Imagine two poets who both want to write about the moon.
The first makes her way up into the hills, where the sky is clear, and pens a few lines to describe the way the moon's soft silver glow gives depth to the night.
The second goes down to the bay and watches the water lap against the shore as the tide slowly rises. She writes about the quiet, monotonous motions of the water as it is pulled an almost imperceptible fraction of the distance toward some mysterious force above.
This second approach is the one William Morris takes in his short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. In the stories, for the most part, the mundane and even monotonous rhythms of everyday Mormon life take center stage while the calls of discipleship pull at the characters quietly but insistently, from somewhere that always feels just out of reach but still worth reaching toward.
The Contemporary Stories
Of the 16 stories in the collection, 10 are set in the present or the recent past. In the first two stories, we follow young home teachers on visits where the usual rituals of fellowship are strained by a genuine human need which no one knows quite how to handle. In the next two, we see a missionary and a recently returned missionary try to make sense of spiritual experiences that sneak up on them and then linger almost hauntingly.
In some of the later stories, the setting is less overtly religious, but the same tensions persist. The characters' feet are planted squarely in a world of schedules to keep, social roles to play, decisions to be made. At the same time, though, they feel other people's needs calling to them from beneath the surface of our protective superficiality or feel God calling to them in various subtle ways from above. Navigating those three worlds, Morris seems to feel, is what defines contemporary Mormon-American experience.
The Future Stories
When Eric James Stone came as a guest to one of the BYU creative writing classes I taught, he mentioned his lack of interest in science fiction as a form of prediction. The goal of most science fiction writers, he argued, is not to forecast the future but to use an exaggerated future as a sort of parable for a concern of the present.
If Jesus were in the business of walking down the streets of this world telling stories today, I think he'd like that kind of science fiction. A man who talks about planks of wood sticking out of your eye and camels walking through needles understands the power of the right kind of extreme image.
In this collection, Morris is interested in futures where it's impossible to openly practice Mormonism in mainstream society. In some of the stories, a separate Zion exists somewhere where "Peculiars" can live their religion freely--but the protagonists are people who live as Crypto-Mormons, quietly keeping their faith in whatever forms they can while publicly pretending to be just like everyone else.
The stories' central interest is not what future persecution might look like. The stories are most interested, it seems to me, in the feeling of Mormonism as adding hidden layers to reality. The characters in the contemporary stories live in their own routines, with faith pulling them toward something more and something else. The characters in the future stories live in elaborate lies and half-truths built around the expectations of their societies, all balanced precariously against the secret ties of faith and a half-remembered sense of greater purpose.
The Take Home
There's not a huge demand for Mormon-themed short stories, or for serious religious fiction period, in today's market. Conversations about religion mostly happen informally among families and friends, in Church, or on blogs--not in the intricately crafted world of literature.
But I think these stories do some really interesting things that my informal conversations and my periodic scans through the blogosphere don't. They talk relatively little about the current issues in our conversation cycle or the questions we plow our way through in Sunday School from week to week. They're a rare and valuable opportunity, instead, for me to step back and think about what my religion is--not as the Church per se or as a set of things I happen to do at this stage in my people's history, but as a set of pulls that act upon me. As that distant force that still seems to move our day to day motions gradually up the sand.