Updated 4/30/07 2:09 p.m.
Times critic Neil Genzlinger calls PBS’ documentary about the Church a thoughtful series about a faith whose members and leaders believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive:
A proposition: If your beliefs are any good, you needn’t be afraid to bring them out into the light. The proof: “The Mormons,” a thoughtful two-part series tonight and tomorrow on PBS. The tenets of the Mormon church may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the church members and leaders who speak in this program are admirably forthright about their religion’s history, strengths and challenges. It’s great to hear people who believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive.
He calls the discussion about Mormon beliefs intriguing, and notes parallels with Judaism, Islam and early Christianity:
The installment would be interesting enough if it merely related the fascinating story of the founding and evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion more commonly known as Mormonism. But it also manages to mix in, through some well-chosen talking heads, an intriguing discussion of what faith is, what religion is and what the Mormon story has in common with Judaism, Islam and early Christianity.
The first installment (there are two on successive nights) of course deals with the traditional story of Joseph Smith and the Church’s founding:
The religion began with revelations to Joseph Smith in Palmyra, N.Y., in the 1820s, most notably the Book of Mormon, which he said was delivered to him on golden tablets. The resulting church, the program notes, is distinctive in that it was created in the United States and it is relatively young; its founding events are not shrouded in centuries of historical mist. That has made it an easy target for skepticism and scientific inquiry, but this program is not really interested in knocking down the church’s pillars. “All religion depends on revelation,” Harold Bloom is heard to say. “All revelation is supernatural.”
Part one also deals with the early Saints’ persecutions as well as their darker moments surrounding Mountain Meadows:
The persecutions endured by the early Mormons as they were driven west into Utah are starkly chronicled — the parallels to Judaism and other religions are unmistakable — and so is the gruesome flip side: the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, in which 120 people in a wagon train traveling through Utah were murdered by Mormons. Part I ends with the church in transition as the 19th century winds down, trying to fit into modern America.
Part two will explore how the Church which was once denounced by U.S. Presidents, now has a member who is running for that office, and another member who is currently the Senate Majority leader:
Part II opens with a promise to explore how the church went from being denounced by American presidents in the 1880s to having its famed singers, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, perform at presidential inaugurations a century later. But the promise isn’t really fulfilled. The installment ends up being a disjointed collage of personal stories from believers and critics. Two leading Mormon politicians, Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republican presidential candidate, merit brief mentions early on, but are never seen again.
Genzlinger calls PBS’ portrait of the Church compelling, and some of its teachings undeniably beautiful:
Yet the portrait of the modern-day church, which the program says has 12 million members worldwide, is compelling nonetheless. Some of its teachings — that marriage is eternal, that family is primary — have an undeniable beauty, and if the church isn’t shy about using excommunication to discourage deviance, even those who have been driven out speak of it with a certain affection.
There is a split personality at work here: Mormonism has clearly evolved — denouncing the polygamy it once sanctioned, for instance — but today seems determined to stand fast on issues like homosexuality. Marlin K. Jensen, a historian of the church, provides one of the program’s most compelling moments when he speaks to that subject head-on.
“If you’re going to live your life within the framework of the gospel and within the framework of our doctrine,” he says, “then you’ve got to choose to marry someone of the opposite sex, and if you can’t do that honestly, then your choice has to be to live a celibate life. And that is a very difficult choice.” Of those who have to make it, he says, “My heart goes out to them.” And you believe him.
I liked this review. I look forward to the series. The Church has officially commented on the series here. For more indepth reviews and commentary about the upcoming series, please check out the following posts:
For those who have questions about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I would recommend Justin’s posts over at Mormon Wasp: