September 4, 2018

The Book of Arnold

        We recently had the opportunity to see the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which had funny moments, and dark moments, and an awful lot of obscene moments, and of course lots of entertaining song and dance…  But to my surprise it turned out to be largely about the power of story to improve the world, and that’s a message I’m always interested in exploring.  At the beginning, Elder Arnold Cunningham’s storytelling proclivities are not particularly productive, but eventually he begins to realize that his stories have the power to help people, to make them think about their experiences in new ways, to change their perspectives and their relationships, and to make their world better.  At that point, he’s no longer “lying;” he’s composing “fiction” (or perhaps “fan fic.”)  After all, most people don’t believe his stories literally; as one villager explains witheringly, “It’s a metaphor!”  Cunningham’s stories teach people, in a message LeGuin would approve, that the way things are is not inevitable.  His stories give role models for new modes of relationship, and offer the hope that creativity can be brought to bear even when all other hope seems lost.
        The stories that Cunningham tells, claiming them to be gospel, are utterly nutty mash-ups of the actual Book of Mormon with hobbits and Mordor, Darth Vader and the Death Star, the Starship Enterprise and many unfortunate frogs.  Significantly, though, they aren’t merely hilarious (or merely crude); they are made up out of a desperate desire to help desperate people, and to help those people make sense of and deal with their reality.  And that is, at its heart, one of the deepest purposes that fiction, and speculative fiction in particular, can have.
        “This book will change your life” could be true of many books.  For some people it’s The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, for others perhaps it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Lorax, or The Phantom Tollbooth.  Whatever it is, if you’re a reader, you remember that feeling: that awe and wonder as your mind blossoms into bright new light and the world is never quite the same again.  The musical The Book of Mormon claims that any story that can do that is enough gospel for anyone, and while I don’t agree that any and all fiction should be equated with divine revelation, I do agree that there is a valid point here.  Story has a power - sometimes even a divine power - to change lives and to change the world.  And that’s certainly worth singing and dancing about!

[Picture: Darth Vader and Death Star, linoleum block print by Peter Santa-Maria (Image from his Etsy shop ATTACKPETER).]

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