[JI's good friend Joey Stuart shares some reflections on reading David Haglund's article on D. Michael Quinn.]
David Haglund’s excellent article on Slate yesterday provoked pity and some personal soul-searching on my part. Haglund highlights the rise and fall of D. Michael Quinn, one of the most important figures in the study of Mormon History. Quinn’s relationship with President Boyd K. Packer, from his interview with President Packer to be hired at BYU to President Packer’s alleged involvement in the Church disciplinary council that cost Quinn his membership in the LDS Church. Rather than placing Quinn with the 5 other members of the “September Six,” my thoughts turned to Asher Lev, from the protagonist of My Name is Asher Lev.[i]
Asher Lev grows up in a strict Reform Jewish home in New York in the mid-20th Century. His father is a representative for a world-widely influential Jewish political group, based in New York City. When Asher’s mother faces a crisis of faith due to her brother’s death in a car accident, Asher learns that his religion doesn’t necessarily have the answers to everything (although it appears that his mother’s faith in Judaism is strengthened through the experience). Asher has genius-level artistic abilities, much to the chagrin of his father, who says that art is “foolishness” and “time wasting.” The Reb, the surprisingly liberal (for a Reform) Jewish leader Mr. Lev works for, meets with Asher, and arranges for Asher to study with a lapsed Jew (Jacob Kahn), who allows Asher to not paint on the Sabbath and keep Mosaic law in general. Eventually, Kahn pushes Asher to paint nudes, which is strictly against Asher’s upbringing, upsetting Mr. and Mrs. Lev. Asher continues to hone his skill, with a determination to keep his “Jewishness” while becoming a master at something unappreciated by most Jews. The culminating event of the book is when Asher must prove to himself that he is as good an artist as he thinks he is, and paints a crucifixion, leading to his shame and ostracism from his Jewish Community.
Reading Haglund’s article gave me the same initial reaction that Asher Lev did. Both the article and Asher Lev present faithful protagonists, who in spite of their belief, are seemingly left out of their faith due to their passions in life: Asher for his art and Quinn for his history research and writing. Asher gains the support of the Reb to paint; Quinn becomes research assistant to the Church Historian. Asher keeps Mosaic Law; Quinn is a temple worker and bishopric member. Neither is able to gain the approval of stern hierarchical figures, Mr. Lev and President Packer respectively. Both ultimately are pushed out of their traditions because of their craft, craft which is recognized as useful, beautiful, and inspiring in their own ways.
Perhaps most importantly, like Asher Lev, Quinn’s work grates/grated against the religious comfort level of his people. Asher painted Crucifixion in the years following the Holocaust, when Jews were blamed for the death of Christ and thus “deserved” the Holocaust. Quinn’s writings and research on post-Manifesto polygamy, homosexual dynamics in Mormonism, magic in early Mormonism, and the Joseph Smith Succession Crisis came at a particularly sensitive time for Church History, post-Juanita Brooks and pre-Rough Stone Rolling, in the middle of the Hoffman scandal.
So is Michael Quinn the Asher Lev of Mormonism? Ostracized for excelling at their respective crafts, abandoned by the people they thought would support them most? Are they to be defined by their work in the academy or by their religion? By their “abandonment” of their religious tradition and social norms?[ii] Did their commitment to their work lead to their demise?
What can Mormon Historians learn from Lev and Quinn?