The Lovely One and I watched the first episode of the Mormon web series the Book of Jer3miah last night. Then ‘just one more,’ we said, and we didn’t get to bed until after midnight and Episode 20. In its 5-minute chunks the Book of Jer3miah had us grimacing in tension and giggling at jokes. Its good. Its very good. Its the strangely beautiful love child of Lost and Johnny Lingo.
I thought at first that the series was callow. I later decided this thought was colored by my knowledge that college youth made it–the way being told a dessert is Splenda changes your perception of its taste. The Book of Jer3miah wasn’t callow. It was raw. So was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. So are other web series shorts I’ve seen. Its the medium itself that’s raw. No one can quite smooth over rough spots in a plot in 5 minutes. Character can’t shift gradually and delicately like the angle of sunlight through a window in only 5 minutes. 5 minutes is raw and 5 minutes is intense and that’s the nature of the thing.
Warning: from here on out there be spoilers. Major spoilers. If you haven’t watched every episode, for goodness’ sake, go away.
Besides being as good as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and as raw, and as intense, The Book of Jer3miah shares the realization that verisimilitude in fiction is a means, not an end. The story takes us full-bore into a world where Three Nephite folkore and secret conspiracies and all the weird Manti stories and the Holy Ghost telling you to do inexplicable things are all true. I was half-fascinated, and half-horrified that someone who wasn’t a Mormon might be watching this stuff.
Here’s the most obvious example: The Holy Ghost–“feelings”–odd, whispery voices–tell Jeremiah and his friends to do strange, inexplicable things. Usually they’re aren’t shocking or dangerous. But in a cave of holy records near Manti, the Holy Ghost finally tells Jeremiah to kill a hostile intruder who’s been knocked unconscious. Jeremiah takes the sword of Laban–its in the cave too–and runs the guy through. The mysterious old man who guides Jeremiah reassures him, “whatever God says is right.” The obvious parallel is to Nephi killing Laban, and like that story it shocks the gentile conscience and, frankly, the Mormon conscience too. Claims to personal revelation are scary things, because someone who acts “because God told me to” is outside normal appeals to reason, sentiment, convention, and all the other ordinary human calculations and societal buffers.
Damon Linker a few years back told how horrified he was when he taught at BYU to discover how completely and literally the students accepted the Prophet as the mouthpiece of God. He looked for some sensible limits on our belief in revelation and found none. “Would you kill if the Prophet told you,” he says he asked a student, and the student responded, “yes.”
I always thought that student was indulging in some epater le bourgeois. But you can see why Mr. Linker would be perturbed. And the Book of Jer3miah goes further. Jeremiah isn’t completely, “unreasonably” dedicated to whatever the Church says. That would be frightening enough to the outsider, but at least the Church is an earthly institution and pressure can be brought to bear, like with polygamy. But Jeremiah is completely, “unreasonably” dedicated to the voices in his head in defiance of law and custom. This is, literally, antinomianism. Granted, antinomianism is a religious doctrine at root (look it up), but its a heretical one.
The most striking part of the Book of Jer3miah is the complete absence of the institutional church and its sacraments and ordinances. There is a ward prayer and a single adult FHE, both typical parts of the BYU Mormon experience, and attendance is a sign of spiritual health, but we never see a priesthood leader or any adult at all at these events. These events look like they are for, of, and by the youth. Oh, and in the last episode Jeremiah thoughtfully contemplates a distant temple. But that’s it.
Excluding the Church simplifies the story a lot. Plus excluding the ordinances sidesteps the sacrilege objection that Dutcher got. These and others are probably good dramatic reasons for excluding the Church. But the exclusion strengthens the theme of antinomian subversion.
There are other problems with Jeremiah’s killing. For one, it doesn’t have a point. Nephi killed Laban to get the brass plates, without which “a nation would have perished in unbelief.” Jeremiah kills the intruder because he’s told to–unlike Nephi, he doesn’t balk and demand some justification–and unlike Nephi nothing much comes of Jeremiah’s killing that we know. Jeremiah does take some kind of handheld device off the dead baddie which he uses at a couple of points to get some information from, but that’s it. The information on the handheld isn’t really the key to the plot and by the end of the first seasons of the show the handheld device is no longer around. Hopefully future seasons tell us more about who the intruder was and why he needed killing.
Anyone who wants to understand Nephi killing Laban ought to read The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order. Normally killing outside the structures of your society is immoral even if you have a case for why the killing is needful or just. Its not my place to execute murders, for instance, though if the state deputized me to do so I could do it with clean conscience. This is Christian doctrine. Paul writes that secular authority is “the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” So when God directs Nephi to slay Laban, it isn’t antinomy. Its a sign that God has withdrawn the mandate of heaven from the rulers of Jerusalem (Laban is one of them), and devolving it–sovereignty–the right to do justice–on Nephi as the founder of a new dispensation of social order. God isn’t making exceptions to the rules for Nephi. He’s using Nephi to create a new set of rules.
Joseph Smith is another founder figure that Jeremiah resembles. Joseph Smith does things that normally would be offenses against religious order: acting as a religious authority for his own parents, e.g. (note that Nephi does this a little too). But Joseph Smith was creating religious order, not living in it. The normal rules didn’t apply. Licet jovi non licet bovi.
The mysterious book that Jeremiah ought to guard is obviously modeled on the Golden Plates (for instance, he’s not supposed to let anyone look at it and he can’t have it himself until his heart is pure). Jeremiah even gets spiritual direction for his parents.
But here’s where the institutional church makes the story really squirrelly. Its absent, but its not absent enough for Jeremiah to be a Nephi or a Joseph Smith. He’s still part of the world that Joseph, and a little bit Nephi, have built. So without meaning to, the Book of Jeremiah is pretty subversive. If Jeremiah is like Joseph and Nephi, then the Church must be like fallen Israel or apostate Christianity and the series’ Manti flavor is appropriate in more ways than one. Hopefully future seasons can figure out a way to have a Joseph Smith/Nephi character coexist with the implied presence of the Church. If not, may be we‘ll just have to recognize that the story in a modern setting is darn interesting and to heck with the implications. The story certainly doesn’t mean to be subversive.
The makers of the Book of Jer3miah tell us why they’re not flinching from shocking the gentile conscience with all this Holy Ghost, do what God tells you, talk. Jeremiah and Polly Pureheart (not her real name, but I can’t remember her real name just now) are on a date to a BYU production of Macbeth set in Gadianton robber times and Jeremiah starts to complain about the Mormon flavor. (Young ass! I’d love to see that play.) Polly agrees with me and decides to set him straight. Everyone else tells their stories, she says, why can’t we tell ours?
As justifications go, this is tepid stuff. In a story that has been so unflinchingly Mormon, I want some Mormon justification, not watered multiculturalism. We should tell uniquely Mormon stories for uniquely Mormon reasons. The importance of following voices in your head is not that being insane is our rich contribution to the diverse tapestry of America. What’s interesting, though, is that this justification is part of an argument between Mormons (Jeremiah and Polly). The values of the world inevitably colonize even the most Mormon mind, so I wonder if this appeal to multicultural tolerance is really an attempt to defuse Mormon critics.
I’m one of those critics a little. I loved the show and its bravery. But I believe we have some moral obligation to account for the sensibilities of our age. Society is rightly an authority.
I mentioned Jeremiah telling his parents what to do earlier. Parents are a strong theme in the Book of Jer3miah. The real identify of Jeremiah’s parents is the mystery that dominates the first season. Jeremiah’s biggest temptation is the offer of a false father figure. Fears for parents are why main characters stray from the path of duty. The villainess is heavily pregnant. Curiously, everyone under 30 eventually falls in with the good guys. Everyone older than that is either a villain or at best a weak reed. The only exception is Jeremiah’s mysterious mentor, who looks like an old hippy. People forget sometimes that countercultural youth movements do not have to be liberal–they can be radically traditional like this series is. This is obviously a college series and a religious college series at that.
Some of the plot to do with parents makes no sense. Jeremiah’s parents at the beginning, we discover, are really his adoptive parents. When Jeremiah finds out later that his adoptive parents were really part of the big cave-of-record mystery–that they were his parents in part because they knew that he was some kind of chosen one–it makes nonsense of their earlier refusal to take his spiritual impressions seriously. If they know he is supposed to receive special guidance from God, why don’t they believe him when he does?
At the end of the series we discover the real identity of Jeremiah’s parents. His father is one of the 3 Nephites. I like this nod to Mormon folklore. But I also like how it makes Jeremiah a Christ figure. Like Christ, Jeremiah is the son of a not-mortal father so by nature he’s not entirely of this world. Of course, unlike Christ, Jeremiah’s father is not the Father, so the series stays clear of blasphemy. No Taiping “God’s Younger Son” business here. Making Jeremiah’s father one of the 3 Nephites was a powerful move.
About the same point in the plot we get something else powerful. Jeremiah and Polly P. get miraculously taken to a small campfire in the woods where they sleep the night while Jeremiah’s mentor watches over them. She wakes up tousled. I haven’t quite put my finger on why yet, but the whole thing is extremely, almost uncomfortably, intimate. Sacramental too. I wonder if its coincidence that at the end of this episode is when Jeremiah studies the distant temple.
The Book of Jer3miah escapes the lone genius syndrome that plagues art. None of the actors are trying to take the thing over and neither are the folks doing the filming and neither are the folks doing the script. If art has to be produced by lone geniuses, then this is a collaboration of lone geniuses. There’s something in that that appeals to the Mormon mind.
One last thought: does BYU really only have 5 people who go tunnel-singing these days?
Cross-posted at the Old Country