Those who would like to see this documentary can go to www.pbs.org and see it on the Internet.
With the two-part, four hour documentary, The Mormons, Helen Whitney unfortunately missed the mark and an opportunity. It is always easier to build walls between people than tear them down, but unfortunately, the film whose purpose, according to Whitney, was to undo stereotypes about Latter-day Saints, seemed instead to petrify them.
Latter-day Saints wrote to Meridian saying they were dismayed after seeing Part 1, believing that people would carry away a negative bias against Mormons, and though Part 2 was much better, the broad assessment was that the program as a whole was a smooth assault upon the Church, interspersed with a few eloquent moments from believers.
As members of our faith, we know what it is to have people make wrong-headed assumptions about us because they think they know something disturbing about our origins or beliefs. Typical is the question posed this week in the On Faith Internet blog, a religious conversation between top thinkers and writers. The question is “After 175 years of existence, is Mormonism entering the mainstream of American religious life or are people still suspicious of it?” Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas’s response to the question was typical of many. His was column was titled, “Good people. Bizarre beliefs.”
When I read that, I thought, indeed Cal, and others who write similarly, we do have bizarre beliefs – just like you – like Moses parting the Red Sea and carrying stone tablets down from a mountain or Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son. You can take the miracles or tenets of any faith system, dissect them and pull them apart from their context, and they will be strange to an outsider.
To those who have not experienced it, miracles are strange; revelation is strange. And don’t you think that secularists who want to wrench our nation away from its Judeo-Christian foundings are already trying to cast all Christians as not only odd, but oppressive and bigoted.
Media Perpetuates Misunderstanding
Certainly Helen Whitney was under a great deal of pressure as she produced this documentary, and the final cut could never be pleasing to everybody. The information at www.pbs.org is much more complete. And she does put on camera some Latter-day Saints expressing their hope in the hereafter and their love of the temple and the Lord. Latter-day Saints do not expect a film about them to sound like General Conference or not to raise any questions. However, what is missing from the portrait is often glaring.
The media sometimes perpetuate the suspicion people feel toward us. Just recently, the mother of our 12-year-old daughter’s friend was in our home and asked what we did for a living. When we mentioned that we were publisher and editor of an Internet magazine for Latter-day Saints, she asked, “Do you write about all the controversial stuff?” When we gave her a blank stare, she said, “You know, Warren Jeffs, and all the polygamists.”
We assured her that Jeffs was not a Latter-day Saint, and she quickly changed the subject. But we wondered how long this mother had entertained strange notions about us. Had she ever wondered if it was OK for her daughter to play with ours?
Fear and prejudice are the children of ignorance, and when we refuse or fail to see people in their full-blown humanity or their sacred beliefs as something more than foolish hoaxes, division instead of harmony is fostered.
Persecution is not a 21st century part of a Latter-day Saint’s life and many people admire us for our faith, but we certainly know what it is to be misunderstood. When our son was interviewing for graduate school three years ago, the admissions interview became a difficult hurdle when the university officer pointedly asked if our son had read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, and how did he feel about religion and violence – as if there was a religious litmus test to get into school.
Bringing religion into an interview for graduate school admissions is not only illegal, it is unethical and un-American, but such moments, bred in misunderstanding, are common in the lives of Latter-day Saints.
Of course, in this presidential season, we’ve seen the polls of the huge percentage of citizens who say they would never vote for a Mormon. Can such active prejudice be still spoken out loud in America? Apparently, it can be if it is toward the Latter-day Saints – but it is the media that helps to feed that fire.
Ironically, only a few hours after I saw The Mormons, I saw a documentary on the Palestinians and Israelis. Its purpose was to put a human face on both sides, to offer reconciliation by getting to know the hearts and minds of both. Certainly pointed questions could have been thrown at each side, but the filmmaker just let them tell their own stories and personal dreams. It was lovely, and I came away with so much more appreciation for both peoples – their hope and their pain. Their stories made them real. For me it was a real contrast to what I’d seen the night before from Helen Whitney.
I know that some media have called the documentary a “rosy”, even reverential picture of the Latter-day Saints. I only wonder what those journalists must have thought before, if this was a step up.
Crafting a Documentary
As the producer, director and co-writer of this documentary, Whitney chose the tone, who got airtime, and what they said. She chose to ignore certain topics and highlight others. A documentary is truly the product of the sensibilities of its creator and in many ways, though not entirely, Whitney portrayed our Church and its history as violent, its leaders as rigidly authoritarian, and the people as unthinking zealots clinging to a faith for which there is no evidence. No wonder so many of our readers who have responded with their comments had difficulty seeing themselves or their faith with clarity in the documentary.
Let us take, for example, her treatment of Joseph Smith. His history is introduced in the beginning of the documentary with art that is dark and foreboding, even frightening. The music is somber, minor. When Moroni is described, the graphic is of a dark figure that looks almost evil.
We take our cues about Joseph’s character and experience immediately by sight and sound; this is someone from the shadows. Then Whitney starts to build the picture of a charlatan, a con man, one who started to tell a story, and then even believed it himself. Her talking heads tell us that he invented revelations to fit his sexual desires, that he became increasingly arrogant and imperial. People only followed him because of his charisma or his uniquely American take on religion. (That must have been some charisma that propelled people to sell everything they owned, submit themselves to vicious persecution, and be driven from one location to another.)
Whoa. Of course, we’ve heard all this before, from those who simply can’t believe what happened to him and, therefore, are obligated to paint him as a duplicitous scoundrel and seek to find what cracks in his character would lead him to con so many others, even to their losing their lives. He is, after all, a prophet who spoke to God, or a preposterous liar with a venal character.
In making a documentary, if Whitney allows so many to express the latter idea, she is really obligated to explore the former. Too many important questions are never asked or answered regarding Joseph. Lots of people were founding religions in that period, but they sputtered and mostly came to nothing, while what Joseph founded has grown to become an influential, flourishing worldwide Church.
How did that come to be from one so supposedly flawed and deceptive? Even if commentators do not see him as a prophet, they surely must acknowledge that he is a religious genius and count his accomplishments as remarkable. He brought forth three books so profound that millions, even the highly educated, consider them scripture. He elucidated theology and ideas so original that no one else had ever expressed something similar, at least not in his contemporary world.
If he was not a prophet, one would have to acknowledge that he is at least brilliant and fluent – especially given that he had very little formal education. He influenced thousands in his time and millions after to uproot and transform their lives in dedication to Jesus Christ. He tamed the land and built cities and inspired men and women of great capacity to follow him. A fair documentary would have to not only acknowledge this, but at least explore it. How can you leave unanswered what he did and how that was accomplished? Whitney interviewed plenty of people who undoubtedly could have explored the source of his originality and influence – or at least marveled that it happened–but she chose to leave them on the cutting room floor.
Why did we only hear the briefest snippet from Truman Madsen, a scholar on Joseph and relatively little from Richard Bushman, his biographer? Why such short moments from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland or President Boyd K. Packer, who could have expressed their view of the prophet?
If Joseph Smith was a prophet, then proclaiming himself such and acting in that way, was not bloated ego, but reality. If Joseph instigated polygamy, knowing full well it would make himself and his people outcasts, perhaps it wasn’t because of justification for sexual desires, but because he was really commanded to. If the people who lived in Nauvoo, had just been driven from Missouri by mobs who burned down their houses and crops, raped their women, and left people to die of exposure, then perhaps it wasn’t just militancy to form a Nauvoo legion, but self-defense.
What did his close associates say of Joseph, and why were they so loyal to him? We hear no word of this. It would have been a more balanced approach to at least hear some of their descriptions. Here’s Parley P. Pratt’s eloquent appraisal:
His countenance was ever mild, affable, beaming with intelligence and benevolence; mingled with a look of interest and an unconscious smile, or cheerfulness, and entirely free from all restraint or affectation of gravity; and there was something connected with the serene and steady penetrating glance of his eye, as if he would penetrate the deepest abyss of the human heart, gaze into eternity, penetrate the heavens, and comprehend all worlds.
.He interested and edified, while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were ever weary with his discourse. I have even known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears.
The Book of Mormon
The documentary also glossed over any sense of why people flocked to the gospel. Suddenly in the film, we hear there are thousands that are following him, without hearing any of their accounts of why they did.
It wasn’t because of Joseph Smith’s personality or charisma, as much as people loved him. Most were baptized not ever having seen or met him. How fascinating it would have been in the documentary to hear the actual words of those who turned their back on their homes to join this movement or serve missions. Why were such sacrifices worth it? Wilford Woodruff said, “The Spirit of God was upon me like fire shut up in my bones, urging me forward to fill my mission to England, and tarry no longer by the way.”
What is this that Wilford Woodruff is experiencing, this “fire shut up in my bones?” Journals, where people express similar ideas abound among us. The documentary did not suggest that such a thing happened to people.
The people felt this Spirit as they learned the gospel and read the Book of Mormon. Parley P. Pratt described his experience when he first read the book:
After this I commenced its contents by course. I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.
As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists. My joy was now full, as it were, and I rejoiced sufficiently to more than pay me for all the sorrows, sacrifices and toils of my life.
Everybody doesn’t have to feel this way about the Book of Mormon, but the documentary should have at least portrayed the reality that many do. Instead the Book of Mormon is breezily dismissed by Grant Palmer, an excommunicant, who calls it a piece right out of the 19th century and an archaeologist who says there is no evidence for it in Central America. Discussion ended.
Where is any mention of all the Mormon scholarship represented by FARMS? Why couldn’t we hear from a Jack Welch describing the Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon or the authentic Hebrew and Egyptian names? Why wasn’t Palmer’s comment about the Book of Mormon and DNA countered with a FARMS comment like this:
In recent times, some critics have suggested that there is a simple way to determine the validity of the Book of Mormon by the analysis and comparison of Hebrew and Amerindian DNA. Some have even suggested that such studies have already been done and that they showed no genetic relationship between the two peoples. In reality, much research still needs to be done, but it seems unlikely that such research could provide evidence for or against the Book of Mormon. We do not know what ancient Israelite or Nephite/Lamanite DNA looked like and modern Jewish populations may not reflect Israelite ancestry because of intermarriage and conversion over the past few thousand years.
Not allowing discussion of the discoveries in the Book of Mormon that correlate with ancient patterns that Joseph Smith could not have known is a telling absence in the documentary. Viewers, who didn’t know, would consider it a fool’s book.
Is our history troublesome? Let me quote Davis Bitton, assistant Church Historian from 1972 to 1982. He asked: “Do all well-informed historians become anti-Mormons?
The critics would have you believe that they are disinterested pursuers of the truth. There they were, minding their own business, going about their conscientious study of church history and – shock and dismay! – they came across this, whatever this is, that blew them away. As hurtful as it is for them, they can no longer believe in the church and, out of love for you, they now want to help you see the light of day.
Let’s get one thing clear. There is nothing in church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the church is false. There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the historians who know most about our church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the church. Or, to restate the situation more precisely, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who know as much about this subject as any anti-Mormon or as anyone who writes on the subject from an outside perspective. With few exceptions, they know much, much more. They have not been blown away. They have not gnashed their teeth and abandoned their faith. To repeat, they have found nothing that forces the extreme conclusion our enemies like to promote.
We need to reject the simple-minded, inaccurate picture that divides people into two classes. On the one hand, according to our enemies, are the sincere seekers of truth, full of goodness and charity. On the other hand, in their view, stand the ignorant Mormons. Even faithful Mormon scholars must be ignorant. Otherwise they are dishonest, playing their part in the conspiracy to deceive their people. This is the anti-Mormon view of the situation.
Can we see how ridiculous this picture is? It is a travesty on both sides. Many Latter-day Saints may not know their history in depth. But some of them know a good deal. As for Latter-day Saint scholars, as a group they compare favorably with any similar group of historians. It will not do to charge them with being dishonest. I happen to know most of them and have no hesitation in rejecting a smear of their character.
Belief in Christ
Finally, where is there any discussion that Latter-day Saints are Christians? At one point in the documentary, scenes from the Hill Cumorah pageant are shown and the narrator wrongly explains that Christ came to visit the Nephites during the three days between his death and his resurrection. Other than that Christ is very much absent from the program.
I mention these core issues: Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, our belief and specific understanding of Christ, because if these are dismissed as cock-eyed and flim-flam, everything else has no validity. Then as Latter-day Saints bear their testimonies, however, few they are in the documentary, they appear to be misguided or nave. Nice, perhaps, certainly sincere, but essentially really strange folks.
Our young daughter has a diverse set of friends. There’s Laura, who is Jewish, whose parents met on a kibbutz in Israel. There’s Rashi, who goes back to India for a month every summer to visit her grandparents. There’s Sabene, whose Korean mother still can’t speak English. Our neighbor next door is a most lovely, spiritual Catholic. I would like to see a documentary on each of their faiths, because I’d like to know their context, understand their beliefs, climb inside of their reality. I would like to know how things feel to them. I think they feel the same about us too. Unfortunately, this was not that documentary, however well meaning Helen Whitney intended to be.