Review: The Mormons Part 2 on PBS

I was not able to watch the second part of the Frontline/American Experience documentary The Mormons when it was broadcast. However, last Friday I watched it on online on the documentary’s website at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/view/ . You can read my review of Part 1 here .

One of my complaints about the first part of the documentary was the lack of transparency regarding the orientation of each speaker toward the church. To their credit, however, PBS has published at least partial transcripts of many of the interviews from which they took excerpts for the documentary, including some exceptional interviews with Elder Jeffrey Holland of the Twelve Apostles, and church historian and member of the seventy Elder Marlin Jensen . You can read other partial transcripts as well as additional information about many of the participants at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/ . PBS deserves at least some credit for this attempt at transparency, even though they should have published the transcripts of all of the interviews and the transcripts in their entirety.

While I have complaints and disappointments about the second installment of the documentary, I will say up front that I felt more positive about this second part than I did the first.

In some segments of part two, the church comes off looking quite good. There is a very touching part where they cover LDS volunteer relief in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina that is quite impressive. One fire chief explains how amazing it was to be taken to the bishop’s storehouse and how organized it was. He said that it was as if the church were a huge corporation dedicated solely to disaster relief. And a citizen is visibly touched by the service rendered by LDS volunteers to his family after the storm. Baptism for the dead and eternal families were covered in some depth in what I thought was a fairly balanced presentation. And there was some good information about the missionary program and the Missionary Training Center. (I noticed that for these segments they co-opted footage straight from the church’s own missionary production “Called to Serve” (you could even hear the missionaries singing “soos-i-me” )

One things that disappointed me in the first part, which I neglected to mention in my previous review, is that in the introduction they showed a clip from Ken Verdoia wherein he claims that being called a “Mormon” in 19th century America was comparable to being called an “Muslim terrorist” today. This clip was then replayed during part one of the documentary. Now there is a grain of truth to this claim, even if it is grossly hyperbolic. However, the clip was then played again in the introduction to part two and later the theme was taken up during part two by Tal Bachman, who is better known as a musician of mediocre popularity and son of famous classic rock musician Randy Bachman of “The Guess Who” and “BTO” than he is a former LDS member.

It is in their treatment of their interview with Tal Bachman about his mission experience that the slant and sensationalism of the documentary was perhaps the most apparent. In addition to brother Bachman, they played excerpts from Elder Jensen and Brother Daniel Peterson concerning their mission experiences. While their segments played, the documentary displayed grainy, old photographs from their missions. But during brother Bachman’s interview, whose mission experience in South American rain forests was clearly far from representative of the average missionary but given the most airtime, they displayed live action film of junglescapes, crocodiles sliding into the water, and what were supposed to represent poison arrow frogs, as brother Bachman described bathing in the river and poisonous frogs in his hut, trying to paint his mission as extreme and dangerous.

After building up the danger of missions with these impressive visuals, brother Bachman says that he would never encourage his own children to risk their lives to teach what he now believes are falsehoods. But the crowning absurdity of this distorted, sensational segment is when brother Bachman continues the “Islamic Terrorist” theme introduced by Ken Verdoia and proclaims that he was so fired up with zeal by his mission that, had his mission president asked him to strap on a bomb and be a suicide bomber, he would he would have done so. Oh please!—even the more zealous missionaries in a typical mission have a hard enough time being obedient enough to their mission presidents to wake up on time, not listen to worldly music, and study their scriptures! I have no doubt that brother Bachman was zealous in his desire to be obedient, but this kind of hyperbole was inappropriate, especially in light of the over emphasis paid to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in part one of the documentary. Critics and LDS dissidents desperately want to believe that the majority of faithful latter-day saints are mindless sheep who blindly obey their leaders. But, as in this case, more often than not they overstate their view to the point of absurdity.

Unfortunately, the average non-member viewer will come away from this documentary with a distorted view of LDS missionary zeal, analogizing it to that of Islamic terrorists.

Excommunicated member Margaret Toscano was given what seemed to me a lot of time to pontificate on what she sees as the crushing of dissent and terrorizing of intellectuals by the church. The description of her excommunication was presented at face value, with accompanying empty-court-room chair visuals, with little attempt at balance by allowing an alternative explanation of how disciplinary councils generally work in the church, other than to allow brother Terryl Givens to note that the church doesn’t talk about the specifics of individual excommunications and so the story will never be complete or balanced. I have never participated in a disciplinary council, but I have family members who have, and it is my understanding that according to the LDS scriptures at least some members of the high council are required to stand up in behalf of the accused, and that the accused is allowed to speak in their own behalf after the evidence and arguments have been presented (Doctrine & Covenants 102: 13-23). I don’t know if the proper procedure was carefully followed in the case of sister Toscano, however, as brother Givens points out, since she is the only one who will ever discuss the council publicly, the story will always be one sided and we will never know. At least the documentary allowed him to say that, though I wish they had also included some statements on the topic from the interviews with Elder Holland and Elder Jensen as well.

To offset these and other disappointing segments, there were some impressive, largely positive excerpts from members of the church, many of whom had been involved with some very difficult experiences, especially with death or impending death. I would like to describe them here, but it will be more effective if you just go watch them on the website. I am proud of these members and their faith and humility.

So to repeat what I said earlier, I found the second part to be more positive than the previous. And even though I have complained about them here, in the long run the hyperbole of Tal Bachman and the long self-absorbed excerpts from other dissidents contrasted by the humility and faith of the faithful may work out to our overall advantage. Tal Bachman’s “scary” stories of crocodiles and poisonous frogs seem petty and self-serving when set against the testimony of the humble, struggling, but faithful father whose wife actually died in childbirth while his son was on a mission.

Somehow, paradoxically it felt like the more time they gave to Margaret Toscano’s dissent, the better the church looked. Did anyone else feel this way? Perhaps this kind of dissent is best expressed in sound-bites and slogans, as it often was in the first part, but when it is given too much time to express itself it stands in danger of revealing its own conceits and contradictions.

Grade: B – Satisfactory

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