I’ve been told that I am a scholar. I don’t really know about that. I’m not sure what a scholar is. Yes, I have all of the outward markings of a scholar: I have published articles and books; I have published narrative fiction and drama; I have created art. If that makes me somehow a scholar, then so be it—I am a scholar. But I am also something that does not fit comfortably within the usual parameters of scholar: I am a believing Christian; a Christian of the Mormon variety. I believe that the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth in these modern times through a prophet, called of God, named Joseph Smith.
What does that mean? It means that the priesthood, or power to act in the name of God, has been restored to the earth by heavenly messengers. I believe that through that priesthood, the organizational structure that can bless the lives of all humankind has been established by the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Within that organization the ordinances of salvation are available to every person who will accept them if they are willing to live the few redemptive basics outlined by God’s called prophets. These principles are outlined in the Book of Mormon, where Alma teaches potential converts what it means to “be Christian.” He teaches that “to be called His people” we must be “. . . willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” and that we must “. . . stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things” (Mosiah 18:8-9). The crowning achievement of the restoration is what Mormons label “the plan of salvation.” This is Mormonism’s unique contribution to Christianity which answers the questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? And, what is to become of us after this life? In answering these questions, modern day scriptures enhance exponentially our understanding of the creation of the world, the roles of our first parents, and the need for a Savior. Furthermore, a greater understanding of Jesus Christ’s great gifts of overcoming the physical death (the resurrection) and the spiritual death (the atonement) are made clear.
How can a scholar profess these things?
How can I do otherwise? Throughout history, wise men and women have struggled to understand the purpose of life. They have struggled to understand histories and to create philosophies. “So we make stories of our own, in fevered and envious imitation of our Maker, hoping that we’ll tell, by chance, what God left untold. And finishing our tale, come to understand why we were born” (Clive Barker, Sacrament, 1996). My joy as an academic and artist has been the luxury of immersing myself in the written and creative works of the great thinkers. But the most significant lesson I learned was taught me by a recent convert to the Church in the small town of Kolding, Denmark, where I was serving as a Mormon missionary. My companion and I were riding our bikes heading to who knows where, when we happened across one of the member ladies. We stopped to chat and learned that she was on her way home from the movie theatre where she had just seen My Fair Lady. For her it had been a wonderful experience, which she eagerly recounted. Then she said something that has guided my career these past forty years. She told us that she loved re-watching movies she had enjoyed, and loved re-reading books she had enjoyed ever since her baptism. “Everything is new. Everything is more wonderful. Everything means so much more to me because I am experiencing them with new eyes because of the Gift of the Holy Ghost.” She taught me what the Lord meant when he said, “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
In the New Testament, Paul teaches us to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thes. 5:21), excellent advice for a person carrying the burden of “scholar.” One morning in 1985, my wife and I were getting ready to leave the house and head to church for our Sunday services when I opened the front door and stooped down to pick up the Rochester, New York, morning newspaper, Democrat and Chronicle. Emblazoned on the front page, in large block type, was the headline, “Book of Mormon Proved False.” The story went on to talk about a bookseller, Mark Hoffman, and a letter he purportedly discovered that came to be known as “The Salamander Letter.” That and many other news stories have come and gone that have proven to be troublesome for some members of the LDS Church: the translation of the Book of Abraham, DNA and native Americans, Book of Mormon geography, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, polygamy, and church involvement in political issues, to name just a few. On none of those issues did I turn to Mormon apologists or polemics, neither did I hide my head in the ground just wishing for comfortable history or the salve of equivocation. Yet every one of those issues has been resolved thoroughly and peaceably within my own mind, most often when I least expected it. Once, for example, I was reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and another time reading No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons Around Our Gay Loved Ones by Carol Lynn Pearson, when clear answers were manifest by the Spirit to some of the issues on the back burner of my mind. This is not remarkable. This is exactly how the Lord promises us that he will speak to us by “the still small voice inside.”
I do not ground my testimony completely on spiritual/aesthetic intuition. I have been blessed to have seen the hand of the Lord in my life, sometimes in very startling ways. As artists, my family was blessed to have callings with The Hill Cumorah Pageant: America’s Witness For Christ for almost twenty years; my wife was costume designer and I served in the Pageant presidency and then as artistic director. Time and time again we witnessed the hand of the Lord as He blessed the lives of pageant participants, often for reasons that remain private and personal to them. When I was called to be the director, the primary concern I faced, for example, was how to cast 650 cast members into the huge variety of roles demanded by the script. By way of contrast, casting the thirty-eight actors for a Broadway musical may require over a year; casting a college or community production calling for just a handful of actors usually requires three or four days. At Cumorah, the cast arrived on Friday, were assigned roles on Saturday morning, and began rehearsing that same afternoon. Traditional methods of casting are not possible. A previous director, Jack Sedarholm, explained the technique developed by Harold I. Hansen to “cast by the spirit.” Since all but one of the roles in the original pageant (1938-1987) were male, the artistic director would have all of the men file past in a continuous single file. As he considered a specific role, one of the actors would seem to stand-out from all the others. That participant was assigned the role in question. That system was the method of casting for all directors from the beginning through the first two years of the revised pageant, 1989. But then the process broke down because the new script had ten times more name characters, including many roles for women. As the new director, I had not experienced that kind of casting and I felt the need for a new approach.
A few months before my first season, I was speaking at a fireside in a small chapel in New York’s Southern Tier. A young man whose family had long been involved in Pageant was there speaking with me about the “pageant experience.” As “Craig” stood up to speak I received a strong prompting which I recognized as the Holy Ghost, that Craig was to be cast as “The Descending Christ,” one of the two most important roles in the production. “Oh!” I thought to myself, “This is how it works.” Having learned my inner lesson, I remained quiet, feeling the confirmation of the Spirit. But I did not report it at that time. Having had that experience, I prayerfully considered how to re-organize pageant casting. As the new cast members arrived on Friday, my associate directors and I were in the office greeting each and every person. They all thought we were just being friendly. Actually, the casting process had begun. As we talked with the incoming participants, we took notes both of “types” and of any “inspirations” we might feel. I, for example, had that same strong witness, experienced at the fireside, when one man came through the line that he was to be assigned the role of King Noah. On Saturday, we divided the men and women and organized them by age groupings. We organized the major roles in groups and divided the responsibility amongst the directors to cast various scenes. This was to be done by the spirit, following the principle that parts were to be assigned “by two or more witnesses” (D&C 6:28).
The directors began with prayer and then commenced the casting process by going to the appropriate age group of men or women where they selected six or seven potential actors who fit the physical stereotype for the role in question. A brief audition was conducted and the director got an impression for which actor should be chosen. Then a second director was shown the group. In most instances, both directors were impressed to select the same actor
During and after the process we began having remarkable experiences. When I cast the role of the Descending Christ, I told Craig that the Spirit had selected him the night of the fireside. He was astounded. It turned out that he had decided not to participate that year. It was not until two days before Pageant, when his circumstances changed, that he decided to join his family at Cumorah. Again, when I was about to select King Noah, the young man I noted the day before stepped out before his name was called. After I verified he was selected, he told me that on the flight to New York he had been impressed by the Spirit that he would play King Noah. It terrified him to the point that he almost turned around and went home. You see, he had recently been re-baptized a member of the Church and was not certain that he could endure playing the role of an apostate. He was perfect in the role, though, and had an affirming experience. At the end of casting all of the participants had gone their ways, to get costumes or rehearse, while the directors reviewed the cast. We were horrified to discover that neither Mormon nor his son Moroni had been selected, a devastating omission. These were two critical roles and all of the actors had already been assigned. We would have to bring back everyone in those two age groups. At that moment I looked over and saw a middle-aged man and an older teenage boy. I asked them what parts they had been given. They were a father and son, first time participants from Ohio, and they had been overlooked. They were perfect for Mormon and Moroni. The Lord had provided. It was not until the second week of Pageant that the father took me aside. He told me that he and his son had come to see the new Pageant its first year in 1988. Since that time his son had been praying for the opportunity to play the role of Moroni in the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Receiving these roles was a direct answer to his son’s earnest prayer.
Another year’s casting of the role of the Virgin Mary for the Nativity Scene resulted in a vivid spiritual experience for the entire cast. As the director reviewed the potential actresses, she felt impressed that a Japanese sister be included in the group. Not only was the participant not Hebrew or Caucasian, she could not speak English. After the audition process the director felt impressed that the Japanese sister should be given the role. She asked one of the other directors to review the potential sisters. After seeing them, he quietly said, “It may seem strange, but I think we should select the Japanese sister.” That was the second witness and she was awarded the role. Not speaking any English, the Japanese sister did not understand what had just happened. All she knew was that she was pointed toward the casting computer operator and was handed a card with her name and the role, “Virgin Mary.” At the same time in another location, two other associate directors were casting men for the same scene. As the Japanese sister arrived at the computer table, the young man selected to play her husband “Joseph” arrived at the table. Remarkably, he had just returned from a mission to Japan. He was able to be her guide and translator through the entire rehearsal and performance process. Time and time again, the Spirit witnessed who should be cast in various roles, sometimes to serve Pageant, sometimes as an answer to prayer, sometimes to serve the individual, most often for reasons that we never learned.
I learned a great spiritual lesson through my involvement with the Hill Cumorah Pageant regarding how the Spirit testifies. As part of the production process, we emphasized the spiritual development of the cast alongside the practical development of the show. We took time not only to rehearse, but to study the gospel in this sacred place and to enjoy the Spirit that was there. One evening, a few minutes before the performance was to begin, I was walking through the audience and happened across two gay theatre friends who had come to see the show. That was no great surprise, Mormon celebrities and even sports figures and movie stars of other faiths had been in our audience. But these two were unique. One was a theatre friend who I knew hated large cast productions and crowds. Ours was a cast of hundreds and an audience of thousands. I greeted them and asked if they’d like to sit in the reserved seating. They declined and we agreed to chat after the show. At the conclusion, I went over to where they had been seated and discovered they were gone. Given who the men were and what the circumstances were, I was not really surprised. A couple of weeks later, however, I received a call from one of the men. He apologized for leaving immediately following the show. He explained, “We were too overcome to talk. We just had to leave and process what had happened. It was the most spiritual experience either of us had in over a decade.” That was a testimony, that when one is engaged in the work of the Lord, the Spirit touches the hearts of everyone. The great lesson of Cumorah, for me, is that the spirit with which a work of art is created lives on in that art and touches the lives of all those who experience it.
As a scholar, how can I not testify of Jesus Christ and the Restoration of the Gospel? I have witnessed it in my heart by the whisperings of the Spirit. I have also seen the Lord’s hand manifest in the lives of scores of his children. It is my pleasure and my responsibility to share that testimony with you. And I do it in the sacred name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Gerald Argetsinger is an Associate Professor, Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He received his B.A. in Theater at BYU, and then continued for his M.A. and Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. He joined NTID in 1975, where he has taught a variety of courses and chaired two departments. In the LDS Church, he has served extensively in ward and stake Young Men’s Presidencies, on the High Council, and in the Presidency and as Artistic Director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant. He is currently the High Priest’s instructor in his ward and serves on the Rochester New York Bi-Stake Public Relations Committee. His scholarship includes two volumes on the Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg and over 100 articles on theatre, literature, and magic. As a playwright, he has had twenty scripts published and/or produced, including Equality of Rights: the First Woman’s Rights Convention presented at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls, New York, on the occasion of the Sesquicentennial of the 1848 Convention. His revision of the Virginia State Outdoor Drama, Trail of the Lonesome Pine, is produced annually at the Tolliver Theater, Big Stone Gap, Virginia. He is the founder of the Gay Mormon Literature project and has presented nationally on Gay Mormon Fiction and Drama. He is a nationally recognized director both of outdoor drama, including the original production of Utah! in the Tuacahn Amphitheater, St. George, Utah, and the historical dramas Sword of Peace and Pathway to Freedom at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre near Greensboro, North Carolina. Of his other productions, he is particularly proud of directing Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Quintero Theatre, NYC (2000), and Peter Shaffer’s Equus (2009), in response to the Prop 8 brouhaha, examining the question, “What happens when someone’s worship is ripped from them?” He is married to award winning costume designer, Gail (Bishop) Argetsinger. Together they have raised two young men.
Posted March 2010