Last week’s New Yorker offered a long Adam Gopnik piece on “Mormonism and its meanings,” organized around Gopnik’s assessment of a spate of new scholarly books on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has some kind words for John G. Turner’s forthcoming biography of Brigham Young, a book about which we’ll have much more to say in the weeks and months ahead. For now, though, Gopnik’s piece put us in mind of Victoria Nelson’s Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Nelson’s Young-of-choice is more William P. than Brigham, but her analysis of the modern mainstreaming of supernaturalism calls for her to consider the “new religious movements” of the 19th century and the ways in which today’s pop culture transcendentalism echoes the teachings of leaders like Mormonism’s Joseph Smith.
As Gopnik details, a key belief of Mormonism is the relation of humans to God:
Smith held (especially in the sermons he preached toward the end of his life) that God and angels and men were all members of the same species. “God that sits enthroned is a man like one of you” and “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man” were two of his most emphatic aphorisms on the subject. (People who were “exalted,” in Smith’s language, were men moving toward godhood, as God himself had once been a man who achieved it.) Although in many other respects…Mormonism was orthodox in its outlook—Jesus is the sole Messiah, and his history as told in the Gospels is taken to be true, if incomplete—the doctrine of God-as-Man divided Smith’s cult from the others, and scared the pants off even charismatic Protestantism: the Protestants were willing to accept that we are made in his image, but not that we are made of the same flesh.
This conception of the human divine is a key element of the new supernatural that Nelson tracks up from the “sub-Zeitgeist”—“the grab-bag mass market popular culture lying beneath or around or on top of the secular-materialist mainstream”—to such world-conquering entertainments as the works of Dan Brown and the Twilight series. And so she cannot do her work with Bella and Hellboy without considering Mormonism and its tenet of deification.
In the process she also details how, just as popular amusements are today in a sense taking their cues from religion, some of the religious fervor and populist evangelism that swept periods of American history was itself inflected with its era’s mass media:
Some of these radical Protestant sects of colonial America placed an almost Gnostic emphasis on the primacy of the spiritual over the evil, illusory material world. Many, including the Shakers, the Perfectionists, and the Quakers, also shared a belief in the potential of humans to become like gods during their life on earth. Where Emerson was waxing eloquent about the divinity of man, Joseph Smith was devising a religion around it. The doctrine of human divinity would resurface in Scientology’s notion of the “Operating Thetan,” a perfected being exempt from the cycles of birth and death, and in the teachings of many other esoteric societies, from the early twentieth- century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn through New Age religious groups such as the Neopagans, Wiccans, and the Course of Miracles, all of which subscribe to some form of the belief that the “Christed” or Higher Self is capable of manifesting in the earthly body to produce a “divine human.” It is a concept, as we will see, also central to twenty-first-century Gothick religion building.
Since the time that Bibles were first printed in vernacular languages (not coincidentally, at the onset of the Protestant Reformation), mass media publication of scripture helped fuel radical reinterpretations of Christianity. Then as now, a person’s ability to read and reflect on his own copy of a scripture guaranteed privacy of worship and encouraged as well the development of a highly individualistic “personal gnosis” as a means of accessing the transcendental. By the nineteenth century, the religious manifestos of the two “American heresiarchs” Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy, written by the founding individuals themselves rather than by later commentators, were published and distributed to a mass audience within a relatively short time after they were written. This instant scripture, moreover, was partially shaped by conventions of popular nonfiction and Gothick fiction as well as esoteric folklore (wonder and providence narratives, the romance of gold tablets written in a secret celestial language, and the self-improvement tradition begun by Benjamin Franklin, respectively).
In nineteenth-century America, wide distribution of the new scriptures had the subliminally powerful effect of further underlining similarities between their story lines and those of popular fiction. In a popular culture infused with mystic “visions, dreams, and voice,” Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, for example, was a best seller along with the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott. This structural congruence was dramatically extended in the twentieth century, when individual works of science fiction or fantasy would be used as the scriptural- narrative basis of new religious groups, either by their authors (e.g., L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology) or by a portion of their audience.
The upshot for Gopnik, of course, is whether and how knowledge of Mormonism and its origins should help us better to understand Mitt Romney. He details the abandoned facets of Mormonism which the church no longer acknowledges—such as the long-maintained prohibition of black priests—and draws a comparison to Romney’s “blithe amnesia” regarding topics on which his position has clearly changed—such as health care mandates and reproductive freedom. Ultimately, though, Gopnik gives us a religion that evolved to preach the “American Gospel of Wealth,” and a candidate who fancies himself its greatest apostle.