Friday, May 04, 2007

PBS Special

I don’t know if any of you ended up seeing “The Mormons” on PBS earlier this week. I have a few comments about it that I want to mention.

1) Katie and I have known this was in the works for a couple of years. Katie’s brother, Dan, was interviewed for it as was the Tillamen-Dick family who are friends of Katie’s family. Dan’s interview didn’t make the final cut, but the segment on the Tillamen-Dicks did. The family might look familiar to those of you who were at our wedding reception in Colorado.

2) Overall, I thought the program was pretty good. It was not overly unbalanced. I had a few complaints, detailed below, but overall it was better than I expected.

3) They had a few too many excommunicated members commenting on things other than their own excommunication. There were about 6 commentators that were either excommunicated, disfellowshipped, or self-distanced from the religion after being members. A couple of them were pretty obviously anti-mormon. They had a few members of the church that were quite eloquent and several general authorities including, President Hinckley, Elder Oaks, and Elder Marlin Jensen. I suppose you could say that’s balanced, but I think having the anti-mormons comment about Joseph Smith or polygamy is a bit like asking Hugo Chavez to comment on Bush’s foreign policy. There were several rather unbiased commentators including a history professor or two, an evangelical Christian scholar, and the well-known literary critic, Harold Bloom. I was grateful for that.

4) As far as the content goes, I had a problem with some of the things they said about Joseph Smith.
They emphasized his “treasure hunting” and the fact that he was tried at court for treasure hunting. They even said explicitly that he was good at it. The narrator said it as did an interviewee whose description said “Former Church Educator”. Neither of them mentioned that he was acquitted (as in every other trial) and neither justified the claim that he was good at treasure hunting. I think most people would say that the fact that he was always poor as somewhat credible evidence that he was ever “good at it” in any way we would think of.
They also emphasized his apparent thirst for power in Nauvoo. He was the political, military, judicial, and religious leader. They neglected to mention how popular he was and how the people he “ruled” wanted it to be that way. They also neglected to mention his time at Liberty Jail, his frequent arrests in Missouri for crimes of which he was never convicted. I guess my point is that they seemed to be very meticulous about reporting the strange or unusual things he did without being as meticulous in showing the strange or unusual things done to him. Though, to be fair, they didn’t mention anything about freemasons.

5) I thought they did a remarkably good job on the topics of polygamy, the mountain meadows massacre, temples, and missionary work. The coverage of the church’s opposition of the ERA was, however, wholly unsatisfactory. Comments by excommunicated feminists were rebutted by a member who bumbled his way to a rather sexist explanation.
Also, they spent some time on Reed Smoot. That part was very educational for me.

6) The filmmaker seemed to have a hard time getting her head around the fact that church leaders insisted there was no room for middle ground as far as the Joseph Smith story and the Book of Mormon goes. It seemed like she was always asking them why they couldn’t just admit that maybe there was no first vision, and that maybe the angel Moroni didn’t really appear to Joseph Smith, or maybe the Book of Mormon really came from somewhere else.

7) The film mentioned the time when Elder Packer said (I think to some sort of gathering of church leaders) that the three biggest threats to the church are feminists, homosexuals, and intellectuals. I hadn’t heard of this. But after discussing this with Katie, we think we know what he means. The word “feminist” is, of course, rather imprecise. But for certain definitions I agree with Elder Packer. As far as intellectuals go, that seemed really odd to me at first. But then I read some of the interviews on the PBS website and knew exactly what he meant. The excommunicated intellectuals interviewed had several things in common. First, they had a tendency to question and seek proof of everything. I would say that that’s pretty typical of all scholars and not necessarily bad. Second, they applied that standard of questioning and proving to church doctrines. Third, they questioned church doctrine and proposed different doctrine. Fourth, they advocated their proposals by publishing them or teaching them.
In some ways it’s sort of baffling. These people disagree with major church doctrines, don’t sustain local and/or general leaders, and try to persuade others to their point of views; yet many were surprised and upset when they are excommunicated.
I guess maybe it was best said by Nephi (or Jacob?) in the pair of verses, “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God…” and “But to be learned is good if they hearken to the counsels of God.” (2nd Nephi 9).

Anyway, if you haven’t watched it, it’s worth seeing. I found it interesting and overall, pretty good.


Nick said...

I watched it and think that it was very well done. It attempted to be a balanced, objective story of Mormon history and culture and I think it accomplished that.

I really liked the sections on humanitarian relief and missionary work, and the family section was pretty good too.

From what I've read online, there are many "orthodox" mormons who thought it was very unbalanced, and even anti-mormon. I guess if by anti-mormon, they meant that it had some anti-mormons in it, then sure, but just talking about some historical and cultural difficulties of the church does not make something anti-mormon. In fact, I would say that the way all of the "warts" of the church were portrayed is ultimately a good thing since any non-mormon watching will see that the film has a balanced view of the church- not a church sponsored deal but not anti-mormon propoganda either, so skeptics watching will see that the film isn't trying to hide anything from them, leaving them more open to the many good things about the church that were presented. As for faithful members who watched it who had no idea about things like Joseph Smith money digging (albeit a little biased as JonnyF said), polygamy, mountain meadows, translating by looking into a stone in a hat, etc, I think they were exposed to those things in a far "friendlier" environment than say, anti-mormon literature, which will throw those things at you with a lot of lies mixed in.

Things I did not like:

The shear amount of time spent on the mountain meadows massacre. Sure, say something about it, but 22 minutes? A little overboard, especially if you only have 2 hours to document 175 years of mormon history.

Whats with the quote by Tal Bachman about missionaries becoming suicide bombers if their presidents asked them to? Can you say wacko? That kind of language is very inflammatory and need not have been included.

The feminists needed more balance by faithful women who do NOT feel oppressed in the church. Sure, go ahead and talk about patriarchy and such, and the fact that many women do struggle with it, but not enough balance was provided in that segment.

The church discipline section could have been done a little more... professionally. At one point it was just Margaret Toscano airing private family grievances. Yeah, sad that your brother in law didn't want you to dress his wife's body for the funeral, but this makes the church bad how? And it should have been acknowledged that the proceedings of church courts are kept private for the protection of the defendents (for lack of a better word), and so we the audience should take what all of the exmo's say with a grain of salt since it can't be rebutted with first hand accounts by the stake presidency or high council since that would be breaking confidentiality. And no high council room I have ever seen looks like the scary, dimly lit inquisition type setting they used in the film. A little too over the top there.

As for spending so much time on the "no middle ground" issue of the historicity of founding events in the church, I'm not surprised that it would be a big issue for someone from the outside looking in. I mean, God visiting a 14 year old boy is a BIG thing. The exodus and Jesus' miracles were also BIG things, but from the filmakers point of view, other major religions have been able to compromise on some of the historicity issues, so why not us? The general authorities they had on tried to explain that the historicity of those events are central to the church's doctrine- ie, its not so much whats IN the book of mormon (though that stuff is nice too), its the actual EXISTENCE of the book of mormon that makes the church true. I'm not sure if that point came across as strongly as I think it did as I have since read the transcripts of all the interviews on and I might be conflating the film with the website. (I just wanted to say conflating)

Did anyone's bishop recommend that they watch/not watch it? I've heard reports on the internet ranging from "Do not watch it!!!" to "we neither recommend watching ot or not watching it". My bishop said nothing, but apparently they all received letters from Salt lake about it. The official reaction at tends to be cautiously optimistic about this film.

morgan said...

Admittedly, I didn't watch the whole thing, but for the most part I liked what I saw. I only caught the last hour or so on Monday, and we only watched a little bit on Tuesday. We turned it off in the middle of the temple part. We just felt uncomfortable about such a sacred thing being talked about in such a public forum and we didn't turn it back on.

I also thought the spent a lot of time on mountain meadows, but I'm glad that since they addressed it at all they did a somewhat thorough job of it. Rather than just saw that the bunch of mormons killed over a hundred unarmed emmigrants they took time to explain the back ground and the atmosphere of southern utah at the time.

Actually it was interesting watching that part with Alison. She was quick to point out any errors in their reporting (and there were a few). But I think she would say (and you can correct me if I'm wrong Al) that they did a fairly balanced job of it.

I thought it was interesting that even though they usually did not explicitly say what a person's affiliation with the church was you could usually tell after a few minutes of listening to them talk what their general feelings towards the church were.

Jon-I agree with you about intellectuals in the church. Al and I have been discussing that topic lately with the whole Richard Dutcher (or however you spell his last name) thing.

Personally our bishop didn't say anything one way or the other about it. They were considering doing a fireside on mountain meadows (since Al and a guy in the ward are both working on the book the church is doing) but decided against it.

Oh, and I thought it was funny that they showed scenes from Legacy when talking about the exodus from Missouri. What did they think they were doing?

Jenny said...

Just FYI, our bishop did say something about the special, but it was in ward council. He asked us all to watch it and encourage the members in our ward to watch it so that we would be able to participate in any discussions / respond to any questions that might arise, both from other members in the ward and from our non-member friends.

JonnyF said...

My Bishop and I talked about the special before bishopric meeting yesterday. He gave it a "B". He didn't make any recommendations to our ward about watching it or not, but testimony meeting yesterday was dominated by references to the special.
Regarding Tal Bachman: he runs a popular anti-mormon website, so the caption that said he was a... musician? Now I don't remember... anyway that caption was misleading.
That reminds me... I looked at some of the commentary on the PBS website. They had some questions from viewers and answers from the producers. Someone asked about why they didn't make people's affiliation with the church clear in the film. The response was something to the effect of: We wanted people to listen thoughtfully without prejudgement. I can sort of see that reason. But I still think that you can make some sort of indication about motivations. For example: In the case of Bachman they should have pointed out that he makes money by saying bad things about the church. This way, when he says bad things about the church, you can understand that there are multiple reasons he could be saying it. It's kind of like Al Gore promoting carbon offsets or me if I started telling you that my insurance company is the best one in the world and you should all buy your insurance here. Does that make sense?