Notes on the Church in Recent Popular Entertainment

Notes on the Church in Recent Popular Entertainment July 3, 2022


So THAT's Bald Mountain
Bald Mountain, as seen from Sun Valley, Idaho
(Photo taken by rickmouser45, Wikimedia Commons image)


On his Facebook page, the inimitable Jim Bennett posted a nice short summary of some of his criticisms of the recent FX/Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, created by Dustin Lance Black and starring Andrew Garfield.  With his generous permission, I share it here>


Finished “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” on Netflix last night. Terrifying. Bone-chilling. Creepy beyond words. Very, very well done. It’s what “Under the Banner of Heaven” wanted to be, thought it was, and really, really wasn’t.

I thought I was finished writing about “Under the Banner of Heaven,” but I wanted to add this postscript in light of the recent pieces from the show’s defenders berating those of us who dismiss it as inaccurate. UTBOH auteur Dustin Lance Black went on the Salt Lake Tribune’s MormonLand podcast and was only willing to concede that he’d used the term “Heavenly Father” too much. The UTBOH defender consensus is that anyone criticizing UTBOH is straining at gnats and swallowing camels, because citing minor issues like Heavenly Father overusage ignores all the amazing things that UTBOH got right.

It is therefore worth taking a moment to review what UTBOH got significantly and profoundly wrong. And it goes way, way beyond silliness like saying “Heavenly Father bless you” when you sneeze or weirdly implying that Mormons can’t eat French fries.

According to UTBOH:

  1. A mid-teens Joseph Smith fabricated the First Vision to score with a mid-teens Emma Hale.

Given that Joseph didn’t meet Emma until she was 21, this departure from reality seems completely unnecessary unless you’re trying to establish that Joseph’s entire religious motivation was sexual interest in young girls.

  1. Joseph’s murder was the product of a shadowy collaboration between Emma and Brigham Young, both of whom wanted Joseph dead in order to pick the next leader of the Church. Brigham wanted power for himself, while Emma wanted Joseph Smith III to succeed his father and end polygamy.

Everything about this scenario is the opposite of the truth. It’s also the premise of a recent fringey conspiracy theory movie that has been rightly lambasted by credible historians in and out of the Church. The reality is that Brigham and Emma adored Joseph and despised each other, respectively.

  1. The Mountain Meadows Massacre was ordered by Brigham Young as part of a deliberate war on “gentiles” entering the state of Utah.

The real Brigham Young sent a letter to the perpetrators of the massacre telling them to leave the Baker-Fancher wagon company alone, but it tragically arrived too late to prevent the slaughter.

It’s worth remembering these historical howlers when reading articles about how meticulous the production was about making sure the Joseph Smith Nauvoo Legion costume had the right color braids and the Carthage Jail set had the right number of bullet holes.

Moving beyond historical hooey, let’s focus on how UTBOH depicted the modern Church, or, at least, the Church circa 1984.

According to UTBOH:

  1. The Church was actively and openly working to thwart the investigation of the Lafferty murders, going so far as to have one of the top leaders of the Church perform a religious ritual condemning the Mormon detective and the murder victim’s widower to hell.

Because, you know, reasons.

  1. The Church’s power in Utah is such that stake presidents function as legal counsel and threaten Mormon detectives with hellfire if they don’t release excommunicated murder suspects into their custody.

Makes perfect sense.

  1. Bishops reassign custody of the children of excommunicated members to other families without informing Child Protective Services, and when those children run away and are missing, the bishop just shrugs his shoulders, and nobody cares.

Oh, yeah. That happens all the time.

  1. The Church routinely excommunicates those who study Church history, even going so far as to remove all references to polygamy and fundamentalism from every public library in Utah.

If you say so.

  1. Commerce with polygamists is grounds for excommunication. Bearing an insincere testimony on Fast Sunday is grounds for excommunication and church-mandated divorce. However, a bishop casually sharing confidential, personal information about ward members anytime and for any reason is no big deal and not nearly as bad as having a beard, which, while perhaps not grounds for excommunication, is “vigorously” discouraged.

Yeah. That all checks out.

Anyway, the next time you tell me the only reason I didn’t like UTBOH is that I just can’t handle the truth, I’ll invite you to watch “Keep Sweet” with me. Or “Murder Among the Mormons.” Or “Mormon No More,” which is next up in my viewing queue. If you botch history and current practice as badly as UTBOH did, you don’t get credit because you got the number of Carthage Jail bullet holes right.


Beautfiul country
Another view in, I think, the vicinity of Sun Valley
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)


Latter-day Saints and their beliefs seem to be popular targets on cable television of late.  (Indeed, I’m reliably informed that this has me in a rage.)  John Oliver got into the act back on 27 June.  Perhaps he was trying to honor the anniversary of the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith by an anti-Mormon mob?


“Opinion: Complete disrespect — What John Oliver said about Utah’s drought: On John Oliver’s HBO show ‘Last Week Tonight,’ he mocked Utah’s drought response. Not only were his words unfair and disrespectful, but mockery gets us nowhere”


Although I’m confident that Mr. Oliver went to enormous lengths to get our beliefs precisely right and to treat us with appropriate respect, he seems to have overlooked this Church statement, which was issued on 22 June, five days earlier:


“The Importance of Water Conservation: We all play a part in preserving the critical resources needed to sustain life — especially water — and we invite others to join us in reducing water use wherever possible”


The famous Sun Valley Lodge, a few minutes’ walk from where we’re staying, in part of the same complex. It’s where Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” (I hope that the proprietors of the Lodge will permit me Fair Use of this image, since, in a way, it’s advertising the place.)


And here’s a note from the BBC, in the United Kingdom, regarding the musical version of, umm, The Book of Mormon:


“Book of Mormon: Newcastle audiences greeted by real church elders”


Where's Galena Summit? Looks nice.
Galena Summit, near Sun Valley

(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Finally, though, and on quite a different note, here’s another horror that I’ve drawn from the Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File©:


“Perspective: College students are struggling with mental health. More access to religion can help them: It’s no coincidence that Gen Z has the highest level of mental health issues and the lowest level of religiosity”


Posted from Sun Valley, Idaho



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