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How do I get my blog at: http://soulcast.com/mormonblog2
on beliefnet
My email: [email protected]

Joe, if you're referring to "Blog Heaven," the blog project Beliefnet put together a couple of years ago, I don't think they're still signing up. They recruited about 25 blogs to list as part of the feature (mine was one of them), but they haven't added any blogs or developed the feature at all since then.

They did add their own set of in-house blogs in a News & Blogs section. Funny how the media sites always see blogs as primarily about news.

The two commentators were Mario DePillis (non-Mormon professor somewhere in Massachusetts) and Richard Bennett (Religion, BYU). DePillis specifically criticized Jon Butler's comment about how the Mormons are unable yet to confront their past, suggesting that Butler was implying that the Mormons should be more like the Germans that are able to fully face their Nazi past. Bennett sharply criticized Whitney for her one-sided presentation of Mormon intellectuals, pointing to the open reception of his own recent work on the beginnings of proxy temple work published in BYU Studies.

David, it sounds like you were at the MHA session where the respondents presented their comments. Please, tell more. Despite the criticism, my impression (from reading; I wasn't there) was that Whitney's documentary was, on the whole, well received by the MHA crowd.


I don't know if you saw this, but the Church News (week ending May 12,2007) had a piece covering some of the reactions to 'The Mormons'.

The last paragraph says: "In view of the interest in the film, the Church News is embarking on a series of occasional articles in which troubling questions and adversarial criticisms against the faith of the Latter-day Saints--whether they come from the PBS documentary or from some other source--will be addressed. Responses will not be presented as official Church statements, but rather, as insights and analysis from faithful and knowledgable Church members that will be shared in the articles."

I hope you will either keep your eye out and blog on this occasional series, or that you will pass the suggestion on to someone who will (maybe Justin or someone at BCC). Alas, I don't get the Church News (I was looking at a relative's copy), and the series would likely be outside the scope of my blog.

If the Church News, in fact, tackles some of the troubling aspects of Mormon history, I will be truly impressed. It has been my impression forever that the Church does all it can do to suppress most of the lurid tales in its history. Irrespective of whether or not you Mormon intellectuals do, or do not, discuss the touchy parts of Church history, the Church has sanitized history as long as it has had a history. It isn't enough for the intellectuals to protect the church by crying, "look, we're discussing the things everyone says isn't being discussed in the Church". The Church must do it itself if it doesn't want to be accused of re-writing history. Even having such a discussion in the Church News is still shoving responsibility down one pay-grade from the hierarchy.

If the Church News feels this needs to be done, I suspect similar articles might run in the Ensign or be the subject of GA talks in the next Conference. The Church News is kind of a Utah thing; if they want to reach out to the rest of the Church, they need to use other tools too.

Overall I agree with Whitney about not labeling all the talking heads so that viewers could easily selectively filter. Those who got a lot of time in the program eventually revealed their own biases anyhow. But I feel badly for people such as Darius Gray that were included for a single sound bite. While the material in the sound bites might be accurate, such selective inclusion paints the individual in question inaccurately. That is regrettable.

I find Whitney's answer about what she'd have done with an additional hour interesting. I think most Mormons would have loved to see at least 20 minutes devoted to "Are Mormons Christian?" With both sides bringing out the big guns and letting viewers decide. To me that is the big question that was never addressed.

Also of note, Ken Verdoia appeared on local issues show "On the Record" and discussed The Mormons. He claims that he was interviewed for 10 hours and refused to answer theological questions, instead focusing on history. He seemed to be taking a lot of credit for the production. It was a bit odd.

I unfortunately had to leave the session before Bennett finished his critique. I know Bennett and respect his work (he's one of the few in the Religion Department I would consider an actual historian), but he is very direct and perhaps overbearing in his criticisms at conferences. I was told by a friend that although Whitney did not get a chance to answer Bennett's criticisms directly, she was able to partially do so in the Q&A. My friend indicated that she handled herself remarkably well and that the crowd was impressed.

Jared, this week's issue of the Church News addresses the topic of the First Vision: "Was Joseph Smith's First Vision a fanciful tale that evolved over the years? Or was it a genuine theophany in which he was indeed visited by the Father and the Son?" The article provides a response to comments made in the documentary by Greg Prince and Ken Clark.

Dave, my informant, who attended the whole session, described Whitney as "eaten alive" by both sides of the divide.

The Darius Grey clip was the only clip that angered me, since he was *completely* robbed of context. Mormons who don't know who he is have naturally assumed that he's some kind of disgruntled Exmo with a racial axe to grind, which couldn't be further from the truth.

When both parties complain about the job you've done in presenting information, I think you've been as honest and fair as you can be. It's a hard road finding middle ground and making everybody mad, but it's the best way to tell the truth.

From the Deseret News article,

Talking with a woman who had left the faith with her scholar-husband, Whitney asked her how she felt, and "she couldn't stop weeping for 10 minutes..."
(quote from Helen Whitney).

One of the aspects of "reporting" that has always disgusted me. In the face of human suffering and tragic loss, there's general some obviously insensitive dullard pushing in, pestering the sufferers to tell them, "How does it feel? How does it feel?"

It has always struck me as ironic, that those who would portray scenes that evoke compassion so often need to jab a sharp stick into the wounded body. For whatever reason, this element has become vital to balancing "objective" reporting.

I don't understand why. It can never take the place of representing genuine compassion. Instead it effectively replaces it with something that seems more akin to voyeurism. Or perhaps, just catering to the tastes of the blood-thirsty mob.

I attended this session and took a few notes:

Helen Whitney said the church must confront it's troublesome past. The church has been uncomfortable with this confrontation and has punished dissenters. But it appears the church is becoming more open towards it's past.

Mario DePilis, a long time scholar of Mormonism called it one of the best documentaries of any religion ever done, but noted three omissions: The Role of women, the temple, and the power of community. He thought the dichotomy between Elder Oaks and Margret Toscano was "stunning."

He said the church celebrates it's history while at the same time is afraid of it's history. The church should be like post-Nazi Germany and confront it's past and deal with it (he noted that he was not saying the church was like the Nazis, only that we should confront troublesome aspects of our past just like Germans have had to). However, he wondered if it is possible for this confrontation to occur while keeping faith alive.

Richard Bennett, of BYU's history department said "The Mormons" was a necessary wake up call to the church, who wants to share it's history. He said that we must share our entire history, and noted that the Church News will begin to publish difficult questions and answers on occasion.

He felt it was not balanced on the issue of Mormon intellectuals, saying it made intellectual confrontation appear inevitable. He and others are intellectuals and have never felt threatened by the church.

The Church curriculum is lacking for the intellectually minded and pointed out that the church cannot hope to close the mind of it's intellectual members.

Bennett also noted that education was not mentioned, and he didn't like the idea of blind obedience. He said that we are not in Mountain Meadows today, and it is unfair to remember the church for Mountain Meadows.

Helen Whitney then responded and took questions from the audience. She had breakfast with general authority Marlin K. Jensen (who is over the church history department, and who was featured extensively in the film), who she really likes. She suggested that we should be proud of our "juicy" quirkiness, and not suppress it, including that man may become as God (she was probably referring to president Hinckley's statement downplaying that idea on 60 minutes).

Regarding charges that she spent too much time on those excommunicated, she said that excommunication numbers were somewhat small, but not insignificant. It was noted that the church keeps excommunication records private and we really don't know the numbers who are excommunicated or leave the church. She had talked to over 1000 Mormons of all sorts. She found that many of them had underlying fears and practiced self-censorship when at church, or when talking about the church with others. She saw a lot of this and felt that while the act focused on only one dissident, she was not able to cover the whole field, and the time spent on the act was proportionate to amount of fear (of speaking out, or of asking difficult questions), doubt and self-censorship that appear to be part of the Mormon experience.

Someone pointed out that the room where church courts supposedly took place did not look like any church court they had ever seen, or participated in (I believe that Bennett [above] said this, and that he may have been a Stake President at some point in time). She replied that this was a metaphorical representation as to how the many that she had interviewed who had been excommunicated felt during their trial, and was not supposed to be an actual representation.

Someone asked what she would cover if she had more time. She replied that she would have had more stories about faith; coming into the church, leaving the church, wrestling with issues within the church. She talked about how details surrounding the translation of the Book of Abraham caused a couple to leave. The woman felt she could never get her compass back and found that she wept all the time, dearly missing the church, but not able to return to it.

Regarding the art used, she asked Trevor Southey to create an image of the complexity of Joseph Smith. He worked on it for months with no success, but finally was able to do it by portraying three images of Joseph Smith

She insisted that people not be identified as Mormons or non-Mormons. She has been heavily criticized for this decision, but she stood by it. She didn't want people prejudging what people had to say, or biasing their interpretation depending on who was saying what. She wanted everyone to listened to all sides equally.

She had a hard time getting Harold Bloom to participate, but she was friends with him and was finally able to talk him into participating.

Thanks, Claire, that's a marvelous summary of the comments at that session and fills in a few gaps from the article. It seems she has had to do a lot of explaining regarding her portrayal of Margaret Toscano and the sombre "courtroom" scene set up behind her. It sounds like Whitney used it to symbolize and represent not only Toscano's experience but also the experience of dozens of other Mormons who have either exited or who labor under "fear, doubt, and self-censorship," as you put it.

I find Richard Bennett's comments to be especially interesting. I haven't heard anyone describe the series as a "wakeup call."

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