Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jon Gries, left, Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell star in "Napoleon Dynamite." "Napoleon Dynamite" is a thoroughgoing example of why art should be important to religious people, and particularly art done well, by which I mean, oddly enough, art done with a certain lack of self-consciousness.

Editor's note: This commentary by Henderson State University professor Matthew Bowman is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.

In director Jared Hess’ 2004 film "Napoleon Dynamite," the title character is excruciatingly aware of his body. He endlessly complains about chapped lips and gets smacked over the head by his brother. He attends a martial arts class whose promises to help him master his body are quickly exposed as an impossible swindle, and his uncle’s attempts to teach him football are a similar dismal failure. He is good at tetherball and plays it with gusto. He hides his gangly form in ill-fitting suits and clomping moon boots that only serve to emphasize his awkwardness. He savors Tater Tots. Napoleon’s grapple with his body is only won when he paradoxically ceases to grapple with it, allows it to be what it is and in so doing finds a transcendent sort of bliss dancing before the student body of his high school.

"Napoleon Dynamite" thus succeeds as meditation on a particularly Mormon notion: the fraught relationship human beings have with their bodies. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is taught that her body is a thing of appetites, to be mastered and controlled, but she is also taught her body is a gracious gift from God, an intrinsic part of what makes humanity Godlike, something to be honored that will eventually serve as the very platform of her redemption. Napoleon’s struggle, then, is in a sense the struggle of all Mormons who seek to work out what it means to be a person with a body that, they are taught, is both divine and, in Book of Mormon parlance, “natural.”

Is this theological reading of the film too much? More than the script, by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess, intended? Perhaps it is. But intention matters less than we might think. The Hesses are Latter-day Saints, and the ideas the film works out are the water they swim in, the unconscious undergirding of their worldview. And in part because it lacks the self-consciousness that explicit discussion demands, the film is a more profound meditation upon these themes than any number of earnest and belabored recapitulations of these ideas in glib summaries, textbooks and cleanly delineated charts and PowerPoint presentations.

In his book "Orthodoxy," the British author G.K. Chesterton argues that, paradoxically, Christian orthodoxy is not in fact orthodox, if orthodoxy means easy precision and interpretive cleanliness, because human experience generally has neither. Rather, he argues, orthodoxy is “like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.” Like Napoleon Dynamite’s life — or anybody’s life — within any given religious tradition, orthodoxy may be taken seriously, but taking orthodoxy seriously does not occlude its roughness and should not presume it possesses clarity. Rather, orthodoxy is a thing that must be worked out in the messy reality of lived religion, not in the rigorous delineation of words on a page.

That given, "Napoleon Dynamite" is a thoroughgoing example of why art should be important to religious people, and particularly art done well, by which I mean, oddly enough, art done with a certain lack of self-consciousness. The ceaseless temptation that captures much bad art is its conviction to tell rather than show, to hew directly to “themes” and ideology, illustrating some notion through shallow and obviously didactic plots rather than exploring what it means in the fleshly, sometimes awkward and always confusing experience of living. The complicated realities of human existence should not obviate the possibility of orthodoxy, but they should illustrate for believers that orthodoxy, to use Chesterton’s image of a stone, will always reveal new crannies, wrinkles and ditches the deeper it is explored. Orthodoxy, then, paradoxically is always in evolution

A series like "Faith and Thought," then, offers a distinct opportunity for Latter-day Saints to explore the implications of orthodoxy through the underutilized method of not directly exploring it. Latter-day Saints often spend a great deal of time explaining what precisely they believe, but somewhat less time considering the ways the implications of these beliefs bear out upon the world. As "Napoleon Dynamite" examines Mormons’ struggles with embodiment, a renewed engagement with Mormon orthodoxy might reveal a particularly Mormon way of thinking about education, politics, literature or music.

To be sure, Mormon writers have explored some of these ideas. Eugene England argued that Mormons’ affinity for history, family and autobiography should lead them to the personal essay, illustrating their faith through their lives rather than the other way around. Other Mormons have made the case that their faith impels them to one particular political stance or the other. But rarely have they stepped back from the presumption that Mormonism should mandate a certain set of politics to think about what those elements of Mormonism that might lend themselves to politics are in the first place. It’s hard to enunciate what ideas are orthodox without defining what makes up orthodoxy, and much bad art is bad because it is self-consciously orthodox, and therefore, to a certain extent, artificial.

All of which is why I would like to see Mormon writers be more like "Napoleon Dynamite": they should start writing things about Mormonism that are not explicitly about Mormonism. Odd experimental films might seem not to bear much direct relevance to what Mormons think about when they think about their faith, but, of course, there are Mormons in the world thinking about odd experimental films, about fantasy novels, about the stock market, the state of higher education and the Syrian civil war.

17 comments on this story

In seeking to find the ways Mormonism might speak to these issues, Mormons have the chance to further unpack what Mormonism itself might mean, to burrow past the sterile lines on the page and instead grapple with being Mormon in the world. All too often, Latter-day Saints have neglected to think about these answers and instead have borrowed their positions from the sterile world of consumerism and culture war that surrounds them. "Faith and Thought" perhaps provides a venue for developing a more comprehensive, and hence more dynamic, Mormonism.

Matthew Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University and the author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."