Search Results for: Slate

Between Generals: A Newly Translated Short Story by Antonio Tabucchi

Longreads Pick

The complicated history of one of New York City’s immigrants, a former Hungarian General who realizes he spent one of his best days with his worst enemies. This Longreads Exclusive is a newly translated short story from Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection by Antonio Tabucchi.

Source: Longreads
Published: May 12, 2015
Length: 12 minutes (3,194 words)

Between Generals: A Newly Translated Short Story by Antonio Tabucchi

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Tabucchi | from the collection Time Ages in a Hurry | Archipelago Books | May 2015 | 13 minutes (3,194 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a newly translated short story from Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection by Antonio Tabucchi, as recommended by Longreads contributor A. N. Devers

“A result of living in a place as inescapably public as New York City is that its people are deeply private in public spaces — eye contact on the street and subways is actively discouraged and conversation between strangers is kept to a minimum — making it easy to forget that its greatest asset is the stories of its people. We’re reminded of this in “Between Generals” a quiet and nuanced portrait of a man by the late Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, in which we learn about the complicated history of one of New York City’s immigrants, a former Hungarian General who realizes he spent one of his best days with his worst enemies. Newly translated into English by novelist Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani  for Archipelago Books, Tabucchi’s stories in Time Ages in a Hurry are careful, nuanced, and smartly skeptical of memory and experience.

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In the Khmer Language, the Verb ‘to Eat’ Literally Translates as ‘Eat Rice’

Photo by Pixabay

In Khmer language, the verb “to eat,” yam bai, literally translates as “eat rice.” Klean bai, which is how you say you are hungry, literally translates as “hunger for rice.” Rice is the staple accompaniment of every meal in Cambodia, and a driving force behind the economy. The grain is an accompaniment to a variety of meats—mostly fish from the abundant Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers—usually spiced with some combination of lemongrass, soy, and ginger. Popular dishes like amok (fish curry) and salam machu (sweet-and-sour fish soup) employ simply prepared ingredients and bright, fresh flavors to produce some of the most delicious, healthy—yet relatively unknown—peasant food the world over.

Richard Parks, writing in the Summer 2012 issue of Lucky Peach about “Khmerican food”—the fused cuisines of America and Cambodia. His piece finds an unlikely subject as its driving force: doughnuts, specifically Cambodian-owned California doughnut shops. A recent count found that 90 percent of all independent doughnut shops in California are owned by Cambodians.

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Slate's Dan Kois: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. (See his Longreads page here.)

***

First of all, I am not even going to bother listing John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Disney World piece because it was obviously the best thing anywhere this year but everyone agrees and has read it anyway. Here is the link just in case. But this doesn’t count as one of my five.

• I thought “The Lost Yankee,” by Bill Pennington in the Times, was really quite extraordinary. The Yankees signed Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa in 2007 to a $46 million, 5-year contract. Then they sent him to the minors after several disappointing outings, where he has pitched ever since, in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, cashing gigantic paychecks and setting minor league records. His contract just expired and I hope someone else gives him a chance.

• My favorite book review of the year was Elaine Blair’s good-hearted, incredibly funny review of Nicholson Baker’s “House of Holes” in the New York Review of Books. Best part: When she advises parents to just sneak a copy to their kids, and soon. “You will have to make sure that they accidentally stumble on it soon, before they find the Internet, if they are to have a fighting chance at being wholesome and delightful fuckers instead of hopelessly depraved ones like yourself.”

• I’m really happy that many outlets (like The A.V. Club, Vulture, and others) now publish long, in-depth interview transcripts, on the grounds that someone out there is interested in them. I particularly loved this Q&A, on Ain’t It Cool News, with Steven Soderbergh, about Contagion but also about ten million other things, like his annoyance when other people’s movies go over budget.

• Any music fan who missed it the first time around should be sure to read Chris Richards’ awesome WaPo story about trying to track down George Clinton’s lost Mothership in the woods of Prince George’s County.

• And I’m pretty sure I did not laugh as long and as hard at anything anyone wrote this year as I did at “Dressing Up My Boyfriend As Marc Anthony In His Terrible Kohl’s Clothes,” by Sarah Miller, in The Awl.

Steven Slater's Landing

Steven Slater’s Landing

Steven Slater’s Landing

Longreads Pick

When an irate female passenger cursed him out after their plane arrived at JFK, the then-38-year-old JetBlue flight attendant with twenty years in the flying business grabbed two cans of beer off the beverage cart, activated the emergency-escape chute, and promptly exited the aircraft, his job, and much of his former life. He now refers to that day simply as “August 9th,” as if it were a major disaster or Independence Day—both of which, in a sense, it was.

Published: Jan 31, 2011
Length: 11 minutes (2,862 words)

Blank Slate: Jacob Weisberg Doesn’t Much Care for What Works on the Internet. Can Slate recover?

Longreads Pick

The site’s internal numbers show that page views for October were up just 6 percent, to 83.6 million, and unique visitors were down 21 percent — growing pains as the site weans itself from longtime traffic teat MSN.com and develops its own, more clicky readers. Over the same time period, Gawker has more than doubled its audience, and the Huffington Post has a global readership roughly three times as large. Through October, the Daily Beast racked up publicity with long, will-they-or-won’t-they talks of a merger with Newsweek. When media people talk about the future of publishing online, in other words, they don’t talk about the site with the 12-year-old CMS.

Published: Nov 10, 2010
Length: 9 minutes (2,304 words)

I Miss it All

(Photo by: Andy Stagg/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Devin Kelly | Longreads | July, 2021 | 17 minutes (4,874 words)

Read Devin Kelly’s previous Longreads essays: “Running Dysmorphic,” “What I Want to Know of Kindness,” “Out There: On Not Finishing,” and “Repetitive Stress.”

I hate the part of me that has become impatient. I notice it more these days. I notice it when I create a plan for myself and a friend’s schedule doesn’t fit that plan. I notice it in how I structure my days, even days supposedly given to leisure. How I’ll give myself an hour to read upon waking, an hour to exercise. How, if I’m going for a walk, I want to be outside by a certain time. How I’ll start to feel anxious if I’m not. I clench my jaw. I check the time. I run my thumb over my index finger and crack my knuckle. I want a drink. I straddle the edge, feel myself losing my cool, an ache in each temple. What uncertainty am I losing by being so structured? How many mysteries have gone unnoticed? Why do I feel, in a world that consistently, without fail, automates and compartmentalizes my time, like I have to do the same for myself? By structuring myself in such a way, do I lose grace?

I’ve spent the last eight months unable to run, rehabbing the damage done to my leg as a result of an osteochondral lesion in my knee. I recently underwent surgery to transplant cadaver cartilage into the small area on my femur where my defect was located. And I feel that same hatred of impatience today, as I nurse my leg post-surgery. I feel beleaguered by injury. Which is another way of saying I feel helpless. My father helped me up the stairs a week ago. My girlfriend brewed me coffee, laid out my pain pills, refilled the ice in the tiny freezer. I kept saying sorry. I kept feeling inconvenient, like I had no value. Worthless. Everything felt like something to be endured rather than loved.

Everything felt like something to be endured rather than loved.

During the eight months of injury prior to surgery, I thought I could strengthen my body back into working like it used to, and I bought a spin bike. Not a Peloton. Good lord, no. A Schwinn. A sturdy, entry-level thing to do my body justice. For nearly every morning since the end of last summer when I got hurt, I have hopped on that spin bike in my apartment and absolutely barraged my legs into oblivion. I made my own workouts at first, then, not knowing if I was pushing myself enough, enlisted the help of this British cycling team, GCN, and their indoor cycling workouts on YouTube. After exhausting myself of all of those videos and their perfect voices, I downloaded the Peloton app.

There is something about an exercise machine that speaks to every part of my personality I try to keep hidden in polite company. Prior to the pandemic, if I needed a day off from running or had to engage in something slightly less stressful to heal a running-related injury, I would go to the gym and walk on the stairmaster. I have a hard time admitting this to anyone. It feels wrong. But I would go, set the machine to scale the height of the used-to-be-named Sears Tower, which appeared as a pixelated Tetris-y block on the screen, and step until my socks dampened all the way into my shoes. There is a way that exercise machines enact the endless, grueling task of being alive in late capitalism. They feel almost Sisyphean, like how Hillary Leichter, in her novel Temporary, writes: “the world is infinite, and the work is, like, endless.” No exercise machine hides itself, or its true nature. You know this. You understand. When you step on a rotating set of stairs, or ride atop a spinning stationary wheel, or jog on a humming conveyor belt, you know that you aren’t going anywhere. And yet still, you go, even if sometimes, as Leichter writes, you feel “silly for expecting anything at all.” We feel mindless and used in our labor, and then we hop on our machines that go nowhere and perform the same kind of dance with our bodies. It’s so pervasive that it has become, in part, a cliché. We laugh about it. We say this is life under capitalism. And yet, sometimes I worry that, regardless of our ironic self-awareness, we lose a little bit of one another each day. I know I’m being sentimental. I’ll be blunt. Each day, we are losing one another. And by one another, I mean: everything. And by everything, I mean: in a world where it sometimes feels we have to jerry rig into our lives both what we love to do and who we love to do it with, where we have to apologize for the excesses of personality that are not the same as the excesses of production, where we have to somehow — I did not know this was possible, tell me if it’s possible — make time, we lose the possibilities of connection that make up so much of the inherent value of a life.


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When you decide that you want to do a Peloton workout, you can filter your wants down to the smallest, most specific extremes. You can ride for 15 minutes, 45, 90. You can spend the whole time going up a hill that doesn’t exist. You can decide if your preferred level of difficulty that day is 7.8 or 6.2. Whatever you want. You can choose your favorite instructor. When you ride, you can turn the leaderboard off. You become the curator of the museum of your experience. You don’t have to talk. You can live in the workout you demand. In doing so, you are no longer beholden to others, to their sweat, or a friend’s need for a bathroom break. You can even pause and then return. What remains, after all of this, are the only things Peloton deems a community good for: encouragement, competition, and independence. If you want to give someone a high-five, you can give them a virtual high-five. I once gave one by mistake and then fretted about it for a day. I had no reason to do it. It was an error, a stray finger. I couldn’t apologize. I couldn’t see the recipient’s face. I felt ashamed. The instructor peppers in encouragement throughout the workout. Birthdays. Milestones. Things that are holistic and uncontroversial. If it’s your hundredth time taking an on-demand spin class, you’ll get your name shouted out. If you want to race, too, you can race your community. Goodbye, friends. But if you want to go at your own pace, you can ignore the leaderboard. Either way, it’s your ride. You choose.

There is a way that exercise machines enact the endless, grueling task of being alive in late capitalism…you know that you aren’t going anywhere.

The illusion of community is at the heart of so much of our contemporary society. In his book This Life, Martin Hägglund puts it best when he writes: “If we are committed to capitalism, we are committed to commodifying more and more aspects of our lives.” One of those recently-commodified aspects is the very idea of community. In the recent documentary, WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, one interviewee discussed how the entire “We” corporation was “helping you live and not just exist.” The emphasis there is mine. Highlighting a difference between living and existing is central to the commodification of everything. It used to be the case that if you did not buy a certain singular product — the newest iPhone, for example — you were simply existing, not living. Now, it’s not just about product. It’s about community. If your experience of community isn’t individualized, fine-tuned to generate success on your terms, are you really living?

We know community is commodified because it is at the heart of an app like Peloton’s appeal. Even the word peloton refers to the main group of bicycle riders in a race, the ones who aren’t in the breakaway lead group or chase pack. But what is at the heart of such a community? A community where, even if you once attended a live class, the lights were dimmed low, and it felt like it was only you, your bike, and the leaderboard? A community where, if you attend from your own home, it is only you, and virtual high-fives, and the aching solitude of a screen? A community where you aren’t annoyed by people’s insecurities, by their detours, by their having-a-bad-day-can-we-take-it-slow-questions, by their endless talking, by their bathroom breaks, by the endless list of what makes a human, well, human? A community where, if you don’t want to, you just don’t have to deal with the other people in the community?

***

The sadness of the past year has been a sadness of isolation. When I got hurt and couldn’t run, I didn’t just miss being outside. I missed the sincere, unfiltered joy of being among the intricacies and inconveniences of people. Each morning, riding alone on my bike to nowhere, I nitpicked my intensity and length of workout down to the minute. I rode in intervals and rested in intervals and measured my heart rate in beats per minute. I filtered my life completely. I wanted to be out there, though, blowing hot breath on my hands as I waited to meet my friend Andrew, the cold sweeping over the Central Park reservoir while so many others ushered themselves past, each and every person part of the endless chatter and dance of things. I wanted to be inconvenienced. To have Andrew be five minutes late, or for me to be five minutes late. I wanted to arrive, and then be asked to go the other way around the park. I wanted to give in to someone else’s wants. I missed my friends. I missed them so much.

If your experience of community isn’t individualized, fine-tuned to generate success on your terms, are you really living?

In all my years of running with my friends, I have been met so many days with the inconvenient and the unexpected. Some days, I have been the cause of that inconvenience. As a walk-on runner on my college team, I often did not feel like I could manage even the pace of our easy runs. Workouts that were supposed to be gentle ended up feeling brutal. But we learned how to translate the difficulty into solidarity. When my college team arrived at Van Cortlandt Park for midseason track workouts, we heard the same refrain from our distance coach. It wasn’t some canned exaggeration about effort. Holding a takeout coffee in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, he said, over and over again: the time in the front is the time in the back. It meant something small, but important. Whether you were leading the workout’s most recent interval or being dragged along in the draft of everyone else, you all clocked in at the same time, even if you lagged a few steps behind. I guess another way of putting it is simpler: if you were faster than the rest, you were still slow. And if you were slower than the rest, you were still fast. There was no inconvenience. There was just each other.

I think about the beauty of being dependent on another’s whims so often these days. I think about missing the beauty that comes with such a long, extended moment. In Ross Gay’s essay “Inefficiency,” he writes about how he loves “just wandering,” before adding the sentence: “Maybe you’re with a friend, and maybe the inefficiency will make you closer.” I worry friendship is the next territory of consumption and commodification, to the point where you can no longer simply wander with a friend, just to see what closeness might occur. When we have been alone in so many ways for so long, I worry that we run the risk of losing the ability to find value in one another organically, in the ways people know best. The small, daily inconveniences of life. The long run cut too short. The short run ventured long.

Those small inconveniences begin with the ordinariness of a friend asking if we can do an extra mile one day. It’s not that such acts end as bigger values, but rather that such acts are of value. So often, our actions are tied to outcomes that are said to be of value, but what if the actions — as ordinary and inconvenient as they sometimes feel — are the things that are of value? When I’m running with my friends, I often think of how incomprehensible it is that we are friends. I’m a teacher who wakes up early to read. One of my friends hasn’t read a book in years. And yet, because of how often we have moved together through inconveniences, how often we have breathed side by side, or how often one of us has paused while the other has tied a shoe or sprinted into a bathroom or stopped for a drink of water, we have learned the value of connection brought on by vulnerability, the love required to go by the same stopwatch while moving, sometimes, at different speeds, each of us with wholly different needs. My friend who doesn’t read still reads everything I write.

Perhaps one central question of our daily politics is what am I open to today? It’s why I love Ross Gay’s assertion in another essay, “Loitering Is Delightful,” that “laughter and loitering are kissing cousins, as both bespeak an interruption of production and consumption.” That interruption of production and consumption is central, I think, to our experience of meaning in life. Lately, my interruptions of production are solely my own. I teach remotely because of my surgery, my leg propped up and braced beneath my laptop. In breaks between classes, I walk with my cane to the bathroom. I come back. I sit down and pick up my cane and pretend it’s a shotgun. When I can’t reach something I blow it away. When I’m frustrated, I shoot a big hole in the wall. I browse various online communities and feel at once enthralled and alone. I read. I say the words aloud. No one responds. I crave a cigarette. I get back to work. In each of those actions, I am alone. I feel helpless alone and scared alone and at work alone. The thing about laughter and loitering is that we engage in such acts among people. And the thing, sadly, about production and consumption is that our culture has fashioned it so that we can engage in such acts alone, even when we are in a room full of people. We browse alone. We buy alone. We are so close to living and dying alone.

***

Prior to being injured, I ran with my friends Nick and Matt across the state of New York. It took a week. We averaged almost 60 miles a day, through towns I don’t remember, each day beginning with these dark, foggy river valley mornings that morphed into sweltering blacktop infernos. Perhaps, reading this, you might think that there’s some greater story there. Maybe you’re thinking he should write an essay about that. The truth is, the product of our run — all those miles — meant little compared to the sidetracks. The hours spent in the crew van with the AC on full blast, eating turkey sandwiches and waiting for the heat to die down. The bear we had to slow down for, letting the big guy cross the road and then worrying for miles about him bursting out of the tree line to devour us. The detour through Pennsylvania after we found out it was illegal to run on a state highway. The morning Nick tweaked his ankle and had to stop every mile, and how we tried everything — wrapping it, kissing it, rubbing it raw with our sweaty thumbs — to make the pain go away. And how the pain didn’t go away. And how Nick had to stop. And how we had to talk, for a long time, about how it wasn’t about the miles and the daily monotonous trot of progress, how it was about us. And how that was hard.

That conversation was hard because we were confronting the decision of whether we valued the sum of our experience — the cumulative miles run, the ability to say we ran across a state — or the dailiness of our experience, the time spent among one another. The truth is, it’s hard to value the latter, because our culture gives us no way to commodify that value. “If I am really / Something ordinary,” the poet Larry Levis writes, “that would be alright.” Our culture doesn’t agree. Saying that it was okay to stop was saying that it was okay to be among one another in a different way, that we valued the dailiness of our lives together more than being able to brag that we achieved some goal. It was hard, though. Because we had to learn how to say that.

A day after Nick stopped, I stopped, and only Matt ran on the final day, from Rochester to Niagara Falls. If I could have fashioned it in my mind, I would not have fashioned it that way. We would have all run together, the entirety of the state, with joy blitzing out the sides of our mouths. But when you are among people, even and especially the people you love, you don’t get to fashion it your way. And that’s okay. The beauty of people is that you become beholden to the fragility and waywardness of others, just as they are beholden to you. I know this because I have inconvenienced many a friend. I forget every birthday. I’ll take a week to respond to a text message. I used to get sad at parties and make people stand outside with me while I smoked. I don’t know how to drive. Everyone drives me everywhere. Being friends with me is like being friends with a tiny king who hasn’t found his kingdom.

The beauty of people is that you become beholden to the fragility and waywardness of others, just as they are beholden to you.

And yet, there are people who love me. Do you know how hard that was to write? So fucking hard. I deleted it the first time I wrote it because I was scared of saying it, as if those people themselves would walk through the walls of this room where I’m sitting and say no, we don’t and then disappear. I deleted it the second time, too. And the third. But there are people who love me. People willing to walk slow with me as I amble with a cane. People willing to try to run with me across a state. People willing to wait when I am late. People who send me things to read. People who read the things I write. People whose time I’ve wasted. People who ask me how I am, even still, even still. People, though, not products or machines. And there are so many people I love.

***

In an archived interview featured in the documentary WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, WeWork’s co-founder Adam Neumann says, “Through helping each other, we can become more successful.” It’s a relatively innocuous thought. And it makes sense. But when considered through the lens of a company that sold the very idea of community as a means of achieving economic value, it makes you, well, question everything. At the heart of the notion of co-working is the idea, quite simply, that if you gather a bunch of smart, hard-working people in the same glass-paneled room, you can commodify every aspect of their interactions. Their leisure time spent at the communal WeWork coffee shop could become a conversation that might lead to the next unicorn startup.

This isn’t dissimilar from an app like Peloton, where you can choose the experience of community that you prefer. In both options, people can be discarded if they don’t fit your own personalized idea of success, if the experience of being with others is not aligned to the best version of yourself, as Peloton’s mission statement puts it. In his letter to potential investors, Peloton CEO John Foley wrote that Peloton “prioritize(s) culture as much as any other business objective.” Prior to that, he wrote: “Peloton sells happiness.” What does happiness mean? Why does it need to be sold? Our society has been in the business of buying and selling such things forever. Why trust corporations to determine the value not just of happiness, but of community? When he left WeWork, Adam Neumann took a 1.7 billion dollar exit package while the company laid off many of its employees. Through helping each other, we can become more successful. Okay. Why not rephrase that? Through helping each other, we, simply, find value in each other.

The thing is, I don’t really care anymore about the best version of myself. That idea changes too much. It feels fickle. And the thing is, it often takes my friends to remind me that who I am is worth something at all. They see the ordinary parts of me that I feel, sometimes, are useless. “Saint friend,” Carl Adamshick writes in the opening poem of his book Saint Friend, “carry me when I am tired and carry yourself.” I have the book in my lap right now. It’s 9:43 PM. My girlfriend is asleep, and I’m listening to an album by Chuck Johnson, a slide guitarist whose reverb-washed instrumentals sound like you’re eavesdropping on the music director of a small hillside monastery as he plays something he thinks only God can hear. I keep the music turned low so it feels intimate, like it might be coming from another room, where someone else is listening to the same song as I am. Hi, imaginary friend.

I keep the music turned low so it feels intimate, like it might be coming from another room, where someone else is listening to the same song as I am. Hi, imaginary friend.

When I think of that phrase, Saint friend, I think of an ordinary weekday two years ago, when I called in sick to work. When I told him this in a passing text, my friend George asked if I had a thermometer. I said I didn’t, and he immediately took two trains to bring one to me. That was it. He came up my stairs, took my temperature, left the thermometer on the table, and went back home. I’ve been friends with George for years. We’ve done so much together, but I remember this the most. This inconvenience I caused him, and how it let him show his love.

When I think of that phrase, Saint friend, I think of my friend Hannah, who, when they heard I had to walk with a cane, brought me a miniature cane that they bought at a store that only sells tiny things. It’s 2 inches long. I have it right here between the fingers of my left hand. What value would such a thing have out there in the world where things are bought and sold? A clumsy mouse would break it. But I cherish it. It reminds me that someone cares. It feels sad that I need that reminder. But I do.

When I think of that phrase, Saint friend, I think of sitting with Nick and Matt, learning together how to say it’s okay to stop. It was a new phrase for each of our mouths. Tonight, sitting here and remembering that moment, it’s still a new phrase. It sits heavy in my mouth. It’s okay to stop. I’m not going anywhere right now. I’m pretty fucking immobile. It’s okay to stop. It’s still hard to say. But I owe it to my friends for helping me learn to say it. Adamshick writes that life is a “destination / different than expected. So many paths. / So many apologies. So much gratitude.” Our gratitude is cultivated in small ways. This tiny fucking cane that cannot help me walk makes me more grateful than the cane that does.

It makes me sad that there is a distinction between living and existing. That people have to place a “co” in front of a verb like working to highlight that it’s done with people. Living does not need to be qualified as time spent producing, time spent buying, time spent playing, or time spent planning. Living can simply mean time spent among. I find value in this. In the time spent among one another. Not just with, or next to, but among. To be among those who love us means to be among the all-ness of those who love us. To be among the dailiness of us. Our minor squabbles, our pettiness, our arguments and frustrations. It means to spend time. The kind of time, these days, that we are told is better spent producing or consuming. The kind of time, these days, that we are told is better spent alone. Maybe with. Maybe next to. Still alone.

If friendship becomes commodified and the experience of community becomes increasingly eliminated of the various intricacies of being among people, we lose the sometimes hard, sometimes surprising, sometimes fucked up, sometimes beautiful paths that are not simply the same path each day. Maybe we lose learning how to apologize. Maybe we lose learning how to say thank you. We lose, almost certainly, many moments of gratitude. We lose friends delivering thermometers. Tiny useless canes that end up meaning the world. We lose our various saint friends. Those people in our lives who carry themselves while they carry us. I don’t know what they’d be replaced by. I do, though. Fake high fives. Co-working spaces with glass-paneled offices. Product-driven social networks. Guided workouts attended by so many people, each in a room by themselves.

***

Prior to my surgery, when I would sit on my spin bike and choose the day’s workout, I considered the time I had to squeeze whatever effort I wanted out of the morning before the rest of the day’s tasks set in. Before I had to commute to the school where I teach. Before whatever commitment I made for the weekend, whatever augmentation of time, whatever penciled-in-thing. I said I am carving out space to be my best self, and then I put my headphones in, tilted my phone sideways to get a bigger screen, and sweated in isolated silence for an hour listening to a gesticulating, smiling person somehow bathed in the perfect amount of sweat offer mantras and congratulations and attempted joy to a few hundred or thousand people I did not see.

And yet, while on the bike going nowhere among people I did not know or hear or smell, I often imagined something else. I imagined being with my friends. Next to my bike, I hung a framed poster for the New York City Marathon, a race I’ve run now countless times, each time with the company of others. There was the time Matt came to New York from a wedding on a 10 PM train and arrived at my apartment at two in the morning, just a few hours before we had to leave for the starting line. We slept in the same bed, woke bleary-eyed and groggy, and stumbled to the train in the dark, and fumbled toward the start line in the just-arriving sun. I miss that moment. I cherish it. My current injury has an uncertain recovery. I don’t know if I’ll ever run a marathon the way I used to, or if I’ll ever run another marathon at all. But on the bike alone, in a digital room of invisible others, I never imagined myself alone. I never imagined myself without the company of my friends. I put them beside me in my mind. I could hear their breathing, the janky, staccato rhythm of a bunch of various footfalls. I could see us together, such strange and perfect companions, and how we felt beautiful.

That is what I miss about running. That is what I miss about my friends. That is what I miss about running with my friends. I miss the surprise of it. I miss the run we saw Hangover Duck, this red-eyed marvel of a bird who, depending on who tells the story, opened its mouth and said something different each time. I miss the run Ben introduced us to the leaf game, which began every fall and ended come December, when we could no longer sprint to catch falling leaves mid-stride. The run when Matt had to stop and really didn’t look okay and then we asked him, we said are you okay, and he said I’m okay, and then he was, he ended up being okay. Unbelievable. I miss what feels unbelievable. And the run Ben almost shat himself. I miss that. The run Julian and I got in a fight. I miss the run when a man washing his car sprayed us all with his hose. I miss each long run on a Sunday morning when no one talked for the first mile. I miss that silence, and what filled it: our bodies, still together. I miss the run before the funeral. There was that, yeah. And the run before the wedding. That, too. I miss the way the running — and all of its detours, its pit stops and unlaced shoes — taught us how to slow down for one another, how to have grace, how to find value in what we once thought had no value.

***

Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song

The Book of Mormon on display by young LDS members attempting to persuade members of the audience at The Hill Cumorah Pageant to become believers and followers of the faith, prior to the dress rehearsal of the pageant in Manchester, NY, July 10, 2019. All photos by Heather Ainsworth.)

Andrew Kay | Longreads | July 2021 | 35 minutes (9,917) words)

This story was published in partnership with The Point Magazine.

 

Friday evening 

On a July evening in upstate New York, in a field long ago nicknamed “the Bowl,” a dozen men of divergent builds and ages line up in a row. They are wearing street clothes, and they stare — some at the ground, others at the sky — with the studied demureness of people who know they are being watched. Some 10 yards away a huddle of people acting in an official-seeming capacity size them up with laserlike intentness, shielding their mouths as they mutter impressions to one another. And all around them a hundred hushed onlookers have gathered, sharing whispered speculations about the outcome of something plainly momentous.

This is the culmination of casting day for the 2019 Hill Cumorah Pageant, a production put on by Mormons each summer and likely the largest outdoor theater event in America. It’s a spectacle that from the vantage of 2021 seems doubly alien: first because it is among the most bonkers, if least-known, of all pieces of Americana; second because it is an immense gathering of bodies, so my mental pictures of it, when I conjure them amid the pandemic’s late stages, appear like negatives of a vanished world.

The pageant is best described as cosmic cosplay: a volunteer cast of 770 Mormons from across the continent — electricians and nurses and adjunct professors, selected from an applicant pool of thousands — acts out key scenes from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational text, before an international audience. (In 2019 that audience will total 43,000.) It has been happening since 1937, but in late 2018 the Mormon prophet, Russell Nelson, decreed that it must end; the last show, pageant organizers decided, would happen in 2020. Because of COVID-19, though, the finale will get postponed to 2021, and in time that too will be canceled — meaning this, the 2019 pageant, is the actual finale. That no one knows this now gives the events of this week a strange retrospective poignancy.

Since morning they have cast all 770 souls — all but one, that is — assigning parts both major and minor for a mythic drama that sprints through the panicked flight, from Jerusalem, of a party of fugitives in 600 BC, repulsed by that city’s godless decadence; their journey by ship to the Americas; their multiplying in time, then fissuring into two rival tribes; the appearance, hundreds of years later, of the just-resurrected Jesus before them — here, in the Americas, where Mormons believe Jesus walked and preached; the killing-off of the more virtuous tribe by the wickeder one, but not before the good tribe has buried a history of its doings through the centuries, inscribed on gold plates, for posterity; and finally, the unearthing of those plates 1400 years later by a young Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, at the urging of a being named Moroni, on the very hillside (the Hill Cumorah) where the pageant is performed.

All this they will reenact just six days from now, when the pageant’s directors will elevate this ragtag army to theatrical competence. Then, on opening night, in costumes ranging from 19th century Yankee garb to whatever fugitive Israelites living in the pre-Columbian Americas might have worn, they will dramatize these scenes on a 10-level stage overlooking the Bowl. Striding about, they will trace memorized movements and lip-synch dialogue to a soundtrack from the ‘80s featuring an epic, John Williams-esque score. Many will dance, embodying that double helix of the sacred yet campy that Mormons have mastered. And when the show is over, per tradition, they will go forth to meet the crowd, and the actor playing Joseph Smith, a perennial fan favorite — this year, a cherubic grocery-store consultant with an MBA — will get mobbed as if he were Freddie Mercury or Kesha.

All of that, though, is yet to come. Now they must cast Jesus — or rather, the Jesuses, for though there is only one Jesus in Mormonism, he is played in the pageant by two men. The first role, by far the less prominent, is the Jesus who appears early in the show, in a vision to the prophet Lehi in Jerusalem, foretelling his birth centuries later; he is called “Vision Savior.” The second is the Jesus who, at the pageant’s pinnacle, visits the Americas: “New World Multitude Savior.”

The men in the row mill about now, striking sheepish smiles or mumbling quips. Then they take turns stepping forward and pacing back and forth, waving magnanimously and exclaiming, “Bring me your children!” while the directors assess their resemblance to the Son of God. One is a friendly-faced man with auburn hair and a dad bod, perhaps 42; another, 23 or so, has a thick middle-parted mane and looks like a young Eddie Vedder. Still another, about the same age, looks to be a disciple too of CrossFit — and when it is his turn to stride to and fro he teeters backward in his cross trainers, as if burdened by his own pecs. It is unclear whether Jesus can be jacked, but the answer would appear to be no: he and the Vedder look-alike are politely waved away by the directors.

Evening advances, and the sky turns a providential pink. The directors confer, engaging in an act that they understand, by their own account, in miraculous terms. They cast everyone based on spiritual hunches: as Mormons see it, every human is a kind of telegraph that clicks, at intervals, into clarity and articulacy, alive with vibrations from beyond. (Mormons call these intervals “personal revelation.”) They await this clarity together now — and I have the sense, viewing them and the anxious would-be Jesuses, that I am seeing something I am not supposed to see: that the powers that be in Salt Lake City, who know of my trip to the pageant — who have stipulated that I must be accompanied by an escort at all times and have, I keep imagining, reviewed my criminal record and even my browser history — would not want me witnessing this unchoreographed scene.

At last the pageant’s artistic director, a Brigham Young University theater instructor named Shawnda Moss, hastens alone toward the remaining men, dismissing all but two — one the man with the dad bod, the other a slender kid in his early 20s with blond hair and dark eyebrows. The crowd coos. Moss looks up at both and, on the verge of tears, declares, “I would like to cast the two of you as our saviors.” Then she turns to the younger of the two and says, “I would like to cast you as our New World Multitude Savior”; to the middle-aged man: “I would like you to be our Vision Savior.”

 

Interlude; or, What the Hell Am I Doing Here

 

All that summer I had been sleepwalking. Mornings I woke, and with a glazed-over slowness, a boredom, slouched through my workaday round. Long after work I slouched down streets, familiar streets, which in darkness came to seem projections of my own neural pathways — a circuitry I was sick of. “I feel like I’ve lost the ability to be surprised,” I told a therapist. I tried edibles — chocolates — and when the first did nothing ate a second, then a third, and then all three arrived at once, a stampede that left me rocking back and forth, repentant, ready to moonlight as a D.A.R.E. speaker.

It wasn’t “depression,” exactly; it was spiritual, a staleness that, as an irreligious person, I’d fought with all my life. Except this time was different: I was glimpsing it all around me — in my students especially, college kids to whom I taught writing. The boy with the 142 IQ who went full Brian Wilson and stopped getting out of bed one day. The girl who confessed to me, in chillingly dispassionate tones, that she saw no point in living out the rest of her days. Something was afoot: some gathering despondency, strongest in the young, that had no shortage of worldly causes — planetary, economic — and yet exceeded these. It was a ghostly deficiency. All the Christian faiths in America were hemorrhaging members — and panicking. Fewer than half of millennials now identified as Christian, while Zoomers had just been declared “the Least Religious Generation.” “Nones” outnumbered Catholics and equaled evangelicals.

Meanwhile, a host of weird pseudo-religions like QAnon had sprung up to fill the void, which terrified me. One morning I drove out to the country and, cresting a summit, saw a giant Q mowed into a hillside.

One day I saw a headline that woke me up: the penultimate Hill Cumorah Pageant was approaching. I knew about the pageant because, though I live in Wisconsin, I grew up half an hour from where it takes place. I’d never attended, but knew that once a year a wormhole materialized down the road, something akin to J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9 ¾ that bore you not to Hogwarts but a parallel universe of mature make-believe. The headline kindled my curiosity. I pictured Mormons — a pair of missionaries clacking their way down the street in those white short-sleeved shirts, black pants, and dress shoes, facsimiles of Gallant from Highlights — and it struck me that they were the antithesis of what afflicted me and those I knew. Something in their door-to-door deportment, their earnestness and brio, seemed a soft rebuke to my own disenchantment.

I would go and walk among them, discover what they were plugged into and even absorb something of their radiance. In the process I would return to where I was from — and where, I should explain, I first knew the jolt of something higher.

I would go and walk among them, discover what they were plugged into and even absorb something of their radiance. In the process I would return to where I was from — and where, I should explain, I first knew the jolt of something higher. I’m an older millennial, one of the legions of “nones”; my upbringing was an experiment in godlessness — secular and scientific, shorn of euphemism. My mom was an ex-flower child, my dad an alumnus of the original Woodstock who made kombucha and jogged on our home treadmill in just tighty-whities and blue Pumas. To teach my brothers and me about origins, they read aloud from that candid seventies picture book, Where Did I Come From? In it were illustrations of a plump, ruddy-cheeked couple with thicket-like pubes who, in one image, were in bed together, locked in a coital embrace. “It’s a little like a sneeze,” the caption read, “but much better.”

What happens when you raise a child in a vacuum of religion, untroubled by sin, bereft of any metaphysical framework? I spent Sundays watching MTV and playing outside; I discovered masturbation at around age 8 (privately dubbing orgasm “the super feeling”), then, convinced anything so delightful must be injurious, renounced it. At night I lay awake, brooding on eternity. The worldview of Where Did I Come From, however clear-sighted, reduced human life to biology alone; there were no sequels entitledWhy Am I Here? or Where Am I Going? What dogged me most was the endlessness of death: an electric shock coursed through my body when I tried to grasp the infinitude of it, how all the eons I could think of were, joined together, the briefest prologue to whatever lay beyond the grave. How was everyone I knew just going about their affairs — talking on the phone, dawdling at the mall — when it was obvious they were hurtling toward that blankness? Shouldn’t they be screaming?

At some point, to divert my brain, I took to reading late into the night. The books were science fiction and fantasy — and because I shared a room with my younger brother who fell asleep easily, I read them by the glow of a Nintendo Game Boy accessory called a Light Boy. I sat up reading, at first, Orson Scott Card’s Ender saga, Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet and the requisite Tolkien novels, then weirder stuff: David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

The books drilled a hole through my world of Saved by the Bell reruns, and through that hole I could peer at a widened reality where good and evil lay as clearly demarcated as oil from water. Supernaturalism abounded: people died and rose again, often many times over. It was possible to believe that the sensible world was a fraction of what was — that a numinous realm hovered behind it where other life forms dwelled, watching and invisibly swaying us.

I now know that nearly all these writers — and with them heavyweights like Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, and C. S. Lewis, plus recent voices like Stephenie Meyer — were, or are, ardent theists. I think I leapt at them because they were smuggling in religion under the guise of science fiction. Or was there a difference? I see myself sitting up in bed like a miner in darkness, equipped with the Light Boy and holding it, lamp-like, over books that together formed a vein of something — some ore of strangeness, of wonder, that I hadn’t known I’d needed but couldn’t now ignore.

 

Tuesday morning

 

It was a luminous July morning. I was being driven about the grounds in a golf cart by Neil Pitts, the pageant president, a man of 68 with the benignant and fatherly air of an elementary-school principal, who was indeed wearing a white short-sleeved button-down and black pants. We drove past the 10-level stage, an enormous Chichen Itza-like structure with a steel frame and façade of gray fiberglass sheeting, built into the lower half of the Hill. Pitts explained that the pageant began in the ‘30s, when Mormon missionaries living on the Joseph Smith Family Farm, down the road, put on impromptu skits from the Book of Mormon to amuse themselves. In 1937 it became standard and they moved it to the Hill Cumorah.

I see myself sitting up in bed like a miner in darkness, equipped with the Light Boy and holding it, lamp-like, over books that together formed a vein of something — some ore of strangeness, of wonder, that I hadn’t known I’d needed but couldn’t now ignore.

We entered Zion’s Camp, crammed with RVs and tents, deserted just now. We passed one tent with a huge banner-like photo draped across the front; pictured was a family of eight, arms around one another — good-looking, Rockwellian people who sparkled. Then we cut back across the Bowl, and Pitts described the seismic power of the sound system, complete with speakers below the stage that rumbled during the show’s most action-packed sequence — a scene called “Destruction,” when earthquakes and flooding rock the Americas as Christ is crucified. Though I knew this from my reading, I turned to Pitts and, with the artless fascination of a child, said, “So the consequences of the Crucifixion were felt here?” He nodded: “Big-time.”

We passed a pavilion called the Study Shelter, where meals and hymns happened, then skirted the cast area, full of tents where youths hung out when not rehearsing. At last we made our way back to the stage, where some 200 cast members had gathered for morning rehearsal. Pitts dished me off to my next chaperone, associate director Shelby Gist, a straight-talking woman in a streaming floral blouse and jorts. Gist stood at the center of a throng of players, telling them with the exasperation of a JV hoops coach when to depart the stage after a scene: “The exact line is, ‘Then he will pour out his spirit abundantly upon you.’ Then you can move!”

The cast dispersed to their stations about the stage. Many were clad in BYU merch, others in a popular T-shirt that read AIR MORMON, featuring a silhouette spread-eagled in space — but instead of Michael Jordan dunking it was an angel blowing into an apocalyptic trumpet. They ran through a “boat scene” depicting the fugitives’ voyage from Jerusalem to the Americas, in which they reared up a mast nested in the stage while spray geysered up. As the brassy space-opera soundtrack blared, I watched an attempted mutiny as Nephi — the Book of Mormon’s extremely sincere protagonist, its Frodo — got ambushed, only to shriek, “Touch me not!” in tones that would’ve made Elijah Wood blush; and, magically, the mutineers flew backward and collapsed.

I started laughing at this, adult live action role-playing that it was, yet found it captivating: it was the strangest cocktail of old and new, ancient yet American. The pageant was conceived as America’s answer to Oberammergau, a passion play performed in Bavaria since 1634 — it continues to this day — in which local people reenact Jesus’s last days. With this in mind I began to see this spectacle for what it was: the last vestige of a centuries-old tradition of outdoor religious theater, the heir to the medieval morality plays in which an “Everyman” faced some great temptation, undergoing a trial in which his soul hung in the balance — the creaky entertainments of the English countryside that Shakespeare watched as a child.

Yet there was something undeniably contemporary about this play and the religion it celebrated. I found it impossible to forget that this story had been written less than two centuries ago: the whole religion was as recent an invention as the lawn mower. And in its modernity it kept reminding me of that genre in which I’d taken refuge as an insomniac kid. It wasn’t just the soundtrack or the apparitions being staged; it was the terms I heard people casually using, like “spirit prison and “Melchizedek Priesthood.” It was the fact that the Jesus statue at the Salt Lake Temple visitors’ center is backed by a huge mural of the Milky Way — an outer-space Jesus.

A scene during the opening night of Hill Cumorah Pageant in Manchester, NY, July 11, 2019.

So when I learned the pageant’s script had been written by Orson Scott Card, the controversial sci-fi novelist I’d read by the glow of the Light Boy, it rather put me over the edge. Card told me, when I tracked him down: “I’m on the record many times over, calling Mormonism a ‘science-fiction religion.’” He meant Mormon cosmology, an interstellar system graced with a lore to rival Dune, which crystallized in the 1820s — the decade that brought Mary Shelley’s best-known novels — and continued to be built out in the decades that followed, which saw luminaries like Jules Verne and, later, H. G. Wells.

What was the point of this sci-fi faith? All around me were clues: the fact that the cast saw themselves as creators of a celestial city on earth, here in this field. They called that city Zion, an ancient name for Jerusalem that Mormons have revived; they believe themselves charged with forging New Jerusalems now, modern microcosms of the ancient one that take shape wherever people gather, commit to the greater good, and thereby grow godlike. Mormonism is filled with such cobwebby concepts — and rites — dredged up from antiquity and given strange new life in contemporary America: they believe the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri. The earliest Mormons performed exorcisms in the age of the first fax machines. And this was key, to faith and pageant both. They depended on a furious effort to resuscitate what was buried in a premodern past — ritual energies, characters, symbols — in the midst of modernity: a landscape of decaying interstates and shuttered malls, where these antique constructs sat as awkwardly as mastodons. Keep going, those around me seemed to say, arms outstretched like so many Gatsbys toward a dream of divinely charted existence. It can persist even here.

Morning bled into afternoon. I followed my next handler, an ebullient Filipino-American woman named Cherlyn, toward the outer edge of the Bowl. There, by the road, I watched a group of teens practice a scene called the Harvest Dance. The soundtrack featured a jaunty Disneyish waltz, which the directors played on a boom box while the teens cavorted. Here I noticed something I would go on observing during youth rehearsals: the directors called out, “This actually happened.”

An outsider might have perceived all this as akin to, I don’t know, the Middle Earth Festival, but to the cast, of course, it was tantamount to a Gettysburg reenactment: not fiction but received truth, a kernel of vision they had internalized and that, acorn-like, ramified into all they said and did. They were meant to emerge from this with the pivotal episodes of the Book of Mormon lodged in their muscle memory. (Surely no attendee at the Middle Earth Festival marvels afterward, “I finally get what Gandalf went through at Moria.”) What did it mean to sacralize a science fiction, ramping up its imaginative plot points to the status of historical fact?

An outsider might have perceived all this as akin to, I don’t know, the Middle Earth Festival, but to the cast, of course, it was tantamount to a Gettysburg reenactment: not fiction but received truth, a kernel of vision they had internalized and that, acorn-like, ramified into all they said and did.

Standing at the roadside, I saw a line of 18-wheelers parked beside the Bowl, their cargo spaces open. They held chairs. A coordinated army of cast members approached the trucks, took hold of the chairs, and carried them to the Bowl, wave after wave, trundling them by the thousands and fixing them in rows on the grass. A small city was taking shape here in a matter of days. It was a huge extrusion in the physical world of one guy’s imagination, of a wild saga inscribed in the brains and bodies of his followers. The kingdom, I saw, was here. Whether the vision that had birthed it was fact or fiction, historical record or fever-brained concoction, hardly seemed to matter.

 

Interlude: The Vision

 

Two hundred years ago, in a wood three miles from this field known as the Sacred Grove, a teenager arrived on an early-morning walk. He was shy and apparently unremarkable — poor, uneducated, the fifth of 11 kids. Joe Smith. He’d grown quieter of late, tormented by his sinfulness and the hypocrisy of those around him.

Across the region people were starved for the supernatural, for more than the standard church service could provide. Unlettered hicks spoke in tongues; farmers saw stuff in cornfields, preached the Second Coming of Christ in the flesh — and soon. The Smiths were steeped in that enthusiasm, practitioners of a backwoods occultism that led them to scour the land for buried treasure. He had a divining rod — a forked hazel branch he carried through the countryside, which he believed pointed toward riches in the earth — and with it a seer stone he held to his eye for the same purpose. Ludicrous and Tom Sawyerish, maybe — but then, the Western world was in a cusp-moment, caught between premodern magical thinking and an Enlightenment rationalism whose conquest was far from complete.

So: a teenager awash in magic, on an early-morning walk. He came to a clearing in the woods, knelt down to pray but couldn’t speak. Suddenly he heard footsteps behind him, shot up, and spun around, only to find no one. He stood there unable to shake the thought that he was being stalked, tracked down “by some actual being from the unseen world.” He would die. Just then, a pillar of light tunneled through the trees and staggered him. You’re forgiven, said a voice. All the churches have grown putrid. Go off and live virtuously.

What happened next is either unutterably enchanting or unsuitable for adult discussion. He went up to bed one night and began to pray, and as he did so his room flared with light and a paranormal being in a white robe hovered before him. He stated his name as Moroni; he had come to tell Smith of a new gospel buried in a hillside nearby — he specified where — inscribed on gold plates and bearing “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” Buried with the plates was a pair of seer stones like those he’d used to hunt after gold, which he would need to translate them. Go and find them, the thing urged him, dig them up, and translate them for the world. Then he vanished and the room grew dark.

That was how it started: as a poor boy’s dream of treasure, transmuted into divine longing. Gold gave way to God. He bided his time — got married — then set out one night with his new wife, Emma Hale, toward the hill. He found the appointed spot and began to dig — and while he toiled the being materialized again, watching over him. Hours later Smith descended the hillside with the plates swaddled in his coat like a live thing. Hale never saw them directly, but rather caressed them under cloth, feeling their metallic hardness, the grooves of their inscription.

The characters on the plates, he said, were written in something called reformed Egyptian. They needed translating. So he retired to a room with an assistant and, placing the covered plates on a table and one of the seer stones in a top hat, gazed into the hat and did something oracular. In the darkness of the hat the seer stone glowed, and above it a parchment materialized, upon which the characters appeared, and below them their English translation. Smith spoke what he saw while the assistant, rapt, transcribed. He unspooled a saga of ancient American tribes from Jerusalem — their feudings, visit from Christ, the better tribe’s extinction. The work was finished by June 1829, hitting the shelves at a local bookstore as the Book of Mormon the following year. It was a feat of magic: Smith pulled a world religion out of a hat.

Whether you find the product unreadable (Mark Twain called it “chloroform in print”) or discover in it a mystical document on par with the Bhagavad Gita is a matter of personal temperament. If you are like me, you are apt to see in Smith an early writer of speculative fiction. It’s not just the supernaturalism of his saga; it’s that it has a strong element of the seriality that typifies the genre: whatever Smith’s plates really consisted of — and no one outside his innermost circle ever saw them — he used them as the basis for a sprawling piece of Bible fanfic. The Book of Mormon is a superfan’s paean to the King James Bible: there’s a reworking of Exodus, but instead of Moses there is Lehi, leading his people not to Canaan but to America. An ark of sorts bears them there. There are ancient submarines worthy of Jules Verne. Above all there are Jesus’s dealings in the Americas post-resurrection — The Further Adventures of Jesus Christ.

There’s a term known to lovers of science fiction — namely, retroactive continuity (“retcon” for short). It describes how writers take an existing series and reinterpret its details to make possible the series’ continuance. At its best, retconning can breathe new life into a stagnant franchise; at its worst it’s a cringey affront to the audience’s memory and intelligence, the author scarcely acknowledging some preposterous contradiction with what came before. Think of Star Wars: in The Return of the Jedi Palpatine dies decisively, hurled down a reactor shaft by Darth Vader. But in The Rise of Skywalker, in a WTF-caliber retcon, he’s simply…back. (“Somehow,” a character remarks airily, “Palpatine returned.”) Mormonism constantly retcons the Bible: in John 10:16 Jesus tells his disciples cryptically, “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring.” Does he mean the Israelites in the next county over? No, Smith revealed; he means he has to go materialize amid chocolate, maize, ocelots, preaching before Native Americans. For that matter, Adam and Eve lived in the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Area.

Transposed to the religious realm, retroactive continuity becomes a gesture of defiance, a refusal to let the series — the Judeo-Christian franchise, nearly two millennia old — come to an end. The U.S. into which Smith was born was undergoing a spiritual stagnation not unlike our own: in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, religious participation was shockingly low. Just 17 percent of Americans in 1776 belonged to a church. In his “Divinity School Address” a few decades later, Ralph Waldo Emerson bemoaned “the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society.” “Half parishes,” he noted, “are signing off.”

How do you thwart a large-scale decay of faith? It is as a response to this question that Smith and Mormonism speak pressingly to us now. Smith’s answer was to insist that revelation was ongoing, that ancient scripture could be opened up and revised — continued — with new visions that drew on the old but retreaded them for a nascent U.S. “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead,” Emerson complained. So Smith revived it, retconning the Bible into a new myth, a sequel with America at its center: America was the site of Eden, of a Christ visit; in the end, it would be where humanity gathered to await the Second Coming.

“He waged a resistance movement against disenchantment,” Richard Bushman, Smith’s 90-year-old biographer, born into the church, told me. That was the conceptual engine at the heart of this sci-fi faith and the pageant that celebrated it. They were modern re-enchantment projects, huge sweaty efforts to counteract disbelief with the jumper cables of a resuscitated myth. Here, in the middle of contemporary life — on a hill in upstate New York — God was fully, thrillingly alive.

 

Tuesday late-afternoon

 

The cast Wi-Fi password was “ComeUntoChrist.” It was 4:30 now and hot, and I was tired and irritable. There was no coffee to be had on pageant grounds, I was beyond the reach of my 4G LTE service and, worse, weary of the constant supervision. They were so damned nice, the escorts — but their niceness couldn’t conceal the fact that I was being surveilled. It was odd: there’s a thriving subreddit called r/exmormon, where apostate Mormons vent and defiantly proclaim their indulgence in masturbation, Jim Beam, lattés. Had I been after dirt on the church, did Salt Lake City really think I needed to travel halfway across the country to get it?

But there was a Hill Cumorah Wi-Fi network, and it was cool if I used it (I imagined 90 percent of the internet being blocked) — and I was walking now with a handler named Kristin a stone’s throw from a restroom hut. I decided to stage a mini-rebellion: I would go into the hut and camp out, getting my internet fix and some alone time. What if Kristin gave up and left before I came out?

She walked me to the hut and I went inside, entering a stall where I stayed forever — answering texts, checking all the things. At last I washed up, drew a breath and left the hut, glancing about. The coast was clear. I felt an influx of giddiness that was choked off when, some 25 yards away, I spotted Kristin beaming at me and waving. I plodded my way to her like a guilty spaniel, but when I reached her she showed no sign of annoyance. “Hey!” she cried. I half-expected her to add, “How’d it go?!”

She handed me off to my next chaperone, Scott, the middle-aged ex-CEO of a street hockey league. Scott’s kindness was more than skin-deep, a preternatural goodwill that made me briefly forget my annoyance at being monitored. His affect was fully Fred Rogers, his eye contact unswerving as a Mack Truck. What was my background? he inquired. Former academic, I said. Scott gazed mutely into my eyes and thence my soul for some five seconds. “That’s why you’re so thoughtful,” he said at last.

We headed toward the stage. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the greatest organization in all the world,” Scott said, “because it can pull people together to get great things done like this, in such short periods of time.” He cited the church’s readiness to aid communities stricken by natural disaster: when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, droves of Mormon volunteers rushed to the scene, bringing food and manpower well before the U.S. government had lifted a finger.

He cited the church’s readiness to aid communities stricken by natural disaster: when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, droves of Mormon volunteers rushed to the scene, bringing food and manpower well before the U.S. government had lifted a finger.

When we got to the stage I saw that dress rehearsals were underway. Here I had my first glimpse of the costumed ancient Americans. The latter, I should pause to explain, are the reason the pageant and the Book of Mormon can make for distressing experiences. The book posits that two tribes, the Nephites and Lamanites, lived in the pre-Columbian Americas, and that the Lamanites, having killed off the Nephites, became the peoples now known as Native Americans. What makes this origin story especially painful is its timing: the Book of Mormon was published in March 1830, two months before President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the U.S. government to force Native peoples off their ancestral lands and relocate them west of the Mississippi. And it was marketed as a history of the Native Americans, who came, it revealed, from Jerusalem. While Indigenous people were being shunted westward in death marches like the Trail of Tears, their history was being quietly overlaid by the visions of a white kid from upstate New York. It was its own Indian Removal.

I should clarify that however gruesome these origins, the LDS church is now a multiethnic phenomenon with more members outside the U.S. than in it — and plenty of these members balance clear-eyed critique with a regard for what they find redemptive in the faith: often, its contention that revelation is continuous and anyone can have it. Still, this much is clear: Mormonism is a modern re-enchantment project that took shape on a continent populated, to begin with, by people who never saw themselves as bereft of wonder. “We as Indigenous people never were kicked out of our Garden of Eden,” Elise Boxer, both a practicing Mormon and an enrolled citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, told me. “That’s where we live.”

Gazing at the stage now, I saw that on either side, two groups of about 20 teens — white as Wonder Bread, clad in skirts rather like Navajo quilts — practiced a battle dance while the soundtrack blared. They brandished spears. One group played the Nephites, the other the Lamanites; it was a call-and-response. At its close the two groups chanted, “Hah!”

A couple take a selfie in the golden, end of day light, just prior to the start of the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Manchester, NY, July 10, 2019.

Closer at hand I saw other players decked out as ancient Americans. Some wore headdresses containing feathers, plus beaded necklaces and shirts decorated with pelts; another wore a kilt studded with turquoise. Still others were clad in a different sort of outfit that looked not Native but vaguely biblical: gem-filled headdresses, purple and emerald robes that undulated in the breeze. These were the fugitives who flee Jerusalem toward the start of the pageant. At one point I saw the (partially costumed) man playing Joseph Smith stroll by in a khaki nineteenth-century tailcoat and wig, plus cargo shorts; he paused to share a joke with a Nephite man in a feathered headdress and kilt. Watching them chortle together I wondered if I might be on whippits.

The redface, though. It was in such cartoonishly bad taste, it was hard to balance with the extreme kindliness, the charity, that the cast radiated. (Later I asked one of the escorts, “Is it okay for a nearly all-white cast to dress up as Native Americans?” She replied, “Please don’t ruin anyone’s day by asking them that.”) I thought of the Boston Tea Party, whose dissidents dressed up as Mohawk Indians. Writing now, I think of the storming of the Capitol — of the Q Shaman, whose aesthetic was less Viking than Native. Why, in precisely those moments when they wanted to trumpet their identity to the world, did Americans play Indian dress-up?

The redface, though. It was in such cartoonishly bad taste, it was hard to balance with the extreme kindliness, the charity, that the cast radiated. (Later I asked one of the escorts, “Is it okay for a nearly all-white cast to dress up as Native Americans?” She replied, “Please don’t ruin anyone’s day by asking them that.”)

Scott turned to me: “How would you like to be in a scene?” Over his shoulder I saw two teens in Native gear, at ease during a lull in rehearsal, doing the “Raise the Roof” dance. “We’re going to do a run-through of the New World Multitude scene. You can be a Nephite.” Processing this, I felt my visage crumple into a constipated expression. This was the climax of the pageant, when the risen Christ appears among the Natives. For an instant I pictured myself — tired, angry, emanating B.O. — unwillingly donning a headdress, then being embraced and kissed by Jesus. That image, in turn, being uploaded to the pageant’s Instagram, then picked up by the Salt Lake Tribune and going low-key viral. My alarmed friends blowing up my phone: “Yo, call me as soon as you get this.”

But it was to be a street-clothes rehearsal (aside from Jesus), which seemed less risky. Soon cast members, hundreds, began congregating at the foot of the stage. They arrived in waves. It was early evening and the atmosphere had grown expectant, alive with the ambient power that can only come from a concentration of bodies outside. And, of course, Jesus was coming.

Together we trekked up the hill, taking our places at stations on either side of the stage. I was a knot of anxiety: Was this okay? The Nephites were a made-up people; wasn’t it impossible to appropriate a culture that hadn’t existed? But then I recalled the faux-Native getup I’d just seen, the chants. I couldn’t possibly go through with it. Also, wasn’t I partaking in a sacred myth I didn’t believe in — and didn’t that mean I was appropriating Mormon culture? I felt mired in layers of wrongdoing; I was losing my shit.

Suddenly they flipped on the soundtrack and the scene started. All around me cast members were looking toward the top of the stage as if entranced, and I followed their gaze and stopped cold. It was him: it was Jesus Christ. Shoulder-length auburn wig with middle part. Synthetic beard. White robe, brown sandals. He looked like the Jesus from the gaudy religious pictures I’d seen in older relatives’ homes — except he was standing atop Chichen Itza.

He had a beam of light trained on him, and stood motionless with arms outspread and palms turned upward, a radiant wisp against the New York sky. He could have been a superhero. “I am the light and the life of the world,” he lip-synched. Joyous choral music ensued; the voice of God sounded through the speakers: “Behold my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” As the carol continued, the hundreds of cast members filtered onto the stage, a massed and carefully patterned congregation. Scott, beside me, nodded: it was our turn.

We found our places and stood still. Jesus, still at the top of the edifice, dropped his hands. There was a central staircase leading down the stage, and he began to descend it, the beam of light staying with him. “Arise, and come forth unto me,” he mouthed. I scarcely recognized him from the casting ceremony. His name was Austin Reid, and he had gone from an early 20-something who ran an online outdoor-gear company to a sort of ghost, lordly and wraithlike and totally self-assured. “Thrust your hand into my side,” he pronounced — and a lone player walked up the steps and did just that. “Now you know that I am the God of Israel,” he said. “The God of the whole earth.”

Players rushed to greet him, in keeping with the script, but it seemed they were hardly acting — just viewing him as the thing he represented, genuinely magnetized. Some he touched, healingly; others he embraced. The chorus swelled to a refrain of “Hallelujah.” Near me a young mom held a toddler who cried, “We have to go! Take me to Jesus!”

I looked out across the landscape to the road below, where an SUV drove by, and imagined the driver sipping a coffee and glancing up at us innocently and then spraying the coffee. The road was Route 21, which I’d lived off of growing up. Then I glanced back at Jesus, encircled by players who, by tomorrow, would be dressed in the Native costumes I’d seen earlier. I felt full-force the scene’s terrible ambiguity. You could have called it, rightly, a disturbing symbolic drama in which a white Jesus literally descended to dispense wisdom and salvation to Indigenous people. In that sense it was the epitome of a colonial mindset that had produced the Indian Removal Act.

At the same time, it was a stunning piece of outdoor religious theater: ordinary people were acting out ultimate things amid gnats, birds, trees — and doing so despite a wider culture that had mostly abandoned outdoor theater and, increasingly, ultimate things. They were ushering in a new reality: the scene’s title meant not just the premodern Americas but life now, made annually novel, alive with ghostly energy, by this hillside ritual. It was a defibrillator to the heart of an old and disenchanted world.

 

Wednesday pre-dawn

 

I woke at 5:00 a.m. the next morning in my Airbnb, a rural guesthouse, peeled back the sheets and found a large white spider beside me. I barked, shot out of bed and, unthinkingly, dressed and set out driving.

It was still dark. It is strange to drive the roads of the region where one is from when one’s family is gone from there; stranger still if the region is western New York. If you are from this place, you can understand how a religion started here. There’s a feral rawness to its woods, and the roads that lead through them are lonely and trance-inducing. The fields are limitless: you ramble through them, and when you get to the end, seemingly, there is only more field, as in a dream or a prefiguration of eternity.

A woman recalls her story of deciding to join the LDS faith (being saved) during ‘Devotional’ at the days end, but just prior to the dress rehearsal performance of The Hill Cumorah Pageant in Manchester, NY, July 10, 2019.

I was thinking about Joe Smith. On a morning like this he’d had his first vision. What got me, though, was what came after: how he spent his life expanding this Bible fanfic into a cosmology that millions lived in. The way he disclosed that cosmology — it reminded me of nothing so much as the pulp science-fiction magazines that, a century later, marked that genre’s golden age: Amazing Stories. Other Worlds. (Scientology, itself a sci-fi faith, began in one of these.) Smith revealed his cosmos one mind-blowing installment at a time. His visions were serialized in a sense, separated by months sometimes; converts awaited each with the bated breath of cult fandoms biding their time till a new issue, volume or episode drops. Only the stakes were everything: their destinies, the nature of the universe, and of their souls.

Here is what he revealed: God was an embodied extraterrestrial who lived near a distant star called Kolob — and if by some marvel we could see him, “if the veil were rent today,” we would find ourselves eerily mirrored. It was the 1840s and telescopes had grown more sophisticated. People peered through them expecting to see God, and when they didn’t, they merely concluded he lay beyond the reach even of these new instruments. Smith’s story was of its time in that sense, but added a crucial wrinkle: God had been one of us but upgraded himself into a superior being. The purpose of our own lives was to replicate his ascent, becoming ourselves gods who would populate our own planets after death, parents of new creation. “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” Smith thundered to his followers just before his death. “That is the great secret.”

Smith’s was an extremely American drama — bootstraps individualism given mythic form by a man who’d spent his youth in poverty, hunting treasure. How could you get more upwardly mobile than to become a god? There was a catch, though: no one could attain godhood singly; we got there as units — by marrying and having children — which sounds like a championing of the nuclear family, and is, to an extent. Beneath this, though, lay something more poignant: an insistence that we need each other, that we’re interlocked by spokes of dependency, our souls’ progress conjoined. The Mormon heaven is social: in death we find ourselves surrounded, in thriving celestial hubs, by the people we loved in life. To the extent we perfect our bonds with them here, now, we are already there.

I went on driving, watching woods give way to drumlins, remote roads to residential ones. I made my way by instinct down one such road, scudding by silos and houses just lighting up, and veering at last onto a steep street I climbed and then pulled over. I looked at the silhouette of the house I’d grown up in, warm now with other lives. I’d not seen it in 15 years. In the stillness I heard our voices as they’d sounded when we were gathered in this place: children’s screaming laughter, my dad belting out Grateful Dead songs, my mom in her bathrobe laughingly chiding him. It occurred to me that in the Mormon heaven I would never lose these people. I saw my bedroom and me in it at night, already dogged by the insomnia that would rack me as an adult and driven, for distraction, to books. The reading was a kind of prayer, as all fiction-reading is. Hands close together, I lay summoning what was invisible, miraculous: aliens, unfathomed planets, unseen forces that governed all we did.

The memory of these stories blended in my head now with Mormon myth, and I had the sense that they had sprung from the same impulse. Mormonism and science fiction were modern inventions that responded to a new reality, one increasingly dominated by scientific thinking and the technology it bred. People found themselves in a Copernican universe far vaster and more impersonal than the biblical heavens, and one way to react to this new normal was to discover in space itself — its stars and planets and imagined denizens — the stuff of religious awe. So in science fiction, the wonder and terror long inspired by the Judeo-Christian God, and by angels and devils, gets remapped onto aliens; visitations become visitors. In Mormonism, God is an alien; we are all incipient aliens, bound up in a project of collective deification.

In the stillness I heard our voices as they’d sounded when we were gathered in this place: children’s screaming laughter, my dad belting out Grateful Dead songs, my mom in her bathrobe laughingly chiding him. It occurred to me that in the Mormon heaven I would never lose these people.

Why did it matter, this drive to enchant? I thought again of that spiritual desiccation I had glimpsed in myself and my students. And of what I’d seen on the ground that week: people supercharged by a modern myth that insisted on the sociality of salvation, a retconning finally of redemption itself, which held that we are delivered as collectives or not at all. It was a mythos for the era of disasters. It lay behind the Mormon response to Katrina, and lately COVID-19, which saw bishop’s storehouses, positioned around the globe, bring nearly one hundred million pounds of food to beleaguered populations in 2020.

Was the culture I belonged to — a culture of unbelief that wanted, nonetheless, to confront the catastrophes ahead, which threatened to tilt reality toward science fiction — capable of such feats of social strength? My time here had made me skeptical. Because belief was the crux of it, the impetus behind the directors’ calling out to the young cast: this actually happened. That was what elevated their story from sci-fi to scripture, from Dune to an architecture of revealed truths in whose image they remade the world. What did I or my friends — secular, overeducated, climate-terrified yet basically inert — have to rival that?

In order for people to abandon their self-interest and commit to a grand cause, writes Jane Bennett in The Enchantment of Modern Life, something has to happen to their aesthetic being — that part of them that is sensory and emotional. They have to fall in love. “One must be enamored with existence,” she writes, “to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” Put baldly, “You have to love life before you can care about anything.” Enchantment turns out to be the precondition for committed political life together — a way of charming people toward self-transcendence with a vision of existence that pulses with animacy and purpose. Ethical codes are stillborn without such visions; they can’t catch unless people are inflamed by some story of their lives capable of drawing from them, again and again, virtuous performances.

 

Thursday

 

Opening day. Morning.

Across the grounds people bustled. Some drove golf carts. On the Bowl, cast members did last-minute run-throughs while directors, clutching at walkie-talkies, fine-tuned and fretted. The air crackled with promise.

I had arrived late. There had been a dry run of the New World Multitude scene and I had played hooky, having decided against the part. Now I strode with Scott through the cast area, where a mood of serenity had set in. People were finding each other. They sat in clusters outside the tents, playing guitars and singing, touching each other reassuringly and laughing. I had never witnessed a pilgrimage. I saw people divorced from their workaday lives who — bathless, deviceless — had been deprived into clarity.

“Everything else is stripped away,” said a girl named Emily.

“It’s a very similar feeling, I would imagine, to when people converge on disasters, and they’ll sacrifice of their own to give to some cause,” added another kid, Jonathan. “Everyone’s made some sacrifice to be here. And love is at the center of that.”

I went on walking, surveying all I saw with the attention one bestows on something about to vanish. No one knew, of course, that this was the last pageant — that the pandemic would obliterate the planned finale — but there was something valedictory about it all. The show needed revision — the redface had to go — yet it seemed a pity that this huge, weird piece of Americana, which had survived into the age of TikTok, was ending because a 94-year-old man in Salt Lake City had demanded it should. The church’s official line was that it wanted people focusing on their home lives — scripture-reading, prayer — not theater. This sounded like a cover for wanting to save money, issued by an institution that as of 2020 had $100 billion in assets.

Morning blurred into afternoon, afternoon into evening. Somehow, the premiere was close at hand; the cast left to change.

For once unchaperoned, I followed a party of players toward a costume house at the hill’s southwest end. Here, as players disappeared behind curtains, I took in a scene that included an entire wall stocked with boxes containing beards, each labeled. There was NEW WORLD MULTITUDE SAVIOR and, beside it, UNBELIEVER #1. “They’re all made of human hair,” said a voice beside me. It belonged to a spectacled seamstress named Jackie. “A beard can take a year to make.” There were hundreds. She plucked a box off the wall — VISION SAVIOR, the lesser Jesus — and opened it. “Church members donate their hair for these,” she murmured, dangling a reddish pelt before my face. I gaped at what was at once the beard of God’s son and the Norelco trimmings of some ginger guy in Utah, then turned away.

All emerged from the costume house dressed and I followed, watching as they rambled down the hill. There they were joined by the clad players from the other houses, several streams of people made suddenly mythic, who came together in one teeming body aimed, I saw, for the devotional pavilion. Beyond them I glimpsed the Bowl, swarming now with spectators — thousands—staking out chairs. With a giddy solemnity the cast crowded into the pavilion, ranging in rows — characters from a Mesoamerican past brushing shoulders with those from Jacksonian America. A director led them in a last prayer, after which they sang a hymn called “God Speed the Right,” then marched out to meet the crowd.

I walked with them. The premiere was slated for 9:00 p.m., and it was 7:30; this time had been allotted for the players to mingle with the audience. I watched the graying cherub playing Joseph Smith — Willy Wonka-ish in top hat, tailcoat, and breeches — get swiftly engulfed by stans seeking selfies. Vision Savior, who worked in Big Oil and lived year-round in Saudi Arabia, flashed me a beatific smile, then turned to greet a family of eight.

I surveyed the acreage of people before me and, in the gathering darkness, ventured in. It was the most international of crowds. I met a family that had flown in from Honduras that day, and when the show was over would return by red-eye flight. I met a party of women from the Sichuan province of China who’d been born into Buddhism but converted as adults to Mormonism, enticed by the emphasis on family.

At this point I became aware that the weary cynicism that had steered me to this place was being dislodged by something else. A doubt about my doubt? The energy, the immense shared electricity coursing through this outdoor cathedral, unmoored me. A man in the missionary getup — mid-50s, indefatigable as a jackrabbit — pulled me aside, training laserlike gray eyes on mine. “I teach economics and finance at Columbia. These are not individuals lacking in intelligence,” he said, gesturing across the crowd. “They’re brilliant.” He had fused his spiritual and logical intelligence, he needed me to know, into “an incredible technicolor understanding.”

Whatever unsteadiness I was feeling, it seemed a consequence of being inundated by thousands of worshippers. I suppose I would’ve felt the same approaching the Kaaba at Hajj. I met two women from Massachusetts who spoke to me of the afterlife with such passionate certitude, such detail, they could’ve been returning tourists. “The amazing love that exists on the other side of the veil is outstanding,” one said. They spoke of becoming kings and queens in death — of deification — and with gentle firmness stressed how I needed to pray to receive personal revelation. When I asked how — was there a wikiHow? — they laughed: “Just talk to God. Just ask Him.” (Earlier, in private, the pageant president had told me the same, more forcefully: “You have to kneel down and ask!”)

At this point I became aware that the weary cynicism that had steered me to this place was being dislodged by something else. A doubt about my doubt?

All at once the cast vanished, full night came on and the show started. I found a seat. In the dark, a cluster of robed women appeared atop the stage, flourishing apocalyptic trumpets they pretended to play while an epic fanfare sounded through the speakers. The cast marched onstage, an army, some bearing flags — and as they assumed their places in an opening tableau there were whoops and whistles in the crowd.

All went semi-dark. A group of players danced and jumped while the narrator, an omniscient father-figure who sounded like Charlton Heston, set the scene: Jerusalem, 600 BC. Depravity reigns. Lehi, the Mormon Moses, and his son Nephi have visions foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction and Jesus’s coming. They need to flee. The visions took the form of “water curtains,” big cumulus mists plumed up from understage, through which apparitions shone: a manger, a tree, a middle-aged angel high above the stage who for years dangled from a cable but in 2019 stood on a hidden platform. The production quality lay between full-on professional and DIY.

It started raining; babies cried. Someone farted. I watched the fugitives cross the Atlantic in that wooden boat, limousines-long; their arrival in the Americas and campy harvest dance; the fracturing of the party into rival tribes.

The show’s climactic sequence kicked into motion. “Far away, on a hill outside Jerusalem, three crosses rose,” the narrator announced. At the upper-right corner of the stage a trio of crucifixes swung into view, thronged by flames, then vanished. A stage-wide inferno followed — the cataclysm that killing Jesus triggered here. I watched as firebombs burst, geysers shot up, and waterfalls plummeted; I saw the silhouettes of a few hundred cast running about screaming while, below us, the earth convulsed with subterranean sound.

Total darkness and silence ensued. Then the risen Jesus appeared, this little refulgent being clad in white and perched at the pinnacle of the stage. It had always borne the seeds of sci-fi, the Christian story — an otherworldly emissary, the logos incarnate, sent here on an errand to save us — and here Jesus looked like nothing so much as a lone visitor. His person was mediated by streaks of rain. It was so quiet across the Bowl, a deep and babyless silence. Lights slowly came on, and I watched the scene I’d acted in two days before: Jesus descending the staircase, the cast filtering onto the stage, all surrounding and venerating him. Around me, people started crying.

The scene ended and they told of the two tribes going to war afterward, of the Nephites’ dying off — but not before one of them, Moroni, had buried their history in this hill. It’s hard to convey the all-out weirdness of the next, final episode. “Centuries later, in the spring of 1820,” the narrator declared, “the Lord heard the earnest prayer of a young man named Joseph Smith.” There was Smith excavating the hillside while Moroni supervised; there he was sharing the good news with a bunch of New Yorkers in bonnets, corsets, suit jackets. It was impossible to ignore how meta — how postmodern, really — it was: the abrupt fast-forwarding 14 centuries, the found text which is the very text you’re watching, the author inserting himself into the story. It was at once deeply moving and reminiscent of a senior thesis by a screenwriting major.

The show concluded and the Bowl resounded with cheering. Anxious to beat the crush, I got up and hastened away. Rain fell more heavily. When I reached the roadside I turned and took in the scene a last time: the multitudes gathered on the grass like groundlings, as they’d gathered here nearly a century; the cast advancing to meet them; the whole thing an international city, the shadow-image of the ones they hoped to form in death. And the driven rain deluging it, in effect, out of existence.

The character of Jesus Christ rises above horn players at the end of the The Hill Cumorah Pageant in Manchester, NY, July 10, 2019.

I found my car and drove off, making my way back to the guesthouse, where I peeled off my wet clothes and stood a moment savoring the silence. Then, warily, I approached the bed. What I wanted to do I had never once tried, despite being almost 37 — and couldn’t at first. What brought intelligent people, brilliant people, to kneel?

Nevertheless, I lowered myself, placing my knees on the tile and feeling the soreness in my nearly middle-aged body, no longer that of the boy who’d arrived to bed each night seeking communion with the spirit world. To whom or what was I even kneeling? Jesus Christ? The phrase embarrassed me. The embodied God who’d preceded us in space?

A line from Wallace Stevens came to me: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” I couldn’t decide whether this was sublime or Orwellian. Still, I brought my hands together and asked — to be more inspired, surprised, tuned to a godly frequency that as yet I hardly heard — and felt something unfamiliar: a peace that was either grace itself or the relief of giving up control. This I let linger, studying it, till it got really late — till the imprint of the day, of the whole mad pilgrimage, began to weaken, eroded by the sound of rain hitting the guesthouse, great percussive drops that drew me by degrees to sleep.

***

Andrew Kay is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Editors: Ben Huberman and Jon Baskin (The Point Magazine)
Fact Checker: Julia Aizuss (The Point Magazine)