A weblog full of 'tiny dramas in Mormon lives' has a bigger drama going on behind the scenes
Jenn was a perky, 20-something Mormon, seeking an eternal mate in the Big Apple. Along the way, she faced dilemmas like whether to date a non-member, whether "speed dating" ever works and which of the 12 apostles was the sexiest. (She voted for Elder Henry B. Eyring because he was prone to cry during General Conference speeches.)
Week after week, Jenn shared her anxieties and loves on an Internet weblog called Banner of Heaven, which last spring joined the world of Mormon blogs.
One day Jenn described an incident in which her date, a liberal Mormon, fondled her during a concert at Central Park. Even though that's a no-no in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jenn didn't think it was a big deal to "get felt up."
That elicited 129 comments, including this one from Steve Evans, a married New York City attorney. "From your story it doesn't sound deliberate, but beware! Guys like boobies."
The funny things is, Jenn and Evans are the same person.
From the beginning, some readers suspected that Banner wasn't real. The characters seemed too extreme and situations too outrageous to be believed. But others were drawn in by their stories. Doesn't every Latter-day Saint know someone in their ward who believes God sent Katrina to punish sinners, as "Aaron" wrote? Isn't there an angry feminist like "Miranda" who turns every Sunday school lesson into a gender battle?
"I guess I thought people would be so dazzled by our wit and storytelling ability that the ethical issues wouldn't matter," says Brian Gibson, a co-creator of the blog. "Now I realize it was just wrong."
Mormons jumped headlong into the world of blogging about three years ago. They created mini-communities organized around specific LDS topics such as history, politics or doctrine. Names like Times and Seasons, Approaching Zion, By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, Millennial Star, Ministering Angels, Mormon Mommy Wars, Latter Day Liberation Front, LDS Science Review. and Mormon Metaphysics proliferated. Many people posted comments at more than one site and soon became known for their consistent takes on issues. Commenters known only to each other online often felt the urge to meet in the flesh, so to speak, so they hosted Mormon blog parties in Utah, New York and Washington, D.C.
The Bloggernacle, as they called it, was dominated by lawyers, philosophers, economists, literary critics and other assorted intellectuals. Some people enjoyed the debates but felt intimidated to jump in.
That was the case with Gibson, a Los Angeles writer for - what else? - reality television. He came up with the idea for a fictional blog and enlisted the help of Evans, a friend from his Brigham Young University days who was then running one of the largest blogs, By Common Consent.
Evans and Gibson solicited the help of four other writers and sketched out the characters. They then exchanged notes and developed plotlines. They grabbed photos of people off Google, gave them names and specific personas. The idea, Gibson says, was to create "tiny dramas in Mormon lives" as believers trip up in their attempt to follow church teachings.
There was "Mari," a people-pleasing homemaker from Idaho; "Greg," who isn't Mormon but hangs out with them; "Miranda," the feminist who is disappointed in her husband's ambitions; "Aaron," a wannabe prophet who sees God's hand in everything; "Septimus," a divorced returned missionary with social anxiety and sweaty hands. And, of course, "Jenn."
"Miranda" sold her husband's Xbox because he was playing it too much. "Aaron" misused the words of the scriptures and prophets to decry the usefulness of higher education. "Mari," the shyest character, got her neighbor's package by mistake and was afraid to deliver it to him in case he got mad.
Banner creators say they set some ethical limits, like not asking people to pray for their characters, but they didn't fully explore the ramifications.
On one occasion, "Septimus" wrote about being troubled by a church lesson that suggested men should be stoic after the death of a child. That prompted a father to share his own grief at the death of three children.
Eliciting that kind of raw openness "is something I still feel guilty about," Gibson says.
But he insists they never made fun of the people who commented.
"On more than one occasion readers e-mailed my character to recommend he take medication and I thought this was so sweet and kind," Gibson says.
And it went on and on like that for six months, the plotlines becoming more intricate and tortured. "Jenn" lost her job and her favorite church calling. Her roommate got engaged and moved out. Evans acknowledges he delighted in destroying her life just to see if her eternal cheeriness would fade. It didn't.
The whole experiment was meant to energize Mormon blogs with empathetic characters to whom everyday Mormons could relate, opening the blogs to broader participation. But eventually they made their alter-egos unbelievable, even laughable, and in doing so betrayed themselves as well as their audience.
"My pride and artistic ambition got in the way of me seeing the ethical implications," Gibson says.
The storytellers were planning to out themselves by Thanksgiving. But two weeks ago, a group of readers got suspicious. Folks at ninemoons.com offered a free T-shirt to anyone who correctly identified the real people behind Banner's six characters.
On Oct. 28, Gibson, Evans and the rest of the Banner gang came clean, publishing groveling mea culpas, apologizing to readers, acknowledging they got carried away. They are sorry for tricking and hurting people or fueling opponents of the LDS Church. But, secretly, they are also proud of their art. It was fun.
And not everyone was offended. "What was my reaction to all of this? To having been participant #2 in a fake blog for six months? To being lied to in a way that few others were in all of this? I laughed," wrote a commenter who goes by "a random John."
As you might suspect, the LDS blog community soon erupted into a full-scale exploration of the nature of Mormon blogging, what it means to the people who do it and how this episode will effect the whole Internet community. Sure, people may exaggerate in their posts or describe themselves a little more favorably, but wholesale invention is lying, right? And it's lying about things Latter-day Saints hold dear - their families, faith, goodness and God.
Banner preyed on Mormon innocence and gullibility, critics argued.
"It feels like those of us who weren't in on it are like the nerdy kids in high school that the cool kids pretended to like, only to find out that the address they gave us of the party they invited us to is really the county landfill," wrote C.S. Eric at timesandseasons.org.
Others saw it as a betrayal of trust, essential in the Bloggernacle.
"In the past, some people have posted very personal, very important, very difficult-to-discuss things on the blogs. In turn, commenters have shared their own pain. I think that healing has occurred that never could in real life. Real good has been done," wrote Julie M. Smith of Austin. "But the next time someone posts (especially at a smaller or newer blog) about a sensitive topic, do you think that there will be the same outpouring in the comments? I doubt it. Once bitten, twice shy."
Some critics of the LDS Church grabbed onto the Banner of Heaven episode as a parallel for the church's own founding, saying that it was like founder Joseph Smith claiming invented revelations.
That is most upsetting to Banner creators who are all believing Mormons, Evans says. "Religion is more than telling a beautiful story, it's about truth."