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:
  1. Film depicts genuinely universal truths.
  2. Film is "psychologically structuralist" — meaning that lust cannot lead to fulfillment.
  3. Film captures the real, material world.
The Mormon film movement went against these conventions, according to Spencer: It concentrated on particular differences that would appeal only to Mormons. It romantically fantasized that lustful relationships could, "like genuine relationships of love, be graced with fulfillment." It attempted to depict supernatural transcendent feelings and epiphanies."The Mormon film movement would thus seem not only to have misunderstood the nature of Mormon theology, but also the nature of film itself," Spencer said. This misunderstanding of both Mormon theology and film is "through a single mistake."That mistake is a commitment to transcendence — elevating charity, love and spirituality over faith, loyalty and fidelity — instead of seeing them as compatible virtues and aspirations.One film, however, stands out to Spencer as "the only fully Mormon film yet produced." It is a film that did not make the theological mistake of elevating transcendence at the expense of other Mormon values. It is a film that follows Hitchcock's thesis and appeals to universal truths without trying to show the unshowable.It is "Napoleon Dynamite."This designation surprised and fascinated the audience at the conference, but Spencer stood his ground."Napoleon can't receive grace ... he is always looking for some ideological stopgap that is going to solve his problems," Spencer said. "Over the course of the film he sorts this out. ... The scene where Pedro stands aside as Napoleon dances ... it's a powerful moment where Napoleon finally sees what is happening."It is the moment, according to Spencer, when Napoleon and the film capture both grace and love.

E-mail: [email protected]