Friday, October 17, 2008

"A 'Peculiarly Orthodox' Mormon Fantasy"

Here are some excerpts from a new review of D. Michael Martindale's novel Brother Brigham, the first title I published through Zarahemla Books. Appearing in the current Sunstone magazine, the review is by Mathew N. Schmalz, associate professor of religious studies and director of the college honors program at the College of the Holy Cross, a Catholic liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts.

I had ordered Brother Brigham, a novel written by D. Michael Martindale, for my “Modern Religious Movements” class, which examines the LDS tradition. . . . I received a couple of phone calls from irate Utah Catholics concerned that I was presenting Mormonism in a positive light. Comments posted on the [Salt Lake] Tribune’s website expressed shock that a professor would teach Mormonism through a single fictional novel—evidently missing the point that Brother Brigham was only one of a variety of readings I was using in the course. I also received a phone call from a book review editor for a magazine in southern Utah who insisted that I should use some different texts and authors next time around. If nothing else, the rather intense nature of this particular discussion shows how fiction can evoke powerful feelings about the way in which a specific religious tradition is portrayed.

Strangely, after all this discussion, I wasn’t sure if anyone I had spoken with had actually read Brother Brigham. They certainly should—and not just for reasons of academic interest. Brother Brigham is a real page-turner. . . .

The students in my class enjoyed the furious pacing of the book, and the general consensus was that the novel worked well simply as fiction—Mormon or otherwise. But what made the novel special was how it prompted discussion of the tensions and desires hidden just below the surface of everyday Mormon life and religious practice. Most fundamentally, Brother Brigham probes one of the central moral ambiguities of Mormonism: Is something ethical simply because God commands it, or are there other criteria for distinguishing right from wrong?

While Brother Brigham might seem to revel in the most controversial aspects of the LDS tradition, it concludes with a powerful vindication of orthodox Mormonism. . . . In discussing these thematic elements of Brother Brigham, some of my students wondered whether the entire novel is really an exercise in “conforming to evade.” In other words, they wondered whether the novel’s final conformity with current mainstream Mormon orthodoxy enables it to evade the traditional Mormon prohibition against sexuality explicit material. Of course, “sexually explicit” is a relative term, and if Brother Brigham were made into a film, it probably would be rated only PG-13. . . .

After teaching Brother Brigham, I came to see the novel rather differently than I had at first. I have always ruminated over why Latter-day Saints describe themselves as a “peculiar people.” While there are many ways to interpret this phrase, I have always thought that it expresses how Mormonism is “out of sync” with the world just enough to give witness to a reality that transcends the world. . . . Following this line of reasoning, one might say that Brother Brigham is a “peculiarly orthodox” Mormon fantasy that pushes the boundaries of LDS tradition only to reaffirm them in the end. . . . But what everyone would probably agree on is that Brother Brigham—peculiar or not—is one heck of a good read.

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