Movie review

Dear readers,

I’m introducing the occasional movie review to my blog. My goal is to dip my toe into the ever-expanding genre of faith-based films and to assess the stories through the lens of my growing understanding. I usually see mainstream secular productions, so this genre is new for me.

Here’s my methodology for selecting movies: I dig around Netflix’s faith and spirituality section. I read the little description and, if it sounds intriguing, I add it to my queue. Please share your movie suggestions. If it’s a newer release, I may need to wait for it to come out on Netflix.

First up: Baptists at our Barbecue

This romantic comedy, released in 2004, follows an unmarried Morman man who relocates from Utah (at age 29, this is his first time leaving the state) to a small fictional town in Arizona with a population that is exactly half Mormon and half Baptist. I initially jotted the title as Baptists at THE Barbecue, but quickly realized my mistake. Mormons are in charge of this shindig. I also thought the attractive young man and woman on the poster would be from different denominations like proper faith-crossed lovers. But no, she’s Mormon too. Not coincidentally, this film is released by Haelstorm Productions, an outfit dedicated to Mormon entertainment.

The movie opens with a quote from religious critic Harold Bloom (apparently Mormons appreciate the praise this Yale scholar has heaped on Smith). The text on screen reads: “The most significant development of 21st century religion will be the relationship between Mormons and Baptists.” When Bloom wrote these words, he might not have anticipated the dramatic rise in Nones. Reading Bloom’s quote, I anticipate some explanation as to the source of tension between two significant American denominations. I’m hopeful for an indication of how the relationship will play out.

The cause of the feud between the Mormons and the Baptists in the town appears to stretch back several generations; it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys in that its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint. As far as I can tell, the differences are silly. The Mormons don’t drink liquor and have funny names; the two main Mormon characters are called “Tartan” and “Charity.” The Baptists have ordinary names and aren’t opposed to moderate drinking. One Mormon character shouts, “They don’t believe in Joseph Smith!” A Baptist calls Tartan a “stupid water drinker”—an apparent dig at the Mormon communion drink of choice.

The Baptists have a real church building but seem to prefer gathering outdoors to listen to their preacher deliver fire and brimstone sermons. The Mormons don’t have a permanent structure, but they acquire a double-wide trailer, half of which mysteriously goes missing. The missing half is never found, but after the “All Faiths” barbecue that Tartan and Charity organize, some inroads are made at the two groups getting along. The sign outside the gas station that read, “Baptist discount” is replaced with one that says “Caffeine-free coke.” Perhaps the Baptists are beginning to see the wisdom of a stimulant-free lifestyle. After the talent show portion of the barbecue, at least one Mormon-Baptist romance brews—but only between minor characters.

While the Baptist/Mormon relationship is supposed to be the main dynamic here, I couldn’t help but notice a conflict brewing within the Mormon congregation. One uptight lady, Sister Wingate, sports an unfashionable hairdo (reminiscent of those worn by the women of some high-profile polygamous cults) and seems to represent an outdated mentality. Tartan tells Sister Wingate that the reference in the Bible to God making the earth in seven days is not literal; she accuses him of “preaching blasphemy.” Sister Wingate and her husband have a huge house (hint hint) where services were held before the double wide arrives. She has forbidden singing and music. In moving to the trailer, the congregation rejoices as boxes of hymnals arrive. Sister Wingate considers switching denominations.

Yet, the issues within the Mormon group aren’t unique to the denomination; if anything, they speak to trends in Christianity in general. On qualities that might be considered uniquely Mormon, the two characters seem to agree. Both Tartan and Sister Wingate look for “signs” to guide their decision-making, just as Joseph Smith suggested. Tartan asks Charity if she prayed about their budding romance and felt a “burning sensation” in her chest. Sister Wingate’s attitude improves when she goes to the top of a mountain to seek guidance about the changes taking place and the “mountains hum their approval.”

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers’ weave in little nods to the ways in which Joseph Smith’s influence is still appreciated and, perhaps at times, overstated. Protagonist Tartan emulates Smith’s reverence for place and the biblical significance of North American continent when he acknowledges that the events occurring in the little Arizona town are so profound he wouldn’t be surprised if “the ten tribes had a reunion here” (a reference lost tribes of Israel). Yet, the filmmakers seem to be aware that such veneration of Joseph Smith can be taken to unrealistic extremes; the audience is meant to laugh when one elderly character insists it was Smith, not George Washington, who “chopped down that cherry tree.”

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A flutter

The year of the “Great Disappointment,” when Jesus didn’t return in 1844, Joseph Smith was gunned down by an angry mob in Missouri; apparently they didn’t much appreciate his ideas about plural marriage in part because some of his would-be “wives” were already married. Smith was, by all accounts, an exceptionally magnetic and good-looking guy so it was sort of like if Brad Pitt came to town and put out a shingle that said “wives needed.” Otherwise sensible ladies might have been compelled to shove a few belongings into a purse and yell, “catch ya later!”

Smith was killed in June of that year, just a few months before Jesus missed his October cutoff date. How abreast Smith was of the prevalent messiah deadlines is unclear, but it’s a safe assumption that he was at least in tune with the popular anticipation and died believing Christ’s return was eminent because much of his church’s theology hinges on this point.

After the service, we break into smaller groups for further discussion. The men stay in the main chapel for their meeting, some of the women gather to go over charitable duties, and the rest of us are invited to join study groups. It’s a beginner’s class for me, and down a long hall to a back room with rows of plastic school chairs and a teacher expecting twins soon; she has a hard time getting close enough to the chalk board to write.

I am given a copy of a thin book called “Gospel Principles,” comprised of 47 short chapters designed to introduce the faith to newcomers. Today we discuss the chapter called “Signs of the Second Coming.” It outlines all the usual stuff like war and pestilence.

Flipping through the booklet, I notice photos of regular people doing boring, everyday stuff peppered with over-the-top illustrations of Jesus and intergalactic cloud bursts. The artwork perfectly captures Mormon’s dualism: earth-bound responsibilities side-by-side with celestial fantasies.

Only a single hint of something exotic occurs the entire day. It’s during the service at the blessing of a newborn. In a frilly bonnet and ruffled dress, she looks like a doll. Her father carries her to the altar and a group of men gathers, each putting a hand to the baby. Together, they wish only good things for this precious life, but something about the sight of a fortress of men surrounding a tiny girl sends a tingle up my spine—whether for being creepy or just odd, I’m not sure. I’m reminded that men in this denomination are considered priests during their human incarnations and that beyond this life they hope for a powerful promotion.

For a second, it’s like the diaphanous drape flutters open and I get a quick glimpse of the quirky ceremonies that supposedly take place in the hidden chambers and back rooms of Mormon temples everywhere. From what I surmise, believers act out momentous occasions; they might pantomime death, make believe meeting God, and pretend to travel through the afterlife. These rituals are the elaborate secret handshakes in a cosmic clubhouse. The baby remains motionless for the duration, then the men return to their seats and the curtain closes and everything is normal again.

Smith encouraged people to make up their own minds. In his writings, he instructs anyone who is unsure about a topic to plant a seed of a question in their hearts and observe the answer that grows. This would seem an invitation to any divergent opinions that may arise, even a change as radical as ditching a central principle of the faith. Smith must have understood that faith isn’t something one can set like concrete. The history of Christianity, especially on these soils, is an endless series of modifications to create practices more meaningful or palatable to contemporary tastes. Over and over again people have taken the parts that work for them, and discarded those that don’t.

Orderville

What was I expecting from the Mormon service? I guess after reading about Joseph Smith’s theology, I was worried it might be like a page ripped from a science fiction novel. Taking my seat, I scan fruitlessly for the cast of oddball characters; disappointingly, I spy not even one “homeboy” or biker dude, as suggested by the Mormon commercials.

No, the big room is filled with my best but most boring neighbors—the ones with meticulously-kept lawns and who never park their cars on the street. These are the foot soldiers of the garage-proud army who “accidentally” leave their automatic garage doors gaping to show off how well tamed they keep spaces so vulnerable to filth and chaos. As if a tidy garage is a reflection of the purity of the soul, a final step of getting right with God.

One of the Mormon settlements before Salt Lake City was called “Orderville,” which I thought sounded like a terrible name but now realize was a term of endearment given by these experts at organizing people and spaces. I understand why new converts might be inclined to join these individuals so skilled at taming the wildness of each new frontier.

The day’s proceedings are decidedly earth-bound. The program doesn’t include an official sermon, just regular congregants who give brief talks; it seems everyone is encouraged to commit to one of these from time to time to make up the bulk of every service.

Today, two teenage girls share the podium, each dedicating a few minutes to the topic of volunteer work. They are, like, totally into it. Next, a young man elaborates on the theme of righteous living. It is real, real important. None of the speakers demonstrates particularly stellar oratory skill; they are as awkward and bumbling as I would be up there.

Most of the remaining time is dedicated to an administrative matter: this ward is splitting in two. I can’t believe my luck to be here to witness the reproductive process this organism of a denomination has used to grow so mighty over the last 100 years.

Apparently the population of Mormons in the vicinity of my house has climbed steadily for the last decade and now the congregants who show up at this time slot are too numerous. The pews are not enough and the addition of several rows of folding chairs is no longer sufficient and often latecomers are left to stand at the back of the chapel. The Assistant Bishop whose domain includes several wards takes the podium to say a few words regarding this matter. Starting the following week, he explains, one portion of this ward will show up for the 1 o’clock service and the other will begin at the new 3 o’clock slot. Like everything else, the division is determined by the location of each family’s home.

He acknowledges how difficult this transition is, especially because the group has been worshipping together for many years and close ties may tempt some to choose one time over the other based on friendships rather than street addresses. He stresses the importance of abiding by the rules. He assures us that over time we will grow not only comfortable with, but even to love, our new ward mates and he hints that soon what began as this one ward may require a brand new meetinghouse. I sense chests welling with pride, and the seeds of determination silently sprouting. Slowly, taking cues from nature, one ward split at a time, the Mormon Church will expand. It’s all so rudimentary. Anyone who has ever participated in a campaign or community organizing effort will recognize the nuts and bolts of this discussion.

For the first time ever, I actually know the hymns. We sing Come All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World even though it is over a month until Christmas. Despite the inclusion of verses I had never heard, the familiarity is comforting.

Most of what unfolded that afternoon seemed as elementary as the water we drank in place of wine for communion.

American ingenuity

Religious critic Harold Bloom calls Mormon-founder Joseph Smith, Jr. “the most gifted and authentic of all American prophets.” Bloom explains that Smith didn’t just passively read the Bible, but “drowned” in it and “came up with an almost near identification with the ancient Hebrews.”

Smith believed his time was a vital piece of the Biblical story, as was his country. In his world view, the Bible’s Garden of Eden was actually located in western Missouri and Noah built his ark to survive the swelling of the Mississippi river. Smith taught that after Jesus was crucified and rose from his tomb he roamed the American continent to preach directly to its inhabitants before ascending to heaven. All this and more Smith learned from a collection of golden tablets created by Native Americans, who he believed were actually descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. They committed these secrets to the tablets and then tucked them away on a hillside near the farm where Smith grew up in New York. Smith claims he was led to them by an angel named Moroni and that he translated their message by looking through a set of “seer stones.”

I find it fascinating that an otherwise ordinary New York farm boy took a centuries-old faith and made it so utterly his own, inserting himself into the story and making his land the backdrop for important plot points. If this doesn’t scream “American ingenuity” I don’t know what does.

The Book of Mormon and Smith’s other writings are like a bridge connecting Biblical locations and times to here and now. Together with the Old and New Testaments, they are the Mormon holy books, bound into one tome that is striking in its girth. I spied several people lugging it around during my visit to the church. Stand on it and you’re at least a foot closer to God. The fact that Mormons carry it as one giant book is as telling as their church’s official name. Jesus’ time and today are not separate entities, but one continuous era in which we are now in the latter days.

For all the specificity of Smith’s vision, at its core it speaks to the same sources of suffering that Christianity has addressed since the beginning. For those of us grappling with our worthiness, Smith taught that being born as a human on earth is a reward for proving ourselves faithful to God in the spirit world. Though we may not remember it, each of us on this planet has demonstrated our value and is currently enjoying the prize. What a lovely solution to the guilt we might feel even subconsciously that we’ll never do anything good enough to deserve our lives: we’ve already done it.

Smith also taught that death is a return to our true nature as ever-lasting, cosmos-dwelling spirits. If anything, death is an event to welcome because greater challenges lay beyond it. Our earth-bound incarnation is simply an opportunity to demonstrate our ability and desire to be fathers and mothers of our own celestial kingdoms, where we are “sealed” for eternity with our loved ones.

To Smith, plural marriage was an indispensable tool for achieving this goal.

Even though its importance is downplayed by church leaders today, some religious critics including Bloom agree that Smith’s writings make it clear how essential he considered polygamy to his doctrine. While most Mormons have distanced themselves from the practice, Bloom speculates that at the upper echelons and in secret chambers many are more committed to it than they let on publicly.

If this true, I opt not to be scandalized. As long as adults are making their own choices, I don’t see a need to pass judgment. How a person draws closer to God is a private matter, and plural marriage seems equipped with its own hardships.

Commercials

The woman makes a beeline for me.

I’ve been standing in the crowded chapel for fewer than five seconds when her eyes lock on me from across the room; she turns in my direction with the single-minded intensity of a cougar stalking a chipmunk. I force a smile that says, ‘I taste awful.’

I am surprised at how quickly she recognized me as an outsider. For the first time ever, I actually looked up, and then followed, the dressing suggestions on the denominational website. It says ladies generally wear skirts or dresses, so I dug deep into the back of my closet. I even dusted off a pair of old tights. Maybe I’m a bit on the jumpy side because of my preconceived notions of Mormons as a somewhat closed society.

“I saw the commercials,” I screech defensively. I had been planning to worship with the Latter-day Saints all along but they’re not listed in the Worship Directory so I was feeling reluctant. Then I began to see the commercials on television.

I don’t know if it’s a national marketing campaign, but the commercials have been in heavy rotation where I live. Each one has a similar format. The camera focuses on a face and flashes different scenes of the person going about his or her day like a mini-documentary about an ordinary, yet somewhat interesting, individual and just when you’re wondering what the heck this ad is for, they spring it on you: the person says “I’m a Mormon.” It tells you to get more information at Mormon.org.

The ones I’ve seen feature a young Chicano dressed in a shirt buttoned at the collar and baggy pants and sunglasses. In Los Angeles, he is what you might call a “homeboy.” The camera follows him riding his tricked out bicycle with the handlebars way up. Then it shows him giggling with his mother and the voiceover goes, “My name is Valentin and I’m a Mormon.” The first time I saw it, I was like, “No way. Valentin? A Mormon?” The other one that’s caught my eye highlights a big dude with a bald head and full mustache; he looks like he runs with the Hell’s Angels. But, no, his name is Allan and he’s a Mormon.

It is a very effective marketing strategy because it increased my confidence about attending services at the meetinghouse. I mean, if Allan and Valentin are welcome, then I shouldn’t be a problem, right? At the very least, it signaled to me that Mormons are looking to change perceptions regarding their inclusivity.

“That’s great!” she says about the commercials. Up close, she is surprisingly young. I was fooled by how mature she looked from afar. That’s the thing about Mormons: they look and behave like grownups very early. They seem to avoid the angsty pitfalls so many of us experience in our 20’s and 30’s. We Nones are lucky to approach middle age having developed the emotional capacity and patience to share our personal space with a pet and perhaps another human being. By then, Mormons have a bundle of children and marriages going on 20 years.

I’ve been admiring and rubbing shoulders with Mormons for most of my life. It began when I would sit in front of the television as a tiny kid, enthralled by the Donnie and Marie Osmond Show. Since then, I’ve had Mormon landlords, coworkers, and acquaintances. I’ve watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform Christmas carols on television. I’ve visited Salt Lake City and walked around the temple complex, their most sacred collection of buildings. I’ve marveled at the basic story of these pioneering people who trekked across the country, got kicked out of a lot of places, and finally settled in Utah. But until now, I had zero knowledge about their belief system.

Some of Joseph Smith’s ideas were so cosmic, so not bound to earth, that I struggle to wrap my mind around them. His vision was of a heaven filled with billions of spirit children “begotten” by “Heavenly Father” and “Heavenly Mother” in a celestial world near Kolob, the name he gave a theoretical star in the universe. The human forms we experience now are but a mere step, a brief incarnation, on an epic journey toward perfecting our spirit existence…

The meetinghouse

This story seems to keep circling death like a vulture. Is mortality ultimately what religion is about? Imagining elaborate solutions to save us from our creaturely fates? In a sense, I welcome any evidence that a fear I have experienced so intensely and privately, that has made me feel terrified and alone, is shared by so many. People gather to indulge in identities that will live on and on forever. We think up ways around death and disease, giving ourselves unspoiled bodies or spotless souls endlessly, which, in a sense, is to acquire the characteristics of God.

Because what is God if not flawless and eternal? It seems most believers, regardless of what shape their almighty takes, can agree on at least those two characteristics.

Although stating plainly this underlying desire for humans to achieve God-like qualities seems to be frowned upon, making the clarity with which it is expressed in Mormon theology almost a relief. Joseph Smith, the founder of Latter-day Saints, made no bones about it: man is on an epic quest to become a god. He was equally clear about the flip side of this equation: God, the Heavenly Father of this world, was once an ordinary man.

Technically, the building I’m visiting this morning is not called a “church.” Mormons refer to their places of worship as “meetinghouses.” In many larger metropolitan areas, Mormons also have “temples.” These are usually big, elaborate buildings on a hill with smooth stone surfaces and tall otherworldly spires. Sometimes they’re lit at night so that you can see them from faraway, like the headquarters for some fantastical Oz. If you look closely, you might see a figure at the tippy top of the tallest spire. This is the angel Moroni, who visited Joseph Smith Jr. and led him to the golden tablets from which he translated the Book of Mormon. A lot of times the statue is gold and holds a bugle.

The temples are the sites of special ceremonies and baptisms, not ordinary Sunday services. Every region has access to a temple even if you have to go a ways. The closest one to me is about an hour and half drive. But regular weekly services take place in the meetinghouses, which often look like regular churches.

One day I drove past a newly constructed Mormon “meetinghouse” about eight miles from my house. The fancy-looking church building seems to have sprung up overnight behind an Office Depot. I was curious so I pulled into the expansive parking lot and got close enough to read the simple stone placard: The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Then and there, I made up my mind: this is where I wanted to attend Mormon services. It was so pretty and new. The only task was to determine what time to show up on Sunday.

I discover Mormonism doesn’t work like that. Unlike other denominations where you can decide where you worship based on a whim, where and what time on Sunday you attend Mormon services is tied strictly to the location of your home. Online at the official Mormon website, I type in my street address and zip code and up pops the identity of my small geographical zone, or “ward.” From this I can find out which meetinghouse to attend and at what time. The bad news is I’m not assigned to the one behind Office Depot, but to a much older place closer to my house. The good news is my meeting time is not until 1 o’clock. I can sleep in.

Maybe I can have my brunch and be a Mormon too!