Contributing to Spiritual Death
A current television show revolves around the heinous murders of a woman and her infant daughter in 1980s Utah. It is important to note that this real-life crime was committed by sick and twisted former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against innocent current members of the Church.
The former members of the Church who created the television show seem to have the artistic goal of leading religious believers generally, and current members of the Church particularly, away from faith. Because alienation from God is understood by believers as a kind of “spiritual death,” these former-member creators unwittingly inhabit — in a symbolic sense, of course — the destructive role of their literally murderous 1980s former-member predecessors. As one ancient former-antagonist-turned-believer put it, “I went about … seeking to destroy the church of God … Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction.”
Now, let me be clear that not all former members of the Church are enemies thereof. Continued connection with the Church and its members ranges from complete disengagement, to casual contact, to deep ongoing involvement and (anti-)identity. In an orthogonal direction, attitudes range from sympathetic, to indifferent, to antagonistic. The 1980s murderers in question are exceptionally rare, physically violent instances of deeply involved and antagonistic former adherents.
The show’s creators are not physically violent, and no doubt believe they are engaged in a good cause (Isaiah 5.20 and John 16.2 come to mind); but the primary former-member creator, at least, falls on the antagonistic side of the spectrum. At a news conference for the show he explained his perspective: “If you do a deep dive into any religion, but I think particularly the Mormon religion, there’s only two ways to go. It is either going to become a musical comedy or it’s going to turn to terror and horror.”
It is said that the show depicts a broader and more sympathetic range of current and former Church members than the book on which it is based; but to the extent this is so, it is only by way of achieving the primary creator’s artistic aims.
According to the primary creator’s governing stance towards religion, the benign portrayals early in the story should be understood as characters who have not yet undertaken the “deep dive,” and are therefore naive rather praiseworthy. It seems that the central arc of the show in subsequent episodes will be that those characters who do undertake the “deep dive” (some may not), either become monsters, or find the wherewithal to escape from the religion with their conscience and morality (and ability to laugh at and/or point fingers of scorn) intact. Thus, if the artistic goal follows the creator’s expressed philosophy, the intent seems to be to bring viewers on a journey with its main character out of naivete; and, coming to a putative fork in the road between monstrous belief and virtuous unbelief, to embrace the latter.
If the arc of the show turns out differently I will be glad, but it seems unlikely that the principal creator would produce a work substantially at odds with the clear vision he has succinctly stated.
I’m all for deep dives into truth, including facing difficult and complicated and sensitive matters. But a dramatic television show, artistically engaging and emotionally compelling as it might be, ought not be regarded as the final word. Viewers interested in a balanced perspective would benefit from more serious engagement with historically responsible and better-contextualized scholarly resources, and greater familiarity with the healthy experiences of mature and well-informed current Church members.
UPDATE: For starters, I would recommend “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days”, of which three volumes of a projected four are now available (Vol. 1). This engaging narrative history provides an introduction to difficult subjects in context as they arise over time, with footnotes pointing to additional sources for those interested. In contrast to the spurious thesis of the television show that “our faith breeds dangerous men,” it illustrates flawed people striving to become Saints through the atonement of Jesus Christ.