Thursday, August 9, 2007

Greetings from the Sunstone Symposium!

A big Bronx cheer to those who believe "Symposia" are evil. I just felt the Spirit stronger than I have in the past year. This year's event is off to a great start.

I just attended this evening's presentation by Helen Whitney, creator of the PBS special "The Mormons." She told the story of the making of the film with some behind-the-scenes stories and commentaries. "Why did I choose to examine these quirky, strange, and scary Mormons?" she asked. She explains that she feels an affinity to the spiritual and is fascinated with radical religious commitment. Mormonism is not just a Sunday religion, as we all know. It is all-encompassing. Helen began her three-year process of preparing this documentary with a bit of knowledge about the Mormons: "I knew they were smart, funny, they weren't polygamists, and they lived in other places outside of Utah," she explains. At the end of the odyssey, she says that she can't imagine tending to family, career, and belonging to such a faith--"my head just hurts."

I was extremely impressed by all the work that went into making this documentary. Whitney has crafted her new-found knowledge and thousands of hours of interviews into an art form. It was fascinating to listen to her explain how and why she chose the music, the art work, and the interviews that would be included. She explained that access is always a problem for a documentary film maker. She would not have been able to make the film without gaining the trust of the LDS Church. Why was the Church so open to a film it would not have any control over? Helen postulates that the Church has a reputation for being very closed. Michael Purdy, the Church representative with whom she worked on this project, wanted to change this perception.

I especially liked Whitney's discussion of gathering the interviews. She wanted to get her subjects to strip away the religious jargon. She was concerned that the speakers would be too boring. She said that dissidents were the most interesting. Historians seemed too attatched to one little piece of the picture and the faithful were unable to move past their trite jargon. I thought in view of this situation that her final result was remarkably balanced.

Whitney's "surprise" interviews included Betty Stevenson (inner-city convert), and Marlin Jensen. The higher up you go, she noted, you must abandon all hope of fresh, unrehearsed answers. Not so with Jensen. He was authentic and interesting. "The Church would be well-advised to use him as the public face of Mormonism," she quipped. On the other hand, she was disappointed with Boyd K. Packer's interview, blaming herself as much as him. She saw him as having made some strong statements in the past, and she wanted him to expand upon what he had written. Instead, she felt that he did not own what he had said.

What touched me about Whitney's presentation was her excitement about Joseph Smith as a powerful and complex leader. She cautioned Mormons not to strip him of his boldness and ruthlessness. She labeled Joseph "postmodern" and described him as "experimenting with his many selves." She said that we should judge his narrative by its power to change lives and people's willingness to believe it. Whitney challenged Mormons to see Joseph as a fascinating prophet-puzzle. She urges us to own our beliefs and be less defensive.

After the presentation, I felt inspired by the admiration of a non-member who sincerely investigated Mormonism and found it a passionate, intriguing religion. The session was opened and concluded with hymn singing directed by Ardean Watts. How I wish every chorister in the Church could take lessons from Ardean! He conducted with a flair, almost dancing in his excitement, and all eyes were upon him. We sang with gusto.

Kevin Barney has an open thread on the Symposium at BCC--check it out for more observations on the event.


journeygal said...

Thanks for the details of the opening session of Sunstone! I was in the car driving up to Utah County from CA yesterday and thinking to myself, "I wish I was listening to Helen Whitney right now...."

I can't make it up to the symposium until Saturday, so keep posting on any interesting sessions you attend. :-)

Mark IV said...

A big Bronx cheer...

LOL BiV! That's why we luvs ya. But a Bronx cheer is still more polite than a Bronx salute, right?

I wish I could be there with all you evil sinners and apostates. Please keep us informed of all that goes on.

GeckoMan said...

Having an unapologetic enthusiasm for the super-natural origins of our LDS religion through the Prophet Joseph is one of the few things I find refreshing about my testimony. All the rest is merely recitation of dogma, unless enlivened by my own personal experience.

Loyd said...

BiV, I dunno what you look like, nor what your real name is. And I'm guessing your name tag doesn't say 'Bored in Vernal.' If you see me at a session, stop me and say hi.

ldahospud said...

Hey Roy, thanks for the writeup. Please keep them coming--August is too crazy busy around here to get away.

Can you make it to the snacker/sleepover at mi casa in a couple of weeks? I know you're busy getting ready to move but we could make it a bon voyage party for you!

Bored in Vernal said...

Mark, you were missed, especially at the bloggersnacker get-together. You would have loved it. Journeygal and Narrator--I'm glad I got to say Hi and I wish I'd been able to talk to both of you more. Geckoman, Amen.

Spud--we are leaving on the 20th!! I will never be ready on time. Lisa said I should postpone it all and come to Idaho, and I was sorely tempted.

Putz said...

i grew up around marlin jensen...he was on a milk farm in sterling, utah, sanpete county, also served a central british mission with marlin...served in 1963...also lance finner two men who are down to earth and yet have the wisdom of the ages...both of them are in the limelight probably as much as they want to be...i wouldn't wish more public attention on them