The Dangers of Parody

I have received several emails from Latter-day Saints who were troubled by my attempt at anti-Mormon parody, not recognizing my work as a spoof. The parody is “Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?” I thought I had plenty of clues that this was a spoof, but some people don’t get it and think it’s serious scholarly work. How can I improve it without destroying the parody? The article begins with an admission that Whitman’s work came 25 years after the Book of Mormon, yet suggests that Joseph might have been boyhood friends with a nine-year-old Walt Whitman, from whom he surely gleaned the major themes of the Book of Mormon. The fascinating thing is that an examination of Whitman’s work and the Book of Mormon has provided more powerful and convincing parallels than anything I’ve seen in anti-Mormon works trying to pinpoint the sources of Joseph’s alleged plagiarism. The point, however, is that if an impossible source can appear more plausible as a source for the Book of Mormon due to mere chance, then why should the occasional scattered parallels offered by the critics be a cause for concern? If I can find six- and seven-word parallels in Whitman, and many other powerful common elements, why should a random four-word parallel of remote similarity bother me?

But the way I’ve written it, some people think it’s serious. One lest active member trying to come back said it was creating significant doubts for her, and wondered if I was leaving the Church now. Any suggestions?

(More information on the issue of plagiarsim is on an LDSFAQ page.)


Author: Jeff Lindsay

17 thoughts on “The Dangers of Parody

  1. This can be really frustrating and/or depressing, as I know from personal experience. Whenever I use irony or satire or make a joke in anything I write or say on a Mormon topic, there is somebody (and usually a group of somebodies) immediately on hand to take me absolutely seriously and to complain about my viciousness. (Not infrequently, in print.) When Bill Hamblin and I appeared on a local television station some years ago to respond to a critic of the Church, my department chairman received several angry phone calls from viewers demanding that I be fired . . . on the grounds that I was an enemy of the Church. (Oooops. They had confused me with the person to whom we were responding.)

    Without necessarily implying that any particular person is a fool — I’m actually not a nasty and vicious sociopath, and, truth be told, I generally like most of the people I know (even the critics) — I’m frequently reminded of one of the corolaries to Murphy’s Law: “It’s impossible to make anything absolutely foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.” I take comfort in that thought.

    I’m also reminded of the advice that Senator Thomas Corwin is said to have given to the young William McKinlay: “If you would be great,” he said, “you must be solemn — solemn as an ass. All monuments are built over solemn asses.”

  2. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I just read – as in within the last five minutes – what I consider to be the answer: you can do nothing.

    This was from today’s answerman column:

    Q. Recently you have come under fire from readers who don’t get the humor in your columns, as in your “Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Aristocrats” reviews. The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty. A little piece of me dies every time one of your witticisms is mistaken for a sincere attack.

    Andrew Zimmer, Los Angeles

    A. I hope it is a very small piece. A depressing number of people seem to process everything literally. They are to wit as a blind man is to a forest, able to find every tree, but each one coming as a surprise.

    So, to me, there is really only one choice for you:either leave it up as is, or remove it from the site.

  3. Well, I thought it was both hilarious and instructive, so my vote — my very strong vote — is that you not take it down.

  4. Drat. That should be corollaries, not corolaries, in my opening post here. I guess there’s no way to edit posts, but I absolutely hate misspellings.

    I’m obsessive-compulsive, perhaps, but not vicious.

    I agree, incidentally, that there’s probably nothing to be done. In order to make a world completely safe from misunderstandings of the sort mentioned here, all humor, irony, and satire would have to be eliminated. But that’s too high a price to pay. And, anyhow, it still wouldn’t work. As, umm, the saying goes, It’s impossible to make anything completely fool-proof, because fools are so ingenious.

  5. Jeff, I think this demonstrates two big problems. Namely, there are so many people (mostly those against the LDS church) who are eager to take anything critical of the church as fact with no regard to whether there is any substance to it. Secondly, there are those members who immediately go on the defensive when their faith is challenged or fall apart instead of studying an issue to see if it has any actual merit. For my part, I love your parody and think it follows the counsel of Proverbs 26:5, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”

  6. Read some of Robert Kirby’s columns in the Salt Lake Tribune and then some of what he has to say about his critics. You find when you’re getting near a raw cultural nerve of any kind you can’t say “boo” without having some sensitive soul objecting. Keep up the good work.

  7. I’m also reminded of the advice that Senator Thomas Corwin is said to have given to the young William McKinlay: “If you would be great,” he said, “you must be solemn — solemn as an ass. All monuments are built over solemn asses.”

    You also misspelled McKinley. Plus, it was Garfield, not McKinley.

  8. I think Jeff’s piece shows that Whitman plagiarized from the Book of Mormon when writing Leaves of Grass. Is it too late for a copyright infringement suit?

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I though it was very well written, but then again, I have been in contact with anti – Mormon literature. Maybe a bigger font in the disclaimer would help. A contextualisation of how anti – Mormons operate, i.e., looking for the mos insignificant piece of information and twist it until it ‘fits’ into whatever I want to prove (utilising statistics is a very good example). Also, probably some insertions, showing how the arguments presented in the plagiarism are completely off the mark.

    In any case, to the less active person that e-mailed you, I would try to explain that the piece is written tongue in cheek, that you are sorry if she took it the wrong way but you were making a point in how anti – Mormons would make the most ludicrous assertations in the hope that someone would ‘bait’ for them. I guess that contextualised information in the document would help the casual reader to see, even more, why is this a parody and the absurdity of the claims. Hope these suggestions are of use.

  10. You’re right. It was Garfield. And I know that it’s McKinley, not McKinlay; I guess I was thinking of a colleague who spells his name the latter (relatively uncommon) way.

    Gee, for a thread in which I’ve professed my obsessive — compulsive concern with spelling — which is entirely true (I never lost a spelling bee as an elementary school kid) — I’m having a terrible time here.

    Humility is a good thing.

    The fundamental point stands, though.

  11. Perhaps you need some sort of Parental Advisory, “Explicitly sarcastic lyrics. Warning, the contents of this post were generated by an infinite number of monkeys banging away on an infinite number of typewriters and the manuscript was discoverd in a mayonaise jar, hermetically sealed, on Funken-Wagnal’s front porch and therefore have no validity outside of random sense.”

  12. Thanks for all the excellent comments. Really appreciate it. I’ll leave the piece up and try to catch the souls that start falling because of it….

    Oh, Charles, how did you know about the mayonaise jar?

  13. Ford … there’s an infinite numbers of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.

  14. I’m shocked and offended at Dr. Peterson’s viscious attack directed towards Jeff Lindsay.

    And his spelling stinks too.

    (p.s. we miss Dr. P on the message boards where his prior service as hyperexamined overcriticized whipping-professor is well remembered.)

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