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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Mormons (dum dum dum dum dum)

Okay, I promised I'd say something about the PBS two-parter on The Mormons. I still have not managed to get around to watching the second part, and if it makes me think of anything new or earthshattering, I'll let you know.

But anyway, I thought the first part was Not So Bad. My friend Jana Riess wrote a review here, and I pretty much agree with her take on it, in terms of what was good and what was missed. Adriana also wrote quite typically thoughtful posts on both parts, a little snippet about the first part buried here, and a longer post about the second part here.

What I found most interesting, though, was not the documentary itself, but Mormons' reaction to it. As I mentioned in a comment on Adriana's second post (if you read that far), I went to Portland Mormon Choir rehearsal Tuesday evening before I had watched any of it. Before rehearsal began, the director asked who had seen it, and about 30 people raised their hands. Then he asked who had liked it, and about two-thirds of the hands went down. The woman who sits next to me said she had found it "offensive." Then he led us in singing "O How Lovely Was the Morning," which tells the story of the First Vision, "so we can remember why we're here." I was pretty sure I wouldn't find anything "offensive," but the first part was even more toothless than I had expected.

Then, the Sunday after the shows was Fast and Testimony Meeting, and a number of people stood up to say things generally demonstrating that they were appalled and dismayed by the show. And at the end of Relief Society, one woman in my ward went on about how she thought there was a lot of anti-Mormon lies in the first part, things that she knew weren't true. Someone pressed her for specifics, and the things she cited as "lies" had come from the mouth of Dan Peterson, BYU/FARMS professor and just about the most conservative Mormon "historian" on the planet. As I observed in a comment on Jana's review, I think Helen Whitney's tactic of leaving off talking heads' religious affiliation so that Mormons wouldn't out-of-hand dismiss statements of non-Mormons backfired, and they dismissed anything that didn't jibe with the invariably-faith-promoting stuff they'd learned in seminary, or anything said by someone who didn't sound Mormon (like Kathleen Flake, who in academic fashion referred to Joseph Smith by his last name only). I set straight the woman in my RS who thought it was all anti-Mormon lies, but most Mormons who reacted like she did don't have a me around to set them straight(er).

The biggest problem is that Official Church History (tm) has long valued the faith-promoting over the factual. After several decades of suppressing anything they thought put the church in a remotely negative light, the run-of-the-mill Mormon knows very little about the nitty-gritty of 19th-century church history. So when they do find things out (because if they do any exploration outside of official church sources, they will), their testimonies are shaken and they FREAK OUT. If the church leadership had a less paranoid approach to the messiness of real history, and difficult subjects like the Mountain Meadows Massacre or pre-Utah polygamy were talked about openly, this could be avoided.

The other problems is that Mormons just take themselves too damn seriously! I talked to more than one person who thought the documentary just wasn't complimentary enough. I don't know what they were expecting--PBS could hardly be expected to run something that was essentially a church PR piece, confirming for Mormons all the things they like to think about themselves: that they're nice, hardworking, and not so weird; that Mormons have Arrived. They have no sense of what a neutral tone sounds like, so anything that's not laudatory or hagiographic is perceived as attacking. It would be nice if Mormons in general were less insular, but I guess I don't see that happening any time soon.

Oh, and happy birthday to Janet and Adriana!



Blogger MWR said...

You've got to love a church where the excommunicated can become "fundamentalists" in the eyes of the world. Makes it a little hard for the institution to repudiate things.

My wonderful professor for American Intellectual History devoted a lecture to Mormonism that situated it as the most successful of many theories that arose in that area of western New York to explain, as he put it, "who built those mounds"—since no one could believe it was relatives of the local Indians.

May 14, 2007 at 3:06 PM  
Blogger Hevansrich said...

Ha Ha Ha! I never saw the South Park episode about the Mormons your title references, but I did hear a whole show about it in Salt Lake on the very good local program Radio West with Doug Fabrizio. Or, it may have been on This Am Life, but, I'm quite sure it was the local program...(Martin Harris's wife? smart smart smart smart smart) I should have been offended but it was so dang clever.

May 14, 2007 at 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a really interesting take on the Book of Mormon's origins, MWR--instead of coming up with a non-Indian source of the mounds, they gave the Indians an old world pedigree. So, instead of being savages of a possibly different species, they're crypto-Jews. Hm.

And yes, Heather, I loved that South Park episode, which I only caught because someone gave me a heads-up. Trey and Matt throw in occasional references to Mo stuff, but that was the most in-depth treatment they've given. I also liked the South Park movie, but I realize that most regular Mos do not share my high tolerance for the exceedingly crass. I even played Kyle's mom (the big fat bitch) in a medley of songs from the movie for a Portland Gay Men's Chorus thing.

May 14, 2007 at 10:28 PM  
Blogger MWR said...

If I have my South Park details correct, the only people in heaven are Mormons . . . and Saddam :)

May 14, 2007 at 11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been trying to figure out just what you were saying in your "fundamentalist" comment, MWR. It's not just in the eyes of the world that modern polygynists are "fundamentalists"--mainstream Mos think of them as such, too. They really are trying to get back to the "fundamentals" of Mormonism as it was practiced in the 19th century, including polygyny and some theology.

But of course not all excommunicatees are fundamentalists. There have been several high-profile excommunications of liberals, but the vast majority of excommunications are of mainstream folks for mainstream sins, like adultery or civil crimes.

May 16, 2007 at 1:19 PM  
Blogger MWR said...

I was under the impression that since these polygamists are engaging in a practice the church has renounced, they are not technically Mormons (and have been or could be excommunicated for their activities) and consequently cannot be "fundamentalist" Mormons. I also thought that the church itself objected to how these polygamists are referred to in the popular press as "fundamentalist Mormons" for precisely that reason. If I am wrong, please feel free to correct me.

There have, I think, been married Popes, but if some Catholic priest took a wife and got excommunicated for it, no one would call him a "fundamentalist Catholic". He's not a Catholic. He's been excommunicated.

I didn't mean to suggest that there are not many ways to be excommunicated from the LDS church that have nothing to do with plural marriage.

May 21, 2007 at 7:51 PM  

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