Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"An Exercise in Mormon Criticism: 'Pan's Labyrinth'"

I (Davey) wrote this essay a couple months ago for the upcoming Mormon Media Studies Symposium, and just found out the other day that it was accepted for presentation, so that's cool. It is rich with spoilers for the movie Pan's Labyrinth, which is one of my favorite movies ever, for many reasons I discuss in this paper, and for its inclusion of awesome monsters like this one:

Read! Enjoy! Consider! Comment!

I. The Case for Mormon Criticism

Much is made in the LDS community of the need for great Mormon art and artists. Orson F. Whitney said it perhaps most famously: “We shall have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” While these conversations are frequently worthwhile and sometimes even inspiring, they often miss a couple of simple and significant points. First: great Mormon art and artists already exist. No matter your definition or your standards, there is much out there that is of very good report indeed. Second: all art for Mormons need not be “Mormon art” for it to be valuable. While there is no reason not to tell stories unique to Latter-day Saint religion, culture, and community, there is also no need to be entirely exclusive, either as artists or as audience members—the majority of spiritual experiences, after all, most likely take place outside of the temple and the church meetinghouse.

Separate from, but related to the need for great Mormon artists is the need for mature, thinking Mormon audiences. In order for an artistic movement to flourish, a number of requirements are necessary. An audience must exist to receive the work. Equally necessary is the existence of a critical community. With Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, the Association for Mormon Letters (AML), BYU Studies, and other like-minded enterprises, a body of intelligent critics and criticism has developed in the Mormon arts community. What is largely missing, however, is Mormon criticism of non-Mormon texts. Richard Bushman recently launched The Mormon Review in an attempt to fill this void in the Mormon critical community. So far, it has published a number of very worthwhile essays, on topics ranging from Vertigo to Dan Brown to the original Battlestar Gallactica; the website, however, is still in its infancy, and, between the blog-like format and the inconsistency of new content, it has yet to receive the attention of the aforementioned publications. Other examples of Mormon criticism of non-Mormon texts exist, but it seems they are still too few and far between.

What might be the purpose of a Mormon criticism? The same as any other school of criticism, I think—to reveal something new and worth investigating in the work, the reader, the critic, and the ideology being used. Our theological background gives us unique insight into certain works, just as certain stories reveal to us things we had never realized about our own doctrine and beliefs. Not every work of art warrants a specifically Mormon reading—most probably do not, just as not every work is suited to a psychoanalytic reading—but that should not deter us from using our Mormon lens to examine those that seem to invite it. Steven Spielberg may not have intended E.T. as a celebration of how Christ's Atonement so personally heals that which is broken in us, but it is certainly a valid interpretation of the film; and, while there may not have been any Latter-day Saint involvement in Disney's Pinocchio, the film still acts as a very moving parable of the Plan of Salvation.

And so, as those entrenched within Mormonism and within the arts continue to ask the questions: “What is Mormon art?” and “What is Mormon film?” I would like to suggest one possible answer: Mormon film is any film as seen by a Mormon.

II. Case Study: Pan's Labyrinth and the Sanctity of Disobedience

Writer-director Guillermo Del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth (2006) follows the frightening and fantastical journey of a young girl, Ofelia, through a series of magical adventures, set against the backdrop of the real-life horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Del Toro frames Ofelia's story with, essentially, a mythological conception of the Plan of Salvation. The film begins with voice-over narration:

“A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness, and pain. Eventually, she died. However, her father, the King, always knew the Princess' soul would return.” (Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro)

Spiritual royalty, lost in a fallen world where she is prone to the frailties of mortality, separated from her pre-Earth memories by means of a “veil,” Ofelia discovers and accepts her divine identity by navigating a series of moral complexities, in an attempt to reclaim her heritage and return to live with her true father, the King. This is the basis for a story that takes the moral logic of a uniquely Mormon conception of the Fall of Man, and extends it to an Abraham and Isaac narrative. The result is powerful, and the implications profound.

Mormonism holds a unique view of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. While a variety of interpretations exist within Mormonism, Latter-day Saints tend to believe, more so than other Judeo-Christians, that Eve’s partaking of the fruit was less a momentary vulnerability to temptation than it was the wise and courageous decision of a strong woman choosing to take on mortality in the face of pain, death, and difficulties. A poem by Sarah E. Page, “Coring the Apple,” published in Mormon Artist magazine, eloquently expresses this view:

“Instead of the thorn,
Hast thou found honey?

I would like to ask Eve someday
What she saw in the apple.

Before she chose
The fire-stung glory of mortality,
Did she pause for even the space of a breath,
Tremble at the bruise of pain, the sharpness of the briar?
Perhaps she sensed the hope nestled star-like
In the core of the fruit
And so risked all she was for the quickening--
The promise of the seed dreaming deep in the loam.

I would like to ask Eve someday
What she saw in me.”

The “commandment” not to eat of the fruit, then (the word “commandment” is used more in discussions of the Genesis story than it is in the actual account of it), is less a commandment in the traditional sense, and more a statement of cause and effect: “For in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). In God’s plan, partaking of the fruit was essential, but it was to occur only when Adam and Eve had matured to the point that they were able to make the decision for themselves, and to take upon themselves the consequences of mortality. This understanding of the Adam and Eve story celebrates the innate individual spiritual conscience—the Light of Christ—capable of making significant moral choices even when they may seem contradictory to the commandments of God Himself. This is a radical and profound re-envisioning of a classical myth. The Mormon Adam and Eve are gods in embryo indeed—their spiritual and moral instinct bears even greater weight than a perceived commandment.

This dichotomy between moral reasoning and unthinking obedience is central in Pan’s Labyrinth. The film’s villain, Captain Vidal (also Ofelia's stepfather), is a foil to the celestial cosmology of the fantasy world—where Ofelia is the spiritual heir to a glorious throne, Vidal is the dark lord of a corrupt land. Ofelia must resist Vidal’s evil—and, ultimately, overcome it with good—in order to save herself and redeem Spain.

Throughout the story, Ofelia is presented with a series of tests, administered by a faun (the literal translation of the title is The Labyrinth of the Faun); the faun acts as an intermediary between Ofelia and her father, whose existence she must take on faith. For one of these tests, she is asked to retrieve the contents of a small box from a large dining room filled with delicious food without touching or tasting it—“Do not eat of the fruit,” she is told, in effect. The Ofelia in this scene is, in many regards, a traditionally Christian Eve—she disobeys and eats a single plump, juicy grape, and so unleashes a terrifying monster when she “partakes of the fruit.” She escapes the creature's clutches and returns in safety, but the faun's wrath is kindled—and, through her ignorant act of disobedience, she has very nearly forfeited her royal heritage.

These challenges Ofelia faces in the magical world are juxtaposed against a backdrop of the all-too-real horrors of the Spanish Civil War, in which she finds herself mired. In the woods surrounding Captain Vidal's house—even in the household itself—a resistance movement has been building. Dr. Ferreiro, a medical doctor who works for Vidal—and who is also an undercover force for the resistance—is presented with his own moral choice, one that once again echoes that of Adam and Eve, albeit in an inverted form. Vidal has captured one of the soldiers of the resistance, and is torturing him for information. The Captain commands Ferreiro to keep the prisoner alive after he has tortured him nearly to death—Vidal wants the man to suffer as much as possible, and also wants as much information as he can extract from him. Rather than keeping the prisoner alive, Ferreiro mercifully administers a lethal injection. Vidal is enraged by the doctor's act of disobedience. When confronted, Ferreiro responds, “To obey—just like that—for the sake of obeying . . . without questioning . . . That's something only people like you can do, Captain.” It is important to remember Ferreiro's words in the climax of the film, when Ofelia must prove herself in her third and final test, and in which these thematic and theological strands are finally united.

For this final test, Ofelia must take her mother’s newborn baby, her own little brother, into the middle of the garden maze outside their house—when she arrives, Ofelia is told she must offer the child's blood as a sacrifice. The blood sacrifice of a pure and innocent child immediately conjures up Christian parallels (especially taking place, as it does, deep in a garden in the dark of night), but this story even more specifically recalls that of Abraham and Isaac, with a powerful and seemingly cruel God requiring an offering of a vulnerable child upon the altar.

In his story “Abraham's Purgatory,” included in The FOB Bible, B. G. Christensen recounts the story of Abraham's sacrifice, as he plays out the event time and again in his mind, in every possible iteration. Each time, the story concludes with a cold, piercing finality: “He placed the knife against his son's neck and cut.” Abraham pleads with God again and again—he asks for a sign, but he is met with silence. The story concludes:

Once again, Abraham lifted his knife and tried to ignore the fear in his son's eyes.
The knife trembled.
“I'm sorry, son. There is no other way. We must obey the Lord. We—we must—” No.
I will not.
Abraham lowered the knife to his son's wrist and cut the twine. Above Isaac's grateful sobs he heard a rustling in the bush.
(“Abraham's Purgatory,” Christensen)

Christensen's rewriting of Abraham's sacrifice turns on its head the traditional story of unshakable faith and absolute obedience. In this story, Abraham's test of faith remains just as unendurable, but the angel who appears to Abraham here is not a physical being or a vision of light; instead it is his own spirit, his moral conscience—the godly within him. Like the Eve of Mormonism, like Jesus among the Pharisees, Abraham breaks a commandment to fulfill a higher law, and it is in his act of willful, reasoned disobedience that he paradoxically finds salvation.

Like Christensen's uniquely Mormon Abraham, Ofelia, too, renounces the blind obedience decried by Ferreira, and refuses the faun’s request of the infant’s life; where her act of disobedience in the first test was weakness, this resolute refusal is strength. Captain Vidal, who has been chasing Ofelia through the garden maze, appears, and Ofelia is shot and killed. In a moment of beautiful irony, Ofelia’s own blood acts as the necessary sacrifice of an innocent, and, as in Eden, seemingly contradictory moral necessities are clarified and unified, fulfilled and transcended. Ofelia acts as a Savior for her younger brother (and, by extension, the future of Spain itself), and, in wisely disobeying, she has proven her obedience, her strength, and her purity.

“Many, many years ago, in a sad, faraway land, there was an enormous mountain made of rough, black stone. At sunset, on top of that mountain, a magic rose blossomed every night that made whoever plucked it immortal. But no one dared go near it because its thorns were full of poison. Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but never about the promise of eternal life. And every day, the rose wilted, unable to bequeath its gift to anyone... Forgotten and lost at the top of that cold, dark mountain, forever alone, until the end of time.” (Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro)

This is the bedtime story Ofelia tells her unborn sister early in the film, and it is a telling metaphor for and summation of Del Toro's rendering of Mormon doctrine. Eternal life is atop a high mountain—cold, dark, and steep—the way is strait, and the road narrow. It is a frightening journey up this personal Moriah—so frightening that many never even attempt it. But it is in this journey—through both the darkness that lies around us, and the fear that lies within us—that our faith is tested, our character proven, and this corruption takes on incorruption. Only by passing through mortality may we transcend it; only (like Eve, like Abraham) by facing the impossible questions of our faith, until we fear it might crumble around us—only by daring to do what is right even in the face of eternal damnation—can we become exalted, and find the god that dwells within us.
“You have passed the test,” the faun says to Ofelia, and bows—and, in the film's final moments, she is welcomed to take her place next to her spiritual Father, as Princess.

“And it is said that the Princess returned to her Father's kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.” (Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro)

III. Towards a (More) Mormon Audience

Pan's Labyrinth is just one example of a work of art that takes on greater depth of meaning when examined through a specific religious lens. Mormonism provides an unusually fitting framework through which to understand and explore Del Toro's film, even as the film itself illuminates and expounds upon the sublime heresy at the heart of Mormonism—namely, that when Adam and Eve partook of the fruit in Eden, they truly did become as gods, proving their ability to discern good from evil, even in the face of death and damnation.

While the Catholicism and the classical mythology present in Del Toro's moral fairy tale are undoubtedly deliberate, and can be traced throughout the filmmaker's body of work, it seems unlikely that Pan's Labyrinth was ever intended to have anything to do with the intricacies of doctrine in a somewhat obscure 19th century American religion. Still, once acknowledged, the parallels are undeniable. It is these sorts of critical contexts that enlarge even the works they interpret, as we find in other artist's stories the “small traces” they may have left—clues that allow us to remake the work of art in our own image; analysis becomes essay and even autobiography as we find out new things in ourselves, in the art, in the artist, and in our own doctrine. In this way, the active audience member becomes a participant in the creative process, adding to what is onscreen rather than simply and distractedly consuming it. “Indeed we may say,” says Joseph Smith, in the thirteenth Article of Faith, “that we follow the admonition of Paul... If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Truth, beauty, and wisdom—virtue, loveliness, and goodness—these are all ours to discover in our experiences as viewers and as critics, if, as in the final words of Del Toro's film, “we only know where to look.”

Davey's Mormon Arts 101, Part Two: LITERATURE

I've been reading a lot of Mormon literature over the past couple years, after realizing that there's good Mormon literature to be read. In spite of a few disappointments, I've mostly just been overwhelmingly blown away by the amount of truly great writing that pretty much no one outside the Mormon arts cliques ever talks about. And I'm still plugging away. There are dozens and dozens of books on my To Read list, and just this week I started Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist, released this year, a New York Times Bestseller, and already being heralded as "The Great Mormon Novel" with probably more frequency than any other book besides The Backslider. Big-name national reviewers are even trotting out "The Great American Novel," which seems kind of ridiculous, and like a phrase you shouldn't be allowed to use unironically anymore, but two-hundred pages in, it really is one of the best American novels I've ever read. It'd be on this list in a heartbeat if I wasn't only a third of the way into it. But yeah. it's great.

Anyways. Here's the list:

The Backslider, by Levi Peterson

Again, I will invoke Eric Samuelsen, a) because he is awesome, and b) because he's the person I know who knows the most and has the most worthwhile stuff to say about Mormon letters. I recently listened to an old session of the Sunstone symposium (they're all online and anything over three years old is free to download, which is pretty much the best) that was a celebration of The Backslider on its twentieth anniversary. Eric told a story about a screenwriting class he taught at BYU. A lot of the students were interested in writing about Mormonism, but they hadn't read any real Mormon literature (unless you include Chris Heimderinger or Jack Weyland, which you don't), so Eric made an assignment for the class to pick a book from a list of about thirty or so that he came up with, read it, and do a little in-class presentation on it. So one girl picked The Backslider. She presented on it, saying she hated it, it offended her like crazy, and she thought it was rotten and depraved and horrible. Which I can, I suppose, understand, and respect. A couple weeks later, another guy started to present on The Backslider. Eric mentioned that someone had already presented on that one, but the kid said, "You don't understand. After that presentation, I went out and read the book, and it's my favorite book I've ever read, and it changed my life." So Eric was like, "OK, you can present on The Backslider." I think this is a rather representative anecdote--The Backslider is definitely an R-rated book. It deals with sexual repression in Mormonism frankly, it has characters who swear sometimes, some pretty grotesque descriptions of violence, and I'm sure many people would have problems with the way it depicts extremes within Mormonism, and maybe even a problem with its depiction of grace. I love the book though. I love it dearly. It is funny, it is disturbing, it is heartbreaking, and it has one of the most sweet redemptions I've ever seen in a book or movie or anything else. It's glorious. The Cowboy Jesus, for me, is one of the most real and moving and accurate artistic representations of Christ that exists (the Jesus in the play WWJD that Bianca and I are directing--and also adapting for film--next year would probably tie with the Cowboy Jesus; the Jesuses in The Miracle Maker and The Last Temptation of Christ would, respectively, probably tie for second). Anyways, I think The Backslider is great. It's the Huckleberry Finn of Mormonism. It captures a voice and a culture, it is very funny in a very Mark Twain sort of way, and it is, to my mind, extremely important. I love it. It's wonderfully entertaining, and it helps me know and love Jesus more. Which I like to do.

Heaven Knows Why, by Samuel Taylor

One of the sweetest, funniest books I have read. Absolutely delightful. I want to turn this into a movie someday. This is undoubtedly some of the best comic writing this side of Wodehouse, with delightfully colorful, well-rounded, and sympathetic characters, and an ingenious plot involving some romance, intrigue, and some possibly-bungled divine intervention in small-Mormon-town Utah. Like Levi Peterson, Samuel Taylor's willingness to show real and flawed characters is what makes this story as involving, as funny, and as moving as it is. Everyone here has some weakness--with swearing, with the Word of Wisdom, with sex, with their faith--and these obstacles make them believable, and also give them character arcs, without ever feeling tidy or formulaic. Anyways. I love this book. This book is a joy. I've read it more than almost any other book. You should read it too.

Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams

This is another all-time favorite book of mine. It's about Bosch and about nature and about Mormonism and about travel and about many other things--it's transcendent creative non-fiction poetry, I guess, if you want to put it in a genre. Some of the most beautiful, spiritual prose I've ever read--Terry Tempest Williams can put words into sequences that make my soul thrill and that make me want to weep.

Under the Cottonwoods and Other Stories, by Douglas Thayer

Douglas Thayer is one of the real talents in the world of Mormon literature, and short stories are what he does best. Some of the recurring themes here are the relationship between religion and nature (he's fascinated with hunting as a part of Mormon culture, and its relation to blood atonement), the loss of innocence, and the development during the mid-20th century of rural Utah County into a young suburban college town. When he's at his best, as he is in almost all of these stories, Thayer is amazing, getting into the heads and the skins of his characters, capturing images and moments with peerlessly poetic grace.

Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom

Bound on Earth began as a few short stories published in Dialogue and elsewhere; soon it turned into a novel, although it still more or less takes the form of a short story collection (a sort of "concept album" short story collection, I suppose), with each chapter profiling characters and detailing events in a single family over decades of history (though the majority of the stories concern themselves with the parents and siblings in the 21st century). This book is about the family as an eternal unit, and all the complications and messiness and confusion that goes on in every family, but also all the love and joy that is shared. Ultimately, it seems to be both the good and bad times that bind this family together. Excellently drawn characters and great writing--and it manages to capture the complexity of life, and still be PG-rated enough to be friendly to the Deseret Book crowd, so that's cool.

Love Chains, by Margaret Blair Young

More short stories by another one of the shining stars of Mormon literature, Margaret Blair Young. "Zoo Sounds" is probably my favorite--and one of my favorite short stories ever--but all of these are excellent. Young writes in short, direct sentences, and she excels at character and voice. These stories are all principally about people and relationships--relationships between parent and child, between husband and wife, between young men and women, between divorcees. She explores the connections and the schisms of family and friendship and religion, and each of these stories is a wonderful slice-of-life--messy and real, and often redemptive. (Young would also appear to be a major influence on Hallstrom's Bound on Earth.)

Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, edited by me

I was going to include Little Happy Secrets, by Melissa Leilani Larson, on this list, but then I realized, "Hey, it's in this book I just published, along with a bunch of other really good plays too." So this is me being shameless, including a book on this list that I edited with three of my plays in it. It really is a good collection though. I like some of the plays more than others--an anthology of my own favorites would look just a little bit different--but all of them are good at the very least, and at least half of them I think are pretty great. Little Happy Secrets is about a BYU return sister missionary who has a crush on her roommate, and it's a wonderful, bittersweet play (and you can listen to the whole thing here--I like it even better as a radio play than a stage play, in fact). Some other favorites of mine: "Prodigal Son," "On Gonoga Falls," "The Exact Total Opposite." You should buy the book and read it, and tell me yours! (Hint hint.) (Also: Half the money we get goes to NPP so we can keep doing stuff. And a good chunk of the rest goes to me, Bianca, and Steve, who illustrated the book, including this cool cover.)

Peculiarities, by Eric Samuelsen

Eric is, without question, the best Mormon playwright, past or present. He's so ridiculously prolific that I'm still catching up on all the stuff he's written over the past couple decades, but so far I think Peculiarities is my favorite of his many Mormon-centric works. It's a series of scenes about different couples dealing with the oddities and some of the extremely unhealthy repercussions of repression in dating, romance, and sexual attraction at and around BYU. As always with Eric's stuff, the play is funny and interesting and challenging. You can find the play in serial form in some of the back issues of Sunstone on their website, free for download.

Greening Wheat, edited by Levi Peterson

Though there are a number of great and important novels, it seems that the short story (probably thanks mostly to Dialogue) is the bedrock of Mormon fiction. There are a number of important short Mormon fiction anthologies--Dispensation, edited by Angela Hallstrom, was just released a few months ago, and I can't wait to get to it, and Eugene England's collection Bright Angels and Familiars is available for free in its entirety here--but this is the first I've read cover-to-cover thus far. And it's a great collection. Lots of excellent, thoughtful, well-written stories dealing with different aspects of Mormon culture and belief. As with all anthologies, some I liked better than others, but all of them were worthwhile. Peterson's own contribution, "The Gift," is pretty wonderful.

Harvest, edited by Eugene England and Dennis Clark

This amazing collection of Mormon poetry shows how the best Mormon poetry of the past 100-150 years (like, in my opinion, the best Mormon fiction and film) deserves comparison with some of the best poetry of the past 100-150 years. Again, I don't like all of these poems, but I do like most of them, and the best of them (and there are lots) are pretty amazingly great. One thing this collection in particular does is represent a very broad diversity--from the simple didacticism of early pioneer poems and hymns, to the more complex, expressionistic, abstract, and modern work of many 20th century writers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Davey's Mormon Arts 101, Part One: FILM

I'm going to do a little series on the best stuff I've encountered in my forays into the world of Mormon arts. My exposure has been by no means exhaustive, probably not even really extensive, and there are still dozens of titles to check off my list at some point--movies, musicians, artists, plays, and especially books that I've heard great things about, but just haven't gotten around to yet. In the meantime, however, there's enough good and great stuff to keep anyone occupied.

I think the idea of Mormon art is exciting. For me, art is as important a part of religion as church meetings--it is the way in which I most frequently and often most fully partake of the Spirit, and am able to "ponder on the mysteries," as Joseph Smith put it. Good art shows us something about the world, about people, about cultures and customs, and about history. Great art does all this, and it does something more--it touches upon the divine, the sublime, and the deepest and most fundamental aspects of our humanity. It helps us see things, think about them, and feel them anew. It reminds us what it is to be alive.

I define Mormon art, rather broadly, as any art by or about Mormons. It's a pretty inclusive definition, and in making lists like this I tend to lean towards works with content that is specifically Mormon either culturally or religiously, or which lend themselves particularly well to Mormon readings (for more on Mormon readings, check out my recently-accepted-to-the-Mormon-Media-Studies-Symposium paper on Pan's Labyrinth--also one of the best and most spiritually moving movies ever).

There's often a real (and unfortunate) stigma around Mormon art--partially, I think, because there often tends to be an unfortunate stigma around art in general within Mormonism. In any case, when we think of Mormon artists, we tend to think of people like Greg Olsen and Jack Weyland--the pop artists of Mormonism; the Deseret Book crowd. And, personally, I generally don't find those guys to be very good (just like many of the most widely-known artists in the broader American cultural landscape are often not very good). But some of the best books I have ever read are works of Mormon fiction. Some of the best movies I have ever seen are Mormon movies. Part of my affection for these pieces stems from my connection to our culture, history, and theology--but they're also just great books and movies any way you look at them. And, at their best, they've moved me and brought me closer to God in ways that few other experiences in my life have.

So, without further ado, here's my first list. Mormon movies. Because I love movies.

I'm limiting myself to features here, although maybe I'll make a list of shorts another time--the best stuff at the annual LDS Film Festival is almost always in the short film programs, and there's some really amazing work being done (the past few years I've found that, as a whole, I much prefer the shorts at the LDS Film Festival to those at Sundance). It's harder to keep track of all the shorts though, and harder to track down most of them. So features it is.

Not all of these are great movies, but they are all good ones. Not all of them have changed my life, but probably at least half of them have. Some of them are hard (or next-to-impossible) to find--others are on DVD and Netflix, and others are available for free on the internet. All of them are well worth seeing.

God's Army

Dutcher's first movie was the second movie made by a Mormon filmmaker about Mormon characters to play in commercial movie theaters--and the first in nearly seventy years. I hadn't seen it almost since the film came out, and I caught it again at a special screening earlier this year at the LDS Film Festival, in honor of its tenth anniversary. I think in some ways it's an even better film now than it was ten years ago. Maybe that's due to all the bad movies that followed in its wake, but I think freed from the burden of being the Mormon movie, it's able to be seen for what it is--one particular movie telling one particular story, and doing an amazingly good job of it. It's sweet, sad, funny, moving, and uplifting, and it's one of the most compelling and undiluted testimonies ever put on film. It has terrific performances, a fine script, excellent direction, and really great music. There's very little here that doesn't work, and doesn't hold up. A great movie.

Brigham City

Dutcher's follow-up is probably even better, and a worthy contender for The Best Mormon Movie Ever. It's a powerful study of some of the most difficult questions at the heart of both the gospel--the relationship between innocence and wisdom--and the church as an organization--the sometimes messy crossover between our lives in church and our lives in the community--and it offers no easy answers, only grace. Again, Dutcher is a pretty amazing triple threat--it's a rich, engaging screenplay with impeccable direction, and, in the main role, he gives a great, sympathetic performance. Box Office Magazine called this the best independent film since Blood Simple, the Coen brothers' first film back in the mid-80s. It's certainly one of the best films ever to explore matters of faith. And that, in my mind, qualifies it as one of the great movies ever. It's deeply sad, horrifying on a number of levels, and also has a warmth, humor, and heart that makes it, in my opinion, incredibly likable and accessible for a movie with so much on its mind. (One of my favorite podcasts, Watching Theology, did an episode on Brigham City that you can listen to here.)

States of Grace

And again--Dutcher's third Mormon movie is maybe even better than its two predecessors. An ensemble indie drama with, yes, good writing, good performances, and good direction. The first time I saw this in a theater I felt like I'd been hit by a train. It packs a huge emotional wallop. I read an interview where Dutcher said one of the reasons he made this movie was because he knew people whose fathers told them they'd rather see them come home from their missions in a casket than come home dishonorably. Disturbing phrases like that crop up far too often in the Church--we need far less of that, and far more of the grace in this film. Much as we talk about it, I think we still don't discuss the Atonement as much or as accurately as we should. Watch this movie, and then download this session from the 2006 Sunstone symposium on the film--some wonderful conversations (and it's free to download).

New York Doll

This movie is a masterpiece. A glorious celebration of spirit in religion and in rock. Arthur Kane is a beautiful human being. The rendition of "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" is probably the most beautiful and moving performance of a hymn I've ever heard in my life, and every time I watch it I tear up. This is great documentary filmmaking--and Greg Whitely is a great documentary filmmaker--but it's the story that is just mind-bogglingly amazing. The fact that things unfolded as they did can't help but feel like a miracle. There are just so many moments in this movie that are so sublime. Here are a few. Kane's description of reading the Book of Mormon as "like an LSD trip from the Lord." The moment when Arthur is reunited with David Johansen, the man he's been begrudging for literally decades, and suddenly everything dissolves and all that remains is their friendship. Their conversation in the dressing room before their concert. Arthur's beautiful prayer before the performance. The moment when the film slows, the rock music is replaced by an angelic choir--and then we're back to the punk rock. And the perfect use of The Smiths' "Please Let Me Get What I Want" as the musical finale to the film. This is one of the best movies I've ever seen.


Fit for the Kingdom is the name of a wonderful series of documentaries whose purpose is to highlight the quiet, virtuous lives of everyday Latter-day Saints--friends, family members, and neighbors of filmmakers who briefly share their stories, their beliefs, and their struggles. They are monuments to the many small ways we try every day to be a little more perfect. Many of these little movies are gems--I particularly love the family scripture study with the Duncans (BYU film professor Dean Duncan and former student/former professor Ben Unguren started the Fit for the Kingdom project together during Ben's undergrad days). Angie is the only full-length film in the series thus far, and even then it's a scant fifty minutes or so. But it's a heartbreaking, beautiful movie. Made by Tom Russell, another BYU film professor, it documents the last months of his wife's life, as she battles with and ultimately succumbs to cancer. Like the other Fit for the Kingdom films, it is stylistically sparse--it's essentially a home movie with a narrative. And it's that sense of vulnerability that makes it so real. Documentary filmmakers spend their lives trying to figure out how to develop relationships with their subjects that allow them to be open and honest, but there is nothing like the real thing--there is an intimacy in the openness and plainness in the way Angie shares with her husband and with the camera that cannot be faked, and cannot be gained by any shortcuts. This is an amazing movie. And all of the Fit for the Kingdom films are available to watch for free on their website.

The Sonosopher: Alex Caldiero in Life... in Sound

A couple of my friends made this documentary. And it's amazing. I just saw it the other day at this year's Sunstone symposium. It's an innovative, beautiful, experimental documentary about Alex Caldiero, a poet, a musician, a performance artist--a "sonosopher," in his own words. Caldiero teaches and is a poet-in-residence at UVU; he converted to the Church shortly after he was married in his early twenties (he's a New Yorker, his parents were Puerto Rican immigrants), and fell out of activity with the Church after years, less interested in the institutional, day-to-day, practical, 1950s businessman aesthetic and organization of the Church than in the elements of mysticism and mythology. The film cinematically recreates the power of his raw, emotional, kinetic, mad performances. It's a movie about a fascinating character, and a wonderful collage of images and sounds.


Dutcher wrote the script for Falling while he was shooting God's Army; he shot it back-to-back with States of Grace, in the midst of a crisis of faith; he edited and released it after he left the Church. These strange autobiographical and intertextual undercurrents are, I think, a good deal of what makes the film as good as it is--made by Dutcher the Mormon, it would've been the most graphically violent seminary video ever; made by Dutcher the Skeptic it would've been just another diatribe against the silence of God and lack of redemption. But the movie gets its power by finding itself caught between belief and disbelief--it's the tragedy of a man who wants to believe, who wants to be redeemed and to return to a life he once loved, but who may have passed a point of no return. It's a fascinating, paradoxical study of the ethics of filmmaking and film-watching. And Dutcher's performance is one of the best performances I've seen. Not a movie for everyone, by any means, and it certainly has its problems, but it's an incredibly powerful experience, and one that demands discussion.

Mr. Krueger's Christmas

The best LDS institutional film I've seen, easily. It's a lovely little movie--the rare institutional video that isn't really didactic, it's just a study of a sad, lonely old man who finds some love, and, both in script and in execution, it's appropriately quiet, low-key, and naturalistic, and very, very charitable. The final voice-over is kind of terrible, but everything up to that is wonderful--a celebration of Christmas, Christ, and the small things and the small human interactions that make life. Jimmy Stewart's performance is really terrific. This movie is a gem.

Plan 10 From Outer Space

This, in my opinion, is what a Mormon comedy should be. Trent Harris isn't Mormon, but he's an independent filmmaker who's made Salt Lake City his home, and both his affection and frustration for the Church is evident here. The movie starts with opening credits in both English and the Deseret Alphabet, and it goes on to weave a bizarre and frequently hilarious tale involving seagulls, bronze plates, aliens from Kolob, Porter Rockwell and the Danites, and Brigham Young's mythical 28th wife, among other things. It's a delight to see the way Harris connects the dots of Mormon history, theology, and folklore, and it's all underpinned with a criticism of the Church's hesitance to fully own up to our history that I think remains important.

Napoleon Dynamite

This is the least explicitly "Mormon" movie on the list (the only real reference to the Church is a shirt one of the characters wears with "Rick's College" on it), but I think it warrants inclusion not just because Jared Hess, Jon Heder, and most of the cast and crew are Mormon, and not just because many Mormons seemed to identify the small-town Idaho culture as specifically small-Mormon-Idaho-town culture. Really, I think the movie is about being a peculiar person--feeling like an outsider and an outcast, and coming to terms with the things that set one apart from Everybody Else, and I think those are subjects and feelings close to Mormon people, history, and even scripture. They are also feelings close to virtually everyone who has ever been in high school, which is probably why this is also by far the biggest money-maker on this list.

Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons

Though far from comprehensive, and often distractingly unpolished (the audio in many of the interviews is TERRIBLE), this is not only an admirable documentary, but an involving and informative one as well. Margaret Blair Young is one of the best Mormon writers around--she and Darius Gray collaborated on a trilogy of novels about early black Mormon history (I hear they are great, and look forward to reading them), and, though neither of them is really a filmmaker, they directed Nobody Knows as sort of a follow-up. I really appreciated that they were able to approach the difficult subject matter from a perspective that is both undeniably faithful and also unwilling to whitewash history. I found that very inspiring.

The Errand of Angels

What makes Christian Vuissa's low-budget story of sister missionaries in Austria is great is that it's about essentially good, kind people who sometimes have a hard time getting along. It seems to me that this is the third in the triptych of great Mormon missionary movies thus far--the conflict in God's Army is internal, about one young man's struggle to learn whether or not he has a testimony; the conflict in States of Grace is external, the sometimes violent and sometimes redemptive collision between culture, race, belief, sin, and salvation, as Mormon missionaries interact with the non-Mormons they meet; the conflict in The Errand of Angels is between the two companions, trying to get along, trying to make it through the day without getting frustrated with one another, and get their missionary work accomplished in spite of their clashing personalities. It's probably no big spoiler to say that they eventually become friends, but the real accomplishment of the movie is that it manages to make these everyday struggles real, relatable, and important, just as they are in life. It's not as professional as Dutcher's work; for that matter, it's not as professional as Vuissa's follow-up, One Good Man--but, unlike that film, it has the insight and the compassion to portray its fundamentally good characters as flawed and imperfect. One Good Man looks prettier, but this sensitivity to character, conflict, and story makes The Errand of Angels an infinitely better movie.

The Book of Jer3miah

Created by faculty and students in the BYU film program and released as a web series, The Book of Jer3miah is marketed as a "spiritual thriller"--what I love about it is that it takes aspects of our doctrine, history, folklore, and beliefs, and uses them as a template to connect the dots for a somewhat supernatural thriller about a BYU freshman who discovers things about his past he never could have guessed. It's a delight to see a story like this that incorporates Mormonism so fully into its framework, and the story is incredibly well-paced, with a twist at the end of every two-to-five-minute episode (well, at least after the first couple, which are really significantly weaker than everything that follows). It's a courageous bit of work--it's incredibly ambitious, it doesn't shy away from dark, challenging thematic material, and it isn't afraid to bring any aspect of Mormon doctrine or folklore that might fit into the story. It doesn't always look professional, but that's not really a weakness--there's a sort of a handmade quality to the product that I think lends it more personality and soul than it might have had given more slick production values. And really, for episodes put together by students once a week over the course of a semester, it really looks and sounds and feels pretty fantastic. I think the internet is the perfect venue for (and probably, at least to a large extent, the future of) Mormon cinema. Jer3miah is a thrilling pioneer in the medium, and an excellent, entertaining, and fascinating bit of moviemaking. You can read my interview with the creators, Jeff Parkin and Jared Cardon, here.

Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love

This is almost definitely the worst movie on this list, but it's such an oddity that, at least for me, it was impossible not to be intrigued and entertained by it. Based on a play that was based on a novella (that was written by B. H. Roberts), it's a sex-and-sandals epic set in the world of The Book of Mormon--and it's really a total genre film, adhering slavishly to contemporary genre expectations, looking and sounding like a slightly lower-budget DeMille Bible epic of the time (I think Corianton was released in 1931), the only difference being that the names here can't be found anywhere in either Testament. Eric Samuelsen wrote a good (and funny) review of it for the Association for Mormon Letters; you can read it here. Also, the history behind the making of Corianton could make for an even better movie. Maybe someday I'll write it.

Happy Valley

It's fairly well-known that the level of prescription drug abuse is way above average in Utah County. I think it might be higher here than anywhere in the country (if I'd seen this movie more recently, I'd probably know). Anyways, Happy Valley is about that strange juxtaposition--the bright, pleasant, picture-perfect exterior of Utah Mormonism, and the dark, painful things that it too often tries to conceal (in this case, drug abuse). The documentary is far from perfect--the final fifteen minutes or so are particularly bizarre, as it turns into a weird little home movie for the filmmaker, telling us about his new wife and dog and stuff, with upbeat pop music and everything--but the stories and lives documented in Happy Valley speak for themselves, and the result is often very powerful and incredibly moving.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Seven: Fourfold Vision

Ezekiel describes the Cherub as having four faces and four wings. What exactly these four aspects represent is never stated clearly, but the subject offers a bountiful source of meditation. Here is one idea: each of the four faces may correspond to a different realm of nature—lion (wild), ox (domestic), eagle (air), man (man). And in fact, each of these four animals is lord over its realm—the lion is king of beasts, the ox is the mightiest of the domestic creatures, the eagle is king of the air, and man has dominion over them all by virtue of his intellect. What is important, beyond any specific ideas attached to each of the animal faces, is the fact that there are four of them, each unique, and each presumably facing in one of the four cardinal directions (as in Genesis).

In the divine Man, these four natures, at variance with one another, work together in unity. Like the energy produced from the opposing winds in the whirlwind, these four spirits whirl about one another to create a massive energy of coordinated opposition. No one of the four natures is supreme—rather, it is the space between them that renders spiritual vitality possible. If the lion, for example, were to gain ascendancy over the other three, the balance would be thrown off, and the creature would dissolve itself into chaos. All four are necessary and must be kept whirling against one another within their limits, creating a spinning order like a gyroscope. The four wings emphasize this motion, and the importance of their unity (they are “joined one to another”) is also pointed out. Further, Ezekiel describes wheels covered with eyes which roll along with the Cherubim, stating that “the spirit of the cherubim was in the wheels.” The wheel is elaborated as having a “wheel in the middle of a wheel.” This suggests, once more, the idea of coordinated opposition as the wheels spin, one within the other. Together, the faces, wings and wheels suggest a whirlwind motion, echoing the previous verses. This is the nature of spirituality—a constantly striving, opposing, changing, twirling nature, never at rest and never off balance. The life of the flying spirit can never hold still—to stop moving would be death and spiritual entropy. Ceaseless mobility is required—the root of repentance is to change, and we must continually transform and keep in motion for our spirits to live. This is why the LORD issues the ultimatum: repent or die. That is simply how our spirits are structured—the LORD is not threatening to kill us; rather, he is pleading with us to save ourselves by protean metamorphoses from the relentless decay of the cold, entropic, universe.

The feet of the Cherub are straight and hooved, offering a balancing vision to the frenetic energy of the four faces/wings. The feet sparkle like “burnished brass” and when the Cherubim move, they go “straight forward.” The whirling spiritual energies are channeled into disciplined, purposeful, controlled movements.

The appearance of the Cherubim is described as “like burning coals of fire,” and like “lamps.” The fire goes up and down in the midst of the creatures, rather like the purifying fire infolding itself, which I previously touched on. And again, it is in between the creatures that we find the fire. The Cherubim are filled with bright spiritual fire, which burns against the ashes of the universe of death. Victor Hugo, who later published a volume of poetry entitled The Four Winds of the Spirit, partook of some of Ezekiel's prophetic spirit when he expressed this concept with passionate clarity:

Well have I filled my drinking cup; you dash
Your wings at it, yet none of it is gone.
My spirit has more fire than you have ash
And more love than you have oblivion!

Ezekiel’s vision is of a being in perpetual motion, animated by coordinated opposition, seething with inner fire, and governed by brazen discipline. Ezekiel’s fourfold Cherub is his image of the Human Form Divine.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Six: Human Form Divine

Inside the cloud, or whirlwind, Ezekiel perceives a “fire infolding itself,” along with a “brightness” in th midst of the fire “as the color of amber.” The fire, like the opposing ruah of the whirlwind, create sin itself an energetic vortex of circular inward motion. The fire also reinforces the purifying aspect of the Presence of the LORD. The Psalmist sang, as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God (Psalm 68:2).” The dross is burned away, and only the strongest portions remain—Ezekiel looks to the LORD with his own answering flame.

The brightness Ezekiel witnesses is also indicative of the power of the Presence of God, but it is not God, whose appearance has yet to come. The brightness is the color of amber, fossilized resin of ancient time. Amber is a distillation of life, marrow of a tree, perhaps also old life to be supplanted by new life. The brightness will soon be replaced by diviner presences, and then the actual appearance of God Himself. The brightness actually makes it difficult to perceive God at first. I am reminded of Blake’s memorable quatrain:

God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

Ezekiel, as a visionary of the highest order, certainly dwelt in realms of day, if anyone ever has.

And indeed, when the cherubim appear, they do display a “human form.” Ezekiel writes: “out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.” Ezekiel’s Cherub is in the form of a man. In interpreting Ezekiel’s Cherub, then, we are interpreting Ezekiel’s vision of what Man is. Divine Man is God’s Throne.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Five: Whirlwind

As Ezekiel stands at this border between present captivity and nostalgia for former freedom, the heavens are opened. This is significant—Israel is closed in, hedged up, locked away, and bound up in exile. The heavens open to release the captive from their chains and offer a new kind of freedom. It is then that the vision begins, with a whirlwind coming out of the North, the traditional direction of God’s realm (Psalm 48:2). Whirlwinds also act as heralds announcing the imminent approach of the LORD in Elijah’s theophany on the mountaintop, and later carries him to the presence of God in a heavenly chariot. It is the impassive whirlwind which delivers God’s message of the nothingness of man to a terrified Job (and it is also a “great wind from the wilderness” that kills his children). Isaiah also describes a whirlwind, in terms that bear a marked resemblance to Ezekiel’s vision: "For behold, the Eternal will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind" (Isaiah 46:15). The whirlwind coming from the north is the terrible and majestic power of God flowing from the source of His Presence. Whirlwinds are employed as images of awesome and destructive force throughout the Bible, often utilized to destroy the wicked in an overwhelming force of shattering divinity. The fact that Ezekiel remains standing at this point without being dissolved says much about his toughness of character. An encounter with God strips a man of his superficialities and communicates directly and awfully with his center. If there is nothing at his center, he is destroyed. The power of God, like a whirlwind, blasts away and dismantles anything merely ostensible or unstable. The whirlwind strips away Ezekiel’s external husks so that his central seed is exposed to the full power of the LORD directly. The heavens were opened, and now Ezekiel himself has been opened. The doors to his "little sanctuary" have been blasted off their hinges.

The whirlwind is further described as “a great cloud,” a phrase surely meant to remind readers of the “pillar of cloud” described in Exodus (13:21-22). This pillar of cloud served as a guide to the Israelites on their forty-year journey through the wilderness between the captivity of Egypt and the freedom of the Promised Land. The “great cloud” of Ezekiel’s vision also appears as a guide between the realms of captivity and freedom. The captives in Chaldea were sorely in need of a guiding presence as they wandered through the wilderness of exile and captivity. The cloud also serves to cover the terrible presence of the LORD, in order to protect mortal eyes. Direct contact with God would mean an instant melting away for anyone unprepared for such an encounter. God hides Himself within symbolic forms as a boundary, protecting our own frail frames from disintegration (cf. Exodus 19:24).

Whirlwinds often arise in desert areas and indeed take the form of a pillar of cloud. Such a whirlwind is created when local winds start to spin on the ground. This causes a "funnel" to form, which moves over the ground, pushed by the winds that first formed it. The funnel picks up debris as it moves over the ground, becoming a visible whirlwind, with a vortex at its center. A vortex is a spiraling flow with a circular motion. Interestingly, there is also a type of galaxy called a “spiral galaxy,” which is characterized by a thin, rotating disk, and created by a similar phenomenon, albeit on a cosmic scale. Since the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, the galaxy in which we live is essentially a gigantic whirlwind. So, the whirlwind may be seen as a microcosm of the entire universe, or, conversely, a macrocosm of the individual man. If we study the formation process of whirlwinds in biblical terms, we begin to understand more of what this powerful image suggests. In Hebrew, the same word (ruah) is used to describe Spirit, breath, and wind. Because a whirlwind occurs when opposing winds (ruah) meet, we learn that the opposition of mighty spirits creates a circular, invisible form of incredible power. The powerful metaphor of the whirlwind emphasizes the nature of coordinated oppositions which we will discover in the fourfold Cherubim—opposing forces creating spiritual energy. Nahum tells us that “the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3).” In the form of these spirits whirling in a divine counterpoint of opposition is inscribed the pattern of the universe, of God Himself, and of the godly man.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Four: Between heaven and earth

Ezekiel stands on the banks of the river Chebar. The river flows as a watery border between freedom and captivity. Babylon lies on one side, along with captivity and chains, while somewhere on the other side of the line shines the memory of Israel, the beloved holy land. Ezekiel will constantly find himself not on one side or the other of anything, but always between. Later, Ezekiel will be lifted up by a lock of his hair, again by God’s own hand, “between the earth and the heaven” in his terrifying visionary tour of sinful Jerusalem. The space between the wheels of the divine chariot will also prove important. Indeed, the word between is used more often in the Book of Ezekiel than in any other book in the Bible, appearing on practically every other page. Visionary experience occurs between heaven and earth, because it is not the same as literal quantifiable experience, nor is it a wholly transcendent "spiritual" otherness, completely foreign to our worldly existence. It is a unification, finding a connection between the mundane and the sublime, breaking a wall and replacing it with a bridge. The ability to flit back and forth between realities like a hummingbird is the special gift of angels, children, and prophets. The spaces between things are as vital a part of reality as the things themselves, and in the connections formed thereby, the most vital expressions of life may be found. As long as things remain unconnected, they remain broken. The dualism between literal experience and spiritual experience is a false dilemma in many ways, perpetuated by the discrete-ism of Enlightenment science. For science and history turn hard literal nuggets called facts into fetishes. A literalist, mechanical view rejects unquantified spiritual experience as subjective and unverifiable. They would contend that Ezekiel’s visions all took place inside his head, and diagnose him with bipolar disorder or some manner of schizophrenia. An equally distorted view would be to reject the literal, ignore contradictory evidence, and only follow whatever one deems as purely “spiritual feelings”, regardless of anything outside oneself. The literal is outside, the spiritual inside.

Encounters with the divine take place between the inside and the outside, on the border between the literal and spiritual, the border between Babylon and Jerusalem, between earth and heaven. It is on this border that true living occurs, all creativity and all acts of Imagination. Ezekiel’s vision was not literal—the other captives on the bank saw nothing—nor was it entirely spiritual—Ezekiel did not have a “feeling” that he should do something. Rather, he had an encounter with divinity. His vision occurred in the realm of Creative Imagination—beyond body or mind or spirit but just as pragmatically real and solid as any or all of them. The visionary realm is located precisely between the literal and spiritual, and contains aspects of both.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Three: Little Sanctuaries

At this point we must engage with Ezekiel’s gigantic cherubinic vision by the river Chebar, and grimly say, with Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” Ezekiel begins his vision (and his book) with a very brief prologue. He starts out by specifying the precise moment in time and exact location in which he received his prophetic call: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar.” This precision emphasizes not only the importance of the call to Ezekiel, but also the essential "nowness" of its nature—he was prophesying to his particular people on this particular day. Ezekiel addressed himself not to the past or even the future so much as the present. In verse two, Ezekiel goes over the time again, emphasizing the length of the drudgery and misery of the captivity. The captives have been waiting moment by moment, day by day, month after month, for deliverance. Ezekiel was already a priest at this time, and so was a kind of representative of the Israelite people as an aggregate. He had been brought, with many others of his people, to Babylon as captives following the destruction of Jerusalem. This exile, an event the prophets of the time (such as Jeremiah) had been discussing for decades, created an enormous shift in worship practices. Previously, the Israelites had gathered to the temple on the holy days to offer sacrifice and participate in ritual purification. Now, with the temple destroyed and the holy city occupied, a new, more internal form of spirituality was required. Ezekiel addresses the problem thus:

“Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come.”

In spite of the fact that the absence of a temple, or sanctuary, nullified many aspects of their religion, Yahweh would become a “little sanctuary,” or temple, within each of His scattered children. Rather than being cast out from spiritual experience, Israel had merely to adjust it’s spiritual expectations. No longer would the sacrificial order of temple ritual be necessary—instead religion had migrated inward as Israel had migrated outward. Ezekiel further clarifies the new concept:

“I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.”

The stony heart of communal temple ritual (the temple was constructed of stone) was replaced by the fleshy heart of internal, individual religious experience. The exiled Israelites, cast out of their beloved and holy land, each carried within them a piece of God, and in Him could find their “sanctuary.” Like all of us, exiled from the presence of God, the Israelites have been granted an inner light with which they may commune with the distant divinity.

The hand of the LORD lights upon Ezekiel and opens the heavens to reveal the magnificent vision that is to come. The hand of the LORD acts in many different ways throughout the Bible. In this case, is it ordaining him to his prophetic call? Smiting him with the fury of vision? Pressing him down with it’s extraordinary power? Lifting him up, nearer to the presence of God? Embracing him with divine love? The hand, as a symbol, generally refers to the possibility of action. The hand of the LORD is upon Ezekiel to impart to him the powers of godlike action—the ability to prophesy, or proclaim, the grandeur of God’s vision.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Two: Eden, Etc.

The term "cherub" comes up in the Bible almost from the outset, with the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. After Yahweh creates the universe by organizing it from primordial chaos, He plants a Garden called Eden. This garden is a paradise of blurry innocence. There is no aggression, no death, and no sexuality. There are no hard edges to identity, and indeed Adam and Eve are originally created together as a sort of hermaphroditic man-woman creature (cf. Aristophanes' delightful riff in Plato's Symposium), before Yahweh separates them into a two distinct individuals. Adam and Eve live in an infantile state, like blissful babies who are not aware of any selfhood or otherness, having no needs beyond the giant, engulfing warmth of the mother’s breast.

In addition to the many pleasant trees and plants in the garden of Eden, there are two trees which possess supernatural powers—the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” In partaking of it’s fruit and opening their eyes to knowledge, Adam and Eve lose their innocence and transform their idyllic world into a harsh kingdom ruled by the bloody tyranny of nature. When they are cast out of Eden and into this bleak world, and Yahweh reasons thusly: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:” and elects to place at the east of the garden of Eden “Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” The “Cherubims” turn every way, presumably in the four cardinal directions, as did the four rivers which sprang from the center of Eden. The design of this creature, or creatures, is to block Adam and Eve from sneaking back into Eden, eat from the Tree of Life, and become immortal in their sinful state. Boundaries are created around the once free and open garden, and mankind is blocked access to his original innocence and to eternal life. The only thing standing between mankind and immortality is the terrifying Cherub, who faces us no matter which way we turn.
Cherubim are frequently mentioned in relation to the ornamentation of the temple, particularly with the Ark of the Covenant, the holy repository of the Tablets of the Law. In Chronicles, the inspired David instructs his son and successor, Solomon, to fashion “the pattern of the chariot of the cherubims, that spread out their wings, and covered the ark of the covenant of the LORD.” Two cherubim were to be fashioned of gold to adorn each side of the “mercy seat,” which sat atop the ark. The word used in the text to designate this piece of divine furniture is kaporet, or “atonement piece.” The word probably descends from kaphar, meaning “to cover.” The Ark, complete with kaporet, resided in the center of the Temple, the holy of holies, which Yahweh had filled with a divine cloud of light as He entered in to accept its dedication. This kaporet, then essentially constituted the throne Yahweh’s divine chariot, with the cherubim acting as exalted steed to draw it forward. It is upon such a throne, in visionary form, that we must suppose Ezekiel beholds Yahweh above the Chebar. The Cherubim, then, may be considered a synecdoche for the Chariot/Throne of the Presence of Yahweh.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part One: Introduction; Madness

Ezekiel was a monumentally powerful and undeniably bizarre personality. He must have left his contemporaries, in and out of Israel, absolutely bewildered and frankly disturbed. His closest analogue in today’s world seems to me to be the idiosyncratic and iconoclastic “performance artists,” who perform such hijinks as climbing up walls and defecating on spectators. Yet Ezekiel proclaimed some of the most shattering truths and envisioned some of the most supreme images to be found in the entire Hebrew Bible. For centuries, the rabbinical schools have forbidden the study of his book to anyone under the age of thirty—the age of Ezekiel himself when he experienced the spectacular vision by the river of Chebar. Even after age thirty, there remain passages which are singled out as being inappropriate to interpret at any age—Ezekiel’s visionary force is apparently deemed strong enough to shove the unprepared over the brink into an abyss of madness. I recognize that I , perhaps rashly, disregard this counsel with the present outline of my thoughts at the tender age of 25. Be that as it may, I have found Ezekiel’s splendors too fascinating not to be tempted into responding to them, and in particular to the captivating figure of the “covering Cherub.”

To establish what a cherub is, is a task that could easily fill volumes and stretch over lifetimes, but which I will endeavor to sketch in very roughly. Yahweh is referred to throughout the Tanakh as dwelling “between the cherubim,” and indeed this description becomes something of a divine moniker. But what precisely is the Cherub and what does it represent? The imagery of the Cherub appears to have evolved from Assyrian and Babylonian origins. The term cherub (pronounced kay-roob) is cognate with the term karabu meaning 'great, mighty' in Assyrian, and 'propitious, blessed' in Babylonian. In some regions this Assyro-Babylonian term came to refer in particular to spirits which served the gods, in particular to the shedu (human-headed winged bulls). A number of scholars have proposed that cherubim were originally a version of the shedu, protective deities sometimes found as pairs of colossal statues either side of objects to be protected, such as doorways. In the 1930's, a wonderful ivory carving was discovered at Megiddo (which later became an important Israelite city) depicting a creature very much like Ezekiel’s Cherub, strolling through a garden of palms. The carving dates from the 8th or 9th century BCE, about two or three centuries before Israelite habitation. I like to speculate that artists trained in these Megiddan workshops were later employed in the construction of the ornaments of Solomon’s temple. Shedu and karabu eventually evolved into cherubim. These apparently sphinx-like creatures appear to have been representations of power, might and majesty, inspiring awe and even fear in lowly beholders. Millennia later, artists of the Italian Renaissance transformed these fearsome beings into diminutive putti— the winged, rosy-cheeked babies which now adorn countless greeting cards, in what was surely one of the oddest transmutations in Western civilization. Most importantly to the task at hand, cherubim appear throughout the Hebrew Bible, and are usually associated with the presence of Yahweh. Ezekiel certainly offers the fullest and most complex view of these divine beings, and I will return to him more fully after having made a preliminary perusal of some other biblical passages of relevance.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I swear, I know this guy...

I am way more excited about this than I should be.

A blog! To which I'll actually post because it won't be just about me and my boring life. The first post on here should be something epic, hence, the ibex: