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Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be aware that they are about to be front and center yet again in a not-insignificant pop-cultural event, a seven-part Hulu television mini-series entitled Under the Banner of Heaven that will air in the coming weeks.
It’s scarcely the first such event — think, among many others, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887), which marked the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; the Danish silent film Mormonens Offer [A Victim of the Mormons] (1911); Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), which has been called “the most popular western novel of all time”; the two-part Tony-Award- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Angels in America (1991, 1992), which was later made into an HBO miniseries (2003); Jon Krakauer’s original bestselling book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003); the HBO series Big Love (2006-2011); and the smash musical hit The Book of Mormon (2011-), which has won multiple Tony Awards and many other prizes.
The screenplay for this upcoming miniseries version of Under the Banner of Heaven was written by the ex-Latter-day Saint LGBT activist Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the 2008 movie Milk, about the gay rights activist and San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, and who worked as a writer, then as an executive story editor, and finally as a co-producer on Big Love. Black also narrated the documentary film 8: The Mormon Proposition, which was co-directed by the former-Latter-day Saint gay activist Reed Cowan.
Under the Banner of Heaven will star the Anglo-American actor Andrew Garfield, who also figures as its producer. Previously, he’s played Spider-Man/Peter Parker and — I really, really liked him in these roles — Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge and Rodrigues in Silence. Given his self-description as an agnostic pantheist and the fact that he’s starred in productions of Angels in America both in London and on Broadway — for which he won multiple awards, including a Tony, and an Olivier nomination — I’m not counting on Mr. Garfield, as its producer, to be a voice of respect and restraint with regard to the portrayal of Latter-day Saints and Latter-day Saint history in Under the Banner of Heaven.
That the miniseries will at least touch upon mainstream Latter-day Saint history, as well as upon the horrific story of religious fanaticism and murder that is at its heart, is shown by the fact that the cast list for it includes actors portraying Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and, yes, of course, almost inevitably, Porter Rockwell. And the official teaser for Under the Banner of Heaven leads me to believe that it will, at least passingly, touch upon matters pertaining to the temple.
It will be easy for us to hunker down for this. We might regard it, and not without justice, as simply one more wearisome example of elite cultural contempt — or, at least, of elite pop-cultural contempt — for us. It will almost certainly be that. (A small handful of embittered former Latter-day Saints are already squealing with giddy delight.) Or we might react angrily, defensively. But that would probably be foolish and almost certainly useless. Back in the early twentieth century, in fact, when that Danish silent film Mormonens Offer [A Victim of the Mormons] appeared, misguided Latter-day Saint efforts to have it banned (as films in those early days sometimes were) actually helped to foster its success. I think that the official response of the Church to the Book of Mormon musical (e.g., “You’ve seen the play, now read the book!”) was vastly better.
I don’t know how much of a splash Under the Banner of Heaven will make. But it seems to me to offer a golden opportunity. It may pique the interest of people who think of us, otherwise, as a pretty bland bunch with an extra book and, at one time, an extra wife or two. To the extent that it provokes curiosity and discussion, that’s a good thing that we can use to the benefit of the Kingdom. If people begin to wonder about us (e.g., “Does my Mormon neighbor really believe that?” “Is my Latter-day Saint dentist really a dangerous religious zealot?” “My LDS co-worker’s church does what?”), I’m not really going to complain. If there are conversations around the office water cooler, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We should be prepared, and we should act.
It was Winston Churchill — not the Democratic activist, former chief of staff in Barack Obama’s White House, recent Chicago mayor, and current ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, to whom it is often misattributed — who famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This miniseries may not constitute a “crisis,” but it certainly shouldn’t be allowed to go unutilized.