Sunday, May 27, 2007

Movie Review: The Queen

Ellie and I watched The Queen last Friday night. It was a great film, both entertaining and, at times, profound. The story deals with the interaction between Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth after the death of Princess Diana. I'm not a close follower of the British royals, but I do occassionally watch their tulmultous lives with a degree of detached curiousity. I'm both attracted to, and repulsed by, the idea of hereditary monarchy. The importance of continuity in national traditions and the idea that there could be a noble elite, who selflessly serve their country rather than themselves, are both fascinating (if not often historically supportable) ideas.

Behind the film there is also a tragic commentary on human leadership. The same leadership skills that work so well on one occasion do not work so well in others. Thus, the detached, stiff-upper-lip leadership style the served the royals during the hard times of WWII did not work during the Princess Diana "crisis." The often whimsical demands of the public change without warning, and this left the Queen in a state of confused incomprehension. Tony Blair, at this moment, understood the need for showmanlike displays of emotion, national idealism, and a Clintonesque "I feel your pain" type of response. But as the film ends, Blair and the Queen are talking about the events. The Queen offers the Prime Minister a warning: someday he, too, would be left on a limb, out of touch and uncomprehending of public sentiment. The film in this respect is really more about Tony Blair and his own tragic demise, unfortunately swept up in the George Bush initiated vortex of disaster. Blair, like the Queen, was unable to read what the public demanded. Alas, there was no one to salvage him as he had salvaged the Queen. A pity: I always liked Blair. He, along with Colin Powell, are the two most tragic public figures of the last decade.

The problem is this: How much should a leader follow public opinion versus trying to sculpt public opinion. The film says to would-be leaders who are trying to lead the public that they playing with suicide. The public takes you in, eats you up, then vomits you out when they are done. A happy theme indeed!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

1985 NBA finals Game 6

Nothing is better than this.

1998 One Shining Moment

The year the Utes almost won it all.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Response

With the PBS documentary, I know several people who have been asked questions about Mormons. This has prompted quite a bit of reflection on the the question of "What does it mean to be Mormon?" Here is one of my favorite responses.

I have a very good non-Mormon friend who watched the PBS documentary and asked me a question about why I was still Mormon. She wrote:

It must be Mormon week. I say that in lighthearted jest. Yesterday, two nice young guys knocked on my door and wanted to talk to me about it. Then tonight, I turned on my favorite channel (PBS)--that's right laugh all you want--and the program tonight is about the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints. I've been curious to know more about it all for a while, so I decided to watch. It's still playing right now. Have you ever seen the program? Usually I like and trust PBS shows well, but I have to be honest with you---if Mormonism believes and does (or has believed and done) all of the things the show says, I must be missing something because it is being portrayed as some sketchy visions, incredible (and perhaps unwise) movement across the country, and the carrying out of violence. Of course, that's not even mentioning the whole polygamy thing, which I am willing to allow may have just been a blip in the past and no longer is supported.

So what am I missing or what is not being portrayed correctly? There must be more to it or good, smart people like you wouldn't believe?

Here is how I responded:
Sorry about your Mormon week! :)

Wow, that is a deep question! I did watch the PBS documentary on both Monday and Tuesday and overall I thought it was good and largely accurate. Remember though that, as TV producers their job is to focus on the controversial and the sensational, and leave almost everything else out. What they did cover, however, they covered accurately. I thought the eerie music and visuals used at certain times were a bit odd. Such things suggested a "meta-interpretation" or "voice of authority" about what the REAL interpretation of Mormonism was. In the end, though, I thought the series was good. It captured something important of the ups and downs of the Mormon experience.

I'm not surprised that you weren't too impressed by our story. Much of Joseph Smith's story, for example, seems implausible, even unbelievable. Especially to a critical mind it hardly seems to be taken seriously on an purely evidentiary basis. Joseph Smith himself seemed to realize this -- he said he wouldn't have believed it himself if it hadn't happened to him. And there are big issues, both ethically and epistemically, that arose after Joseph's time.

Many of the reasons I believe are reasons that are not particularly rational, or it least not rational in the sense that would be compelling to an unbeliever. Let me try to explain, though, why I continue to be Mormon.

1. Part of it has to do with the way Mormonism has enriched my life. Without a doubt, some of the best, kindest, more generous people I know are Mormons. Not all are of course, but many. Mormonism is a religion that demands that you actively participate in a rich community life; it demands that we use time and money for others. I have seen this process change me and those around me for the better. One of the people I admire most, my Dad, was the product of such a process. And if a religion can make people like my Dad, I think that is something of a small miracle. To be sure, there is no other group of people I would want to be with in a difficult time than my fellow Mormons.

2. Another part of why I am Mormon involves certain experiences I've had. As a missionary in Argentina, I was sometimes asked to "give blessings" to sick people. I was once asked to do this for a little 8 year old girl who had recently been diagnosed with Leukemia. I still remember her big brown eyes and her worried family. They were very poor and obviously didn't know what else to do -- they weren't even Mormons. Anyway, after I got done saying the prayer that is involved, I felt a presence I've never felt before. I left the city shortly thereafter and didn't find out what happened until later. I was talking to the missionary who had replaced me in that area and he said that, during the girl's next hospital visit, they couldn't find any trace of Leukemia. Of course, I realize there are other explanations for this in addition to the divine miracle theory -- perhaps even more "rational" explanations. But this experience seemed to suggest to me that I was in the faith community where I belonged.

3. Another part of the me loves various aspects of Mormon doctrine. Joseph's emphasis of communitarianism was a direct rebuttle to the unbridled capitalism of the day. His social views were grounded in economic equality. I like that. I also like how Mormons believe in an "open cannon" -- that there is no final last word and that one should always be open to new "revelation" in all of its different forms. This is a very pragmatic and post-modern idea, and it connects with Joseph's ideas about an "open universe" more generally. I also like how the church is, in many ways, deeply democratic. To many people, it sounds odd when I say that. But the church is largely governed by laity -- everyone takes a turn in community governance. I like how the church teaches the existence of the "Heavenly Mother" and that the divine life is not solely comprised by monotheistic patriarchy. I like the doctrine that God is embodied. It lends a dignity to our physicality that runs directly contrary to the Platonic, Augustinian, and Descartian traditions. In short, Mormonism teaches that equality matters, that democracy matters, that openness matters, that being a woman matters, and that bodies matter. There are a few more things, but that will do for now.

4. I find great meaning in Mormon community life. Wherever I go, I will have people to support me and look after for me. I have built lasting friendships. These communities, for me, have something of the divine about them. These church, both locally and globally, is also often involved in impressive humanitarian projects. Finally, I like the idea that family community is especially important and that family relationships last forever. As I think of my own family, I can't imagine living without them. Mormonism gives me hope that I will never have to. This is where temples and family "sealings" come in: to offer precisely that hope.

5. Having said that, I should say that many aspects of the modern church, from my perspective, have failed to live up to the doctrine. We have often not lived up to our obligations to minority groups. We have fought against women's rights when we should have been the first to support them. We have embraced materialism and become too comfortable with war. We have not welcomed in certain sorts of outsiders. In short, we've become, well, too sure of ourselves and closed. I also would be lying if I said I didn't have occasional doubts at times about things relating to LDS history and doctrine (just as I have doubts about equally important religious issues in Biblical history, Christian doctrine, and theism in general). My life is a constant struggle between doubt and faith and I'm not sure I've managed this struggle very well.

In the end, I think we Mormons are a bunch of imperfect people who are really trying to better ourselves and build better communities. The sincerity of the quest, the goodness of many of the people, the beauty of the ideals, and the voice of my own experience keep me Mormon.

Does that make sense? It was probably more than you wanted to hear.
Note: she is a philosopher; hence the jargon.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"The Mormons" documentary

Like many other Mormons, I've been glued to PBS this week for the two part documentary on the LDS Faith. If you missed it, you can watch it here. Here are my impressions:

1. Overall, I loved it. I think it should be required viewing for all Mormons. I think it hit fairly well the ups and downs of the Mormon experience.

2. Elder Jensen did a masterful job -- he hit all the notes. Elder Oaks did extremely well talking about the Mountain Meadows, but at other times seemed a bit closed minded and harsh. Elder Packer cames across as more gentle than I expected, and somewhat taken aback by his previous comments about gays, feminists, and intellectuals.

3. I was pleased they gave so much air time to Terryl Givens, my favorite Mormon scholar. He discussion of the joys of "Mormon embodiment" was perhaps my favorite part. He is one guy who makes me feel like the LDS faith can engage with the mind.

4. Other favorite parts: the gospel choir in sacrament meeting (too bad it's so rare!), the lady's testimony about "the ridiculous story about the white boy, the dead angel, and the gold plates," the hurricane Katrina clip, Harold Bloom analyzing the LDS faith, the dying young woman and her family, the analysis of the closeness of LDS wards. It showed Mormonism at its best.

5. Other parts I did not enjoy but thought were important for me to hear: Margaret Tascano's description of her bizarre and cruel court experience, the grotesque fiasco of Mountain Meadows, the holocaust victim explaining why he did not want his relatives baptized, and the John Taylor nonsense about Black's being the instruments of Satan. It is important for us Mormons to remember that we are capable to both disrespectful and despicable acts. We should never forget that.

6. I thought a lot of time was given to ex-Mormons, but it oddly worked out very well much of time. When someone who has been excommunicated still had reason to talk about the beauty and power of Mormon ritual and community, it seemed to come across as all the more powerful for me. The films did a great job at humanizing everybody -- from the gay Mormon, to the general authorities, to the feminist intellectual, to the polygamists, to the holocaust baptism objector, to the Republican senator.

7. Stupid stuff: the "if my mission president asked me to blow myself up, I would have" crack, the eerie music that seemed to kick in at odd times, the strange red painting of God, the polygamy was "all about sex" comment, the description of past temple rituals.

8. I wish they would have found more strong, faithful, and smart LDS women (other than Kathleen Flake and the token neurologist, there weren't many). I also wish they would have given more time to Darius Gray.

9. I learned some things I didn't know about Mormon history, for example, I had never heard about the "Short Creek Raid."

Way to go PBS!