Monday, May 28, 2007

MHA on PBS's "The Mormons"

I attended the Mormon History Conference this weekend in Salt Lake and a session where Helen Whitney's documentary "The Mormons" was reviewed. It was very interesting.

Helen Whitney said the church must confront it's troublesome past.  The church has been uncomfortable with this confrontation and has punished dissenters.  But it appears the church is becoming more open towards it's past.

Mario DePilis, a long time scholar of Mormonism called it one of the best documentaries of any religion ever done, but noted three omissions:  The Role of women, the temple, and the power of community.  He thought the dichotomy between Elder Oaks and Margret Toscano was "stunning."

He said the church celebrates it's history while at the same time is afraid of it's history.  The church should be like post-Nazi Germany and confront it's past and deal with it (he noted that he was not saying the church was like the Nazis, only that we should confront troublesome aspects of our past just like Germans have had to).  However, he wondered if it is possible for this confrontation to occur while keeping faith alive.

Richard Bennett, of BYU's history department said "The Mormons" was a necessary wake up call to the church, who wants to share it's history.  He said that we must share our entire history, and noted that the Church News will begin to publish difficult questions and answers on occasion.

He felt it was not balanced on the issue of Mormon intellectuals, saying it made intellectual confrontation appear inevitable.  He and others are intellectuals and have never felt threatened by the church.

The Church curriculum is lacking for the intellectually minded and pointed out that the church cannot hope to close the mind of it's intellectual members.

Bennett also noted that education was not mentioned, and he didn't like the idea of blind obedience.  He said that we are not in Mountain Meadows today, and it is unfair to remember the church for Mountain Meadows.

Helen Whitney then responded and took questions from the audience.  She had breakfast with general authority Marlin K. Jensen (who is over the church history department, and who was featured extensively in the film), who she really likes.  She suggested that we should be proud of our "juicy" quirkiness, and not suppress it, including that man may become as God (she was probably referring to president Hinckley's statement downplaying that idea on 60 minutes).

Regarding charges that she spent too much time on those excommunicated, she said that excommunication numbers were somewhat small, but not insignificant.  It was noted that the church keeps excommunication records private and we really don't know the numbers who are excommunicated or leave the church.  She had talked to over 1000 Mormons of all sorts.  She found that many of them had underlying fears and practiced self-censorship when at church, or when talking about the church with others.  She saw a lot of this and felt that while the act focused on only one dissident, she was not able to cover the whole field, and the time spent on the act was proportionate to amount of fear (of speaking out, or of asking difficult questions), doubt and self-censorship that appear to be part of the Mormon experience.

Someone pointed out that the room where church courts supposedly took place did not look like any church court they had ever seen, or participated in (I believe that Bennett [above] said this, and that he may have been a Stake President at some point in time).  She replied that this was a metaphorical representation as to how the many that she had interviewed who had been excommunicated felt during their trial, and was not supposed to be an actual representation.

Someone asked what she would cover if she had more time.  She replied that she would have had more stories about faith; coming into the church, leaving the church, wrestling with issues within the church.  She talked about how details surrounding the translation of the Book of Abraham caused a couple to leave. The woman felt she could never get her compass back and found that she wept all the time, dearly missing the church, but not able to return to it.

Regarding the art used, she asked Trevor Southey to create an image of the complexity of Joseph Smith.  He worked on it for months with no success, but finally was able to do it by portraying three images of Joseph Smith

She insisted that people not be identified as Mormons or non-Mormons.  She has been heavily criticized for this decision, but she stood by it.  She didn't want people prejudging what people had to say, or biasing their interpretation depending on who was saying what.  She wanted everyone to listened to all sides equally.

She had a hard time getting Harold Bloom to participate, but she was friends with him and was finally able to talk him into participating.

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