The fantasticks

stepheniemeyer2-20081 It's still very much a mixed bag when it comes to media coverage of the Mormons.

In late 2007, when Republican and Mormon Mitt Romney was running for President, one in four voters said they wouldn't cast their ballots for a Mormon as President, according to Pew. Slightly more than half of those questioned said they didn't know much about the denomination. But it's not only heavy media coverage of California's hard-fought debate over Proposition 8 that has brought Mormons more press attention. It is also, of course, the popularity of Mormon novelist Stephenie Meyer and "Twlight", the movie based on her bestseller.

Well, "Twilight," other young adult books by Mormon authors, and Mormonism itself continue to be the topic of media discussion as reporters try to understand and then articulate the fundmentals of a faith still foreign to many United States citizens. Out in Utah, where Mormons are more than half the population, The Salt Lake Tribune published an story on the history of the denomination's attitudes towards the cross. Focused on the work of a historian at California State University in Sacramento, the article examines the thesis that while originally Mormons were comfortable with using the cross symbol in jewelry and architecture, over time it was abandoned because of its links with Catholicism.

It's no accident that Mormon steeples, temples and necks are free of Christian crosses.

LDS leaders long have said the cross, so ubiquitous among traditional Christians, symbolizes Jesus' death, while Mormons worship the risen Christ. Some Latter-day Saints go even farther, condemning the cross as some kind of pagan or satanic symbol.

Now a historian at California State University in Sacramento claims in a just-completed master's thesis that Mormon aversion to the cross is a relatively recent development in LDS history, prompted in part by anti-Catholic sentiments.

The reporter shows a knowledge of Mormon culture and theology that makes this a good read. It's helpful to readers who want to learn more about Mormonism outside of the lens of political controversies and campaigns.

On the other hand, there is this enigmatic story, also found in the Salt Lake Tribune, about the decision by Deseret Book (owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) to remove Meyer's books from the shelves of its bookstores. This is the best quote in the story, and really the only one that offers a clue as to why the publishers would have removed the popular books.

Leigh Dethman, Deseret Book spokeswoman, wouldn't answer questions about the policy, but sent a company statement by e-mail: "Like any retailer, our purpose is to offer products that are embraced and expected by our customers. When we find products that are met with mixed review, we typically move them to special order status," the statement read.

What does the publisher mean by "mixed review?" Critical reviews -- for sure. Maybe this is a simple story of a religious publisher deciding only to stock books of very high quality. Or mixed reviews by Mormon leaders? Ah, that would be much more interesting. Possibly the reporter could not get anyone to talk to him. What do Mormon leaders think of Meyer's work? There's a fascinating story there -- it may not be a simple one to tell, but there's a lot more there than meets the eye.

In another indication that Mormons and other theists may be still be unknown territory to some in the media, NPR host Robin Young interviewed Chris Crowe, a Brigham Young English professor, on why there are such impressive numbers (NPR says there are more than 60) of Mormon writers producing young adult and fantasy literature. Young does a good job of asking insightful, respectful questions about how some Mormon adult writers are able to create such realistic adolescent characters, how strict moral codes and nuclear families are depicted in these fantasy novels, and the "spiritual components" of being a writer.

Then Young asked Crowe: "what about the fantastical element" of Mormon (YA) fiction? She "rushes to say" that "I don't mean the word in a pejorative way." Then she gives some examples of "fantastical" occurences: the burning bush, the resurrection, and the idea of heaven and hell. Is there something in the faith that is fantastical that makes these writers more inclined to write those kinds of novels?

Not having had many conversations with people who used the word fantastical, I looked it up online. If an interviewer said my faith was ludicrously odd, or existed in fancy only, I might get a little annoyed -- or think the person was a bit ignorant.

But Crowe doesn't take offense. Smoothly, he makes a point I've heard Mormons make before -- that in the Mormon faith they really do believe that otherwordly occurences are possible. "We believe that. I believe that." Yet in Mormon literature, the boundaries of what is to be expected are tighter. If you are on a hero's quest, you are "on a focused mission to accomplish something grand."

This isn't a bad interview -- in fact, most of it is quite good. But it does seem to reinforce the caricature (I happen to believe it is a caricature) of the erudite NPR interviewer who explores the lifestyle of a group completely unknown to them -- a mini National Geographic special on those rare birds, Mormons and other theists. It's not surprising that many in the media are on a learning curve with Mormons -- a denomination that is having a real, not a fantastical, effect on contemporary American culture.

Picture of Stephenie Meyer is from Wikimedia Commons

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