In part one of this two-part post, I discussed humor as strategy of protest. Citing examples from literature, political and religious cartoons, and propaganda more generally, I showed how satire has worked to weaken and delegitimize those in positions of power by exposing inconsistencies, absurdities, and character flaws in those who hold power and in the structures and ideas that form the power regimes themselves. When we are able to laugh at a person, a belief, or an idea, we shine a light on its vulnerabilities and open up a space where its legitimacy can be challenged.
In this post, I will focus my examination of the power of satire on the uses of humor in LDS (Mormon) digital communities; more specifically, I will focus on the Mormon Stories Podcast Community, a Facebook community of nearly 9,000 members that formed around the Mormon-themed podcast, Mormon Stories, which launched in 2006 as an outlet for Mormons who are experiencing (or have experienced) faith crises. Many of the members of the Mormon Stories Podcast Community are former and inactive Mormons, but the community also consists of active, faithful Mormons, as well as non-Mormon critics who use the space the community provides to share questions, concerns, stories, and ideas related to Mormonism.
Many of the posts on the community page are humorous in nature: Mormon-themed memes and videos, Mormon-themed jokes, personal stories about things that happened to the poster or to someone in his or her family, etc. In addition to posting humorous content to challenge and/or to show disdain for Church policies, doctrine, and leadership, many community members also post humorous content or participate in the comment threads related to the original post as a form of catharsis; after losing their faith in the LDS Church, especially after years of dedicated participation and obedience to Church leaders, community members feel abandoned, lost, or betrayed and humor is one way for community members to cope with these feelings. As one community member commented: “Many here in [Mormon Stories Podcast Community] are in need of healing and there’s nothing better than loud laughter.” As was discussed in the conclusion to part one, Mormon leaders do not take lightly to humor that is aimed against them and against the Mormon faith. By satirizing Church leaders and Mormonism more generally, community members accomplish the dual task of marking themselves as separate from and beyond the reach of the rules and regulations that used to guide their lives, and providing those community members who are in a similar situation with something that they can laugh at in order to make their transitions out of, and away from Mormonism easier to cope with.
Posting a photoshopped picture of a church leader with a manufactured quote bubble above his head is one way to say this person no longer controls the way I will choose to live my life. In this way, community members regain control of the narratives that they feel were so heavily controlled by the LDS Church. By using creativity, satire, and free play to alter and redefine the power and the powerful messages that used to guide and control them, community members show that they are now in control. To any faithful member still active in the Mormon faith, such reappropriating and lampooning is viewed as not only utterly disrespectful of Church leaders, but as a serious sin as well.
One example of this occurred in the community just a few months ago, after the 2nd counselor in the LDS Church Presidency, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, made a statement about the method that Joseph Smith (the Church’s founder and first prophet) used to translate the Book of Mormon. Mormons are typically led to believe that Smith translated the Book of Mormon by carefully and prayerfully going over the engravings on the sacred golden plates with a translation device that God had provided for him. This conception of the translation process is commonly depicted in traditional Mormon art, as seen here:
However, with the aid of the Internet, accounts of what actually happened during the translation process have become more widespread, and even the LDS Church itself has acknowledged on its official website that at least part of the translation process involved Smith putting a stone (that he claimed had special powers) into a hat, and then burying his face in the hat to see what the stone told him to dictate to his scribes. Although the Church now admits that the stone in the hat account is accurate, official LDS art and LDS Sunday school lesson manuals have not been updated to reflect this admission; it seems as if the Church is satisfied with the inaccurate, but far less bizarre depictions and descriptions of the translation process. However, because the stone in the hat version is becoming more widely known (the television show, South Park even included a depiction of this version in one of its episodes about Mormonism), causing many members to question the legitimacy of Smith, Uchtdorf made a statement about Smith’s special stone:
Not long ago, the Church published photos and background information on seer stones. People have asked me, “Do you really believe that Joseph Smith translated with seer stones? How would something like this be possible?” And I answer, “Yes! That is exactly what I believe.” This was done as Joseph said: by the gift and power of God.
In reality, most of us use a kind of “seer stone” every day. My mobile phone is like a “seer stone.” I can get the collected knowledge of the world through a few little inputs. I can take a photo or a video with my phone and share it with family on the other side of our planet. I can even translate anything into or from many different languages!
If I can do this with my phone, if human beings can do this with their phones or other devices, who are we to say that God could not help Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration, with his translation work? If it is possible for me to access the knowledge of the world through my phone, who can question that seer stones are impossible for God?
Immediately, the comment was shared and reposted by members of the Mormon Stories Podcast Community, who then created and spread jokes and memes lambasting the quote. One community member wrote:
If I can travel literally thousands of miles in one day, 35,000 feet in the air at over 500 miles per hour, in a pressurized fuselage that rests on two sophisticated wings, and that depends on complex hydraulics and electrical systems, and that can even sometimes be programmed to fly on its own, then I don’t understand why Alladin flying on a magic carpet is so incomprehensible to people.
Another poster satirized the quote by creating an image that depicts Smith standing in front of an Apple logo, holding up his magical seer stone as if he were the late Steve Jobs at a product launch. Here, the creator of the image illustrates what he or she believes to be the absurdity of justifying the use of a magical stone by simply comparing it to a modern mobile phone:
The image sparked a discussion in the comment section in which some began referring to Smith’s seer stone as the “iStone.” Others used the comment section to share their own humorous versions of reappropriated pictures and images from Mormon culture, like this photoshopped image of a MormonAd (MormonAds are pictures with clever, inspirational messages that are placed in the New Era, one of the Church’s official magazines):
Looking through the comment section, it was obvious that many community members enjoyed the memes and wanted to participate in the creation and dissemination of puns, witty statements, and subsequent memes that tied back to the original post; it was also obvious that community members were thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to joke around and to be lighthearted about something that used to be so important and central to their lives.
Glenn Ostlund, a former-Mormon who studied Mormon humor as a graduate student, and who now cohosts a podcast called, “Infants on Thrones: The Philosophies of Man Mingled with Humor,” once commented on the cathartic effects of humor for those transitioning out of Mormonism:
I think about it in terms of psychic distance – the incongruity theory suggests that you find something actually perceived. That implies some distance between those two points. For people who interpret things very literally – that what is expected is exactly what is perceived – they don’t recognize or appreciate the distance (and they spin their narrative to constantly reaffirm that this distance does not exist). But in the case of disaffected members, they really value that space and tend to explore it in more depth – so I think… that humor becomes a key part of understanding and expressing those incongruities.
And another person transitioning out of Mormonism wrote, “Humor has been important in my dealing with my changing views of Mormonism. Humor has allowed me to blow off steam and negotiate sensitive topics with believers while still keeping things friendly.”
In addition to using humor aimed against Mormonism as a form of catharsis, community members also use humor to challenge and deride Mormon leaders who the community members feel are psychologically harming Mormons who are still actively involved in the Church. Many community members used humor as a form of protest against Elder M.
Russell Ballard, a member of Quorum of the 12 Apostles, after comments he made at a devotional for Mormon young adults in Provo, Utah. Community members considered Ballard’s comments to be misogynistic and offensive.
At the devotional, Elder Ballard brought up the topic of marriage, a very popular topic among Mormon young adults. Ballard said:
“I know you’re just waiting for me to talk about marriage, aren’t you?” At which point the audience erupted in laughter. Ballard continued:
I would not want to disappoint you. I’ll just simply say to you brethren, WAKE UP! Open you eyes and look around a little. And, you beautiful girls, don’t wander around looking like men. Put on a little lipstick now and then and look a little charming. It’s that simple. I don’t know why we make this process so hard.
In the hours and days after Ballard made the comment, community members flooded the Mormon Stories Podcast Community page, as well as other places on the Internet, with memes, jokes, and stories aimed at Ballard’s “lipstick” comment.
The controversy surrounding the comment became so widespread on Mormon-themed webpages that the LDS Church removed video of Ballard’s talk from its website. In this instance, the memes, jokes, and stories were not so much aimed at helping those transitioning out of Mormonism to feel the relief of shared laughter as they were at getting members and non-Mormons to realize that some of the comments from Church leadership can sometimes truly hurt and offend people.
Humor is and always has been a powerful tool in human societies. People have used it to point out incongruities, to criticize political and religious leaders, to establish in-groups and out-groups, and to pull together during difficult times. Although many former Mormons and Mormons who are transitioning out of the Church are leery about engaging with humor that criticizes doctrines and beliefs that they once considered sacred, others find comfort in their newly-discovered ability to laugh at the things that they feel were keeping them from realizing their true freedom and potential.