Thursday, May 28, 2009

The best church P.R.

As the international reporting on John Yettaw continues to give Mormonism a bad name, another article yesterday in New Zealand showed that just as the worst P.R. the church gets is from its people gone astray,  (Anybody besides me think that Yettaw may have a mental illness?) it's people, especially its young people, are its best P.R.

The glowing article in the Wellington Post talks of Adam Ruri, a former BYU student body president who has overcome the odds to be very successful in the U.S.  

I see this over and over again in the lives of the students I teach.  Mormonism produces good people -- the best P.R. the church has.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Winter's Quest

The Wall Street Journal recently recorded a warm story of man's journey to have a large coffee at every Starbucks in North America.

The poor man's quest is costly, and he sometimes has 125 coffees in a given weekend, and he now faces the depressing challenge that Starbucks, suffering along with the economy, is closing franchises, before he has a chance to visit them.   It is an impossible quest.

The man, who lives with his parents and has named himself Winter, is a remarkable case study of religion in the most general sense.  I don't wish to mock what is an unusual quest.  I think it illustrative of the human condition.

Follow me for a minute, if you wouldn't mind.

What is religion?  What is a story?  At their most basic, I submit they are largely the same thing.

Stories are, at their basis, problems and the manner of their resolution.

Villains cause the problems.  Victims or heroes deal with the problem.  There is usually an agent of some sort that redeems the hero or there is no resolution in tragedy -- and there is a cause to that redemption or its failure -- these are largely the morals or the basic morality -- of the story.  These resolutions require a journey.

Those agents that redeem inside stories may be the actions of the characters, the influence of a third party (a messiah), or even an idea or ideology.  They are what get us to our journey's destination.

Story is the heart of life.

So, religion's relationship with story is that religion is also about problems to be overcome.  In the end, the problems with which religion deals are the great problems of existence: sin, suffering and death.  Religions sort out causes and resolution differently, but many take us on quest.

In religion, believers often go to sacred places as a way to find God, who ultimately redeems us from the problems we face.  We go on a religious quest -- often at great peril and sacrifice. (That Mormonism is connected more deeply to this ancient tradition than some of more modern, more political Christianity is significant to me.)

 Much like Winter's quest to find coffee, such quest can seem absurd to an outsider, but this quest motive leads monks and others to great feats of self-discipline in their personal quest stories.

What Winter's quest shows is the deep yearning in the human soul, so often seeking redemption by the quest to find God or to find purpose in life.

We have lots of quest stories in my Mormon faith -- The Book of Mormon is often about a journey to a sacred place -- the wilderness and the promised land.  Each church unit is on a quest to become more like Zion.  The pioneers were seeking a place God had prepared so they could redeem their souls in part by worshipping him.

Our Temples -- holy, sacred places we sometimes call the Mountain of the Lord's House -- most profoundly reflect the role of pilgrimage to my Mormon faith.

Our Mormon journey to Temple is not unlike journeys to holy places in Eastern religions or medieval journeys to Canterbury or a Muslim's journey to Mecca, or Matsuo Basho's epic across Japan.

Or, for that matter, our quest seems much like environmentalism's quest to find redemptive meaning by journeys in wilderness areas or trekker's desire to find an epic experience.  Even the ritual journeys to art galleries, to concert halls and to historic sites tie into the quest story -- finding redemption through transcendent beauty and historical meaning.

So what Winter does isn't unusual.

Mormonism is a tradition dripping in story and in quest.  We get what seems to be Winter's yearning.

 That our ritual and religious practice connect our religious stories to God directly and to our personal problems and narrative and that our quest provides deep purpose and understanding for the grand journey in life makes my religion worthy indeed.

Temples, never far from news coverage of Mormonism for their supposed secrecy, make the quest of Mormon life to truly find God and heaven.

The subtle and powerful feelings I get in temples -- a satisfying end to this earthly quest -- teach that my life's journey's purpose will be worthwhile, better even than the impossible perfection of finding every Starbucks in the world.  My earthly quest to find the House of the Lord has taught me that I truly have a chance at redemption.

 I do like being a Mormon.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The hero, Sean Binnie

Sean Binnie, a U.K. soldier from Northern Ireland, died in Afghanistan.  The Belfast Telegraph reports his funeral is at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel.   I rely on Lexis/Nexis here and haven't found it online.

Of course, such doesn't mean that he was a Mormon, but it does make it quite possible, indeed likely.  Many of the U.K. media reports gave, not surprisingly, glowing reviews of the life and service of the brave, young hero.  (As here.) None, evidently, have said whether he was Mormon.

Two thoughts:

1.  If this young man was a Mormon, then why isn't this part of the stories while the same U.K. press mentions regularly the religion of the man who invaded the home of the Burmese dissident?  Such suggests an anti-Mormon bias, I think.  (There is a slight case to be made in that Yettaw was supposedly researching a book on religion ...)

2. In all of my reading of news articles about the church, it is as true in media as it is in face-to-face life.  The best public relations the church has is through people who live the gospel fully.  Stories of our missionaries and of our volunteers  -- and of our brave soldiers like this young man appears to be -- are almost always the most positive stories about the church.  Let your light so shine remains true.  Let's hope the press picks up on the Mormon angle, insofar as they pick up on it for the Burmese story.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Miviludes

An online publication, the Digital Journal, contains an article about one of the most troubling organizations in the Western World, France's Inter-ministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviancy.  

This influential organization monitors 50 groups, including Mormons, for their activities that may be deemed illegal -- certain kinds of proselytizing.  This year, the organization, called the Miviludes, issued a report critical of activities of these religions in their dealings with the United Nations -- not necessarily Mormons.

This organization remains a waste of taxpayer dollars.  France deserves all the scorn it can get for allowing this organization what influence it has.  Still, the State Department suggests that there as been little religious discrimination in practice as a result of this organization's work.  That Miviludes succeeds in marginalizing certain sects seems likely.  That it likely hinders Mormon proselytizing also seems likely.  (And if some sects are marginalized and threatened, the so-called dangers do grow more likely.)

Why there are fewer articles about this important organization than there are is a mystery to me.  Kudos to this international publication for trying to start this conversation anew.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mormon Radio Launches

Without doubt, the launch this week of the Mormon Radio Channel is a visionary, dramatic use of new media by the church. It is a radio channel not broadcast over the air.  (I know of no similar approach by any organization, let alone religion.) Instead, it is an Internet site with an Apple iPhone app following soon so iPhone users can listen on their radios.  Don't be surprised if over-the-air stations ultimately pick it up.

It also looks to be solidly programmed -- thoughtful, uplifting content.

Producing 24-hours-a-day will be a challenge to fill, but it appears that they have done a great job in preparation -- not just a hodge-podge.

Such is just the latest in a series of relevant, thoughtful efforts by church leaders to embrace new media, including the Mormon Messages channel on YouTube and BYU-TV.  This is very exciting stuff.

I can hardly wait for what happens next.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Maybe a little moralizing

The Australian -- the leading newspaper in Australia -- had another article this week about a Mormon in trouble with the law.  The article asked whether the Mormon church profited from the member's alleged illegal scams.  The church accurately denied any reports.  The church never takes donations from corporations or from governments to run what it does -- so it can remain independent.

Let me moralize here.  Mormons are noticed, especially internationally.  As often as gracious papers like those in the American press, who chose not to report on the Burmese protester's religion, chose to ignore Mormon religion in their coverage of crime, there are still cases where the faith comes up.  

There is much to be said to being an example of the believers at all times and in all places.  As such, it can have a negative effect on the church when a person messes up.  Alas, the caravan moves on. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

More on Yettaw

Papers across Europe and around the world have been noting the fact that the man who landed Aung San Suu Kyi in so much trouble is a Mormon with a history of mental trauma and probable illness -- his ex-wife says, not surprisingly, that she thinks he suffers from bipolar disorder.

His Mormonism is almost never been mentioned in the American press that I can find -- save an important Associated Press article.

If it matters to anyone, Mormon doctrine says that Mormons should obey the law.  This is clearly a violation of the law and, therefore, this sad man is in violation of Mormon teaching.  

Beyond this, his strange stunt does little to help anyone with mental disabilities.

What a sad, sad story.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Nutty Mormon in the Guardian

As Massimo Introvigne so ably pointed out in the International Journal of Mormon Studies recently, the European Press does a poor job of evaluating Mormonism,  often getting their facts wrong and playing our faith as stereotype.

Today, London’s Guardian again framed Latter-day Saints as nut cases.  World-renowned Burmese peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi receive a visitor this week – a violation of her house arrest and a visit that appears that it will extend her tragic confinement. 

The visitor was John Yettaw, the Guardian reports, who was also arrested.  He had home-made flippers and swam about a mile across the lake that isolates her. 

Catch these stereotypes for strange people in the article:  He is a Vietnam vet.  He is from the Ozarks.  And, that’s right, he’s evidently a Mormon – supposedly working on a “faith-based” book on heroism.  He is even described as a “nutty fellow” in the article.

Credit, however, goes to The Washington Post.  Its much-more detailed, factual account of the event never brings up his faith – it isn’t relevant to the story.  So, when people say, "Why do reporters always bring up a Mormon’s faith in stories?" They don’t always know the times reporters don’t.

Here is a clear example of a media representative doing the right thing by not engaging in stereotype or bringing up a faith. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two very positive stories today

Two more stories worth reading:

The New York Times talks about the church approach to development in Downtown Salt Lake, one of the few major developments in the country that continues despite the downturn.  The reason, the church's debt-averse approach to finance.

The news room of the U.S. military's Southern Command, graciously talked much about the church's efforts to provide humanitarian assistance on the U.S.S. Comfort -- the Naval Hospital ship.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Misuse of The Book of Mormon

A column in the Boston Globe -- I perceive no ill intent -- this morning shows one of the great problems I have with media coverage of religion:  The handling of sacred texts.

(I found this Dear Margo column on Lexis-Nexis, but, for some reason couldn't find it on, so sorry about no link.)

In the advice column, a woman having an affair says the two men in her life fulfill different needs and that this is why polygamy must get started and what should she do, like that.  To Margo's credit, she is critical of the affair but then, jokingly, says that her reading of the Book of Mormon (actually her watching of Big Love, she jokes) makes her think that the writers assertion about polygamy's origin was also misguided.

The point here is not that the writer is making an invidious comparison between a mean-spirited television show and a sacred text.  The point here is that sacred texts are only very rarely consulted as sources in news articles.  This leaves the books open to caricature and joke because they are lessened in the media discourse through neglect.

 We don't learn what these books actually say in news accounts.  This is troublesome because sacred texts govern so much of how people actually live their lives and how they shape worldviews.  We can't learn how the world works without understanding how sacred texts often shape lives and purposes.  

In an era of terror and religious dispute, this is a mistake for journalism.

Were anyone actually serious enough to read it, the Book of Mormon is critical about polygamy -- save in unusual circumstances.  If anything, the Book of Mormon seems deeply critical of Deep Love with its focus on the prurient.

In fact, the Book of Mormon has much to say on torture, on peace, on war, on terrorism -- much of it deeply challenging and insightful.  Accordingly, why not consult what it actually says and make journalism more insightful?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Four stories.

Four interesting stories involving Mormonism:

1. USA Today reports that church business officials, looking at cars for the church's fleet, took a trip to a resort in Arizona at GM's expense.  It didn't make the church look bad, but it was interesting that of all the organizations the reporters could pick,  they picked an oil company and the church.  As a framing choice, I'm not sure it makes the reporter look too good.

2. A Washington Times article about the Miss USA Pageant carefully linked the way Mormons have been protested with the prejudice the Miss USA candidate faced in her efforts to speak out against gay marriage.

3.  Marie Osmond -- in Britain's tabloid the Sun -- is said to fully support her gay daughter.  The point being?

  Wouldn't it be difficult to carry the weight of the world Marie has had to carry? Think of the cultural expectations she has had -- from body image to religion to being a working mom in contrast to her brother's weight.  She is someone to admire.  Her Children's Miracle Network work has helped thousands of families.  

There are inferences that she supports gay marriage in these articles, but who knows?

4. Utah Travel.  Once again, a travel piece in the Sunday Mirror in London proves that Mormons look best when they are allowed to speak for themselves.  This kind travel piece is about as glowing a report about Utah as could be hoped, and Mormons come off looking gracious and normal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An excellent article

I am a fan of the Center for Public Integrity -- a center of non-profit journalism.

Its new investigation on the mortgage meltdown is very important and sophisticated in its presentation.  I recommend it.

SL Trib story on baptisms for the dead

The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, again brought up the topic of the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead.

Media coverage of this topic is complex and problematic for Mormons on many levels.  I acknowledge that those not of the faith can sometimes have ambivalent feelings about it.

Why is it problematic?  It is an unusual doctrine in modern Christianity and has the effect -- in news coverage -- of making Mormons appear as outsiders and secretive and weird -- as vaguely dangerous, therefore.  As such, all writing on it, I believe, needs the context that it is a traditional Christian practice with scriptural support.

I would say the belief is sincere.  I would suggest looking at 1 Corinthians 15:29 for evidence of this practice being scripturally based.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Elder Andersen in the St. Pete Times

One of America's truly great newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times, did a Q. and A. with Elder Neil Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The interview was wonderful and Elder Andersen, who has ties in the Tampa/St. Petersburg Area, came off looking very good.  Very worth reading for Latter-day Saints.

One of his thoughts about the news media was:

"We are very well treated, and we are thankful for that. We don't want to have a persecution complex. We would like to be seen as Christian people who are first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ. We would secondly like to be seen as very good but normal citizens in our communities, that we are doing our best to raise our children, assist in our community and help in our neighborhoods."

Of all the things my research has taught me about the faith and news media, it is the remarkable accomplishments in public relations the church has accomplished in its history. Men like John Taylor and Thomas Kane (not a member of the faith) helped preserve the faith, with God's help, obviously, during some of its darkest hours by the power of the written word.  Women like Emmeline B. Wells were among the greatest defenders of the faith as well.

  President Hinckley's work correlates with the rise of the church being fairly well treated by the news media.  It is among his greatest accomplishments as a servant of the Lord.

Mormons were among the nation's ultimate pariahs in the 19th Century.  There was essentially no positive news coverage.  And the negative coverage was deeply hurtful and hugely stereotypical. From the very beginning, even before the church was founded, media conveyed misunderstanding.  Let's face it, Mormons make some dramatic claims and, initially, the media did a mostly lousy job of conveying it.

Today, thanks to generations of hard work, though there are stereotypes that consistently emerge, it is clear that most reporters endeavor to treat the faith fairly and accurately.  The St. Petersburg Times is evidence of that.

There is no need for a persecution complex. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

A model for journalism in religion coverage

Ron Lieber's fantastic column in The New York Times on Friday is a model for how journalism can tackle religion respectfully.  That this approach to journalism and religion is rare is a disappointment.

Lieber looked at the moral dimensions of debt -- he quoted N. Eldon Tanner of the Church -- by comparing debt to bondage.

But how do we forgive debt in a time of economic trial?  He swept across a variety of moral traditions and even quoted the Holy Quran respectfully and what I perceived to be thoughtfully.

He rationally suggested that religion provides some useful thoughts on these topics.

In the 1990s, scholar Mark Silk -- in his seminal book Unsecular Media -- argued that news media cover religion only through superficial stereotypes (he calls them topoi), and that a challenge to media is to actually cover religion in ways that reflect how people actually live it.

Lieber's column is the best I have ever seen in major media, ever, in utilizing what religions actually say and attempts to be among the most respectful.  I say this while asserting that I sense he doesn't fully agree with President Tanner.

Kudos to The New York Times for this excellent piece of work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mormons and spaghetti Monsters and the Book of Mormon

Many countries relying on the British Common Law have a crime, or at least a tradition of something called blasphemous libel -- an undue criticism of any religion. It is part of many constitutions and, also subject to much secualr criticism. In Ireland, a minister has been talking about it.

Why this is of note here , is the conversation in the Irish Times about it has brought up Mormonism -- in a most unflattering way. A letter-writer wrote:

"Should I anticipate prosecution of those who utter blasphemy against Scientology, Mormonism, Ashanti mythology, Zoroastrianism, Baltic polytheism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?"

In other words, Mormons are very extreme and odd. My sense in reading the European Press -- much more so than the American Press -- about the faith is that Mormons are seen often as odd balls -- just this side of wacko in these writers' eyes.

In answer to these critics, I will always come back to the great either-or question of Mormonism in our defense.

If Joseph Smith were somehow not telling the truth about the Book of Mormon origin story, we would have to be considered followers of an oddball, so to speak, it is true.

But I implore those who do think we are oddballs: If you follow this logic about Joseph Smith, you must have a substantive explanation story about the Book of Mormon's origins.

It seems just as fanciful to believe the book is the product of Joseph Smith, in fact.

Basically, the Book of Mormon is a serious claim worthy of thought:

I have like 15 years of education, and I struggle to write a dissertation over five years. Brother Joseph wrote something longer -- if he wrote it, which I believe he didn't, he translated it by the power of God -- in about 60 days without edit in extreme poverty -- often lacking for paper. (Indeed, I know of no major American author who produced a book of such significance, fiction or otherwise, in such a short amount of time and in such poverty.) He had a third grade education.

Then there is this: Read the Book of Mormon and contrast it with his known writings and you see no similarity. The tone and word choice is vastly different. Beyond that, Joseph's preaching, as recording in the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, while profound, rarely rely on stories to make their points. The Book of Mormon drips in story -- and the stories are serious and timely to us today.

And many chapters, I recommend Alma 42 and 2 Nephi 2 as evidence, are profound in their depth and complexity of doctrine at thought -- all presented in a precious, simple way.

The historical records seems little in dispute. There were essentially no edits. He did it off the top of his head to several scribes -- if it were fiction. The book has more than 300 original, but Hebrew-sounding, names. 11 men signed affidavits -- which often cost them in their personal lives -- that they saw the Golden plates. None changed their story. Joseph Smith died defending his work -- never once wavering.

Beyond that, there isn't anything approaching a serious explanation of another source for the Book of Mormon, save this young man supposedly made it up. Remember, one of the historic criticisms of Joseph Smith is that he was stupid and lazy. Try producing a book in that short amount of time being stupid and lazy that meets all of these criteria.

It should be easy to find glaring inconsistencies that are the product of the 19th century. No one has. It is a prodigious challenge to explain the Book of Mormon without believing its origin story. No one has even come close to doing it.

Say I believe in a spaghetti-monster type religion if you will. I will remain in earnest.

The Book of Mormon is a miracle in a world in desperate need of one.