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Bloggernacle Performance Art

June 6, 2010

I wrote a post at Mormon Matters tentatively addressing the 5 Year Anniversary dealie concerning the Banner of Heaven project. So I don’t have to repost it all here, please read my article above (and maybe even some of the links I linked from there.)

I am fascinated with this endeavor, the work that went into it, the ethical questions it raises, the reactions it triggered (and continues to trigger). I was not on the Bloggernacle scene five years ago (and, for all intents and purposes, am not really in it now), so I can’t really understand things from a first-person perspective. I have the feeling that this is a good thing. Since I take the internets as very srs bsns, I bet that if I had been engaged with the project while it was going, I would probably feel very betrayed myself.

But that is exactly the thing.

This is a bit taboo, and I doubt any of the original writers would agree with this (namely because they would probably say the analogy fails from the beginning). I find it interesting that the objectives of the project were to tell a story about the Bloggernacle, but also Mormon stories. Beyond the actual stories of the Banner of heaven project, I can’t help but feel that everything about the project contributes to the story itself.

It is as one of the writers for the project wrote:

John, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think the fact people consistently, and from very early on, suspected a hoax or a fraud wasn’t perceived as a failure. Nor did it stand in the way of telling stories.

It’s not crystal clear from the founding document, but I always felt that if we could just get people to pay attention or care long enough to be entertained then whether it was fictitious or not would become secondary to whether it was compelling.

To a certain degree whenever someone said it was fake, I felt relief. Each suspicious comment was like a disclaimer, a warning sign, saying enter at your own risk. In this way, the suspicions made me feel less ethical responsibility, and as if it the blog was more of an open secret than a lie.

As was pointed out on the other thread, when Sep felt like he might have been abducted many people felt the illusion was ruined. One commenter said, “Now Septimus is trying to pen his first work of lame fiction one blog entry at a time.” That stung because it was true basically. However, the truth is I could have been more subtle. The post was out there. On the other hand, being boring is always believable.

When people say, as is often the case regarding BoH, “I knew right away,” I only feel like a failure if they say they stopped reading. A lot of people didn’t. In fact, and I know people might feel I am gloating, but I don’t care because I think there’s some insight into storytelling here, the blog and at least some of the readers fell into a sweet spot between knowing and not-knowing. The best things life has to offer us: religion, stories, pursuing love, and many other pleasures balance on this crux of knowing or not knowing the truth, or how it’s all going to turn out.

This sweet spot between question and answer, fake and real, true or false is where some of the best modern storytelling is taking place. Lost is one great recent example. One of many. (Tom is right. I think those writers are geniuses. They were on a tightrope for six years.)

Emphasis added. (Intriguing connection to LOST — there was a post on Mormon Matters that made a similar connection).

The analogy that I’ve been thinking about is…throughout the project — and even in the aftermath, you can see so many reactions. Some people feel betrayed. The community was not what they thought it was. They were deceived. They felt lied to. People who had (varying levels of) real stories were revealed to be figments of imagination. And even worse, the writers had conspired from the beginning to do this. For lulz.

Even in the aftermath, some people (many of the writers who went through with the project) seem not to feel as if there was any wrongdoing. If anything, “mistakes were made” (but not by anyone in particular.) In fact, the sense seems to be that the project was a great success, great fun, and that’s what matters. It had a definite impact on the culture and history of the Bloggernacle, and should be preserved. Perhaps even explored more in depth.

It seems like to even try to talk about the church itself in this way will automatically compromise you. I mean, the Banner of Heaven was a known fiction from the beginning by its authors. To take such a position with the church is apostate, ex-, or anti-. However, if we can think about the project while it was still going (with some people suspicious, but no one ever knowing for sure what was real and what was not), it’s somewhat easier to compare and contrast with the church.

I am thoroughly impressed. I haven’t even scratched the surface, so I guess I’ll just have to stick to Scott B’s expose into the driving motivations for the project. Whatever the case is, I think that Mormon art really can shine if it can continue to capture, invoke, and investigate these kinds of tensions.

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17 Comments
  1. I was a avid reader of the bloggernacle from the start, being a believing mormon back then. I didn’t comment a whole lot, but used the name “Measure” when I did.

    I remember being pissed off not that the BoH was fake, which was somewhat obvious from the start, but that the BoH authors vigorously denied it was fake.

    I even participated in a thread on “nine moons” where some of the BoH authors came over and defended themselves.

    I wouldn’t say that incident lead me to leaving the church, but it probably did factor into me getting fed up with the bloggernacle, and I stopped participating in it (the ‘nacle) entirely probably about two years before I went atheist.

  2. Do you think the BoH would have had the same impact if the BoH authors hadn’t defended its “reality”?

  3. I think it could have had a much greater impact if they were simply unapologetic about it being fake, and ignored the critics.

    They could have kept it going for much longer, I think, as the readers would just be left to wonder.

    As it was, defending a fraud only destroyed their credibility, and killed the project.

  4. intriguing…

  5. I mean, look at Ed Current over on youtube. He plays a hilariously faithful Christian, and never in his videos gives away the fact that he is fake. Yet if you go to his youtube channel and read the description, he’s honest that he is atheist.

    As I read some more about BoH today, I am remined of an old idea for them… have a disclaimer buried somwhere on the website, so that it is clearly a joke to dedicated readers, but not so clear to casual readers.

    This kind of admission would have avoided a lot of the anger that was direct their way as the fraud was suspected, and they had the audacity to still claim it was not a fraud.

  6. Brian G. permalink

    Hi, Measure,

    I remember you well. Particularly, because you said I didn’t write very good dialogue. ;) I f that’s the only way I pissed you off than I am thrilled.

    Andrew,

    I’ll try to swing by and comment here later. After all, I am extensively quoted. I should probably have something to say.

    • excellllent.

  7. Brian G. permalink

    Andrew,

    Like I said, I thought I’d swing by and say something. I hope you find my comment interesting. It’s long enough.

    As an active, believing member of the Church I would hate to know that BoH hastened anyone’s exit or loss of faith. As a thinker and writer, and as a Mormon that respects the atheist position, I can see why BoH stands as a symbol of religious deception, belief betrayed, or with a more favorable interpretation, as a lie justified for the sake of another goal. Believing Mormons are often characterized by people who have left the Church and others as brainwashed people who don’t think much, and who can’t even conceive of the possibility that it’s all false. That’s not me, or most Mormons I know frankly, and certainly not most commenters in the bloggernacle.

    You might find it interesting that at the time it all went down people made similar connections to the ones you suggest in your post.

    This link:
    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2005/10/holy-men-and-hucksters/ leads to post at Times and Seasons that came up days before the Banner was unfurled, so to speak, and the author, who was aware of the true nature of the blog, doesn’t mention it by name, but she speaks so directly to prophets, false and otherwise, and their debunkers, that she didn’t need to.

    Also interesting is the fact that when our identities were made public the man who did it, Frank McIntyre, remarked, “For the record, I don’t think it was a good idea. But I’m one of those guys that thinks historicity matters, so there you go,” a reference to debate over the historical truth of the Book of Mormon.

    A cynic or an amateur psychoanalyst might conclude that the fierce and heated reaction to BoH was the result of a sub-conscious, or perhaps conscious desire to crush out or punish something that made Mormons recognize their own gullibility, to see in themselves a desire to believe in spite of evidence, and so forth and so on…you get the picture. You could argue that the biggest offense of BoH wasn’t in it being false, it was that in its fakeness it represented and provoked the possibilities of greater, more frightening falsehoods.

    You could say that…but then again you could say simply that people of all faiths and degrees of belief get mad as hell when they’re lied to. That’s where I come down on the question, partly because disaffected members of the Church were angry at us too.

    On a thread titled “My Apology,” by Greg, a commenter named Melissa writes in comment #22: “Good times notwithstanding, the Banner and what went on here affected numerous people who aren’t directly involved, don’t post regularly, etc. The Bloggernacle is closely watched as an experiment in liberal Mormon thought, and here’s a very shrewd observation made by a Foyer poster (several Foyer posters also posted on the Bloggernacle and the Banner of Heaven in particular). Make no mistake that this “joke” has lasting implications.”

    http://www.aimoo.com/forum/postview.cfm?id=418550&CategoryID=121363&startcat=1&ThreadID=2304883” (I don’t know if you can still follow that to the original comment but the gist of it was that BoH represented all the deceit that is the LDS Church.)

    My response was to write the following in comment 33:

    “A word to our commenters and visitors that came from the View from the Foyer (or other similarly themed blogs).

    I just want to say that although I am myself a fairly orthodox believing Mormon, albeit one with a penchant for inappropriate humor and ill-conceived creative ideas, I was glad to know we had come to your attention. I feel like our blog did its best to be a large tent for all Mormons, ex, new order, post, what have you, along the spectrum of belief. I appreciate all the visits and comments.

    One commenter suggested that if there were more Mormons like the ones on this blog than maybe he could have stayed with the Church. Whether it was sincere or in jest, this comment made me happy, because the reality is that the Church is full of the kind of people both real and fictional that participated in this blog, and by that I mean they’re welcoming, fun, flawed, crazy, conflicted, and altogether human.

    If you feel this blog is some great symbol of the deceit of the Mormon Church then that pains me, but I am really not interested in trying to persuade you otherwise. This blog is a place where you were welcome to participate and are welcome still. In that sense, and that sense alone, I think it does and can stand for a metaphor of the Church as a whole.”

    Five years later my position might be softer. I wouldn’t want to deny anybody the privilege of finding meaning in any creative project, especially one I participated in. You know, when you try to do something creative you aim for as many levels of meaning as possible. Some you put in intentionally, others are discovered under interpretation, others are coincidental and simply spring from the nature of art and language. My fictional characters Dale and Septimus, for example, drink cool-aid together. Obviously, there’s some potential symbolism of religious deception there. Did I intend it? Not to my recollection.

    I can’t speak for all the writers, but having my work stand as a metaphor for the Church as a whole wasn’t my intent.

    In fact, the very next time I start a fake blog I’m covering my butt by putting in a disclaimer: “Any resemblance to real churches, true or false, is purely coincidental.”

  8. Brian:

    I apologize! I cannot believe I didn’t check my spam filter for this long. Didn’t mean to leave you hanging there for so long!

    To start, I don’t think that BoH ITSELF breaks faith. Nevertheless, I cannot help but relate the similarities between it (and its implications, and people’s reactions to the project) with Mormonism and the church. (Heck, even your reaction reminds me of John Dehlin’s reaction and struggle with the Mormon Stories podcast upon hearing that some people certainly lost faith over it.)

    I do not believe that faithful members of the church are those who have been brainwashed (at least…not any more than anyone and everyone is brainwashed…but that’s another post), or those who do not think (at least…not any more than nonbelievers or believers of different religions have people who think and who do not think.)

    Without getting into divisive distinctions like “internet Mormons” and “chapel Mormons” (or whatever else), I certainly see your point about thinking within commenters of the bloggernacle in particular, which is why I have been so intrigued about BoH and its relationship to the Bloggernacle and Mormonism itself.

    It is the fact that thinking people do have such different — and spectral — reactions. It’s not “x people think; y people don’t think.” It’s more, “everyone is thinking, but they think differently, see things differently, and come to different conclusions.” That we have people on both (all?) sides who deeply care about historicity…that we have people on all sides who care about community…that we have people on all sides who care about different things…and from playing with those different aspects, we can see what appeals (and what turns off) different people.

    What I’m really intrigued by are the responses that aren’t so…I dunno…predictable? To me, it seems that if someone cares about historicity and believes fervently in historicity, that’s boring. Both ways. Whether one fervently believes that things are not historical or are historical.

    What is more interesting is when someone believes and has faith, but admits that historicity is in question and deals with that constantly. And I think that is something that affects Mormonism a lot more than some of the other religious denominations or religions. (One of the things that really bothers me about non-LDS Christianity, I guess, is that their argumentation is basically, “Well, you should believe this because it is objectively historical and that’s it.” Even if that is the case, their argumentation lacks emotional appeal or compassion. The informed LDS argument — even if it asserts historicity — must include a grapple with uncertainty, I think. Maybe if FARMS and FAIR have enough time, this won’t be the case. But whatever; things are as they are now.)

    But the most intriguing (and taboo) thing about the BoH is that in this case, we have a situation where the “historicity” is known. In this case, it is a work of fiction. People who weren’t in on it may not have known it, but the writers and creators did. And yet, for the most part, you guys were not hindered by this understanding because that wasn’t central to your project. (I say “for the most part” because of reading about people who were invited, but didn’t participate, because they couldn’t square it with themselves — e.g., Rosalynde). On the whole, it seems that people who are up in arms about this are people who weren’t in on it…and that’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s because what it says about them or what it says about you guys (or both).

    I think that the original wording in the goals and objectives are particularly telling. So, I’d have to respectfully doubt any disclaimers on any future fake blogs :D. How can any resemblance be “purely coincidental” when the objective is to tell Mormon stories and tell stories about the bloggernacle? (Kinda like when Law and Order says any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental when it’s obvious that x episode is “about” Michael Jackson and y episode is “about” some other thing.) Or even more: how can any resemblance be purely coincidental when you’re seeking to emulate the real to such an extent that people can’t even tell it’s fake?

    [p.s. the link to the old Foyer doesn't go to where you want it to go, but I think you summarized it well]

  9. Brian G. permalink

    Do you have a link to the podcast you refer to in your comment?

    • Mormon Stories can be found at http://mormonstories.org , and although John has talked about it around a few sites, I think this episode is good to explain some of his motives, some of his fears, etc.,

      http://mormonstories.org/?p=826

  10. On the whole, it seems that people who are up in arms about this are people who weren’t in on it…and that’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s because what it says about them or what it says about you guys (or both).

    Andrew–that’s exactly right, and it will be the theme of the remaining entries in the retrospective: the people who seemed to care the most, and who were certainly the most vocal about the need for pounds of flesh, were those who were arguably the least connected to the entire debacle.

  11. Of course, for balance, I would venture (although I’m pretty ign’ant on this) that obviously, people who were in on it wouldn’t be vocal about the need for pounds of their flesh.

    Ax murderers tend not to view their crimes in the worst light of all possible parties.

  12. I believe this is the link to the thread on the old foyer.

    http://forum1.aimoo.com/theviewfromthefoyer/The-Milieu/Banner-of-Heaven-Mormon-Church-1-165457.html

  13. I don’t mean “in on it” though, Andrew. I’m talking about the actual “victims” of the blog–those who most vigorously and innocently defended the “reality” of the characters, and who were directly lied to–they were not upset. The vast majority of those who were upset had rarely ever even visited the site.

  14. Yeah, when I saw your last post (that linked to the old T&S post from Julie), I got that.

  15. aerin, that link indeed does work

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