Monday, August 14, 2006

Conference explores Mormonism and pop culture

Conference explores Mormonism and pop culture
JENNIFER DOBNER - The Associated Press

When filmmaker Richard Dutcher was growing up, there were no books,
movies or music to help him develop his faith -- or his creativity --
as a young member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Where I got my artistic expression of spirituality was mostly from
the Jewish community and the Catholic community because it wasn't
available there in the Mormon community," said Dutcher, 42, who wrote
and directed the Mormon-theme films "God's Army" and "States of Grace.
"I definitely recognized the void that was there."

But the void has begun to disappear, said Dan Wotherspoon, executive
director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, an academic forum for
Mormon culture and academic studies.

Mormonism is everywhere in popular culture these days, from an episode
of Comedy Central's "South Park" to HBO's take on polygamy in its
series "Big Love." It's in music, literature, board games, video
games, the Internet and even a comic book of Book of Mormon stories.

"It's opening up the world for Latter-day Saints," said Wotherspoon,
who used the cultural explosion as the theme for Sunstone's annual
four-day conference in Salt Lake City this week.

Keynote speaker and Orlando Sentinel religion writer Mark Pinsky,
author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "The Gospel
According to Disney," says there's nothing new in using media to
examine and promote religious thought or belief.

"I think the whole idea is that everybody lives in a market economy
and if you feel that secular popular culture is toxic and
hyper-sexualized, then you need to offer an alternative," Pinsky said.

The Mormon marketplace has started to catch on, but some wonder
whether accessing Mormonism through pop culture helps or hurts the
dialogue about what it means to be a member of the LDS Church.

"It's a mix," said John Dehlin, who produces "Mormon Stories," an
Internet podcast. "There's a lot of people for whom the (Mormon)
narrative never made sense, and suddenly they have access to the
information that helps it make sense and for a lot of people that's

But others, many of whom write to Dehlin after hearing his program,
say they are learning more about their faith from movies, television
and news interviews with church leaders, such as President Gordon B.
Hinckley's appearance on CNN with Larry King, than they ever learned
in church. Information seekers who use the Internet will also find Web
sites carrying negative information about Mormons at a ratio of
roughly 3-to-1, Dehlin said.

"For them, this stuff is disastrous," Dehlin said. "Every day that I
do an interview for a podcast, I think, am I hurting more people than
I'm helping?"

The LDS church itself makes broad use of modern media tools, producing
its own faith-promoting movies to retell the story of Joseph Smith's
founding of the church and annually publishing dozens of books from
Latter-day Saints leaders and other LDS celebrities sharing their
personal stories of faith.

Tom Kimball of Salt Lake City-based publisher Signature Books says
Mormonism became more prevalent in popular culture beginning in the
1970s, with the musical "Saturday's Warrior," and was followed by
plays, music and books, many of which portrayed LDS members in a fresh

"Mormons have a persecution complex, so to have someone create a
Mormon as a hero, I think people ate that up" and perpetuated the
demand, Kimball said.

And while the proliferation of Mormonism in pop culture is a generally
viewed as a positive, members are still often portrayed only as
stereotypes, like the blond-haired family with five kids, that read
scriptures and played music together in South Park's "All about the
Mormons" episode.

"It starts the conversation, which I think is good," said Dutcher, who
makes movies in part to help change incorrect representations of LDS
members in film. "I think it all depends on the portrayal. If it's
done with some respect and sympathy or affection, that's great. But if
it's done to mock or increase misunderstandings, then, yeah, it's
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.

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