Sing it from the hilltops, my children...another review by Judge Ian Visser is born this day.
Can a religion survive its own history?
Ask people about any particular religion and you are bound to get some divergent opinions. Catholicism is the gateway to salvation, provided you do whatever an old guy in the Vatican tells you to. Christianity is the true teaching of God, as long as you pick the right denomination. Buddhism is an insightful pathway to knowledge, but you'll spend most of eternity being reborn as a beetle or frog until you get the hang of it.
When it comes to Mormonism, however, the gloves really seem to come off. Mormonism is often referred to as a cult, as a deranged group of pedophiles, or as an outright blasphemy against God. Its detractors condemn it as a corruption of Christianity that leads followers down the path to damnation. It has been derided as a "made-up" religion, created by a fanatic who wanted an excuse to practice polygamy and exploit his followers. It has been one of the most controversial practices of Christianity for its entire 180-year history and still prompts intense reactions even today.
Admittedly, the Mormon faith—officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)—has done little to counter these accusations throughout its history. Despite holding a more mainstream position since the mid-20th century, the faith remains largely closed to outsiders. The LDS is notoriously tight-lipped about its financial on-goings; where most churches publish accounting information for members to review, the LDS keeps its situation a well-guarded secret even from its own followers (some estimates put LDS holdings in excess of 25 billion dollars). Rumors persist of secret rituals and temple rites practiced by the LDS faithful. And most disturbing to non-members, the taint of polygamy still clings to the faith even after the LDS outlawed the practice more than one hundred years ago.
And yet its supporters have a much different perspective. To its faithful, Mormonism is a pathway to enlightenment and salvation that anyone can partake of. Mormons consider themselves to be amongst the most faithful and devoted of Christians, content in the knowledge that they will be blessed with a life of eternal happiness at the end of their days. They hail the Book of Mormon, the physical text of their faith, as the true teachings of Christ. And as the followers of any faith believe, Mormons feel they are doing the true work of God. Even the controversial practice of tithing (each household must contribute a minimum of ten percent of income to the LDS) is considered to be a sacred duty necessary to ensure the survival of the church.
With such divergent opinions on Mormonism in place, PBS' Frontline and The American Experience take credit for presenting an investigation that is both respectful and daring. The documentary delves into the origins and history of Mormonism and examines the movement's subsequent successes and short-comings. No shrinking violets, Frontline and The American Experience have compiled a film of depth and scale that addresses issues both sacred and disturbing to the faithful and the skeptical alike.
The Mormons traces a chronological path of the religion from its founding in the 1820s to its modern day incarnation. Divided into two sections, each part is composed of a variety of "Acts" highlighting major events or issues related to Mormonism.
The topics addressed are:
Combining archival media, narration, interviews, and re-creations of historical events, The Mormons examines each of its subjects in a vivid way. The film makers have retained the services of scholars, historians, converts, authors, and theologians for the documentary, and each contributor provides a thorough examination of the issues. Importantly, The Mormons manages to include current LDS officials into the conversation, as well as former members who address the impact the church had on their lives. With any controversial subject there are a bound to be divergent opinions, but everyone involved tempers their passion with reason to provide valuable insights.
Director Helen Whitney (Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero) maintains a sure hand on the material. While it would be tempting to dwell on the more lurid aspects of Mormonism (namely polygamy), Whitney recognizes a responsibility to address a wider view of the faith. As a result, the viewer receives a well-balanced investigation of the LDS' past and present that never suffers from a particular bias. Whitney devotes equal time to both liberal and conservative members of the church and tackles controversial issues such as homosexuality and the rising intellectual movement within the faith. Aside from the mandate to examine the LDS in the modern world, the viewer never feels that the film has an established position or point it is trying to force.
The Mormons is provided with a solid transfer. Shot in widescreen, the image boasts deep and consistent black levels and an absence of grain. The audio is a 2-channel Dolby Digital mix that is clear and easy to understand. The only extra is a printable teacher's guide that provides talking points for in-class discussions.
The Mormons covers a great deal of information and history for one documentary, and a running time of almost four hours may seem daunting to some. Those who are equal to the task, however, will find a fascinating and balanced investigation into a movement whose development often mirrors that of America itself.
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