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?
For me the answer is that it depends. I appreciate some of the videos produced in recent years for Mothers Day and Fathers Day. My wife really liked the Mothers Day video, it made her feel appreciated and loved. Also, the new 1st vision video in the church history museum in Salt Lake City seems pretty good to me – it is nuanced and doesn’t show Heavenly Father or Jesus that I can remember – it leaves it to my imagination. That being said, there is the risk that a video unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) manipulates the viewer and forces him or her into a specific framework. I think many people are inclined to take videos literally in a black and white manner which probably isn’t helpful for most religious discussions.
As a tangent, I’m very much a “science guy” who tries to embrace logic and reason, but I’ve seen UFOs. Not that I think that little green men were doing the flying, but whatever was in the air was undergoing some serious G-forces. I think it was likely to be a secret airplane being tested by the government. My dad and I were hunting together in remote Arizona wilderness and we looked up and saw something zipping around the sky that was faster and which accelerated and changed direction like nothing we had ever seen. This was before mobile phones, otherwise I could have created my own video for the world to see, once and for all proving that UFOs exist.
A similar concern has been raised about LDS artwork (actually “illustrations”) e.g. Joseph sitting at a table with the golden plates tracing his fingers over the characters rather than the reality of sitting in the corner with his face in a hat. I’m predisposed to favor history over historical fiction, but recognize that I’m the minority.
Pet peave: The Jesus character in the recent New Testament videos is made to speak perfect King James English complete with a BBC accent. I’m sure some thinks it adds to the realism. Not I.
I’m thinking of the Book of Mormon translation videos from the early 90s which had Joseph reading directly from the gold plates. According to everything I’ve ever read on the subject, that never happened (nor, in fairness, has the Church ever explicitly stated that such happened), but that, along with a painting showing the same, formed my visual picture of the translation. The first time I ever heard anything about a hat and peep stone, I was listening to NPR in the mid 2000s and a lady was talking about how her encounter with LDS missionaries jumpstarted her investigation (and later rejection of) her childhood faith and journey to atheism. Apparently, the elders mentioned something about peering into a hat at a rock.
Fast forward a couple decades to the latest set of Church history videos (released last year I believe or perhaps in 2017). The translation video doesn’t have Joseph looking in a hat, but if you look carefully, you can see Joseph placing a black hat on the translation table (it’s onscreen for maybe 2 seconds). I appreciate the nod to the historical record, but it just isn’t enough. I know that these are, first and foremost, faith promoting art, not historical re-enactments designed to be accurate in every regard, BUT the Church plants the seeds (or at least waters the crap out of ones already planted) when they stray from the source material. And expecting people to understand what is artistic license and what is historical is just unfair.
It’s not just videos, it’s any presentation of almost any sort that isn’t actually the scriptures. We have all sorts of notions that have been taught to us that have elements of truth, yet are incomplete or even slightly twisted just because they’ve been said over and over again. For example, we been told that as soon as we’re baptized, all our sins are washed away and we’re perfectly clean. Or that when we’re confirmed, we can have the Holy Ghost as a constant companion as long as we’re worthy. Or that the latter-day church organization is the same as in the early church. None of these teachings are correct, yet they all hold elements of truth and are standard church fodder to try to teach those elements of truth. Of course, at some point you may have to think through why it might be better to live than to die immediately following your baptism, or why you felt abandoned by the Spirit even though you’ve been keeping the commandments, or why the latter-day church organization now doesn’t even match that of 50 years ago, let alone two millennia ago.
I view the church videos the same way. No historical depiction, for example, is going to be completely accurate, yet the video might convey some important truths and be quite valuable. But, at some point you’re going to run into things that make you realize that simple picture in your mind doesn’t match reality. I don’t think that has to be a problem. People just need to be taught that spiritual things are taught more by poetry than by recipe, and then the vagaries and oversimplifications aren’t too big a deal.
Actually, I’d modify my last comment and include the scriptures. For Easter, we reviewed the four gospels’ accounts of the the resurrection, and of course the glaring disparities between the accounts mean they can’t all be exactly right, and I’d bet that none of them are. Yet, I believe wholeheartedly in the resurrection.
I once heard a comment to the effect that a historic event doesn’t exist in the minds of the American public until a movie has been made about it. I think that’s true. Sadly, in the case of my kids, scriptural events don’t exist if there’s not a Veggie Tales movie about it. And it can’t be just my kids, because once my son gave an ad-hoc talk in Primary about Gideon and the Tuba Warrior, and even the presidency didn’t realize the details were off.
My pet peeve about the art and videos the church endorses/produces has been that their middle-eastern characters don’t look like someone from that part of the world. So when LDS Living ran a picture of the forensically recreated skull from the time and place of Jesus, Mormon commenters were quick to dismiss it. But I was pleased to see, last time I happened on a Friend magazine, that someone in charge seems to be allowing for more variety in the way Jesus is represented.
As a teacher I never use the videos or artwork. They are almost all universally too sentimental and something is lost for the benefit of the emotions. I prefer to use simple b&w figures to teach using visual is so powerful. But the goal is always the scriptures themselves, understanding what actually happened, and understanding metaphor.
I have always hated the depictions of the first vision. JS was clear that his vision defied description. So describing it seems so unbelievably disrespectful.
Its become a game in our family to mock the endlessly bad casted church videos. Probably disrespectful on our part, but I don’t want my kiddos growing up thinking its okay to wipe out other people’s cultures to please a certain audience.
I believe the Church uses these videos sometimes to subliminally plant a message outside of what the theme of the video is. I remember seeing an early LDS addiction recovery/ anti-pornography video where each newcomer to the program entered the church building with a five o’clock shadow and a colored shirt meeting a facilitator/ counselor wearing a suit and tie. At the end of the video, when progress was made, the former “struggler” appeared clean shaven in white shirt talking about how wonderful the program was. It seemed to me to reinforce the “white shirt means worthy” mentality.
I had a difficult time with the various temple videos over the years because of the way that things were portrayed. The live sessions at the Salt Lake Temple were so different with non-professional actors – sometimes their lack of acting skills was distracting, but sometimes it just made me think more about the words. Watching an endowment video was easy, but I feel like it encouraged me to not look for deeper meaning. And some scenes encouraged specific interpretations of the endowment that I didn’t always agree with
Toad – I, too, have seen a UFO, and I wonder if it was the same thing you saw. Mine was maybe a polyhedron, like a multi-faceted stone, or at least I thought that because of the way the sunlight reflected off of it as at was turning. I saw it over the Mississippi River in Tennessee and Arkansas, not very far from the Millington military base.
Toad’s comment reminded me of my own UFO sighting. I use the letters literally; it was flying and it was unidentified. Highway 50 in Nevada, east from Fallon where there’s a Naval Air Station. Navy in the desert! Go figure. Anyway, I wanted to experience total spooky darkness so out on 8 mile flats or whatever its called I stopped and turned off my headlights. Pitch black and completely silent. I stepped out and noticed a fairly bright light in the sky over my car, probably a helicopter but soundless. It started drifting. I turned on my headlights and zip, just like that it was stationed over my car. I drove east to the hills with this light in the sky keeping pace. As you might know, highway 50 is the road less traveled. There were no other cars.
Anyway, reached the hills just east of “Sand Mountain” and got out of my car and walked into the hills to get away from my car in case something weird happened. Two lights came from the south going really fast. Still no sound and no way to estimate how high they were. The light that had been following my car joined those two other lights and all three headed north at the same velocity.
Going from hover to Mach 1 or Mach 2 more or less instantaneously is not normal helicopter behavior.
“…there is no underlying reality to the phenomenon”
I disagree. Few people will believe in a claim if there is absolutely zero confirming evidence or experience. What happens is leverage of people’s experiences, which are few, into elaborate claims, which are many.
This is true of religion. What exactly distinguishes the Book of Mormon from the Urantia Book? There is no physical evidence for either; both contain words obtained by revelation (Urantia Book calls it “channeling”). Each is religious and claims to be speaking of real events. I believe one is accompanied by spiritual confirmation and the other is not.
How about successor to Joseph Smith? Apparently there were several candidates. Nearly everyone chose Brigham Young based on reported manifestation that people saw and heard Joseph Smith while he (Brigham Young) was speaking.
For me, video is weak. BOOKS have considerably more power. Your mileage may vary. There is one place where video can be powerful, and that’s of someone speaking as if directly to me. None of this horrible not-quite-looking-at-the-camera nonsense. It’s annoying. If you have something to say to me, look straight in the camera and you will be making eye contact. Then, tell me your story. It doesn’t matter if *I* believe it, what matters is if YOU believe it.
Laurel – I’m with you on the ethnic depictions of New Testament people. Just this past Sunday, the Primary president was showing this painting of the risen Christ, presented as a very blonde, very pale man. Not just blonde and long haired, but practically with a feathered mullet. I looked up a picture of an 80s metal group (Warrant) and this particular Christ would’ve fit right into a group shot.
I get that different people portray Christ as they see themselves, but what’s the target demographic here? A bunch of closeted 80s metal fans from Utah county? I certainly do not see myself or my family in this vision of the Savior. (But I’d love to see the music video.)
Interesingly, the church’s own website features entries from an international art competition ( https://history.lds.org/exhibit/iac-2015-tell-me-the-stories-of-jesus?lang=eng ) and there are some STUNNING pictures from around the world. Why are these not hanging on our meetinghouse walls?
I don’t think the videos have a long shelf life. Watch older videos from the church and they all seem so dated so fast.
There were quite a few experimental aircraft undergoing testing 50s through 70s, some of which had a general ‘saucer’ shape.
Mike, if I’m going to take in at length what someone is saying then unless I can make notes or also read it off as well, I’m going to have to shut my eyes. Maintaining eye contact whilst trying to concentrate on what is being said is far too distracting.
I’m not a fan of curriculum videos generally speaking. It depends how much they keep to what is written in scriptural text and don’t add anything else. I was about tearing my hair out in Sunday School last year when the teacher showed an old seminary video depicting events for the OT course, instead of looking at the text. The discussion that then ensued seemed to concentrate more on aspects of the video that had presumably been added to make the video more real, visual padding as it were, and didn’t appear in the text at all. I liked the people making the comments too much to embarrass them by pointing out that the particular things they were referring to didn’t actually appear in scripture, but I did take the teacher to task in the corridor afterwards. The new videos for the NT are a big improvement on the old seminary materials in that regard.
I think it was a couple of years ago, I was present in another congregation and for some reason for the Sunday school lesson the teacher had opted to include the old seminary video about the armour of God (the one with the guys in woods avoiding arrows interspersed with school and a party). I was made spitting angry by that video, noticing all too clearly, in a way that I hadn’t been able to pin down and articulate when I was in seminary, all the egregiously sexist messaging. Lets see – first only the boys were out in the woods, only the boys required armour. The girls in the video were either temptresses or there to encourage the boys to do good. And the temptresses, well they were the arrows the boys were to avoid. The girls didn’t have their own tale in this presentation. There are several other seminary videos I can recall with similarly sexist messaging, that if I think about them now, leave me me wanting to smash faces…
As far as current manipulative messaging goes, I really really dislike the conference talk extracts set to music. Ugh!
Isn’t this topic relevant in and out of the Church? Shouldn’t we be concerned that video/phone has replaced books? When you see something depicted, your brain works differently than imagining the depiction. In the former, someone else did the mental work. In the latter, you have to actually think and use your imagination. Movies are rarely as powerful as the books they are trying to recreate and I suspect Church videos are less powerful than the reading material they try to re-create
I confess to being a life-long hoaxer. For the last 20 years, I have been pranking boy scouts for two reasons. I think it is fun for everyone and more importantly, it teaches them critical thinking skills and develops creativity. Sasquatching is one of my favorite hobbies and I can produce a believable footprint in less than a minute in an ideal location. (Round rocks and sandy soil) I have a nice jackalope hanging above my desk and it never fails to amuse me how many people think it is a real creature. I tell them to google it if they don’t believe me.
As a youth I was wilder and more varied in these experiences. And not alone. (Maybe among the worst). I once buried a black cat and months later during a seance I convinced some of the kids a year older than me (who bullied me previously) to dig up the grave and find a murdered “baby” wrapped in a mink coat. It scared the hell out of them. But they never told any adults, which indicates somehow they figured out it was baloney.
At a diabetic camp, one of the counselors had an unauthorized pet cat that was killing the marmots- I didn’t like either of them. I caught the cat, injected its rump with 50 units of long acting insulin immediately before a late night story telling session in the girls cabin. There, I cast a spell on the cat and about half an hour later it went crazy. Eventually it passed out and everyone thought I killed it with my magical powers . But the cat seems just fine the next day. (Was it Schrodinger’s damned cat?)
I noticed from a campground vista that in late summer the combines miles away harvesting wheat at night looked very strange. I planned a young adult activity around a UFO theme and promised to show people a secret UFO runway. At night it was very eerie watching a light miles away move in a line and them suddenly disappear. It was marginally believable- until a couple of months later at the Halloween activity I staged my own murder. I had a (sham ) argument with my girlfriend, we left to settle this while she was slicing the ham with a large knife. She returned from the woods alone with a sly grin on her face. Later, I was discovered in the woods lying on the ground motionless, covered with blood and the knife wedged in my armpit to look like it was in my heart. (She seemed to have derived a bit too much joy out of squirting me with the ketchup).
You can’t replicate stunts like this with videos. .
Into the weeds:
But all of this pales in comparison to a half a century of legends and trips up Logan canyon by daring youth and numerous encounters by generations of people with witch Hecate- who haunts a place called St Ann’s retreat. Here is a scholarly article about the religious conflict expressed by this amazing phenomenon. http://exhibits.lib.usu.edu/exhibits/show/stannesretreat/item/5720.
And a short disjointed newspaper article
I had my own encounter which is too complicated to really describe here. Except to briefly summarize- it involved me, as an 8th grader, borrowing a car, my friend picking up a couple of girls visiting from California and going up the canyon and frightening ourselves to the point that one of the girls had a seizure- blood coming out of her mouth, incontinence, then unconscious stiffness. We thought she was dead.
Many of these stores I heard as a youth resemble the ones in the article, pregnant nuns drowning babies who become ghosts. Except our Hecate had wolves instead of dogs, with green eyes instead of red eyes. Mere details. Calling for mercy in the name of Jesus Christ also saved us. Not mentioned in the article were elements from the temple ceremony in these legends, which we did not recognize, being adolescents at the time. But later it freaked me out.
I am going to bet that these legends about witch Hecate die or have died with the advent of the cell phone- which is the successor of the video. Even the video culture is getting out of date. Already it has been over 20 years since the ~40 strong youth group visited St Ann’s seeking diabolical thrills and were apprehended by hired, armed security guards (private cabins leased from the forest service) who held them captive to be physically and sexually assaulted. Hecate must have been laughing that night. Might have been one of her last laughs.
“…video amplifies the verisimilitude of religious events….” No. I think the technology (videos, cell phones) dulls the stories, not amplifies them. A well-cultivated vivid imagination can be more exhilarating or frightening than anything viewed on a video. Watching a movie like the Exorcists is nothing compared to what we encountered in the canyon at St Ann’s retreat. All these contraptions dull the mind. Soap -opera videos are a cheap substitute to genuine spiritual experiences. Experience real life, such as going out in the woods during a thunderstorm or a blizzard and witness the power and beauty of Almighty God’s creation. Those temple videos were made by people who never really understood this in the first place. Same as worship of people (prophets) and things (institutions) is a cheap substitute of genuine worship of God.
“This is true of religion. What exactly distinguishes the Book of Mormon from the Urantia Book? There is no physical evidence for either; both contain words obtained by revelation (Urantia Book calls it “channeling”). Each is religious and claims to be speaking of real events. I believe one is accompanied by spiritual confirmation and the other is not.”
The Urantia Book is a work of almost 2000 pages with a great deal of internal consistency. It does assume a literate reader above a 6th grade level, thereby limiting its audience. And as you said, the acceptance of it or the BOM as scripture is completely subjective, although one could argue that some of the material in The Urantia Book is confirmed by generally accepted historical or archaeological references, whereas the BOM has none of these.
(The Other) Mike’s writing is what I’m talking about — vivid first person experience that creates in my min mind scenes to go along with the words.
In my youth it was haunted houses; dark, abandoned, decrepit. It was a huge dare to explore one and double-dog dare to do it at night. Movies (video) depends almost entirely on startle effect. I was never confused that it wasn’t trespassing, but who might be the owner? Dead, probably, and his bones right behind that door hanging from broken hinges.
There was one movie that scared the wits out of me, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. I’ve never seen a movie before or since as scary dangerous. I stayed up all night with the lights on and windows closed.
One good Mormon movie is “Meet the Mormons”. It is sort of a deep dive into the lives of several families around the planet, in particular I enjoyed and was moved by the scenes in India. It is very conversational and mostly without “churchspeak”.
Now that I think on it, quite a few of the original “Twilight Zone” movies were similarly effective and have even become part of popular lore. One of my favorites was “How To Serve Man” (it’s a cookbook!)
Within the realm of Mormonism, “Johnny Lingo” was pretty good and memorable and established “8” as a type of romantic magic number among Mormons.
vajra2 writes “…some of the material in The Urantia Book is confirmed by generally accepted historical or archaeological references, whereas the BOM has none of these.”
If I remember right, the Book of Mormon mentions Jerusalem, which is generally accepted to exist and to have existed for a long time (thousands of years).
The utility, for me, of the Urantia book is that the way I view it, and feel about it, is probably similar to the way many people feel about the Book of Mormon. It is a way to empathize with never-were-Mormons for whom both books are simply weird.
“If I remember right, the Book of Mormon mentions Jerusalem, which is generally accepted to exist and to have existed for a long time (thousands of years).”
True. Although the the author, Smith, was aware of the existence of Jerusalem, so it’s not unusual that it might appear in his writings. I’ve read The Urantia Book in its entirety once, and several of the papers more than once. I found it interesting but not persuasive. But that’s just me.
All mediated religious experiences (whether mediated through video, drama, art, scripture, or even “thus saith the Lord”-type revelation) are necessarily imperfect, in the sense that no medium can convey an experience without altering it. In my view, if one is uncomfortable with this, the answer is to seek unmediated, personal religious experiences in addition to the mediated ones. One’s own experience is among the few truly incorrigible things .