'Mormons' elicits a mixed response

Some praise the broadcast, while others find it offensive

Published: Wednesday, May 2 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

With few of the major issues facing the LDS Church left untouched, the final installment of the four-hour PBS documentary on "The Mormons" drew responses all across the board late Tuesday night among Utahns of different faiths — and particularly Latter-day Saints.

Sacred temple rites, death, family life, intellectual dissidents, excommunication, homosexuality, blacks and the priesthood, missionary work, conversion and obedience were among the topics chronicled in Tuesday night's installment, looking at the modern church.

Gold plates, angels, revelation, basic doctrine, persecution, polygamy and the Mountain Meadows massacre were covered in Monday's part one, which looked at the church's early history. The effort is believed to be the most in-depth broadcast examination to date on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both past and present.

Fred Woods, a religion professor at Brigham Young University, said he doesn't think people of other faiths "would have understood Mormons by this documentary. Just as Jews understand Judaism and Muslims Islam better than outsiders, LDS people understand their faith better than someone (Helen Whitney in this case) looking from the outside in."

He credited the filmmaker for the many interviews she included, though he said, "There was too much of those who did not present what Mormonism is really all about, particularly by those who had left the faith and therefore presented a tainted view."

Quoting the apostle Paul, he said, "The natural man (or woman) receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (I Cor. 2:11,14).

On the other end of the reaction spectrum, Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish, Episcopal bishop of Utah who grew up as a Latter-day Saint, said she was "just overwhelmed by the real sensitivity to the whole story from start to finish." She didn't watch part one on Monday, but part two was "very emotional for me — it's part of my story. And it remains part of my story.

"I loved the different persons who commented and offered reflections and perspectives. It really was not monochromatic the way sometimes one can feel, like ward houses that all look the same. It was really a very textured piece. I found it emotional because those are my roots. I found it very tender in the discussions about family, and mine are mostly gone now. ... I found it had a great deal of integrity as a whole and was very balanced."

Jan Shipps, who was a consultant on the project but did not appear in it, was impressed overall with the documentary, though she agreed with many that it spent too much time on polygamy and the Mountain Meadows massacre.

Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, said it's the first portrayal of the LDS Church since author Jon Krakauer's 2003 book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," that will reach a wide audience in a way that helps define Mormonism for Americans.

Though active Latter-day Saints may scoff at Krakauer's portrayal, which focused on the religious fanaticism behind Utah's infamous Lafferty murders more than two decades ago, Shipps said there are "enormous numbers of people who get their notion about what Mormonism is" from the best-selling book.

"The church should be pleased with this documentary because it's a lot better than Krakauer's. In many ways, it's better than a lot of things written before the Olympics" in 2002, when Utah hosted journalists from around the world. Shipps lauded the filmmaker's thorough investigation and research, and predicted the piece will, in some ways, define the church for "outsiders" for years to come.

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