MORMONS, MEET YOUR FELLOW MORMONS – A MOVIE REVIEW
by Michael Barker
I saw the much-hyped movie (of course this is a tongue-in-cheek comment, because it’s only hyped-up by Mormons), Meet the Mormons, with my twelve year old daughter. Based upon speaking with those who saw its screening in Utah, I was not planning on seeing it. Then, I thought, “What the heck! Let’s go for it!”
Let me say upfront, I liked the movie – a lot. I cried. But you know what? I am not the target audience – at least according to the movie’s title. Non-Mormons are the target audience. I would go so far as to say conservative Protestants are the target audience. With that as my underlying premise, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.
Meet the Mormons is my church’s attempt to say, “Hey!!! We aren’t weird. We are just like you!” As I see it, this is an extension of the church’s attempt to assimilate into American culture that began with the abandonment of polygamy in the early 20th century (via the Joseph F. Smith’s Second Manifesto).
With the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, the Church fought back, and married itself with conservative American politics. This marriage was then consummated in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the conservative evangelicals came back into the political arena and the Republican Party saw them as indispensable allies.
An extension of this marriage has been a protestanization of our theology. We are trying to look and act like American Protestant Christianity and we simply are not Evangelical Christians, Methodists, or Presbyterians. Mormonism is none of these.
Mormonism is a radical departure from traditional Christianity.
We have an open canon of scripture – “… He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God”(Article of Faith 9).
W have extra-Biblical scripture – “…we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God…”(Article of Faith 8).
We have embodied male and female deities – “The Father [and Mother] has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s…” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).
We are not monotheists. How could we be with three members of a God Head that have separate bodies? Then we add a fourth with Heavenly Mother. We are either polytheist, monolatrists, or maybe even henotheists. But we are not monotheists, that’s for sure. This is a radical departure from traditional, creedal Christianity.
“In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted [prepared] a plan to create the world and people it” (Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844, King Follett Sermon. See also Doctrine and Covenants section 130:22).
The family and our relationships to it and our Heavenly Parents are central to our theology – “…The family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His [and Her] children” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World).
Our Heavenly Parents did not create ex nihilo, but rather organized out of matter that already existed:
“Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end” (Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844, King Follett Discourse).
As constructed in Mormonism, our Heavenly Parents are not omnipresent (present everywhere) – how could they be with a body that takes up space? One could argue that “the Holy Spirit” as constructed by Joseph Fielding Smith, does allow our Heavenly Parents to be omnipresent.
Our Heavenly Parents are not omnipotent – how could they be if they if they are bound by some law that exists outside of themselves? “…if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:22).
Our Heavenly Parents are not omniscient (know everything) -How can we claim they are omniscient if they are still progressing?
How could our Heavenly Parents be omnipotent if they not immutable (never change)? You cannot claim the immutability and omnipotence and omniscience of our Heavenly Parents if they are still progressing?
“…We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see…you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power…My Father worked out His kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to My Father, so that He may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt Him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take His place, and thereby become exalted myself. So that Jesus treads in the tracks of His Father, and inherits what God did before; and God is thus glorified and exalted in the salvation and exaltation of all His children. It is plain beyond disputation” (Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844; King Follett Discourse. Of note, Eugene England did address how God is both omnipotent while still progressing. Click here to read Eugene England’s essay, Progression and Perfection, Two Complementary Ways to Talk About God.)
Our Heavenly Parents are not impassable (without passions/emotions) – they weep with us as found in the story of the Prophet Enoch in the Book of Moses2;
28 And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?
29 And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?
30 And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever;
31 And thou hast taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all thy creations, from all eternity to all eternity; and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep? (Moses 7:28-31)
We reject creeds – Joseph Smith wrote: “The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds”.1
We are a covenantal religion, not a creedal religion. A covenantal religion defines itself based on what it expects its people to do or not do. These are the stipulations of a covenant, where a covenant is a set of mutual obligations reinforced by conditions.
By contrast a credal religion is defined by beliefs (Credo = “I believe”). Historically, Mormonism has been much more concerned by what its members do, than by what they believe (see above Joseph Smith quote).
We do not have a systematized theology. The most famous attempt to systematize our theology was done by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in his book, Mormon Doctrine, which Deseret Book no longer publishes.
Shall I go on?
Instead of watering down our theology and attempting to look like everyone else, how about we do a better job of explaining it?
Dr. Terryl Givens tells the story of when he was invited to New York City to deliver a paper at Bonneville Communications Conference. Dr. Givens’ task was to speak about how Mormons have been represented in the public sphere. According to Givens, Mormons have long suffered “The Purgatory of the Amish.” Dr. Givens said:
“I call it Mormonism’s horse and buggy problem. Ask 100 Americans about Amish theology, and they will all freely admit that they only know the Amish people travel by horse and buggy.”
In this conference, were many employees of the LDS Church that worked in branding, advertising, etc. and they asked Dr. Givens what he meant by “The Purgatory of the Amish”. Dr. Givens answered that the media is obsessed with things like Kolob and magic underwear because we don’t give them anything more substantial to talk about.
We need to raise the level of discourse. One of the things that our culture tends to do is to dumb things down. Our culture is impatient with having to study. It’s impatient with having to do critical thinking. It’s just, “Give it to me, give it to me, fast, quick, quick, quick! And I want it simple.” Keep it simple stupid is the principal; the KISS principal you know. I believe we don’t need to water down our theology. We need to boil up our people. If we are going to be educated in all kinds of other fields, why should we not be educated about our faith? When we are educated about our faith, we can then articulate it to those not of our faith and provide more substantial information about our theology. And I would say it is the obligation of any thinking Mormon to be able to articulate their faith at a level of discourse that could challenge the basic cultural assumptions.
Why are we interested in making Mormonism palatable to conservative Christians anyway?
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be interested in doing ecumenical work with evangelicals and assimilating ourselves into the broader Christian “Body of Christ”, but why this way? Why are we trying to do it by watering down our unique contributions to Christian discourse? Why don’t we try to appeal to more liberal Christian communities such as Episcopalians and Methodists?
As my twelve year old daughter and I were walking to the car afterwards, I asked her, “What was the name of the movie?”
“I don’t know.”
I showed her the ticket and asked, “Who was the movie for?”
“Um, people that aren’t Mormon?”
“Well, that’s funny because there were only Mormons at the movie.”
A better title would have been, Mormons, Meet Your Fellow Mormons. The movie, although claimed to be for those who aren’t LDS, had another audience -me and you.
I wonder how the movie would have been different if we were trying to appeal to political liberals instead of the politically conservative? What if we had tried to appeal to the disenfranchised – the margins of society?
My good friend Fatimah Salleh shared this with me:
“Theology must be viewed and taught from the margins.”
“I think we forget, as Gentiles, that we were the outsiders, listening in on a very private and intimate conversation between Jesus and the Jews. We, Gentiles, were on the margins, outsiders.”–Dr. Willie Jennings, Duke Divinity
*this is an edited title from a funny tweet I saw come across my Face Book account.
1Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54; spelling and grammar modernized.
2For a historical overview of Mormonism’s use of the traditional “omnis” read Chapter Six of Signature Books’, Line Upon Line, edited by Gary James Bergera. The following quote comes from chapter six and deals spedcifically with Mormonism’s departure from the classic definition of “omniscience.”
“This same point was made by LDS church leader B. H. Roberts, perhaps the most perceptive of “official” Mormon theologians, when he wrote in the fourth-year manual of The Seventy’s Course in Theology that “the ascription of the attribute of Omnipotence to God” is affected by what “may or can be done by power conditioned by other external existences—duration, space, matter, truth, justice… . So with the All-knowing attribute Omniscience,” Roberts continued, “that must be understood somewhat in the same light … not that God is Omniscient up to the point that further progress in knowledge is impossible to him; but that all knowledge that is, all that exists, God knows.”
If you wold like to read the all of chapter six (written by Kent Robson), click here.
I wanted to put the following quotes from movie real movie-reviewers, but could not figure out how to work them into the body of my post. Enjoy:
“The film operates under the assumption that the average Joe associates Mormonism more with “Sister Wives” than Mitt Romney, so the film will be an eye-opener only for subscribers to such stereotypes.”
“The narration promises surprises (“This story may challenge what you think you know about the roles men and women play in Mormon homes”), but the movie might have started by examining its straw-man conception of the audience.”
“You’d learn a lot more if you went out and, well, actually met a Mormon. “