Mormons have become recognizable enough to be a part of the way popular culture depicts people of faith. This week on Utah NOW we’re asking how the perception of Latter-day Saints is changing, and how it’s different when the work comes not from the outside, but from believers themselves.
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Dialogue is a journal of Mormon thought, and the magazine is celebrating it's 40th anniversary this Fall.
Mormons have become recognizable enough to be a part of the way popular culture depicts people of faith.
Tonight how are the perceptions of Latter‑day Saints changing?
How is it different when the word comes not from outsiders, but from believers themselves?
[Doug Fabrizio, Host]:
Hello and welcome to Utah now I'm Doug Fabrizio.
The well‑worn aphorism be careful what you wish for could be applied to the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints has come to be perceived in American culture.
For generations leaders have been trying to move the church into the mainstream, and by most accounts you can say they've arrived.
But recognition is always a mixed blessing.
Not all impressions of Mormons in popular culture are faith‑promoting or even all that flattering.
And as Mormon culture becomes more recognizable to the world, the subtleties of who and what defines them are becoming blurred. Not just from the outside, but from within.
In Focus: Lights, Camera, Saints
There was a time when religion was mostly off‑limits to the creators of popular culture.
Religious beliefs tend to be particular and can be divisive so films and television programs trying to attract a mass audience just kept away.
But more and more the issues of morality and characters with a distinctive faith are showing up in the story lines and lyrics of main stream culture.
Dennis Potter a philosophy professor at Utah Valley State College says there's been a cultural shift inside the church.
[Dennis Potter, Professor, Utah Valley State College]:
Some segments of the religious community have—come to sort of embrace pop culture, so for example in Evangelical Christianity you see pop music, but it's pop music that has Christian content.
Even punk rock they've incorporated that into their culture and you have punk rockers for Jesus.
But then on the other hand you have mainstream pop culture itself is starting to reflect religious themes more than they have in the past.
Along with other faiths, Mormons have become recognizable enough to be depicted in main stream media. Mormonism and popular culture was the theme of this year's sun stone symposium.
[South Park Video at Symposium]:
(Townspeople): Joseph Smith was called a prophet.
(Man): I told my wife that you spoke with God and Jesus and she didn't believe it.
(Joseph): Well it's true, I did.
Those who attended this session got all the jokes and the references in the montage.
Part of the purpose of organizations like Sun Stone and Dialogue is to explore how Latter‑day Saints negotiate a world they're a part of but expected to be apart from.
It's one thing to see how outsiders portray the Mormon world, it's quite another to see how Mormons portray themselves.
I think the portrayals have been becoming more accurate of Mormons, but I also think that to some extent Mormons have made significant efforts to assimilate into American culture by trying to make themselves more visible, by insisting that they really are Christians, and that their beliefs fit into Christian orthodoxy and also by participating in politics, especially conservative politics.
I think that's an important part of the Americanization of Mormonism.
It used to be that Mormons were sketched as sober puritans or polygamists. But that image has changed over time. Today most of America has come to see the Mormon caricature as impossibly kind if not a little vacant, but still peculiar.
The exaggeration of that squeaky clean image might do some, I don't know, some critical damage to some extent to the image of Mormons because it makes them seem a little bit naive, a little bit gullible. And it's clearly the case that main stream culture in America doesn't accept Mormon theology and finds it kind of strange and anyone who would believe this is kind of naive. I think that's the way it's portrayed.
But filmmakers and writers who happen to be Latter‑day Saints face a unique dilemma.
In a faith so encompassing so intent on exporting the Mormon message should the religion be front and center in the art that they create or beside the point?
I think Mormons would like to be perceived a Christians. I think that's probably foremost in their minds that they be identified as Christians, but Christians of a unique or peculiar variety. They would also like to be seen as good people.
I think they've pretty much got one side of the equation and the other side of the equation is to have their theology portrayed in a more positive light, which it hasn't been so far.
Joining us now is the writer Phyllis Barber among her works is a memoir about growing up a Latter‑day Saint in Nevada, also with us is Paul Swenson a well known Utah journalist, he is also an associate professor in Communication at Utah Valley State College, he's also a writer and poet besides. Welcome to you both.
Let me start by asking, what are the impressions you think that main stream Americans have of Mormons? If they simply go off what they see in films and on television?
[Phyllis Barber, Author]:
Bearded polygamists for one, odd balls a little bit on the edge of everything. Polygamy is so huge.
Still, and that's what everyone thinks of when they think of Mormons.
What do you think?
[Paul Swenson, Poet] :
Well, because of Big Love, it's back in the consciousness. But I say I'm afraid, I don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing, but I think that for the most part Americans generally, Mormons make a very small indentation in their consciousness from film and other media, because what they see are glimpses and they're so small, they don't really register all that much.
That could be changing, and hopefully is. But you know, I think they see the missionary image with the back pack and the name tags, but they don't really get much underneath much of that, still.
So we're not seeing a Mormon hero yet in a popular cultural film. They're still kind of askew, a bit odd.
I think of Meryl Streep who would be a heroine in Angels in America but I think she comes the closest to anything I've seen in movies.
I feel strongly about Angels in America .
This is Tony Kushner's film.
Yes, and I think that although some Mormons objected to it and felt somehow pigeonholed by it, I think it had some real strong indications that Mormons are real people, that they have real problems, that they have to deal with marriage difficulties, we see the Mormon garment actually represented in that film in a way that I didn't think was disrespectful but was real.
Do Mormons see themselves, I guess how do they see themselves in popular culture?
I'm wondering if they want to be depicted as just part of, you know, one of the guys, one of those parts of main stream culture, or do they‑ ‑
It seems like there's this conflict going on, Mormons are told, as we sort of referenced before, be a part of the world but not of the world. Is there a bit of conflict going on in the way they want themselves to be depicted, do you think?
I definitely think so. I was active for 40 years of my life, I was inactive for 20 and I have been trying to reconnect with roots. But I still find that there's a tremendous, and I've been out in the world a lot of experience, a lot of things, and a lot of places and I fill feel that coming back to Utah, there's a pressure to say, be out of this world. And I mean I like to say be in the ward but not of the ward.
Paul, what do you think?
There is some tension there, I think there is and it remains‑ ‑
I think Mormons are unsure of themselves how much they want to show the world and how much they want to keep to themselves.
But they want, as was said in your opening, I think they do want to be seen as Christians who have a unique twist on Christianity, but there's, you know, if you read any of the Mormon blogs, some of this stuff gets discussed, and there is a tension about, if the world is tuning into this blog, what are they thinking of the things we're talking about?
And occasionally people do tune in from other places and other cultures, and make comments which are interesting.
I wonder about the conflict that may come into the mind of an artist, a writer, Phyllis, well both of you in this case. How much do you feel like you have to, frankly, spread the word, spread the gospel, I mean a proselyting mission is crucial to Mormonism. And I'm wondering as artists are trying to create art, how much do they feel like they have to, in one way or another, spread the word?
I think the message is clear coming from the first presidency that the artists are to build up the kingdom of God , at least that's the way I understand it. And so it's a little difficult when you want to venture into places that maybe are not approved of, and that might be considered even pornagraphic. When you want to entertain that in a novel for instance, it's like there is pressure not to do that.
Not that I'm saying that that's the direction I would go, but I feel a pressure all the time, and sometimes I will go into a little dark space, surround myself and say okay, write exactly what you think. And don't let‑ ‑ Because I mean I want to belong, I want to be a part of this, and I have a strong faith in many of the things. And so I find it a difficult thing sometimes.
I think if artists self‑consciously set out to write or create something that will first and foremost, be a proselyting tool, something in art gets lost. If you take honest stories, if you look for what's underneath the surface that is real, and is direct and honest, hopefully something will emerge for people that will say Mormons can be out front and talk about their lives in a way that maybe makes me interested more deeply in who they are, but I don't think you can make that your priority if you're going to create art.
Do you think that Mormons use popular culture, the films that they create, the plays they write, the books they write, as a means of making a statement? And maybe not a statement to the world so much, but sometimes a statement to those inside of the church or maybe even leaders themselves?
You take that.
Do you find yourself making statements in the things you write, Paul, whether consciously or not?
When I look back on stuff and somebody says to me, what were you meaning by that particular poem? And were you trying to state something about who you are?
Perhaps so. Perhaps that comes out. But I don't think you should set that as‑ ‑
I'm now going to write something that really exemplifies in a statement who I am.
If it comes out naturally, then maybe there's something worthwhile.
I try very hard to work against making a point. And I try to work from image or just a bit of dialogue or something like that, so that I'm not working like I want to make a point out of this story. Because I do feel that art approaches it much differently.
Let me put this question gently. Will religion, do you think, keep there from being a truly great, a truly brilliant Mormon writer, Mormon filmmaker? I mean does that keep it, is there a restriction there, the sort of moral, the value? Is that restraining?
Well it can be. But I think, in some ways, it might be a good thing, because some great literature has come out of, and other forms of art, have come out of a more controlled society, because people are having to work against restriction to find out what they think, and explore, and so it may actually, in the long run, turn out to be something that creates great art. I think it can happen.
I think a deep rub or a deep tension in a writer is what makes the work fine. So you have that here. So again, it takes a little courage to say okay where am I going to go?
And I want to be mindful of what's around me and the people around me.
I don't want to go in the face of all that but I also want to say, you know, let the art do this job it can do, which is maybe to tell a greater truth.
Thanks very much for being with us.
So this week's Vox Populi features the people in attendance at the recent sun stone symposium and they're reflecting on how outsiders and insiders portray the Mormon faith.
You don't go see a movie about Jews because they're Jews, now their people who have done a big job, Catholics are doing a big job. We still act like it's a major deal if we portray a Mormon in a film, they're not regular people.
I think the fringes are distorting the picture of the true mainstream Mormon.
I think they're doing a pretty good job, but I also say that they're usually focusing on the better aspects of the culture.
I think in some ways they're actually going more for the quirkiness of Mormons, and so it's kind of focuses more on that than the serious aspects some of the time.
Jewish culture doesn't explain it, they just talk about it, we haven't arrived there, we always have to be explaining what's going on. I'm sort of waiting for people who can write about Mormons because the story is interesting, not because they're Mormons.
Well joining us now is an observer of pop culture in Utah , Shawn P. Means is with us, he of course is the Salt Lake Tribune film critic, has been since 1993, he's written about the rise of Mormon cinema and the ways pop culture intersects with Mormon culture.
Also with us is Eric Samuelson he's a playwright whose stage play Peculiarities premiered at this year's Sun Stone Symposium.
He teaches at Brigham Young university, he's had placed produced throughout the United States . Welcome to you both. Thanks for being with us.
Let me ask you first, Shawn, what do you see, what's the image of Mormons being depicted these days and how is that different from it was, let's say, ten, fifteen years ago?
[Sean P. Means, Salt Lake Tribune Movie Critic]:
The difference between now and ten and fifteen years ago is they actually exist on screen.
That I mean ten, fifteen years ago if you saw a Mormon in a movie it was either, you know, some historical western where you saw some polygamist wagon train going past, or it was a missionary who was on screen just like a joke or something. And it was a joke that it could have been Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses not someone who's integral to a story. That may be the main difference is that LDS characters are coming out into the center of the picture now, just because you have LDS filmmakers who are making films that center on those characters. And that may be the one difference.
What do you see when you see popular culture and the images depicted of Mormons?
[Eric Samuelsen, Playwright]:
I think I could sum it up like this. Pop culture image of Mormons now is they're very pleasant people but‑ ‑ We're very pleasant people but we're hopelessly naive.
We're very pleasant people but in the example of South Park , filled with ridiculous theological ideas. We're very pleasant people, but we're very conservative, as in Angels in America .
And I think that that would‑ ‑ Most people have met Mormons and most people think positively towards them, or had a positive contact with Mormonism through, say, the Olympics and the coverage of the Olympics, but I think we're still seen as very nice people but with strange ideas or strange beliefs.
Do you think Shawn that's any different from other religious groups that you see depicted on films, for example, that they are, that they believe crazy things?
I mean how many religious characters are really the heroes of the film? I mean it's hard to be sort of hip and ironic when you have a belief system that's perceive the by the world as, you know, conservative in some ways?
A lot is the fact that even in mainstream films when a religion is depicted it's usually depicted by the people of that religion. Woody Allen makes movies about Jewish people.
Mel Gib son's movies tend to have a large Catholic following. And even movies which tend to be sort of catholic bashing are written by people who grew up with the nuns teaching them in 3 rd grade. So you very infrequently have outsiders telling the story of that religion, which is, in some places different than Mormonism. You mentioned South Park . Trey Parker and Mark Stone did Orgasmo they have done several episodes of South Park that have featured Mormons and that's an outsider perspective on the LDS faith.
What do you think?
Well I think that's right. I think that‑ ‑
That all religious people are sort of seen in a limited way, that it's not just that it's not just Mormons.
Yeah. I mean there's certainly been plenty of portrayals of heroic nuns or heroic priests plenty of portrayals of heroic figures or a variety of Jewish traditions.
I don't know we've ever seen for example a really positive portrayal of a Christian Evangelical for example. And by the same token I think that you have a heroic Mormon, I find myself wondering in what context, except for of course something like Saints and Soldiers which was made by people who are LDS.
It brings up point, I wanted to ask you first and get this question out of the way. How do you define a Mormon film?
A Mormon film is a film made by and about Mormons, or about Mormons, I should say.
So it has to be about. I wonder if you think Napoleon Dynamite not necessarily about Mormons, but made by a Mormon, Saints and Soldiers not an explicitly Mormon character. Does it have to be about Mormonism?
I think so yes. It should have LDS characters and LDS themes and have at least some discussion of the religion or the culture to really qualify as a quote unquote Mormon film.
Are you seeing kind of, then, an evolution that there was a time when Mormon filmmakers were kind of getting this out of their system, that they were talking about the nuances of Mormonism, the particulars of this is a ward, this is a stake, that they've gotten that out of their system now and can sort of move on to plot lines that are sort of where Mormonism is be side the point.
This happens with any subculture film. Black film, gay film, whatever. The first couple that come down the line try to cram everything in because they figure they'll never make another one. So they want to get everything they know about LDS or whatever in, you know, the first one because they're not sure that another LDS movie will ever be made. And we had that, we had God's Army , Brigham City and The Other Side of Heaven sort of as the van guard in the current wave of LDS films. But after that, when it became obvious that there was something of a market and there were more films made then you can get into sort of more specific story‑centric, more story‑centered ideas.
I want to ask you about the sense of whether or not they're feeling conflicted. Because Shawn you wrote in an article recently, you quoted Richard Dutcher one of the Mormon filmmakers who thinks the Mormon identity in fact does or should be front and center. This is an important thing and he's worried that Mormon filmmakers are going to put that aside. Talk about that.
Well you do have some LDS filmmakers who think the road to success is to cross over into the main stream, and the way to cross over into the main stream is to sort of dumb down the Mormonism a bit, or water it down a little bit. The most recent example was Church Ball which was made by the people who made the Singles Ward but it was called church ball but it was never identified what kind of church it was. The LDS references were pretty much denatured from the entire thing. And it felt like it. It felt like you were getting sort of a bland product. And you know what Dutcher has been saying is if you're going to be Mormon and talk about Mormonism in films do it. Just have it out there and let the consequences fall.
Less than a minute I want to get your take on this. Are Mormon filmmakers, play Wrights are they feeling conflicted?
Well, I mean the challenge that we face, I think, is if we write something that's‑ ‑
If we write something that Mormons might like, then we've limited our audience to just Mormons, whereas on the other hand if we write something that people outside Mormonism might like then we tend to water down what really excited us about the writing process to begin with. So yeah, I think we are a bit conflicted, and especially when we see that in the last year or so we've seen some of the most exciting LDS films and they've done very poorly in the box office. I think Richard Dutcher's States of Grace is a marvelous film and it did very poorly in the box office, as was New York Doll , which is a terrific film, again one that performed badly. So it's a little bit like as the market's gotten watered down, as the market sort of defused and gone away the films are getting better. A little irony there.
Gentlemen we're out of time. Thanks for being with us.
Speak Out Utah
In our speak out Utah segment this week Tom Barberi provides a tale of two Utahs .
What is Utah …..Well that depends on where you are. There are really 2 Utah 's. The one we live in and the one that the rest of the world thinks it is.
The Utah we live in is a wonderful, infuriating, complicated, friendly, isolated, an a cliquish contradiction at times. Even Mormons who move here from out of state are taken aback at how different things are from the Mormon culture in their home state.
In Utah Non-Mormons think Mormons are weird, arrogant and self-righteous because, well they own everything and run everything. Mormons think non-Mormons are heathens, misguided, interlopers but can be saved and converted. There is always a bit of Us Vs Them. It's just hard to tell if you are one of the Us or Them because while Utah is the reddest of red states, Salt Lake City has elected liberal Democrats for Mayor for more than a decade.
A great example of this, “Great Divide”, which is a video everyone should watch, is the annual production of “Saturday's Voyeur”. What other state has a wildly popular annual stage production skewering the states culture. And what other religion has movies made about it like “Gods Army” and “The Work and the Glory”?
As for the other Utah that people outside of the state see. There is HBO's Big Love show about a polygamist family living in Sandy Utah. You have the FBI putting Warren Jeffs, leader of a group of FLDS polygamists on their 10 Most Wanted List. Then there is Mitt Romney, the Republican Governor of mostly Democratic Massachusetts.
Here is the guy who saved the scandal ridden 2002 Utah Winter Olympic Games, and now is a serious candidate for President being looked at with a curious eye by the national press because he is a Mormon. And who can forget the near riots that occurred in Orem when UVSC invited Michael Moore to speak on campus?
No matter how many times the Mormon Church reminds the world that it abolished the practice of polygamy in 1890, the perception and connection between Mormons and polygamy persists. It is kind of like having a tattoo removed. Though it may be long gone, the scar remains.
Well that's Utah now for this evening, we appreciate you joining us. You can send us a message to our web site KUED .org. For more information about Mormon cinema, the Sun Stone Symposium and the Mormon journal Dialogues, KUED .org once again.
In the meantime we will be back against next Friday with another edition of Utah NOW.
Until then, I'm Doug Fabrizio.
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