Movies, Mormonism, and Meaning

I’m going to start this off with a couple of Nike commercials that I watch on Youtube when I am trying to motivate myself. No endorsement of Nike (or YouTube) is implied.

This first one has a very slight Mormon connection:

This second one doesn’t (as far as I know), but it is my favorite of the two:

Now, it is patently ridiculous to find commercials, generally speaking the best shorthand for “everything that is wrong with civilization,” inspiring, but I find both of these inspiring. I would go further and argue that I feel the Spirit every time I watch the second and that I get a spiritual ping every time that I see that “Everything you need is already inside you” quote in the first. I sometimes wonder if this actually makes me a shallow, easily manipulated person, but there is already enough evidence of that without adding this to the list.

As was discussed in a recent poll, there is some question regarding what we mean or what we think is happening when we say that we “feel the Spirit.” We are told that the Spirit testifies, comforts, and inspires. But those verbs can mean a lot of different things. I’ve argued in the past that the Spirit mostly gives us insight into the sincerity of the people we are listening to. But commercials are inherently insincere (even those old Joe Isuzu commercials were), so what am I doing feeling the Spirit in these?

For that matter, I’m willing to bet that many of you can watch these commercials and not have what you consider to be a spiritual experience. You may be moved by them. You may be indifferent to them. But, in this case, you wouldn’t have felt the Spirit. But I really think I have. So what is up with that?

I think that there are several different ideas at play in all of this. I think that one of the most important has to do with setting. There are contexts in which we expect to feel the Spirit. We don’t have to feel the Spirit in these contexts, but if we feel it, we recognize it as such because we were expecting the possibility. But in other contexts, it doesn’t make sense. If someone receives inspiration while mud-wrestling or watching commercials (probably morally equivalent), we are skeptical. Why would God choose that person or that setting? It might make us question our presupposed rules for revelation.

Which isn’t to say that I am necessarily right in feeling like I am feeling the Spirit. I am reacting to, primarily, feelings that come to me in watching these commercials. I find them beautifully made and personally inspiring. But I also feel like they speak to me, help me to see things that I otherwise wouldn’t (the beauty in motion itself, that strength comes from failure). The first time I saw them, I had the kind of telescopic settling in my mind that speaks to me of the Spirit. Also, I’ve never bought Nikes, so whatever the message was meant to be, it wasn’t the commercial one that came through.

Now, in the same recent poll, we discussed if the term “feeling the Spirit” can be applied to art. More specifically, if it can be applied to popular art (“movies”). I don’t have a problem with this, because I tend to think art is art, even if it comes in a popular context. But, it might be reasoned, there is a reason why flutes and harps are allowed in Sacrament meetings and guitars and harmonicas are not. Perhaps classical music inherently does more to invite the Spirit (or does less to drive it away). But one wonders, is this religious snobbery disguised as inviting the Spirit?

On the other thread, I stated that the Mission was a movie that I thought was R-rated but where I felt the Spirit. I don’t know if it ever was rated R, but it was a movie and, as such, it was made primarily to turn a profit. Most producers rate improving the world and enlightening the masses lower on their scale of priorities than adding to their paycheck and I don’t blame them for that. So, what am I to do when I feel the Spirit in a commercial endeavor?

One of the reasons I feel the Spirit in the Mission (and one of the reasons why I love the movie) is the story of Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is a slave trader and profiteer, working in the recently colonized South American interior. Initially, he is indifferent to the suffering he causes, looking to make a fast buck. But then his brother sleeps with the wrong woman and Mendoza, enraged, kills the one person he truly loves. As a result, he goes to the Jesuits whom he earlier dismissed and seeks to serve his penance. Which leads to the following scene.

Now, I don’t know if you have to see the movie to get that scene. But I love what it teaches me. I feel the Spirit when I think about it. It means something to me. That might be sufficient.

“Feeling the Spirit” can mean a lot of things, but I think that, at its heart, it is always a way for us to distinguish things that are meaningful. “Meaning” itself is a deliberately meaningless term. Meaningful things can tell us who we are, what we believe, how we should act, and why we should act. The Spirit, however it is defined or experienced, offers us the chance to find meaning (God’s or our own) in the world around us. It leads us to find or to see those things which God would have us seek or see. It is the means whereby Angels speak and God communes. So we probably shouldn’t be surprised if we feel it during a commercial or a song that we enjoy. Those sorts of things help us define who we are.

As Mormons, we have several different ideas regarding what constitutes “Mormon-ness.” For instance, there has recently been some online discussion regarding whether the new emphasis at mormon.org actually represents Mormonism (or if it represents the kind of Mormonism that we personally pursue). If some believer approaches Mormonism in a way that differs than us, are they wrong, un-Mormon, a bad representative of the belief, or just a fellow traveler? How do we draw the lines? Ecclesiastical affiliation seems easiest, but surely there are wackos within the church from whom we would like to distance ourselves. Should we ask all contributors to mormon.org to list their top 10 movies? Would that get us closer to defining what Mormonism is?

Whatever else it tells us, the Spirit tells us what we should pay attention to as individuals. Those things we should pay attention to are those things that give us meaning. That meaning, like our salvation, is something that we have to work out with God. If it leads us to search for that which is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy in the midst of pop culture, so be it.

Comments

  1. As I said on the other thread, as a baptised and confirmed member of the church, I believe I have been given the Holy Ghost as my constant companion, as long as I don’t offend it.
    I think that the spirit of the Lord flows very freely, and the scriptures time and time again attest to this idea:
    -And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
    -If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
    -And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.
    -What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
    -And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.
    -that I may pour out my Spirit upon all flesh—
    -But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

    There are many times when the scriptures speak of the Holy Ghost as “Liberal”, Freely-Flowing, “constant companion”. I don’t personally know of any scriptures that speak of the Holy Ghost as “rare”, “elusive”, or “fleeting”.
    I think many would like to think of the Holy Ghost and its manifestations as more rare, and I agree that those life-changing mind-blowing experiences are not a daily event, but I think the companionship of the Spirit can be, and is, and one can, should, and probably does more often than they realize, feel the spirit daily.
    I remember tearing up in the MTC during the showing of a bunch of those dumb Mormon commercials. I’d like to think that that was the Spirit testifying of the simple truth in some of those, and not that I’m some sort of wus.

  2. Neat post. I love The Mission, one of my favorite movies.

    My favorite part of that first commercial is at 0:38.

  3. I just remembered that the second commercial was first broadcast during the 2002 Olympics. So there is a sorta Mormon connection there too.

  4. Susan,
    I immediately thought of that bit when you said that.

  5. The first time I felt an intense spirit-like feeling was at the age of 17, while listening to an obscure metal song for the first time. I was absolutely electrified. Chills, shaking, sweating, mind blown, and thinking “Wow, that was beautiful.” I still feel that way, although my reaction to that song is no longer nearly as intense as it was the first time.

    I’m not sure if it was the spirit or just emotions brought up from powerful music. I’m not even sure if the distinction is important, at least in this case.

    My reaction to that song was similar in some ways to subsequent spiritual experiences (or, like we learn from Killer Kane’s description of the spirit in “New York Doll,” it was like getting high).

  6. Thomas Parkin says:

    I think the phrase “feel the Spirit” is … almost but not quite meaningless it is used so haphazardly. The Holy Spirit is an actual presence in the physical universe, both around us in a setting and in our hearts. We can “feel” it. But this ‘feeling’ is like feeling the wind, or sunshine, and not like feeling elated, or sad, or whatnot. There is no necessary emotional reaction to ‘feeling the Spirit.’ I’d much rather say, acknowledging the presence of the Spirit.

    Gratitude at having the presence of the Holy Spirit might cause an emotion. And, very importantly, it say again and again that hardness of heart, with related negative emotions, can keep us from experiencing that presence. At times I feel a surge of emotion when I realize the Holy Spirit is present – usually when there is some other content: information, sensation, etc. that is _personally_ meaningful to me. At other times I feel no surge of emotion, but rather say to myself ‘hm, the Spirit is present and is accompanying this content.’ Also, almost always the presence of the Spirit is accompanied, for me, with some definite information: an impressions that I can translate into words, or much more rarely, actual words. ~

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    ‘hardness of heart, with related negative emotions, can keep us from experiencing that presence.’

    I’m sure there must be a reverse: that being ‘soft hearted’ (not soft headed) helps make experiencing the presence of the Spirit possible. I think I’d say to be soft hearted is related to being humble, teachable, intellectually open and tentative, etc. … meek, etc. So that content that tends to soften our hearts may make ‘feeling the Spirit’ easier – but that it is easier doesn’t mean the Spirit is any more present. ~

  8. Love these commercials. Great post.

    I don’t know how much it’d help anyone else, but I’d love to hear everyone’s top ten favorite movies. That’s just kinda the way I roll. :)

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    Just riffing some more. It may well be that the Spirit is present far more often than we ‘feel’ or acknowledge it, and that content that puts us in a state (like opening one’s eyes, receptivity) where we can ‘feel’ it is more like a gateway than a vehicle of the Spirit. In that light, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the NIKE ads would cause a person to feel the Spirit. The amazing beauty of the world is an important truth, and I think the Spirit is everywhere in it. ~

  10. Should we ask all contributors to mormon.org to list their top 10 movies? Would that get us closer to defining what Mormonism is?

    Personally, I shudder to think of what that would reveal.

  11. Thomas Parkin,
    I think there’s more than one way the spirit manifests itself. I don’t think it’s as uniform as, say, the wind. For example, a spiritual manifestation that God loves you may be quite different than a spiritual manifestation that X is true, and both of those may be different from a spiritual prompting.

  12. See, I wonder about this sort of thing. I think as we’re learning to identify the Spirit, we start identifying the emotions triggered by the Spirit as the Spirit itself. Then if something else triggers those feelings, we start thinking we’re feeling the Spirit.

    I feel a sense of awesome exhilaration from being on a mountain top, but I personally don’t identify that feeling as spiritual. Others have told me such experiences can be very spiritual. Maybe we’re not feeling the same thing, but maybe we are and interpret it differently. If the Spirit makes someone feel awed and exhilarated, and being on the mountain makes her feel awed and exhilarated, then it’s not a big stretch that she’d assume being on the mountain is spiritual.

    On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that one’s emotional state opens one to spirituality, rather than vice-versa., so maybe my comment is worthless.

    I’ve been going round and round on this ever since I heard someone describe having a stroke as a deeply spiritual experience. I couldn’t help thinking, yeah, but it could also be the physiological effect of losing all those brain cells.

  13. Top 10 movies, off the top of my head:

    1. Life is Beautiful
    2. Harold & Maude
    3. The Spitfire Grill
    4. Agnes of God
    5. The Journey of August King
    6. Birdy
    7. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters
    8. Searching For Bobby Fischer
    9. Gates of Heaven
    10. A Walk to Remember

  14. John C., thanks for taking the time to put this post together. Great post regarding a great topic. As the multiple posts on this subject over the last few days illustrate, I suspect it is hard for anyone, any group, or any organized religion to “claim” the Spirit and the way it works or feels. The best we all can do is try to fit it into our constructs of communication–words–and describe it that way. What is universal, though, is that we all feel something that we can identify as “good”.

    One of my favorite descriptions of the presence and influence of God, the Spirit, is written by a priest shortly before the Restoration. He was an administrator at a monastery in France. And he gave devotionals to the nuns each week, which someone happened to write down. His name was Jean-Pierre de Cassaude, and his ‘Sacrament of the Present Moment’ for me is a good description of how since God is omnipresent and created all things–literally all people and creations are divine–it is possible to feel the Spirit by subjecting oneself to being “aware” or “present” each and every moment. In Mormon speak, it’s the idea behind the Primary Song that says, “whenever I hear, the song of a bird, or look at the blue blue sky.” This is something I have always “known” (as I have felt it and experienced it many many times) but never really could articulated or could explain. It is authentic contemplation and self-awareness. So it’s not some novel observation of Caussade’s as we all “know” this; for me Caussade just does a good job putting it all together in theistic language.

    So in some context–like the Nike commercials or other contexts that very clearly present a moment of human excellence and achievement–we are focused on it and we are very committed and mentally “present” at that moment, which reflects something divine. Music and visual art are the same–we tune into it and are so aware in that moment that we feel God’s presence in it. So it is “easier” or more clear in those instances.

    But what about the every day, moment to moment contexts that we are not really expecting, seeking, or paying attention to what is really happening around us? We don’t feel anything, really. But we have just as much capacity to feel the Spirit in almost all contexts if we are “aware” or “present” in each moment. The Spirit truly is everywhere.

    If you are interested in Cassaude, I have a .pdf of relevant pages I’m happy to share.

  15. You know, I’ve been thinking about this very topic ever since that movie post. I was also thinking about what Joseph Smith taught the world, and what new kind of theology he brought into the world. It has made me rethink what I said in my earlier statements.

    I think if we learn one thing about Joseph, it’s about personal revelation. In his case, Joseph could look at lots of things and receive revelation from them. He would look at the Book of Genesis, and use it as the tool to receive further light and knowledge from God. He taught us that Genesis was just as much about us (YOU and ME) as it is about Adam and Eve. He would look at some old papyrus scrolls and suddenly he would begin to receive lines of revelation from them. He would look at Egyptian funerary pictures and see stories about Abraham. He would look at a stone in a hat and see God’s Words. I think when people get caught up in what “translation” is, they’re missing the point. Joseph showed us that we can use anything- a scroll, stone, or book- to open our minds to real, mystical, yet useful heavenly information.

    I think it’s more in line with what Joseph taught, then, to learn the SKILL of using everything around us as a catalyst for revelation: commercials, movies, landscapes, articles, blogs, songs, ANYTHING. The fact that he could receive revelation from God with his face buried in his hat actually does show us something about where we can receive revelation.

    Let this post hereby serve to supplant my previous posts, and all information contained herein now supersedes the previous post. So let it be written.

  16. #7 & #15 sum up my thoughts pretty well.

    I also believe the “gift of the Holy Ghost” can be an enlightening force that allows us to see the hand of God in everything around us. Fwiw, I like the phrase “being in tune with the Spirit” more than “feel the Spirit”.

  17. Eric,
    I’d be interested. Feel free to email me at hpsoandsos [at] gmail [dot] com

    Everyone else,
    Good comments, all.

  18. Also,
    My favorite movie list (at the moment)

    1. The Mission
    2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
    4. Star Wars
    5. Brazil
    6. Serenity
    7. The Bourne Trilogy
    8. Die Hard
    9. The Sting
    10. Kung Fu Panda

  19. Dang, forgot Serenity. That’d probably bump Searching For Bobby Fischer off my list.

  20. 1 Better off Dead
    2 Fight Club
    3 Princess Bride
    4 The Dark Knight
    5 Inception (on a mandatory 1 year probation)

    6 High Fidelity (Recently bumped from top 5)
    7 The Matrix (real shame they NEVER made a sequel to this movie)
    8 The Lion King
    9 Wall-E
    10 The Emporer’s New Groove

  21. Thomas Parkin says:

    Top Ten movies, in no particular order.

    10. the Fabulous Baker Boys
    9. A Room with a View
    8. No Country for Old Men
    7. Out of Africa
    6. Dr Zhivago
    5. the New World
    4. the Dark Knight
    3. Mulholland Drive
    2. Quiz Show
    1. the Empire Strikes Back

    (very high marks for mentioned Harold & Maude, which is perfect medicine for me, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I thought Serenity failed to capture the homeyness of Firefly, and so I wasn’t all that keen …) ~

  22. I’ve been reading some Terryl Givens recently, and just finished Richard Bushman’s On the Road with Joseph Smith, which have prompted me to think about what Givens refers to as “dialogic revelation”. My take on all of this is that if we are truly trying to do right, and to pray honestly, the more likely the spirit is to communicate with us in all circumstances, including movies, sports events, etc. Also, the more likely we are to be able to recognize how the spirit communicates with us as individuals. It only seems logical that a concerned and loving Father in Heaven will know each of us well enough to know how best to communicate. For some, that may be dreams (my wife springs to mind). For me, it is often in sharply defined visual images that come into my mind. And like Thomas Parkin says, I think the spirit is much more present with us than we often realize.

  23. And since the threadjack got started, top 10 movies, again in no particular order:

    Star Wars
    Terminator
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    LOTR: The Two Towers
    Rear Window
    Good Night, and Good Luck
    Amadeus
    Up
    Reds
    The Princess Bride

    Pretty much any of these showing up on TV mean that I stop what I am doing and watch.

    Oh, and The Mission was great, it has just been so long since I’ve seen it.

  24. Rope
    Dark Knight
    Good, Bad, Ugly
    Airplane (“Excuse me, do you speak Jive?”)
    Vertigo
    Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
    Fearless
    Raise the Red Lantern
    Planet of the Apes
    Anchorman

  25. Great post on a fascinating topic. The Mission is in my all-time top ten as well, as is The Matrix, Serenity, Eternal Sunshine, Groundhog Day, and High Fidelity. I think Inception will end up being on that list, but it’s too early to say.

    On a side note, I didn’t recall that Liam Neeson was in that movie. He’s in a distubingly high percentage of good movies, though I guess you could say the same about Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro.

    The only thing that sometimes bothers me about discussions about “feeling the spirit” is how easily we seem to slip into discounting others’ experiences with it. If someone says they feel the spirit during a movie or in nature or in church or on a mountaintop I think we should generally assume they know what they’re talking about.

    Just because they feel the spirit in those instances doesn’t mean that you will, or that you should go do those things. The Spirit was speaking to them, not you. You need not feel threatened by that fact, and you need not try to reinterpret the experience as “emotion” or whatnot.

    I think the spirit is probably present virtually all the time and is trying to communicate with us constantly. The times when we actually connect with it are wonderful and should be more commonplace. There may be times when that experience is life-changing because of a particular combination of factors. I hope that happens to all of us, frequently.

  26. I felt the Spirit while reading MCQ’s comment.

  27. John, excellent thoughts as always. If anything this cements in my mind the notion that the Spirit is like the wind, and no one knows where it will list.

  28. #26 – There is medication for that.

  29. Oh man. I didn’t think people would actually start listing top 10s. I could come up with any number of top 10s, but here’s one of them. :)

    2001: a space odyssey
    Babe: Pig in the City
    La Belle et la Bete
    Gates of Heaven
    Hannah and Her Sisters
    Harold and Maude
    The Last Temptation of Christ
    Ponyo
    Sunrise: A Song of Two Human
    Time Indefinite

  30. ClaudiaHen says:

    I often “feel” the Spirit through an outpouring of ideas, where thoughts that were previously jumbled come into clarity and I understand eternal principles in a way that I didn’t previously. It is truly like feasting, so I love the scriptures that describe it that way. I’ve had this clarity often and at various times, sometimes more richly than others. I can be reading the scriptures, talking to a friend or family member, watching a movie, dreaming, or even reading a blog.

  31. Latter-day Guy says:

    I sometimes think that our tendency to separate “the Spirit” from emotion is counterproductive. Certainly, the Spirit teaches truth, but those kinds of experiences, imo, are as much about transformation as information––and part of that transformation affects the way we feel emotion and recognize truth.

    Is my emotional experience while watching a film a result of the Spirit directly testifying of the film? Maybe, but we should also entertain the possibility that it is the cumulative effect of our Spiritual experiences that has rendered us capable of responding with a certain emotion in a certain movie. Had we not been changed by the Spirit over time, would the film have fallen flat for us? I also think it’s possible that our ability to recognize truth is affected by a similar process.

  32. P.S. MCQ I think that was one of the greatest comments (#25) I’ve read in a long time.

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