Guest Post: Joey Stuart on D. Michael Quinn as Asher Lev

By November 2, 2012

[JI’s good friend Joey Stuart shares some reflections on reading David Haglund’s article on D. Michael Quinn.]

David Haglund?s excellent article on Slate yesterday provoked pity and some personal soul-searching on my part. Haglund highlights the rise and fall of D. Michael Quinn, one of the most important figures in the study of Mormon History. Quinn?s relationship with President Boyd K. Packer, from his interview with President Packer to be hired at BYU to President Packer?s alleged involvement in the Church disciplinary council that cost Quinn his membership in the LDS Church. Rather than placing Quinn with the 5 other members of the ?September Six,? my thoughts turned to Asher Lev, from the protagonist of My Name is Asher Lev.[i]

Asher Lev grows up in a strict Reform Jewish home in New York in the mid-20th Century. His father is a representative for a world-widely influential Jewish political group, based in New York City.  When Asher?s mother faces a crisis of faith due to her brother?s death in a car accident, Asher learns that his religion doesn?t necessarily have the answers to everything (although it appears that his mother?s faith in Judaism is strengthened through the experience). Asher has genius-level artistic abilities, much to the chagrin of his father, who says that art is ?foolishness? and ?time wasting.? The Reb, the surprisingly liberal (for a Reform) Jewish leader Mr. Lev works for, meets with Asher, and arranges for Asher to study with a lapsed Jew (Jacob Kahn), who allows Asher to not paint on the Sabbath and keep Mosaic law in general. Eventually, Kahn pushes Asher to paint nudes, which is strictly against Asher?s upbringing, upsetting Mr. and Mrs. Lev. Asher continues to hone his skill, with a determination to keep his ?Jewishness? while becoming a master at something unappreciated by most Jews.  The culminating event of the book is when Asher must prove to himself that he is as good an artist as he thinks he is, and paints a crucifixion, leading to his shame and ostracism from his Jewish Community.

Reading Haglund?s article gave me the same initial reaction that Asher Lev did. Both the article and Asher Lev present faithful protagonists, who in spite of their belief, are seemingly left out of their faith due to their passions in life: Asher for his art and Quinn for his history research and writing. Asher gains the support of the Reb to paint; Quinn becomes research assistant to the Church Historian. Asher keeps Mosaic Law; Quinn is a temple worker and bishopric member. Neither is able to gain the approval of stern hierarchical figures, Mr. Lev and President Packer respectively. Both ultimately are pushed out of their traditions because of their craft, craft which is recognized as useful, beautiful, and inspiring in their own ways.

Perhaps most importantly, like Asher Lev, Quinn?s work grates/grated against the religious comfort level of his people. Asher painted Crucifixion in the years following the Holocaust, when Jews were blamed for the death of Christ and thus ?deserved? the Holocaust. Quinn?s writings and research on post-Manifesto polygamy, homosexual dynamics in Mormonism, magic in early Mormonism, and the Joseph Smith Succession Crisis came at a particularly sensitive time for Church History, post-Juanita Brooks and pre-Rough Stone Rolling, in the middle of the Hoffman scandal.

So is Michael Quinn the Asher Lev of Mormonism? Ostracized for excelling at their respective crafts, abandoned by the people they thought would support them most? Are they to be defined by their work in the academy or by their religion? By their ?abandonment? of their religious tradition and social norms?[ii] Did their commitment to their work lead to their demise?

What can Mormon Historians learn from Lev and Quinn?

[i] This grew out of a American Religious History 1860-2010 class discussion in April. Kudos to class members and Spencer Fluhman for pushing my thought process!

[ii] At least Asher Lev went to the art show where his ostracism came to fruition; Dr. Quinn saw Super Mario Brothers.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Drink your orange juice before the vitamins go out of it

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 2, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

  2. Nice touch to pair the story of Michael Quinn with Asher Lev. To me, the question is “How do you as a believing Mormon historian define fidelity to both academic standards, and to a religion?” That’s a tough question, and perhaps not so daunting as it might have been 30 years ago. Reading Quinn’s post-manifesto polygamy article was a watershed event for me all those years ago, not so much for the content as for the perspective that it gave me. I think because of that, I’ve been better able to reconcile researching church history objectively (as much as that is possible) and maintaining faith in the church as a member.

    Ultimately, Quinn’s story left me feeling sad, knowing that were such events happening now, the outcome possibly would be different.

    Comment by kevinf — November 2, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

  3. As to Asher Lev’s religious affiliation, I think you may have intended to say Hasidic or Orthodox, not Reform, since Reform is a liberal/progressive branch of Judaism. “Strict Reform” Judaism is almost a contradiction in terms seeing as many Reform Jews don’t keep kosher, don’t follow certain Rabbinic traditions, etc.

    Comment by nathans — November 2, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

  4. There is something messianic about all of the September Six: they had to be excommunicated/disfellowshipped so that church members today can espouse exactly the same positions with impunity.

    I know several of the Six personally and have heard them talk about the devastation the church discipline caused in their own lives and their families’ lives. I am glad the church has welcomed some of them back, but the purge should never have happened.

    Comment by EdwardJ — November 2, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

  5. Nathans: I think you’re absolutely right! My face is red, I absolutely meant Hasidic. I apologize to all whom that may have upset or effected.

    EdwardJ: The September Six are an interesting case within Mormon History, even within Mormonism. I think their full effect may not ultimately be seen until the newest “batch” of Mormon Historians comes through grad school. As I’m sure you know, there have been enormous gaps in generations of Mormon History since the SS; how and what they do with Mormon History will have a lot to do with how “messianic” the SS will appear in the future. I’m not trying to take away any pain or suffering the SS or their families have felt…I’m just not willing to say that they ensured the future of the study of Mormon History.

    Another angle to the book that I could have included is that Asher and Quinn both “bit the hand” that fed them. Asher knew what he was doing would upset his parents and the Reb, and he did it anyway. Quinn has said that he told/sought permission to publish Gordon Hinckley (then a counselor in the First Presidency) about his post-Manifesto polygamy paper, and Hinckley said he could publish it. It’s actually helped me in my own search for understanding, as well as my understandings of how faith and history can co-mingle. But when his Newsweek article denouncing the attitude of President Packer came out, he HAD to have realized who signed his paycheck (the LDS Church), and who ultimately gave him the access he needed to write books like the Origins of Power series. What would have happened if he had released these books before he lost his membership? What would happen if they were written today? I suppose we’ll find out about the latter when he releases the third part of that series next year.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 3, 2012 @ 1:17 am

  6. A lot of us are Asher Lev’s…unless we happen to play football or are in show business or are Republican politicians.

    Comment by Aaron — November 3, 2012 @ 8:50 am


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