017


Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 8.15.27 PMFake news has been in the — well — news. Over the course of the runup to the 2016 presidential election, everything from conspiracy theories to wholly fabricated stories about the two major parties’ candidates spread like wildfire, dominating the stories liked and shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And it hasn’t let up since Donald Trump was elected, with his administration labeling mainstream news outlets like CNN and the New York Times “fake news,” all while Trump and his spokespeople routinely lie, contradict themselves, and fabricate wholesale massacres to advance their agenda. 

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Mormons and Refugees: A Reading List from the Juvenile Instructor and Friends

By January 29, 2017


lds armenian refugees 1921_zpsdtce7hd8

Image courtesy of Ardis Parshall, keepapitchinin.org.

Some recommended reading from Juvenile Instructor bloggers and friends on the history of Mormonism and/as refugees:


A Gem from the Local Archive: A Beginner’s Boston

By January 12, 2017


When you live in a place over twenty years, and you come to know people who?ve lived there even longer than you, now and then you stumble over something in what we might call the local archives. Much of both the material and intellectual culture of Mormonism ? indeed, of any group through which a thread of commonality can be drawn ? never makes it into a formal archival collection. This is true even for old things, which have had more time to make their way out of private trunks, attics, and boxes into museums and historical societies and libraries. Just this week I saw someone on Twitter threatening to make a list of things offered for sale on eBay that, by rights, should belong in a public records office. But I daresay it?s even more true for things from recent history. For starters, no one fully knows which items of the endless detritus of the 20th century deserves preserving, and for seconds, a lot of it is still counted among living people?s prized possessions.

2-img_2528 One of those possessions was recently lent to me by a friend. The provenance of this object is probably convoluted, but suffice it to say, it?s from the local archives, and there?s more where this came from. It?s uncatalogued. But it?s a gem, nonetheless.

The object in question is a revised 1973 edition of a book that was first published in 1966. Its author, whose name no doubt is familiar to all our readers, has just released a new book, which arrived crisp and thick in my mailbox this very week. But this is her very first book.

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The Visitors: Jack Chick and the Intellectual History of Modern Anti-Mormonism

By October 25, 2016


0061_05In the summer of 2002, while knocking on doors in the sweltering August heat of suburban Phoenix, my missionary companion and I were handed a small booklet by a less-than-friendly individual. Entitled The Visitors, the short illustrated tract told the story of two Mormon missionaries who arrive to teach a woman considering converting to Mormonism. Arriving at Fran’ doorstep with the hope of committing her to baptism that evening, the Elders are greeted not only by their anxious investigator, but also her niece, Janice, also a missionary preparing to do humanitarian work as a nurse in Africa.

A few minutes into their lesson, the missionaries are confronted by Fran’s surprisingly knowledgeable niece about various points of Mormon doctrine, doctrine the missionaries had failed to previously reveal to Fran. Horrified to learn that the Mormons believe, among other things, that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers, that God is a man (and not a spirit) with multiple wives in his heavenly abode, and Joseph Smith was fluent in the occult culture of early 19th century America, Fran asks the missionaries to leave and not come back. But Janice not only saved her beloved aunt that evening. She also, as we discover in the strip’s final frames, sparked the seeds of doubt in one of the missionary’s own minds.

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A Brief History of Mormon Prayers at the Republican National Convention

By July 26, 2016


Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 12.20.41 PMLast week, Nathan Johnson, an African-American convert to Mormonism who currently serves as second counselor in the Kirtland Ohio Stake Presidency, offered the invocation on the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Johnson’s prayer attracted a fair amount of attention, both because of Mormons’ widespread distaste for Donald Trump and his campaign and because of the prayer’s content. But Johnson was not the first Latter-day Saint to pray at the Republican National Convention. In fact, four out of the last five have featured invocations by Mormons: Steve Young (2000), Sheri Dew (2004), Ken Hutchins (2012), and Nathan Johnson (2016). Only the 2008 convention lacked a Latter-day Saint prayer.[1] 

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare their respective prayers, to note any commonalities between them (beyond use of thee, thou, and thine), and to consider the contexts in which they were given. What follows below is a transcription of each invocation, followed by my preliminary attempt to briefly historicize each.

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Mormon Studies in Unexpected Places: Volume III: The Refiner’s Fire Edition

By January 20, 2016


Bone HunterThis is the third installment in an ongoing but terribly irregular series dedicated to the appearance of Mormon Studies in popular media, including musical lyrics, popular television shows, movies, and so forth. Previous installments can be read here and here.

A friend recently tipped me off to a series of books by Sarah Andrews, in which Wyoming-born geologist Emily ‘Em’ Hansen uses her geological skills to help solve murders in various locales throughout the western United States.[1] The third installment in the series, Bone Hunter, takes place in Salt Lake City and Snowbird, Utah, where the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology is being held.[2] Here’s Publisher’s Weekly’s summary of the plot:

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