Mormonism Goes Mainstream
Astle, Randy, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought
Mormonism Goes Mainstream Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010. 196 pp. Photographs, bibliographies, index. Paper: $24.95. ISBN: 978-087421-773-5
Reviewed by Randy Astle
In an article posted in September 2010 on Patheos.com, a website devoted to the discussion of religion and spirituality, Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for the LDS Church, wrote: "During the past few years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has navigated a period of intense public attention and scrutiny rarely seen during any other time in its history." He buttressed this claim with the fact that for over a year "media attention far exceeded even the considerable interest generated during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City."1 While Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen looks at artistic productions rather than traditional journalism, its editors Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin agree with Otterson, stating that "Mormons and Mormonism have seen increasing scrutiny during the previous decade" (1). They even cite many of the same causes.2
While the media-meaning diverse entities such as journalism, film, television, literature, drama, and the internet-has been expanding its consciousness of Mormonism, scholarship on Mormon culture and media has been burgeoning as well. Building on a foundation of Mormon literary criticism, critics of audiovisual media have been publishing and presenting work in numerous journals, websites, blogs, and symposia, indicating that we are entering a renaissance of Mormon cultural studies and artistic criticism. Peculiar Portrayals joins recent luminous efforts like Terryl Givens's People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Brigham Young University's first annual Mormon Media Studies Symposium in November 2010 both to signify a new era in the study of Mormon media and also to indicate directions in which that study can go.
This peculiar historical position is, in fact, both the greatest strength and weakness of Peculiar Portrayals. On the one hand, the individual essays are universally engaging, erudite, and insightful. They apply strong criticism to remarkably diverse works to achieve, by and large, some of the best thoughts written about Mormon media in recent years, giving hope for criticism of the same and greater caliber in the near future. At the same time, however, in analyzing individual works in such scrupulous detail, the book lays bare the fact that it is missing a significant amount of material that might have been profitably included. It may be faint criticism to blame a book for being so good it leaves you wanting more; but the omissions, even though the editors acknowledge them (3), remain palpable and regrettable.
But more noticeable than the omission of any individual subject is the lack of an overarching systematic approach. Decker and Austin claim that "there has not [previously] been a concerted effort to explore the ways that Mormons and Mormonism have been characterized in literature and film" and that their volume will attempt to provide that "broad perspective" (3). By "a concerted effort" it appears they mean a systematic investigation, one that covers all media and classes of portrayals of Mormonism throughout the spectrum. This is an admirable goal and would create a much-needed resource, but in their highly focused gaze on individual works not all of the essays here live up to that standard. If the goal is to systematically analyze how Mormonism is treated in media, one wonders why some of the essays, though good, focus on minor works such as the film Pride and Prejudice (2003) instead of on larger issues that affect many films, plays, or novels. Each of the essays has its own goal, of course, and should be judged accordingly, but only some strive for insights applicable to a range of works. …