Thursday, June 28, 2007

What's up with Steve Benson?

Anyone who has fallen out with the LDS Church can identify to a certain degree with Steve Benson. On the other hand, most of them have no idea what it is to be Benson. Grandson of the former president of the LDS Church, Benson grew up in a family that enjoyed the blessing or burdened with the curse, depending on your perspective, of being closely related to the highest levels of leadership in a controversial religious movement.

Benson became an inspiration for disillusioned Mormons everywhere when he dared to question the competency of his grandfather to govern the LDS Church as the man slipped off of this mortal coil. LDS leaders defended the ability of President Benson to continue to lead the Church, but there was a growing sense that others were actually governing the LDS Church in the president's name and with his electronic signature.

Benson then went on to become one of the more prominent personalities of the ex-Mormon movement. I was personally intrigued with his account of a meeting with members of the Quorum of the Twelve, who had invited Steve and his wife in to discuss problems with LDS doctrine, history, and practice. Benson discovered that in spite of the awe most Mormons have for these leaders who counsel with the 'Lord,' they were just men who had no more special insight into the difficult issues of Mormonism than anyone else.

For any of us who grew up believing that these men were actually experiencing literal visitations with heavenly beings who were instructing them in how to run the affairs of God's kingdom on earth, this information was world changing. I was grateful that Steve Benson chose to share this information with the rest of us, since the LDS leadership, while not explicitly encouraging the popular LDS impression of their near-divinity, nevertheless benefits from the aura it confers on them. I became aware of all of this long before I quit attending the LDS Church, but the information certainly helped smooth the ride on the way out.

So, I am grateful to Benson, as many doubters, liberals, ex-Mormons, and future ex-Mormons should be.

Not long ago I started lurking and the Recovery from Mormonism bulletin board hosted by the Ex-Mormon Foundation. I thought it would be really cool to watch these ex-Mormon heroes at work--people like Steve, Tal Bachman, and Bob McCue. At first this is what I saw, and it was often quite cool. Tal has a wicked sense of humor, and it was clear that Bob was on quite a journey of exploration as a former Mormon.

Then there was Steve. Steve was quite an unpleasant surprise in his RfM board persona. Reading his posts was like seeing the rational and sensitive guy of his exit stories morphed into Dan Peterson's more childish, ex-Mormon, and equally evil twin. If someone disagrees with Steve, he starts a campaign of maligning inference, confusion, and red herrings that would make any unscrupulous LDS apologist proud, if only he were on the other side of the argument. It doesn't matter to him that many of his interlocutors agree with the most basic premise upon which he operates--that the Mormon Church's claims are bogus. If you don't agree with Steve to the full extent of his bile and vitriol, you are aiding and abetting the evil cause of Mormonism.

Sadly, one gets the impression that Steve in leaving Mormonism has found and now promulgates a new form of rigid orthodoxy and authoritarianism aimed at insulting his former Church without reason or restraint according to his own narrow vision. In the horror movie of Steve's ex-Mormon imagination Joseph Smith is definitely a con-man and a pedophile. Anyone else who imagines the worst when it comes to things Mormon is definitely on the right track as far as Steve is concerned. He stops short of supporting outlandish conspiracy theories about Mormon plots to take over the world, but I fear only just.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

To Dream the Improbable Dream...

Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed that he translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates he uncovered from a hill that has since been given the name "Cumorah." It is unfortunate for those who believe his claims and archaeological science that he delivered these plates up to an angel. This means that we have no way of determining: a) whether he in fact had plates; b) what was written on those plates if they existed; and c) whether Joseph Smith provided a faithful translation of those plates.

Obviously the case for Joseph Smith's claims regarding the Book of Mormon would be much less problematic if we could at least identify ancient congeners from the western hemisphere that matched either the description of the plates or the content of the translation reasonably well. These problems are so obvious that Mormon scholars generally do not refer to them until a critic of the LDS Church raises them. When the problems are raised, most Mormon scholars go into the "it's not impossible" mode.

Because the LDS Church makes faith in Mormonism contingent upon the literal veracity of Smith's claims, it is very important to the Church that these claims not be *impossible.* For those who do not come to the question with a belief in Mormonism, however, it is enough to say that his claims are highly improbable and move on. Lacking the evidence that would truly make their case probable, however, the intrepid scholars of Mormondom focus a lot of attention on the best they can muster. This has led to some chuckle-worthy statements, like Dan Peterson's suggestion that Book of Mormon horses might have been tapirs, and the like.

Recently, the Deseret Morning News published an article on another of the more improbable supports for their case that there were Nephite gold plates in America. The BYU library has just purchased replicas of second century A.D. military diplomas from the ROMAN EMPIRE inscribed on bronze. The author of the article writes about how the BYU scholars are interested in the similarities between the technology of these plates and the description of the now absent Book of Mormon plates once possessed by Joseph Smith.

"The comparable size and thickness, the use of alloyed metal and binding rings, the fact that one part is open and another sealed, the fact that the plates bear the names of witnesses, the combination of all of these factors in a pattern, make the Roman plates relevant to the Book of Mormon plates."

The claim that the Book of Mormon had a sealed portion is also related to these diplomas:

"The ingeniously designed plates feature an open presentation of the text and a sealed interior portion, a double copy that protects the document from those who might tamper with the contents.
"We refer to such records as doubled, sealed, witnessed documents," Welch said."

For those who know little about the subject, all of this sounds very intriguing. It is true that ancient civilizations wrote things on the durable surfaces of stone, metal, and fired clay. In the eastern hemisphere there are many examples of writing on bronze, gold, and other metals, and in both hemispheres there are examples of writing on stone. Indeed, one might say that the ancients understood that something written on a hard surface might last much longer than one written on a more perishable one. This is not very interesting.

What is interesting is the use of a very specific kind of Roman legal document from the second century A.D. as evidence that people living in the western hemisphere could have written a similarly described document in the fifth century A.D.. The first problem, of course, is that as far as we know the peoples of these hemispheres did not have much contact in the first millennium A.D.. It is highly unlikely that the Romans either transmitted this knowledge to Nephites or received it from them. If the Romans picked up this specific practice from the Ancient Near East, where the Book of Mormon peoples allegedly derived from, then it would be much preferable to use the Near Eastern example, with its rings and seals, and dating to the period when Lehi and his family lived near Jerusalem, or perhaps earlier.

The real problem here, of course, is the utter lack of anything closely similar either in physical appearance or literary content to the Book of Mormon plates in the western hemisphere. In the Book of Mormon, the family of Lehi brings the technology of writing on ancient plates from ancient Palestine. They steal a record on brass plates from a distant relative and that set of plates becomes the technological model for most records mentioned in the book. In other words, based on the Book of Mormon text one would think that keeping records on metal plates was a common practice in the western hemisphere. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of evidence in the western hemisphere pointing to the widespread ancient use of inscribed metal as a means of preserving text--not to mention the specific technologies Welch points to in the Deseret article.

In life and scholarship, we are better off placing confidence in things that are likely to be the case. Sure, every now and then the unlikely turns out to be true. But, it is usually discovered to be true through the usual methods of careful investigation in science and scholarship. Mormon scholars at BYU are, at least from a rationalist perspective, placing the cart before the horse when they assume that the Book of Mormon existed in the form Joseph Smith claimed and then use that as the basis of further investigation. Second century military diplomas from the Roman Empire are only interesting to American archaeology when that specific technology has already been established as having been used in the Americas.

It gets worse. We know, for example, that people have erroneously theorized that the technology for building American pyramids came from ancient Egypt. Here is a case in which we clearly have extant pyramids to examine, and the conclusions drawn are in favor of the independent development of the technology of pyramid building--not dependence on the Egyptians. In the case of the Book of Mormon we do not have the plates to examine, and the story of their appearance and subsequent disappearance is unlikely in the extreme. When is the last time an archaeological discovery was made by angelic intervention?

Finally, if we are going to use Joseph Smith's story as the basis for saying that ancient Americans possessed technology of a very specific type, then we need to examine that claim in the context of everything he said about ancient America to determine whether it is likely he was correct about the plates. It is not my purpose to go into the details of Book of Mormon anachronisms or ecological aberrations, but this is exactly where this kind of information would be pertinent if we pursue investigation along the lines I am proposing. If Joseph Smith is wrong about horses, elephants, and many other Book of Mormon descriptions of the ancient Americas, then the probability that he was wrong about the plates increases as the errors mount.

Without observing the proper order of investigation, certain far-flung "connections" act more as a red herring than corroboration. It was interesting to observe that both Egyptians and Ancient Americans built pyramidal structures. In the end, it did not prove that ancient Americans came from Egypt and brought a knowledge of pyramid technology with them. I would like to say that the same is the case with the Roman military diplomas and the Book of Mormon plates, but unfortunately there is no way of determining what the Mormon plates precisely were, or if they were, until we can examine them ourselves or we discover something much like them in the Americas. The LDS community does a grave disservice to its people when it trains them to indulge in such shoddy reasoning. In the end, it will not sustain them.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

No Defense Like A Disingenuous Defense

Elder Robert S. Wood of the Seventy wrote a little piece in the most recent Ensign entitled "The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge." Wood begins his article by talking about how the divine witness he received of the Book of Mormon he had received at the age of 16 was almost immediately challenged by a nameless non-LDS friend who happened to have a list of Book of Mormon anachronisms on him. He boldly declared that his friend was "too late" because he already had God's witness. Nevertheless, Wood told his friend he would keep the list.

Wood then goes on to say that over the years item after item on the list has dropped off as the discoveries of academics have vindicated his divine witness. Only one item, which he does not specify, stubbornly remained. Never fear, however, for just a few years ago he mentioned this list while speaking at Cornell University, and a 'distinguished professor' (unnamed) said to him, "You can remove your last item, for our (who?) studies indicate that it is not an anachronism." Wood then poses the question, "What would my life have been like had I withheld my conviction of the Book of Mormon until I resolved all the questions my friend had given me?"

So, what on earth does this guy think he is doing? Is he *trying* to look like he's full of crap? Is he not aware that in an attempt to use evidence to prove one's case it is useful to actually discuss the evidence in question? What was on this list? How were these issues settled? What was the final stubborn item? Who is the 'distinguished' Cornell professor? Is she or he LDS? Let's look at some evidence! Or, if we aren't going to do that, let's quit using non-evidence as though it were evidence.

You see, in most places bold claims require more than, and I mean literally, "I heard it from some guy that the thing in question wasn't a valid argument against my claim to a miracle." Either the Ensign has a supremely daft editorial staff, or this guy really thinks that the fact he said all of this unspecified stuff happened really means anything. I am sorry, Mr. Wood, but it does not. You either come up with the facts, or you don't tell the story.

The problem is that Wood's target reader just may give him a pass on this. After all, that is what they, and most religionists, are trained to do. It's not just the fantastically implausible tale of the Book of Mormon, but also the vast sea of things improbable to damn near impossible that are written in the Bible or the Quran. It seems that if someone gets God involved in telling an improbable story, there are always plenty of folks who will hang around to listen, and a few who will buy the book, join the club, and drink the koolaid. Why? Because God is just that important.

I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone got it essentially right when they depicted Martin Harris saying in response to Joseph Smith's claim that God would not let him retranslate the plates because God was angry, "Gee, if God is angry with him, he *must* be telling the truth!" But let's be perfectly clear about this. The claim that God is in the works is not a license to suspend good judgment. The supreme irony is that the very same people who make fun of Jim Jones and the koolaid will tell you that they would happily hand over their wives to Gordon Hinckley if they believed God had told him to ask for them.

As my atheist friends are wont to say with no small amount of wisdom, "fantastic claims demand only the best evidence to back them up." It is too bad that in our weakness and humanity we hope so badly for things to be other than they are that we are just waiting for someone to pass the koolaid. I know, koolaid is an extremely provocative term, but koolaid it is when the decisions that result cause the misery and death of so many people. I am not saying that religion is uniquely culpable. No. And I think that the exercise of a responsible spirituality can be a marvelous thing. But today we see a rash of hucksterism that reaches into the highest office of the land that has played the religion card almost incessantly. That being the case, I have little patience for Mr. Wood's brand of "evidence."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Best Part...

So, in my book the PBS documentary "The Mormons" was a wonderful thing. One of the best parts of it, however, may not get a lot of attention. For this reason I have decided to post a link to this awesome resource: the documentary interviews. These interviews are longer versions of the material that went into the documentary. Even these interviews are edited, and I dearly hope that PBS gets wise and puts together a resource for accessing all of the interviews in their unedited entirety.

Here I will quote some of my favorite bits from the Gregory Prince interview. Prince is co-author of the recent biography of David O. McKay. His views match my own so well that I wish I had half a dozen people like him in the boundaries of my ward who were active and reasonably vocal about their views. I might even go to Church again, if that were the case. Anyway, here is Prince...

On gay rights and the marriage amendment:

"The question is, what is the real issue about gay rights, about same-gender marriage? Is this really a threat to the institution of marriage? No. That's a straw man. The threat to the institution of marriage is heterosexuals who either thumb their noses at marriage in the first place or who don't take the marriage covenant seriously. To put all of that on the backs of gays who want to establish a legal union is cruel, and it's wrong. ...

There is irony if you step back and look at the current situation regarding gay marriage, and another situation that also involved marital relations, and that was 19th-century polygamy. ... Where we've come down on the two is quite different, and yes, I think there is irony in that. ... And yet if you are stepping back, each one of those is a reinterpretation of the traditional family. ... There is irony in comparing them a century apart."

On Joseph Smith:

"No matter which way you cook it, Joseph Smith is a bundle of contradictions, an unschooled, roughhewn frontiersman -- which is what New York was in 1820 -- who founds a church that has become a worldwide church. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. ...

[Joseph Smith] was what he was, and it doesn't really bother me. I look at great leaders, particularly religious leaders before and since, and they've all got blemishes, as do political leaders, particularly the charismatic ones. Joseph, if nothing else, was charismatic. And that just seems to be the inseparable baggage that these great people bring with them, and you have to be able to deal with it. …

Some people in the church, even sitting at a high level, tend to reduce it almost to a geometric equation. If Joseph Smith wasn't this, this and this, then the church can't be true. That does us a great disservice, because it turns out not to be as clear-cut as that."

The Book of Mormon:

"Perhaps the most prevalent viewpoint in the church is either the Book of Mormon is a literal history of the Americas before Columbus or it's wrong. There is an alternative somewhere between those two. If you look at the Bible, some of the greatest books of the Bible -- and in my mind in particular the Book of Job, which I feel to be one of the greatest books in world literature, is fictional. Its message is independent of its historicity. That's the key in dealing with the Book of Mormon. Whatever its message is, it continues to resonate with the people who encounter it.

It's not because of its doctrinal sophistication, because if you look at the Book of Mormon compared to the Bible, the level of theology of the two is quite separate. So that's not the attraction. It's not the historicity, because the people who read it don't come away from reading it thinking, "Well, that was an interesting history." It's that there is truth within that book, just as there is truth within the Book of Job that is, in fact, a fictional book. ...

That's the message that people need to get. Forget about the container for a while. Get inside of it and grab the truth that's in there, regardless of the form that it's in, regardless of how it got to be in that container -- and then you win. ..."

On being a Mormon intellectual:

"Being an intellectual in this church is a hard way to make an easy living, for two reasons. One is the wealth of source material: If you go back and look at the history, it's enormous -- and troubling, because it doesn't always square with the public relations version of things. The second reason it's difficult is there is an anti-intellectual bent in the church that in some cases has gone so far as to push people out simply because they were thinking people, either overtly pushed them out by excommunicating them or sending the message that they're not welcome and we'd be a lot happier if you'd just have the good grace to leave, and leave quietly.

So it's not an easy lifestyle, but people don't tend to choose that lifestyle. You are that, or you're something else. I don't think you choose to be an intellectual. It's the way you're wired. It's the way you view the world. So there you are, and if you're going through that journey alone, it's a very perilous and lonely journey. It turns out there are many other people in the church with a similar mind-set, but they are a loose amalgamation at best. It's been with difficulty over the decades that those of us who consider ourselves within that philosophy try to hang on to the church for ourselves and try to hang on to others and keep them in."

On Mormon "certainty":

"There is a strong thread within the church that clings to the notion that I have to be able to say in public, "I know," regardless of what the "I know" involves. Unwittingly that has created a culture that says to the other ones who can't say that in honesty, "Gee, there must be something wrong with me, because I can't say, 'I know,' if I don't know." I think that the desire to be able to go up to the pulpit and say "I know" is not unique to Mormonism. I think that pervades the entire world, and it's why fundamentalism in whatever clothing -- Christian, Judaic, Islamic -- is a dangerous thing, because it gives a false certitude to people. They think that the tough questions in life can all be reduced to one-line answers, and they can't. If you think that's where the world is and you try to live in that world, it's destructive ultimately. So we have to be able to move at some point from, "Oh, yeah, I know," to, "Listen, here's where I am. I think I know some things, and I've experienced some things, and there are a lot of things I don't know. But I'm here for the duration, so let's move forward together and help each other."

On the Book of Abraham:

"One response that has been a very loudly stated response ever since then was, "Those were the wrong papyri." It doesn't address the fact that some of the diagrams, the facsimiles that were part of the Book of Abraham, were with those papyri, and they are the right ones. ... An alternative explanation is to say this is all fiction. ...

There's plenty of ground in between -- and that's the ground that I live on -- that says: "Why does there need to be a one-to-one relationship between historical artifact and modern Scripture? Isn't it the product that we're looking at, and the effect of that product on this community of believers?" And if that is the essential question, and I think it is, then we don't need to worry about the literal relationship between [the artifacts and the Scripture]. ..."

On problems facing the LDS Church:

"Another area is the challenge of feminism; that you have, particularly in the American church, tens of thousands, if not more, women who are not out there picketing, but who are aware that their position in the church is not what they would want it to be. They're looking at this issue different than their mothers or grandmother did.

You have the challenge of intellectualism, and this is a challenge that does not just come from within. Mormonism, because of its importance as an American-born world religion, is ripe for scholarly inquiry. You have scholars, Mormon and non-Mormon, believers and nonbelievers, all focusing their tools on studying this important religion. ... Those are some of the challenges we face now, and not one of those is easy. ...

The strategic problems facing the church don't face me personally. ... The problem I deal with, within my own family, is boredom. My kids ... say, "Dad, this church is boring." When I talk to other kids, they use the "B" word also. If we can't move those kids out of that mind-set, we can lose them. There are so many more alternative voices that they can listen to. You've got hundreds of channels on cable TV. You've got the Internet. It's not the world we grew up in, where you had few competing voices. There are hundreds if not thousands of competing voices, and they are sophisticated and attractive. And if we can't take the essential message that we have and somehow package it in some way that is not so boring to them, we're going to lose them."

On homosexuality and the family:

"We have not yet gotten to the point of understanding the biology of homosexuality, to the point where that understanding enlightens the policy and the behavior of individual Mormons toward homosexuality. ... Are we going to tell [gay individuals], "You must live alone for the rest of your life because you can't fit in this other mold," or are we going to let those people live as what they are, even if it is different than what we are? I hope we can get to that point. What we call it, how we structure it, I don't know. But I think it is cruel to apply different standards of behavior to one group than we do to other groups. ...

The church did a survey 10, 20 years ago and found that half the members of the church were of single families, which means that one-third of the adult membership of the church is single, either never married, widowed or divorced. So to cling to the notion that the only acceptable family unit is a mother, father and children flies in the face of reality. We can accommodate single parents in the church; we should be able to accommodate other forms of family life that are strong, that are nurturing, that are faith-promoting and that are enduring -- but we haven't been able to do that yet. ..."

Friday, May 04, 2007

Reacting to the Whitney PBS Documentary

I finally finished watching "The Mormons," the 4-hour PBS documentary about the LDS Church by Helen Whitney. I very much enjoyed it. Sure, there were some inaccurate, oddball, and annoying aspects to it, but on the whole I thought it was quite positive. Big plusses in my book were the insights and experiences of Sarah Barringer Gordon, Kathleen Flake, and Margaret Toscano. I am ready to run out and buy professor Gordon's books. I was also pleasantly surprised that Whitney used such a positive quote about Joseph Smith by Ed Firmage. Yes, Firmage is ex-Mormon, and yet you never would have known from his statement about Joseph Smith in which he compared the Mormon prophet to Mohammed and Isaiah.

The faithful Mormon response is somewhat predictable. Many, if not most, of them did not like it. In fact, you can follow the link in the title of this post and read Deseret News' collection of largely negative responses to the documentary by a host of faithful LDS people.

One aspect of the documentary that has produced some unintended humorous consequences was the choice not to identify commentators by their Mormon (non-)affiliation. This has led to some complaints about that Islamic Studies professor *Daniel Peterson* who should not have been consulted, according to the unhappy viewers, about his bizarre views of their faith. Yes, folks, these faithful Mormons had no idea that Peterson is the most prominent Mormon APOLOGIST of our day. This funny mistake reflects badly on the general LDS membership, but quite well on Peterson, who comes off much better in person than the jackass persona he has carefully cultivated on the internet.

I must admit that I was being somewhat inaccurate in my description of the LDS interaction to the documentary, when I said they 'did not like it.' Truth be told, many were enraged by it. Their vitriol toward Ms. Whitney and PBS reminds me just how far outside the Mormon mainstream I am. Even if we are kind enough not to identify it as the mainstream, there are so many Mormons who apparently went apoplectic over the show that I am more convinced than ever that I do not want to hang out with these people. You should know, gentle reader, that I doubt they miss me anyway (at least most of them).

At the same time, I have a great deal of sympathy for these folks. After all, they are conditioned to prize obedience to their Church leaders as the only safe way to navigate these treacherous days of apocalyptic wickedness. Then they are fed a version of their own history and image in the world that would make Walt Disney jealous. In other words, it is calculated to produce a certain positive emotional effect (that I cannot denigrate as being insignificant), and it does so with almost mechanical effectiveness. Finally, they are told not to listen to what anyone outside of the LDS Church has to say about their faith.

I hope this helps to explain why so many Mormons offered the moronic 'insight' that people shouldn't go to a Chevy dealer if they are shopping for a Ford. Who came up with that? If I go shopping for a car, I check out all of the makes and models. Of course it would be stupid to go to a Chevy dealer to ask about Fords, IF MY MIND WERE ALREADY MADE UP. But, going out to shop with your mind made up is to ask to be ripped off. We clearly need to look elsewhere if we want to discover why there are so many successful Mormon businessmen. Once again, however, this is a mantra that is habitually intoned in LDS discussions about how non-Mormons, especially representing other faith traditions, generally misrepresent Mormons. Can you blame them for knowing their culture so well and acting accordingly?

To my Mormon friends who are unhappy with the PBS documenary I offer a simple recommendation. Read the title of the series of which this Mormon documentary is a part. It is "The American Experience." If you think about it, that helps us contextualize this particular presentation of Mormonism. The PBS documentary was not written to make you LDS people feel like you just attended General Conference. It was not supposed to be a missionary tool designed to draw more people into the LDS waters of baptism. Instead, this documentary places the phenomenon of Mormonism within the context of the larger American experience. It therefore offers not only those inside voices that praise Mormonism to the skies, but also those of outsiders who have been impacted by Mormonism in some way. In other words, we get to see how America (and others in the world) responds to Mormonism, and from some pretty brilliant folk.

Ex-Mormons are part of that picture, and I thought they were edited quite tastefully. To those of you who hated Margaret Toscano, all I can say is that you are damned lucky Whitney didn't stick a Sonia Johnson interview in there. At least Margaret still loves Mormonism and feels a part of the faith and culture. The fact that she has been exiled from the LDS Church does not seem to have utterly soured her on it. For those of you who are angry that Ken Clark was on, all I can say is that I am mystified by your objections. On the whole, I thought he was quite mellow. It is obvious he does not believe, but I did not find his statements especially disparaging in tone or content.

For those of you who are angry about all of the time devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I have two words for you: September Dawn. Mormons should be dancing in the streets and sending personal checks to Helen Whitney for having presented a generally unsensational and balanced view of this dark chapter in Mormon history. Why? Because that is certainly not what you will get from the film September Dawn, and unfortunately many more people will watch that film than the number who tuned in to the documentary. September Dawn was co-written by a Born Again Christian, and we all know how much these folks love Mormonism. One last thing--you have to consider the context when you ask why Whitney gave so much attention to the MMM. We live in a time when religious zealots are blowing themselves up for their faith. How the extreme and pernicious devotion that led to the MMM should not be pertinent in our day is mysterious to me.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Terryl Givens unhappy about PBS documentary

I recently commented on the Church's advance response to the PBS "American Experience" four-hour documentary on Mormonism. The Church's news release referred to unnamed scholars, some of whom participated in the documentary, who were deeply displeased with its emphasis on polygamy and take on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I was bemused by the omission of the identity of these scholars, wondering why on earth they needed to remain anonymous.

Well, it turns out that at least one of these anonymous scholars, and one who did appear on the documentary, was Dr. Terryl Givens, professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond. Dr. Givens recently visited Duke (University, I suppose) and told members of the Church there that (and here I am quoting a paraphrase of his words posted on RfM) "the film will be a major disappointment to Church members who are expecting a favorable or even well-balanced treatment of the Church."

The criticism continues:

"Part of this is due to choices by the director but in some cases higher-ups at PBS' Boston affiliate, WGBH, mandated changes or edits that made the documentary less favorable. Note that the PBS affiliate in Boston is the one handling the documentary. Bro. Givens seemed to think that this had something to do with displeasure over the Romney campaign. My advice would be to watch it, but I wouldn't recommend it to your non-Mormon friends."

Here is an excerpt from the 4/28 article by Peggy Fletcher Stack published in the Salt Lake Tribune:

"But Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, takes strong exception to the film's inclusion of footage of some modern polygamists and their leader, Warren Jeffs, who is charged with being an accomplice to rape for conducting a marriage to which the bride objected. The LDS Church discontinued its official practice of polygamy in 1890.

"This does a grave disservice to the church in light of Helen's stated objective to get beyond the stereotypes," Givens said.

"Nineteenth century polygamy is part of Mormon history and deserves to be told. But there is no possible justification for including Warren Jeffs. It is misrepresentation at best and defamation at worst."

That would be like "showing photos of serial killer David Berkowitz, "Son of Sam" in a piece on modern Judaism," said Givens, who was interviewed at length for the film. "They are trying to turn PBS into 'Big Love' or 'Jerry Springer.' "

For a scholar, Givens indulges in some pretty sloppy reasoning here. Warren Jeffs' crimes directly resulted from his pursuit of a lifestyle that had been mandated as essential for exaltation in the kingdom of God in 19th century Mormonism. David Berkowitz claimed to have been a Satan worshiper when he committed his murders. Unlike Jeffs, whose activities were tied up in historical Mormon practices, Berkowitz neither claimed, nor gave any indication, that his crimes were motivated by or related to the Judaism of his adopted parents.

Givens elsewhere took aim at Will Bagley's contribution to Whitney's work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I am not aware of the piece where Givens does this, unless it is in the Newsroom commentary I refer to in a prior post. In any case, here is Bagley's response:

"A copy of this fanatical assault on a beautiful film about Mormonism reached me through the email grapevine. Long experience has shown that apologists have little regard for the truth, and I would like to appeal to you to suggest that your fellow ward members watch the film and make up their own minds. I care little for whatever Dr. Givens thinks of my work--altho he shows no evidence of ever having read a page of it--but that work speaks for itself.

What does bother me is his zealotry, which apparently extends now to trying to destroy Helen Whitney's career. I suppose this modern Savonarola was offended he could not act as the film's censor and make it as happy and inspirational and dishonest as a Lee Grosberg or Keith Merrill movie.

"The Mormons" is a sympathetic, humanist look at a new religious movement that baffles outsiders. The American Experience presents all sides and opinions about Mormon history, but the film puts a very human face on Mormons. I expect it will increase understanding and sympathy toward Latter-day Saints and deepen the American public's understanding of a religion that is too often caricatured and mocked.

As for my "personal mission of trying to destroy Brigham Young," I pretty much put that in the tank when I published the heroic portrait Thomas Bullock paints of this frontier dynamo at the highpoint of his career in "Pioneer Camp of the Saints" lo these many years ago. And despite Dr. Givin's [sic] terrors, the Old Boss and his reputation is likely to survive even Helen Whitney's beautiful film."

If I were to guess who it was that wrote the commentary on the Whitney documentary at's Newsroom, I would say Terryl Givens. Givens perhaps felt silly, or a little vain, writing about himself in the third person, so he instead referred to a nameless collection of scholars that probably includes the Mormon friends he ranted to.

Balancing Reality and Fantasy

Yesterday I posted a piece on the LDS Church's response to the April 22 broadcast of PBS's "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" in which the program was criticized for certain comments made regarding temple covenants. Unable to locate the piece a second time, I mistakenly believed that it had been removed. As it turns out, the piece is still there, and so I will now comment on it using quotes.

As I mentioned the first time (I have since edited the post for being erroneous), a high-level Baptist official made a controversial remark about temple covenants on the show, which elicited this commentary from unnamed Church writers:

"Dr. Phil Roberts, president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, claimed, for example, that Church members who attend the temple — including Mormon politicians — swear “allegiance to the Mormon president.” This is simply not true. The center of temple worship is a commitment to God and devotion to the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a place of quiet reflection, Church members contemplate and decide how their temple attendance will be reflected in their personal lives."

I did not see the broadcast, so I can't comment in full on Dr. Roberts' claims, but I will say that the Church response to them is incomplete and, therefore, arguably evasive. It is true that 'commitment to God and devotion to the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ' are central aspects of LDS temple worship. It is for this reason that for many years I enjoyed worship in the temple with my fellow Latter-day Saints.

What began to bother me, however, was the central position allegiance to the Church as God's kingdom on earth held. In fact, I would say that some of the greatest covenants in the temple center on the devotion of the individual member to the LDS Church. I came to think that the greatest commitments I make in life should be to God instead of a Church run by human beings. This is one of the reasons my interest in participation in the temple waned in recent years.

In any case, to say that 'Church members who attend the temple — including Mormon politicians — swear “allegiance to the Mormon president”' is a reasonable inference, which one might take issue with, but the Church does not so much engage the assertion as misdirect. The reason for this, I suppose, is that the truth of the matter is so close to Roberts' assertion that any attempt at an honest response would leave people with the impression that Roberts was essentially correct.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Who the heck are these people?

In describing reactions to the long-awaited Whitney documentary on Mormonism, the Church relates these reactions:

"A few scholars, including some who appear in the documentary, have seen substantial parts of the program.

Their initial reaction: Church leaders and members are extraordinarily eloquent in explaining the tenets of their faith. The film is not superficial, which is often a criticism leveled at television coverage.

However, some raised concern about what they feel is a disproportionate amount of time given to topics that are not central to the Church’s faith. For instance, polygamy comes in for extensive treatment in the first program, including substantial attention to present-day polygamous groups that have nothing to do with today’s Church. The time devoted to portrayals of modern fundamentalist polygamy seems inconsistent with the filmmaker's stated purposes of getting inside the LDS experience, and of exploding, rather than reinforcing, stereotypes.

Other scholars criticize what they say is an imbalance in the treatment of some topics, particularly the events at Mountain Meadows in 1857. One said the film provides a distorted and highly unbalanced account of Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre alike."

Now here is a model piece of clarity. Why, pray tell, are the "few scholars," the "some," and the "other scholars" not mentioned by name? Are they ashamed of their sound opinions and reasoning? Do they fear Whitney's wrath for having criticized her work? Or, do they even exist? Are they instead figments of some PR firm's imagination?

One thing they do not fear is tooting their own horn ("Church leaders and members are extraordinarily eloquent"). It looks to me that someone in the Church hierarchy, perhaps, wanted to make an anonymous complaint and attribute it to nameless "scholars" in order to add that air of objective authority. I guess I can't blame them. I remain anonymous, but, then again, I am not the one with the power.