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Sunstone: Hidden Mormonism in Orson Scott Card's fiction

Christopher C. Smith thinks Mormon novelist Orson Scott Card's writing carries a modern-day, mythical link to Joseph Smith. "A mischievous thesis, I know," he said at the Sunstone Symposium on Fri. Aug. 14.Smith, who said he isn't a member of the LDS Church, wasn't looking at the prophetic mantel but at the creation of "myths." In this context, "myths" isn't about true or false but is a neutral term for stories that have deeper, universal meaning or are sacred narratives. In Card's myths — his science fiction and fantasy novels and short fiction — Smith has found Mormon themes that have touched his life and made him appreciate Mormonism better."Card's own motivations in integrating Mormon themes into his fiction are difficult to pin down, not least because he's sometimes only partially aware of them," Smith said.There are three broad categories of Card's expressions of Mormonism in his work, according to Smith: To express Mormonism, to defend Mormonism, and to change Mormonism.Expressing MormonismSmith wasn't talking about references that are obvious to Mormons, but broader themes that give readers an emotional or transformational experience. "His intent is not to make converts to Mormonism, but it is at least partly to instill Mormon values," Smith said.A common theme in Card's work is sacrifice. Sometimes the sacrifice is physical, where a character dies to save others. The connections to Christ's sacrifice resonate.Another type of sacrifice in Card's work is what Smith called "moral sacrifice." An example is in the novel "Ender's Game," where the protagonist unwittingly does something horrible on behalf of all humans. The protagonist then vilifies himself as the responsible one so that the rest of humanity can recover from their collective guilt.Community and family are other big themes in Card's work, according to Smith. Free will also figures in Card's work."Most of these are themes that could be absorbed by any reader," Smith said. He said that Card might claim not to be proselytizing his readers but that his novels are very persuasive because they are "expressed in the compelling language of myth and story."Defending MormonismSmith said Card's "Homecoming" series defends the Book of Mormon. The five-book science fiction series allegorizes the Book of Mormon. Card gets into the character's heads and provides plausible explanations for their actions. "He can hardly have been unaware that the overall effect of his narrative was to lend the Book of Mormon stories an aura of plausibility," Smith said.Other novels have similar themes, setting up situations that Card uses to give more auras of plausibility.Changing MormonismSmith looked at several novels where Card is criticizing or warning Mormons. "Among the specific concepts that Card may be trying to communicate to the Mormon community are gender egalitarianism, racial inclusivity, respect for the environment and a critique of hypocrisy and false piety," Smith said.The call for reformation, as Smith put it, is embedded within fictional narratives and so "readers often are not aware of just how radically they are being changed."Smith doubted that Card would appreciate being compared to Joseph Smith. He is, however, convinced that Card's work operates in these three ways — expressing Mormonism, defending Mormonism and changing Mormonism — because of how Card's work has worked on him."Card's fiction has moved and shaped and changed me," Smith said. "I may never have passed through the waters of baptism, but as I participate in Card's Mormon myths, I find myself feeling that I am in some small way a part of the Mormon community, and it is part of me."


E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com