Out of Obscurity, etc.

I watched a Gilmore Girls rerun (original air date: January 20, 2004) with my wife tonight. GG is no Northern Exposure, of course. But it is (perhaps was before the present season) good for consistently clever dialog. The following is certainly not the first GG reference to Mormonism. But, as a Mormon blogger, it is my favorite by far:

Tobin: I moved to Utah because I heard there was lots of job opportunities for industrious Mormons.
Loralei: I didn’t know you were a Mormon.
Tobin: I wasn’t, so I became one. The paperwork took weeks. And I didn’t know about the alcohol thing.
Loralei: They famously abstain.
Tobin: No coffee either. The choir is fabulous, but then there’s the funny underwear. It didn’t last.
* * *
Tobin: I found some websites I’d like to recommend to you, Loralei. I spent a lot of time online when I was a Mormon. There wasn’t much else to do.

I am not entirely comfortable with the underwear quip. The temple is sacred to me. Yet now we live in the Can Mitt Romney Overcome the Mormon Thing? world. Every journalist in America has or will pose that question, cite the same lame polls, and observe ominously that (1) the Republican base considers us heretical-cult-freaks, and (2) pretty much everybody considers us strange. And that’s not all. In recent months, a ubiquitous blogger dedicated an entire week to smirking at us. And Slate, The New Republic, and Tobias have called Mormons stupid, lazy, and/or dangerous. As long as Romney remains a contender, I expect more strong opinions on Mormons that are blissfully (or willfully) unencumbered by understanding.

All of this attention is somewhat awkward. Mormons (since roughly Utah sought statehood?) have strived to be PR-savvy paragons of wholesome respectability. It is a little unnerving to be reminded of why such efforts are considered necessary. Yet there is something exciting about the attention too. While we want people to think well of us, we should probably appreciate people thinking of us at all. Long term, I believe that the attention–and particularly the emphasis on Mormon distinctiveness–will be a good thing. Mormons will answer the questions raised. Others’ fascination or amusement in things we consider sacred will no longer shock us or make us feel ashamed. Thoughtful observers will see glib commentary and bigoted attacks for what they are. Such people may never join us, but they will see us as human.

The attention will also be good for Mormon art and culture. As understanding of Mormons and our peculiarities increases, stories populated by Mormon characters will become more comprehensible to general audiences. Hopefully such stories will become more appealing too. That’s not too much to hope for now, is it?

6 thoughts on “Out of Obscurity, etc.”

  1. I think you’re absolutely right. Catholics have had some of their most sacred beliefs (transubstantiation, for example), openly mocked and derided by other faiths for centuries. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of us to grow a thick skin when it comes to a disparaging remark here or there about the temple. After all, they know not what they do.

    Besides, when you compare it to Missouri cir. 1840’s, the negative treatment in the press doesn’t seem so bad. A glib comment sort of pales in comparison to elected officials declaring open season on you.

  2. You know, it’s funny. I’m not really offended by South Park’s treatment of Mormonism.

    I was a bit put off by the Gilmore Girls episode that Shawn discusses as well last Sunday’s episode of the Simpsons.

    Trey and Stone of South Park are equal-opportunity offenders and have decent knowledge of Mormons.

    On the other hand, the Gilmore Girls writers show no real awareness of Mormonism. In addition, much of their humour revolves around hip, pop cultural references and sly digs (sometimes self-deprecating) the GG Mormon joke scene is flat in comparison.

    Meanwhile, the Simpsons featured Bart running off to Utah to get married. The jokes were predictable and a bit off — it’s almost like their version of Utah was a weird combination of the Appalachians and the polygamous settlements on the Arizona/Utah border. Of course, the Simpsons has been lacking and often lazy for years.

    As an aside:

    I find it interesting that writers/artists (esp. in popular media) want to use Utah (and by extension Mormonism) as the paragon of and shorthand for latter-day puritanism and close-mindedness, but also want to at times invoke the whole polygamy/violence thing. It leads to some interesting, often odd, bifurcations.

  3. Larry: the charm of South Park is generally lost on me. That bit (“the Mormons was the correct answer”) amuses me, but I don’t laugh for the same reason the author and average audience member presumably would. I think it’s funny because it’s true. (Well, not exactly true: the sketch collapses on itself if you know anything about the Mormon understanding of heaven.) In contrast, I assume that non-Mormons might laugh at that because, well, (I think this is always implied when SP takes up Mormonism) they are so stupid for actually believing that stuff!

    Yet maybe there is a third option: does the joke seriously acknowledge the possibility (even as SP and its fans repeatedly mock us) that Mormons might be right? If so, the joke makes me think of a rumor spreading from floor to floor in the great and spacious building. (This party sucks! Those losers down there picking fruit are right!) Most people laugh it off. They have another drink. But a few pointing fingers of scorn drop slightly. One guy even checks his watch and scans the room for a dim green exit sign.

  4. William: the GG thing didn’t offend me. It was mostly harmless, and it demonstrated the kind of vague familiarity that I think we can expect from most people. Should they actually know something about us if they are going to do Mormon bits? Yes. But they are doing an authentic portrayal of what average fast-talking and tastefully hip Americans likely think about Mormons. Anyway, I was mostly amused (and felt compelled to post) by the statement about Mormons spending a lot of time online.

    (I will reiterate that GG is no Northern Exposure. I particularly liked it when Chris Stevens referenced the angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith without a hint of mockery. Chris did mispronounce Mononi as if it rhymed with macaroni, though. Nobody is perfect.)

  5. I just picked up a copy of U.S. News & World Report’s special issue the “Mysteries of Faith, The Prophets”. Listing some of the prophets included inside on the front cover was Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Paul, Muhammad and Joseph Smith. The section on Joseph was written by Robert V. Remini a emeritus professor of history from the University of Illinois. I have seen Professor Remini speak on Joseph before and he has a lot of respect for him. Even though the professor is not a Mormon, I have always wondered why not.

    It was refreshing to see Joseph mentioned prominently in the context of being a prophet and not as a sidebar. Also it was encouraging that the article was factual and to the point with very little editorial comment. The side bar for the article was on the Book of Mormon and had some interesting insights by Professor Remini.

    With Mitt Romany’s campaign putting the spot light on Mormonism, I feel optimistic about the Church taking its proper place among world religions. We need to praise the correct things said about the Church and counter the attacks with patience, long suffering, love and positive rebuttals religions.

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