A healthy but often painful documentary, the first part of “The Mormons” that aired tonight, April 30, on PBS focused on what outsiders are likely to consider the hottest historical issues, polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (No, they didn’t get to blacks and the priesthood or the challenge of homosexuality – we’ll probably get lengthy segments on those topics tomorrow.) The very lengthy section on polygamy was almost tedious, as if this modern world religion is largely defined by a practice that the Church abandoned over a century ago.
For Latter-day Saints, it will be easy to view the program as biased and even somewhat hostile. It certainly isn’t the kind of thing that is going to make people want to run out and start investigating the Church, but I hope it will lead to a lot of healthy discussions and increased awareness, though perhaps not of the “right things.”
I thought Professor Terryl Givens was outstanding, and enjoyed the way he spoke of our religion. And I really enjoyed listening to Ken Ken Verdoia of KUED. Ditto for many of the other speakers, though a couple had an axe to grind at times and stated opinions and speculations as conclusions.
I objected to the dark, eerie piano music in the background during the discussion of the origins of Mormonism and some of the distorted, almost frightening paintings they found somewhere (what’s wrong with the numerous paintings of the Angel Moroni that don’t look like a drug-induced nightmare?). Keep the same narration in that portion but change a couple of the paintings to more cheerful works, replace the dark music with Mozart, and bingo, we’d have something almost suitable for seminary.
I think the program will be most helpful to Latter-day Saints, reminding us about the pain of polygamy, the trauma of Mountain Meadows, and the difficulty of resolving poorly documented events of LDS history when much remains unclear and subject to wildly different interpretations. My two younger sons watched it with my wife and me, and I’m glad they saw it. Inoculation, perhaps? It gave us a chance to talk about some troubling aspects of our past, including a lesson from the Massacre: even wonderful bishops and other leaders are fallible mortals, and there are times when we may need to challenge what they ask us to do.
Overall, in spite of what I see as an almost sensationalistic emphasis on some painful aspects of our past, I believe the producers did strive to be fair (at least fair in appearance). I look forward to learning about more of our flaws tomorrow, and perhaps some more of what our faith is really about.
I do wish they had allowed at least portions of the First Vision to be told in Joseph’s words and more of our story as we know it to be shared. So much of the essence of Mormonism was left out, while the microscope zoomed in on Mountain Meadows.
Part II may prove to be fair in substance (not just appearance). How can you tell? Simple: if we get at least 20 minutes of fawning coverage about LDS member Ken Jennings, the intergalactic Jeopardy champion, then we’ve probably got an unbiased production. And of course, any truly fair documentary couldn’t possibly leave out some of your favorite LDS blogs and bloggers, right? Well, we’ll see. (I actually think it will be better than Part 1.)