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|By Aaron Johnston||March 6, 2006|
It's going to be rough year, folks. Or as one New York Times writer recently wrote: "In public relations terms, this is not the easiest time to have the words 'Latter,' 'Day' and 'Saint' anywhere close together in your name."
And that's putting it lightly.
This year the Church will have to deal with not one, not two, but three public-relations nightmares. The first of these is a new television series on HBO entitled Big Love about a contemporary polygamist family in Utah. The second is an independent film about the Mountain Meadows Massacre entitled September Dawn. And the third is a new book by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, supposedly entitled The Solomon Key about Freemasonry.
Whew! A film. A TV show. And a guaranteed bestseller.
Is there any form of entertainment we're missing?
How about a video game? I'm sure there's a first-person shooter being developed somewhere aimed at embarrassing the Church. Maybe it's called Attack of the Green Jell-O Salad. You play the toothpick-chewing, gun-toting federal agent assigned to take down the monster those wacky Mormons created and set loose on humanity.
"Eat lead, you gelatinous excuse for a side dish." BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
I can see the sequel already: Attack of the Corn Flake Casserole.
Okay, maybe there's no video game. But there is a TV show, a film, and a book coming out that will likely give the Church nothing but an every increasing migraine.
The first to hit the fan is the HBO series starring Bill Paxton as a man with three wives. Maybe you've seen the billboards already. They're funny. They feature a close-up of Bill, his hand partially covering his face, and there on his ring finger is not one but three wedding rings.
I thought that pretty clever.
The tagline reads: Polygamy loves company.
I thought that less clever.
The show is set to launch in mid March immediately after the season premiere of The Sopranos. In other words, a LOT of people will be watching.
You can also see the trailer for the show online at hbo.com. I watched it. It wasn't at all what I expected. Which is to say, the show looks pretty interesting.
Yes, it's HBO and, yes, there will likely be lots of graphic sex, but the producers of the show aren't hanging their hats only there. (You can get porn elsewhere, after all.) No, this is a show about an odd family's relationships. And the key to the show's longevity will be this little nugget of truth: Three women married to the same man will NOT get along.
Were I to describe the show in a sentence (based on what I've seen), I'd say Big Love is jealousy, backbiting, conniving, loud arguments, and lots and lots and LOTS of sex.
In other words: great TV. Or at least what the world considers great TV.
The sad truth is that the producers will be more interested in ratings than in revealing the true, tragic nature of this social ill. Polygamy is ugly business, folks. Those trapped in the culture are rarely as attractive, educated, or affluent as the characters on Big Love appear to be. In fact, the show looks more like Desperate Housewives than Deliverance, which is nearer the truth.
Where does the Church fit into this?
Well, the polygamist family on the show lives in Utah, although no mention of the Church is ever made. They are, however, deeply religious, and the average viewer will likely put two and two together. They will assume these people are Mormon.
And when they watch the show they will be appalled to learn that all the terrible rumors and assumptions they had about the Church are true. Mormons are crazy people.
They will not understand that those who practice polygamy are not, and likely never have been, members of the Church. They will watch Big Love and assume that what they are seeing is the ugly side of the LDS Church.
And that's too bad.
I was momentarily relieved when I learned that the show would run a disclaimer at its end, but then I learned precisely what the disclaimer says, and my heart sank again. It will read:
"According to a joint report issued by the Utah and Arizona attorney general's offices, July 2005, 'approximately 20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States.' The Mormon Church officially banned the practice of polygamy in 1890."
On the surface this may appear to be a good thing. After all, it states that the Church officially banned the practice in 1890.
But let's read between the lines. What this disclaimer is really saying is this: There are a whole lot of polygamists in the world DESPITE the LDS Church's claim to have discontinued the practice.
In other words, the disclaimer prefaces the Church's claim with empirical data that slightly refutes that claim.
And in that context, the disclaimer is not a doctrinal clarification but rather a subtle accusation.
I doubt that this was the producers' intent. But it can be interpreted as such.
Rather than clarify, it merely raises more questions, namely: If the Church did indeed ban polygamy, then why in the world are there still so many polygamists?
It's a good question. And those with listening ears will hear the real question behind it: Did the LDS Church truly ban polygamy? Or do they decry it from the pulpit while a few practice it in secret?
Not everyone will ask these questions of course. But many will. Some already have. The New York Post quoted a woman as saying, "They only outlawed [polygamy] so that Utah could get statehood. The LDS church can try to pretend that it doesn't exist, but the truth will always rear its ugly head."
In my opinion, the disclaimer, as worded, can do just as much damage as good.
It certainly had an effect on me. It made me ask why. Why is polygamy still a problem? Why aren't these people being prosecuted?
Why are forty thousand people getting away with this?
Were a polygamist to surface where I grew up in northern Alabama, he would be arrested (or lynched) in a hot second. Not the case in Utah. In fact, most polygamists live their entire lives without ever facing charges for their criminal action.
Why? Why isn't Utah doing more?
Those quick to defend the Utah Attorney General-who has taken some heat recently on the state's meager response to the problem-will say that law enforcement officials have more important things to do than chase down polygamists.
And they claim that polygamists are difficult to prosecute because typically only one wife is listed on any legal document and family members are rarely cooperative witnesses.
In short, it's too hard to build a case.
Blah blah blah.
What these people fail to acknowledge, however, is that by ignoring polygamy, they are ignoring all the horrific byproducts of it: statutory rape, welfare dependency, the alarming number of homeless children that results when anyone tries to escape the environment, not to mention the mental anguish women and children endure in such an oppressively male-empowered social structure.
Yes, these men are difficult to prosecute. But inaction is no solution.
And until Utah asserts an iron fist and aggressively prosecutes those who practice polygamy, then the rest of the world has every right to question us.
What you'll see on HBO will not be a fair representation of what contemporary polygamy in America truly is. It will be a sexed up, Hollywood soap opera, one in which the criminal and head of household is someone we're supposed to root for.
He'll be the new Tony Soprano, except instead of murdering people, he'll simply come home and kiss each of his wives before setting down his briefcase.
Isn't that cute?
Yeah, I don't think so either.
The worst of the three PR debacles is an independent film about the Mountain Meadows Massacre starring Jon Voight.
If your history is as rusty as mine was, allow me to elaborate.
In September of 1857 137 pioneers from Arkansas were killed in Utah by a raiding party acting-according to the film-under the direction of Brigham Young. Only children under the age of ten were spared. Everyone else, including women, were brutally murdered.
According to one reporter who saw a screening of the film, the massacre scene is graphically violent and "the raid ends with a castration" whereupon the testicles are "neatly nailed to a door."
And as if that wasn't disturbing enough, during the massacre the audience hears Brigham Young (played by Terence Stamp) in voice-over "encouraging vengeance, violence, 'blood atonement' and divine justice."
It's no coincidence that the movie has the month September in its title; the film's director Christopher Cain sees the perpetrators of the massacre as fundamental extremists, no different from those who flew planes into the World Trade Center-a correlation made even more poignant by the fact that both events occurred on September 11.
Cain claims that he didn't write any of Young's dialogue, explaining that it all came from depositions Young gave after the massacre.
Cain, and opponents to the Church, claim that the raid occurred for religious reasons, brought about by the fanaticism of the early LDS Church.
When asked about the event and the film, Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the Church said, "While no one knows fully what happened at Mountain Meadows nearly 150 years ago, we do recognize that it was a terrible tragedy for all involved. The church has done much to remember those who lost their lives there. We honor, respect, and recognize them."
The honors he's referring to include a memorial constructed by the Church at Mountain Meadows in 1999. At that dedication President Hinckley said, "I sit in the chair that Brigham Young occupied as president of the church at the time of the tragedy. I have read very much of the history of what occurred here. There is no question in my mind that he was opposed to what happened. Had there been a faster means of communication, it never would have happened and history would have been different."
The slow system of communication he refers to is the sole messenger Brigham Young sent on horseback to those at Mountain Meadows with the explicit instructions to not interfere with the wagon train.
September Dawn, however, tells a very different story and gives a very different depiction of Brigham Young, who's played by Stamp as "austere, remote and steely" demonstrating a "sense of Old Testament wrath."
Critics of the Church will likely embrace the film. And those who know nothing of the history will simply accept it as fact. Mormons, they will learn, are not only secretly endorsing polygamy, but they're also violent fundamentalists.
I found it particularly interesting that the writers of the film claim to have been helped in their research by a great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, "who has left the church and become a born-again Christian."
How big a splash the film will make is yet to be seen. Currently it doesn't have a distributor, so there's no way of knowing how broadly it will be released. Rest assured, however, that whoever sees it will think much less of us afterwards.
The Solomon Key
Okay, I'll admit it. I loved The Da Vinci Code. And I loved Angels and Demons too. In my opinion, Dan Brown deserves every buck he's made. He's an incredible author. And good authors deserve to be read.
Following the success of The Da Vinci Code, which will be a film hitting theaters this summer starring Tom Hanks, the world has waited with bated breath for the next Dan Brown novel.
Like The Da Vinci Code, Brown's next one will be an explosive bestseller. Count on it. People will pre-order it by the droves. Lines will form outside of bookstores. Customers at Wal-Mart will fight in the aisles over the last available copy. Children who wore round-rimmed glasses and robes to purchase a Harry Potter novel will now don a tweed jacket and inquisitive expression in homage to Brown's Harvard professor hero, Robert Langdon, as they line up to buy a copy.
It's going to be big.
Publishers estimate their yearly earnings on books like these. Dan Brown couldn't be in a better position.
If you've read The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons you know that Brown did an exhaustive amount of research for both and immersed his readers into unseen, private corners of the Catholic Church.
Opus Dei, a conservative sect of the Catholic Church, got the spotlight in The Da Vinci Code, and the papacy got it in Angels and Demons.
This is appropriate for the novels' hero, who's a symbologist, or someone who studies symbols. Symbols can be found in most religions and generally constitute in integral part of the believers' worship.
Take us, for example. The LDS Church is full of symbolism. Every ordinance we perform is a symbol. We may not hang a cross in our chapels, but Mormons use symbols as much as anyone else does. Maybe more so.
Maybe a lot more so.
We don't know much about Brown's next novel, but fan sites on the Internet claim that the book's title is The Solomon Key, that it's set in Washington D.C., and that it deals with the Freemasons.
Few organizations are more mysterious than the Freemasons, making the subject fertile ground for Brown to plant his novel in. There's a wealth of secrecy and secrets in that fraternity.
Personally, I don't know much about them, except that Joseph Smith was supposedly a Freemason and that he-according to some-designed the endowment session largely based on rituals of the Freemasons.
Freemasons do NOT meet, as is the common misconception, in a lodge, but AS a lodge. The building where they meet is called a temple. Or it used to be called a temple. Now, because of the more sacred denotation of the word, the buildings are called Masonic Centers or Halls.
Then there's the title. The Solomon Key. A reference to King Solomon's temple? I don't know. Maybe.
Will Dan Brown touch upon Mormonism? Will he link Freemasonry to the rites of the temple? Will he mention the LDS Church at all?
These are questions still unanswered. But you can be darn sure that the answers, whatever they are, will be read by millions of people. Let's hope that if the Church is put under the proverbial spotlight, we don't get singed by the heat of the bulb.
So prepare yourself. If these three (maybe only two) nods to Mormonism get as much attention as I think they will, we'll all be answering a lot more questions around the water cooler. Tough questions. Questions many of us, myself included, don't know the answers to.
Like I said, it's going to be a rough year.
Copyright © 2006 by Aaron Johnston
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