Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two vastly different stories

Tuesday had two vastly different stories about Mormons in the International Press.

As for the first story -- it is a solid, mostly accurate -- piece about Mormons in Liverpool.

My own Williams ancestors came from Liverpool.  It does, unfortunately, push a misunderstanding of the Book of Mormon forward by saying that is the story of a Jewish family.  It is significant doctrinally that the Book of Mormon story begins with the story of a family from the House of Joseph, not the House of Judah. 

It also openly said the stereotype of Mormons is an American in a business suit.  (Our Mormon missionaries do dress nicely, so, I suppose that is an OK stereotype, as these go, but business suits -- there are linkages with Mormon business and all the negative historical baggage that goes with that -- in the same way Jews are stereotyped as money-grubbing.) 

Be that as it may, I liked the piece.  It seemed fair-minded and was light-hearted and mostly positive.

The second, unfortunately, had little to recommend it.  It was prominent on the front page of the Los Angeles Times -- sometimes I wonder if the L.A. Times likes to pick on the church -- in its daily front-page feature, Column One.  The article is about an excommunicated Mormon who published a calendar featuring provocative men without their shirts on.  

As a Mormon, I always get a kick out of so-called controversies media say are playing within the church, pitting liberals against conservatives, a "flashpoint of controversy," like that.  They are so different from the way I experience these things.   In my local ward, no one has talked about it.  No one I meet has ever talked about it.  Now, I sure some do care, somewhere, but it isn't something we spend a lot of time on.  It is a tepid controversy, at best. The Times, therefore, must provide better evidence than a few blog posts that it is a huge controversy if they say it is a flashpoint when experience says it isn't.  

That the L.A. Times considers it worthy of the front-page suggests that they believe it has news value of both controversy and unusualness and breaking of labels -- going against type -- the types the L.A. Times holds of Mormons. In those assumptions about us, there are misunderstandings and misrepresentation, which are painful.

As for the details of the young man's excommunication, I wouldn't speak to them save to say that excommunications are private affairs and church leaders, out of respect for the process and the person, generally say nothing publicly about what happened.  There are perhaps people in my congregation who have been through an excommunication about which I don't know - or not.  It is out of kindness and repentance that we don't talk about it.  Excommunication is a way for a person to work out their mistakes in private.  So, we only get one side of the story here -- journalism needs both sides.

As a person who studies Mormon portrayals, however, my main issue with this article is that there is an irony worth noting.  The story quotes someone who says the calendar is about taking Mormons out of the robotic box that we supposedly live in, about breaking stereotypes of a repressed religion.

This is a common stereotype and unfounded.  My reading of Mormon doctrine -- I wouldn't speak for the church in an official way -- is that we have a very healthy attitude about intimate relationships, that such are healthy and normal and god-given, but that they are for the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman and should be treated with care and respect and sacredness.  So, Mormons abhor pornography and all gratuitous titillation -- not out of fear or some sense of control, but out of respect for the appropriate place for intimate relationships and out of respect for ourselves and others.  We would not objectify another person.

We take it so seriously that we believe adultery is just beneath murder in the realm of sin, but that doesn't mean we are repressed somehow -- we just put these powerful feelings in what we deem their proper place.

What is ironic is that Mormons have from the early days of the church been seen as dangerous for the way we deal with intimate relationships.  What has changed is the way such danger is portrayed and understood.  In the 19th century and into the 20th portrayals, Mormons were the most dangerous of predators, sending out missionaries who grabbed women for their harems -- something like that.  This is what popular fiction of that era portrayed Mormons as.  But today, the danger, portrayed in such plays as Angels in America and in media representations is that Mormons are the opposite -- too repressed and repressive.  (This article is a perfect case study of this kind of stereotype.) As a Mormon, therefore, you can't win.

It is a reminder that stereotypes say as much about those using them as about those whom the stereotype is supposedly about.

The L.A. Times can do better.

One odd note, however, it is the first time that I am aware that the heroic Book of Mormon figure -- Captain Moroni -- has been mentioned in the popular press.  Too bad it didn't talk about the dynamics of that powerful story in a modern era of terror, but turned the dramatic, miraculous Book of Mormon into a caricature of repression and militarism.


  1. Cool post! Welcome to the world of blog!

  2. "It also openly said the stereotype of Mormons is an American in a business suit....but business suits -- there are linkages with Mormon business and all the negative historical baggage that goes with that"

    When I was in the MTC that was actually the adjective they used to describe what kind of suit was appropriate. Even hairstyle -- "as if you were going to a business meeting." In fact, I'm certain the Missionary Manual contains the same terminology. So any connotation is really a result of accuracy.

    Great post. Very interesting stuff.