Strangers and Pilgrims

Season 1 – Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith

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Materia Poetica

Harold Bloom is the American Literary Critic and Sterling Professor Humanities at Yale.  I enjoy his books on Shakespeare and American Literature.

In 1992 he wrote a book titled The American Religion.

In the book, for a few chapters, he talks about Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  In those chapters he says:

Nothing else in all of American history strikes me as materia poetica equal to the early Mormons, to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Parley and Orson Pratt, and the men and women who were their followers and friends. . .Smith matters permanently, to America and the world.

I love the quote.  I definitely think the amount of good, honest drama in the stories of these early members of the church is amazing.  And, definitely should be used as the basis for many stories.  And, I personally don't think it needs any touching up with extra characters, or extra scenes, or situations that didn't happen.  The actual story is good enough on its own.  You needn't gild the lily.  Or, offer jewels to the sunset.

Now, the podcast medium isn't technically full of art.  Or, the medium, at the moment, isn't necessarily going through an artistic phase it seems like.  It seems more like podcasts are good, cheap ways to tell stories. or, to get your point heard.

I hope that by telling the story of Joseph Smith's death in a podcast, hopefully in an artful way, that it could lead others to start to look at the source material in a new way.  Maybe it'll help others to see story lines they weren't familiar with before. 

Hopefully this well help start pushing people to look at Joseph Smith and his life in more poetic, lofty ways.  Not that it hasn't been tried before.  There's dozens of stories and movies and paintings out there about Joseph Smith and his life and accomplishments.

But, I think in most of those instances -- the focus has been less on the artfulness of the representation of the story, and more on just getting the story across.  I could be wrong, though.  There could be an entire body of artistic work out there, telling the story of Joseph Smith, that is concerned with the artfulness with which it tells its story.


Slaying of a Wolf

The introduction episode of the podcast is out on iTunes.

It's up on Stitcher, too.

The intro is about 3 minutes long.

In the introduction I quote a guy that lived in Joseph Smith's county about the trial of some of the men who killed Joseph.   About 100 men murdered Joseph -- or 100 men were involved in the attack on him.  Only nine went to court for the crime, and all nine of them were found not guilty. 

Regarding these nine men being found not-guilty, this guy in Hancock County -- the county in which Joseph lived -- said,  “There was not a man on the jury, in the court, [or] in the county, that did not know the defendants had done the murder. But it was not proven.”

Another quote about the generally accepted anger and hatred against Joseph Smith comes from Parley P. Pratt, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the church Joseph founded). 

Parley said:

A few months or years spent in this miniature war in Hancock county had sufficed to possess many of the actors with the spirit of demons; and in the mind of any anti-Mormon there was nothing more criminal in the shooting of Smith than in the slaying of a wolf."

The death of Joseph Smith is the death of a man who his enemies are hunting like a wolf, and his friends are desperately trying to protect.



CLICK HERE to find it on iTunes.



The Nauvoo Charter

In researching and writing for this podcast on the death of Joseph Smith I read a lot of books, and articles, and things.

One of the books I read sections of was Zion in the Courts by Firmage & Mangrum.  They had a pretty good little section on The Nauvoo charter.

The Nauvoo charter is a large part of Joseph's death.   The Nauvoo charter was a bill that the Illinois Congress passed that allowed the city of Nauvoo to be incorporated -- it allowed Nauvoo to exist as a legal entity.  Nauvoo was the city that Joseph Smith, and a large portion of Latter-day Saints, lived in when Joseph was killed -- and a city of which Joseph was mayor.  It's a city they built when they were refugees.

One of the goal's of Joseph's enemies, during the last 6 months of his life, was to destroy Nauvoo's charter so that the city would lose a lot of the privileges given to it by the state.

As you listen to the podcast we'll talk more about the charter, and more about how they tried to destroy it, and how that figured into their ultimate goal of Joseph's death.



Yellow Canaries with Gray on their Wings

Thomas S. Monson, who just died two weeks ago, gave a talk in the Mormon Church's General Conference back in 1973.   In one part of the talk he said:

When the Savior was to choose a missionary of zeal and power, he found him not among his advocates but amidst his adversaries.  Saul of Tarsus made havoc of the church and breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.  But this was before the experience of Damascus Way.  Of Saul, the Lord declared: ". . .he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: . . . I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake."

He then went on to say:

Saul the persecutor became Paul the proselyter . . . Both Paul and Peter were to expend their strength and forfeit their lives in the cause of truth. The Redeemer chose imperfect men to teach the way to perfection. He did so then. He does so now—even yellow canaries with gray on their wings.

I have always been fascinated that out of the 100s and 1000s of followers Jesus had on the earth while he was alive, that the one dude he chose to be his apostle to the Gentiles was a guy who wasn't even a follower while he was alive.  And, in fact, he was an enemy of Jesus.

And, Paul would even go on to have a lot of fights with the other apostles in Jerusalem.  And, have fights with his missionary companions.  He was a stubborn dude.

I think it's easier to look at Paul, who lived 2000 years ago, as stubborn and difficult and still accept his apostleship than it is to look at apostles and prophets that live today who might be stubborn and difficult and accept their apostleship, or divine callings.

Jesus said that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 

So, when it comes to telling stories about prophets and apostles who live in our day and age, It can be hard to give an accurate portrayal, of the yellow canary with gray on their wings -- because no one wants to see that portrayal.  Everyone wants a yellow canary.  No one wants gray. 



My Favorite Passage from the Bible Dictionary

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses the KJV of the Bible in its teachings.

If you buy a copy of the King James Version of the bible published by the Church it comes with a Bible Dictionary attached to the end of it.  It's a study aid. 

The entry for King David says:

The long and varied discipline through which he passed in the earlier part of his life fitted him for the duties of the throne.  As shepherd he acquired the habit of deep reflection; as courtier he was trained in self-control and chivalrous generosity; as outlaw he acquired knowledge of men and power of government; while each successive phase of experience developed that conscious dependence upon God which was the secret of his strength throughout his life.

It's a great little narrative.  And, it shows how the narrative that King David lived through affected him and made him the man that he ended up being on the throne.  To me it's great, efficient storytelling.

I think you could turn this little passage into different acts of a film.  The Shepherd, the Courtier, the Outlaw, the King.  It would be an interesting character study to see someone grow in each of these situations.  And, take and learn things to form his character. 

"Woman, the Pioneer" or "Onward, Alone"

When I was an undergraduate at BYU I worked for the school's Dance Department as a lighting & sound technician. I loved the job.  I followed different dance troupes around on tour, helping with their lighting & sound production.  I mostly worked for them in on-campus theaters.  Doing shows on campus.  But, I followed them around on some tours, too.

One of the shows I went on tour with was Onward, Alone by Caroline Prohosky.  It was a show about women who migrated westward as pioneers without their husbands.  Their husbands had joined the Mormon Battalion and had gone to fight in the Mexican-American war. 

I found this video on YouTube that seems to be an earlier production of the dance that was made for television.  Back when it was called, Woman, the Pioneer.  I went on tour with the production in early 2008.  YouTube says this video is from 1997. 

I found some pictures on the internet of the 2008 production.  Here is one.  And, here is anotherHere is a picture of the dancers practicing -- it looks like.

It looks like Caroline turned the theater production into a book, too.   It actually looks like -- according to this Goodreads review by Becky -- the book comes with a DVD of the 2008 production. So, from a film in 1997, to a live performance 11 years later, then turned back into a film, and then to a book 5 years after that.  It seems to have been a passion project for her.

It makes me wonder if, like C.C.A. Christensen, in 60 years, one of Caroline's relatives will be working on a project, and someone will be looking for a good dance piece and, Caroline's relative will say, "You know.  Back home there is an old DVD I have of a piece that my ancestor, Caroline, directed that might fit well."  And, then, you know, Caroline's dance is famous.




The Paintings of C.C.A. Christensen

In my last blog post I talked about how much I enjoy Boyd K. Packer's talk The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.

I wanted to share, from that talk, a story which I love, which story didn't really fit in with the purpose of my last blog post.  That story is on the discovery of paintings by C.C.A Christensen.

Boyd K. Packer tells the story as follows:

Some years ago I was chairman of a committee of seminary men responsible to produce a filmstrip on Church history. One of the group, Trevor Christensen, remembered that down in Sanpete County was a large canvas roll of paintings. They had been painted by one of his progenitors, C. C. A. Christensen, who traveled through the settlements giving a lecture on Church history as each painting was unrolled and displayed by lamplight. The roll of paintings had been stored away for generations. We sent a truck for them, and I shall not forget the day we unrolled it.

Now, I am pretty sure that the Trevor Christensen he is referring to is Filmmaker T.C. Christensen.  T.C. makes a lot of films based in the history of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Boyd K. Packer and these guys go and find these rolls of paintings hidden in a back room.  He goes on:

Brother Christensen was not masterful in his painting, but our heritage was there. Some said it was not great art, but what it lacked in technique was more than compensated in feeling. His work has been shown more widely and published more broadly and received more attention than that of a thousand and one others who missed that point.

I do not think Brother Christensen was a great painter, some would say not even a good one. I think his paintings are masterful. Why? Because the simple, reverent feeling he had for his spiritual heritage is captured in them. I do not think it strange that the world would honor a man who could not paint very well.

I like this story because I grew up seeing C.C.A. Christensen's art in all of the church buildings I attended.  They were everywhere.  And, I always just assumed that he was this celebrated, popular artist.

Turns out, he was an artist who happened to be the ancestor of a filmmaker the Church was working with.  And, not only that, but Boyd K. Packer doesn't even think he is, technically, a great artist -- but thinks he makes masterful paintings.  Packer thinks Christensen is good at capturing the Mormons' spiritual heritage.

To me the story is, "Guess how this one painting ended up in every building of the Church across the country."  I think that's pretty interesting.

This Blog Post here has a little bit of a write-up about C.C.A. Christensen's art.

One of C.C.A. Christensen's paintings shows the Death of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith.

The paper show's Joseph, as he dies, being hit by a beam of light.  This idea that Joseph's body was hit by a beam of light when he died was a lie created by a man around Nauvoo, Illinois -- Joseph's hometown -- who thought adding that part in to the story would help him sell pamphlets he had written up recounting the death of the Mormon prophet.

That false part of the story ended up working its way in to some tellings of Joseph's death -- like that of C.C.A. Christensen's. 

I have tried, really hard, in writing my 9-episode series on the Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith to not get anything historically inaccurate or false in there.  I'm pretty sure that the story I have, while not all the truth, is all true.



Stories from Church History

For the last 9 years I have wanted to tell stories from history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Until this last year I never really tried to.  It was always more of something in which I dabbled. 

The first season of this podcast, the Strangers and Pilgrims podcast, will represent my first realized-attempt at telling a story that comes from the history of that Church.  That story being the story of the death of the church's founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith.

A source that I regularly look back at, as I figure out how to best tell stories out of the history of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, is a talk that is popular among Mormon Artists -- The Gospel Vision of the Arts, by Spencer W. Kimball.

In this talk, Spencer Kimball says:

For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle man, Joseph.

Actually, in the 3 minute introduction episode to my podcast, I pull some phrases from Spencer W. Kimball's talk -- struggles and apostasies . . . revolutions and counter-revolutions.

Another, far less referenced talk from a leader of the Church which I regularly go back and visit is The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord, by Boyd K. Packer.  I love this talk.  Partly because Boyd K. Packer was quite an artist himself.  I also love how hard-nosed Boyd K. Packer is in it, and I love how neglected the talk is compared to Spencer W. Kimball's talk.  It's like having a favorite band that no one has heard of.

But, part of the talk that I often go back to and re-read is this portion:

It is a mistake to assume that one can follow the ways of the world and then somehow, in a moment of intruded inspiration, compose a great anthem of the Restoration, or in a moment of singular inspiration paint the great painting. When it is done, it will be done by one who has yearned and tried and longed fervently to do it, not by one who has condescended to do it. It will take quite as much preparation and work as any masterpiece, and a different kind of inspiration.

I like that, too.

I think both talks kind of pull at one another from different sides.  Kimball's talk is saying, "You can make drama that comes out of our history equal to Shakespeare's drama," and Packer is saying, "Don't make art that tries to please the world.  Just please the Lord."  So, to me, looking at both of these talks side-by-side, I think the point is to try and make Shakespearean-level drama that pleases the Lord."  And, I think the point is that that isn't something that is impossible.

One of my top-5 favorite films is Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.  If I could think of any piece of work that is a Shakespearean-level drama that also pleases the Lord, I would have to choose this one.  It's masterfully done.  It's high art.  And, the drama from it comes from a religious and spiritual core.

In my opinion art depicting the laying the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should follow in the footsteps of Carl Dreyer.






Chinua Achebe, Bob Dylan, and Jim Carrey

One of my favorite endings to a story has always been the ending to Chinua Achebe's book Things Fall Apart.  The book is about this man, Okonkwo.  It closely follows him as he struggles with his family, and his African village, and the intrusion of colonialists.  A tragedy happens to Okonkwo at the end of the story, and the Commissioner -- one of the leaders of the colonialists -- sees the aftermath.  As the commissioner walks away from this tragic scene, he thinks about a book he wants to write on his experiences in Africa.  The narrator of the book says:

As he [the commissioner] walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. . .

These few sentences are shocking to me.  And, amazing writing.  What it tells me is that all the emotions, and life experiences, and tragedies that just happened to Okonkwo -- Okonkwo's entire life -- might make a 'reasonable paragraph' in the author's book.  It's dismissive.  It's nonchalant.  It's removed from the emotions of the situation.  And, it makes me re-frame the entire story I just read.

Another piece of art that does this exact same thing is Bob Dylan's song Black Diamond Bay.

The song is about all the visitors in a hotel at Black Diamond Bay.  And, how they are all frantically dealing with an earthquake.  Well, after telling all their emotional struggles, and vain efforts to save themselves and one another amidst this horrible disaster, Bob Dylan ends the song with:

I was sittin’ home alone one night in L.A.
Watchin’ old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news
It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothin’ but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes
Didn’t seem like much was happenin’,
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer

To Bob Dylan, watching the tragedy from his home in Los Angeles -- the story doesn't mean much.  He hears Walter Cronkite talk about a pair of "old Greek shoes," and to him it doesn't mean anything.  But, to the audience that just listened to the song, those shoes are full of meaning. And full of emotions because we know who they belonged to, and we know the Greek's story.  But to Bob watching television, the shoes and the earthquake mean nothing.  So, he just turns off the television.

A similar ending to a piece of art happens at the end of the Truman Show.  In this movie, just like in the other two stories, the audience follows along the emotional, gut-wrenching efforts and struggles of a main character.  Then, at the end, the entire emotional journey is re-framed by two security guards casually saying, "What else is on?  Yeah, let's see what else is on," and then changing the channel.

I don't know if this is a trope or not.  If it is a type of ending that is so common that it has a name and is cataloged and referenced.  I couldn't find it referenced over at the online trope catalogue


Vanity of Vanities Saith the Preacher

Thomas S. Monson was the former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This is the Mormon Church that Joseph Smith founded.  He died a little less than 2 weeks ago. 

In a talk he gave 13 years ago, in 2004, he said:

One day while in a somber, reflective mood, President Clark [a former leader of the Mormon church] asked if I could arrange for the printing of a picture suitable for framing. The picture was to feature the lions of Persepolis guarding the ruins of a crumbled glory. President Clark wished to have printed with the picture—between the decaying arches of a civilization that was no more—a number of his favorite scriptures, chosen from his vast knowledge of holy writ. I felt you would wish to know his selections. There were three—two from Ecclesiastes and one from the Gospel of John.

First, from Ecclesiastes: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

Second, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

Third, from John: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

I have always liked the idea of President Clark's picture.  It is a lot like the poem Ozymanidas by Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In that poem, a traveler talks about finding, in the middle of the desert, the pedestal of a statue -- which statue only has two legs remaining.  The rest of the statue has been broken off.  

And, on the pedestal of the statue it reads:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

President Clark's version of Ozymandias -- his picture of the lions of Persepolis with his favorite scriptures -- is nice because it adds a little bit of hope to the absurdity and of man's glory and wealth. 

But, you know, the ephemeral nature of man and the fleeting nature of his works are a popular theme within scripture, and there are a lot of instances of it being referenced outside of that one verse from Ephesians.  I have always liked, "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted of?"

And, then, these ideas pop up a lot in absurdist and existential literature and drama.  But, literature and drama doesn't answer questions.  It just asks them and lets the audience sort through it for themselves.  I'm sure there is a place for that.