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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 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.
The stereo soundtrack is clear, with the voices of the narrator and interviewees always natural-sounding and clean.
The only special feature is a DVD-ROM teacher's guide.
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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