Friday, May 04, 2007

We'll sing and we'll shout

Last week marked the premiere of the Frontline/American Experience documentary, The Mormons. And, of course, I was compelled to watch the 4 hour marathon (available on in case you have lots of time to spare).

And I have to say my feelings are mixed, as is my assessment of the show. The first half, divided neatly into six sections called things like "Revelation" and "Exodus" (nice Biblical references there, loved that) was my favorite. Each section dealt with a period of early Mormon history and included historical reenactment footage, collages of pictures/paintings/historical documents, and interviews with various and sundry people, many academics but some identified only with titles such as "Poet" or "Former LDS Educator" or "Journalist," which I found oddly lacking in context. In the end, in fact, it turned out that almost all of the women historians or professors they interviewed were disaffected members of the church, which was disheartening, particularly since there are many fine, upstanding, members in full fellowship women scholars out there they could easily have contacted in order to balance the discussion. Indeed, this was one of the problems with the first half overall: quite a few of the seemingly neutral academics turned out to be disaffected former members, but this fact was often not revealed until the next night's broadcast, sadly.

Regardless, the historical hours, the first half, were still presented quite fairly, I thought, though, of course, there was quite a bit of dwelling on the Mountain Meadow Massacre (an unsavory episode of frontier Mormon zealotry and fear) and the last section dealt with polygamy extensively, even after showing clips of Gordon B. Hinckley, the current LDS prophet, stating categorically that polygamists are not Mormons and the term "Mormon Fundamentalist" is simply a misnomer. Instead, the program interviewed the husband and wives of a suburban polygamist family who, though very well-spoken and reasonable-sounding and not dressed in strange, homespun clothes, are, in fact, not Mormon, but were still interviewed as part of the Mormon documentary, which was disappointing. But, I get it, polygamy is sexy (though anyone who has ever contemplated the reality of such a relationship for more than two seconds feels that it is exactly the opposite) and salacious and sells and so, documentary balance be damned, a bit.

The second half, which dealt with the contemporary church, including missionary work, families, and the modern church's place in current social and political America, was less effective, in my opinion. Partly because the filmmakers missed an opportunity to really interrogate how a hated religion came to have a (albeit not terribly successful) presidential candidate and a (vastly more successful) elected leader of a major political party simultaneously representing different ends of the American political spectrum. They mention this but only barely, which just misses an interesting boat, in my opinion.

In addition, the second half was very concerned with types, more so than with representative sampling. Look, here is the Mormon family with 11 kids, all home schooled, many of whom sing, one pseudo-professionally, all of whom who can are attending Ivy league schools, and one of whom is terminally ill. Do I know families like this? Sure. Are they the Mormon norm? Not so much. Or look, here is the former Baptist woman who is still very fire and brimstone but also an ardent convert. Yes, there are many many members just like her, but I also wanted to see interviews with other people, perhaps even in her particular New York City congregation, to give a real sense of the diversity going on in the church, because interviewing her as the one representative of the rank and file church membership seemed ineffectual in some way that placing her in some sort of context would have avoided. In all, that's what I wanted: more context.

In all honesty, and quite strangely to me, it turns out that my assessment of the program is not shared by my fellow Mormons, at least those that live here in SC. No one has had a positive word to say about the program besides me, which I find perplexing. I've had to think a lot about the reasons for this, because it really has astounded me how venomous the assessments of other Mormons I know have been. I think this difference comes partly down to geography and partly to temperament and training: I did not come of age in a place (like SC) where the church was hated, so I always had a healthy sense of esteem about my membership. On the other hand, I did go to many schools where religion in general and Mormonism in particular were often looked upon with at best deep skepticism and at worst complete disregard. (I remember going to my first pre-grad school party and having some (drunk) woman I had just met ask in total seriousness, "if you come here, what assurance do I have that you won't try to convert me?" Which question I found to be absurd in the extreme, by the way.) So I have spent my adult life trying to make sense of the place of my religion in my life and in the academic world of which I am a part. So looking at the church from the perspective of the outside in as well as from the inside out is part of that process. Thus I found this program to be a quite competent outside-in exploration, but it appears that my fellow members, here at least, were a lot less comfortable with that kind of depiction. But given the difference in our histories, I guess that's not all that surprising.