An unfinished version of this post appeared earlier by mistake. Apologies for my fat fingers.
A couple of days after Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, Washington Post contributor Matthew Bowman pointed out a long fascination by the Mormon community for science fiction and fantasy. Some of the most well-known and best-selling writers in the genre today, such as Brandon Sanderson and Orson Scott Card, are Mormon, and Bowman shows how the religion’s history and imagery encourages world-building and an appreciation for larger-than-life characters. I’ve never read the Book of Mormon, but the copy that a young, black-and-white clad man gave to me many years ago was full of “gospel art” rendered in a realistic style that highlighted a calm certainty in their beliefs. It seemed so much like the cover art of the science fiction that confirmed my own belief in science and good storytelling.
(I know what you’re thinking: Mormonism is homophobic, misogynistic, and just this side of looney. Just listen for a minute while I talk about our shared capacity for imagination.)
Reading the article reminded me of my upbringing in Yakima, Wash., where I learned a 1960s Catholicism straining to adjust to the historic structural reforms of Vatican II. My first-grade teacher at St. Paul’s School wore a nun’s habit, as all teachers in religious orders did in those days, and her style of discipline was a mixture of the Spanish Inquisition and Attila the Hun. We studied our faith as it if were a parallel government emanating from Heaven, confessed our sins and attended Mass in the diocesan cathedral, and believed that all other religions were a ticket to Hell. (I don’t remember a discussion of Mormonism specifically, but I’d bet that it was considered an express, first-class ticket, without the free liquor.)
Until I read Bowman’s article, I didn’t quite grok how Catholicism had primed me to be an acolyte of Star Trek, Star Wars, and authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Ben Bova. The Vatican-approved catechism with its tales of unbaptized babies in Limbo, the Disney-esque Children’s Bible version of God’s sweep-the-game-pieces-off-the-table temper-tantrum that led to the Flood, the blue-cloaked statuary of a serene, slightly bored Mary, and Jesus of the Sacred Heart, with his heart literally beating outside his chest. Raised on stories and images such as these, it’s no wonder I was a sci-fi and fantasy movie and book marketers’ dream consumer. It seems that Mormon kids were prepped in the same way, with images of Jesus walking among the Native Americans, Joseph Smith finding magical writing in a dark forest, and a controversial interpretation of Mormon theology that assigns planets to dead members. A sculpture of the angel Moroni blowing his horn at the top of a Mormon church steeple outside the community college where I studied film underlines the connections.
It appears that Mormonism and Catholicism have diverged since I was a child in Yakima. American Catholics are rebellious, skeptical of Vatican leadership (though Pope Francis is a rock star), and as the American church leans toward schism over teachings on married priests and abortion, it has played down the dreamlike storytelling and imagery. Are kids still taught they have a guardian angel? I doubt it. It smacks too much of well, Mormonism.
Mormons, however, seem to embrace the old Bible stories of spiritual beings that come down from the sky to advise mankind (see the angels Gabriel, Michael, and so on). It’s not hard to scale up the Ark to a generation ship traveling the cosmos with the remains of humanity. Superimpose a 20th and 21st century technological “sense of wonder” on the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a platform supported by cherubim (Ezekiel, Chapter 1) and you’ve got a decent antecedent to the arrival of the flying saucer in The Day the Earth Stood Still. These aren’t strictly interpretations by Mormon sci-fi writers, but in general LDS adherents seem less afraid of reworking the ideas than some modern Catholics might.
Most religions have these sorts of proto-science, fever-dream imaginings that somehow became sacred or at least received wisdom. The secularization of the modern world with its fashionable skepticism has discouraged Catholics and most Protestants from looking to their own religious traditions for sci-fi inspiration. It seems that Mormons have no such qualms. They let these ideas ferment in their minds, and share them as stories a person of any religion can enjoy.