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Mormons, The

Paramount // PG // July 17, 2007
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted August 10, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The movie


Mormonism: what's it all about? What
do they really believe, and what is their history? Where does
polygamy come into all this? The latter two questions are answered in
reasonable depth in the PBS program The Mormons, but the first
question is not even really addressed, let alone to my satisfaction.
What results is a program that has some merit as a cultural study,
but that leaves far too many stones unturned.


The two-part program focuses mainly
on the history of the Mormons as a cultural group. We learn a
reasonable amount about Joseph Smith, who started Mormonism with the
claim of a new revelation in 1830, and we follow the Mormons through
the next century and a half of history. There's an interesting
section on the struggle of Mormon-dominated Utah to become a state,
and a substantial discussion of polygamy. There's also a reasonably
solid discussion of the anti-intellectual bias in Mormonism, showing
how the church vigorously uses excommunication to quash dissent.


The Mormons faces up to the
conflict within the Mormon church about polygamy. The program shows
that Joseph Smith claimed that polygamy was commanded by God, and
collected about thirty wives, while Brigham Young married fifty
wives. There's a solid discussion of how polygamy was practiced and
preached in the first generations of Mormonism, and how it affected
their political destiny in the United States. We get a sense of the
conflict between the "revelation" of polygamy and the
current official Mormon stance that polygamy is unacceptable, which
came about after extreme political and social pressure to outlaw
polygamy. The program obliquely references the connection of polygamy
to Mormon religious beliefs about salvation, but doesn't explain what
those beliefs are; it also acknowledges that there are
"fundamentalist Mormons" who still practice polygamy, even
though the current church denies their existence.


Finally, in the second half of the
program, we get some critical views of the Book of Mormon, pointing
out that it is really a 19th century construction, not an ancient
text, and referencing the total lack of any evidence for the claim in
the Book of Mormon that ancient Israelites came to America, founded
cities and dynasties, and became the ancestors of Native Americans.


So the historical and cultural
background on Mormonism is reasonably well presented, but it leaves
an enormous blank where their theology is. What do Mormons believe?
We get hints here and there, but no more than that. There is no
indication of the significant degree to which Mormonism does not
follow Christian beliefs; there is no indication of why orthodox
Christians disagree with Mormon claims (apart from polygamy). In
fact, Mormonism comes across theologically as in the same general
category, say, as Quakers or Methodists - which is very misleading.


On a number of occasions in the
program, Mormonism is held up in contrast to mainstream Christian
beliefs. This would have been helpful, except that the program is
full of misstatements, oversimplifications, and outright inaccurate
information about orthodox Christianity. For instance, the claim is
made that Mormons uniquely remove the distance between us and God,
giving us a concrete and direct spiritual experience, in contrast to
the "ineffable" spirituality of Christianity - a gross
misrepresentation of Christian experience. Again, the idea of sending
out untrained Mormon youth as missionaries is presented as being
entirely novel, which ignores the historical evidence of many other
faiths. Or, there's a claim made that only Mormons have a true idea
of what a temple, a holy place dedicated to God, really is, which is
either clueless or inexcusably arrogant. Given that I can spot a
number of overstatements and inaccuracies here, in material that I
know something about, it makes me a little less confident in the
accuracy of the material presented that I don't know anything about.


The program is presented as being
unbiased, and it does offer both positive and critical portrayals of
various elements of Mormon culture. However, in the end, the thrust
of the program is conciliatory. Any criticism of Mormonism, its
beliefs, or the character of its founding figures is immediately
followed by an interviewee who claims that these flaws are present in
any religion. For instance, the point that there is no historical
evidence for the Book of Mormon is followed up by a side-step claim
that Mormonism is disadvantaged by being recent, and that other
religions are saved by their origins being lost in the mists of time
(which is presented as a fact, not as the dubious claim that it is).
Another interviewee even goes so far as to brush off the problems
with Mormon history by claiming that there's no historical evidence
for events in the Bible such as the Exodus. Now, I'm not sure what
archaeological evidence there is, or isn't, for the Exodus in
particular, but I do know that there's ample archaeological and
historical evidence for material in both the Old and New Testament; I
found the implication here that it's all made up, with no more
historical evidence than the Book of Mormon, very misleading. As
another example of the program's conciliatory tone, the point that
Joseph Smith was, by any accounts, a very flawed character is
immediately followed by interviewees saying that complex characters
are interesting (true) and nobody would follow someone who was so
boring as to be perfectly good (ignoring the fact that Jesus does
well in that regard.)


In the end, The Mormons is
fine for what it is, a short presentation of Mormon history touching
on some of its issues. What I did find troubling, overall, had less
to do with the program itself and more to do with the cultural
attitude that's apparent in it. The program talks about "religion
made in the USA" and focuses on how Mormonism appealed by its
American-ness. Perhaps the reason that the program never asks "What
do Mormons believe?" is that our culture's default response
would be "Who cares?" anyway. The reason we should care
about what we ourselves believe, or what another person believes, is
to ask the question: Is it true? Here, in The Mormons, we see
the principle in action that all religion is the same, or equally
true - which is to say, equally not true.


The DVD


Video


The Mormons is presented in
an attractive anamorphic widescreen presentation, with good colors
and contrast overall. In long-distance shots there is some
pixellation, but the closeups of the interview subjects look very
nice.


Audio


The stereo soundtrack is clear, with
the voices of the narrator and interviewees always natural-sounding
and clean.


Extras


The only special feature is a
DVD-ROM teacher's guide.


Final thoughts


The Mormons provides a
reasonably interesting overview of their history and changing place
in US culture. In the end, though, I found the lack of information
about Mormon theology to be a major flaw. When it comes to
understanding Mormonism, what they believe is far more important than
what their history has been. Rent it.

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