Six years ago, says author Brian Evenson, he had to make a choice between his church and his art. He chose his art.
Evenson is the author of six books but may be best known in his home state as the professor who left Brigham Young University after a flap over the publication of his first book, "Altmann's Tongue." He was back in Utah this week to speak at a Friday session of the Sunstone Symposium, the annual meeting that describes itself as "faith seeking understanding." This year's event, which runs through today, is focused on the intersection of Mormonism and popular culture.
Evenson asked to be excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he says, "not because of a profound disagreement with the doctrines of the church or because of moral differences" but because he felt he couldn't be both a writer and a Mormon. If he remained a member, he says, he found himself "too consciously weighing the church's opinion" of what he was writing. Being a member also limited "the way in which I processed emotion in my work," he says.
LDS writers, he told his audience in a talk called "Faithful to Whom: Art or the Church?" tend to self-censor. Many of those writers "are willing to ask questions to a certain point, and then they stop asking."
Evenson is now a professor at Brown University, where he chairs the program in literary arts.
"Altmann's Tongue," the book that made the BYU administration uneasy, is a collection of Poe-like short stories that are unflinching, at times macabre. What he wanted to portray, Evenson says, were situations where people responded to violence in unexpected ways.
As a child growing up LDS in Utah County, he was encouraged to write only positive things in his journal, he says. But what he discovered later, he says, was that his neighbors had the same struggles as people anywhere else, "even if many folks wanted to keep those problems hushed up." It was the "sense of balance, of light and dark" that fascinated him, he says.
It was an anonymous letter from a student to an LDS general authority that set in motion his eventual departure from BYU and his church. The letter accused Evenson of "writing the sort of book that was precisely the opposite of what a Mormon should write," he says. Later, his department chairman wrote a memo threatening that "further publications like it will bring repercussions." Still later, he says, the president and provost of BYU told him he had "a responsibility to members of the church to do work that will not offend them."
Evenson says he thought academic freedom would prevail but realizes now that "a religion, particularly a religion as corporate as Mormonism is, can never be reasoned with." What he has learned, he says, is that "if you decide to stand up for your own beliefs in the face of your religion, you will lose." But being challenged about his beliefs, he says, has made him a better writer.
He would like to believe, he says, "that other people might be able to do what they need to do for their writing or art and still maintain their church membership if that's what they desire. I don't think you can do it and be a typical Mormon, but I do think you can probably do it." Staying "under the radar" helps, he says.In a question-and-answer period following Evenson's talk, several audience members noted that visual artists and musicians can more easily take risks without being censored. And, as one woman added: "There are several invisible places in the Mormon Church, and one is being an older woman."