I was talking to Jay yesterday about Keith Merrill’s response to this talk from Richard Dutcher, and for the millionth time, I noted how utterly incomprehensible it is to me that people could see Dutcher’s work as unsupportive of faith or religious devotion, or in any way detrimental to the church or its members. In my experience, Dutcher’s films are so very supportive of both our community and its faith that I find Merrill’s response to Dutcher’s work utterly mystifying.
In fact, Brigham City was the catalyst for the religious experience which led me to rejoin the church. I know I’ve mentioned my history with the church before, but I’ll just recap it briefly. I grew up as a Mormon from a part-member home in Salt Lake City. My religious education, both at church and in CES, didn’t really center on anything I now understand as Christianity, with the exception of one edifying course taught by S. Michael Wilcox at the University of Utah Institute of Religion. In fact, despite the fact that I was a very active Mormon through college, my religious devotion didn’t really involve much actual religion. I tried to learn, and the church tried to teach me, truly it did. However, most of the religious information to which I was exposed on Sundays was at best decontextualized from the Gospel of Christ laid out in 3 Nephi 27. At worst, it was contrary to that Gospel. Of course, even if my ward, my seminary, or the Institute had taught nothing but Christ and Him crucified, the message would have been undercut by the treatment I received as a child of apostates.
I left the church during a personal crisis in my early adulthood, and I felt a lot of anger toward the church community due to the pain I suffered at members’ hands. I decided that I should judge Mormondom by its fruits, and in my experience, those fruits were usually rotten. (Remember, I was quite young. My views on the church have changed, as I’m about to detail below).
Several years afterward, I’d had my name removed, joined the Episcopal church, and had experienced a particularly intense conversion to what I’d probably classify as progressive evangelical Christianity. (Think Sojourners). I believed that the LDS church was off my radar. And then God used Dutcher’s work to completely change my understanding of the Mormon community and of my relationship to it.
My husband and I were living in Caracas on a research trip, and as Venezuela was in the middle of a severe political crisis verging on civil war, we weren’t able to leave the house much. I ended up watching many, many hours of cable television. As I mentioned above, I’d barely thought of the LDS church for years. I was deeply involved in my own religious life, and I believed my Mormon past had become a nonissue. I thought I was over the trauma of my exit. I had other things to think about. And then one afternoon, HBO Latin America played Brigham City.
I though, “Oh, neat, I wanted to see this when it was released.” I quite liked it. Until the last scene, I just enjoyed the film. It’s an excellent piece of culture-specific cinema. Since I’d just learned enough Spanish to realize that language is only the first, and by no means the most formidable, barrier to cross-cultural conversations, I really liked the way Dutcher used the East Coast FBI agent and the local residents as foils for each other, a kind of cultural negative space. They talked, and both thought they were communicating clearly, but of course they were having quite distinct conversations. The audience could either see the locals’ worldview or the agent’s worldview, but not both at once. It was like that picture which might be two faces or might be a vase, depending on your frame of mind.
The film was a lot of fun, right up to the last scene. I won’t describe the scene, because I don’t want to spoil anything for readers who haven’t seen the film yet. I’ll just say that it was a stunning illustration of the love church members feel for each other when we are our best selves.
Suddenly, I understood. Suddenly the culture that I’d abandoned was beautiful to me. Its faith was comprehensible to me. The thing I saw on the television screen – the community founded in the waters of Mormon – was something my own faith lacked.
I’ve probably blogged about the rest of the experience before. The film ended, I walked away from my television, and as I left the room, I suddenly felt like a flaming hand was gripping my soul. (I always think that sounds overdramatic, but such a metaphor is the only way I can express what happened). I spent several hours sitting in our apartment, struggling with an almost unbearably strong compulsion to rejoin the Mormon church and to stay in it forever, accompanied by the strong conviction that God required this course of action of me, absolutely and without any negotiation. I really didn’t want rejoin the LDS church, but the idea of choosing not to rejoin was suddenly unthinkable.
Three weeks later, we’d returned to the U.S., and I was sitting in the office of the local ward’s bishop, telling him the story and planning my rebaptism. And I’m certain that had I not seen Dutcher’s film, that meeting would not have happened.
I needed to see the promise of Zion, the potential for true and abiding love within our church, which Dutcher illustrated so well. I don’t doubt that the divine ultimatum I received was waiting for me, and I have enough self-awareness to understand that Dutcher’s film is what made it comprehensible to me. I needed to understand you, my people, before I could embrace you. That embrace, my own capacity for which I attribute in part to Dutcher’s efforts and in greater part to God’s working on my soul, has made me whole where I was broken.
I see such beauty in Dutcher’s work, such truth, and so much of God’s love and light, that I am always confused by the strong negative reactions Dutcher evokes. Yes, he deals with death, with sin, with pain and the tragedy which is ever-present in this world. He says that such things are present within our church. Perhaps that bothers some of us. Perhaps we would like to believe that our church is free of such things. But death, sin, pain, tragedy, and guilt, are our lot, because we are neither immortal nor perfect. We know that sin exists in our own hearts and in our own community. We know that we may be blinded to it. The scriptures tell us that Satan wishes us to believe that “all is well in Zion”; we know that all is not well, though we are tempted to listen to the adversary’s seductive lie.
All will not be well, in Zion or anywhere else, until Christ returns to stand among us. Art that admits this is essentially realistic. When such realistic art goes further and shows us the Light which the darkness of our lives on Earth cannot overcome, it is a gift. Dutcher’s art is such a gift, at least to me; it taught me to understand the church, the fullest expression of God’s grace to which I have access in this life, and it prepared me to accept that grace.