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.