Monday, August 14, 2006

Why I am so annoyed that Richard Dutcher appeared on a panel at Sunstone with Brian Evanson and Neil LaBute

OK, let me start by saying that I KNOW NOTHING. I am completely unqualified to hold this opinion and to share it in public and definitely unqualified to defend it. I am very na├»ve about Sunstone, having never attended a single session or participated with them in any way. So, those of you who say, “Try it; you’ll like it,” I answer, “Possibly, but I think not,” and for those of you who decide that I am not intellectually brave enough, or sophisticated enough to stand outside my narrow world-view that was formed by my LDS upbringing in order to see more clearly, I answer, “Maybe.” So that’s that.

I was really sad to see the announcement that Richard Dutcher would be appearing on a panel at Sunstone with Neil LaBute and Brian Evanson. Not because I didn’t think he had anything he could add to the conversation. Not because I don’t want “an insider’s” POV represented on any panel at Sunstone (the more the better, I suppose). But because I DON’T LIKE HIM BEING PUT IN A SIMILAR CATEGORY with them. Whatever the category is, I wish that he would BEND OVER BACKWARDS to make sure he does not have even the appearance of being like them.

Because this is the thing: they are past Mormons. They have decided to speak from outside. They feel that speaking the truth required them to renounce membership, or at least to stray from the requirements for membership. There is a HUGE difference, in my mind, between them and Dutcher, who has been for me the symbol of hope for the future of Mormon art. Here is a guy who writes from inside, showing us the struggles of souls within the church (without implying that the gospel, at the most fundamental level, is faulty) showing us that we can wrestle with truth in a mature way without sacrificing our basic beliefs, our commitment to membership. Not only does he not show that abandoning membership is the solution to problems, but the basic message (and I use that word with hesitation, because I don’t believe his goal is to share “messages” but rather to tell the truth, which is very, very different) of his art is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, purely understood, is the only solution to problems—and even then it is only the solution in the eternal scheme of things.

NIGHT AND DAY different from LaBute and Evanson and, from what I can tell, the general philosophy behind the Sunstone symposium itself.

I was at the symposium for a few hours to man the AML table. I walked in and saw people greeting each others and hurrying around and I liked the feeling of learning together and discussion. I’m all for that. I’m all for exploring the gospel and how we live it—and how we can live it better—in conversation with others. Especially, I am strongly interested in discussing how we can make better art, and build the kingdom through truthtelling (as opposed to sappy, moralistic and shallow stories). Standing there in the hall at Sunstone, I wanted to be open-minded (the One True Religion, according to some) about it and see if I have gotten the wrong impression of it. Certainly some of the people I admire most swear that Sunstone is a great thing for the church and the scholarly/artistic community. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I can’t say that I really did give it a chance, because I didn’t attend any sessions—not even the Dutcher session. But I learned a lot just by sitting at my table and reading the program. First of all, my table was situated next to a table sponsored by some other church. It was piled high with pamphlets from that church’s founder, etc. I met the (very nice) lady who staffed it, a minister in her church. The next table down was staffed by the Eagle Foundation, an organization that exists to advocate for LDS gays. I leafed through some of their stuff and it became clear that there was an agenda to “work for change” among the LDS authorities until the new day dawns etc., etc. (OK, I’ll say right now that I ABSOLUTELY AGREE that there needs to be a change among the membership at large in the perception of what it means to be gay in the church. I am all for gays forming foundations, etc., to learn to live with their challenges. I have no problem with that and see the great need of it. The thing I have a problem with is the attitude which I saw inherent in many of the presentations listed in the Sunstone program: that if we get together and discuss enough, and whine enough, we can influence change in gospel doctrines. It’s the “bring change about from the bottom up” philosophy that is offensive to me, the absolute lack of faith in divine direction through a prophet that lies, IMO, at the critical foundation of a testimony in this particular church.) So, judging only on what I saw in the resource room and on the program, I was disappointed to see that all of my pre-judgments about Sunstone seemed to be accurate.

So, I was disappointed to see Dutcher there, agreeing to be thrown in a category with two others who are so open about their opinions that great art and membership in the church are mutually exclusive.

I heard that Dutcher’s session on States of Grace was extremely well-received at Sunstone, and that the comments afterwards were very moving to him. I don’t doubt that he has been wondering if anyone appreciates what he has been doing. I firmly believed he deserved whatever praise the Sunstone attendees gave him. But please, oh, please, don’t let him think that there is no understanding, no appreciation, no true recognition of his value, except at Sunstone. Don’t let him even begin on that path. Because I believe that there are so many of us out here who are thirsty for him to be himself, to pursue the path he began, to continue to speak from WITHIN the community with the power that he has. I don’t blame him for doubting that we are out here, because we are hard to reach and not very vocal (and we don’t have a lot of money to spend on movie tickets). But we’re here, and he will alienate us by joining up with those who believe telling the truth requires them to leave the church.

I am torn in writing this because I am afraid. I don’t want to lose respect from the people who love Sunstone. There are a lot of good things in Sunstone, and a lot of good people who write for them and read them. ( I may even write for them myself sometime.) But even they have got to admit that there is this fundamental difference between people who agree to cross the line of sacrificing commitment to living the gospel (and the laws of the CHURCH) and those who will not cross that line under any circumstance. Those on one side of the line tend to look at those on the other as being frightened of examining ideas, close-minded, possibly shallow. Those on the other side of the line tend to look at the others as lacking faith or even being instruments of the devil to lead us away gently. Both are wrong in these suspicions. But the line exists, and I see now that I cannot straddle the line. I don’t think Richard Dutcher can, either.


Christopher Bigelow said...

Well put. As I've said before, this is something that should go onto AML-List. I personally am trying to do that straddling thing you say you can't do, but I am not overly passionate about Sunstone. I'm glad it's there but take much of it with a grain of salt.

After hearing Dutcher chat with these other two brethren, I'm slightly less certain of his fortitude in the gospel; I think he would put his Joseph Smith movie over his church standing, and I'm not sure that would be either right or wrong, probably somewhere in between.

Mahonri Stewart said...

Kudos to you for having the courage to write this! It's true, there are many who will think you shallow or narrow minded for writing this-- but it doesn't make it any less true.
I've had my own debates with myself about Sunstone Like you, I know people who adhere to it who are good friends, people I respect and wonderful members of the Church. I do not doubt that it does good things for them. I have read the magazine and found things I really liked and things I vehemently disagreed with-- but you'll get that in Gospel Doctrine classes as well. I've attended one Sunstone Symposium lecture-- a couple of years ago, and only because Richard Dutcher was speaking. But when it really boils down to it-- I don't trust it. Again, I'm not talking about individuals within the group or even editors and leadership within the group. AML List has been great that way, in that it has introduced me to lots of wonderful people whose opinions I really trust-- some of whom are associated with Sunstone. But the overall trend of Sunstone, where it seems to be taking people-- well, I looked through the schedule of events on the internet and it pretty much confirmed to me that Sunstone wants to set itself up as a counter organization to the Church: focusing on complaints against the Church, inviting excommunicated members to be their keynote speakers, stirring up the controversial issues which the Church has stood up against (homosexuality seemed to be a popular theme this year), and as a general rule of thumb, defying Church Leadership. Which makes me wonder what exactly they're trying to do? If it is to effect change within the Church, they're doing a pretty shoddy job, for anything attached to Sunstone seems to have the opposite effect-- it immediately makes the cause suspect and makes the Church (leaders and general membership) dig in their heels all the harder.
As to Richard Dutcher-- all my tender feeling go to him, and hope with all the hope I can muster, that, as you've said, he keeps down the path he started, the one that he felt inspired to follow after reading the words of a living prophet.
--Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart said...

Another thing, real quick. Reading through your blog real quick, Darlene, you have a lucid, clear voice that should be heard more. I've noticed you on AML before, but I agree with Chris and think you should speak up more. Points of view like yours are under represented on places like AML and such and I think your thoughts on this issue and others (even the DB/Seagull issue, which I have a slight point of view on than you) should be heard.
-- Mahonri

Mahonri Stewart said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Davey Morrison said...

New interview with Dutcher, in which he discusses "Falling" in detail (in addition to his other five films--"God's Army," "Brigham City," "States of Grace," "Girl Crazy," and "Evil Angel"), and also talks about his two films he'll be shooting later this year: