Gary Stewart grew up in Kaysville during the 1950s, a decade he describes as "the time when the LDS Church was most in sync with the popular culture." But of course the 1950s were followed by the 1960s. And every decade since then has proven even more problematic for a church that cautions its members to be "in the world but not of the world."
In the past 15 or 20 years, Mormons have essentially tried to re-create that '50s world, says Stewart, who has returned to Utah after 35 years doing theater out of state. "The people in the church have created a culture that makes it possible for young people to grow up not connected to 'Brokeback Mountain' and popular music," he says, citing a burgeoning industry of LDS books, music and film that shy away from edgier themes.
This uneasy relationship between Mormonism and the "outside" world is one of the running themes of this year's Sunstone Symposium, the annual look at LDS-related issues, sponsored by the Sunstone Education Foundation. The Foundation's Sunstone Magazine identifies itself emphatically as "a symbol of and vehicle for free and frank exchange in the Church!"
The symposium, which runs from Wednesday through Saturday, Aug. 12, will look at both how Mormonism is currently depicted in popular culture, and how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reacts to popular culture's sometimes threatening ideas. Talks and panel discussions will tackle tattoos, the Utah Valley brouhaha over filmmaker Michael Moore and the church's uncomfortable relationship with its own gay members.
This year's brochure pictures the angel Moroni wearing an i-Pod.
Attempts to insulate children and teens from popular culture don't really work and aren't a good idea, says Stewart, one of several local and national speakers who will talk about the push-pull that Mormons feel when confronted with ideas that don't square with their faith's tenets. "Eventually they're going to encounter these ideas, these images."
That this encounter is complicated is evident as Stewart talks about his own life. His now-grown children, who were exposed to "outside" influences growing up away from Utah, have left the church. On a recent trip to New York City with his 12-year-old granddaughter, Stewart walked out of a play he thought was too mature for her.
In general, though, "a big word in my life is 'curiosity,' " Stewart says. "Exposure to a larger culture, however the person filters it, enriches their lives." He acknowledges that some people can live fulfilled and happy lives without such exposure, but "there are just some of us that are drawn to irony and darker things."
Utah County writer Brian Evenson knows what Stewart means. He and playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute will present "Dissenting Opinions: Art from the Dark Side of Happy Valley." Evenson will also present "Faithful to Whom Art or Church?" The talk will explore what happens when LDS artists "stretch boundaries." Evenson himself lost his job at Brigham Young University after the publication of his first novel and now teaches at Brown University.
Popular culture's portrayal of Mormonism will be addressed in several talks, including "The Americanization of Mormonism Reflected in Pop Culture" and two discussions about "Big Love," the TV show about modern-day polygamy.
Author and Orlando Sentinel reporter Mark Pinksy will take on the bigger topic of pop culture and religion during his Smith-Pettit Lecture at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. Pinksy is the author of "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" and "The Gospel According to Disney."
The four-day symposium will include a broad range of topics, including former church President Spencer W. Kimball, feminist bloggers and "the yoga of Christ."