This is going to be a short post with a lot of discussion in the comments. Do religious videos promote understanding or create misunderstanding and misrepresentations? How much misrepresentation, intentional or not, occurs in an LDS video depicting Jesus with his disciples, or the First Vision, or LDS pioneers crossing the plains?
This thought occurred to me while reading a chapter in American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (OUP, 2019). The author is D. W. Pasulka, a professor of Religious Studies. She looks not at the substance of “the phenomenon,” weighing different accounts or sightings of UFOs for content and credibility, but at the culture and pattern of “the phenomenon” in light of similar patterns from religious studies: visitors from the sky, supernatural powers or advanced technological capability (these may be hard to distinguish), a message for the experiencer or the world at large, a search for meaning or interpretation by the recipient, sometimes a conversion or change in how one lives the balance of a life. Lots of parallels.
It was the chapter on “mechanisms of belief” that really caught my attention. It may very well be the case that all UFO reports and events, both contemporaneous and historical, are various sorts of physical misidentifications or mental phenomenon when they are not simply hoaxes. Yet just about everyone, billions of us, have a very good idea of what a flying saucer is (generally circular, sometimes cigar shaped), what aliens look like (big eyes, tall and slim), and how their vehicles move (very fast, with blinking green or red lights). Because of widespread media coverage, video reports, simulated video depictions, breathless documentaries, and Hollywood blockbusters, we all have ideas in our head about UFOs. And once those ideas are in our heads, they exercise considerable influence over our thinking about UFOs, whether one be a true believer, an interested observer, a doubtful skeptic, or a full-fledged debunker.
Here’s a paragraph from the end of the book that summarizes the author’s approach:
I have made the case that belief in extraterrestrials and UFOs constitutes a new form of religion. Media and popular culture have successfully delivered a UFO mythos to audiences through television series, music and music videos, video games, cartoons, hoaxes, websites, and immersive and mixed reality environments. New research in digital-human interfaces reveals that it doesn’t matter what a person might consciously believe, as data delivered through screens shoots straight into memory, which then constructs models of events. On a personal level, many individuals now interpret their own traditional religions through the lens of the UFO hermeneutic. (p. 216; emphasis added.)
Think about how many recent big-ticket movies you have seen that employ some variation of the UFO narrative (powerful visitors from the skies visit Earth for good or ill, interacting with certain humans to further some important project or mission). Star Wars, Star Trek, the DC universe, the Marvel universe, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001, and on and on. One is likely to think of the whole UFO thing as a quirky and minor item in the world of 2019 until you do a quick review of its penetration and ubiquity in modern popular culture. Despite the strong probability (your opinion may differ) that there is no underlying reality to “the phenomenon” — no real spaceships, no aliens, no visitors from Arcturus or Orion, no alien abductions, no secret alien base at the North Pole, no alien bodies stashed in some warehouse in New Mexico — despite this, we all understand UFOs and the UFO narrative. It’s on our screens, it’s in our heads. Call it the power of Hollywood or the power of video.
All of this made me reflect on the increasing reliance of the Church on video presentations of LDS events and historical episodes. Many members of the Church, it seems, are happier watching videos than reading scriptures, or anything else. The LDS.org site, which initially provided mostly links to various text resources, has shifted more and more toward highlighting various video resources. LDS visitors centers are chock full of video depictions. If I ask you to think of The First Vision as an event, you likely replay in your mind one of the various video productions the Church has produced. The life of Jesus? An LDS or Hollywood depiction scrolls before your eyes. Moses? You think of Charlton Heston with white hair. LDS videos feature an evocative soundtrack to elicit emotions and feelings of the Spirit. Certain liberties are taken with the sequence of events, even with the content of events.
So, the bottom line: Is increasing reliance on video depictions of LDS scriptural and historical events we take on faith a good thing or a bad thing? My sense is video amplifies the verisimilitude of religious events that believers take on faith by implanting a scene or set of scenes in our consciousness and our memory. It could be that LDS leaders are pushing video because they are aware of this result (there is a lot of scholarship on it) or it could be that they are simply responding to demand from smart phone Mormons who will watch almost anything but just won’t read a book or a magazine anymore. Video killed the radio star. Has it also killed scripture reading?
What do you think? Is the rise of the video gospel a good thing or a bad thing?