PROVO, Utah — Move over Mormon philosophers, theology wonks and scholars. If you really want to explore spiritual paradoxes, dilemmas and trends in the LDS Church, you need to go to the movies.Joseph M. Spencer, a graduate student in library science at San Jose State University, found that the hottest debate in Mormon theology was finding its most public expression in the "Mormon film movement."Spencer was speaking at the third annual Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference on Friday, May 8, at Aspen Grove. He said several scholars see tensions in Mormon thought about salvation and grace.Spencer used the weighty philosophical terms "immanence" and "transcendence" to describe this tension. But the tension can also be depicted as faith, loyalty and fidelity versus charity, love and spirituality. It is rules against inspiration, conservative Mormon versus liberal Mormon, orthodoxy versus progress, control versus freedom, institution versus intuition.Richard Dutcher stepped into this maelstrom with the film that launched the Mormon film movement in 2000: "God's Army." It was the beginning of Dutcher's quest to depict transcendence in film — to show the unshowable. But his film wasn't the only film that wrestled with these tensions that interested theologians."Though much of what would follow in the Mormon film movement was perhaps lighter in tone than God's Army, it is arguable that every film in the movement dwells on this same theme," Spencer said. "Whether it takes the shape of Jonathan Jordan's all-night prayer in 'Singles Ward' (2002), Elder Rogers's moment of re-conversion while teaching a first discussion in 'The Best Two Years' (2004), the success of an interfaith small-town feast in 'Baptists at Our Barbeque' (2004) or the softer tones of a sentimental song at the conclusion of 'Sons of Provo' (2005) — the persistent theme of Mormon films issued between 2000 and 2005 was that Mormonism only makes sense when one understands, through a moment's quasi-mystical contact with the divine realm, 'what it's all really about.'"Dutcher, according to Spencer, went even further with his movie "God's Army 2: States of Grace." Dutcher attempted to "infuse" Mormonism toward a spiritual experience that emphasized charity over faith. "Rather than transcendentalizing Mormonism, the film seems to have non-Mormonized Richard Dutcher," Spencer said, referring to Dutcher's rather public separation from the LDS Church in 2007.Spencer expressed concern that at the root of the "collapse of the Mormon film movement" was the films' depiction of faith and charity "as incompatible theological values" that are " hopelessly at odds with one another.""The Mormon film movement as a whole thus seems to me to be a fundamental mistake: if Mormonism is not faith, hope and charity, there is reason, at least for the Latter-day Saint committed to the Book of Mormon, to suggest that it is nothing," he said.The Mormon film movement had betrayed Mormonism, according to Spencer. But it also had betrayed film.Spencer explained that Alfred Hitchcock discovered that film has three aspects to its very nature:
- Film depicts genuinely universal truths.
- Film is "psychologically structuralist" — meaning that lust cannot lead to fulfillment.
- Film captures the real, material world.
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