Category Archives: Mormonism

The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.

In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.

After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.

And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.

But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.

Like this, from Wikipedia:

After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.

In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.

And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.

Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?

Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?

Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.

My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.

I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.

But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.

Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A biography, a review.

Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.

But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?

I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.

So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’

Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.

And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?

These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.

One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.

Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.

The most important doctrine in Mormonism, which everyone believes, and which is found nowhere in scripture

There’s a doctrine in Mormonism that I have heard invoked on multiple occasions in conversations and lessons and on-line discussions, but never once from the pulpit. It’s not found anywhere in scripture, nor in any presumed-authoritative book by a Church authority. And yet it’s immensely comforting and hopeful, and I have never once met any active member of the Church who doesn’t believe it.

It’s the doctrine of ‘God will sort all that out someday.’

One of the central doctrines of Mormonism is that of eternal families. We believe that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there,” in the afterlife. That suggests friendships, kinships, associations, organizations. We’ll all hang out together. And we’ll sing in choirs and debate issues and do good theatre, one presumes. (We’d better, or I’m gone.)

But to make it to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, you need to be sealed to someone. Married. And for some people, that’s all perfectly straightforward. My parents have been married for sixty years. They’ll stay married. Eternally. I’ll be sealed to them, as will my brothers. What ‘sealed to them’ means, I haven’t the vaguest notion. We’ll particularly  get to hang out? Eternity listening to my brother’s puns? Arguing politics with my Dad? We’ll see. But they’ll be together, and we’ll be with them. Somehow. That’s enough for us to get our heads around.

But so okay. Here’s a scenario: you’ve got a young woman, who is married in the temple to a serviceman just before he ships out. And six weeks later, he’s killed in combat. Seven months after that, she gives birth. The war ends, she meets a guy, and marries again. And her second husband raises her son, and is married to her for fifty-plus years. And he’s a good man, gentle and kind, a wonderful father, the only father her son has ever known. According to official Mormon doctrine, she’s still sealed to her first husband, and so is her born-in-the-covenant son. A father he never knew, a husband she barely remembers. That’s who she’s with, forever. The second husband, meanwhile, isn’t sealed to anyone. Officially, he’s a ‘ministering angel,’ whatever that means. Does that seem fair? Or just? Or what about the first husband, killed in battle before he had a chance to really experience much of his marriage. If she’s not sealed to him, does that seem fair, or right?

And whenever a story like that is told, the answer is the same. God will sort it all out. Don’t worry. God is infinitely merciful and infinitely just. When we know all the circumstances, we’ll realize that there is a solution that we hadn’t even considered, and it’ll all be fine.

That’s what we believe. That’s the doctrine we need. In situations that strike us as tremendously unfair, we think there’s another answer. God will figure something out.

It’s an essential doctrine, I think, because theology is very neat, and life is very messy. When we read about eternal marriage, we describe it as a kind of ideal. Ideally, a married couple will love each other all their days, live out their earthly probation in compassion and kindness, quickly repenting of all their (minor) sins and peccadillos, and happily pass on to a just reward, together. But that rarely happens in real life. People get divorced. People remarry. People fight, and bicker, and sin. Ooo, and even, sometimes, murder. (They always look at the spouse, first.)

Sometimes men marry (and are sealed to) several women. The Church today is strictly opposed to polygamy, but eternally speaking, we still practice it. A man can be sealed to multiple women, if a first wife passes away. And that really ticks some people off, and should. What does it mean when we say ‘we don’t practice plural marriage anymore’ (good!), except for temple sealings, where we kind of do?  And we recoil from plural marriage, most of us do, everything about it feels, well, icky and gross and weird and wrong. Utterly wrong. Completely wrong.

And what about marriages that don’t end, but sour over time. I know those situations as well, married couples who have stayed together out of habit, but who really can’t stand each other anymore. Also, you know, a sizeable percentage of temple marriages end in divorce, or, sorry, cancellation of temple sealings. Doesn’t that complicate all that eternal record-keeping?

We don’t worry about it. We figure God will come up with answers. And that we’ll find those answers satisfying.

And what about being sealed to our children? What if some of our children end up leaving the Church? What then? Are they still ‘sealed to us,’ whatever that means? I think that having celestial parents who pop down to the telestial kingdom to tell their kids how disappointed in them they are would be a special kind of hell.

So life is complicated. The gospel, on the other hand, is expressed in terms that make it sound pretty straightforward. So we need anwers, and the answer we come up with is ‘don’t worry about it. God will figure it out.

Except it also ties into a doctrine we do believe in and preach, the most powerful and profound doctrine in all of Christianity.  What bridges that gap, the chasm between who we are and who we wish we could be, the devastating void between our highest aspirations and our lowest failings? Grace. God’s grace, freely given. I want to be good. I want to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, forgive, and always, eternally, love everyone. I want to treat my brothers and sisters with love. I fall so short so much of the time. But God loves me. His grace enfolds me. It’s all going to be fair, and it’s going to be fine.

So finally, that’s the answer to our perplexing questions about the afterlife, about families and marriages and the terrible ways we make a mess of things, way too often. God will sort it all out. God’s grace, finally, will save us.

Freetown: Movie Review

Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.

But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.

Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.

And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.

It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.

But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children?  How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’

Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.

Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.

First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.

But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?

And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.

 

 

Pilot Program: Theatre Review

Melissa Leilani Larson’s Pilot Program, which closed this last weekend at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake, is a lovely play, especially in this beautifully acted, directed, and designed production. I say works like ‘beautifully’ and ‘lovely’ despite the fact that the play made me terrifically uncomfortable, and that at dinner afterwards, with my wife, my nephew and his husband and my son, the only two things we could talk about were what a beautiful play it was, and also how uncomfortable it made us.

I love that. I love how a piece of theatre can affect us like that. Ibsen’s A Doll House does that for me, leads to uncomfortable conversations about awkward subjects. A good play should burrow under our skin. It should itch and burn. It should raise more issues than it solves, it should force us to rethink previously held convictions. It should not let go of us afterwards. It’s been four days since I saw Pilot Program. I should have reviewed it earlier, but illness intervened. But I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Three characters, then. We start with Abby and Jake; a nice Mormon married couple. She’s an academic, he works in public relations. They have a good life together, a good marriage. Jake’s a good guy, kind and gentle, nonjudgmental, a supportive and loving spouse. (They were played by April and Mark Fossen, who are, as their last names suggest, likewise married). In addition to teaching and publishing, Abby blogs, and is our window into the world of the play. She addresses the audience directly–she blogs the play for us–and her insights are crucial.

And Abby and Jake have also found themselves unable to have children. And infertility haunts their marriage. Abby tells us that they’ve tried everything–in vitro, adoption–without success.

So: the set, a nice living room in a comfortable and nice-looking home. Abby addresses us; introduces the couple, as wives always do when a couple is asked to speak in Church. A light shift: time passing. And then Jake enters; in his suit; they’ve been somewhere, an event, an appointment. And they can’t even speak. The silence stretched forever: Abby holds herself like she’s been punched, bent over. He appears incapable of speech. Finally, the conversation begins. They’ve been to a meeting, with not just their Stake President, but with an Area Authority. They’ve been asked–called–to participate in a pilot program. They’ve been asked to add another wife to their marriage.

And so, I thought, he’ll be the one to decide, he’ll talk her into it, reluctantly, but in his capacity as patriarch, he’ll make the call. Accept the calling for both of them. And you think, all right, polygamy is certainly about patriarchy, male privilege; that’s where this play is going. And then it doesn’t go there. She’s had a feeling, a warmth, a whispering of the spirit. His inclination is to say ‘no.’ She says ‘yes.’ That was the first time tears came to my eyes, sitting quietly in the darkness.

But she wants to have a say in who the new wife will be, and as it happens, she knows who she wants. Her all-time favorite student, Heather (Susanna Florence Risser), now graduated and a close friend. She loves Heather; thinks of her as a sister, almost. And Heather is still active in the Church, younger than Abby, in her early thirties, a successful professional woman in her own right. One small problem: Heather lives in California, and they live in Salt Lake City. They’re going to have to ask her to move, to uproot her entire life. She’s going to have to ‘move to Utah,’ with everything that implies.

And they invite Heather to visit, and they have this amazingly awkward conversation with her, and Melissa Larson’s gift for comic dialogue gives the scene some lightness. And when finally they get around to it, Heather thinks they’re asking her to be a surrogate mother. And she’s totally fine with it. But that’s not what they’re asking. And of course, when they ask–when they propose–Heather’s reactions are initially what we might expect. She’s appalled, offended, angry. And then a change, and she shocks us, alone in the dark. ‘What if I were to say ‘yes,’ she says. She’s felt something too; she’s felt the Spirit, she thinks. That was the second time I cried.

I cried, because I could see how the rest of the play would unfold. Heather and Jake fall in love. Well, of course they do; they’re married. They work out a ‘marital schedule,’ as I suspect would be needed. He moves out of the bedroom he’s shared with Abby, into his own room, so that each wife can have her own space, her own privacy. And Heather becomes pregnant, and has a baby boy.

And Abby gets to be a child-caring sister-wife (a label she loathes). She gets to be Aunt Abby. And she . . . loses. Loses herself, her identity, Jake’s wife and life-partner, loses that essential intimate exclusivity. And Jake still loves her, still treats her with his usual kindness and attentiveness; of course he does. He’s a good man, a kind man, a good husband. To both his wives.

But we can see it, can’t we. See Abby fold inside herself. See Abby’s distanced misery take her over. We can, not just see her pain, but feel it, ache with her. We’re not remotely distanced, because she’s already allowed us inside her mind and soul; her blog. And there are no good answers for her, not because of the cruelty of the two people who love her most–they love her, both of them do, of course they do, and wouldn’t dream of being cruel. But little Thomas is Heather’s baby. And that changes things.

I don’t think the play has any kind of agenda. Like Larson’s best work, it’s a play about people, about human beings and their lives and choices and deeply rooted private pain. It’s a play that defies easy answers. It’s also, I think, the most stunningly powerful anti-polygamy play I’ve certainly ever seen. It’s a play that says polygamy equals Abby’s pain. And Abby will continue to retreat inside herself, inside her misery. Eventually, she will stop blogging. Because her blog equals life.

So what about the spirit? Both women, in this play, believe themselves to have received a spiritual confirmation of the rightness of this, after all. What did they feel? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that they haven’t actually felt the Spirit, but the stirrings of a essential biological imperative. But I can make just as good a case for the Spirit. I don’t know. I’m just as happy not knowing. That’s the place where the play bothers me the most, and that’s entirely a good thing.

One last thing: I consider Mark Fossen a good friend, and thought his performance was tremendous. What a challenge, playing a decent, ordinary, spiritual man. He was masterful in the role. I also consider Susanna Florence Risser a good friend; one of my favorite actresses, and a student I was proud to teach. Her performance was likewise terrific. But April Fossen was remarkable. Again, a friend, but being friends with her is a bit like being friends with Meryl Streep.

My goodness. What a play, what a production, what a searing examination of a part of Mormon history that most of us would really rather never think about. If you haven’t seen it, buy it; an ebook has been published. It’s just extraordinary.

 

 

 

Imagining a progressive Mormonism

I attended a terrific lecture last night. It was the Eugene England annual lecture, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at UVU. The speaker was Robert Rees, who teaches religious studies at Berkeley. I’ve admired his writing for years, and we became acquainted at Sunstone recently. Anyway, his talk will surely be available on-line soon, and I’ll link to it when it appears. Meanwhile, I don’t want to paraphrase, and did not, in any event, take notes.

To briefly summarize, though, he spoke of Latter-day Saints imagining a future in which our culture and our community is more open to progressive ideas, and he suggested a few ways in which that could happen. Mormons, for example, join other Christian communities in our belief that we humans have an important stewardship over the earth. Politically, climate change is a divisive issue, a partisan issue. But if we discuss the issue in terms of stewardship and not ‘environmentalism’ (a dirty word in some quarters), perhaps we can find common ground, especially as the frightening reality of climate change becomes increasingly apparent. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Latter-day Saints unite around stewardship and conservation efforts, and join with both political and Christian evangelical environmentalists in seeking solutions. When we read in the 10th Article of Faith that ‘We believe . . . that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory,’ it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s something we’re supposed to make happen, not just something we wait for.

I found myself moved and inspired by Rees’ great lecture and his vision. Again, I don’t particularly want to paraphrase his remarks. But I do want to join him in imagining, to the extent that we can imagine it, a future progressive Mormonism.

I imagine a world in which we stop paying lip service to female equality, and actually take concrete steps to make it happen. I imagine a world in which we reject, as unworthy, a vestigial sexual double standard. I imagine a world in which we embrace a non-judgmental model for modesty, one related to self-respect and self-confidence, and not shame or finger-pointing. I imagine a world in which our language about gender no longer reflects unreflective patriarchy. I imagine a world in which we embrace Mormonism’s unique theological stance with both genders represented as Deities.

I imagine a world in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are genuinely embraced, in Christian fellowship, and in which the standard of sexual morality required of straight Latter-day Saints applies equally to our gay family members.

I imagine a world in which income inequality is decried from the pulpit as unworthy the Body of Christ. I imagine a world in which all Latter-day Saints lift each other, in which poverty is seen as the human tragedy it genuinely is all over the world. I imagine a world in which no child goes to bed hungry. I imagine a world in which all children are safe from violence, despair, squalor and hatred, and in which all children, and all adults, have access to state-of-the-art health care.

I imagine a world in which the artificial construct we call racial difference no longer divides us, no longer holds some of us back, no longer turns our discourse harsh and ugly and violent.

I imagine a world full of laughter. I imagine a world in which teasing is allowed. I imagine a world which embraces the preposterous absurdity of human ambition, human pretension, human arrogance and human self-absorption, and finds joy in our unique apprehension of foolishness.

I imagine a world in which we Latter-day Saints continue to confront, honestly and openly, the most troubling aspects of our history, in a spirit of forgiveness and Christian charity. I imagine a world in which our fondest hope for those of our faith who leave us is that they find peace and acceptance within some other faith community, while we continue to offer them fellowship and love, kindly and without judgment.

I imagine a world in which we are, all of us, free. Free to reason, to search for truth, to , to disagree civilly, to discover and grow and learn. I imagine a world in which knowledge and truth and reason replace prejudice and acrimony.

And I don’t imagine a world in which lions lie down with lambs of their own accord, in which peace reigns only because Jesus has returned, in which cataclysm leads to spectacle, leading to millennium. I imagine a world in which we make peace happen. I imagine a world in which we forgive and love and care and rejoice together because we decided to embrace that paradisiacal future, together, willingly and joyfully.

That’s the world I imagine. I don’t expect I’ll live to see it. I won’t mind, if I can see the rawest beginnings of it starting to take shape.

We look around us and we see progressive accomplishment and regressive backlash, over and over, in a pattern described in the Book of Mormon. That tale ended tragically. Ours doesn’t need to. Let’s embrace a better future, together, as brothers and sisters should. Let’s make it happen. Let’s build our own cities of Enoch, in our homes, in our wards, in our communities.

Let the great work commence.

 

 

Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things: Book Review

Some years ago, an evangelical friend who had gotten into the world of LDS filmmaking was telling me how much she liked the movie The Home Teachers. Since I thought The Home Teachers was the flaming dragon’s mouth of hell worst movie ever made ever, I asked how on earth she could have liked it. ‘You Mormons can laugh at yourselves,’ she responded. ‘I think that’s awesome!’ Which, come to think of it, it is. Think of James Arrington’s Farley Family plays, for example, or Pat Bagley’s cartoons, or the glory years of the late lamented Sugar Beet. Or the self-deprecatory wit of some of our General Authorities. We really do seem to enjoy laughing at ourselves, and that’s a good and healthy thing.

Which brings me to my good pal Janiel Miller’s delightful new book, Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things. Janiel’s an actress, a singer, a Mom and a life-long active Mormon. I just directed her in Much Ado about Zombies. When I told her that I was casting her as zombie-virus disease-vector, she said that I had fulfilled one of her life’s ambitions. In fact, her role was small, but you could see audiences looking forward to her every appearance, she made so much of it.  She became the cast den mother, and our resident humorist. And we had a great time with the show.

What I enjoyed most about her book is how perfectly it captures her voice. She approaches every subject sideways, a little off-center. She goofs around with language, and culture. It’s smart without being smart-ass. It’s a book about tone. Genial, always positive, endlessly enchanted by everything absurd about our culture, the book feels like a lunch with my old friend and her wonderful husband Bruce and my amazing wife,  sitting in Cravings Bistro, eating their mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich (can cuisine get more Mormon than that?) conversationally goofing around. Without ever being angry, or vicious, or disrespectful, never for a second remotely mean-spirited, Janiel takes our culture on with affection and insight. I got the book, dipped my toe in, then set it aside for a few days. It took me awhile to get into it, and then I imagined Janiel reading it aloud, and it came to life for me, and once I figure that out, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a read more. My daughter caught me reading it, and asked why my lips were moving. I hadn’t realized they were. But it’s that kind of book, a read-aloud. Even if you’re alone.

The book starts with a kind of lexicon of Mormonish terminology. Some examples:

Bishop: a man who spends a century over the course of five years herding his flock towards the celestial pen, whilst his wife and kids post ‘missing persons’ bulletins with his picture on them all over town.

Cultural Hall: a vast chamber into which ward members overflow for sacrament meetings, listen to inspirational speakers, and partake of nourishment–all beneath the benevolent gaze of a pair of basketball hoops.

Eagle Scout Project: a program where the mother of a scout earns her Eagle badge by forcing helping her son through each of his merit badges, then dragging him downtown to replant all the bulbs around the city’s trees.

Missionary Farewells: we don’t have them. *snort*

Polygamy: sooo. This. We don’t do this anymore. We did it before. Now we don’t. Anybody who still does this ain’t us, a’ight? I mean, even stalwart pioneer-type dudes were smart enough to eventually realize that having fourteen PMS-y women under one roof made them about as safe as a bucket of KFC Extra-Crispy at the Donner party, and would eventually result in fourteen merry widows.

Terrestrial Kingdom: Second Degree of Glory. The ‘middle child’ of the Three Kingdoms. Not quite good enough, not quite bad enough. Like American Idol runners-up, but with more bling.

 

But I’m making it sound too straightforward. Most of the lexiconographical entries include asides, anecdotes, clarifications, funny, barely-relevant-but-probably-true stories. Janiel takes a scattershot approach to her comedy, reflecting a magnificently random mind. That’s the charm of the book. Plus the fact that she generally gets us right. And truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but truth is always the basis for funny.

Like the recipes. After the lexicon, we have recipes. For Funeral Potatoes and Green Jello salad; authentic Mormonicana. And I mean, come on. I always use frozen hash browns for my funeral potatoes, thank you very much, and crushed corn chex on top, not panko bread crumbs. (Seriously, panko bread crumbs? Way too highbrow for the World’s Greatest Comfort Food). Also, onion powder is optional for the best Utah fry sauce. Really, all you need is ketchup and mayo, though I understand Burger Supreme seasons theirs with BBQ sauce.

Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the last section of the book was the most delightful; just stories. And that’s when the book gets a little more real, a little more vulnerable. I mean, it’s still funny. She can’t help but be funny. But we get that little bit more truth. It’s where Janiel moves from straight-up Erma Bombeck to later, more reflective Erma Bombeck, with a strong flavor of Jean Kerr. Maybe a little Molly Ivins. Good stuff, though, and moving.

I think I know Janiel well enough to know that she won’t be insulted when I call this the perfect bathroom book. In fact, though, I did not read it in the bathroom. I mostly enjoyed it in my office, waiting for my computer to download the latest I-tunes update, or for files to backup. It’s a book that made annoying mandatory downtime pretty fun. I started to look forward to computer hassles, honestly, so that I could get back to reading Janiel’s book. It was that much fun.

So, seriously, buy this and read it. It’s a lark, a wheeze, a ball. And also wise and smart and real. And if you’re not a Mormon, but want to learn more about us, read this. Do not see The Home Teachers. It’s really bad. And this is really really good.

The Church, LGBT discrimination, and religious freedom

Yesterday, the Church held a press conference, in which three apostles (Elders Oaks, Holland and Christofferson) talked about LGBT discrimination, and the Church’s support for laws outlawing it, and about religious freedom issues. Here’s the link to the Church’s website and the article about it.

The national response to this press conference tended to stress the support for laws outlawing discrimination against LGBT people. In many cases (the Huffington PostNew York Times) the national media questioned the sincerity of the Church’s position. ‘Religious freedom’ is, of course a polarizing issue, part of the liberal/conservative cultural wars.

The press conference and press release were a call for balance. The lds.org article stressed ‘fairness for all,’ balancing the need to protect LGBT individuals from being fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation, while also allowing for the free exercise of religion. Here are the four main principles outlined on the Church’s website:

  • We claim for everyone the God-given and Constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, without harming the health or safety of others.
  • We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice, or none at all if they so choose.
  • We believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with differing values.
  • We reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances or differences in gender or sexual orientation.”

In addition, in the press conference, Elder Christofferson, when asked about members of the Church who disagreed with the Church’s stance on gay marriage, said that disagreement was allowed, as long as people didn’t publicly advocate for their views.

It seems to me that there are several possible responses to this event and statement. Here are a few that I’ve read on Facebook:

Political/Pragmatic: This was a press conference essentially aimed at one person, Greg Hughes, the new Speaker of the Utah House. There is an anti-discrimination bill before the Utah House. It’s co-sponsored by Jim Dubakis, a Democrat, and Steve Urquhart, a Republican. It’s stalled in committee. It’s possible that this otherwise unnecessary press conference was aimed at Greg Hughes, in an attempt to dislodge that bill, which Hughes has made clear that he does not regard as a legislative priority.

The ‘religious liberty’ is not, perhaps, quite so serious or important. Elder Oaks (a fine legal scholar, to be sure) is worried about attacks on First Amendment religious freedoms, but most of the examples of religious liberty infringements cited in the press conference involved acts by private individuals, not particularly susceptible to legislative redress. Hughes himself is quoted as saying that he personally opposes discriminating against gays, and supports, in broad principle, a bill outlawing it. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but he said something like, ‘if you want to rent apartments to people, but don’t want to rent to gay couples, then maybe you ought to find a different line of work.’

Yay for Civility: There have been public statements issued by Ordain Women and by Mormons Building Bridges, applauding the Church’s desire for civil dialogue about these issues, and also applauding the Church’s support for legislation outlawing discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. I have heard from many people informally who have described this press conference and statement as ‘baby steps forward.’ Again, the assumption is that supporting anti-discrimination legislation here is what really matters; the religious liberty argument matters less, because discrimination against religious people is already covered by the First Amendment.

Cynical/Snarky: At the same time, there is a sense in which the Church’s stance, as outlined above, could be described as follows. 1) we oppose discrimination against LGBT people. 2) but people have to be allowed to follow their religious beliefs, even if 3) their beliefs require them to discriminate. 4) as, for example, us. 5) so there. It’s the ‘we oppose burning witches, unless your religion requires that you burn witches, which ours does, so we’re burning some witches tomorrow’ argument. Personally, I deplore the tone of some of these sorts of responses, while finding others of them pretty darned funny.  I think, for example, that it’s helpful to call for civil dialogue on these issues (or on any issues, frankly: civility should always be a core value), and helpful to hear an apostle say that it’s okay for church members to personally support gay marriage. But to excommunicate members (or fire or harass BYU faculty members) over this issue might strike some people as, well, uncivil.

Where’s the apology?: Certainly, it’s not difficult to find instances where General Authorities in the past have used, let’s say, unfortunately strong language to describe LGBT people. The word Elder Oaks used was ‘unhelpful.’ So should the Church apologize for that? And Elder Oaks said no. The Church doesn’t issue apologies for past ‘unhelpful’ comments by its leaders.

Here’s one way to understand this. Let us suppose that, at some point, the Church decided that previous statements by Church leaders suggesting that the priesthood exclusion policy was the just consequence for pre-mortal disobedience (the fence-sitters folk doctrine) were wrong, were mistaken. Let’s further suppose that the Church issued a strong statement condemning that particular folk doctrine, and declared it incompatible with Church teachings. A central doctrine of the restoration is continuing revelation. We believe that our leaders are ordained of God to receive revelation, and that when they speak from the pulpit in General Conference, we should regard those communications as particularly inspired. Well, wouldn’t a repudiation and apology seem to contradict the doctrine of continuing revelation? Couldn’t that shake the faith of a whole lot of people? Isn’t this a case where the cure may be worse than the disease?

Those aren’t considerations that the Brethren can take lightly. And that’s why the word choice by Elder Oaks–‘unhelpful’–may be the closest we’ll get to a repudiation/apology for past homophobia. (And it doesn’t quite seem fair to blame leaders of the Church in the deep past for holding to the views of their time and place and culture).

What do I think? I think there’s some truth to all these responses. But I tend to be an incrementalist. I think that passing a good anti-discrimination bill would be great. One divide tends to be over the issue of religious liberty. Is there genuinely a pattern of courts and lawmakers discriminating against people trying to practice their religion? I don’t think a half dozen isolated anecdotes make for strong or compelling evidence. But then, I’m also not a conservative, and understand that my friends on the right may well understand this issue differently than I do.

Two funerals

Over the past week, I had the privilege of attending two remarkably similar funerals, both celebrating the lives of remarkable, strong women. The first funeral was that of Betty Ann Green Mason, my wife’s mother. The second was that of Grete Margaret Leed Johnson, the mother of my best friend. Although I don’t believe they ever met, Betty Mason and Grete Johnson had a great deal in common. Both worked as bookkeepers, supporting their husbands while they were in college. Both husbands were scientists. My mother-in-law had five children, and Sister Johnson had six. Both women were active members of the LDS church, and both held many important callings in the Church. And both would have listed their profession as ‘homemaker.’ That label carries with it certain less-than-positive cultural assumptions, which in both cases would have been entirely inaccurate; they were both intelligent, strong, forceful, well-read and well-educated women, who made the decision to dedicate their lives to their families, husbands, children. Both women loved music, both became fine musicians, and both were asked to learn how to play the piano (and eventually, the organ), in wards where no one of the requisite skill resided. Both women loved a good joke, and both were voracious readers. And they both loved chocolate. My mother-in-law, in fact, asked that Sees chocolates be available for anyone who attended the funeral. She said she thought it might increase the turnout.

But both funerals were very well attended, and in both cases, extraordinary sermons were delivered by the children of the deceased. And both funerals included quite extraordinary amounts of affectionate laughter. I laughed until it hurt at my mother-in-law’s funeral. A few days later, I laughed again at the loving family stories Grete Johnson’s children shared with us. In neither case, though, was the laughter mocking or cruel or off-putting. We laughed until it hurt, because we hurt. We laughed out of love, because of the human foibles of strong women we adored. We laughed, in addition to shedding tears.

Laughter can bring people together, or it can push people apart. Humor can express genuine affection, but it can also dismiss, cruelly, people on the margins of any culture. But what I find remarkable about Mormon funerals is the degree to which they’re characterized by healthy, inclusive, joyful laughter. We mourn, to be sure. But we also honor the deceased by remembering experiences we shared together. Grete’s youngest son, Richard, told a story about a time when he and his mother, on their way to a youth conference in Chicago, took a wrong turn, and found themselves in what seemed to him an exceedingly dangerous neighborhood. He was imagining their car’s location marked by yellow crime scene tape, and homicide detectives wondering about the identity of these two victims. Meanwhile, his Mom was busy looking at a city map. Then she looked over at him, grinned, and said ‘isn’t this fun?’ I remember that woman too. I spent many Sundays and vacation days at her home, growing up, as her son, Wayne, and I hung out. I remember how welcome I was always made to feel. I remember her strength and courage. I also remember dreading the times when she would join family games of Clue. She was the kind of woman who played board games to win. No ‘losing on purpose to the kids’ nonsense for her! I certainly never could beat her. At anything.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, her son, Shawn, emptied her purse at the pulpit, and used the items therein to discuss different aspects of his Mom’s life. The first three were all chocolate. But then he read letters her children had written to her, and the sage advice she’d offered. The fact that the letters were quite bogus didn’t diminish their impact; it was a lovely, funny, loving talk. And Shawn insisted that he was her favorite child, admitting, however, that all his siblings thought they were the favorites. (And then the Bishop, presiding and not missing a beat, identified himself as her favorite bishop!)

I’ve attended many Mormon funerals in my day, and they always share certain similarities. One is humor; affectionate, kind, family stories with a funny twist. Another is an overall sense of faith. The idea that we’ll see our loved ones again, and that they’re going to see their own family members, long deceased and beyond the veil, is just assumed. We don’t have to really preach it much. Instead we just testify. But it’s not–how to say this?–defensive in any way. It can feel that way sometimes in some funerals, that scriptures are offered by the minister–who may not even know the deceased all that well– not to reassure or comfort, but to assert. But in Mormon funerals, the talks are often–usually–given by family members. There’s no sense of a possible angel-winged, psalm-singing heaven. It’s more personal. Betty went home to Maughan, her beloved husband. She’ll see him. Grete Johnson went home to the beach, in Denmark, where her husband proposed. To wait for him to join her.

We celebrate the love we shared, the family ties, the funny stories. And we do so in utmost confidence.  We’re not really saying goodbye. More like ‘see ya later.’  And there’s music and prayers, and then a really good luncheon.

Yes, after the funeral, the local ward serves a luncheon for the bereaved families, and the food served is pretty well de rigeur: ham, a salad, and funeral potatoes. Yes, funeral potatoes are always served at Mormon funerals, and though I’ve heard them mocked as one of the tackier manifestations of Mormon culture, I think they’re darned tasty. I mean, the main ingredients are potatoes, cheese and sour cream–what’s not to like? But no two funeral potato recipes are the same, and that’s also pretty Mormon; we do all serve the same food, but always with a uniquely personal twist. (I make mine with frozen hashbrowns, store-bought, and cream of chicken soup, and always add green onions). The potatoes are probably really unhealthy, but they’re comforting, and delicious, and that’s also a Mormon thing; we privilege yumminess over nutrition, and then count on us all not smoking to pull us through.

But the luncheon is also the time for sharing memories, a time for wonderful conversations. At Grete Johnson’s funeral, we remembered a time when she went with my Mom to see the bishop, walked into his office, and said ‘this ward does not have a Cub Scout program for the boys, and it needs one.’ The bishop (who was also Grete’s husband) promptly called the two of them to start one. They had no idea how to do that, but that never stopped them; it doesn’t usually stop strong Mormon women, who are championship quality improvisers. And I still remember how much fun our Cub Scout activities were. At Betty’s funeral, a number of people remembered her homemade lemon ice cream. (I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong; it’s amazing).  For years, while her husband was the High Priests’ Group Leader, they had an annual ice cream social at her home. Then he was released from his calling. But the ice cream socials continued for years. She hosted them because . . .  I guess basically because it was her recipe, and nothing else would do. (And while that story was being told, we all ate . . . lemon ice cream. As delicious as ever).

I love Mormon funerals, and am privileged to have been able to attend two remarkable ones over the past four days. Two strong Mormon women have returned home to their Father, and also to their Dads. Two mourning families shared laughter and tears and food and conversation. Two wonderful lives were celebrated. Even death can be a blessing.

The Rapture, and Left Behind: a sort of movie review

I do not believe in space aliens. I have, however, seen many many entertaining movies based on the premise that space aliens exist. I do not believe in vampires, or in werewolves, or in zombies. But I’m a big fan of movies about vampires, werewolves and zombies. And so, though I do not believe in the Rapture, I ought to be able to enjoy a movie based on that particular end-of-times premise. What gets tricky is seeing a movie that appears to take its own fictional premise really really seriously, a movie made from the perspective that a space alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse–or the Rapture–is something that’s going to happen, probably pretty soon, and that there are specific things we need to be doing about it. That’s when your movie viewing experience moves from ‘enjoyable’ to ‘trapped in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness and an Amway salesman’ levels of embarrassment and unpleasantness.

The first Left Behind movie, based on the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LeHaye novels, was made in 2000, and starred Kirk Cameron. It cost $4 million to make, and made its nut, barely, but my guess is sold a butt-load of DVDs. This one cost $16 million and stars Nicolas Cage. It’s made back its investment; who knows about ancillaries. But seen simply as a sci-fi mystery/adventure film, it’s not half bad, honestly. Cage’s performance is creditable, and the other two leads were quite good. I saw it in our local dollar theater, and felt like I got my money’s worth. But, of course, the point wasn’t just to make an entertaining movie, was it?

Okay, briefly, Nic Cage is Ray, an airline pilot, flying New York Kennedy to London Heathrow, and planning on some hanky-panky with a hot blonde flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan). His marriage has gone sour due to his wife (Lea Thompson, of Back to the Future fame) who has converted to evangelical Christianity. Their college age daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is similarly put off by Mom’s preachiness, but is aware of Hattie, and pretty ticked at dear-old-Dad as well. She meets at the airport (and rescues from a super preachy Christian woman) a TV reporter, Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who is also on Dad’s flight.

So mid-flight, the Rapture hits. A bunch of passengers just disappear, leaving behind their neatly folded clothing, watches, jewelry (apparently, we’re all naked in heaven), and including all children everywhere. Ray’s co-pilot and one flight attendant also vanish. Understandably, everyone freaks out. Back in New York, people freak out even worse, and Chloe’s car is hit by an out-of-control, suddenly pilot-less Cessna, so she has to walk home from Kennedy, dodging looters all the way. Another pilot-less plane clips Ray’s plane, and now he’s got to try to land a crippled plane, out of fuel, with Kennedy airport in complete chaos and no air traffic control, apparently. But Chloe’s phone has a ‘find-abandoned-highway’ app, and her cell works just opportunely enough to get the plane down safely.

Okay, so that’s the plot. Meanwhile, of course, Ray and Chloe and Buck and Hattie are all trying separately to figure out what-the-heck, and are able to explain to the audience just what the Rapture’s about, without ever using the word Rapture. The world’s gone all wicked, and all that Matthew 24, Joel, Daniel, Revelation, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse scary stuff is about to go down. So 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18: God will rapture his Elect the heck out of here to heaven, and also rapture all kids everywhere. So He can protect them all from the Last Days destruction and death.

And of course, the Rapture is mostly about airplanes. Pilot-less airplanes. Not sure why, but it does strike a chord–we’re all a little freaked out by airplanes, after all, the flying of which really does basically feel more like magic than physics.

But, here’s the thing. I have no problem encompassing in my theology the idea of a God that allows, for His own inscrutable purposes, crashing airplanes. I have a problem, however, with a God that crashes them Himself. I just don’t believe in it. And of course ‘Rapture’ is a contested term in contemporary Christian discourse. Some denominations believe that ‘rapture’ simply means the general resurrection of the dead, after the tribulations described in various scriptures. Others, though, think it’s going to happen before all those tribulations, as in this movie.

What do Mormons believe? I don’t have the faintest idea. We basically never talk about it. Certainly we never, and I mean never, use the word ‘rapture,’ not in either of its Christian senses.  Do we get caught up to heaven to meet Jesus? I’m pretty sure that no LDS General Authority has talked about anything like this in my lifetime. It maybe gets whispered about in Sunday School. There’s some ‘people caught up from fields’ iconography. I don’t know if this is a Mormon belief. I do know that I, a Mormon, do not believe in it.

Whenever I travel, if I have some time to kill, I go looking for bookstores. I remember with great fondness a Christian bookstore in Monroe Louisiana, where I went browsing once. It featured two very popular sections: Left Behind, with books and DVDs and posters. The only display equal in size was the Dale Earnhardt table. Best of all was a very popular poster combining both themes: Dale Earnhardt being Raptured out of his smashed up #3 car. So the Rapture’s a big deal in some parts of this great nation of ours, is my point. Almost as big a deal as NASCAR, it would seem. The Rapture is central, I think, to a lot of Christian preachifying.

But for evangelical Christians, it makes sense. Some Christian denominations do divide the world into two categories: Christians, who are saved, who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, and people who are not saved, people who may well be decent, good people (Buck and Chloe are what we would call ‘good people’ in the movie), but who do not believe in Jesus, or at least not enough.  And nothing could point that up more starkly than a world-wide event in which all the Christians are instantly zapped away to heaven, leaving everyone else to cope with the aftermath. It fits a certain evangelical world-view.

And that’s a world-view that Mormons do not share, not really. Joseph Smith did away entirely with the Christian heresy of geographic salvation. We believe that everyone can be baptized, that even people who have died can posthumously accept Jesus, and gain eternal life. We do tend to divide the world into Mormons and non-Mormons (and even Mormons into ‘active’ and ‘less active’), but we really do believe that works matter. A good guy, like Buck in this movie, would be in line to be saved. There’s a Muslim character in the movie, one of the passengers on the plane, who is the one genuinely and consistently compassionate character in the film. The evangelical worldview is that he’s ‘left behind.’ Mormons wouldn’t agree.

So it makes sense to me that the Rapture would be central to evangelical preaching, and that it wouldn’t be something Mormons ever ever talk about, and is probably something at least some of us don’t believe in. Again, I certainly don’t believe in it. And I wish I could say that it made for an interesting movie.

But it didn’t. Ultimately, the movie falls apart, because we sympathize with the wrong people.  The fact is, we only meet two Christians in the early scenes of the movie, only two people who are established as real characters, and who get subsequenly Raptured. One is the annoying woman who pesters Buck in the airport about his (supposed) agnosticism in the face of a tsunami he’d covered. The other is Lea Thompson’s character, Chloe’s Mom, a woman, we’re told, who is such a fanatic that she’s systematically alienated her entire family. They’re our role models? That’s what we’re supposed to strive for, so we don’t get Left Behind? Sorry, but no. I’d rather stay behind and dodge falling airplanes. We come to genuinely care about the people in Ray’s plane, good, but freaked out folks who try their best to comfort each other and whose survival is what the movie is about.  We like Ray, we like Buck, we like Chloe. If they’re what gets Left Behind, count me in.