Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mormons Are People Too



MEET THE MORMONS

I remember very well my first visit to Utah, as well I should given it was this May when I spent a week in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas.  It's a beautiful state, but the old joke about Utah is still basically true: in Utah, the separation of church and state is a street.

The Salt Lake City Temple is literally down the hill from the Utah State Capitol.

I enjoyed my time in the Beehive State, but I also found myself immersed, willingly or not, in Mormon culture.  I say 'Mormon culture' because Utah felt like another world altogether.  I learned that the state is so heavily Mormon that during school, communities like Bountiful have Latter-Day Saints (or LDS) education centers called 'seminaries' across the street from schools (and nearly all students go directly from school to these seminaries then back to school, with only non-LDS students not attending).  The LDS community has its own bookstore (Deseret Book) and even its own cinema. While in Utah I stayed with non-LDS friends, who showed me some of the many films of one Kirby Heyborne, of whom I'm now a fan.  I should point out that the two Heyborne films I saw: The R.M. (which stands for "Returned Missionary") and The Best Two Years, while both enjoyable, had to be literally explained to me (as many of the in-jokes that an LDS member would find uproarious would be lost on a little old evangelical like me).  Still, I got some understanding of Mormon culture and found it fascinating (I hope to later review Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, which plays daily in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building at Temple Square). 

One thing I got was that Mormons have a bit of a persecution complex.  I don't blame them, given they were driven out from both New York and Missouri I believe early in the faith's history, which brought them to the Great Salt Lake Valley.  Notorious for the early church's practice of polygamy, the LDS Church has yet to live down the idea that Mormon men have a harem from the general mindset.  They also have had negative press from the get-go thanks to such classic books as A Study in Scarlet (the Sherlock Holmes debut novel where a major subplot was the wickedness of the LDS Church) and the Western Riders of the Purple Sage.  Early films like the mostly lost A Victim of The Mormons and Trapped By the Mormons I'm sure didn't help.  Even now, most evangelicals bristle at the idea that Mormons are 'true Christians', and I can testify (to use LDS lingo) that at least one evangelical Christian I know refused to vote for Mitt Romney because Romney is Mormon (no word on whether this person also played Osmond Brothers or Gladys Knight albums backwards to hear any Satanic messages). 

Well, the LDS Church is now on a charm offensive.  We've all encountered the eager young men and women who come to our doors to share the other Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now we have Meet the Mormons, a documentary that features six LDS members discuss how they are not only average men and women but who have been made or made better by the LDS Church.  Meet the Mormons can be one of two things: a genuine documentary about LDS members living their lives or thinly-veiled recruiting propaganda.  The truth lies somewhere in between (but leans strongly on the latter).

Hosted by perky Jenna Kim Jones (who tells us she's a Mormon, which she clarifies is a nickname, not the official term like 'Catholic' or 'Lutheran' would be to their respective churches), we travel around the world and the U.S. to meet all sorts of people.  They go by their titles: The Bishop (Jermaine Sullivan from Atlanta), The Coach (U.S. Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo based in Annapolis), The Fighter (Costa Rican mixed martial arts fighter Carolina Marin Munoz), The Candy Bomber (retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail Halvorsen), The Humanitarian (Nepalese entrepreneur Bishnu Adhikari) and the Missionary Mom (Dawn Armstrong, her son Anthony, and her husband Craig).

With Jones' occasional comments, the participants are allowed to tell their tales, of either how they came to be LDS or how their LDS faith impacted their lives. 

Some of the stories are completely compelling.  Regardless of what one thinks of his faith, Colonel Havelson is a hero through and through.  As the 'Candy Bomber', he dropped chocolates to Berlin children during the Berlin Airlift, and at 92 is still flying and recreating his extremely noble act that is worthy of honor and respect.  The entire Armstrong family is also an amazing tale.  Dawn Armstrong was without direction and had given birth to an out-of-wedlock child (Anthony).  After this and the death of a second illegitimate child she was on the verge of total collapse, but the intervention of various Missionary Sisters saved her life and gave her and her son hope.  She moved to Utah, married Craig (who has one leg) and now Anthony (who is biracial, and in a moment I'll argue why that is important) at the end of the film is serving as an Elder in Durbar, South Africa.

As fascinating as some of the stories are, I found a certain cold calculation to this entire endeavor.  Meet the Mormons (apart from a clumsy title that lends itself to parody) reminded me of all things the Disney Vacation DVDs I receive every so often, highlighting the new attractions at the various Disney theme parks and cruises to get me to return.  In the same way, Meet the Mormons doesn't have much about the individual Mormons themselves.  Instead, it in some ways plays like a glossy promotional video for the Church. 

Let us remember that the LDS Church provided the funds for Meet the Mormons, which they are open about.  There is simply no way around the idea that Meet the Mormons, far from being an objective view of LDS members, is a recruitment tool which could easily be shown either at Home Study gatherings or be handed out by the Elders/Sisters along with copies of The Book of Mormon.

I could not help notice that all but one of the interviewees was Anglo (and that Anglo is a war hero).  The Bishop is black, the Missionary Mom's son is biracial, and there was a Hispanic, a Polynesian, and Nepalese subject.  Even the closing song has minority roots: David Archuleta, the American Idol alum who sings the closing song, Glorious, is Hispanic.


In the opening of Meet the Mormons, Jones interviews people in Times Square, and one of the stereotypes and clich├ęs about LDS is that they are racists. I think there is a general idea that Mormon=White, and Meet the Mormons showcases members who are almost all non-White.   However, I cannot shake the idea that this is no accident but by careful design, as if to show the world that there are not only Mormons of color, but that not all of them live in Utah. 

Bishop Sullivan and/or Anthony Armstrong are never asked about the complex history the LDS Church has had with African-Americans (such as how black men were not given full priesthood privileges until 1978).  It is possible that the Bishop and the Missionary are flat-out unaware of the Church's tortured racial history, but Meet the Mormons wasn't about to delve into that beehive (pun intended). 

We were told that Mrs. Munoz would show how any stereotype of Mormon women would be shattered.  I didn't see any shattering of stereotypes.  Yes, she kick-boxes, but so do many women.  The Munozes have a partnership in their marriage, but that isn't either unique or groundbreaking.  It doesn't show she has a leadership position in her home or ward.  

As a side note, it's curious that when we hear the various members reading or quoting Scriptures, it is the Bible, not The Book of Mormon we hear from.

Speaking of The Book of Mormon, there is something almost bizarre in seeing Jones walking in front of the Broadway theater marquee of the Trey Parker/Matt Stone spoof of Mormonism without really acknowledging it even as it is there in plain sight.   We do get some clips where Mormons are spoofed in the popular culture, but Meet the Mormons again wasn't going to touch those ideas apart from countering them with inspirational stories of Mr. Adhikari bringing water to Nepalese villages, Coach Niumatalolo inspiring his team onto victory, or Colonel Halvorsen recounting how his Candy Bombing over Cold War-West Berlin began.  Frankly, almost all religions are mocked in popular culture at one point or another, so shots taken at Mormonism aren't either out-of-the-ordinary or unique to them.

Bet Joseph Smith didn't see THIS in
any of his visions...

It would have been interesting to hear how these Mormons perceive themselves against the culture at large, or hear what they thought of The Book of Mormon musical.  We never hear about how the ideas non-LDS (or Gentiles as non-LDS are dubbed by the LDS community) don't square with their realities.  Instead, we hear from almost everyone about how the LDS in general has done great things for them.  It isn't my place to say their religious beliefs haven't helped them, but if the whole point of Meet the Mormons was to...meet the Mormons, the film fails in that goal.

I personally think also that Meet the Mormons is a bit flawed in its mission (no pun intended).  The thinking behind Meet the Mormons is that there is this wild perception among Gentiles that the LDS is some sort of bizarre universe.  I have met several Mormons, and like Christians I know they laugh at comedies, enjoy socializing, even dancing, and in practically every respect live lives no different than non-LDS.

Meet the Mormons is saved (no pun intended) by the Armstrong and Halvorsen stories, which would make fascinating tales in their own right.  That is why I'm giving it the mildest negative vote I can.  I do this because in many other respects, Meet the Mormons strikes me as propaganda for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days, an effort to put their best multicultural face forward to a world that still views them with suspicion.  It's all a bit too glossy, too calculated, too vaccinated to have me learn much that I couldn't gleam from a visit by either Elders or a stop at the home of an LDS member.  Meet the Mormons has this air of being a well-produced semi-recruitment video that will play well in Utah, but which will give Gentiles little to no information about what it is like to be a Mormon in today's world.          

Truthfully, I feel almost a little guilty about being mostly negative about Meet the Mormons. Mormons are the nicest people I've met. However, I have to always, at least when it comes to film reviews, Choose the Right.      

This ISN'T what they meant by
'Brigham Young'...


DECISION: C-  

2 comments:

  1. You complained about many of the things missing from the movie. There are a lot of things missing from your post, as well like why you were in Utah in the first place, or that most of the millions of members of the church don't live in Utah at all (and many of them are in Texas - including most of my family). Have you checked your local area?

    That's not really important. In spite of attempts to find fault, you did a really good job of portraying the movie. And why wouldn't the church intentionally try to 'right' the misunderstandings of the principles of the gospel? Should they be doing something else with the millions paid in tithing by its members?

    In the end, as all the people portrayed in the movie alluded to, it really doesn't matter what anyone believes, the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is simply there to be 'taken'. It is a gift freely given by it's author. It's His gift to the world. Its truthfulness has been decried throughout the ages, so any dissension is nothing new. Prophets were killed for defending it.

    Your words, in comparison, are glowing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. My job is to look at a film and say what I think of it. A film that claims to tell 'the real story' of Mormons but which looks to me like a thinly-veiled commercial is not a 'documentary'. Meet the Mormons is not a terrible film, but something about it struck me as a little manipulative.

      Delete

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Thank you.