When”The Empire Strikes Back,” the second film of the “Star Wars” saga, opened in Salt Lake City in May 1980, many Mormons left the theater convinced that they had seen a familiar face. By the time “Return of the Jedi” hit Utah’s rental shelves in the mid-1980s, the rumor was hard to escape in Mormon country: The Jedi Master Yoda was based on Spencer W. Kimball, who served as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, from 1974 to 1985.
The reasons ranged from the trivial to the telling. Like Yoda, Kimball was short, with large ears, thin white hair, and a slightly squashed, wrinkly face. Both had a knack for gnomic, oracular axioms. Kimball was famous for urging Mormons not simply to believe in their faith, but to “do it,” and even to “do it now,” advice Yoda inverted into “Do, or do not.”
Mormons believe that the president of their church is the only person on Earth with the entirety of the priesthood authority Jesus Christ granted to the apostle Peter; Yoda was the last Jedi in the galaxy.
Unfortunately for the Mormons, Stuart Freeborn, who designed Yoda, did not mention Kimball when he cited his inspirations. But looking more closely, it appears that the Mormon identification with “Star Wars” is only one manifestation of a deeper Mormon fascination with the genres of science fiction and fantasy.
In the 19th century, Nephi Anderson published “Added Upon,” the first novel-length Mormon venture into science fiction. Hugely popular among his co-religionists, it mixed scenes in heaven with a speculative vision of the world after Jesus’s Second Coming.
Today, an overwhelming number of Mormon authors and movie makers who have achieved national success, including Orson Scott Card, Jared Hess, Stephenie Meyer and Brandon Sanderson, also work in the genre.
For 30 years, the church-owned Brigham Young University has held a symposium, “Life, the Universe and Everything,” focused on “all aspects of science fiction and fantasy,” where Mormon authors frequently meditate upon the relationship between speculative fiction and their faith.
In the past decade, when many evangelicals feared that the “Harry Potter” phenomenon encouraged comfort with witchcraft and Satanism, the Mormon apostle Jeffrey Holland embraced the moral example of the teen wizard. And in the present day, The Washington Post has demonstrated that Utahans seem to love “Star Wars” more than people in any other state.
There are a number of possible reasons for this fascination, from the persistent legacy of authors such as Anderson in Mormon culture to the most commonly suggested: the superficial resemblance between Mormon theology and the elements of speculative fiction. This can be taken at face value.
“Mormons believe a lot of things that are pretty fantastic — we believe in miracles and angels and ancient prophets and rediscovered Scripture — so maybe it is almost natural for us to dive into these other stories,” Mormon fantasy author Shannon Hale told the Boston Globe.
Hale’s point, however, should be taken as a beginning, not an end: “Fantastic,” after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
Mormon scholar Terryl Givens has built upon the point, arguing that the particular content of Mormon belief lends itself to the genres of science fiction and fantasy especially well. He points to the notion that humas have divine potential and to passages in Mormon scripture that indicate the existence of life throughout the universe. To these, of course, could be added some of those parallels between Spencer Kimball and Yoda: a faith in prophets and priestly power. For Givens, the literary forms of science fiction and fantasy allow for exploration of these ideas better than any others.
More broadly, though, the popularity of speculative fiction among American Mormons speaks to the persistent tensions surrounding their faith.
One reason Mormonism succeeded while so many other new religious movements founded in the fires of the Second Great Awakening failed was its success at constructing a new society, built in 19th-century Utah around an alternative set of social values, including persistent resistance to the industrial capitalism emerging in the United States, a strong sense of mutual obligation, an imminent sense of a supernatural struggle between good and evil and, of course, polygamy.
Few of these ideas are compelling to Americans today. That may be for good or ill; certainly, for instance, few wish to see the return of the sort of patriarchy that framed the practice of Mormon polygamy, and Mormons have faced persistent criticism for issues of gender to today.
And yet Mormonism – like any religion – persists in part because its social imagination offers a critique of the weaknesses the larger society is often blind to.
Mormonism’s communitarian past and welfare system in the present should rebuke the brute market forces of unbridled capitalism. Its emphasis on self-discipline should restrain the waste of our consumerist society. Its robust communalism should provide an alternative to a nation in which our economy and our fear isolate us geographically and divide us ideologically.
More than many religions in the United States, Mormons carry with them the recent memory of building a society very different from the one we live in, one in which right and wrong were clear. The themes of speculative fiction echo it.
The heroic realms of Orson Scott Card, in which the bonds among friends and family attain metaphysical reality, or of “Star Wars,” in which the spiritual power of the Force can eliminate tyranny, offer a sense that society may still exist.
That Mormons turn to speculative fiction in great numbers illustrates that they possess a persistent hunger for it. But that they find that fiction in Hollywood and on Amazon — along with all the rest of us — shows how powerful the world they once resisted has become.
Matthew Bowman is the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” He is associate professor of history at Henderson State University.