Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hell House (2001)

Documentary on a Texas “Hell House”, a kind of Evangelical take on the traditional haunted house, only designed to scare visitors into salvation. While these events are generally taken to be in bad taste, the movie attempts to show the motivation of those who put these things on. Mostly they are good people, there intentions are to help, and if they feel they have to be exploitive to save a soul, they’ll be exploitive. One of the more interesting figures in the film is a single father of four (including one child with cerebral palsy) whose ex-wife had cheated on him with someone she meet online, well this gentlemen mines his own experience for one of the scenes in ‘hell house’, and to watch him watch that scene, is really quite surreal. Ironically though, the folks in ‘Hell House” seem decidedly less scary then those in ‘Jesus Camp’.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Visiting A Seventh-day Adventist Service

This week, as part of my continuing quest to visit as many different types of Church services as I can, I thought it might be fun to attend a Seventh-day Adventist meeting. As Saturday approached I almost decided not to go, until visiting the website of the Cloverdale Seventh-day Adventist Church (whose nearby building I’d long wanted to go into because it looks like something out of “Logan‘s Run”) , I learned that this Sabbath’s service would be on “How The World Will End”, which at least sounded interesting.

I found most of the early service rather boring to be honest, the “Children’s Story” really slowed things down, and the pastor was just a little too ‘game show personality’ for my taste. Also what’s the deal with the handshaking period? Most church’s have them, even Catholics, but it just seems awkward and a little forced to me. Us Mormons do our social fellowshipping informally before and after Sacrament meetings, which seems a lot more natural. Also Mormons don’t pass the plate, something I’m also not particularly fond of in other church’s. The music here however was okay, kind of ‘Gospel Homecoming Special’.

In fact much of the service wasn’t that different from those of your average Evangelical. Distinctively Seventh-day Adventist doctrines seemed almost absent from the proceedings, with church founder Ellen G. White referenced only once, during a prayer, and then indirectly: “Your servant, in her writings said….” The primary sermon, was delivered by a visiting pastor from Portland, who was in Boise doing preparations for an upcoming outreach/educational program called “God So Loved”. His “end of the world” talk was well presented, incorporating power-point style presentation, a few good stories, and an explanation of how the Adventist’s “Secret Rapture” differs from the popularized Evangelical rapture of the “Left Behind” series. On the whole though its seems (from my highly limited perspective) that Adventist theology differs only slightly from that of mainstream Evangelicalism, which might account for the uncertain statues it holds in the eyes of many of the latter’s faithful, meaning they don’t always know wither or not to group it with the Mormon’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses in ‘Cult’ statues.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Best Two Years (2003)

(Holland; contemporary)

Based on the stage play by writer/director Scott S. Anderson, ‘The Best Two Years’ retains a certain staginess, yet manages to be an affective film portrayal of the life of LDS missionaries. Now I must inform you that I am generally pretty critical of Mormon movies, especially when I suspect there going to be preachy, but ‘The Best Two Years’ surprised me. At first it was just hollow clich√©’, the new missionary Elder Hezekiah Calhoun (played by the ubiquities (in Mormon movies) Kirby Heyborne) was stereotypically ‘greenie’, a Oklahoma country boy only two years converted out of Roman Catholicism, and like most of Kirby’s performances seeming more like an impression than actual acting*. Though the film never really abandons its clich√©’s, it’s the same old ‘cynical missionary turned around by earnest missionary’ plot Mormons have seen before, it taps close enough to the lived experiences of an RM like me to reignite that mindset and evoke oth nostalgia and genuine spiritual feeling. The scene where Elder Rogers (K.C. Clyde) gives his ‘First Vision’ testimony to American expatriate Kyle Harrison, did evoke a little burning in my bosom, and took a bit of the edge off the cynicism that has grown in me since my mission, which is something of an accomplishment for a movie.

In fact the film has a number of parallels to both of Richards Dutcher’s missionary movies, ‘Gods Army’ and ‘States of Grace’, though in contrast to those films, Anderson’s lacks the same world weariness that turns so many Mormons off from the priors work. I would conjecture to say that which directors depiction of missionary life resonates most with any given R.M. says a lot about where that person is spiritually, though I would never-the-less say that both creators works are worth while. I didn’t expect to like ‘The Best Two Years’, I was poised to find it corny and skin deep, yet it penetrated spiritually and surprised and reminded me how sometimes we all need a “annoying greenie” to set things into perspective when we’re feeling a little worn down.

*I’ve long said of Kirby’s portrayal of a British officer in the otherwise above par ‘Saints and Solders’, that he seemed to be doing more of a David Niven impression then actually becoming a rounded character.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Mormon Hymns

One thing us Latter-day Saints are pretty good at is the composition of Hymns. Hymns have an important place in the LDS worship experience, and in fact section 25 of our Doctrine and Covenants contains a revelation from the Lord to Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet Joseph, commanding her to, among other things, compile a hymnal for the Church, which of course she did.

Our Hymnals contain many works common to other Christian denominations such as Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’, and the ubiquities ‘Onward Christian Solders’, as well many of the traditional Christmas Hymns (the most famous LDS composed Christmas Hymn is probably ’Far, Far Away on Judah’s Plans’ which also appears in some protestant Hymnals). Mormonism boasts its share of prolific Hymn writers, many of them church leaders, including in the early days Parly P. Pratt (’The Morning Breaks’) and W. W. Phelps (’The Spirit of God'), and in more modern times the likes of Bruce R. McConkie (‘I Believe in Christ‘). Jancie Kapp Perry is one of our more prominent modern Hymn writers, who has also collaborated on several albums with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, and had her work recorded by artists such as Gladys Knight.

Despite some powerful recent compositions like ’Faith in Every Footstep’ written for 1997’s 150th anniversary commemoration of the great Mormon pioneer trek, it is older Mormon hymns that get most of the attention. I am particularly fond of ’Redeemer of Israel’ and ’Carry On’ with their spirited 19th century of sense of religious triumphalism against great obstacles. That is a sentiment they share with what is probably Mormonism best known distinctive hymn ’All is Well’, written as a poem in the middle of the Iowa wilderness in 1846 by William Clayton, shortly after learning of the safe delivery of his son by a wife still in Nauvoo. This song expresses Clayton's spirit of triumph in adversity practically relevant to the mass Mormon migration then in progress, as he states in the 4th verse:

And should we die before our journey's through,
Happy day! all is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
O how we'll make this chorus swel
-- All is well! all is well!

In this glorious hymn Clayton expresses his joy at just being involved in the work of the Lord, and that nothing will stop that work from progressing, so that even if one were to die for the cause, he or she would still have had the honor of being a part of it.

Other Hymns of great religious/cultural importance to the Latter-day Saints include ‘In Our Lovely Deseret’ which is set to the Civil War marching tune ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.’ The Hymn is an idyllic odd to life in the Mormons desert kingdom then called Deseret (from a Book of Mormon term meaning ‘Beehive‘, and symbolizing thrift and unity):

In our lovely Deseret, Where the Saints of God have met, There's a multitude of children all around.
They are generous and brave; They have precious souls to save; They must listen and obey the gospel's sound.
Hark! hark! hark! 'tis children's music-- Children's voices, oh, how sweet,
When in innocence and love, Like the angels up above, They will happy hearts and cheerful faces meet.

That the children may live long And be beautiful and strong,Tea and coffee and tobacco they despise,
Drink no liquor, and they eatBut a very little meat, They are seeking to be great and good and wise.
Hark! hark! hark! 'tis children's music-- Children's voices, oh, how sweet,
When in innocence and love, Like the angels up above, They will happy hearts and cheerful faces meet.

Also worth note is Phelps ‘The Spirit of God’ composed for the 1836 dedication of the Kirtland Temple and sung at the dedications of all subsequent LDS Temples, as well as other significant occasions such as the 2000 dedication of the Conference Center in Salt Lake. This work might rightly be called the Mormon national anthem, and in fact serves as the anthem for a renewed ‘State of Deseret’ in author Orson Scott Cards book ‘The Folk of the Fringe’, which concerns the inhabitants of a Mormon state established after a nuclear war. The first verse and chorus:

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.

We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies of heaven:
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given
Henceforth and forever, amen and amen!

As a close tie in to the ‘Mormon national anthem’ the LDS Church has its own version of ‘Hail to the Chief’, which is sung at nearly all formal occasions when the Church president is present, its called ‘We Thank Thee Oh, God for a Prophet’:

We thank thee Oh God for a Prophet;
To guide us in these Latter-days.
We thank they for sending the gospel;
To Brighten our lives with its rays.
We thank thee for every blessing;
Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
We feel it a pleasure to serve thee;
And love to obey they command.

However if I had to pick out just one Hymn that I thought was the greatest LDS hymn, in terms of its sentiment, musicality, and doctrine conveyed, I would have to chose Eliza R. Snow’s ‘Oh, My Father’. Next to Emma Smith, Snow was probably the most widely known and celebrated Mormon of the 19th Century. At the time of her conversion to the Church she was already a poet of some renown, and continued to write throughout a busy life that would see her serve as the second president of the Church’s women’s organization The Relief Society, and be a very vocal exponent for both women’s suffrage, and the cause of polygamy (Snow was a plural wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, not to mention the sister of Lorenzo Snow, the 5th President of the LDS Church).

‘Oh, My Father’ beautifully conveys one of Mormonism’s most distinctive, controversial, and least talked about beliefs, that of the existence of a ‘Heavenly Mother’, from verse three:

I had learned to call thee Father,
Through thy Spirit from on high;
But until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?
No; the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.

Here the doctrine is logically presented as a rightful compliment to the existence of a ‘Heavenly Father’, and yet in conjunction with the music it’s spiritual import is also conveyed. The longing for the divine feminine so consistently suppressed or distorted in the patriarchal religions is reconciled with much of traditional Christian cosmology, from verse four:

When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I've completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.

The late Church president Ezra Taft Benson told a story of being a missionary in England in the 1920’s and being given the chance to convey but one aspect of his faith to a discerning women, he chose to play this song and spoke of the great spiritual understanding it brought between the two of them.

While I could go on for some time writing about the Hymns of the Latter-day Saint movement (and may actually do this at a later time), I hope that I have left the reader with something of a appreciation for the contributions of music to Mormonism.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A Mormon Larry Craig?

I recently came across this information and thought it might be interesting in light of the recent goings on with Idaho's senior senator.

Joseph Fielding Smith (30 January 1899—29 August 1964) was Presiding Patriarch and a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1942 until 1946.

Smith should not be confused with his grandfather, Joseph F. Smith, nor his uncle, Joseph Fielding Smith, both of whom served as Apostles and later as Presidents of the Church.Smith was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of LDS Apostle Hyrum M. Smith and Ida Elizabeth Bowman. He went to school at the University of Utah, where he majored in Theater. In 1929, he married Ruth Pingree.[1] Together they had 7 children, Ruth, Lynne, Ida, Joe, Denis, Hyrum and Pauline.[2].

At the age of 43, Smith was ordained a High Priest and Patriarch to the Church on 8 October 1942 by Church President Heber J. Grant. He served but four years before it was reported by the Church that he had requested to be released from his position. His request was granted by Church President George Albert Smith on 6 October 1946, with the Church announcing that Smith was released for reasons of "ill health."[3] After Smith's death it was discovered that the patriarch had been involved in a homosexual affair with a 21-year-old U.S. Navy sailor, who was also a Latter-day Saint.[4] Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the USA until 1974,[5] which may explain why "ill health" was given as the reason for the release.

After being released, Smith took his family to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he continued to raise his family. For a time, Smith was not allowed to hold any position in the church, but reportedly was "treated with compassion."[6] In 1957, Smith was again allowed to serve in the church after he had forsaken his homosexual behavior.[7] Shortly thereafter, Smith's wife Ruth wrote a letter to Church President David O. McKay expressing her gratitude for the church's help, stating, "I know, better than anyone else, the trial our family has been to you and to the authorities."[8] In 1957 and after, Smith served as a member of his stake's high council.

Smith died and was buried in Salt Lake City, Utah.

To follow up on this I was in the library today and looked for the entry on Joseph Fielding Smith II in a book on the history of the office of Presiding Patriarch. It included some quotations from the journals of George Albert Smith, the Church President at the time and a relative of Patriarch Smith. President Smith records very briefly that he dealt with the patriarchs 'situation' that day in council, and that the whole thing was 'heartbreaking'. I love that President Smith never submits Patriarch Smiths embarrassing situation to paper by name. The more I read about George Albert Smith the more I become convinced that he was quite the empathetic compassionate soul, as witnessed by his handling of the 'Conventionista's' and struggling Saints in Post-war Europe ect. I really need to read a biography on that man.